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Curfew: 10:00 pm on weeknights. 11 pm on weekends.

No video games except from 8-9 pm.

Homework time is from 3-5 daily.

No Social Media until you are 17.

Rules. Rules. Rules.

How many kids do you know who love rules?

I haven’t met very many kids who like rules. But we all need boundaries for our behavior. As we work toward raising kids ready for real life, how can we switch the paradigm from a list of rules to a set of equations where their input and choices influence their outcomes?

When you remember our own childhood, you probably think of playing on the neighborhood playground after school, coming up with games or playing sports with a modified set of rules. Today’s children spend more time in structured than unstructured activities. Instead of drawing boundaries for a field with sticks and working out the details of what constitutes a home run or a goal, they play on chalked off fields with coaches instructing them. Instead of using Legos to come up with their version of a house or helicopter, many “engineers” follow the intricate instruction booklets included with every new boxed set. Instead of creating a town for Barbies or stuffed animals, television and video games fill the after school hours for many children.

We need to give kids room to create their own rules.

Darell Hammond, who lived in a group home as a youngster, founded the non-profit KaBoom to encourage communities to improve the lives of children. He urges kids to “get off the soccer field and onto the playground. Children need to get out of the gym and into neighborhood stickball games. We need to give kids room to create their own rules, set their own terms, and move their bodies in their own ways.” When kids are empowered to make their own rules, they learn executive function skills and are more likely to follow them because they believe them to be more reasonable than imposed rules.

What would it look like if we switched from making rules to helping our children follow equations?

How do we maintain order in our homes and yet allow our children to participate in making and maintaining the boundaries? Tim Elmore of Leading the Next Generation give some suggestions.

One thought is, take an age-old parent/teen dispute. Perhaps instead of having a curfew for teenagers, we could have some parameters around what time they come home. For example: before you leave, we want to know where you will be, who you will be with, and an approximate time you will be home. If you find you will be more than half an hour late, text us to let us know. As long as you are reasonable with these guidelines, you don’t need to have a set curfew time. Seems a bit scary as a parent to not know exactly when your son or daughter will be home, but if we want them to be able to navigate managing their own time in the future, this is a good step.

Another thought is what to do about video games or social media time? That’s another doozy. As a parent, it is much easier on us to have rules around these issues so we can try to manage them. However, learning how to manage oneself online is going to be a vital skill for everyone in this generation. It is prudent to allow tweens and teens to manage themselves while they are still at home and have parents to guide them. Because we each currently have various gaming and screen time rules, an equation for these will look different for each family. Things to consider might be: having a list of responsibilities to be completed before screen time is allowed, letting your older kids determine how much screen time they think is reasonable, and then asking them how they will manage sticking to their limit. With younger children you might have an equation that allows a one-to-one or one-to-one-half ratio for earning screen time. If they read/play outside/do chores for an hour, then they earn commensurate screen time to use at their discretion.

When kids are involved, there is more compliance.

If we change the paradigm from setting rules in an attempt to control our child’s behavior to discussing boundaries and equations for achieving a mutually agreeable goal, we may find we have fewer arguments. When kids are involved in making the equations, you set them up to develop executive function both in negotiating the parameters and in learning how to manage themselves within their new freedoms.

For many parents, breaking a child’s grip on his handheld device requires more than human strength. While there’s nothing wrong with video game play now and then – even some game play every day – a child’s reliance on the digital universe limits his own universe. Smart parents find ways to challenge a child to put down the game and do something else.

But what? What’s more fun than video games?

This is our problem. We want a child to do something different, we set limits, we crab and complain, but we don’t have anything else to offer that’s so interesting as game play. We think our child lacks imagination but really it’s we who are stuck in our ways. What’s more fun than video games? Think like a kid and you’ll know.

Power tools. Rockets. Medieval weaponry (like catapults and trebuchet). Parkour. Treehouses. Skateboards. Wood carving. Cooking like a French chef. Take your cue from cable television, which seems to be aimed right at the 12-year-old mentality, and help your child make and do cool things.

My grandson, a fan of the show Mythbusters, spent a several days this summer making things out of duct tape including a fully functional backpack. Another kid I know, who likes to skateboard, spent most of a month designing and painting his own graphics on a blank board, then attached the wheels and took his creation to the local skate park. What does your kid like? What activity will move her from being just a viewer of someone else’s ideas to a creator of her own?

Tinkering in the garage has a long history in this country but it’s a history that seems to be retreating rapidly from view. The modern garage is too neat and doesn’t hold any intriguing possibilities. What power tools are there are off-limits to kids. The only way a child is allowed to participate in rocketry, radio-controlled vehicles, building stuff, or even using the stove is when an adult is not just present but is directing the action. This is no fun. You know it’s no fun. Doing stuff with Dad (or Mom) lost its appeal at about age six. Older kids want to play around with their own ideas, try things out and see if they can make things work, without a grownup looking over their shoulder, giving advice.

Sure, there are safety concerns. No one’s suggesting you just turn your preteen loose with the table saw. But kids are smarter than we give them credit for. If you want your child to be more interesting and have more interesting things to talk about than what level she’s reached in Minecraft, then it’s up to you to loosen the reins just a bit. Here’s how to start.

  1. Find a local maker’s group or workshop. These are everywhere these days, though you might have to search. Most groups offer workshop space and classes. Go with your kid, of course, at least the first few times.
  2. Let your child do what she most wants to do. If your first answer is usually “no” trying going with “yes.” A child I know wanted to make a CO2 powered car. He needed grownup help and attention to safety, but he was allowed to not only do this but do it himself.
  3. Quit being so neat. Interesting bits and bobs are inspiration. Keep a box of nifty things that could have another life and let your child sift through them.
  4. Bankroll your child’s imagination When your child needs six rolls of duct tape to make a backpack, help her fund that. Sign her up for a class in welding or stained glass, if that’s what she needs. The cost of another video game is about the same.
  5. Be helpful without taking over. You’re the adult here and you are better able to foresee danger and help your child avoid injury. Do that, of course. But don’t manage the work so there’s no chance of failure, so things always go right, or so the outcome is perfect in your eyes. Let your child do real stuff on his own.

To broaden your child’s horizons and spark his imagination and creativity takes some broadening of your own horizons first. If you want your child to put down the handheld and do something, then let him find something cool to do.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Teachers often decorate a classroom with colorful art pieces from their students. Yet a recent study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that rooms with too many decorations or distractions could be detrimental to children’s learning.

Have you ever walked into a childcare center or preschool classroom and been overwhelmed by all the colorful stuff on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and even laid across the floor? I have! Now a study by psychologist Anna V. Fisher, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that all that visual clutter might have a negative effect on learning.

Fisher used a classroom of 24 kindergarteners and six science lessons as the basis for her study. Three of the lessons were taught to the children in a sparsely-decorated space; the other three lessons were taught in a heavily-decorated classroom. After each lesson, students were quizzed on the content. The result? Lessons taught in the plainer classroom resulted in higher quiz scores (55 percent correct) than did lessons taught in the visually-busy room (42 percent correct).

Certainly this is a small-scale study of limited scope but it suggests something you might have suspected to be true: that children’s attention can be diverted by their surroundings and can result in paying less attention to what we might want them to notice. In fact, it’s been established that children have “open attention” – meaning they process all sensory information equally – in contrast to adults’ more focused attention, in which we are able to filter out what is important and attend only to that.

It seems to me that it’s not just teachers and classrooms that might be a problem. If your young child seems to have trouble focusing, seems easily distracted, and never listens look around. Is there a lot of clutter?

Goodness knows, it’s hard to keep things neat with children in the house. But if clutter in classrooms makes children perform less well, it seems reasonable to guess the same might be happening at home.  Here are some tips to try:

  1. Make it a habit to pick up books and toys at least before bedtime every day. Together. This isn’t a task for the grownup but something for the children to do, though we know they’ll need your help. Start each day with a clean playroom, instead of with the mess from the day before.
  2.  Keep children’s rooms on the spare side, instead of letting them fill up with boxes and bins and shelves full of stuff. Less might mean more when it comes to attention and good behavior. This doesn’t mean you should throw the excess out but that it should be stored away. Rotate toys, instead of having them all available all the time.
  3. Keep clothes drawers lean too. What’s in a child’s dresser and closet should be what actually fits him now, not what he’s going to grow into and what he’s already grown out of.
  4. Pay attention to media clutter too. If the television is always running in the background, if there’s the “zap-ping-pow” of video games going off all the time, or music is blaring distractingly, tone things down. Teach your media-lovers how to use the volume switch and where the headphones are kept… and even how to turn the sound off altogether.

If sometimes things at home are so distracting and crazy you “can’t hear yourself think,” imagine what it’s like for your children, who have trouble enough thinking even on a calm day.  Control the clutter and your kids may find it easier to control themselves.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

A mother I know – she has children ages 10 and 5 – announced her intention to do a day-long “screen fast” this past Saturday. By this she meant no screens – no television, no computers, no game systems, no cell phones, no tablets – for anyone in the household from morning to bedtime. This included the two kids and both parents.

Just to be clear, the weather was not super in her town that day. And she is an entrepreneur while her husband works in software development. Both are used to being online or connected as part of their work responsibilities pretty much round the clock.  So a family screen-fast was not a frivolous undertaking. This was something serious.

This mother told me why she decided it was time to do something drastic. The previous weekend she’d noticed how much time everyone was glued to one screen or another. If the kids weren’t playing soccer or in the car getting to soccer they were screened-in. And the adults were just as distracted. This mother said she noticed that both she and her hubby would surface when spoken to, pulling themselves away from their handhelds, eyes unfocused, minds clearly somewhere else, to mumble an answer… and then change their answers in a minute or two when their brains caught up with the questions.

Does this sound familiar? Is this how your family too spends a lot of its free time together?

The mother also said she noticed that by the end of the weekend, everyone was crabby and irritable but in too much of a funk to do anything about it. The best way to keep people from quarreling was to park them all in front of a DVD in the evening. More of what had aggravated everyone already…. It didn’t feel right. She knew something had to change.

On screen-free Saturday, there were no screens in use. The family baked, played board games, took a walk, cleaned the family room, and read.  They did things together and on their own. They just didn’t turn on anything with a screen.

The result? Calm, happy children and adults. A reconnected family.

Could your family go cold-turkey on media? How would this work?

  1. Get the adults on board first. A no-media day won’t work if the grown-ups don’t play along.
  2. Tell the kids at least one day ahead of time about the screen-fast, more if someone might have homework to do that requires a computer. Not only is fair warning a courtesy but fair warning means that people can complete key screen activities in time for the fast.
  3. No excuses and no cheating. This might mean that screens are unplugged and the power cords disconnected from computers and game systems. Hide the remotes. Squirrel away the handhelds. Get the kids to help with securing screen-based machines so no one is tempted.
  4. Have things planned to do. This is a good day to clean out the garage, make cookies, and play games. It’s a good day to go for a hike, read, write, and do art. Again, get the kids to think of things to do and lay in supplies.
  5. Stay cheerful. You might be surprised that you experience more withdrawal than your children do. If you or your children get to feeling down, don’t just sit there, do something. Being busy will improve your mood.
  6. Congratulate everyone at the end. This might be a good night to eat out or have a fancy dessert. Just don’t eat in front of the TV!
  7. And then agree on the next challenge. When will the next screen-free day be? Could you stretch it to two days? An entire week? Keep a media-free day in the back of your mind as you plan your children’s winter break from school. Slotting this early in the vacation time gives you a chance to do it again before school resumes.

A media-fast is not something to do every day. But once, or once in a while, makes a good break and forces everyone out of the mental rut they may be in. It’s good to know that one can survive an entire day with no screens.

It can even be fun!



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.

Block play has been around for a very long time and wooden blocks are a staple of preschool equipment. These days, children at home enjoy wooden blocks, but also Lincoln Logs, Lego, and other building toys. Have you ever wondered why block play seems so interesting? What do kids get out of it?

A study published this month in the journal Child Development found that block play develops children’s spatial reasoning ability, even in children as young as three. As you might remember, spatial reasoning is a key element in intelligence tests. Those puzzles about rotating figures, deciding what pieces would fit into an irregular shape, and even finding the example that is the same as another from a set of very similar possibilities – these are all tests of spatial reasoning and they are all indicators of higher-level thinking skill.

In addition to just increasing brain power, playing with blocks of all sorts increases children’s math ability. They master concepts of shape and size, determine relationships between blocks (“which is under another?”) and solve spatial problems as part of building structures.

In one experiment, three-year-old children were asked to use Duplo sized Legos to recreate a model shape. Six of these tasks ranged in difficulty from “easy” to “tricky.” Just about all the children were able to duplicate a model that required only two pieces. But only children whose parents reported more block play at home and more conversation at home about block play were able to recreate the most difficult models.

The take-aways from this study are obvious:

  1. Provide your child with blocks, Lego, puzzles, and other hands-on toys requiring development of spatial relations. Notice that, while video games are often touted as means of developing spatial relations skill, hands-on play with “real” blocks should come first.
  2. Remember that blocks are not “boy toys.” Girls, who may have been discouraged in years past from playing with blocks, should build with blocks too. Last I checked, girls are as smart as boys and need the same opportunities to learn too.
  3. Talk about spatial relations with your child. Use words like “between,” “under,” “beside,” and so forth when you play together with blocks and in other situations throughout the day.
  4. Start now. The three-year-olds in the study were demonstrating what they had learned in their first few years of life. Find block toys that are safe for small children and get down on the floor and play.

Parents often think of math as a “school skill.” This study demonstrates once again that what is learned in school builds on what children have learned already at home. Parents are a child’s first teachers and, happily, part of that teaching includes playing with blocks.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

How distractible are you?

If you’re like a lot of people, your attention is constantly being pulled this way and that. You may find yourself jumping from the activity you’re engaged in to something else that you’re afraid you’ll forget to do, then trying to recapture what you were thinking before you got detoured.

This is a “normal” part of our busy, complicated lives. Mostly, we’re okay with this. But our kids may not be. During the older elementary school years and middle school grades, children increasingly need to stay focused on the task at hand. The most successful kids have learned how to control their attention.

Now there’s a way to help kids do just that. A study in “mindfulness” with 10- and 11-year-old students has demonstrated that practice in staying “in the moment” helps kids be more focused and less distracted. Mindfulness involves paying attention on purpose, in a calm, relaxed state. It has been shown to reduce stress levels and increase feelings of well-being.

The study was conducted in England with 30 preteens. Kids’ ability to pay attention and stay on-task was measured, then played a computer game designed to improve their level of focus. Measurements were made at three-month intervals to gauge changes over time in students’ ability to stay mentally on-task.

The exercise was a success. Students increased in ability to pay attention and ignore distractions. As the lead researcher said, “The ability to pay attention in class is crucial for success at school. Mindfulness appears to have an effect after only a short training course, which the children thoroughly enjoyed!”

The training helped children actually watch their minds at work and monitor their own levels of attention. The researchers believe a program like the one used in this study could help students who have attention difficulties like ADHD.

Notice that what was used in this study wasn’t just any video game, but one specifically designed to require mindfulness. But parents without this sort of tool can still help their children pay attention to their attention:

  1. Use what’s known as “think aloud” to model paying attention to thinking. When you get distracted, say, “Oh, my mind drifted away. I’ve got it back now. Tell me that again…”
  2. Encourage your child to monitor her own thinking, maybe when she’s doing homework. Help her to notice when her mind wanders off.
  3. Practice doing one thing at a time. Give whatever you’re doing your undivided attention and invite your child to do this too.

The ability to control attention has been shown in numerous studies to be important in children’s learning. Now that you’re mindful of mindfulness, you can guide your child better in developing this essential skill.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

If your teen plays video games – and what teen doesn’t? – then you might wonder if this is a good idea and if you should limit her play or restrict the sorts of games you allow into the house. Let’s take a look at what research tells us.

First, there’s a lot of bad research done on video games, research that uses outdated games or programs, small participant samples, and biased assumptions. The 2008 book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do exposes our willingness to believe that video games are bad for kids without actually examining things carefully. At the same time, do your own research at home by looking at your own kids and seeing what appears to be video games’ effects.

Research demonstrates that some video games do portray violent story lines that include criminal behavior and exploitation.  There is some concern that especially in First Person Shooter games, in which players act as a character, that rehearsal of violent acts encourages violent behavior. However – and this is a big “however” – correlation does not imply causality. Kids who play the most violent games may be more violent than other kids even without rehearsal through video game play. There is no evidence that playing violent games causes bad behavior.

While you certainly might want to restrict the sorts of video games your kids play at home, and you will want to have a heart-to-heart conversation about why some video game scenarios give you the willies, there is not a direct line between kids who play violent games and delinquent behavior.

But there does seem to be a direct line between video games and more positive outcomes. We’ve long known that video game play improves eye-hand coordination and spatial relations skills. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Toronto found that women who play video games improve their spatial relations abilities, erasing the usual gap between the sexes, in just a few minutes of play. Ability in spatial relations is important in understanding physics and engineering and is a key attribute of surgeons, artists and architects, among others, so supporting this ability in both boys and girls is important.

Kids who play video games appear also to be more creative than other kids.  A recent study in Michigan compared kids’ scores on a standard creativity test with the amount of time they devote to video game play. The more game play kids engaged in the more creative they scored on the test. This is another example of a correlation – we can’t tell if more creative kids like video games more than other kids or if video game play actually makes a child more creative – but the result is clear: video game play is linked to a trait that is essential to great ideas.

So it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Parents are encouraged to play video games with their children and know exactly what sorts of scenarios and values are portrayed, scenarios and values that their kids might be living vicariously. Parents should feel empowered to limit the sorts of games their children play, just as they might limit what a child wears to school. But video games have real value beyond entertainment, value too important to just dismiss.

At the same time.. keep in mind that we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. A brain perfectly suited to video game play – and nothing else – isn’t what any parent wants for a child. So make certain that game play is part of a well-rounded day that includes reading, outdoor time, helping around the house, and building something, making music or creating art. Those things also develop spatial abilities and eye-hand coordination… and social skills as well.

While video game play might seem necessary to every 21st-century child – and there’s no reason to preclude it – other activities are just as necessary. Be sure your child gets some of every good thing.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.