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Parenting tips

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Article outline:

  1. Conversation starters with a child
  2. Helicopter parenting
  3. Paying for chores
  4. While the device is in Lockdown
  5. Helping kids with exams
  6. Dinner time conversation

12 questions to use as conversation starters with your child

conversation starters parenting tool

Conversation is the cornerstone of good quality family time. Sometimes though, we get into a bit of a rut and find it difficult to know what to talk to our children about. What can we ask that will help them to open up with us? Our kids are often slow or reluctant to tell us about what’s going on at school, about their problems and fears. I ask “How are you?”, and I get a standard answer “I’m OK, dad”. It’s not much, is it?

The need for conversation starters

It’s no secret that a lot of kids today spend more time playing games and surfing the Internet than they spend talking with their parents (us!). We can use parental control programs to see what sites they’re visiting or to monitor and control their screen time. But let’s not put our trust completely in machines to get us out of this problem (which they themselves have caused). We still have some time-proven tools like a good old fashioned talk available to us. What’s more, even if we do choose to use parental controls, they’re most effective when we talk to our kids about the boundaries we’re placing on them. Why are we doing it and what conditions would need to be met before we’d consider removing them?

If you want to get out of that rut, start some good conversations and turbocharge your family time, here are 12 questions you could use to start a meaningful conversation with your child:

School questions

  • Tell me about the most interesting/funniest/worst thing that happened to you at school today. When we ask non-specific questions like, “How was your day?”, we’re likely to get a non-specific answer in return: “It was fine”. But if we ask about more specific details, the answers will be that much more personal and detailed to match.
  • Where is your favourite place at school? We often form associations with places. I was surprised to find how effective this question was. Favourite places come with stories and with good associations.
  • Do you need my help? We all know how hard it is to ask for help sometimes. If your child isn’t used to asking for your help in small things, they’ll probably not come to you when it’s about something serious. So start with the small issues (usually homework / revision).
  • Did you help anybody at school today? We all like to feel needed and if somebody asks us for help it makes us feel stronger and more qualified. That’s why our kids love to talk about such situations. They might be surprised by the question the first time you ask it and not have anything to discuss. Try repeating it every couple of days to encourage them to look for opportunities to help others.

GENERAL QUESTIONS

  • Who is your hero? Why? The answer to questions like this will often change over time, even from day to day. It depends who they’ve been studying about at school, what film they recently watched and so on. The interesting part of the question is when they explain why. Kids often project their own characteristics onto their favourite hero characters. Listening to their stories, we may well get to know more about our kids’ dreams, fears and ambitions.
  • What is your dream? Perhaps similar to the previous question, but a little more direct. Again, especially with young kids, answers are likely to pick up on things they’ve noticed or engaged with during the previous day or week. This gives you a great tool to notice the things that they’re attracted to and entertained by.
  • How would you describe our family at the moment? This one is especially helpful for opening a conversation about some problematic issues that you’ve seen growing in your family. It invites an honest assessment in a very open way. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it as a way to revel in the good times too though 🙂
  • Who is your best friend? What do you like about them? Again, even if you already know what they’re going to say to the first part of the question, the 2nd part is where they have a chance to open up a bit and help us to understand what they like, the characteristics they’re likely to imitate and so on.

Unusual questions

The world of kids is more colourful, illogical and full of wonder. It’s great to return to that world for a while sometimes. The following questions may help:

  • If you could make it rain some kind of food what food would you choose? This might not go very deep, but it’s good to keep things silly sometimes. Especially when it’s raining outdoors, you’re trapped inside, but don’t want to revert back to video games just yet.
  • If you could be any animal, which would you be and why? This combines the silly with the insightful. Combine it with a kids party classic and ask your kids what animal the rest of the family/ their friends remind them of and why.
  • What would you prefer – to slip on the cloud or to slide on the rainbow? OK, so this old chestnut might not appeal to the younger generation so much. The category of question remains very engaging though. “Would you rather” isn’t just a fun and funny game, you can learn a lot about each other at the same time.
  • Your question here. Yes, you’re right, I cheated. The title said 12 questions and I only included 11. It’s because I know you’ve got a load of great suggestions for conversation starters parents can use with their kids. Tell us your ideas in the comment section below. Together let’s make sure conversation with our children remains an enjoyable and integral part of our family time.

Helicopter parenting

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Helicopter parenting has become a widely used term to talk about a parenting style that is overly protective and gets involved in every detail of their child’s problems and challenges, especially during the later stages of schooling when most other parents would expect children to overcome the same challenges without parental intervention.

A sign of the times

Whilst the style is almost universally derided as unhelpful for raising confident, self reliant kids, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that today all parents are significantly more ‘helicoptery’ than those of even our own parents era, let alone those of our grandparents and beyond.

Obviously we don’t like to see our children struggling or hurting and especially when they’re young it’s hard to know where the line is between responsibly protecting them and drifting into being overprotective and starting to ‘hover’. Clearly all children are different and will require different levels of care and assistance, so how can I tell if I’m becoming a helicopter parent?

Am I a helicopter parent?

For young children, helicopter parenting usually means that the children are never allowed any alone time. Every moment their parents are nearby, directing and managing their time. Helicopter parents of school age kids try to fight their kids fights for them (this article quotes a case where one mum called up her son’s school to complain about an individual case of another child staring at him!), choose their friends (and maybe teachers) for them and might even find themselves doing their child’s homework on a regular basis!

Why do we do it?

There could be a number of personal reasons for helicoptering, from peer pressure via other parents and overcompensating for our own experiences through to personal anxiety issues. Interestingly though, there are a number of theories that blame the dramatic rise in helicopter parenting on the mobile, interconnected, information age we live in.

Prof. Richard Mullendore calls cell phones “the world’s longest umbilical cord” and suggests that their rise to mainstream use has enabled a generation of helicopter parents. There are also suggestions that parents are worked up into a state of anxiety and fear for their children’s sake by media emphasis on fringe cases of abduction and other horror stories. This in turn is blamed for the increase in overprotective parenting styles. In fact, the internet is often seen as playing a role: ironically, parenting blogs and online information hubs designed to equip parents can end up creating paranoia about children’s wellbeing.

What can we do about it?

Is there a solution? A lot of the answer to this is reliant on our ability to control our own instinct to jump in. The parenting.com article linked above suggests counting slowly to 10 before responding to your childrens requests for assistance and making sure that you set some scheduled alone time for yourself (which will also be alone time for your child) perhaps with a cup of coffee. Learning to say no and starting to teach your kids to do some of the things you do for them at the moment are bigger steps, but also much needed in the effort to give them some resilience and independence.

Prof. Lichtman, author of ‘A Practical Guide For Raising a Self-Directed and Caring Child’ advocates a “guide and then step aside” approach which seems to still allow the concerned parent to have plenty of input into the way they want things to be done before giving their child more free reign to try things out for themselves.

Parental controls, without meddling

Whilst some parental control tools are specifically designed to enable parental helicoptering, installing well balanced parental controls on your child’s mobile devices can actually play a vital role in allowing them the freedom to explore for themselves whilst leaving you peaceful in the knowledge that explicit and other inappropriate content, online purchases or interaction with strangers online are off the cards. This is equivalent to the ‘guide’ stage in Prof. Lichtman’s approach.

Obviously you’d hope that as your children grow up, such controls would become progressively less and less necessary and that when you ‘step aside’ they would be able to responsibly handle themselves in the online and technological world. This is why conversations setting out clear reasons for the parental controls have to accompany their use; guidance has to include instruction (conversations about why we set boundaries), example (hypocritical rules are never well received) and boundaries (potentially set by parental control software).

Paying for chores – should we or shouldn’t we?

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How do chores and pocket money work in your house? Are the two related? Begin looking for advice on this question, whether it be online or in person and you quickly start running into some very strong opinions, maybe you feel strongly about it yourself. And it’s an issue worth getting passionate about: the way we teach our children to handle responsibility and finances are two elements of their upbringing that are going to continue impacting their lives for many years to come.

There seem to be three main camps on the issue of whether or not chores should lead to pocket money. They break down like this:

  1. Paying kids to do chores helps them understand you don’t get money for nothing.
  2. Kids should help out around the house without getting paid.
  3. We don’t pay kids for their regular chores, but do offer them money if they go above and beyond.

Let’s take a quick look at all three approaches:

Paying kids to do chores is a good idea

In actual fact this camp also breaks down into a couple of major sub-groups:

In one group, parents who associate each chore with a given sum. Advocates of this system would say that it’s good for teaching the children the value of work and encourages an entrepreneurial view in which if their children want to buy something, they actively seek out opportunities to earn that money themselves. Detractors would argue that this system removes any sense of responsibility; children only do chores in the expectation that they’ll get something in return, but once they grow up no-one’s going to give them money for keeping their room tidy.

In the second group, parents who give their children a weekly or monthly allowance on the condition that all chores are done. In this approach the work is less directly associated with the money, and fans would say that it creates a healthier approach to doing housework as a result. On the other hand, not only does the monetary incentive remain, it becomes more of a punishment than a reward – children potentially feeling that they’re obliged to work in order to keep what’s theirs rather than to earn something.

You shouldn’t pay kids to do chores

I’ve already explained part of the reasoning behind this way of thinking. Parents with this approach might say that paying kids to do chores erodes their sense of duty towards their family and makes them more egotistical and focussed on what they can get out of a situation. In addition quite a few parents who’ve tried paying their kids note that prices have a tendency to rise fast and if you don’t keep up the chores wind up not getting done at all!

Not paying for chores doesn’t necessarily mean not giving any pocket money or allowance at all. Teaching the kids to manage their finances responsibly can still take place, it just becomes detached from whether or not they’ve done their chores. In this approach, chores are usually seen as an essential contribution to the household, which everyone is required to make. Weekly or monthly pocket money is seen as a separate issue altogether.

Shelling out for the big chores

This is very much a middle ground between the two extremes. Advocates of the approach would use arguments from both camps. They don’t want their kids to think that they only need to do work around the house if they’re going to get paid for it, but at the same time they want to encourage an entrepreneurial streak and teach that work has value. The way they do that is by offering to pay for bigger, less regular chores like washing the car.

More than one way

Perhaps it’s disingenuous of me to split the different approaches to chores and pocket money into three distinct groups in this way. In actual fact every household has their own system and in many cases a system will work for a period of time and at some point the boundaries of it’s effectiveness will be reached and it will be time to try something slightly different. Maybe rewarding chores with screen time instead of money. Maybe giving the kids an allowance but requiring them to pay you for chores that you did for them. There seem to be as many different approaches as there are families, so think about what message you want to send, what skills and values you want your child to learn, what you’ll actually be able to implement and try to find the best approach for your specific situation. What system do you have set up in your house at the moment? We’d love to hear how it works in the comments below.

5 things to do with the kids when their devices are on lockdown

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We’ve been using Kidslox for some time as a way of maintaining our schedule: the kids devices are all locked for the morning when they need to be getting ready for school, locked for an hour and a half before dinner so that they can do their homework and if they don’t manage in that time we use some extra sessions after dinner to make sure that they don’t get distracted by the tablet until their work is done.

Moving beyond the schedule

The system works for maintaining the (relative) peace, but we’ve noticed that with such a strict schedule in place, the kids almost feel that when the device is available to them, they have to play on on it. We’d prefer it if they chose to use their free time away from the screens, so we’ve decided to start modelling some other fun ways for them to use their down time. For now we put their devices into lockdown mode so they can focus on these activities, but the hope is that with time they’ll be choosing to engage with these options even when the devices are available to them.

Things to do

Dressing up – it’s a classic way to spark children’s imaginations and leads to all sorts of fun games and scenarios. It’s not hard to put aside some of your old clothes and even buy some more unusual items at a 2nd hand store but it’s surely worth it as your faded sparkly top suddenly becomes a King’s robes or a popstar outfit. The great thing about having some dressing up clothes at the ready is that every time you get them out is different.

Working in the garden – there’s something about the outdoors which the kids find really exciting. Where other household chores wouldn’t generate any enthusiasm at all, gardening often manages to tap into something much deeper, that they really connect with. And though working in the garden often turns into playing in the garden, we’re pretty happy with that, it’s still far preferable to having them sitting at their screens all afternoon.

Making something delicious – ‘helping in the kitchen’ is an infamous byword round here for the kids getting in the way and pushing dinner time back at least half an hour! That said, they love doing it, so set aside some extra time, be prepared for things to get messy and find a simple recipe for something you can prepare and bake together.

Board games – board games are definitely enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, especially for adults and older kids. The new interest that’s created has resulted in a lot of good games being released for younger children too. One helpful thing about them is that once you’ve played through the game with the kids once or twice, they can happily entertain themselves with it. Don’t feel that the rules are written in stone either; very often the ‘house rules’ can take on a life of their own!

Family show – tell the kids that you’re going to have a family show in half an hour and they need to prepare as many things to show as they can. It might be musical talent, dancing, acting or showing off some recently acquired skill, or it could be more like show and tell, where they draw something or find something that’s important to them and then explain about it ‘from the front’. Again, the flexibility of this activity is what makes it great; not only can it accommodate almost any available time and number of children, it’s so open ended that just about any new achievement can potentially be celebrated and shown off in this way.

Some of these suggestions will work well for you, others might need adapting. I’m sure you’ve got more great ideas of things to do when the devices are locked that you use with your own family. Tell us about them in the comments below.

How can you help your kids get ready for exams?

revisionIt’s coming up for exam time again. Of course different countries and schools all do things slightly differently, perhaps your exam season started a little earlier and is already well underway, but from now until summer it’s time for revision, stress, cramming and everything else that the season brings with it.

Of course many object to the amount of exams our children are taking and the age at which they’re taking them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re coming up fast and that they can potentially affect the options available to our kids further down the education system.

The parental exam challenge

Which leaves us with a challenge: how can we encourage our kids to take the exams seriously enough to prepare well for them without making exams the centre of their lives or even the center of their education? For some parents the problem of exam time is in the stress it creates in the kids (and therefore in us!) and the inclination of kids to abandon their regular activities to focus on their revision. For other parents the key challenge of the season is almost the reverse; getting the kids to study at all and to take their exam preparation with some degree of seriousness.

Whichever position you’re in, here are a few ideas to try and help out. I’m sure you’ve got plenty more ideas of your own though, please do tell us about them in the comments below. I’ve divided my solutions into two categories ‘staying grounded’ and ‘preparing for exams’, but of course balance is key and if you find your kids have started going too far in one direction it might be time try something from the other list.

Staying grounded

Don’t stop everything else for the sake of exams – If your kids have extra curricular activities and groups every day, you might well want to put one or two on pause for the exam season to create specific study time. Make sure they’re not just doing exam prep though. Keep some of the extracurricular stuff going to keep exams from being a disruptive force that takes away their social life and active outdoor time.
Make sure study sessions come with appropriate breaks – Encourage your kids to do their revision in regular size chunks and to do something else in between. That doesn’t just mean a toilet break! Have them go outside, take them somewhere away from the house, get them to join in with a family activity that will act as a genuine break.
Ensure they’re still getting enough exercise – Related to taking breaks is making sure that they stay physically active. On top of it’s usual health benefits, exercise is a great stress buster and gives some time to process what they’ve been reading.
Keep them from staying up unusually late – For some of us this is always a challenge, exams or not, but at this time of year it can be especially important. Trying to study when tired is often counterproductive and as with exercise, the brain doesn’t stop working during sleep but processes what’s been learned so far.
Encourage joint study sessions – Having a friend over to study together can help to stay on top of the work but also helps keep your child from isolating themselves with study and provides someone to laugh and relax with as well.

Preparing for exams

Create a study space – For some children and teens it’s much easier to focus on work when they have a set place that they go to for it. Ideally this place should be quiet, in a public but not busy part of the house and free from distractions.
Create a routine – It often helps to have a fixed routine. Our kids have to do homework straight away when they come home (maybe after a snack or drink) and only then move on to other activities. Other families I know have a specific homework time eg. 6pm, when everything else stops and it’s time to focus. The same sorts of routine building patterns are easily applied to revision time.
Make a study plan – Together with your child or teen, decide what revision they’re going to do for that day so that it’s clear how much exactly they need to do. You may even want to make a plan for the week or all the way to the exam to make progress more easily measurable. Many schools will encourage children to do something like this for themselves, but if you know your child struggles to organise their time well, you may want to step in and make a plan with them for their home study time.
Remove distractions – It doesn’t take much to distract a kid who’s set on skiving off, but there are a few things that definitely need to be off limits. Television can’t be a temptation and other screens are generally also a negative influence, especially if there are games involved. Of course here on the Kidslox blog I’m going to suggest using Kidslox to make device use during revision time completely unavailable. If an internet browser is needed for work this can be allowed in Kidslox while blocking games, messenger apps and other non-study related apps.
Use rewards – You know what works best with your kids, but whether it’s something sweet, a penalty shoot out with dad or 20 minutes of game time on their tablet, incentives can help to push through and finish an otherwise daunting task.

Mealtime madness: reviving the lost art of the dinner time conversation

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It’s likely you’ve heard people lamenting the decline in family mealtime standards before. Maybe it’s a topic you’ve battled with yourself? The scene is a familiar one: It’s dinner time and the whole family is sat in the living room, no one is talking and everyone’s attention is focussed on the TV. Or even worse, everyone is sat up at the dinner table but nobody is talking because their attention is focussed on personal device screens!

Won’t eat without screen!

There are plenty of articles and advice columns out there about children who can’t eat without a screen in front of them. Some parents even have legitimate reasons for allowing this, but for the large majority of us it’s a problem behaviour that can have a negative effect on a child’s developing communication skills.

Getting the balance right

It’s tricky though. On the one hand screens offer an easy distraction that make sure mealtimes are conflict free and (depending on what you’re watching) potentially informative and rewarding. On the other hand meals are an essential family time and a great opportunity to both connect with the children and help build up their communication (especially conversation) skills.

Our rules

At our house it’s a clean cut rule. If you’re eating on your own, by all means turn the tv on, if even one other person joins you, off it goes. If two or more people are eating together they do so without screens. “That’s all very well”, I hear you say, “but when we turn the telly off it’s super awkward. No one knows what to talk about; the kids answer us with short, one word answers and then the conversation fizzles out.”

This brings us to the question I want to take a look at today:

How can we revive the art of dinner conversation in our home?

  1. Model what you want to hear from your children. Ask open questions and then listen carefully and ask follow up questions if someone responds.
  2. Model what you want to see from your children. This might seem obvious, but it will be impossible to enforce phone bans on your kids if you’re sat checking facebook at the dinner table yourself!
  3. Break up routine answers. It’s easy to fall into a routine and find yourself getting the answer “Fine” to “How was your day?” and “Lunch” to “What was the best thing at school today?” Break this up with open ended follow up questions like “What could you do to make it better?” or with unexpected angles like “Do you think your teacher had a good day at school today?”
  4. Break the ice with an embarrassing or funny story of your own. Once the initial awkwardness has passed things tend to flow a little more easily, so come to the table with something in your back pocket; something that the others can laugh about or which will invite questions or similar stories. 
  5. Don’t aim too high (for now). Perhaps you hear the phrase “Dinner conversation” and start thinking current affairs and highbrow theories. You know your kids though, this probably isn’t what interests them. If you want them to enjoy joining in with family conversations and even start taking the initiative themselves, you’re going to have to keep it at a level which they can keep up with and which they find engaging.
  6. It takes practice. Whilst we might want the conversation to flow naturally from everybody present, it could well seem forced and awkward when you suddenly implement this sort of rule where it didn’t previously exist. This is expected; don’t be discouraged, don’t back down. You need to keep on creating space for conversation even it feels clumsy at first, as with anything it’ll take a little practise to get good at!
  7. Use online resources to prepare. I felt a bit embarrassed the first time I googled for conversation starters; I thought maybe it was an indication of my own lack of creativity. Shouldn’t conversation be spontaneous and not prepared? We all have our go to conversation points though and it can be really helpful to mix things up by looking up some new places to start from. Hopefully things will become more natural over time, but preparation is certainly good at first, just be ready to be flexible if the conversation starts moving in unexpected directions! There are a lot of resources out there and taking advantage of them is a smart way to make sure you’re never at a loss when met with blank faces.
  8. As suggested in this article, listen uncritically to children’s objections to the no screens rule and then talk about the reasons why it’s important to you.

Got more tips, tricks and experiences of reviving the art of dinner conversation? Tell us about them in the comments below!

 

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