Sunday, February 19, 2017

Are Worries Something To Worry About?

This past week we were privileged to have Dr. Ethan Ehrenberg present on Worries And Stress- How To Help Our Children Manage.  Dr. Ehrenberg had presented to our middle school faculty earlier in the year on anxiety in children and how we as teachers can help. The feedback was so positive that we felt we needed to bring him back to present to parents.  I want to highlight a short piece of his presentation with some nuggets we can all apply in our own parenting.

We are all wired for fear which is necessary to protect ourselves from danger. Anxiety is when an object which is not dangerous triggers the same fear response.  

Children with anxiety often:
  • Avoid the feared stimulus (say they are sick when there is a test),
  • Feel impending doom,
  • Have fearful thoughts and anticipate problems
  • Have a low belief in their own competence- they don’t believe they can overcome these problems.

What is the cause of this anxiety? Dr. Ehrenberg discussed a numbers of factors that contribute to anxiety.  Some of it is temperament. It has been found in the research that infants that tend to get fussy when exposed to new stimuli tend to have anxiety as they grow older.

Another possibility is that somehow the fear response gets paired with stimuli that are not truly fearful. To explain this phenomenon Dr. Ehrenberg used the example of Pavlov’s dogs.  Dr. Ivan Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. After a while, simply ringing the bell stimulated the dogs’ salivating.  Any person or object the dog learned to associate with food triggered the response. So, too with anxiety. Any object associated with fear somehow triggers anxiety.  For example, simply seeing a test paper can trigger anxiety despite not even seeing the questions.  So, the goal in that case would be extinguish the reaction. Ala Pavlov his goal would be to continue ringing the bell without giving food and eventually the salivating behavior would extinguish itself.  

This research presents a truism which is counterintuitive to what many of us are inclined to do as parents. When our children are anxious about something, we do everything in our power to help them avoid the cause of their anxiety.  In actuality, exposing themselves to the anxiety provoking event- to the extent that they can tolerate it- will help extinguish the anxiety when they see that nothing actually happens when they are exposed to it.

Some of us swoop in and save our children when they seem worried, not allowing them solve their own problems and tolerate discomfort.  When our children express worry, it is important we that we listen and not rescue. I too often find myself in school torn between helping children feel better in the moment, and helping them overcome a source of anxiety long-term.   (Please note that parents of children who suffer from true anxiety disorders should be consulting with a mental health practitioner for advice as to when to push children and when to cushion them).  When we swoop in and rescue, there is a clear behavioral pattern. When there is a trigger (the test), anxiety goes up,  and our child tries to avoid trigger, (fake being sick so won’t go to test). Then, we as parents rescue and give into child and allow him/her to stay home (just today). Then the  child’s and parent’s anxiety go down and therein is the negative reinforcement. When we take away the negative stimuli  it  burns a pathway in brain which causes a reaction which is  hard to extinguish.

Just to add here, Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of the book The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee, which I often quote, states that in recent years college deans have reported that growing numbers of incoming freshmen are “teacups” as they are so fragile and break down anytime things do not go their way (as reported in the article “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy” by Lori Gottleib). “Well- intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods, so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”  

Dr. Ehrenberg discussed other parenting practices that tend to increase anxiety. One of which he called “intrusive guidance”- “parents who are  constantly correcting their children and redirecting them. This conveys a sense of incompetence that they cannot do anything on their own. This makes them more nervous to go into the world.”   

The first step as parents is to allow our children to experience anxiety provoking events and learn to tolerate the discomfort and problem solve solutions.

What else can we do as parents? Another technique Dr. Ehrenberg suggested was Cognitive Restructuring:
  1. Thought awareness- since the anxiety happens so quickly they not even aware they are thinking it.  Help them be aware of the internal chatter.  Teach them the good coach versus bad coach in their heads. The bad coach tells you the worries.  You want the good coach in your head.
  2. Externalize the worry- That bad coach-  Are you going to listen to him? This helps them control it their anxiety.  There tends to be shame with anxiety. Stress that everyone has that bad coach. It’s just a question of whether you listen.
  3. Alternative thoughts-  Cognitive distortions- is that true- do you always fail? Our instinct is to go here first. We need to be careful and hold off on this step until our child is comfortable at working at feelings, and can calm down.  If we do this step too quickly, children see it as invalidating their feelings.

How does one know if a child’s stress level or worries are more than they should be? Their anxiety is getting in the way or interfering with their lives.  Dr. Ehrenberg stressed the importance of notifying the school when a child’s anxiety seems too intense. Perhaps the school can help the child manage.

It says in Mishlei 12:25, “Da’agah belev ish yashchenah, vedavar tov yesamchenah”   “If there is worry in a man's heart, yashchenah, and a good word will make it cheerful.”  Shlomo HaMelech was the wisest man that ever lived. What does yashchenah mean? One way to understand it is to pronounce it as yesichenah- speak of it, discuss it, articulate it.  Dr. Ehrenberg provided us with some basic tools to help our children speak of their fears, and tips regarding some “good words” we should say in response to help them view life with more cheer.  

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade: Students were introduced to the MyHomework app to help them organize their time and prioritize their work.
Seventh Grade-  Students focused on the power of upbeat thinking in promoting resilience.
Eighth Grade-  Students began a unit on the temptation of cheating.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Super Bowl Party of Life- Because Everyone Belongs

Traditionally, this week  would be my super bowl take-aways column.  This super bowl was an easy one.  Never give up.  The power of persistence and resiliency.  It’s not over til it’s over, (some of you probably turned it off before the end!)  Do cheaters sometimes prosper? Deflatgate and all the lessons that go along with it that we have previously discussed.  All teachable moments with our teens.

This year, I’d like to focus on a super bowl related topic and not focus on the actual game itself.  I had referred to it in passing in last week’s column.  I know that I sent out my last week’s column a few hours before the super bowl, and most probably did not get the chance to read it.  (Please feel free to catch up and read it this week! I also write about the 7th grade presenter last week).  It was dedicated to my father, a”h, whose 14th yahrzeit was last week.  I focused on joy versus happiness, and maintained that we do not actually want our children to be happy. We want them to be joyful.

One example I gave of joy- living a life of meaning and giving- was “by thinking about and reaching out to others...Did he think about the boy who was not invited to any super bowl party and reach out?” I wrote that example with no one boy  (or girl) in mind, but rather in thinking about all the boys I’ve worked with in the past 21 years of working as a psychologist in schools.  Every year there is someone not invited to a super bowl party.  Every year there is someone worried that he will not be invited. Every year there is someone embarrassed to admit he hasn’t been invited. Every year someone is excluded and sitting on the sidelines.

It need not be particular to the super bowl.  Every year there is a girl who had no partner in Coke and Pepsi at that bat mitzvah.  Every year there is a boy who has no one who requests to room with him at Frost Valley.  Every year there is a girl who feels as if she has nowhere to sit during lunch. Every year there is a boy who is not invited to get together Shabbat afternoon.  It is all about inclusion and ensuring there is not social exclusion.

Bullying has become a hot topic over the past number of years. I admit I do see bullying from time to time, but more of what I see is a particular type- social exclusion.  Dr. Rick Lavoie, in his book Last One Picked First One Picked On notes that 15 out of 20 times a parents has put his/her head down to cry- it is not about a child’s academic struggles in school. It is about social rejection.  Dr. David Pelcovitz shared that when looking at the research, people rarely can recall physical pain. They almost always recall the emotional pain of being excluded.  And, conversely, the ones doing the social exclusion almost never recall doing so years later.

And, it is not just about the directly nasty things kids can do to each other. It is often more about the nonverbal messages that children send to one another.  Smiling, or choosing not to smile at another can change a whole child’s day.   Tone of voice- how you speak to another. Initiating warm greetings- especially in a group, is quickly interpreted as sending a message that this child belongs.  We need to explain to our children that sending social inclusion messages- non-verbal ones as well, can help a child feel as if he or she belongs.  Your child can then can become a leader in his demonstrating compassion.  One need not be a close friend to deserve a smile, a greeting or a kind tone of voice.  The message should be the same to all- you have a responsibility to make sure everyone feels welcome.  

I know I have discussed this before, but it bears repeating.  Social media is a powerful tool when it comes to social exclusion.  Snapchat, instagram- again, without directly being “mean” to another, one can hurt others.  Every time a child posts a photo of party he’s gone to or a shopping expedition with friends, another realizes he was left out.  I am not saying that one is not entitled to go out with a few friends. But, why rub the faces of those who were not invited in it?   “I thought I was her friend. But, then I realized I must not be, as everyone was there except for me.”  How hurtful can one be?

I know there are children who make it hard to befriend them due to their behavior.  Some children experiencing this exclusion fall under that category and some do not. Either way, I teach my children that every child deserves to feel included.  No matter what.  I do invite parents and children to share with me if there is a child who could use some help with some of those behaviors that do make it difficult- those do need work. But, at the same time, no one deserves to feel left out.

I spent this last Shabbat in Fair Lawn in Congregation Ahavat Achim with some of our 8th graders and Yachad for the developmentally disabled.  Yachad’s slogan is “because everyone belongs.”  When looking around the room at the Shabbaton, this slogan applied to the Yachad members themselves. However, it also applied to our Yavneh students. It gave me such joy to see some of our students who do not always feel that they belong shine and connect with their classmates. Everyone belonged this Shabbat.  No judgemental preconceptions. It did not matter who had the coolest clothes or who was the best athlete.  Sitting with the Yachad members, playing a game or singing a song was all that mattered.  If only all of life was a Yachad Shabbaton.  

Tonight I ran a piece of a  Friendship Circle orientation.  We discussed a song which was composed for Friendship Circle which states, “Every single person in this world is a gem.”  That is the message of inclusion that our children get when they involve themselves in Yachad and Friendship Circle.

Our children will need to learn the skills to bounce back from rejection and social exclusion. Life is not truly a Yachad Shabbaton.  Despite that, as parents, we need to remind them that life each day is a giant super bowl party. We can’t invite everyone.  There is an abundance of social pressure to fit in- especially in the middle school years.  Somehow, everyone deserves an invitation.  What role can we play in making sure everyone has a party to go to?

Advisory Update:

Sixth Graders-  Students discussed what are the obstacles they face in managing their time well.
Seventh Graders-  Students spoke about the difference between those who are resilient (super ball people) and those who crush under failure (egg people).  How does one persevere?

Eighth Graders-  Students prepared and discussed the admissions news they will be getting this coming week and the best way to react.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Pursuit of Joy

This coming Tuesday is the 14th Yahrzeit of my father, HaRav Yisrael Mordechai Dworken, Rabbi Steven Dworken, a”h.  For those of you who have been reading my column for some time, you have probably gotten a small glimpse of him when I have written about him close to his Yahrzeit.  One area for which my father was known was his simchat hachayim, the happiness and joy in life that he exuded. My father was the type of person to whom others were drawn, as his cheerful approach to life was contagious.  You just wanted to be around him, as it felt good to be surrounded by that positivity.

Upon thinking about this unique happiness that he conveyed to all who met him, I was struck by an article in the Jewish Week  last weekend.  Hannah Dreyfus wrote an article “Forget Continuity, Keep Teens ‘Happy” and begins, “How do you keep today’s Jewish teens engaged?  Keep them happy, urges David Bryfman… While in the past, Jewish education has stressed the transmission of knowledge, skills and literacy, that approach ‘no longer works,’ said Byrfman. The Jewish Education Project ...released a study in April highlighting that members of Generation Z- the cohort right behind millenials- prize personal happiness above all else.”  The article goes on to describe a recommendation to stray away from content, skills and text and move towards what Judaism can do for them.  “Loyalty to the past and sense of communal responsibility are no longer motivators. The motivator is being part of a larger project that does something for you.”

After reading this article I began thinking. Is that what Judaism is all about- happiness? Is that what we want our teens to think that life is all about?  

Lori Gottleib in her article, “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy-  Why the obsession with our kids’ happines may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods,” highlights that parents throughout history have hoped to raise happy children.  That which has changed is that it is not enough to be happy, if you can be even happier. Our definition of happiness has changed.  “The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.”  She quotes a professor of social theory, Dr. Barry Schwartz.  “Happiness as a by product of living your life is a great thing.  But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”  As we know, it is not realistic to be happy at all times.  Such a belief only sets one up for disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In the United States,  a Gallup poll reported while the happiness levels of Americans are at all time high, the Center for Disease Control reports that 4 out of 10 Americans “have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.”  They do not think their lives have a “clear sense of purpose.”  In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, 400 Americans ages 18-78 were asked if they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy.  Researchers found that while being happy and feeling life was meaningful did overlap in some ways, they were found to be different.  Leading a happy life “was associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’” Happiness is about feeling good.  But is “relatively shallow, self- absorbed and even selfish.” All animals can be happy- you have a desire, you satisfy it and then you are happy.   People who are happy get benefits from others. People who lead meaningful lives get joy from giving to others.  “Meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants.”

If our children should not be living life to only pursue happiness, what should they be pursuing?   Emily Esfahani Smith, in her article, “There’s More To Life Than Being Happy” speaks about the life of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was transported to a Nazi concentration camp.  In 1946, he published his book Man’s Search For Meaning describing his experiences in the Holocaust.  Frankl noted the difference between those who were able to survive and those who did not- meaning.  Those who were able to find meaning in the most desperate situations were more resilient when it came to facing suffering.  He gave examples of two inmates who were suicidal, thinking they had nothing to live for. “In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them,” Frankl wrote. (He helped one man focus on his son who was waiting for him in another country and the other on a series of books he was in the middle of writing).  “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.  He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”

Smith maintains that Frankl’s philosophy focusing on meaning and the responsibility to do something greater than oneself is at odds with American culture which focuses more on the pursuit of individual happiness than the search for meaning. “ is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to be ‘happy.’  But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy,” Frankl wrote.  “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”  

In America, we are obsessed with being happy. Unfortunately, spending your life trying to become happier often gets in the way of becoming happy.  Studies have shown that people who value happiness the most and put the greatest emphasis on being happy “report 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less satisfaction about their life, and 75% more depressive symptoms than people who had their priorities elsewhere… and 17% less psychological well-being.”  

Going back to Dreyfus’ article, if they are trying so hard to attract teens to Judaism through happiness, how does that mesh with Judaism’s view of whether happiness is important? (This might sound like a strange question as you may have read my article regarding how to achieve happiness according to the Torah or even attended a shiur I once gave on the topic. This article is a new spin).  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his article “The Pursuit of Joy” asserts that unlike Artistotle, who stated that happiness is the ultimate goal to which humans aspire, Judaism does not think it so. Rabbi Sacks differentiates between “happy” which he says is found in the Tanach as being the word “Ashrei” versus joy which is “simcha.”  We say Ashrei three times a day, and the word ashrei is found throughout Tanach- many more times than “simcha,” but is is not a “central value” of Judaism.  

Rabbi Sacks continues to point out that happiness is the state of an individual.  Simcha “is never about individuals...  It is always something we share.”  When a newly married man does not go to the army for a year it is to share joy with his wife.  When we go up to the Beit HaMikdash during the Shalosh Regalim, we have joy as it is a “collective celebration.” “It has to do with a sense of connection to other people and or to God.  It comes from a different realm than happiness… It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others...The pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to self-regard and indifference to the suffering of others...Not so, joy.  Joy connects us to others and to God.?

And, so Dreyfus and her compatriots have gotten it all wrong.  Stressing “happiness” might actually create teens who are farther from God and from community.  They need to stress “joy”- and encourage their students to search for meaning in life.  It would then be hopefully obvious to them in  relatively short time that Judaism can input into their lives joy and meaning.

This past week, our 7th graders were privileged to hear a presentation of Rabbi Yitzy Haber to launch their new unit in Advisory “When Life Gives You Lemons”- coping with difficulties in life.  Rabbi Haber shares the story of how he battles and conquered cancer as a 13 year old and the impact it had on the joy he feels in life. As the students (and faculty) listen to his presentation, they cannnot help but laugh at the humorous anecdotes he shares about his illness and despite his illness.  Rabbi Haber ends the presentation explaining that he knows that his illness shaped who is today. He volunteers for Chai Lifeline and meets with ill children, and consequently has found true meaning, and joy.  

As parents, we need to help our children find joy, not happiness. Help them find meaning by thinking about  and reaching out to others.  Did she look around the cafeteria this week to notice the classmate who had nowhere to sit and invite her to sit at her table?  Did he think about the boy who was not invited to any Superbowl party and reach out? Will he come wearing pink this coming Wednesday for Pink Day and help raise money for Sharsheret?  Is her bat mitzvah chesed a one-time event, or the beginning of many acts of chesed in her life?  Our hope as parents is to not raise happy children, but joyous children who live lives full of meaning.

My father, a”h, was truly a joyous man, not a happy one.  He spent his life in the rabbinate and in his personal life living for others.  We, his family, continue to strive to live each day following in his joyous footsteps. Y’hi zichro baruch.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- Students began a unit on Time Management.

Seventh Grade- After hearing Rabbi Haber’s inspiring and humorous presentation,  students began learning about resiliency.

Eighth Grade- Students viewed  and discussed graduate interviews describing what high school is truly like as we begin the 2nd half of the year- Preparing for Life In High School.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Color Your Life- Color War 2017!

As you all know by now, Color War is here!!!  The anticipation (by the faculty) and the surprise (by the students) was palpable. The run to Party City last night to get the team colors is a yearly tradition loved or dreaded by parents.  Our middle schoolers arrived here this morning donning the color they were assigned.  

But, color can impact our overall lives, aside from this three day battle.  We draw with color. Coloring used to be just for kids.  In 2013, a Scottish illustrator, Johanna Brasford, came out with her first adult coloring book.  They initially printed 13,000 copies.  Today their worldwide sales is 13 million.  U.S. sales of coloring books in the United States, says Sarah Begley in Time Magazine, have jumped from 1 million in 2014 to 12 million in 2015.  Why are adults suddenly coloring?

Anecdotally, it has been seen to reduce anxiety and increase mindfulness. Dr. Nikki Martinez says that even the psychologist Dr. Carl Jung, founder of the school of analytical psychology, used to recommend  coloring to his patients as a way to access their subconscious and new “self- knowledge.” Some see it as an alternative to meditation and a relaxation technique used to achieve calm. “It can help the individual focus on the act of coloring intricate pictures for hours on end, vs. focusing on intrusive and troubling thoughts.”

Martinez also notes that coloring helps with anxiety and stress as it calms down our amygdalas- the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response, keeping us in a “heightened state of worry, panic and hyper-vigilance when it is active.”  Coloring actually turns that response down and allows the brain go rest and relax.   Coloring also brings us back to simpler times of our childhood when we did not have so many responsibilities and we “could do something because we wanted to, for the pure joy of it.” She also notes the intellectual benefits of coloring as it utilizes the areas of the brain responsible for focus, concentration, problem solving and organizational skills.

Begley describes her own experience coloring as she got lost in the act. “In a world that’s constantly interrupted by the beeping and buzzing of notifications, I found myself getting pleasantly lost in the intricacy of the ornate pages.”  

Color also affects our state of mind in another way. Color has been found to impact one’s mood.  Chromology is the study of the psychology of color and is used in advertising, decoration and in fashion. Different emotions and even physical reactions have been found to be triggered by colors.  Red, for example, has been found to increase pulse, heart rate,and appetite and raises blood pressure. It is active and aggressive.  (I once mentioned in a shiur I gave that it is interesting to note that Eisav was “red”and ate a red soup. What was the color trying to convey?) If one recalls the movie Inside Out, Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness were each different colors.

Lindsey Gurson, in her article, “Color Has A Powerful Effect On Behavior, Researchers Assert,” shares that  “When children under detention at the San Bernardino County Probation Department in California become violent, they are put in an 8-foot by 4-foot cell with one distinctive feature - it is bubble gum pink. The children tend to relax, stop yelling and banging and often fall asleep within 10 minutes, said Paul E. Boccumini, director of clinical services for the department.”  In a study in Edmonton, Alberta, of interest to us as educators, “the walls of the schoolroom were changed from orange and white to royal and light blue. A gray carpet was installed in place of an orange rug. Finally, the fluorescent lights and diffuser panels were replaced with full-spectrum lighting. As a result, Professor Wohlfarth reported, the children's mean systolic blood pressure dropped from 120 to 100, or nearly 17 percent, The children were also better behaved and more attentive and less fidgety and aggressive, according to the teachers and independent observers. When the room was returned to its original design, however, the readings gradually increased and the children once again became rowdy, he said.”

We apparently parent by color as well. I actually came across a website called Family Colorworks where each member of the family discovers his/her “natural color” and what it represents about their interaction style and  their “needs, values, motives, stressors, and stress behaviors.”  (I know nothing about this website and am in no way recommending it). Then you choose what color your parent with- blue, green, orange or gold. For example, blue parents “value relationships, communication and understanding and their biggest stressor is conflict. They are intuitive, communicative and sensitive. I focus on others’ needs. I seek for balance. I enjoy nature, spiritual things, friends and family. I say, ‘I feel’ a lot and tend to use touch to communicate…”  

In Judaism we know that color also has meaning. In Sotah 17a, Rabbi Meir asks regarding the color techelet , "Why was the color blue chosen from all the other colors? Because the blue resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory.”  There is something about color that inspires us.

So, as we engage in color war, we are trying to relay many lessons to our children, as we hope they learn something from the experience.  One color lesson we relay to them is “Sometimes you have to see people as a crayon.  They may not be your favorite color, but you need them to complete the picture.”  Color war is a lesson in working with others and making it work, even when the other may not be your particular friend.  

As parents, let us remember to pay attention to the spectrum of colors in our lives and to take some time to just color.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade  -Students discussed placing themselves in the role of teacher. If you were teacher, how would you expect students to act?

Seventh Grade-  The boys focused on a unit on foul language and the importance of watching what one says. The girls discussed social exclusion and gossip- forms of bullying.

Eighth Grade-  Student reflected on the “post holiday blues” that often stem from the materialism of the “holiday season.”  How does materialism affect us?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"Mi Lashem Eilai"- Parents Unite!

Mi lashem eilai” “Whoever is for Hashem come with me,” was the rallying call of Matityahu to unite the Jewish people. The best way to stand up to the Syrian- Greeks- physically and spiritually- was to unite.  No matter what influences were surrounding the Jews, when they united they were able to triumph.
As parents, we are battling many negative influences that permeate the lives of our children each day. Whether from the media or from the overall culture in which we live, we often feel that as they enter the teenage years we are in battle. The problem is that we as parents do not unite enough.   
A few weeks ago, as you know,  we were privileged to host a parent workshop on the topic of setting boundaries and limits on our children’s technology use.  I know that I need not spend any more time on this topic, but there was an important realization that all of us parents who attended left with that night.  During one piece of the workshop, we broke into groups according to the ages of our children  to discuss rules that we think we should put into place in our homes when it comes to technology use.  We had the opportunity to hear some innovative ideas that others are already implementing. More importantly, we got the chance to see that we are all in the same boat and struggling with the same things.  We talked about the ages we had decided to give our kids phones.  We spoke about how much easier it would be if we were all implementing the same rules, (with some variation), across the board so that we need not be the only “mean parents.”  Wouldn’t it be amazing if before we gave our children phones we parents would have a meeting to discuss some across the board regulations that we can all implement?  How about for other rules like curfew?  Supervision at parties? There is strength in unity.  Just swapping ideas was supportive and helpful.  We had the chance to unite.  
The conversation should sound familiar.  
Your child: “Everyone else is going. Why can’t I?”
You: “I don’t care what ‘everyone else’ is doing. You can’t go.”
Your child: “Why are you so mean? You’re the only parent who isn’t letting!”
You can fill in the blank, but this is a common interchange between a child and parent in the middle school years and beyond.  Let me let you in on a little secret. Everyone is not going.  Not everyone’s parent is letting. And, you are not the only mean one.  The problem is we never unite so we do not know what the other parents are doing.
Over 20 years ago when I worked in a high school, a woman named Connie Greene, the Vice President for the Barnabas Health Behavioral Network Institute for Prevention, came to give a series of workshops in my school regarding parenting and substance abuse.  She would laugh if she knew that I remembered a comment she made.  She said (not exact words), “Parents, you need to band together and ‘plot.’ The kids are smarter than we are. They are banding together and ‘plotting’ already. You need to unite too.”  
We need to talk to other parents and not isolate ourselves. We need to investigate what others are doing, and band together.  There is strength in numbers.  At the time, when I was working in that school, we spoke of parents getting together to meet about rules for parties. Any parent that was part of that group or “pact” would be considered a safe place to send your child to for a party.  
On Thursday, we had a our Go Dark While The Candles Go Light challenge. We asked all middle schoolers and their parents to disconnect from their devices for dinner and one hour while the candles are lit.  How much easier it would be to set limits and disconnect if parents united and all agreed on doing so at certain times!
On Friday, if you have not heard already, our sixth graders had a mock bar/bat mitzvah where I got to play the role of the bat mitzvah girl and Mr. Steiner was the bar mitzvah boy. We had speeches, a montage, a buffet and dancing- all chances to implement the proper behavior they had learned about in Advisory during bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.  Let us not minimize how difficult the bar/bat mitzvah year is for our children.  Balancing schoolwork, social life, extracurriculars and a simcha every weekend (if not two).  And, on top of all that, when it is your own bar/bat mitzvah- all the preparation that needs to go into the big day which includes added pressure.  One topic that often comes up among parents of the bnei mitzvah is the above pressure.  Is the solution less parties? Shorter parties? Less demands on the child celebrating the simcha?  Parents often shmooze over lunch about solutions. How about if we parents united and come up with some solutions?  
“Whoever is for Hashem come with me,” was Matityahu’s rallying cry. “Whoever is for strengthening our teens and implementing good values come with me!” is the parent’s rallying cry.  Let us unite and support each other, and thereby strengthen our children.
Chag Sameach!

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade- You read about our bar/bat mitzvah celebration above. Sixth graders were told that we were hosting  Aliza and Azi to celebrate their big days. Little did they know what the event truly was.  Before each event a rhyming introduction reminded them of the etiquette rules we learned in Advisory for proper behavior and decorum.  I even followed up with a thank you note- always proper!
Seventh Grade-  Students finished their unit Operation Respect with focusing on economic struggles can be found in the Jewish community as well.  As you know, their visit to the homeless shelter in Hackensack, where they sang, conversed with the residents and gave out hats and gloves, was inspirational!
Eighth Grade-   Students discussed the addictive nature of technology and the social and emotional impact it has.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Parents or Peers?

Last week Dr. Eli Shapiro joined us to discuss the parent’s role in managing technology in our home.  We came away with some practical strategies and even technology ideas like OurPact to manage their phones. We talked about how to make a contract with your child and some rules that make sense for our families.  But, there was one overarching theme that pervaded the evening. When planning the workshop with Dr. Shapiro he shared that implementing limits when it comes to technology is really all about parenting.  All parenting which works is prefaced by a relationship with one’s child. Dr. Shapiro asserted that the reason why his teenager is able to follow the rules set up in his family is because of the relationship they have and have developed with much hard work over the years.  

Dr. Shapiro surveyed students in local yeshivot and 52% of children reported that parents were the biggest influence on what they think is appropriate or inappropriate when using a cell phone or the internet.  This pattern has been seen in the research in the general population in  a variety of areas.  Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre in Australia released a report finding substantial benefits when parents and kids engage in intergenerational conversations about technology use. Parents continue to have a strong influence when it comes to being smart, safe, respectful and resilient online.  A Pew research study states,parents are the most often cited source of advice and the biggest influence on teens’ understanding of appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior.”

In a Kaiser Family  Foundation research study they found that nearly 80 percent of teenagers indicate that what their parents have told them and what their parents might think influence their decisions about sex and relationships. Despite the research, parents are still convinced that peers have more influence and they have very little influence on their children staying away from at-risk behaviors. A  report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says more than one in five parents of teenagers believe they possess little influence over whether their child drinks alcohol or experiments with drugs and tobacco, they therefore do not speak to their children about substance use. When 67,000 Americans ages 12 and older were surveyed as part of the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, teenagers who believe their parents would strongly disapprove of substance abuse were less likely than their peers to use them. Parents matter more than peers- what do you know?!

According to other research, parents matter more than schools!  An article by Anne Murphy Paul, in Time Magazine, “Why Parenting Is More Important Than Schools” reports on a study which indicates that “parental involvement matters more for performance than schools.” “ A study published earlier this month by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend. Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement.”

We at Yavneh Academy are not closing up shop, but it is a relief to see how much of an impact we as parents also have on academic progress.  Paul highlights that it is not just among the affluent parents who exercise “concerted cultivation of children.”  The research reveals that “parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.”  

The research points to the impact of mathematical and spatial understanding from the type of language used at home. Vocabulary is clearly impacted.  Among middle schoolers particularly they found that parents play an important role in “academic socialization”  “setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).”   Parents truly matter and make an impact on all areas of life- even with teens! And.. even when they seem annoyed by what we are saying and do not seem to be listening.

For those who have been reading my column for some time, you will recognize that this is my opportunity to bring up my favorite Gemara regarding Yoseph, Yaakov and parenting. When Yoseph was in the house of Potiphar, far from home and his family, he faced the difficult situation of the wife of Potiphar. The Gemara in Sotah 36b describes, “It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: That day was their feast-day, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, I shall not have an opportunity like to-day for Joseph to associate with me. And she caught him by his garment, saying etc. At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and yours amongst theirs; is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?' Immediately his bow abode in strength.”

Clearly Yoseph's father was far away in Canaan- how could he have seen the image of his father Yaakov in the window? That image of Yaakov that he saw was the voice in his head. Over and over he had heard his father say, “Good boys don't act that way. In our family, our values are...” And, of course, like any teenager, (Yoseph was just 17 when he went to Egypt), he said to his dad, “I know, I know- why do you keep on telling me the same thing?!” And, yet, Yaakov continued sending those messages. That is why, when faced with challenge to his morality, he heard that voice in his head.
So, when we have our frequent “talks” with our children they say to us, “I know, I know- enough already!” And, yet when they are faced with challenge, whether peer pressure to do the wrong thing or the temptation to engage in any at-risk behavior, or even the temptation to skip their homework, they will hear our voices in their head, and practically see our images before them reminding them of what they should do. At the end of the day, parental influence wins out!

Those of us who attended last week’s workshops ran home to implement some of the practical suggestions, but at the end of the day, the most important message we absorbed was to develop relationships with our children. To talk and talk and talk to them some more about what we hope for them, and the behaviors we expect from them. (And, of course, to listen as well!)  They actually do listen.  The research says so... even if they won’t admit it!  

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade-  Students began to discuss the appropriate way to interact with teachers.

Seventh Grade- Continuing on the path to empathy and truly understanding the homeless- How expensive is it to live in America today?  

Eighth Grade- How as the digital lives we lead affected our lifestyle and quality of life?  Is there a need to disconnect sometimes?  (This leads up to our Go Dark While The Candles Go Light Evening on December 29.. Stay tuned).