Posted by: kathyseal | November 11, 2008

Why not to worry if your child hasn’t reached a milestone

A nice article about why not to worry if your child isn’t reaching a milestone: in  Avoiding New Mom Comparison Traps, Evonne Lack writes that new moms especially are constantly wondering what’s normal and what’s not. But, just so your child reaches milestones within the normal range, how relatively early or late he reaches them  has no bearing on how he’ll measure up later.

“So if your 18-month-old says only one or two words compared to your same-age nephew’s dozen,” writes Lack, “it doesn’t mean your child won’t eventually gab your ears off.”

Pediatrician Darshak Sanghavi, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician’s Tour of the Body, agrees. “Milestone development has very little to do with a child’s future potential, ” he told Lack, “so I encourage parents not to worry if their children are late bloomers or seem to be at the outer limits of normal,” says.

I think it always helps to remember that Einstein didn’t really talk until he was three.

But at the same time, worrying is natural. As kindly cites from our interview, “We’re hardwired to push our kids to compete. After all, our ancestors’ children had to be strong enough to get that last piece of meat or outrun that dangerous animal.

“It’s also natural to want our kids to acquire skills, so we compare for reassurance.”

Posted by: kathyseal | November 6, 2008

Economic crisis adds to pressure on parents

The economic crisis is adding to the pressures on parents today. Getting together college money is even harder than before. That can ratchet up our worry about how our kids are doing in school, because it seems even more important for them to get good grades and perhaps a scholarship. And it seems all the more Read More…

Posted by: kathyseal | October 22, 2008

A Good Way to Relieve College Application Pressure

Baylor University’s student newspaper, The Lariat, recently revealed that the school has paid already-admitted freshmen to retake the SAT.  The program raised average test scores for incoming freshmen, and therefore could help the school’s US News & World Report ranking. Faculty, who hadn’t known about this latest example of the misuse of testing in American education,  were scandalized,  and their Senate quickly passed a motion condemning it.

Embarrassed, Baylor decided to end the program that gave students a $300  campus bookstore credit for retaking the SAT and $1,000 a year in scholarship money if they raised their scores 50 points. Administrators at the Baptist university said that the program helped them to distribute “merit aid.”

“It’s just like all of a sudden people removed their brains and went to Mars,” University of Washington director of admissions Philip A. Ballinger, told the New York Times, commenting on the Baylor program.

A terrific sound bite, but unfortunately this importation of market principles to schooling is becoming far too common in American education to pin it on creatures from outer space.  (Just one example: programs paying high school kids to learn are proliferating, as a “quick-fix” to improve the education of kids in economically disadvantaged communities.)

You can’t blame parents and students for paying attention to college rankings. Numbers are always an attractive way to sift through complicated questions, such as the quality of the thousands of American colleges and universities. That’s why US News & World Report has been able to base its entire business model on rankings,as  Columbia University journalism professor Sam Freedman writes.

But there’s a better idea: the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group working to overhaul admissions procedures, is working on a website that will subvert the rankings game by matching students’ interests, preferences and goals with specific colleges. A student would first answer questions designed to help her think about what kind of school she wants. Does she want a very rigorous education?  a small or a large school? big or small classes? a place near home or farther away? Then she’ll get a list of colleges matching her educational goals, detailing school characteristics including  educational philosophy, majors and departments, internship programs, even lists of courses. The site will also provide a way to talk online with a current student or faculty member. The aim is to help students figure out what kind of education they need and want and which school will provide it best.

Won’t that website help calm the pressure and anxiety brought on by striving for a school just because it’s highly-ranked?  As families face the shrinking of college saving and the drying up of student loans — and perhaps considering “downgrading” to a less expensive school — it will help parents and kids alike focus on what counts — the learning environment where their kids will spend the next four years.

Posted by: kathyseal | October 7, 2008

Wall Street Helps Drive College Application Anxiety

As kids and their parents go through the college admissions process this fall, they may not realize that Wall Street provides a subterranean source of their anxiety, even beyond the current melt-down (sorry to bring that up.) It’s a little-known but well-documented fact that college admission “selectivity” and “yield” help determine a university’s bond rating.

What, you may well ask, are selectivity and yield? (Why parents who want a good education for their children have to know this stuff is another question entirely.) Selectivity is the percentage of kids a college accepts. Yield is the percentage of accepted kids admitted who attend. Bond ratings, while we’re into definitions, determine the cost for colleges to borrow money for expansion or other needs.

So, the more kids a college rejects, the higher its selectivity. The more kids who think a certain college is nirvana and utopia combined, and a prestigious pathway to success, romance, and fun, the more students apply and the higher the selectivity and yield rates.

That’s why colleges market their “brand names” to the hilt ( “Live, study, and work in both sleek high-rise towers and turn-of-the-century brownstones” reads one gorgeously thick brochure. “Win a Hummer. All you have to do is attend an SJSU football game” trumpets another.) It’s all about luring students to apply, a large number of whom will never be accepted.

As one kid told an Education Conservancy research project focus group, “All colleges say they are highly selective and then encourage us all to apply. They are just playing a game for themselves.”

Selectivity also helps determine a college’s ranking with U.S. News & World Report, Consumer Reports and other publications. (U.S. News dropped yield rate from its ranking formula in 2003.) Such rankings are proliferating today in the college-industrial complex. Some colleges even reward their presidents if their ranking rises. The contract of Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, promises him an extra $10,000 for reaching each of ten goals, and $50,000 if he achieves all of them. One of those goals is an improved USN&WR ranking.

Colleges’ drive for selectivity and yield — which have nothing to do with educating our children — add to the pressure and anxiety mounting in most families at college application time. Families face so many unknowns (“What exactly are these colleges looking for, anyway?”) and today’s precarious economy pressures us all the more to equip our children with a good education, as we scramble to get the tuition together. In addition, the prospect of separating from our children as they go off to school makes us want to do all we can to give them a terrific environment for the next four years.

One way to calm all that anxiety is to realize that colleges use marketing and branding to artificially shine up their images and sharpen the “demand” — our appetites — for one or another school, raising their selectivity and yield ratings. That may help you stop worrying that your child has to gain acceptance to a place with a certain cachet.

It’s not only that such thinking harms kids. (“I have never wanted anything in my life as badly as I wanted to get into that college,” another student told the Education Conservancy focus group. “…that is not how it should be.”)

It’s also that cachet doesn’t translate automatically to a sound education or to competence, confidence, and good relationships with teachers and friends. And those are the things our kids need to succeed and be happy.

Posted by: kathyseal | October 1, 2008

Kids and Competition: an irony that does us some good

There’s a very good article on kids and competition in the Oct. 17th Family Circle, also on Cynthia Hanson writes that kids’ lives are more competitive these days partly because of  TV shows like American Idol, and America’s Next Top Model.   “We have a whole generation of kids who fear they’re going to get voted off,”  Wendy  explains in the article.

Adds author Jane Shure, “There’s more edginess, influenced by the winner-take-all mentality in our society.”   That makes me think of the increasing acceptabillity of cheating and meanness in our culture, as encouraged by widespread sports doping and tv shows like Survivor.

My favorite section of Hanson’s article discusses sports.  She offers some interesting statistics:    the National  Alliance for Youth Sports found that 74% of parents have seen a coach yell at a child for making a mistake.  Three and a half million young athletes seek medical treatment every year for overuse injuries and overtraining fatigue.  Nearly half of high school baseball players surveyed told  the Josephson Institute of Ethics that it’s ok for a coach to order his pitcher to throw at an opposing hitter.

Finally, Wendy points out a fascinating and very useful irony:  “Excelling takes hard work. Kids who play for the love of the game perform better over the long haul than those who play only to beat others.”

So, in the midst of all this increasing competition, the outlook for our kids isn’t necessarily glum. They don’t have to sacrifice doing very well for good sportsmanship, they don’t have stop enjoying their sport so that they can win.  They don’t even have to drop out of sports or music because of the competition.  They can avoid stress by concentrating on their own love of the game and  enjoying the increased competence they gain by working hard on their skills.  And by putting love of the game and skill sharpening first and foremost — above winning — they can even excel and win.   And that irony gives us parents something positive to ponder on.

Hanson talks about the parent  who decides her ten-year-old should play the oboe, because the less commonly played instrument may help her get into college, the Web sites where students (and parents) can track their grades daily, and the proliferation of contests for spelling, history, music, sports — it goes on and on.

Posted by: kathyseal | September 18, 2008

When your child starts college: tips for parents

In a nice article with tips for parents with a child starting college Sarah Lindner writes in the Austin, Tx American-Statesman,You’re trying to figure out your new role in your child’s life,and how to help without becoming a hovering ‘helicopter’ parent.”

When your child is having trouble in chemistry class or doesn’t like her roommate, the desire to jump in and solve the problem,  continues Lindner, is surprisingly powerful.  Then she quotes Wendy:

“‘Nobody talks about how strong those feelings are,’ says Wendy Grolnick, co-author of  Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids.'”

We  shouldn’t feel guilty about these protective urges, continues the article, since “looking after our children is part of our basic wiring. The answer isn’t to stop yourself from feeling those emotions. Instead, it’s making sure you channel them in ways that are helpful to your child.”

The main way to be helpful is to listen, offer empathy, and let your child know your understand. “Ooh, that noise must make it hard to sleep !” you might say.  Then help your child talk throughwhat he can do to solve the problem.

The article continues: “Treat them like a responsible adult and talk to them as if they’re going to be able to handle a situation,” Grolnick says.

This teaches your child that he’s a competent person who can manage any problems that come up, she says. Being pushy or controlling sends the opposite message: Your child starts to figure that if you keep coming to his rescue, then he must not be a capable person himself.

I know that I tend to panic and catastrophize when my kids tell me that something isn’t working in their lives and that I have to struggle to stay calm and optimistic. “You quit your old job without  a definite offer for the new one?”   “You got evicted from your apartment?”  Every little glitch in their lives feels awful in the pit of my stomach. But talking to them about what they plan to do next and listening to them talk through solutions puts me back on an even emotional keel.  Listening to their emotional tone helps too.  So often they’re far less upset than I am! Letting them know I realize that they’re competent, and capable of solving their own problems is good for both of us.

Posted by: kathyseal | September 16, 2008

When Your Child Fails, Is it OK to “Bail Her Out”?

Conventional wisdom has it that we shouldn’t bail our kids out of sticky situations or failures, because then they won’t learn from their mistakes. You might think that since I’ve coauthored a book on pressured parents and warned acting on the anxiety we feel when our kids compete, that I’d say “Hold off.  Let go. Let your child learn from her own mistakes!”

But as a parent I’ve found it hard to use this kind of “tough love.”  The pull, at times almost physical, to jump in and help whenever our kids are feeling left out,  have missed a goal,   or are suffering in any way is very strong. In fact it’s so strong that I question this conventional wisdom. Yes, sometimes we should step back and let our children learn from their mistakes — but at other times, looking carefully at particular circumstances, we should bail our kids out.

Let me give two examples. The first happened when my son was in eighth grade and handed in an assignment late. He’d forgotten to take it to school, and rode his bike back late in  the afternoon to slip the homework under the door of his English teacher.  She stuck to her rules and graded his work down for lateness.  I felt bad for Zach, but I didn’t go ask the teacher to take pity on him, pleading that after all, he had done his work, but just forgotten to hand it in on time. The stakes weren’t great — he wasn’t about to fail the course — and empathy along with talking about ways to remember to hand things in on time was the best way to support him.

The second story is about a friend of mine. Her daughter auditioned for a high school music magnet program , and wasn’t chosen.  The flute-playing daughter  burst into tears at the rejection. She really, really wanted to be in the program! OF course, my friend felt terrible!  And so, with her daughter’s permission, she spoke to the music teacher and asked for a second audition. He agreed and this time her daughter made it into the program.

Was my friend one of those”pushy” parents we hear about?  Is she an overinvolved “helicopter parent?”    Perhaps she should have let her daughter learn from the rejection that she hadn’t practiced enough, so that she would redouble her efforts and try out again the following year.

Well, here’s what happened: the young musician thrived in the magnet program. She moved from being a so-so player to one of the best flautists in the school,  and playing the flute became one of the very best things in her life. She made good friends in the program, and has become so interested in music that she’s taken every music theory course the school offers. In short, the magnet program has been wonderful for her.

Her mother’s intervening and “bailing her out”  — which in fact I’d call “supporting her daughter” — didn’t violate the girl’s autonomy, since she gave her mom permission to seek the second audition.  Unlike the situation with Zach, the stakes were high, since missing the first year of the magnet would have meant missing  a full year of music education and friendships.  And perhaps, rather than learning the lesson that her parents would bail her out from failure, the girl  learned that persistence — not taking no for an answer — is the best way to achieve your goals.

Posted by: kathyseal | September 13, 2008

Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks writes today about anticipating her soon-to-be empty nest as her third daughter starts her senior high school year and her 19-year-old moves into her own apartment — and calls Sandy four times for help cooking  stir-fried chicken! 

What’s interesting is that Sandy berates herself momentarily: “What kind of mother have I been,” she asks herself, ” if my nearly-grown child can’t figure out how to use a wok, knife and wooden spoon to prepare a simple chicken dinner?”

How quickly we moms criticize ourselves!

Fortunately Sandy calls three friends who set her straight. They laugh, because it’s so much easier to be objective about your friends’ feelings than your own: ” She’s cooking, one said. What’s wrong with that? She’s calling you, said another, whose son went off to college and dropped off the map. What she doesn’t know, she’ll learn, shrugged a third.”

It’s lovely that Sandy’s daughter called her for recipe help. There’s no rule #356 (a) in the Perfect Parenting Manual that says “Children must leave the nest thoroughly self-sufficient!”  In fact, as one of Sandy’s friends points out, it’s nice if they stay connected to us, and finishing up the cooking tutorial is certainly one way to do so.  Yet Sandy –and I love her honesty — leaps right into the self-critical breach.  I wonder if that’s because this new stage of  “Connecting to Our Adult Children”  (as my friend Barbara, a psychotherapist calls it) is so unexplored. None of us wants our kids to disappear into adulthood, yet we want them to be competent and self-sufficient. We don’t want our adult kids to depend on us too much — but can we expect them to be totally independent?  Tell me where the book is that blazes this new parenting path! I don’t think there is one.

Maybe we want our kids to stay emotionally close to us but at the same time to become increasingly capable and competent in the world. Maybe their independence is a work-in-progress that we’re supporting, just as we did when they were younger, only now their tasks are increasingly those of an adult. They’re no longer  learning to tie their shoes and learn  how to write a term paper, but they’re learning how to find a job, earn a living, and have friends to dinner.

Bravo to you Sandy for being so honest about your parenting feelings. And bravo that your daughter trusts you and feels close enough to call you for your advice. You must have nurtured her well, and she wants to create that same cared-for feeling for herself in her own apartment. Maybe you can pat yourself on the back for a parenting job well done.

Posted by: kathyseal | September 11, 2008

Paying kids to learn in Kansas City

Another writer questions paying kids to learn, this time in Kansas City — see Steve Rosen at

I just got an email from myfriend Molly whose kids went to an elementary school that emphasized a love of learning so much that kids didn’t get grades — but lots and lots of comments and feedback from the teachers.  Now they’re  at  a well-respected  private middle school. Their classmates who came from pressured schools “are already burned out and my guys are just warming up,” says Molly.  What’s really interesting to me is that the teachers in thishighly respected private school, she adds , “are mostly superb and motivating.”

That makes me think that the best teachers in the best schools try hard and are really good at revving up kids’ inner passion for learning. But when it comes to disadvantaged kids, these new programs rely on paying the kids to learn, instead.  Here’s my question: why can’t we instead start programs to get disadvantaged kids the same superb and motivating teachers that kids get at the really good schools,  private and public alike?

Posted by: kathyseal | September 9, 2008

Paying kids to learn

Last Friday we published an oped in the L.A. Times titled, “Pay to Learn Shortchanges Kids: dozens of studies over 35 years have found that rewarding people for learning backfires.” You can see it at,0,2652576.story

Paying kids to learn is not a good idea, as our article explains. On Friday, Wendy will be interviewed on CNN’s American Morning about ways to help kids enjoy learning that don’t involve bribing or paying them. The truth is that kids are born with a desire to learn, and research has shown many ways that parents and teachers can fan the flames of that inner passion. Paying kids isn’t one of them.

When there’s so much competition in children’s worlds, it’s hard for a parents and kids alike not to stress out. Sometimes schools and parents fall back on easy but deceptive ‘solutions,’ like bribing kids. But that’s a good way to distract them from the fact that learning is valuable in and of itself.  That studying will help them get what they want from life.  And that it can make them feel competent and effective in the world. How rewarding are those feelings!  And learning can enjoyable, too.

Often it’s the parents who are more anxious and intense than the kids, because we’re so protective of them, and we want the best for our children, because we love them. And anxiety is contagious, so when we hear another parent talking anxiously about tutoring or hiring a private sports coach, we get stressed out! As my friend Joyce says, “When Courtney was in high school I’d listen to other parents talk, and then I’d come home feeling like there was something I wasn’t doing for her, but that I should be doing …but I didn’t know what that something was!”

Parenting is full of joy, but it’s also often difficult. Given the anxiety all around us, it can be hard to stay calm and focus on what our children really need. We can encourage kids by letting them know we value learning,  by helping them become increasingly competent, by guiding them and giving them the structure they need.   Money is an important part of life, but for our kids, it’s not part of the learning equation.  After all, you want your child to have the inner desire to learn that he or she will need in college, and you don’t want to trail behind them, throwing dollar bills at them every time they crack a book!


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