Category Archives: Parenting Skills

Talking to Kids about Earthquakes

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If your child has recently experienced an earthquake, or they heard about one on the news or in a story, they may have questions, or you may want to take the opportunity to teach them safety skills. We want to focus on how to prepare… not scare.

My general approach when talking about any topic that might be scary for a child is:

  • Talk about how likely (or unlikely) this thing is to happen.
  • Address: Can we predict it? Can we prevent it? Can we at least take steps to prevent it from being a big problem?
  • Explain to them how they would know this thing was happening.
  • Teach what they could do if it happened, in order to make things better.
  • Talk about what the grown-ups around them would do to make it better.
  • Reassure them that even if bad things happens to people, people are tough and resilient, and pull together and make it through.

So, let’s walk through questions your child might have:

How Likely Is an Earthquake?

In many parts of the world, the answer is extremely unlikely. In other parts of the world, it’s quite likely your child will experience many earthquakes over their lifetime. I think you can be honest about your situation. If the likelihood is low, that can be very reassuring for your child to know. If the likelihood is high, we acknowledge that and then we focus on how we prepare and how we learn about earthquakes so we can respond if and when one happens.

Can you predict or prevent an earthquake?

You can’t.

Many people say “and that’s what makes it so scary!” It’s normal to feel that way, but that’s not the way to talk to your kids about earthquakes. Say “We can’t do anything to prevent them, and we can’t really predict when one is coming. So instead of worrying about that every day, we just make a plan for what we’ll do if or when one happens. And every once in a while, we practice how to respond.”

How will I know if there’s an earthquake?

Many adults leading earthquake drills for kids teach what to do, but never stop to think about whether a child would  know when to do those things. We can’t assume they would know that an earthquake was happening. It’s important to describe what an earthquake might feel like, using non-scary descriptions. I’ve said things like “If you’re sitting down, it may feel like someone is holding onto your chair and shaking it back and forth. If you’re standing up, you’d start feeling all wobbly, like you’re in a bounce house and the other kids are bouncing a lot.” If you’re ever in a situation where there’s a similar sensation, point it out: “Wow – when everyone in the stadium stomps their feet, it feels almost like an earthquake.” “The way the bridge at the playground sways back and forth sort of reminds me of an earthquake.”

After a recent 4.6 earthquake in Seattle, here are some descriptions people shared: “At first, I thought it was the dog bumping against the bed.” “It was like being in one of those coin-operated beds that wiggle and shake.” “I heard the dishes rattling.” “My dog started barking just before it happened.” “My cat freaked out and bolted out of the room.” “I thought it was a really loud truck driving by.” “There was a big rumbling booming sound like thunder, then my whole house shook for about 20 seconds.” “I thought one of my kids was shaking the bed.” There were also LOTS of people (including my whole family) that slept through the quake and never noticed anything!

Sharing descriptions like these will hopefully illustrate to your child what it might feel like so they can recognize it, but do it in a non-frightening way.

What you DON’T want to do: don’t go online with your child sitting next to you and search for photos and videos of earthquakes. This can be frightening out of context. If they’ve already seen scary images, you’ll need to reassure them and remind them that a news station will always search a whole city for the single most scary image to share. For example, in Seattle, we had a 6.8 quake, and if you looked at the news, it would show a collapsed brick building in downtown Seattle.  But that was the only collapsed building in town. It did not show photos like one my husband took of the worst damage at Microsoft campus, which was of the drink cooler that came open and spilled 20 cans of soda down to roll around on the floor. So be honest with your child, and say that yes, bad things can happen in an earthquake. But it is more likely that they won’t than that they will.

Let your children know that sometimes an earthquake only lasts a few seconds, and you’re not even sure you felt it. Other times it may last long enough for you to take action to protect yourself.

What should they do if there’s an earthquake?

Teach your child this basic method:

  • DROP down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquake knocks you over). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
  • COVER your head and neck (entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk.
    • If there is no shelter nearby, crawl away from windows and things that could fall on you, covering your head and neck with your hands.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or continue covering your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.

A Children’s Book about Earthquake Response

I’ve written a children’s story book to teach this method: It’s called Rabbits in the Hole: A Story about Earthquake Preparedness, and you can download it by clicking on that link

Some additional guidance for parents

This is more than you would teach kids, but it’s worth knowing. (Source for recommendations.)

If you’re with your child, when they drop, cover and hold, so do you. But you cover over them with your own body, and then cover the back of your neck with one hand.

If you are driving: pull over, stay in your car with your seat-belt buckled (and your child buckled in their car seat) until the shaking stops.

If you’re in bed, stay in bed! Lay facedown, cover your head and neck with a pillow and your hands.

What NOT to do:

  • Do NOT stand in doorways. In modern buildings, the doorways are no stronger than other parts of the house. You are safer under a table.
  • Do NOT try to run outside or run around inside the building. Although it is safer to be near an interior wall, away from windows, it’s not a big enough benefit to risk running to another room during an earthquake. It’s better to drop, crawl a few feet to the safest space, cover, and hold.

What Will the Grown-Ups Do?

Explain to children that during an earthquake, if a grown-up is nearby, they will help to shelter the child by putting their body over the top of the child. If the grown-up is not nearby, the child should still drop, cover and hold right where they are and trust that as soon as the shaking is over, their caregivers will come to them as quickly as possible.

After the shaking, the grown-ups will help to make sure everything is safe around them, and they can help by staying calm and listening well to what they’re told to do. If there’s anything that could be dangerous or needs to be fixed, the grown-ups will help to figure that out.

Don’t expose your young child to pictures of cities devastated by earthquakes. That will only frighten them, and that level of damage is beyond their control and ours. If they have seen those pictures, acknowledge that this is possible and it’s tragic, but it’s not likely to happen to them.

Do talk about (or show pictures of) damage that is challenging but manageable. Good ones might be of a grocery store – there may be big spills and some broken glass that the grown-ups would need to take care of, but soon everything will be set back to right.

If you have a story of someone your kids know who experienced an earthquake but everything turned out OK, that’s a good story to tell. (In general, it’s a helpful lesson for children to hear that challenging things can happen to people, and they can be OK. That actually teaches resilience better than telling your kids that nothing bad will ever happen to them.)

I tell stories about the two biggest earthquakes I’ve been in (a 6.8 and a 5.1): in one, we were at a children’s theatre watching a play about Winnie the Pooh, where they were talking about taking the bounce out of Tigger, then the room started bouncing – we all thought it was a special effect at first! We were asked to evacuate the theater after the earthquake, and everyone left calmly, and we went home, so the sad thing was that we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we were all OK, and our families were all OK. Some people had a few broken things in their house, but nothing too big. The other time, we were at Disneyland watching Fantasmic, and as the pirate ship came around the bend, things started swaying and rumbling. Again, it felt like a special effect. But then they stopped the show, turned up the lights, and asked us to leave the park. So, we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we did get to calmly evacuate through the back part of the park (the employee areas no one is ever allowed to see) which was super interesting, and we went back the next day and everything was OK. They did have some aftershocks, so after each one, they would close the ride, quickly inspect it, and then go right back to having fun.

Telling a story like this, or any story you know, can help to teach that earthquakes can be a big problem, but more often, they are totally manageable if we stay calm and know how to respond.

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Parenting Style – Offering Choices

TL/DR summary: Giving a child choices (e.g. what to wear, what story to read) can help to build a positive relationship where the child feels valued, empowered, and learns decision-making skills while having fewer power struggles. But if we offer too many choices, the child may feel overwhelmed and the parent may feel out of control. Finding the right balance often starts with the parent deciding which options are available (setting limits), then the child choosing between those workable options.

My post on Offering Choices to Children covers the nitty gritty of how to use this discipline tool. This post is more of a philosophical think piece about the long-term impact of how we handle choices in our families. (Note: in this post, I talk a lot about parenting styles. Learn more about the Four Parenting Styles.)

Three Approaches to Offering Choices

Several times each day in the life of a parent and a child, there are decisions to be made: what to eat at a meal, what to wear, what to do, which story to read, and on and on. Some parents, who learn toward the authoritarian style of parenting make almost all the choices for their child, telling their child what the required option is. Some parents who lean toward the permissive style of parenting let their children make all the choices. Let’s look at the possible pitfalls of taking either of these approaches to an extreme, then let’s look a more balanced (authoritative) approach.

Option 1: Parent Makes All the Choices

There may be lots of reasons some parents decide to make all the decisions. Sometimes it’s just that a parent wants control things (“it’s my way or the highway”), sometimes it’s just faster and easier to make all the decisions rather than waiting on your kid to decide, sometimes it is an authoritarian parent who has very high expectations for the child but is not responsive to the child’s individual needs or preferences. This has been called Tiger Mom parenting style, named after Amy Chua’s book, in which she describes how she made all the choices, such as requiring that her children play piano and violin and requiring them to practice, saying “To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences…”

This parenting style does work well for some parents and some kids.

But, it can backfire in a few ways. Some children rebel against this – in the short term, that means lots of power struggles, and in the long-term it can damage the relationship with the parent. Some children just feel dis-empowered and discouraged, or may not learn independent decision-making and initiative, instead surrendering all control to the parent.

Option 2: Parents Let the Kids Make All the Decisions

This style of parenting could also be called permissive or laissez-faire. Dayna Martin, proponent of Radical Unschooling, says ““[This] includes trusting your child in what they choose to learn; you extend that same trust to other areas of your child’s life, like foods, media, television, bedtime. Parenting is supposed to be joyful, and it can be when we learn to connect with, rather than control, our children. The focus of our life is on happiness and pursuing our interests with reckless abandon together.”

Again, this works well for some parent and for some kids. But, it can backfire.

  • Sometimes children make bad choices, especially if they are given free rein and not much guidance. Like wearing a swimming suit in the winter or eating so much chocolate they get sick. Then parents have to decide whether to let the child live with the consequences of that bad choice – “guess you’ll be cold” – which can be fair or can be cruel depending on how far you take that, or whether to rescue the child from the consequences to keep them happy – which may mean they never learn lessons.
  • Another backfire I’ve seen is children who don’t do well in school or in peer relationships when they’ve been raised in a very permissive environment and don’t understand limits. The child who takes toys away from others any time she wants them and who eats all the cupcakes on the table will soon not have any friends.
  • Having to make choices all the time can actually be exhausting and overwhelming for kids. Have you ever ended up in a restaurant when you’re really hungry and exhausted, and the waitress keeps asking you questions: “How would you like your eggs cooked? What kind of toast? Do you want butter on that? Bacon or sausage?” And you feel like shouting “just bring me food!!!” Or imagine being thirsty and walking into a convenience store in a foreign country where you don’t recognize any of the packaging and you don’t understand what’s happening, and someone is telling you “hurry up and choose, we have to go.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier and more pleasant if someone said “I know you like juice – here’s the grape juice, the apple juice, and an apple cranberry juice – which one would you prefer?” Being asked to make choices all the time can lead to meltdowns for little ones. Having choices within limitations can be very calming.
  • Another common backfire for permissive parenting is that the parents may start feeling like they’re out of control. Some parents just end up feeling frazzled all the time, feeling powerless, and not able to see any way to change how things are going with their kids. Other parents, when they start feeling out of control will hit a certain high stress point, then suddenly flip-flop from permissive to strict – going from “you can do whatever you want” to “I’m done, you’re grounded for a month.” This inconsistency is extremely stressful for kids, and can lead to a lot more anxiety in the future over making their own decisions.

The Balanced Approach

I believe that the optimal approach is the authoritative parenting style. The parent has high expectations for the child and wants them to be successful, so they set clear limits and ensure the child is choosing between options that can be healthy for them (e.g. good nutrition, clothing appropriate to the weather, some screen time but not too much, things that don’t create burdens for other people around the child). But the parent is also highly responsive to the individual child – ensuring that there are options that the child will enjoy and giving some flexibility for the circumstances of the moment.

Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine and How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Muchhas some important ideas about the division of responsibility in feeding. The parent is responsible for what, when, and where the child eats. The child is responsible for whether to eat, and how much. The parent puts the options on the table, the child makes the decision from there, and the parent can relax, knowing that any choices the child makes can work out OK.

I think a similar approach could apply to almost all decisions, from getting dressed, to choosing a bedtime story, to choosing extracurricular activities to choosing where to go to college and what to major in. The parent first evaluates the possible range of options, and decides what criteria would represent a good option. If they’re working with a young child, the parent might and offer only a limited number of viable options (2 options for a 2 year old, 3 for a 3 year old… ) For an older child, they might say “you can choose amongst any of these options, but here’s our limitations and here’s our criteria. You can only choose things that fit those requirements.” They’re the ones “setting the table” with options. The child then is empowered to make the choices within those limits.

I have always told my children “you may be as smart or smarter than I am, but I am wiser than you and will always be wiser than you because wisdom comes from life experience and seeing all the long-term impacts of choices.” So, when I tell them the criteria for a positive choice, that’s coming from all my wisdom. When I let them make the choice, I acknowledge their intelligence.

Offering Choices to Children

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Parents often talk about “offering choices” to children. It can be a very helpful technique for building cooperation with your kids, avoiding power struggles, and helping them learn decision-making skills. But, like all the tools in the discipline toolbox, it helps if you know some basic ideas about how to use a tool in order to get the best results.

What Choices are Available

It is the parent’s job to decide what options are available. Then the child chooses between those options.

On a busy morning when we’re in a hurry to get out of the house, it would be unfair of me to tell my son “pick anything you want to eat for breakfast.” Because if he chose waffles and we ran out yesterday, that’s a bummer. And if then he chose a fruit salad, I’d say “I don’t have time to make that.” If then he said mac and cheese, then I’d say no, and then we have a power struggle on our hands when I describe all the rational reasons these choices are not an option, and he’d say “but you said I could choose anything.”

It’s just setting us up for frustration on both sides. (Or I could just give in and say yes to anything he demanded, but then I’d be cranky and resentful and he’d learn he gets anything he wants if he complains enough.)

Instead, before I offer a choice, I need to decide what acceptable options are. I can’t expect a young child to remember what food we have in the freezer right now, to know how long it would take to prepare food and whether that would make us late to school, or any of those other details I’m taking into consideration. So… first, I think about these things, I think about what options are possible, and then when I say “what do you want for breakfast – cheerios, yogurt, or an apple and peanut butter?” I know that all of these things are possible and that I would be fine with him making any of those choices.

I control what options are on the table, he decides which one of those to choose.

If he then asked for waffles, I could say “sorry buddy, we’re out of waffles – you can choose….” and reiterate the reasonable options. If he said “can I have grapes and string cheese?” I’d say “hmm…. that wasn’t one of my options, so I have to think about that… it is a lot like the apple and peanut butter option, and I know we have those things, so yes, you could choose that.” (Notice, I let him make a choice that wasn’t in the options but I was still the one in control of deciding whether that option was available. I set the limits that would work for us both and gave him some insight into my decision-making.)

How Many Choices to Offer

Some parents make the mistake of offering too many options, which can be overwhelming for a little one. Too many overwhelming choices in one day will lead to meltdowns. A good rule of thumb for little ones is to offer just one decision at a time, and for that decision, offer as many options as the child is years old. A 2 year old chooses between the red shirt and the blue shirt. (And you just put a pair of pants on them without them having to also make that decision.) A 3 year old chooses between cereal, toast, or yogurt. (You decide what dish to use, and where they sit.) A 4 year old has four bedtime stories to choose between. (You decide that they’ll brush teeth before you read the story.)

With More Choices, Offer More Guidance

As the child gets older, you may offer more choices, but give them criteria you would use to help make a good decision. For example, an 8 year old can go to a full closet of options and choose all their clothes (pants, shirt, socks, underwear), but the parent might offer guidance. “I know yesterday was super warm and you wore shorts, but today will be much cooler, so you’ll probably want to choose long pants. And you may want to wear your flannel hoodie this morning till it warms up.” Or “I know you want to play with Legos today. The other two things you need to do before dinner are bring in the trash bins and do your homework. You can choose what order to do them in, but they all need to be done. I’d probably do the trash bins first because it’s quick and easy and you’ve still got your shoes and coat on.”

Talking through this decision-making process helps them build the skills to do this independently later on.

When To Offer Choices (and when not to)

Don’t offer choices to a child in the middle of a huge meltdown. At that point, they’re in their “downstairs brain” and not capable of having a rational discussion and making decisions. I was once in the mall parking lot, and a child was having a massive meltdown, and the mom kept saying “You can’t run in the parking lot. You have three choices – you can ride in your stroller or I can carry you or you can hold my hand while we walk.” This was a kid in full meltdown – he wasn’t processing anything she was saying, even though she said it over and over. It would have been better to say “it’s not safe for you to be here, so I need to carry you” and when the child starts to calm down, then offer the other options.

An even better approach was to offer the choices before the situation and long before the meltdown. While the child was still buckled in his car seat and calm, she could say “Remember in the parking lot, it’s not safe for you to run off. You have three choices….” (Or actually, I would have offered two choices – three is a lot at that age, even when the child is calm.

Don’t offer choices to bribe your child out of a tantrum. Imagine you’re in a store and your child asks you to buy an expensive toy, and you say no, and they meltdown, and then you say “OK, fine – you can have one of these cheap toys – do you want the dog or the monkey?” Your child has now learned an effective technique to bully you into getting them something. Instead, if you’re willing to buy a cheap toy, say that going in. “In the store, if you can behave well while I do my shopping, then I will let you choose one toy. But it has to be something little and it has to cost less than _____.” If you’re not willing, don’t offer. Say “We have to buy a birthday present for your friend today, but we’re not buying anything for you. But if you can behave well, and we can do this quickly, then we’ll be able to play in the playground for a little while when we’re done shopping.”

Again, you’re in control of what options are on the table. They choose between those options.

Let Them Make Bad Choices

Now, we obviously can’t control everything our kids do. And we wouldn’t want to. They need to have plenty of times where they’re making their own decisions (in environments that are reasonably safe for them to do this in.) And when given freedom, sometimes children do dumb things. They make bad choices. You gotta let them do that sometimes. You can’t protect them from all dumb things and from the consequences of all bad choices.

If you rescue them from the consequences, they never learn to make better choices. So, some times, you should let them suffer some consequences. I empathize, but I don’t immediately rescue. (But I do have a plan for how we’ll move out of this.)

For example, my child wanted to wear her slippers to play outdoors. I would say “it’s wet out there – your slippers aren’t waterproof. Your feet will get wet.” One day she begged and begged to wear the slippers to the park before story time. Her feet got wet. I said “I’m sorry, I know you hate wet feet.” But I didn’t fix it. We played in the park with wet feet and she hated it. When it came time for story time, I said “I brought shoes and dry socks along for story time – would you like to change into those now?” Her slippers were too wet to wear when we got back home, so she had to go without the, for a day. After that, she knew not to wear her slippers outside.

Learn more about natural consequences and about other tools in the discipline toolbox.

When Should You Introduce Your Child To [your favorite media]?

small child with light saber and Ben Kenobi costume

The TL;DR summary:

Don’t rush to introduce your child to your favorite book or movie. Why?

  • There may be mature content the child is not ready for that might frighten or concern them.
  • You’ll all enjoy something more if you wait till they’re old enough to actually get it and enjoy it!
  • There’s plenty of fabulous media aimed at young kids. It’s OK to stay in the kiddie pool for a while… I promise, there will be time later on to introduce all the great stories!

My Rationale for Waiting:

As a parent, I’ve had lots of time to reflect on this. As a parent educator, my students ask me about these topics from time to time, but I’d never taken the opportunity to write up my thoughts till now…

Recently, a friend on Facebook asked for recommendations on which novels to read next to her 5 and 6 year old. Some folks recommended Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, the Percy Jackson books.

And I said no! Wait! Not yet!

Today, on the /Filmcast, a host (Jeff) was talking about when he would first show Star Wars to his kids, saying “I’ve got years before I can show it to them and really have it land… and be meaningful”. He said “even three is probably way too young… 4 or 5 is probably the right age?”

And I thought: No! Wait! 4 or 5 is way too young!

Whatever your favorite movie / book / play / music is, you may be anxiously awaiting the day you can introduce your child to it. But if you really want to “have it land” and be meaningful for your child, it is better to wait till they’re really ready. It’s hard to be patient, but I think it’s more rewarding in the long run. Here’s why:

Mature Themes

An obvious challenge of introducing too early is mature themes. Sometimes there are scenes that might frighten them (For example, although many first graders are plenty literate to read Harry Potter, I think it’s too scary for a 7 year old.) There’s also language, substances, “bad attitudes” and so on. Some of your favorite media may have more of this mature content than your child is ready for… and you may not remember till it’s too late. (I’ve made this mistake plenty of times. For example, watching Footloose with my tweens… I’d remembered all the dancing… I’d forgotten about the underage drinking… and the playing chicken with tractors… and the boyfriend hitting the girlfriend… the dad hitting the daughter… We pressed pause several times during that movie! This ended up being a good opportunity to start some challenging conversations. But it would have been better if I’d done it with a clearer plan!) I have now learned to refresh my memory first by reading the reviews on Common Sense Media, which does a nice job of clearly detailing all the potential issues so you can decide which feel OK to you and which feel problematic. For example, I’m not really troubled by bad language, or by fantasy combat, but I am really uncomfortable with realistic gun violence. Your concerns may be different.

I’m not saying that you should never take in media with your child that tackles challenging issues. I actually recommend that parents read books or watch movies where characters face a variety of challenges, make difficult decisions, and cope with grief (read my posts on how to talk to your child about death, scary topics, sexuality, and more). Reading sad books or watching sad movies with your child and then discussing them helps to build emotional literacy and build decision-making and problem-solving skills (as they watch characters manage situations that they have not yet had to face.) But, do this intentionally, not by accident. And do it with media that is developmentally appropriate for your child.

Will It Land?

My reason to wait isn’t just about avoiding mature themes. It’s also waiting till they’re ready to grok the material. Really ready to engage, enjoy, and get meaning out of it.

When I was a kid, I hung out in the public library and the church library by myself a lot. (Mom must have been in the building somewhere? I don’t really remember… I remember having full access to any book I wanted to read.) I read the Hobbit and LotR, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Wrinkle in Time all around the same time. Probably 8 or 9? Now, my reading skills were totally up to deciphering all the words (and to looking up tesseract in the dictionary).  I probably understood all of the Hobbit, and much of Narnia. But there was so much I missed. (Yeah, like that Narnia had any relation to Christianity.) And the thing was, once I’d read them, I didn’t want to go back and re-visit them when I was a little older, because I’d been-there-done-that. I didn’t go back to them till my own kids read them. So, my experience was fine, but it could have been better.

With my kids, we’ve mostly waited… With my youngest, we waited till he was 8 to show him Star Wars. Before that time, he’d read Star Wars themed beginning readers, he’d played Lego Star Wars video games with his dad, and he’d dressed up as Obi Wan. He’d even watched parts of the movies at family parties at his uncle’s house. But when we finally sat down to watch the original trilogy, he was ready to follow it, enjoy it, and understand it much better than he would have been at a younger age.

Spoilers

Spoilers float around in popular culture and discussions, so some parents worry that their child will be spoiled about key plot twists. And they will be. My kid knew who Luke’s father was long before he watched Star Wars! So, no, I didn’t have the opportunity to film his reaction to that revelation. (Yeah, that’s its own genre of YouTube videos.) But instead, I got to see his glee at finally learning the whole story related to that fact, and understanding why it is such a famous plot twist.

Although I had seen all the MCU movies, my son had not. I saw Avengers Endgame on opening night. Then I went on a binge of watching every YouTube video and listening to every podcast about the movie and all the Easter eggs. And my son rides in the car with me, and hangs out in the room while I do my morning workout. So, guess what – he knows ALL the spoilers even though he hasn’t see the movie. Over the past month, we’ve started to introduce him to all the movies (starting with Spider Man Homecoming and Ant Man movies, because those felt like the most kid-appealing choices). At 8.5, he’s actually in a really good sweet spot for these movies. Well… for watching them at home! Where we can talk during the movie when needed to explain something to him, we can answer his questions, and we can pause for a break to process if needed. We’re not going to take him to an MCU movie in a theatre this year or maybe next. Being in a dark room with the sound all the way up and having to be quiet and not able to pause can make a movie feel way more intense to young kids. (And if he asks questions he would disturb others.) We’ve also started pulling old Marvel comics out of the stash in the garage to entertain him till then.

We as adults may dislike spoilers, and like the moments of surprise. I find that children often go the other way. They like knowing information ahead of time because it makes them feel smart and powerful, and they may actually get more excited by the story that leads them to a known destination than they do by watching something when they have no idea where it’s going.

Stay in the World of Children for a little while

Another reason to wait on more “grown up” stories is that if we rush to that, we could miss out on the pure and sweet delight of children’s media.

When my oldest was in kindergarten, he came home from a playdate at a friend’s house singing ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears. And telling me about all the music videos he’d watched. Some people might have been offended by the child’s mother letting the kids watch mature content… I didn’t really care about that. But I was sad at all the things that child might have been missing out on.

At that time, my son was listening to kids’ music – and there is SO MUCH great kids’ music out there! His favorite singers at that point were: Tom Chapin, Tom Paxton, Priscilla Herdman, and Anna Moo. So many delightful songs to sing! We decided ‘Oops I did it again’ could wait.

If I’m showing Star Wars to my four or five year old, we’re not making time for Kipper, Toy Story, Lion King, Iron Giant, Ponyo, and Sid the Science Kid. In rushing toward Harry Potter, let’s not skip over Winnie the Pooh, Dr. Seuss, Henry & Mudge, Frog and Toad. Take the time to do kid stuff while they’re kids. You can always watch everything else later on, but it’s hard to talk your teenager into going back to all this great kid content.

Context Matters

As I’ve hinted above, there’s a difference between watching a loud movie in a dark theater full of strangers vs. at home. What your child might be up to in one context might be too much in another context. We love live theatre, but we start with kid focused shows where we practice our “theatre rules”, then we try outdoor theatre where if the kids move or make noise, it’s no more disruptive than the airplane flying overhead. Then we go to school or amateur productions indoors. We wait on those expensive tickets to the Nutcracker or to Lion King’s national tour till we know they’re ready to get the most out of it!

So, if you can’t wait to introduce a particular story, think about what context it is best to introduce it in. For example, if you’re worried about a movie being too scary, you can read the book together in advance (or tell them the story from a plot synopsis), and show them still pictures from the movie ahead of time so they know more about what to expect? (Yes, it’s spoilers, but remember that’s OK for kids.) Would it work better for you to “serialize” a movie and watch it in lots of short 20 minute segments with time to discuss along the way? Could you just skip scenes or fast forward through some for now? Do what you think is best.

For books, often once a child learns to read independently, the parent stops reading to the child as much, and eventually even bedtime stories fall by the wayside. There are all sorts of benefits to continuing to read to an older child (including building their skills at interpreting what they read, increased empathy, and an entryway into those challenging conversations.) When my older kids were tweens and teens, we would listen to audiobooks in the car and then have common ground for a discussion of something we were all engaged in. So, reading to your child or listening to audio books can be a great way to introduce some of your favorite tales.

It’s In the Water

Some things we don’t wait on. Some things are just part of the water that our families swim in. When I was growing up as the youngest of four kids with a dad who loved science fiction, Star Trek was on the screen in the living room every week when I was a toddler, and then reruns were watched for the rest of my childhood. So, the vision of a future of scientific exploration was just a part of my life. Seeing people of all ethnicities working together, seeing a black female officer – was all normal to me. Not the radical experience that Star Trek TOS may have been to some. And I absorbed lots of other science fiction and fantasy from the rest of the family – I think my sister told me shortened versions of some of her favorite fantasy tales. And I think all our kids absorbed the ethos of “with great power comes great responsibility” long before watching Spider Man. My older kids grew up hanging out in the room while I played roleplaying games with friends, and they joined in as they got old enough. My youngest is just starting to join my oldest and his friends in playing Magic the Gathering. So your favorite stories and characters can’t help but be an on-going part of your family’s life.

But, if you’re asking “When do I let my kid read…” or “When should I show my kid….”, or “is it to early to expose my child…” here are my completely personal biased recommendations for when the right time is for some properties (mostly from the geek universe cuz that’s the way I roll.)

Recommended Ages

(For more details on the kid appropriateness of ALL of these properties, use Common Sense Media to learn more.)

  • Chronicles of Narnia – Read to kids (or audiobook) at 8 – 10. Independent read at 10+. The 2005 movie of Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is mostly good for ages 6 and up, but there are some scenes that could be frightening for kids under age 10. The 1988 BBC Chronicles of Narnia may work for younger kids, but is very long, so break it up into pieces.
  • DC Movies: Shazam should have been a GREAT kids’ movie. And 90% of it is. But the beginning drags, is confusing and scary, and the intense scenes are really INTENSE. I’d say 12+. Wonder Woman is great for 12+ but I wouldn’t go younger – the World War 1 scenes are scenes of warfare. Aquaman is probably fine for 10 and up, though parts of it would hold no interest for them. (Note: I would not show Man of Steel or BvS to anyone under 15, and I opted out of Suicide Squad myself.)
  • Dungeons and Dragons (and other table-top roleplaying systems): My older kids could play as the kids in a group of patient supportive adults (with an adult DM) starting at about 9 or 10. I’m guessing groups of kids could play at around 12? We’re trying to start a group of 7 – 9 year olds on a simplified D&D now with an adult DM, and thought it was going well, until today’s character design led to a series of meltdowns – one child due to a lost character sheet, one because they were having a hard time understanding the spell options, and one because his character is not as strong as the others. (Being told that he was smarter and had higher dexterity than the others did not resolve the meltdown.)
  • Harry Potter. The series starts on the scary side, and gets much darker as you go along. And for most kids, the movies are scarier than the books.
    • My oldest read the first few books when he was 10, then read the last three as they came out, when he was 10, 12, and 14. He recommends this as the appropriate timing. He says movies starting at age 12 or so.
    • Another approach: Kids read the book when they’re the same age as Harry is in the book – so book 1 when the child is 11, book 2 when the child is 12… When it’s almost time to read book 2, you could watch movie 1 for a reminder of the general plot of book 1. (Tip: never read the book then IMMEDIATELY watch the movie… I did this for Goblet of Fire, and I was painfully aware of every minor variance from book to movie.)
    • Common Sense Media has a helpful Harry Potter Age-by-Age Guide which addresses which books to read and which movies to watch by age, and includes the new properties like the Fantastic Beasts movies.
    • In reality though, I know it might be hard to keep these books away from my youngest for that long, as he’s got lots of friends who have read them. He’s already played Lego Harry Potter and put together Harry Potter Legos, and seen the attractions at Universal Studios, so he is familiar with the characters and the broad story lines. I suspect we will start by listening together to all the books on audio – the audio versions are narrated by Jim Dale and are absolutely stellar! Then he can read the books if he wants, then we’ll watch the movies.
  • The Hobbit – read to a child at 7 – 9. Child reads independently at 9 or 10. But wait on the rest of the Lord of the Rings books till 12 or so. I’d watch the animated version of the Hobbit from 1977 with a 6 – 8 year old, but I’d wait on the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies till age 10 – 12, and wait on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings till 12 or higher. (Partially due to the violence but also I don’t think younger kids would follow the plot well.)
  • Magic the Gathering – My oldest is introducing a simplified version to the 8 year old now, and that’s going well.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’d say start at age 8 with careful forethought and the ability to pause and explain. Older for in-theater. And maybe 10 and up if the child is likely to imitate combat behavior. But also pick and choose – some are more appropriate than others for younger kids. (That’s why we started with Spider Man Homecoming and Ant Man / Ant Man and the Wasp, not Iron Man 1 which starts out with some real-world violence.) In other Marvel: X-men movies for tweens. Deadpool – yeah, it’s R rated for a reason – the violence was uncomfortable for me!
  • Percy Jackson. I’d say 10 and up for the books. The characters are teens, who tweens could identify with well. I saw the first movie, and I’d go 13 and up on that one – read why.
  • Princess Bride. The movie is actually less intense than the book – although the ROUS and the torture scene might be distressing to kids. I would generally say 8 and up, though we took our son to outdoor movies in the park when he was 6 and 7. Scary moments don’t feel too scary when you’re sprawled on a picnic blanket on the grass. The book is probably for 10 and up as independent readers, but the audio book would be great for a 9 – 13 year old on a road trip.
  • Star Trek – If you tell your 6 year old “I have a show you’re going to love!” and  you turn on Star Trek, they may not think it’s for them. But, if the adults are watching Star Trek and the kids are watching along, they’ll probably like (and role play) many aspects while missing other concepts. All the TV series are probably fine to have playing around younger kids, some of the recent movies might be better around older kids. Of the series, TOS and TNG are more accessible to younger audiences and better to start with. They also have a really nice culture of optimism about the future. DS9 and Enterprise skew older; Discovery has some interesting conundrums for teenagers about when do you obey authority and when do you question it.
  • Star Wars
    • For this post, 19 dads were asked when to introduce Star Wars. “Conclusion: Fathers answers ranged from “in the womb” to “never”, with an average suggested age of somewhere between 5 and 6. Fathers also cited innumerable variables to take into consideration which were not consistent from child to child, or from family to family. There was consensus among the sampled fathers that exposure should be determined on a child-by-child basis, taking into account that child’s emotional, intellectual and social development, and always under parental supervision.”
    • My husband and I lean toward waiting till 7 or 8 because we think they’ll appreciate it more then. (If you’re wondering what order to watch movies in, read Machete Order – Explained.)
    • Release dates of new movies may skew your decisions… Someone told me she would have waited till age 8 or 9 to start these movies, but her mom took her to the opening of New Hope when she was 4, and when it turned out Force Awakens was going to come out when her child was 4, she decided to take her. But, they sat in the back row and had a stuffed animal and the iPad so if the child wanted to “opt out” of watching the movie, she could.
  • Studio Ghibli Films – I agree with these recommendations: My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo for age 5 – 7. Cat Returns and Kiki for age 8 – 10. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle for tweens. (More recommendations here and here.)
  • The Martian – for ages 11 – 15. I have a whole post on the Martian… which was also inspired by a Jeff Cannata comment on the /Filmcast…
  • Willie Wonka – read the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at 6+. Watch the 1971 movie at 7 or so. (There are a few frightening moments of “children in peril.”) I think you can skip the Johnny Depp version.
  • Wizard of Oz – read the book to ages 6 and up. Independent read a little older than that – some archaic words. When I was 4 – 6 and watched the movie, I was terrified of the witch and the flying monkeys and hid behind the couch. But my kids all watched around age 6 – 8 and handled it OK – I had prepped them for the fact that it might feel scary and warned them when those parts were coming up.
  • Wrinkle in Time – Yeah, I read it at 8 or 9. I’d recommended 10 – 12 to get more out of the book. (Although again, you could read it to them younger than that.) The 2018 movie is appropriate for 10+, but it’s not as good as I wanted it to be.

Note: if you have multiple children, this all gets more complicated. Our older two were 3.5 years apart, so if I say something is good for ten year olds, that probably means we ended up watching it when the older one was 12, and the younger one was not quite 9. It worked for us because the older one was OK with “kiddie things” for longer, and the younger one wanted to be as “mature” as possible and had more tolerance for scary content.

What if they hate it?

And what if you’ve waited and waited for something, and then you show it to them, and they hate it?? Or what if they say “meh – it’s OK but not really that great?” Well, it’s a good lesson that our children are different people than we are, and we can all have different opinions. And maybe someday they’ll like it more… and maybe not.

I LOVE the movie Creator, a truly obscure 1985 romantic comedy with Peter O’Toole. It just makes me happier than almost any other movie I’ve seen. I waited till my older kids were in their late teens… it’s an R rated movie with some shower almost-sex and similar mature content. And I showed it to them, and they said “meh… I mean, I’m sorry Mom, I don’t want to make you feel bad, but maybe it’s just not for me?” And you know what? It was disappointing, but it’s OK. I still love the movie.

I had a dad tell me recently that there’s so many GREAT books he wants to share with his 12 year old daughter, but she’s only interested in YA romances and isn’t interested in any of them. I suggested to him that they listen to audiobooks together and that they take turns. She picks out one of her favorites, and he listens and gives it a fair chance and asks her what it is she loves about it. He may well end up liking it and even if he doesn’t, he gains new insights into her. And if he gave her book a fair chance, then hopefully she’ll give his book a fair chance.

Stephen Thompson, of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, has shared stories about how he’s been trying for years to sell his kids on all the things he thinks are great, and now as teenagers, his daughter is into horror movies, which have never been his thing, but she’s sold him on a few of her favorites, and his son has convinced him that some video games are actually enjoyable to play – even if he’s very bad at them. For both parties in these exchanges, it’s a chance to be exposed to new things, to learn to appreciate each other’s perspectives, and to connect over a shared experience. And that’s the real value in sharing our favorite stories.

Please add comments – agreeing or disagreeing with me… and what properties (books, movies, plays… ) have I forgotten that you have strong opinions on?

 

Picky Eaters

photo of child who doesn't want plate of vegetables

When I teach about nutrition for toddlers and preschoolers, I include a few tips about introducing new foods. Then parents  say “But I’ve got a really picky eater.” About 30 – 50% of parents of preschoolers describe their child as a picky eater!

So, this post will talk about how that may be just a normal toddler phase, plus lots of steps we can take to work on those challenges.

Start with Empathy

Parents will say “Will they ever not be so picky?” I turn this around on the parent, and ask them: “Are there foods that you know that other people may love, but that you just don’t like to eat? If you were out to lunch with a friend, and they kept insisting ‘no really, it’s good! Just try it!!’, how would that feel for you? Or if there’s a ‘weird food’ you’re not willing to try, would you want anyone to pressure you to eat it?”

I don’t think anyone necessarily outgrows being a picky eater. You could eat lots and lots of meals with me and never notice the ways in which I’m a picky eater. We could sit at many breakfasts and I would happily drink my tea or cran-apple juice, and happily eat pancakes, waffles, eggs. You might never notice that I NEVER drink coffee or orange juice and I virtually never eat bacon or sausage. And I never eat the really weird foods – my husband will try anything in any foreign country, but not me! We all have our preferences. But because I manage my own food choices, my friends don’t need to know or care about my preferences. But for our kids, since we’re making all their food choices for them, and we feel responsible for their diet, we keep hitting the wall with their preferences. It can be frustrating, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we may not be able to change them quickly.

But I do think everyone can learn to be more flexible, more adventurous, and can learn accommodations. But let’s start from this place of empathy and figure out how we can offer and encourage without pressuring or forcing the issue.

Relax a Little

Although we all benefit in the long run from a diet featuring a wide variety of foods, if your child goes through a picky stretch where they only want a limited selection, it will be OK.

Toddlers are figuring out independence and control, and are ripe for power struggles. If you turn food into a battle ground, no one wins! If you force a child to eat, they will eat less.

Know how much they need to eat

Babies grow so fast in the first year that they have very high caloric requirements. But then that growth slows down, so your toddler’s appetite will decrease. It is helpful to know how much they need to take in per day – often parents are worried, then discover their child is actually eating plenty.

A child age 1 to 3 needs about 40 calories per inch tall. (source) Another way to think about it is to think of serving sizes as one tablespoon per year of age. (source) At at one meal, a 3 year old might get 3 tablespoons each of peas, noodles, and chicken.

If your child is gaining weight well and has plenty of energy, that’s a good sign that they’re getting enough food.

How much variety do they need

Well, all of us would benefit from a widely varied diet of healthy foods. But, young children may naturally have a more limited range than adults. As long as they’re eating some protein, some calcium sources, and some good sources of fiber and healthy fats, they should be fine.

I had a nutritionist tell me informally that if a kid eats more than five types of food, she’s not too worried. If you’re concerned, ask your child’s doctor.

Get them Involved

Take your child grocery shopping with you, or to a farmer’s market. Let them choose the things they want to try. Let your child help you to prepare the food (scrub vegetables, stir the fruit salad) or set the table for a meal. If there’s a meal where you want them to try something new, let them choose their favorite familiar foods to accompany that new option. Offer choices – not “do you want a vegetable at this meal?” but “do you want broccoli or carrots at this meal?”

Role Model / Communal Meal

Make meal times relaxed and social. Serve the same food to everyone as much as possible. Eat your own food and talk about what you like about your food. If there’s something you are OK with eating, but don’t love, you can say that “I don’t love this, but I know it’s good for me, so I’ll eat some of it, then I’ll eat the other things that I like better.” Don’t talk to your child a lot about foods you don’t like or model picky eating.

Introducing the New Food

Give them a very small taster serving – like a single pea, or a shred of cheese. Allow them to touch it, sniff it, lick it – do whatever they need to do to feel comfortable trying it out. Respond positively to any attempts they make, but don’t pressure them into eating it all. If they choose not to eat it, say “OK, we’ll try again at another meal.” Wait several days before trying again. Plan to offer a new food several times before it’s fully embraced. The first few times, offer just one bite. Over time you can give them a full serving.

Use food bridges – think of something they already like – what new food is like that? Try that one before you try something that’s unlike any of their favorite foods. Think about textures, colors, and tastes. If they like mushy foods, they’ll prefer mashed potatoes to french fries. If they like crisp things, try kale chips and apple slices. If they don’t like green food, try carrots, cauliflower, sweet potato, jicama.

Many parents go for the technique of “hiding” vegetables – blending lots of veggies into spaghetti sauce or dip, or mixing grated carrots into other things. Some nutritionists recommend this, some say it’s better to teach them to like the whole food. If you have a super-picky eater, I wouldn’t recommend this – if your child doesn’t “trust” foods, this will just reinforce that.

It may help to try new foods at snack time when they’re hungry, and not at a mealtime when you’re hoping for the whole family to have a relaxing time together.

Make New Foods Fun

Make trying new foods a fun activity by documenting what faces your child makes when they try a new food. Try adding a dip – many kids will eat anything they can dip. Do taste tests, crunch tests, cut food into fun shapes, go on a food field tip to learn where it’s grown. (ideas here)

Stick to the Familiar in Unfamiliar Environments

When your child is on vacation, or otherwise outside of their normal routine, they may need familiar foods to calm and reassure them. When my daughter was in a picky phase, we took a vacation where she carried a small container of Kraft parmesan cheese to every meal, and if nothing else on the menu seemed OK to her, we’d just order noodles with butter and she’d sprinkle on her cheese, and everyone was happy. When we got back home, we worked on broadening her diet.

Sometimes Foods

If you make any food a “forbidden fruit” that only increases its appeal. Go ahead and have fast food, or ice cream, or candy, or whatever. But do it in moderation, and explain that it’s a ‘sometimes food.’ (We don’t keep ice cream in the house, where it would be tempting to have it more often, but we do go out to ice cream as a special family treat.) A friend of mine has the ‘strong food’ policy – if you’ve eaten some of the food that keeps you strong and healthy, then you can have treat foods. (But don’t sell the treat as the reward for eating the healthy food – that could imply the healthy food is the icky stuff you have to slog through to get to the good stuff.)

But do remember that snack foods are scientifically designed to push kids’ pleasure buttons with salty, sweet, fatty goodness. It’s hard for healthy foods to be as appealing. So, realize that it can be hard to go back from junk food to healthy food. (And I say this as a parent whose kid is addicted to Cheez-Its!)

Keep Trying

Kids tend to be pickier about new foods from age 2 to 5, an age when they may cling to familiar routines. As they get older, they make get more flexible. So once your child starts elementary school, try re-introducing some things they may have rejected in their toddler years. They may be more flexible now. As they move toward their tweens and teens, they may try anything their friends eat!

Beyond Picky

So, my first child ate everything easily. Of course he went through periods of having preferences, and he didn’t always love vegetables, but he was always pretty flexible. My second child was a typical “picky eater” kid and we used all the tips included here to get her to eat. She was especially picky about protein sources, so we had to be especially creative there. As she got older, she was able to articulate that lots of proteins upset her stomach, so now at 22, she’s a soy free vegan and eating an otherwise very diverse diet.

My third child… well, he’s a whole different level of picky eater. I’d been a parent for 17 years when he was born, and I was a parent educator, so I knew all this stuff about picky eaters and how to work with them, and believe me, I tried all these tips. And his diet is still very limited. So, if you’ve tried all these ideas and are feeling like you’re at the end of your rope, check out my other post on super tricky eaters.

Sources for more info: