Tag Archives: parenting

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.

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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?

 

Teaching Language is Not Just About Saying More Words

The Oto Monitor

There is a new product called Oto – “the First Monitor for Your Baby’s Healthy Brain Development”. (Learn about it at https://www.oyalabs.com/)

They’re  electronic monitors you place around your home. The website says they use AI and Natural Language Processing to tally how many words a child hears, how many engaged, back-and-forth exchanges you have with your child, and the quality of your language including the ratio of positive to negative words.

If this were an academic study that I’d been asked to participate in with my child, I would absolutely say yes, because it would be fascinating to participate and see the research results!

But I’m a little troubled by the marketing of the device. It says “These indicators are proven to be critical for their IQ and emotional development.” The implication is that this device is essential for helping you ensure your child reaches their full potential. They also say “The number of words you speak to your child daily is a core metric – the more language, the better child’s outcomes.”

I worry that the parents who purchase this device would then become anxious, feel guilty when they weren’t talking, and become overly focused on talking and talking and talking to their child. This onslaught of words would be exhausting for me to produce as a parent and exhausting for a child to hear and may totally miss the point of how children most effectively learn language.

Bronson and Merryman (source) say “For years, the advice has been that the way to kick-start a child’s language learning was to simply expose kids to massive amounts of language. However, as we explain in our book NurtureShock, the newest science has concluded that the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the child and respond accordingly.”

Let’s look more at what we know about language learning.

Can there be too little language in a child’s world?

capture

There are definitely “linguistically poor” households, and this can absolutely lead to significant “vocabulary gaps.” In general, children from households with lower income and lower family education know fewer words. (source of chart above) Some examples from research:

  • A child in a low income home will hear an average of 616 words in an hour, a child in an average professional home will hear 2153. (source)
  • In one year, children from poor families hear 250,000 utterances at home, while children from wealthy families hear 4,000,000.  (source)
  • By age four, middle and upper class children hear 15 million more words than in working-class families, and 30 million more than in families on welfare. (source)
  • By second grade, a middle income child will know ~6020 words. A low income child will know ~4168. (source)
  • By 18 months, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency. (source)
  • 5-year-old children of lower SES score two years behind on language tests. (source)
  • When 18 month olds were shown two objects, then one was named aloud, higher SES toddlers could identify the right object in 750 milliseconds, lower SES toddlers were 200 milliseconds slower to respond. That slower mental processing speed means they have a harder time keeping up with teacher’s words. (source)

Not only are there fewer words spoken in a lower income household, the discussions that do happen are likely to be focused on daily life, such as what to eat, work schedule, and other practical topics. They are less likely to have wide-ranging discussions around the dinner table on a variety of topics. The parents may also work multiple jobs, which means less opportunity for reading bedtime stories. This may lead to the same words being used a lot, and fewer novel words that broaden the child’s vocabulary.

Also, in single parent households or homes where one partner is away at work, it may be more likely that the television is on in the background much of the time, which leads to less engagement and conversation between parent and child. (Source)

A child who understands fewer words and has slower processing speed  when they begin school will not just start behind – they’ll stay behind. As the teacher talks and some kids understand all the words and all the concepts, and some kids can’t even understand the words used, they get lost before reaching the concepts. (source for graph below)

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So yes, if there are too few words being used in a child’s environment, that child can be word poor. And yes, that will create academic challenges. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is to just talk a lot more…

What Is Responsive Language?

Imagine two scenes.

  • A toddler is sitting and poking at her cheerios and poking at her spoon so it rattles on the table. The parent, wanting to be sure the child is receiving mental stimulation, talks about their day: “As soon as you’re done with your breakfast, we’re going to put your new red shoes on and we’re going to go for a walk, and maybe we’ll see some butterflies again. Remember, the last time we went to the bakery to buy bread and we saw two blue butterflies?” The child keeps poking at her food as the parent talks. “I’m going to get a book now – we can read it together.”
  • As the toddler pokes, she looks up at the parent for their reaction. The parent sits with the child and says “you’re poking your cheerios with your finger. You pushed them all into a big pile on that side of your dish.” As the parent speaks, they point at the big pile. The child pushes a few more cheerios into the pile. “Now there are five more cheerios in the pile.” Then the child pats the spoon. “You’re using your hand to pat the spoon. The spoon makes a fun noise, doesn’t it?” The parent pats the spoon and says “It’s going rattle, rattle.” The toddler rattles the spoon some more, parent says “rattle, rattle” again. Then the child holds up the spoon to show it to the parent. “You picked up the spoon – can you use it to pick up some cheerios?”

In the first example, the parent’s voice is mostly background noise for the child whose attention is focused on the cereal and the spoon. There is also the chance of “criss-cross labeling” where if every time the child touches the spoon, the parent happens to talk about butterflies, the child could get confused about whether the thing they’re touching is called butterfly.

In the second example, the parent closely observed the child’s actions and where the child’s attention was focused, then talked about that. This gives the child the words for what they are experiencing in the moment with all their senses. This builds a much stronger connection between the words and their meaning. When you talk about a spoon later, the child can remember this moment and remember what the spoon felt like in their hand and the noise it made on the table.

To some parents, it may seem like talking about cheerios and a spoon is boring. They may feel like they need to jazz up the child’s learning with talking about bigger ideas. But slowing down to your toddler’s pace and tuning in to what they are in the process of exploring offers a meaningful connection for their learning.

There are three characteristics of responsive language: it’s prompt (happens within seconds of the child’s behavior, it’s contingent (related to the behavior) and it’s appropriate (parent responds in a positive and meaningful way). (source)

So, if a child showed a parent a ball, the parent would quickly respond, “Oh, you have a  ball in your hand!” If the child said “ba”, the parent would say “Ball. Yes, it’s a green ball.”

Does responsive language increase learning?

  • One study showed that when parents were more responsive, their children would reach all these milestones sooner: imitating parent’s words, first words, speaking 50 words, combining words to make a “sentence” and talking about the past.
  • A parenting style that includes parental warmth, high expectations and clear routines is associated not just with language ability but also better memory and higher achievement. When parents use a lot of negative strategies, their children have more limited language skills. (Source)
  • Children who hear more child-directed speech – not just overheard speech – process language faster and learn words more quickly. (source)

Here is a summary of other research:

In the second year, when infants begin to understand and produce words and simple phrases, responsiveness predicts the sizes of infants’ vocabularies… the diversity of infants’ communications… and the timing of language milestones… Infants of high-responsive mothers (90th percentile) … achieved language milestones such as first words, vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6 months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers… Toddlers of low-responsive fathers were 5 times more likely to display cognitive delays than were toddlers of high-responsive fathers… fathers’ responsiveness to their 2- and 3-year-olds predicted toddlers’ cognitive and language abilities within and across time… (source – includes citations for all studies)

How can you use responsive language?

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words recommends three steps for parents and caregivers to expand a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Tune In by paying attention to what your child is focused on
  2. Talk More with your child using lots of descriptive words
  3. Take Turns with your child by engaging in his or her conversation. (source)

Additional recommendations:

  • The Hanen Centre says that step 1 is OWL: “Observe Wait Listen. The parent needs to give the child the opportunity to take that first turn, so that the parent has something to respond to.”  (Learn more about OWL – Observe, Wait, Listen.)
  • Their next step is follow the child’s lead: imitate what the child says, interpret (what the child would say if they had the words), comment (giving the child words to describe what they are doing) or join in child-directed play. (Learn more.)
  • Use parentese – that sing song higher voice parents use to talk to babies.
  • Use motion – point to things as you talk about them, touch them, shake them. All this helps the child focus their attention while you label the objects.
  • Talk about what they want to talk about (what they are doing or are paying attention to in the moment). Don’t change topics quickly.
  • Don’t interrupt their attempts to communicate with you. Wait for them to get their thought out. Look at their face to show you are listening.
  • Children also benefit from hearing lots of different people speak – at different pitches, tempos, and with different accents and facial expressions. So take them out in the world, so they have an opportunity to interact with diverse people.
  • Reading to your child is also a huge influence on language learning. Learn about how to read to a child and lots of other literacy topics.

Don’t feel like you have to talk all the time

For brain development in general, children need three things: novelty (new experiences), repetition (the chance to explore something over and over to learn about it in depth from all angles), and down time (restful periods without lots of input when they can process all that they’ve seen and heard). This is true of language too.

Children need new words, they need to hear the same ones over and over in different contexts, and they also need quiet time for their inner thoughts to unfold. It is fine to have long periods of silence at home too. Even if you choose to have an Oto monitor listening in.

Learn more about responsive language:

47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)


explode

There’s an article by Parents Magazine  that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” But the article is not about obviously harmful phrases like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Instead, they’re cautioning about saying “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Huh?? You may wonder what is so awful about these words.

When you read their article, it’s got lots of really good content, and is well worth a read. But a better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Your Kids Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”

But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is healthier than kale”) and it helps if they can convince readers that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“Follow our screen time tips or your child will be brain damaged for life.”) And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. At the bottom of this post, I list just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids.”

But, when parents read these headlines, how does it make us feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”

So, let’s first reality check these articles:

  1. At some point, all parents say mean things to their kids. It’s not just you! Just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We all have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
  2. Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
  3. Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!!  However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.

So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered all those phrases below. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you. For each one, I’ll then share some of the negative or non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child. Then I’ll offer other options for alternatives you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Unadulterated praise: Great job / Good girl / That’s a beautiful picture. You did that just right. What a perfect building you built! You’re the best ____ in the whole world!

  • How your child might hear this: Could hear judgment – there’s only one right way to do things. Could feel like empty praise if you say it no matter what they do, even it it’s easy. Could imply they’ve reached their limit and you don’t think they can do any better. They may not trust you after they discover they’re not the best ____ in the whole world.
  • Alternatives:  Only praise things that took effort. Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product. Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better. Read about questions to ask to extend their learning. Read more about effective praise.

You make me feels…. I’m proud of you. I love it when you…. It would make me happy / mad if you… I’m ashamed when you…. I’ll never forgive you

  • How your child might hear this: Your love is conditional on their accomplishments. Also implies that your emotional well-being is dependent on their behavior.
  • Alternatives: Let your child know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that all behavior is always OK – it’s not and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t have high expectations for them. You do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness should not depend on that. 

Practice makes perfect. 

  • How your child might hear this: Anything less than perfect isn’t good enough.
  • Alternatives: “Practice and you will improve.” “Making mistakes helps us get better.” “If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.” Read more about Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success

 

Labeling:  You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]. You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one. You always… You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]. You’re worthless / a loser. Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

  • Labeling your child limits them. If you label them based on a problem behavior, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they may continue to be that way. If you label them by a “talent” that they have, that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They may worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.
  • Alternatives: You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change. Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.

Shaming: “You’re just like [someone your child knows you don’t like]. Why can’t you be more like… Stop acting like a baby. You’re so [negative adjective]. Big boys don’t… Good girls don’t…

  • What they might hear: These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
  • Alternatives: Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else. If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.

What’s wrong with you?

  • Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation.
  • Alternatives:  What’s wrong?” “What happened that upset you?”

Let me do it:  Let me help you. Just let me do it for you. You’re doing it wrong, let me do it. You’re too slow, I’ll do it.

  • What they might hear: Implies that they’re not competent. If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?
  • Alternatives: Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….) Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…” Make gentle suggestions “Try…” If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”

Don’t cry. You’re OK. What a dumb thing to get upset about. Don’t worry, it will be fine. There’s no reason to be scared, just do it.

  • What they might hear: Their feelings are not important to you. They shouldn’t trust their own feelings, they should let other people tell them how to feel. Tells them not to trust their intuition and do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teens.)
  • Alternatives: Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worriedthen you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.

Don’t talk to strangers

  • What they might hear: This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers!
  • Alternatives: Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers. Talk to them about how to tell the difference. Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers  and talk about tricky people.”

Be careful. Watch out!

  • What they could hear: Of course we use it when needed! But if over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.”
  • Alternatives:Demonstrate / model how to be safe. Encourage them to look before leaping. Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason. When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. If they get that bruise, they’ll learn something important. Read more about teaching safety skills.

Promises you can’t keep: I’ll never let anything bad happen to you. Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe. I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here

  • What they might hear: Lies. And no tools for how to survive hardship.
  • Alternatives. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”

Please Go Aways: You’re in the way. I can’t get anything done with you around. Hurry up. You’re making us late. Shut up. I have better things to do than… Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

  • What they might hear: So, I totally get that children are terribly inconvenient at times, and that they make everything harder, and that we all need breaks sometimes!! However, these sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.
  • Alternatives: Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment. When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”

If/Then: If …. then…..  If you do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment].

  • What they might hear: “I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.”
  • Alternative: When … then….  “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.

Wait till your father gets home.

  • What they might hear: you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.
  • Alternatives: Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.

I told you so: that’s what you get for not listening

  • What they might hear: Feels a little vindictive, like you were hoping something bad would happen to them.
  • Alternative: “Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”

Because I said so

    • What they might hear: It’s authoritarian. Implies that whoever makes the rules can make arbitrary judgments on a whim, and they have no control over that.
    • Alternative: “I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”

Telling them how to do things they know how to do: Hang your coat up. Wash your hands.

  • What they could hear: You think they’re now smart or competent. Also implies they only need to do those things when you tell them to.
  • Alternatives: Ask them that to do: “Where does your coat go? What do you do before we eat? I bet you know what you need to do next.”

Don’t ______. Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door.

  • What they might hear: If you just tell them  NOT to do, they first have to stop their impulse to do it (which is hard for a young child) and then figure out something to do instead (which is even harder.) Also, if they already know not to do that thing, you don’t want to pay too much attention to it, as attention reinforces behavior.
  • Alternative: Tell them what TO DO. “Carefully set that down. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

You did that wrong. Why do you mess things up?

  • What they could hear: Mistakes are bad. Don’t try anything you’re not sure you can do well.
  • Alternative: “Oops, that didn’t work. What could you do differently?” “Making mistakes helps us get better.”

Learn more:

Here are lots more articles on these ideas.

Printable handout:

Would you like to print out a handout of this info for yourself or to share with friends or students or clients? Click here for: Words Matter 2. Includes a worksheet where you can practice re-writing sentences to be more effective.

Talking with Children about Death

cemetery

Parents in my classes ask: “when should I talk to my child about death?” I say: whenever the opportunity presents itself. Because death is a part of life. There will be plenty of chances to talk about it. Here are just some of the opportunities I’ve encountered with my youngest child in the past year or so.

On the walk to my son’s kindergarten, once we saw a dead squirrel, another time, we found the leg of a bird, and there was a lost cat sign up for months, which led to lots of discussions of what might have happened to the cat. On the way to first grade, we drive past a cemetery. On Memorial Day, he asked whether we would have a party for this holiday, and I explained why we don’t “celebrate” Memorial Day, which led to a whole discussion of death, war, what is a generation, and so on. A member of our church, a teacher at school, and a student at school have died, and he heard people speaking about these deaths and being sad about them. His older sister’s pet gecko died and we buried it together. We heard on the news about many people being killed in a shooting. (I try not to listen to the news much around him… but this was a TV that was on in a public place.) His pea plant died. We see flowers on a sign post on the side of a highway where a fatal car accident occurred. Somehow at school, a discussion came up of the danger of thunderstorms, and he worried for a few days about whether his dad would be struck by lightning and killed. He was wondering about heaven. He’s seen death occur in many books, movies, and TV shows. Each time one of these ‘teachable moments’ came up, we talked openly about death, the dying process, and grief. None of these were long drawn-out, or stressful conversations. Most were brief (one minute?) discussions, where I try to be as matter-of-fact about things like decomposition as I am about things like new buds coming out on a tree. I try to talk about grief as a natural emotion similarly to how I talk about other emotions.

And… then his grandmother died. My mom had Alzheimer’s and had been fading for a few years. We had been open with my son about this and the fact that she was no longer able to do the things she had done before. This April, I had to travel to be with her for a few days as we moved her into hospice care, and then my husband and I traveled for her funeral. Around this time, we have lots of long conversations with my son about death.

I was so glad that we had a long history of open and honest conversations about this part of life. I can only imagine how hard it would be for a parent who had tried to avoid this subject for years to suddenly have to explain it for the first time when she is managing her own grief over the loss of a parent and the child’s loss of a grandparent.

When talking with a child about anything, it always helps to have some knowledge of their developmental stage, and what they’re likely to be able to understand, versus what might simply be over their head at this age. Here is how children’s understanding of death evolves:

  • Preschool age (3 – 5). Even if you explain what death is (when something living stops functioning – stops breathing, growing, etc.), they may not be able to grasp what you mean. They may believe death is temporary and reversible. Although children see many deaths in movies and stories, they don’t really see a lot of what happens afterward when that character never returns.
  • Early elementary age (5 – 9): Children come to understand that death is final. They aren’t clear on what causes death. They also learn that all living things will someday die, but tend not to yet grasp that they themselves will someday die.
  • Tweens (age 9 – 12): They understand what death is – that organisms no longer function in the way they did when they were alive. They understand that death is final, and that they will die someday.
  • Teenagers: Begin to wonder about the meaning of life and form beliefs about what happens after death. Some begin taking risks, as if to test their own immortality.

When and How to Talk

Be thoughtful about whether you bring it up.

There’s typically no reason for you to push the topic or start the conversation, unless you believe a death will come soon to someone they care about. (Just as we’d talked to my son about his grandmother as she declined, we also have a 16 year old dog who is ailing, so when he has bad days, we let my son know that Rufty may not be with us much longer.) This allows them to build special memories, and say some goodbyes so there are fewer regrets later on about what was not done or said.

If they bring it up, don’t change the subject.

Let them know it’s OK to talk about it, and you’re glad they feel comfortable asking you.

If they’ve asked a question, clarify exactly what they’re asking. Sometimes they want just a simple basic answer and we go into the Big Talk about everything they’ll ever need to know about death and totally overwhelm them.

Turn the question around, and ask them what they already know. This lets you set a baseline for what you need to talk about versus what they already understand. It also allows you to correct misconceptions. For example, if they ask when someone will come back to life, we may need to explain the permanency of death, and how it’s different than when kids just “pretend to be dead” while playing.

Reassure.

Often when someone asks a question, there is an underlying concern behind the question. If your child seems worried when they ask you about something, think what fear might be behind the question. If a child asks you “can parents die?”, they’re really asking “will you die? Who will take care of me?” If you suspect this is the case, you can put it into words for them: “are you worried I won’t be here to take care of you?”

First, unless you have reason to suspect otherwise, say “I don’t expect to die any time soon. I know that idea feels scary to you, but I expect I will live for a long time yet.” (Note, you didn’t promise anything, because we can’t ever really promise that.) Then reassure that even if that were to happen, they would be OK: “But if I did die, here’s who would take care of you.”

Think about key points to make about what death is.

There are a few key ideas to convey at some point – not all at once, but in multiple minute-long conversations through their childhood:

  • Death is the cessation of life functions. Use simple terms and concrete examples from their life experience. “When an animal dies, it no longer breathes, or eats, or moves or feels hungry.” “Do you remember when your pea plant died, and it stopped growing?”
  • Death is caused by physical reasons. Describe in a simple, non-graphic way what caused a death. Explain enough that they understand… for example, don’t just say “she died because she was sick”, because then the next time your child is sick with a cold, they might think they might die. Explaining something like “she’s really sick, with a disease called _____. It’s not something I would expect you or me to get…”
    • Note: Children are inherently self-centered – their world view rotates around themselves. This can often mean that if someone dies, they wonder if it was their fault. “I said ‘I hope you die’ and then they did!!!” This can lead to a lot of guilt and shame. Reassure them that the death is not their fault.
  • Death is permanent.
    • Don’t confuse them by saying the person “went to sleep” because then it can be scary to go to sleep, or saying the person “went away” because then they will worry when you “go away” to the grocery store that you may never come back. Using the word death is actually helpful to reduce these anxieties.
    • Saying that the person who passed away is “watching over you”, or asking your child to “draw a picture for grandma to tell her how much you miss her” may confuse children about the permanency of death. If the idea that someone is watching over you from heaven fits into your belief structure, it’s fine to say this, but just be aware of this possible confusion effect.
  • Everything that is alive will someday die. You may also address that different things have different expected life spans. We might expect some pets to only live for a few years. We expect people to live for many decades. (Again, you may need to reassure them that you or other important adults expect to be around for a long while still.)
    • At some point, we’ll need to acknowledge that not only old people / animals die. It can happen to someone very young, it’s just less likely.

You may worry that you don’t know what to say about things like what death feels like, or what happens after you die. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. You can say to your child “No one knows for sure. I believe ________.”

Share your own beliefs.

One of the reasons it’s important to talk to your children about hard things (read “Better You than YouTube”) is so  you can share your own values with them and talk about the beliefs that are important to your family.

Note: one thing that can confuse children is when parents say things like “he’s happy up in heaven now” but the parent is clearly grieving and sad. They may not understand why you’re sad about something that makes the departed one happy. You can explain that you are sad the person is no longer with you, and you can’t spend time with them any more.

Talk about how we might feel about death.

Don’t be shy about talking about grief. It is one of many emotions that we humans experience. (Emotional literacy is a key life skill we want our children to gain.) Sadness about someone’s loss is a reflection of the fact that they mattered to us. Share what your feelings have been about various losses in your life.

But also talk about the wide range of reactions that people may have. Some may be sad. Some may be angry. Some may not seem to react at all. And some may react on a different schedule. It’s all OK.

Know when to move on.

Sometimes your child may ask more questions in the moment. Sometimes not. If your child has initiated a discussion about death, then seems ready to move on before you think “we’re done”, follow the child’s lead and move on. Prolonging the conversation will only cause discomfort.

Children learn through repetition, so expect that they make ask some questions again and again.

When a child is grieving.

Sometimes there losses that we would consider big in a child’s life where they don’t seem to react. Give them time and space for their own reaction. And other times, there are things we think of as small sadnesses – seeing a dead bird by the road, or a death in a storybook, where our child may suffer deep grief. Don’t dismiss them or tell them “don’t feel bad.” Honor their right to their feelings, whatever the cause.

Don’t avoid talking about the person who has died. Even though they’re no longer here, you can still remember them. They may want to do a ceremony, or create a shrine to help them remember. You could establish new traditions of continuing to do a favorite thing they did with the person who has passed away.

Your child may need help remembering the person won’t come back. They may ask again and again when they will return. They are not doing this to upset anyone. They’re just wrapping their minds around the permanency of death.

Your child may “play” death. They are just trying to understand. It’s fine to use puppets or stuffed animals to tell the story or play things out. It may also help your child to draw their feelings and memories.

Many children will regress or have behavioral challenges after a death of a loved one. Be patient and understanding with them, but don’t overly coddle them. Normal family rules should still apply. The sooner you get back to normal routines, the better. This helps you all move forward to the “new normal” of what your life will look like in the future.

Here are two helpful resources: 10 ways to help a grieving child and When Families Grieve from Sesame Street.

Funerals: If a loved one has died, you may decide not to have the child participate in the funeral. If they will attend the service, be sure to prepare them – telling them who they will sit with, how they should behave, and what will happen. For example,

 “Lots of people who loved Grandma will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about Grandma’s life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or, ‘My condolences.’ Those are polite and kind things to say to the family at a funeral. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for coming.’ You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.”  (source)

If the person’s body will be at the service, talk to your child about that. (Note: although people worry that seeing a body would be upsetting to children, they typically take it in stride). Explain burial if they will go to the cemetery. Explain if there will be a wake or reception of some sort – explain that people will talk and share happy memories of the one who has passed.

If you expect to experience a lot of strong emotions at the funeral, you may want to either not bring the child or ask another adult to help care for the child and sit with the child during the service. Remind your child that it is not their fault you are sad.

Using Media to Start the Conversation

There are several excellent books and some shows that are explicitly designed to help children understand death and manage grief. There are also many excellent books and movies that include a death that you can use to help you start a conversation.

Here are recommended books: https://imaginationsoup.net/childrens-picture-books-grief-death/https://www.familyeducation.com/videos/12-childrens-books-help-explain-tragedies-deathhttps://pjlibrary.org/blog/january-2017/childrens-books-about-death.

Find  movies and shows listed here www.ranker.com/list/kids-entertainment-dealing-with-death/matt-manser, and here https://whatsyourgrief.com/death-in-disney-movies/ and here: www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/movies-to-help-kids-deal-with-grief 

Resources

Here’s a free printable handout on Talking with your child about Death that you can share with others.

To learn how (and why) to talk about other difficult topics with your child (including sexuality, “tricky people”, scary topics, and more: read Better You Than YouTube.