The big problem with rewarding kids for good grades and punishing them for bad ones

The Washington Post

By Jessica Lahey

When I’m in schools talking to kids about resilience and learning through failure, I usually begin with a quick survey. First, I ask teachers and staff in the auditorium to close their eyes. I then ask the students to raise their hands if they get paid cash money for good grades. Depending on the socio-economic makeup of the district, about 15 to 20 percent of hands go up.

Sometimes it takes a while, hands creeping up slowly, hesitantly, for kids seem to intuit that getting paid for grades may not be the best approach to learning. I then ask them to raise their hands if they get any material thing in exchange for grades; a new iPod or some other shiny enticement. In response, about 20 to 25 percent of the hands go up. The noise in the auditorium tends to amp up with each new question as students begin to compare notes. When the clamor dies down, I remind the staff of the rules: eyes closed, no peeking. And I warn the students that this last question is a little harder to answer, and I want them to think and search their hearts for an honest answer before they respond.

“Raise your hand if you truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.”

Over the past five years, I’ve asked this question to thousands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the percentages still surprise me. Among middle-school children, about 80 percent believe that, yes, their parents truly love them more when they deliver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the average is a little higher — about 90 percent.

After the poll is over, we debrief, and I reassure them that for the most part, their perceptions are incorrect, that they are loved no matter what, but parenting is hard, and we parents often need a moment to come up with the right response to an unexpectedly low grade. Sure, we are disappointed, but that silence they encounter when they bring home a report card littered with B-minuses (B-minus is the new F, haven’t you heard?) does not mean we love them any less. I promise, we’re just pausing to find the best, most appropriate words to support their hearts, their minds and their intellectual growth.

I’m a parent, however, and I understand the truth behind that pause, even if I don’t want to admit it. That silence in response to a low grade? That’s withdrawal of love based on performance, and our kids hear us loud and clear.

Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, calls it “outcome love,” a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.

Outcome love impedes children’s happiness as well as their success in life because despite what parents may say to children about unconditional love, they hear parents most acutely through their actions. Taylor elaborated in an email, “If parents send frequent messages of love, happiness, and excitement when their children are successful and frequent messages of withdrawal of love or anger, frustration, and disappointment when their children fail to live up to their parents’ expectations, the kids will make that connection.”

Messages of outcome love don’t just shape kids’ short-term happiness, either. They can have a long-term deleterious effect on mental health, one that endures well beyond adolescence.

“Sadly, these messages fuel mental health problems including perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, not to mention the reactions of resentment, anger, and rejection from the children toward the parents. Even more painfully, this attitude of outcome love becomes internalized and children grow up to be adults who berate themselves for failure and only give self-love when they succeed,” Taylor said in the email.

Furthermore, when love is offered in exchange for performance, it becomes a reward to be earned, and the data on extrinsic rewards and their effect on motivation are clear: If we want kids to be invested in any activity — school, athletics, household duties, learning a musical instrument — the fastest way to undermine that motivation is to offer material or emotional rewards.

Of course we are proud of our children’s successes and disappointed in their failures — we aren’t robots. We don’t get much feedback on our parenting, so lacking our own report cards or trophies, it’s tempting to use our children’s success as immediate and reassuring evidence of our parenting success. However, claiming our children’s successes or failures as our own cheats them out of their experiences, devalues their learning, and teaches them that our love for them is conditional.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to avoid outcome love. When parents focus on the process of learning over the relatively arbitrary end product of points, grades and scores, we communicate in terms louder than words that we love our children unequivocally and without reservation.

Rather than gush over a high grade or fume over a low one, for example, focus discussion on what the child did to earn that grade. How did they prepare for the assessment or project? What might they do differently next time? What was successful, and what do they need to change? Did they get enough sleep the night before the test or did they stay up for “just one more hour” to review? Did they speak with the teacher to get feedback on what worked and what did not?

This focus on process over product is particularly helpful for highly anxious or perfectionist kids who tend to get derailed by their intense focus on outcomes. When these kids obsess over an end product, on why their grade was a 90 instead of a 100, for example, it’s essential to steer the discussion back to the learning, back to the ongoing, lifelong process of becoming a more effective, efficient and invested learner.

We can’t always excise all traces of judgment, joy or anger from our responses to our children’s triumphs and tragedies, nor should we. However, if we want our children to truly believe us when we say our love is constant and unconditional, that we value learning more than a number printed in red at the top of a test, we are going to have to put our money (and our unconditional love) where our mouths are.

Jessica Lahey is a teacher and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and a forthcoming book on preventing addiction in children.

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Am I a Lawn Mower Parent?

We need to let kids learn to be tough. But we also need to show them love.

Jennifer Finney Boylan

By Jennifer Finney Boylan

Contributing Opinion Writer

  • Image
CreditCreditJen Wang

The mother sat in my office. Her daughter, my advisee, was failing three of her four classes. Perhaps, the mom suggested, a private tutor might be hired, to help her child get back on track.

“Perhaps,” I said, trying to be compassionate. But I also sneaked another look at the daughter: half asleep, clearly hung over and quite possibly high.

What I wanted to say was, “My suggestion would be that your daughter actually start going to all the classes she’s skipping, to maybe also start doing the homework.” Instead I let the mom talk.

“The thing is,” she said, “she’s really a good kid.” And it was at this moment, I believe, that my heart broke in half — for the mom, for her child and for all of us still trying to figure out the best way to shepherd young people into adulthood.

Some people would describe that mom as a “bulldozer parent,” engaging in a more aggressive form of what we used to call “helicoptering.” Others have taken to calling them “lawn mower parents” or “curling parents,” after the sport in which the path of a stone gliding on ice is smoothed by an athlete armed with a broom.

It’s easy to be contemptuous of such family dynamics, and if you look online, you’ll see plenty of articles condemning both the control-freak parents as well as their over-coddled, under-challenged children.

But as I listened to that mom, I did feel more than a little bit of sympathy for her. Because even though I’m a college professor, I’m also a parent. When she said her child was a good kid, I knew she was also saying that in spite of her daughter’s current predicament, “I’m a good mother.”

This took place over 15 years ago. One day, a few weeks earlier, my young son had headed off down our driveway to wait for the school bus, carrying in one hand a book report project. It was a complex mobile, a set of counterbalanced index cards attached to one another with string, listing the title, author, characters, setting and plot of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

As he ran down our front stairs, the thing fluttered out of his hand and fell, somehow, behind a crack between the steps and the front porch. Now the book report was trapped behind the concrete stairs, which could, of course, not be moved, at least not before the bus arrived. My son looked at me in tears as we heard the school bus approaching over the hill. “Go on, catch the bus,” I said. “I’ll deal with it.”

 

Ten minutes later, I was in the front yard with a shovel, slowly digging a hole next to our foundation. Dirt rose up in a pile. Ten minutes after that, I had reached into the hole, grasped the mobile and freed it. The next thing I knew I was in the car, driving to the school, where I placed it in my son’s hands in home room.

“You’re welcome,” I said, and felt, in that moment, like a superhero. I should be wearing a cape, I thought, an S upon my chest: Supermom.

But driving home, I wondered: Was what I had just done an act of love? That’s how I’d meant it. I’d jumped into action and solved a problem. I’d done it because I didn’t want a random act of fate — the book report falling behind the stone stairs — to wipe out all the work that he’d done.

Critics of lawn mower parents, though, would have suggested I let my son suffer the consequences of his own carelessness. Let the kid learn how to dig his own hole with a shovel! A little suffering, they’d say, would be good for him.

That’s the undertone to a lot of this criticism: Kids today have it too easy! They don’t go through what we went through, all the misery that made us tough! With their safe spaces and their trigger warnings, they’ve been essentially sealed off from conflict — and learning how to respond to conflict is the most important lesson a young person can learn. They’d all be better people if they cried a little more. Like we did.

As the product of a repressive private school, where I was frequently taunted and on one occasion beaten on suspicion of being queer, I know there are some things I don’t want my children to go through. Yes, that experience made me tough, resilient and — in an odd way — forgiving. But I would still do anything to spare my children that trauma. I would rather have them coddled than scarred.

Does that make me a lawn mower parent? Is it always so wrong to stand between your child and harm?

Surely this is a far cry from the parent who, as recounted on a blog, asked that a teacher blow on her daughter’s lunch to make sure her food wasn’t too hot. That’s silly, as is a lot of the “curling” behavior I observe as a professor. Parents cannot be brooms. Children are not stones thrown across the ice.

But I think we should be careful when we start romanticizing “toughness” — either our children’s or our own. Suffering makes us strong, to be sure. But so does love.

If I had to pick just one — suffering or love — I know what I’d choose.

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Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel “Long Black Veil.” @JennyBoylan

13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do

Forbes

Shutterstock

Raising mentally strong kids who are equipped to take on real-world challenges requires parents to give up the unhealthy — yet popular — parenting practices that are robbing kids of mental strength.

Of course, helping kids build mental muscle isn’t easy — it requires parents to be mentally strong as well. Watching kids struggle, pushing them to face their fears, and holding them accountable for their mistakes is tough. But those are the types of experiences kids need to reach their greatest potential.

Parents who train their children’s brains for a life of meaning, happiness, and success, avoid these 13 things:

1. They Don’t Condone A Victim Mentality

Getting cut from the soccer team or failing a class doesn’t make your child a victim. Rejection, failure, and unfairness are part of life. Rather than allow kids to host pity parties or exaggerate their misfortune, mentally strong parents encourage their children to turn their struggles into strength. They help them identify ways in which they can take positive action, despite their circumstances.

2. They Don’t Parent Out Of Guilt

Guilty feelings can lead to a long list of unhealthy parenting strategies — like giving in to your child after you’ve said no or overindulging your child on the holidays. Mentally strong parents know that although guilt is uncomfortable, it’s tolerable. They refuse to let their guilty feelings get in the way of making wise choices.

3. They Don’t Make Their Child The Center Of The Universe

It can be tempting to make your life revolve around your child. But kids who think they’re the center of the universe grow up to be self-absorbed and entitled. Mentally strong parents teach their kids to focus on what they have to offer the world — rather than what they’re owed.

4. They Don’t Allow Fear To Dictate Their Choices

Keeping your child inside a protective bubble could spare you a lot of anxiety. But keeping kids too safe stunts their development. Mentally strong parents view themselves as guides, not protectors. They allow their kids to go out into the world and experience life, even when it’s scary to let go.

5. They Don’t Give Their Child Power Over Them

Kids who dictate what the family is going to eat for dinner, or those who orchestrate how to spend their weekends, have too much power.  Becoming more like an equal — or even the boss — isn’t healthy for kids. Mentally strong parents empower kids to make appropriate choices while maintaining a clear hierarchy.

6. They Don’t Expect Perfection

High expectations are healthy, but expecting too much from kids will backfire. Mentally strong parents recognize that their kids are not going to excel at everything they do. Rather than push their kids to be better than everyone else, they focus on helping them become the best versions of themselves.

7. They Don’t Let Their Child Avoid Responsibility

You won’t catch a mentally strong parent saying things like, “I don’t want to burden my kids with chores. Kids should just be kids.” They expect children to pitch in and learn the skills they need to become responsible citizens. They proactively teach their kids to take responsibility for their choices and they assign them age-appropriate duties.

8. They Don’t Shield Their Child From Pain

It’s tough to watch kids struggle with hurt feelings or anxiety. But, kids need practice and first-hand experience tolerating discomfort. Mentally strong parents provide their kids with the support and help they need coping with pain so their kids can gain confidence in their ability to deal with whatever hardships life throws their way.

9. They Don’t Feel Responsible For Their Child’s Emotions

It can be tempting to cheer your kids up when they’re sad or calm them down when they’re angry. But, regulating your kids’ emotions for them prevents them from gaining social and emotional skills. Mentally strong parents teach their children how to be responsible for their own emotions so they don’t depend on others to do it for them.

10. They Don’t Prevent Their Child From Making Mistakes

Whether your child gets a few questions wrong on his math homework or he forgets to pack his cleats for soccer practice, mistakes can be life’s greatest teacher. Mentally strong parents let their kids mess up — and they allow them to face the natural consequences of their actions.

11. They Don’t Confuse Discipline With Punishment

Punishment is about making kids suffer for their wrongdoing. Discipline is about teaching them how to do better in the future. And while mentally strong parents do give out consequences, their ultimate goal is to teach kids to develop the self-discipline they’ll need to make better choices down the road.

12. They Don’t Take Shortcuts To Avoid Discomfort

Giving in when a child whines or doing your kids’ chores for them, is fast and easy. But, those shortcuts teach kids unhealthy habits. It takes mental strength to tolerate discomfort and avoid those tempting shortcuts.

13. They Don’t Lose Sight Of Their Values

In today’s fast-paced world it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day business of homework, chores, and sports practices. Those hectic schedules — combined with the pressure to look like parent of the year on social media —cause many people to lose sight of what’s really important in life. Mentally strong parents know their values and they ensure their family lives according to them.

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, an international bestselling book that is being translated into more than 25 languages. She’s also a lecturer at Northeastern University. Her articles attract over 2 million readers e…

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Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do.

Research Insights: Independent School Health Check Examines Teen Support Systems

NAIS

Summer 2018

By Rosemary Baggish and Peter Wells

At times, it might seem like teens want nothing to do with adults. But research from Independent School Health Check (ISHC) shows that the opposite is true. In 2007, we created ISHC, a computer-based survey, to more accurately gauge the experience of adolescents in independent schools. The ISHC assesses students’ perceptions, feelings, and behaviors regarding their schools, families, and friends as well as the risk and protective factors that affect their health and well-being. The survey assesses school attitudes and motivation, school pressure, parental supervision, social and emotional connections to adults and peers, substance use, sexuality, sleep, and diet.

Over the past 11 years, the ISHC has collected data from 80,816 middle and high school students in 102 independent schools; most schools have conducted the survey multiple times. Schools that conduct surveys typically use the data to develop and fine-tune health and wellness programs, to identify areas that need attention, as well as areas of particular strength.

One area of inquiry for the ISHC is a student’s relationship with adults. The survey asks students to rate “the adult(s) who is primarily responsible for caring for [them] on a daily basis” on behaviors such as “expresses interest in my life,” “expects me to ask if I can go out,” and “supports my efforts in sports, music, or other activities.” The survey also asks students to rate their perceptions of teachers including statements such as “teachers at my school pay attention to my personal needs, not just academic performance,” and “my teachers treat me with respect.”

Over the years, we have been impressed by the high level of engagement that so many parents maintain, and by the extent to which so many students feel that their teachers support their personal needs as well as their academic needs.

The Findings

Not all parents are supportive, however, nor do all students find encouraging adults in schools—perhaps because they were already wary about trusting an adult. Nevertheless, when we track what happens to adolescents without a reliable adult to talk to and depend on, we find that these are young people at greater risk. Conversely, when adolescents have an adult to talk with, there is benefit to both the student and to the school.

The ISHC asks several questions about students’ interactions with the adults in their lives. More than three-quarters say they “have an adult to talk to on a regular basis about what is going on in [their] life.” About 84 percent agree that “if faced with a really important question or serious problem, [they] would talk to an adult.” Mothers are the adults who students talk to the most (81.9 percent), followed by fathers (62.8 percent). Teachers (26 percent), counselors (24.6 percent), and coaches (15.4 percent) are also adults students turn to.

In high-stakes behavior, the absence of adult support is alarming. For those adolescents who think their parents are not interested or supportive, the likelihood of suicidal thoughts triples. Students who think their teachers are not attentive to their needs are twice as likely to report self-harm or suicidal thoughts. These students are also more likely to break school rules and have a much lower sense of belonging.

How Schools Can Help

What can schools do to encourage students to have attachments to adults in the community? They can build on the already effective outreach of the adults in the school community by supporting adviser programs. Offer advisers training, support, and accountability to guide them so they are able to productively engage with students and their parents. Schools can enhance their programs by offering training in communication strategies, scheduling regular adviser times, and expecting that advisers maintain contact with their advisees and their parents/guardians.

Building a working connection with families is another important strategy for enhancing students’ perception that adults are available to them. In addition to the standard parent meetings and activities that schools offer, it is important to encourage parents/guardians to reach out to their child’s adviser with any questions or concerns about their child, their family, or the school program. An effective adviser program can function as a safety net for all students when they experience academic, social, or personal problems in school and at home. ▪

To see schools that have participated, surveys available, and more, visit independentschoolhealth.com.

AUTHOR

Rosemary Baggish

Rosemary Baggish developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

 

Peter Wells

Peter Wells developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

NPR

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

What parents and teachers can do to not make the 7th grade the worst ever

ABC News

PHOTO: Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.

In sixth grade, Carrie Rountrey’s son Owen couldn’t wait to get to school.

“He used to get up, make his lunch, do everything for school,” she said.

What a difference a year makes because now Owen is in seventh grade and his attitude towards school has changed, according to his mom.

“He doesn’t like school,” Rountrey said. “He loves his math and science classes, and he hates everything else. It’s been pretty frustrating.”

PHOTO: Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen. Morefamousjack Photography
Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen.

A professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rountrey also can’t understand how her only child can be so disorganized.

“He forgets his keys on a regular basis,” she said. “He turns a lot of things in late.”

Fortunately, schoolwork comes pretty easily for him. Other seventh grade students aren’t so lucky.

Few kids, no matter how smart, manage to get through seventh grade without some hiccups. And, for many, seventh grade turns out to be the worst of their school years.

“Seventh grade sucked for me,” said Annie Fox, an award-winning author and educator, who has traveled all over the globe talking to teens and tweens.

A trusted online adviser for parents and teens since 1997, Fox said the reason kids — their parents and teachers as well — struggle so much when they are ages 12 and 13 is because there’s a lot happening to them developmentally.

PHOTO: Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens. courtesy Annie Fox
Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens.

Not only are they dealing with the onset of puberty, with all of its raging hormones, but the pre-frontal lobe of their brain, which manages impulse control, predicting consequences and planning ahead, is not fully wired.

“They are not playing with a full deck,” Fox said.

“Put 500 kids with that kind of insecurity in a group that spends six hours a day together and they are not going to be kind to each other,” Fox said.

Yet, this is exactly the time that their parents and teachers expect more from them.

“In sixth grade, they coddle them. In eighth grade, they are getting ready to go to high school so they are really elevated,” said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. “In seventh grade, no one really cares. You’re thrown to the wolves. They really are in such an in-between age.”

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens. courtesy Jennifer Powell-Lunder
Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens.

Parents of seventh-graders likely expect their kids to step up, too, and they are usually surprised when they don’t — or don’t even seem to care.

“It’s the age of snarky,” Powell-Lunder said. “They tend to be more irritable, kind of touchy. They don’t believe they are a reflection of their parents, but that their parents are a reflection of them.”

That means the potential for their parents to embarrass them in front of their almighty peers is at an all-time high. It’s because kids at this developmental stage put more weight into what their peers think and where they fit in.

“Their emotional real estate is so fixated on where do I fit into my peer group,” Fox said.

For boys, that can mean how they match up against their more physically developed peers. For girls, it’s negotiating often tricky relationships, aka “mean girls.”

One mom of three, who asked not to be identified, knows this all too well. She says both her girls began cutting themselves in the seventh grade.

The younger one used to complain that she felt sad and empty, she said.

“Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anybody. They are looking at me weird,” she said of what her daughter would tell her.

It got to be so bad, her daughter had to be held overnight in a hospital.

Fox hears many stories such as that one. In a survey she gave to 1,200 tweens and teens, kids said the number one stressor in their lives was their peers, with school and parents following behind in second and third place.

“Every middle-schooler feels different than their peers, whether gay, straight or transgender,” Fox said. “As human beings what we are trying to do is fit in. On a species level this is the most awkward time.”

Given everything kids are experiencing at this age — socially, developmentally and academically — Fox encourages parents to exercise more compassion.

“I want parents to be a safe place to talk about anything,” she said. “They need to talk less and listen more.”

Keep reading for more helpful tips from Fox and Powell-Lunder on to how not make the seventh grade worst year for everyone.

PHOTO: Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.

Control your own stress

Parents stress themselves out over what their kids are doing or not doing at this age.

However, parents need to let go of the idea that they have total control over their kids, Fox said.

“You have a remote control for your TV, but you don’t have one to control another person,” she said. “You can’t get them to do anything they do not choose to do. Most of the time, we parents are stressing because we are trying to point a non-functional remote control at our kids.”

Fox learned this when her own son entered the seventh grade, and it was like a bomb went off in his room, she said. After feeling like their relationship had been taken over by her nagging, she said she stopped trying to get him to clean up his room and their relationship improved.

“You cannot control someone else’s choices,” she said. “You can only modify your own behavior.”

Give them autonomy, not independence

At the same time, teens and tweens still crave structure and boundaries, Powell-Lunder said.

They may be looking for more autonomy from their parents, but they are not yet ready to be fully independent. Setting limits, especially when it comes to technology, is important, she said.

“A lot of time parents want to be the ‘nice’ parent, but kids need rules,” Powell-Lunder said.

Boundary-setting starts with knowing your child and what their individual needs are, as well as acknowledging that those needs change as they get older, Fox said.

“Mom and dad have to take a closer look at the children sitting in front of them,” she said. “They are changing so rapidly. If you don’t keep up, you won’t know how to communicate or listen to them.”

Don’t try to fix everything

With rules, come consequences. Both Fox and Powell-Lunder said parents have to let their middle-schoolers fail sometimes.

“Let them take responsibility for being a full-time student,” Fox said. “That’s a contract between student and teacher — unless you’re planning to go to college with them.”

“Be supportive but don’t try to fix everything,” Powell-Lunder said.

“Over-functioning parents will raise under-functioning kids,” Fox added.

Practice what you preach

Kids at this age are also learning a lot by observing the adults around them.

Be careful what you’re modeling to your kids, whether it’s screaming and yelling or being tethered to your smartphone.

“Show you have more self-control than your son or daughter,” Fox said.

Powell-Lunder tells teachers: “Teach by example.”

Organization helps

At a time when kids seem the most disorganized, being organized seems to count the most.

Powell-Lunder, who is a big believer in the “K-8” model because it “smooths out the rough edges,” said educators in middle schools need to be more understanding of seventh-graders and teach them the organizational skills they lack. Posting homework in one place certainly helps, she said.

Fox frowns on too much homework because she said it turns some middle school students off from education. This age group still needs time to pursue passions, she said, be with family and just daydream.

Talk less, listen more

Both Powell-Lunder and Fox encourage parents to show more empathy for what their children are going through.

“Ultimately, you want less stress and tension between parent and child, and more compassion and conversation and understanding,” Fox said. “They are not getting it from their peers or their own internal monologues where they are putting themselves down. We are just adding to the chorus if all we’re doing is finding fault.”

Explaining the News to Our Kids

With another horrific school shooting in the news, here’s a resource that may be helpful for parents.  Dave

Common Sense Media

Dramatic, disturbing news events can leave parents speechless. These age-based tips on how to talk to kids about the news — and listen, too — can help.By Caroline Knorr 

If it bleeds, it leads. The old newsroom adage about milking stories for sensationalism seems truer than ever today. And with technology doing the heavy lifting — sending updates, tweets, posts, and breaking news alerts directly to our kids’ phones — we parents are often playing catch-up. Whether it’s wall-to-wall coverage of the latest natural disaster, a horrific mass shooting, a suicide broadcast on social media, or a violent political rally, it’s nearly impossible to keep the news at bay until you’re able to figure out what to say. The bottom line is that elementary school-aged kids and some middle schoolers have trouble fully understanding news events. And though older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.

No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all this information?

Addressing News and Current Events: Tips for all kids

Consider your own reactions. Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too.

Take action. Depending on the issue and kids’ ages, families can find ways to help those affected by the news. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or protests; kids can help assemble care packages or donate a portion of their allowance to a rescue/humanitarian effort. Check out websites that help kids do good.

Tips for kids under 7

Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures (kids may respond strongly to pictures of other kids in jeopardy). Preschool kids don’t need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.

Stress that your family is safe. At this age, kids are most concerned with your safety and separation from you. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If the news event happened far away, you can use the distance to reassure kids. For kids who live in areas where crime and violence is a very real threat, any news account of violence may trigger extra fear. If that happens, share a few age-appropriate tips for staying and feeling safe (being with an adult, keeping away from any police activity).

Be together. Though it’s important to listen and not belittle their fears, distraction and physical comfort can go a long way. Snuggling up and watching something cheery or doing something fun together may be more effective than logical explanations about probabilities.

Tips for kids 8–12

Carefully consider your child’s maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your kids tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news; repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.

Be available for questions and conversation. At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they’ll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.

Talk about — and filter — news coverage. You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.

Tips for teens

Check inSince, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also help you get a sense of what they already know or have learned about the situation from their own social networks. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don’t dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Let teens express themselves. Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They’ll also probably be aware that their own lives could be affected by violence. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so your teens can separate the mediums through which they absorb news from the messages conveyed.

Additional resources

For more information on how to talk to your kids about a recent tragedy, please visit the National Association of School Psychologists or the American Psychological Association. For more on how news can impact kids, check out News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News,

Marie-Louise Mares, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributed to this article.