Kids A to Z: Positive Change

Getting through to your kids can be a struggle, but setting limits, praising effort and spending quality time listening can help.

Ten-year-old Glen Davidson laughs as he drags his little sister, Emma, across the kitchen floor. Eight-year-old Emma giggles as she slides.

It's one of those great parenting moments that their mom, Ellen Davidson, would love to savor: Her two kids, who don't always get along well, are being silly and happy together.

Except there's no time to enjoy the moment. Glen isn't dressed for hockey practice, and it's snowing outside. Their dad, also named Glen, is stuck on Interstate 480 coming home from his job in Parma. So Ellen will have to take Glen to practice and bring Emma along, too. And the snow is likely to make the drive from their home in Novelty to the Pond ice arena in Auburn Township longer than usual.

Ellen asks her son — for the third time in many minutes — to please go put on his hockey uniform.

She hardly raises her voice. She never threatens him with punishment if he doesn't do what's expected. She simply reminds her son of the time and the looming practice in a calm, straightforward manner. And she always says "please," which Glen likes.

"I think what makes a nice parent is that they're nice, polite, and they always treat you politely," says Glen, a fourth-grader at Lawrence School in Broadview Heights.

But even with the niceties thrown in, it doesn't mean that Glen and Emma always do what their mom or dad says without question and the first time they're asked. It also doesn't mean that Ellen, who describes herself as a glass half-full type of person, never gets aggravated, either.

"There's no law of nature that makes kids do what their parents want them to do," says Dr. Robert Needlman, a pediatrician with MetroHealth System. "Some children are highly motivated to please their parents and go out of their way to figure it out, but other children have their own agenda."

Ellen has learned by trial and error how to get through to her kids while remaining calm. She says Glen has had trouble making transitions — such as the one tonight from dinner to getting out the door to hockey — and she's been working harder to make positive changes that work.

"When the kids are not listening and I start to get frustrated, I have found that it can work really well to take a breath, look them in the eye and simply tell them that I am about to get really angry, and I don't want to start yelling," she says. "And that very often motivates them to take a new direction."

It's all just part of being a parent. The trick, however, is how you can be a positive parent, especially in moments just like this when your child isn't listening.

"You don't have to remain positive; you just have to remain calm," says Dr. Robyn Strosaker, a pediatrician and the director of inpatient services at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

Calm can be a challenge when your child is throwing a temper tantrum in Target or your teenager walks in two hours after curfew without ever calling. But experts say that there are strategies and skills parents can learn to make it happen.


  •    •    •    •  

It's unrealistic to expect a parent to never, ever raise his or her voice, says Geoffrey Putt, a pediatric psychologist and the director of parenting and family support services at Akron Children's Hospital. However, parents can learn skills and strategies to parent more calmly and positively.

"Kids want consistency, predictability, structure," Putt says.

In the Positive Parenting Program at Akron Children's Hospital, Putt works individually with families who are in significant distress dealing with the behavior of their children ages 2 to 12.

"When it starts having an impact on your life to the point where you're changing your habits — your child is missing out on opportunities; it's affecting the quality of your relationships; you're yelling and screaming more — that's when you need a program like this," Putt says.

While not every family needs the regular support of a parenting program, the basics taught in such programs have been proven to work, says MetroHealth's Needlman.

"It's very important to tell children what to do and to praise them when they do it. That is 90 percent of discipline," Needlman says. "Most parents think of discipline as scolding or spanking or timeout. And what positive parenting teaches us is that most discipline has nothing to do with scolding, spanking or timeout. It has to do with creating expectations for the behavior that you want and regularly and frequently praising the child for that."

Rainbow's Strosaker agrees. "There's two sides to positive parenting," she says. "There's making sure you catch them in the act of doing good things, but you also need to make sure you're setting reasonable expectations and help your child learn behavior that's helpful in life."

Take coloring, for example. Experts say you shouldn't tell a child he's the best artist that ever lived. Likewise, if he colors on the wall, you shouldn't say that you love the way he colors on the living room walls.

"Being positive doesn't mean you don't set limits," Strosaker says. Expectations should be reasonable, and children should understand them. Then they must be held accountable, in a calm way, if those standards aren't met.

"Being positive is saying that these are the things that you're doing right that I want to increase," Putt says. "And these are the things you're not doing well that I want to reduce."

Praising too much has come under fire lately. But Needlman clarifies that parents need to praise behavior and effort rather than abilities or accomplishment.

"Overpraise for accomplishments — 'Oh, you're the best kid,'Oh, you're the smartest kid' — has no effect except sometimes to make kids feel anxious," he says. "But specific praise that says, 'I really appreciate how you're working at your homework,' or 'You could have gotten angry at your sister but instead you used your words, and that's really mature' — that kind of praise is really specific, positive feedback."

  •    •    •    •  

Throughout the evening, praise for her children seems to come naturally to Ellen Davidson, even for some of the smallest and most routine of things.

As Emma pokes at her meatballs at dinner, she says, "Mom, I don't know how to cut."

"Can you try? Because you've been doing a good job," Ellen answers.

Another parent might have just cut the meatball or said something negative that deflates the child such as "By your age, you should be able to do that."

Once Ellen praised her effort by telling Emma she was doing a good job, Emma went right back to working at cutting her meatball.

But Ellen admits that it's not always easy during a busy day to remember to give

"I find myself thinking all the time, There's clothes on the floor or you didn't make your bed," she says. "Sometimes you focus in on that stuff, and it's a habit. I have to really work on focusing on my kids and saying what they're doing well." Glen, for example, is really good around seniors and is quick to pick things up if Ellen drops them.

Choosing the right words while delivering praise can be a challenge for any parent, says Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist and the assistant director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights.

"It doesn't help kids to give them a ton of positive reassurance if it's not authentic and not helping them to figure out how to handle a situation," Cordiano says.

For example, she says, if you're child is working on a difficult math worksheet, don't jump in and say, "It's OK, you're so good at this."

Instead, she recommends acknowledging that it's difficult and saying something like: "You're probably going to have to work harder than you usually do. You're probably not going to get it right the first time, and that means your brain is growing in a different way. The next time you have a math worksheet, it will come easier to you. But you're right, it is difficult."

Recognizing that they're trying hard will build resiliency.

Praising effort shouldn't stop as a child gets older. The right type of praise builds intrinsic motivation in a teenager — a skill needed for success throughout life, says Patricia Brubaker, assistant director of the upper school and director of counseling at Gilmour Academy.

"If you praise a child's effort, then that is much more motivating in the long run and not as misleading to kids," Brubaker says.

Even better, Laurel's Cordiano suggests spending time with the child to work through the problem together.

For example, if your child is often late for school because she can't get her backpack together on time, then help her find the solution that works for her.

"Sit with your child for a while and allow her to come up with a few ideas," Cordiano says. "Then help her tweak them. Get a plan in place for implementing things and trying them out. Give her some feedback. It helps her to develop problem-solving skills so that she can then take those and use them in a lot of different situations."

Sometimes, experts say, putting aside the issues and spending a little one-on-one time with a child is a positive investment that builds equity in the relationship.

"I tell parents, 'Regardless of how you think your child is acting, I want you to find 10 minutes a day to do something with your child,' " says Rainbow's Strosaker. "Read together, color together, play a game."

During that time, the focus should be on just enjoying each other, not as a time to criticize or get a point across.

Ellen says her special time often comes in the evenings. Emma is a natural communicator. But Glen opens up during that time when he's not distracted by the activities of the day.

That time is just as important for teenagers as it is for young children, says Gilmour's Brubaker.

"When the conversation is always around something the child should be doing that the parents don't feel they're doing properly, then that shuts down a lot of other conversations," Brubaker says.

Ellen asks her children their opinion's on parenting: "What do you think parents should do when their kids aren't doing what [the parents] think they should?"

"Give them a couple warnings," Glen says.

Tonight, three is all it takes. Glen disappears for a few minutes then reappears, dressed with stick in hand.

Within minutes, Ellen, Emma and Glen walk out the door to hockey practice, just as happy and calm as they've been all evening.

Works of Encouragement

Use these tips to help reinforce your new upbeat outlook on parenting.

Put brightly colored Post-it Notes around the house. Every time you see one, stop and think about something good about your child. If your child is close by, offer praise. "It forces the parent to slow down and recognize that there are good things their child is doing, and when the child is getting that positive reinforcement they tend to act in a way where both the parent and the child are happier," says Dr. Robyn
Strosaker, a pediatrician and the director of inpatient services at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

Take "Because I said so!" out of your vocabulary. "Give real reasons," says Patricia Brubaker, assistant director of the upper school and director of counseling at Gilmour Academy. This can be especially important in dealing with teenagers. "A lot of times, teenage communication shuts down because we're tired and we say, 'I've told you a million times! It's because I said so.' "

Break down tasks into specific steps. When you tell a child to clean their room, you may be thinking about specifics such as the toys should be on the shelves and the clothes need to go in the hamper, but the vague demand to clean can overwhelm the child, says Dr. Robert Needlman, a pediatrician with MetroHealth System. Instead, he recommends first asking the child specifically to pick up all his or her toys. Then move on to the clothes on the floor, then making the bed.

"When you're yelling and screaming, nobody's listening to you. All they're doing is thinking about what they're going to say in response," advises Geoffrey Putt, a pediatric psychologist and the director of parenting and family support services at Akron Children's Hospital. "When you talk softly, people have to listen to what you say. When you speak softly, you also are more in control of the situation." Putt also advises just saying less. Keep your message to your child simple and clear — like a headline in a newspaper.

Emma Davidson laughs when her mom, Ellen, says, "My crockpot is my best friend now." But Ellen is serious. It's helped her to declutter daily life. Preparing meals on weekends, using her crockpot, saying no to some extras such as birthday parties and being organized, has reduced her own stress level. Those decisions allow her to be more positive around her children as well as spend more quality time concentrating on them. Her other saving grace, Ellen says, is to accept small changes in any situation. "How can we improve on this just a little bit?" she often will ask herself. "When I forget that and try to tackle the whole mountain, things tend to get a little rocky."

Flex Time

Introduce your child to the world of compromise.

Emma Davidson picks up a craft project she has made — a star with gumdrops speared through the crisscrossed wooden sticks. She asks her mom if she can eat the candy. Dinner in the Davidson household will be in about half an hour, and it can't be pushed back because Emma's brother, Glen, has hockey practice.

"Yes," says her mother, Ellen. "Just two of them."

Emma looks at her creation and considers her mom's offer.

"That would look weird," she tells her mom.

It's a logical argument. Two missing gumdrops would throw off the star's balance.

"Then why don't you wait until after dinner?" Ellen says. "Or have two now."

Ellen could have said "no" and upset her daughter. Or she could have said "yes" and allowed Emma to spoil her dinner, an option that would have upset Ellen.

Instead, in that moment, she has done exactly what parenting experts say is one of the best ways to keep the parent-child relationship positive. She has given her daughter a choice with two options that are both acceptable.

Dr. Robert Needlman, a pediatrician with MetroHealth System, says that it's important for children to learn the word "compromise," and for parents to be flexible as well. Negotiation, he says, is healthy for the parent-child relationship.

He gives an example similar to Emma asking for candy before dinner: In a store, your child asks for candy. You know that if you say "no," your child will throw a tantrum and you'll have to leave the store or wait it out and be embarrassed. But if you say "yes," you're giving in to the child's demands.

"If you decide to say 'no,' you have to be prepared to stick with that — even if the child has a temper tantrum," says Needlman, which is why it's important to say "no," and not give in and change your mind.

If you think you're going to give in, it's better to say "yes" and negotiate, says Needlman. You could say: "Do you think you could hold out until we get in the car, and you can have an apple?" Needlman suggests. "Or the kid could say, 'How about I eat half the candy bar now and half after dinner?' What you've taught your child is to be reasonable. If your child is willing to be reasonable and you can be reasonable too, then you've won."

Not everything should be negotiated. The firm exception is safety issues. If a child says, "Mom, can I play with those sharp knives?" it's an unequivocal no. And there may be some clear situations where you can say yes, like "Mom, can we please have broccoli for dinner?"

Along with compromise comes the recognition that choices have consequences, says Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist and the assistant director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights.

"Parents have to help kids learn that their actions have consequences," Cordiano says. "You get your homework done and then you have more time to play outside; not a reward, a natural positive consequence. The natural negative consequence about lying to your parents about where you are is that you don't get to go anywhere. Any time the consequences can be more naturally connected to the action, it helps kids make that link between their actions, their responsibilities and the consequences — good or bad — that follow."

When a parent can do both — help forge the connection to natural consequences and reach an agreeable compromise — it can strengthen the parent-child relationship.

So if a child doesn't want to wear a coat on a cold day, you can insist and get into a power struggle or you can allow the natural consequence that the child is cold.

"Or negotiate and say, 'Well, I think you're going to be cold. How about if we take it with us?' " says Needlman. "Then you're being reasonable."

Data Plans

In this digital age, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the latest technology. Experts give advice on teaching children 21st century skills, navigating online obstacles and more.

and smartphones have made the Internet more enticing and accessible to children, but also potentially more dangerous. Parents are often unprepared for these online obstacles, says Ryan Wooley, chief technology officer at Hawken School. Here are three ways to keep kids safe on the Web.

• Be vigilant. Keep an eye on what your kids are doing online — and let them know you're paying attention. "Keep computer use in areas of visibility and set rules for gaming, social networking and webcams," Wooley says.

• Hit the books. Smartphones and social media are relatively recent phenomena, so parents should take time to educate themselves on new technology and threats. "Spend time learning about your parental control software and other options [you] have for controlling access," Wooley suggests.

• Role play. Teach your kids about potential threats by practicing real-life scenarios that can occur online. "If the first time a child has ever thought about [the danger] is when they encounter it in real life, it's not good," Wooley says.

through all five senses, but touch is especially potent. Hands-on learning techniques allow children to explore and absorb education in different ways, says Dawn Conforti, director of Gilmour Academy's Montessori Early Beginnings. Here are three ways to incorporate hands-on learning at home.

• Start with order. Toy boxes can cause disorganization, and parents should avoid overwhelming children with too many options. "Put out seven or eight works, seven or eight activities — whether on a tray or in a basket — to make order out of it," Conforti says.

• Go solo. Let children explore their independence by dressing themselves, putting on their own coats or even opening doors on their own. "It's the self-gratification they get by having their own hands on their own materials," Conforti says.

• Relax. Allowing kids to explore hands-on learning can be trying on parents' patience in this fast-paced world. "Be calm. That's the hardest part, [so] take a deep breath when needed," Conforti suggests. "They do need limits, so there are going to be some tantrums but be consistent."

regulate growth and development such as self-concept and self-awareness in children, says Thea Wilson, chair of Center for Early Childhood at the Music Settlement. Here are three ways to help children enjoy music at home.

• Mix it up. Encourage kids to explore different genres of music to develop a sense of the world around them. "We're talking classical, jazz — it could be hip-hop, sparingly, with parental involvement," Wilson suggests.

• Take a twirl. Moving to music garners a positive emotional response from children. "Dance with your children and experience the joy of sheer music," Wilson says. "Make it a family thing and have a dance day."

• Beat the blues. Playing the right tunes can change a child's mood. "If your child has difficulty sleeping, use music to change the mood," Wilson says. "Put on something gentle in the evenings, [or] if a child is experiencing a tough day, play their favorite music."


is one of the most important skills for children to develop. The ability to speak confidently in public positions them for a job in the 21st-century workplace, says Theresa Frisbie, Lower School director at Andrews Osborne Academy. Here are ways to build communication skills at home.

• Make eye contact. Looking at someone as they speak is an essential part of communication. "Get your children to look at you when they're speaking to you, and make sure you're looking at them," Frisbie says. "Modeling is more important than getting them to do it. If they see you do it, they're going to do it."

• Have fun. Playing games such as charades help foster good communication skills, including eye contact, voice projection and confidence. "Performing in front of a group — whether it's speaking or not speaking words and actions," is good practice, Frisbie suggests.

• Get involved. Encourage your child to participate in out-of-school activities. "Having a puppet theater in your home and helping them to make puppets," are good ways to get them involved, Frisbie says.


is important for kids so they can develop as individuals, says Rhonda Richardson, professor of human development and family studies in Kent State University's College of Education, Health and Human Services. Here are three ways parents can encourage children's interests.

• Provide for them. Give children the resources they need to explore their interests. "If kids show a natural inclination for enjoying spending time in art activities, parents can provide art materials so they have the resources they need,"
Richardson says.

• Be there. Show an interest in what they are doing, and let them know you support their activities. "Participate and go along with them, [and] be there beside them," Richardson says.

• No pressure. Don't force them into things you might want them to do, because it's important for kids to feel like they have their own voice. "Step out of the way and don't impose your own interests on them," Richardson says.


downloading the latest version of Angry Birds for your child, get him or her interested in apps that can help improve organizational skills, says Jackie Hersh, a technology integration specialist at Lawrence School. She also notes that these technology tools are especially beneficial for those who struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia. Here are three she recommends.

• Wunderlist. This app has an easy to use to-do list with options for children to share information with their parents, helping them prioritize and be accountable. "A lot of kids like to be able to check and cross things off, and Wunderlist allows them to do that," says Hersh.

• Lino. Users can post memos, to-do lists and photos to a Web canvas. "It's a great app if you love sticky notes but want to keep them housed in one place," she says. "It's also a good mind-mapping and brainstorming tool, because multiple users can be in the same board and move things around."

• Dropbox. This service comes in handy when it's time for your child to tackle a large project or term paper. "It's a free online storage for your files that you can access from multiple platforms," says Hersh. "So if a kid gets to school and realizes they forgot to print out a paper, as long as they have it stored in Dropbox ... they can access it."

Share this story: