Archives for posts with tag: parenting

Should your preschooler be taught about the dangers of smoking? Is kindergarten too young to start talking about alcohol? Does your 8-year-old need to learn about illegal drugs?

Parents often ask me whether it’s possible to give too much information about risky activities, or whether there are clear-cut rules on what kids of different ages should be taught. This is particularly a concern for parents with their younger children, who worry that having older siblings might expose them to this information before they are ready.

Hear are a few guidelines on how to handle this:

Talk: early, often, frankly. Instead of having the dreaded “Talk” about sex, smoking, drugs or alcohol when you feel your kid is ready to handle it, you should make talking frankly about these things fit into regular, on-going (age-appropriate) discussions from the time they are old enough to follow a conversation. See a “No Smoking” sign in a restaurant? Point it out. Someone uses the word “drunk” and she wants to know what it means, explain it using simple words (such as “When someone drinks too much wine or beer they act silly and can get into big trouble”).

Preschoolers should know that smoking is bad for your health. They should understand that we only take medicines that the doctor, a parent or trusted caregiver offers them to get better (small children may mistake colourful pills for candy, so this is an important one). They should start to learn your family’s values about drinking. Maybe you avoid all alcohol. Maybe you have a beer now and again. Maybe you drink wine to mark certain religious holidays or ceremonies.

Kids 5 and under should be taught the correct terms for their body parts, so they can speak up clearly if someone touches them inappropriately. It’s been suggested that pedophiles tend to avoid children who know the right words for body parts, because they are used to speaking frankly with their parents and thus more likely to report on the abuse.

School-aged children can be given more information about these things, and you should introduce knowledge about illegal drug use. They should also be given information about the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and have regular discussion about peer pressure. As they get older, you’ll need to provide more detailed information. We know kids as young as 9 or 10 can be gambling (poker or online) – discuss the risks when they are young enough to listen.

Keep their maturity level in mind when deciding how much detail to give: A child in second grade doesn’t necessarily need to know what pot or ecstasy are; a child in fifth grade really does. And if you find yourself talking too much and your kids’ eyes have started to glaze over in boredom, stop. Reassess. Pick it up later in a simpler way.

Listen: without judgment, for what they are really asking or trying to tell you, for insight into their concerns. Don’t go in with your own agenda. Don’t dominate the discussion. Make sure you are actually sure what they want to know before you bombard them with more information than they need.

Start with addressing their questions in simple terms. A four-year-old who wants to know if smoking can make you die doesn’t need to know about nicotine addiction or hear words like cancer or emphysema. They may simply be worried about a beloved uncle, and want reassurance that if he stops, he can get healthier. Or that there are doctors who can help him. Or that it’s really, really hard to stop smoking once you start, so we need to be patient.

Give information is small, easy-to-manage increments. Use age-appropriate words. If they ask questions and want to know more, it’s OK to follow their lead.

Inform yourself: Make sure you know what you’re talking about. There are many excellent books, pamphlets and websites for parents seeking to know more about teens and high-risk behaviors.

Parents sometimes worry about their children’s innocence, making them grow up prematurely with this information. But if you don’t tell them, they will learn from friends, television, music and the world around this. You can’t guarantee that they will get the correct information. More importantly, you missing the opportunity to provide your own values and moral framework.

Parents are sometimes shocked to learn how young kids are when they first experiment with smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling (typically grades 5, 6 and 7). Since we know that the younger kids are when they start, the higher the risk of developing problems, we need to try and put off that initial experimentation as long as possible (if not avoid it altogether).

According to the 2008 Quebec Survey on Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs and Gambling in High School Students conducted by L’insitut de la
statistique du Quebec, young people who experiment with smoking, alcohol, drugs or gambling had:

  • Their first cigarette at the age of 12.7 years (40% of kids will try smoking before high school)
  • Their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 12.6 years
  • Their first experience with marijuana at 13.4 years
  • Their first experience with gambling as early as 11.6 years.

Other research suggests that 7th grade is the typical starting point for experimentation with oral sex (which 40% of teens believe doesn’t qualify as “sex”).

And what about those younger siblings who seem to know way too much, way too soon? Truth is, there isn’t that much you can do about it if they have older siblings around. But instead of mourning their precociousness and premature loss of innocence, remember that knowledge is power. If your kids are well-informed, they are less likely to believe the rumours, dangerous half-truths and misinformation circulated in the schoolyard.

They will be better prepared to resist trying things that could get them into big trouble. And that, ultimately, is the goal we all need to keep in mind.

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I’m really excited to be a featured speaker this Sunday at Montreal Families Magazine’s first ever Parenting Workshop, along with study skills and homework expert Carolyn Melmed. Space is filling up fast, so if you’ll be in Montreal this weekend, click on the link above and reserve your seat now.

I thought it might be useful to offer readers a quick overview of what I’ll be covering. Called “The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviours,” I’ll be talking about why it’s never too early to prepare your child to deal with the many confusing and conflicting messages they get concerning high-risk activities. What does smoking have to do with your preschooler? Why would you worry about Facebook or drinking alcohol if your kid is in grade 2? And if you already have a high schooler, I’ll talk about why it’s not too late to put prevention strategies into play.

To better understand the answers to these questions, I’ll be offering an overview of what high-risk activities are, and providing surprising information on when kids first start experimenting with them. I’ll be talking about the current research on children’s and adolescent’s brain development, and how understanding how their minds work can help us better tailor our prevention strategies. I’ll provide specific, concrete and practical age-based strategies for how to prepare your kids, so that they are better able to resist peer and media influence and develop important coping strategies. Worried your teen is already in trouble? I will tell you what your options are for seeking help. I will also point parents towards online resources for more specific information on different risk activities.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about thinking ahead.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Not in Montreal? Interested in bringing me in to speak to parents or teachers at your child’s school or community centre? Email me at alissasklar@hotmail.com to discuss the range of workshops I can offer for parents, educators and students on high risk behaviours, Internet safety and more.

8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a day I knew I’d never forget.

My two-year-old twins were heading off for their very first day of preschool. They had their lunches packed, the backpacks full of extra clothes, wipes and smocks for painting. I was more emotionally wound up than they were, and I was almost disappointed when they just kissed me goodbye, and walked hand in hand into their very first day of school.

The only tears were my own, and I desperately, sheepishly blinked them back. There were no pudgy arms clutching at my legs, no high little girl voices begging me to take them home. I was proud of their determination, but not quite used to the idea that my baby girls might be growing up.

I got in my car, a tangle of conflicted emotions, and turned on the radio.

It was 9 a.m. September 11, 2001.

When the first reports of trouble in New York trickled in, I didn’t think much of it, preoccupied as I was by my own microdrama. Then the  announcer mentioned the World Trade Center, and I thought about my brother, whose law firm was in the process of moving their offices into one of the towers. I called my mom, who hadn’t heard anything. She couldn’t reach his cellphone, but we weren’t yet alarmed.

I stopped for coffee with a friend, asking the teenage barista to turn the radio over to CBC, and we stared at each other in horror as news of a second plane hitting the towers was reported. I ran home to keep trying to reach my brother. No answer. Cellphone service was in chaos.

Like everyone I knew, I watched the world implode upon a TV screen. I couldn’t breathe. The sheer scale of hatred, of callousness, of remorseless cruelty was astonishing. It was impossible that this destruction, this pain was being played out live on camera. It was unthinkable that we had to just sit there and watch. But we did. We couldn’t turn away even when the images burned into our eyes, seared themselves into our minds.

We were witnesses to the murders; our very witnessing the catalyst for it happening. A spectacle laid out in living colour for the hungry eyes of our cameras.

It took a couple of hours to track down my brother. His firm’s move had been postponed because of construction delays. Only a few people had been moved over to the World Trade Center that morning; one woman from their office died.

My daughters have an uncle today because of construction delays. They have three cousins. Construction delays.

I remember thinking, with typical shortsightedness, how lucky I was to have children too young to understand what was happening. Two-year-olds don’t watch the news or scan the front page of the newspaper in a daily race for the weather and comics. I was almost giddy with relief. How on earth could a parent ever explain this to a child?

I forgot that they wouldn’t be two forever. That I would have to explain over and over again as they grew how such a thing could happen. Their innocence waning as their capacity to comprehend expanded. Every time we saw a picture of the towers. Heard about the memorials. Each time we visited New York City.

Every September.

I didn’t realize that I would have to give answers to unanswerable questions. To the two-year-olds who are now 12. To their little sister, whose very existence I hadn’t even foreseen that morning ten years ago. To my future grandchildren.

We will be searching for those answers for many, many years. Forever. Like the Holocaust, and Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and Tiananmen Square, but newer and closer and fresher. With really good production values.

Teaching our kids about the grim side of human nature is never an easy thing to do. In the olden days we had dark inflections to our nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We had cradles that fell and witches in the woods who ate errant children, desperate girls who cut off their toes to fit the prince’s glass slipper.

We don’t do that anymore. We’ve scrubbed our stories, sanitizing the imaginary preschool world the same way we Purell their little hands. Have you ever watched the original Disney versions of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? Tiana and Arielle wouldn’t last a day in their world.

When natural disasters occur and people die, we can point to the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of nature. It’s upsetting, but somehow we feel we can contain our children’s fears through education and action. But terrorism, war, mass murder, school massacres? That’s a whole other story.

I wish I could say I have the answers here, but I don’t. The truth is, I still don’t know what to say to my girls about September 11th. I tried to dole out the nuggets of information sparingly when they were younger, offered some context as they got older and learned more on their own. But I knew some time ago that I couldn’t protect them from knowing any more. And I shouldn’t. The plump, smiling toddlers smiling innocently into the camera at the exact moment the first plane fell out of the sky have morphed into tall, lithe preteens. They cringe and reluctantly agree when I ask to take their picture on the first day of high school.

I can only hold them close as long as they let me and hope they get more from remembering that day than the fear and hatred that made it possible in the first place.

Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.

There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.

But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.

Teens tend to process these stresses in much more emotional ways. We can’t just blame this one hormones either. Researchers studying brain scans of adolescents have demonstrated repeatedly that adolescent responses to difficult decisions are guided primarily by the limbic system (responsible for emotion) and not the prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgement and decision-making). Teens are at the mercy of their emotions.

Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.

As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.

Turns out, there’s now scientific justification for this. A professor at the University of Austin in Texas has looked at the health and happiness of middle aged parents (40-60 years old) based on the happiness of their children, and found that the distress of one child can have a marked effect on the parent’s well-being.

Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.

They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.

So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.

Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.