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Life Skills Every Child Needs

You may have heard about Ellen Galinsky’s latest book, “Mind In The Making.” It may well be the next iconic parenting manual, up there with Spock and Leach and Brazelton, one that parents turn to for reassurance that all is more or less okay, reminders of how to make it better and glimpses of what’s to come.

Galinsky, a child-education expert and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, has subtitled her book “The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” She breaks those skills down into chapters — “Focus and Self Control,” “Perspective Taking,” “Communicating,” “Making Connections,” “Critical Thinking,” “Taking on Challenges,” “Self-Directed Engaged Learning” — and lays out the activities of everyday life that foster those goals.

Self-control, for instance, can be taught through games likes Simon Says. To encourage perspective, which Galinsky defines as “figuring out what others think and feel”, you can read to your children then talk about what the characters were thinking and feeling. communication means asking “who, what, where and why” questions. Making connections can be strengthened through sorting games. Critical thinking results from such things as watching TV with older children and asking them to evaluate the truth of the ads. Taking on challenges means praising their efforts or strategies (“you worked hard to find the right piece of the puzzle”) rather than their talents (“you are so smart.”) And learning from decisions and experiences means allowing children to make plans — what toys they want to play with next, what activity they want to do next weekend, how they will allot their study time — then look back and evaluate those plans, with an eye toward what worked and what they would do differently next time.

Sounds simple, no? With no need for fancy gadgets or the involvement of professionals? Perhaps it sounds a lot like what you are doing now, just a bit more directed?

That is the point, Galinsky says. Too much of the parenting conversation has served to raise the bar beyond what is reasonable or necessary, to tell parents there is one right way, and you’d better learn it fast before you ruin your child for good. Galinsky’s goal, as she writes in a guest essay today, is to ratchet down that frenzy and reduce the guilt by sending parents the message that they already know most of what they need to know, and they are already doing pretty darn well.

THE GUILT TRAP
By ELLEN GALINSKY

When I was in college, majoring in child development studies, I read a book I loved. It was a book that transported me into the hearts and minds of young children and how they learn. It was truly a magical journey. So I saved this book, well underlined and worn, to savor when I had my own children.

To my complete amazement, re-reading this book as a brand new parent was a completely different experience. I hated it — hated it so much that after reading a chapter or so, I threw it across the room, never to touch it again.

The book that took me on a magical journey before I had children wracked me with guilt as a parent. I felt as if I had already ruined my son’s life and he was only a baby!

That book has had a lasting impact on my work. I realized early on that the last thing I ever wanted to do was to make parents feel as terrible as I did. But to prevent guilt, I had to try to understand it. So as I have pursued my own studies in child and adult development, I have explored guilt — what makes us feel guilty and what we can do about it? Here is my take on the guilt trap.

In one of the books I wrote, “The Six Stages of Parenthood,” I asked the hundreds of parents I interviewed all over the country to tell me about a time when they felt guilty. Although their stories were quite different, they had the same theme. Parents described feeling guilty when an expectation they had of themselves, of their children, or of others was out of sync with reality. In other words, guilt arises when there is a clash between what we expect and what happens.

Some parents talked about using this dissonance as an opportunity to grow and change by either changing their expectation to be more realistic or by changing themselves to live up to their expectation. But other parents didn’t change — they stayed stuck in those negative feelings.

There is another way to change — and that is to be inspired. That’s what parents need and want – to be inspired, not made to feel guilty and frightened into taking action.

In “Mind in the Making,” the title of my new book and a national initiative we are launching this year, I share the studies from much of the best child development and neuroscience research, showing how we can promote life skills in children. Sharing research on how parents can help promote children’s learning and development, suggesting some new ways of doing things — a perfect set up for the guilt trap. It was a challenge to try to write this book in a way that didn’t set off the guilt trap.

So what I have tried to do is to create the same kind of journey of discovery that the book I read in college fostered—a journey but one without the guilt trap. I tell the stories of the researchers themselves—why they are pursuing the questions they are pursuing, how they are answering them, the wrong turns they have taken in their studies, and the discoveries they have made. And this is an important point. Researchers, like parents, make lots of wrong turns, but they are committed to persevere, to keep going, until they get it better.

Second, I share the stories of families. Throughout the book, there are stories from families about how they promote life skills in children and what skills they most desire for their children. These are the stories that have inspired my work.

Third, I share how-to advice that comes from the researchers, families, and me, but these are never “you-must-do-this” dictums as in my college book. Instead I include hundreds of diverse “suggestions” that even the busiest parents can incorporate into their lives.

And so last week, “Mind in the Making” was finally published and I went out on the media circuit to talk about it. One parent who heard about the book wrote me saying that since my book talks about promoting executive functions of the brain, “It’s too late for me — my child is a teenager.” She said that made her feel devastated. And another television interviewer said the same thing when I sat down to talk with her. She said, “my youngest child is 14 so I will have to wait until I have grandchildren to promote life skills.”

But that’s not what the research shows — it shows that it’s never too late, that everyday is a new day in being a parent. Most of us want to do the best we can as parents, whatever the ages of our children. I know that I became a much better parent of my own children in researching and writing Mind in the Making.

One of the skills the book features is focus. In researching and writing about focus, I became better at focusing on my grown up children when they need me. And I became a better worker by learning about perspective taking. I can better understand how what I do can affect others.

Where did we ever get the idea that “it is too late?” That’s certainly the essence of the guilt trap.

Although I threw that college book across the room, it continues to teach me life lessons years later, especially how to try to inspire rather than provoke the guilt trap.