During her time as a Girl Scout leader, an Odyssey of the Mind coach and a playground volunteer, Katherine Reynolds Lewis began noticing something amiss.
“The kids seemed more chaotic, less respectful and to have more trouble focusing than I remembered,” Lewis says.
She began digging a little deeper and found such statistics as these: A National Institute of Health study showed that by age 18, one in two children will have developed a substance abuse problem or a mood or behavior disorder. The suicide rate for kids ages 10 to 14 doubled between 2006 and 2016, the Center for Disease Control found. And, as a Moscow researcher told her, “Contemporary preschoolers mostly demonstrated an immature ability to pretend play.”
“Children don’t know how to regulate their emotions, behavior, thoughts, and we need to teach them,” says Lewis, whose research led to writing “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever — And What to Do About It” (Public Affairs Books, $28). “The way they’re growing up these days, they’re not learning it.”
The Washington, D.C.-area author and mom offers some tips she’s culled from her research:
■Skip timeouts. “I’ll go broader and say punishment does not work,” says Lewis, whose story about school discipline was popular on the Mother Jones website. “Punishment is powerful parents controlling a less powerful child. The lesson it teaches is that it’s good to have power and control people, so that child will be power hungry and always seeking control.”
When kids are in timeout, she says, “They spend the time mad at you and planning revenge.”
Instead, have a family agreement about what the consequences of a meltdown will be before one happens, she says.
“Brainstorm 10 ideas. Maybe they want to punch a pillow or do 10 jumping jacks or have a cool cloth on their forehead or have quiet time in their room. There are so many things a child can choose in that moment to self-regulate. When they get worked up, ask: ‘Which strategies that you came up with do you want to use?’ ”
■Remember the power of touch. “When parents and children are in a room together for more than a couple of minutes, their breathing starts to regulate,” says Lewis, who has three daughters. “If you’re touching someone you love, they will better self-regulate. Place a gentle hand on their shoulder. Ask if they want a hug.
“If we’re present and self-regulate, that helps their brain calm down. If we’re apart from them, their brain stays in that fight-or-flight state for longer.” In other words, sending them to their rooms will only prolong the negative feelings.
■Connect before you correct. A common mistake is correcting and criticizing our children, she says. “We feel it’s our job to help them do things right.” But criticism, she points out, can cause kids to develop depression and eating disorders.
Instead, first find a way to connect with your children. For instance, if you call them to dinner and they ignore you, instead of hurling open their bedroom door and yelling a reminder that the meatloaf is getting cold, stop for a second. Notice a nifty tower they’ve built with blocks. Ask about it. Then tell them dinner is ready.
■Put them to work. She’s not necessarily talking about after-school jobs, though they can also be good. But household jobs like babysitting younger siblings and taking out the trash give kids “a rooted sense of family,” she says. “They have a role and they contribute.”
Research on household chores — which she prefers to call “jobs” — is fascinating, she says. “It improves well-being, even for adults, because we immediately see the impact or effort.”
■Rethink expectations. “Kids are asked to do very wonderful things like be an academic superstar, a sports hero, a gifted musician or a wonderful artist,” Lewis says. “It’s all about the child’s performance, and they don’t get that sense of contribution to others. Also, they have the sense that their worth is based on achievement, and that’s so devastating to mental health.”
So, while she appreciates and treasures her daughters’ creativity, intelligence and “a lot of great things,” those aren’t the be all and end all to them as human beings. Instead, she says, “I’m more focused on building skills for planning and time management and conflict management and managing emotions. That’s so much more important than this math test.”
■Resist trying to make things easier. By doing so, “We’ve stopped them from learning things they need to be successful, capable and mentally healthy,” she says.
So ease off on managing their time; let them do it. With her kids, “I’m definitely backing off more and letting them make their own mistakes and experience the consequences. Their homework is their business.”
■Limit screen time. In her home, phones — including those of her and her husband — are turned off at 8:30 p.m. Sometimes the family will go for a walk then because, she jokes, “there’s nothing else to do.”
Her daughters are allowed a half-hour of screen time during the week, but only after they’ve done homework or practiced their sports or music.
■Refocus how you see setbacks. “All kids will have bumps in the road,” she says. “If they come home distraught because they have a math test and they don’t feel prepared, that’s a big red flag showing them what they need to do: Be better at planning ahead. Isn’t it great we know it now in middle school instead in college?”
The most important way she’s changed her parenting is when her kids mess up, “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity. The environment in the home needs to be that it’s totally fine to mess up and make mistakes, and that is encouraged.” It’s something that will serve them for life, she says.
■Lay off ‘happy’ as a goal. “I have a pet peeve about happy,” she says. “There’s this idea that ‘happy’ is something bestowed on you, free of conflict or strife. But when we adults look at our lives, often the most challenging times are those we’re most proud of; when we made a mistake and grew from it — those are the things you look back on with pride.”
Instead, encourage your kids to be kind, she says. “In some ways, kindness is the path to happiness.”
■Loosen your grip. “My big takeaway from all this is that we have a crisis of self-regulation,” she says. “We need kids to learn to manage themselves and for kids to learn self-control. We have to stop controlling them.”