Micro-Managing or Lessons in Life?

For those who have followed Cheeky Kids for a while now will recall that, at times, I share my own parenting experiences as I journey through parenthood, minus a manual, script or even direction signage. While in recent posts I have been concerned with the current education reforms in New Zealand, and to be perfectly selfish, the inevitable impact on my own children, I wanted to return to my roots in this post reflecting on my current parenting experiences. In particular, my experience in having a 15 year old son……

One of the hardest teenage phenomena to keep ahead of is the influence of peers in the way your teenager behaves and operates. To have some influence in this, we decided long ago that our son would not visit, or sleep over at another young person’s place before we had met them, and they had been at our place. We have kept with this as our son has moved into his teenage years. So this weekend we had the experience of having one such friend stay-over, with eye-opening results.

To have another young person in our house who has never been taught that you say please and thank you, that you look at someone when they talk to you, that you don’t try to operate a laptop and headphones at the dinner table while eating, and that you, at the very least, say thank you for staying over at the point of being returned home. That you actually communicate with those around you, at a very minimum. Don’t get me wrong…..I don’t expect this kid to divulge his life story or future ambition…..but for this young person to be so socially disadvantaged when in another persons house had me quite concerned.

Concerned for my own son……thinking that he held this other boy in such high regard. But I was swiftly reassured that our son, too, was concerned with his friends behaviour. We had not even reversed down the boy’s driveway after dropping him off before I was asked (with nervous glance) ‘so what did you think of …..?’ Our son knew. I didn’t have to do any ‘teaching’ of difference…..I merely had to remind what our expectations were if he were visiting another persons’ home…..or even just talking to another human being…..and the lesson was done. By the time we reached home, my son was planning to contact the friends we suggested may be ones more appropriate to see in future.

We do realise that this could have gone differently. That our son could not have seen the inappropriateness of his friends behaviour, and that we would have had to prepare to monitor his friendship with this kid for a longer period of time. That we would have had to carefully mitigate any damage done with their interaction. It is a hard job as a parent to have any influence over a 15 year old. And as every year comes round that influence becomes less and less. So what underlies a parents influence as they mature? What lives in them, as you, their parent, become less influential in their decision-making and social interactions?

The answer came to me when I stumbled across a recent TED talk on the evening following this experience. Jennifer Senior presented at TED recently about the modern day phenomenon in parenting that is anxiety. Anxiety that we are doing it right, doing it wrong, not providing this and that for our children. But ultimately, our biggest anxiety that our children, heaven forbid, will not be happy. Because isn’t that our job, as parents, to have happy children? As a result of this never-ending quest for children’s happiness, we become lost in the search for what will work, what won’t….what is right and what isn’t. We view each situation as a potential risk or reinforcement to our child’s happiness. And in doing so, we often lose sight of the person we are guiding our child to become. Many parents understand that education is the key to our child’s future happiness…..so we work hard to support them in their learning, monitoring homework, attending appropriate meetings at school, ensuring our teen is doing their study to pass their exams etc. But that is not enough. We then worry about what other skills they may need in life, so children get signed up for after-school activities, such as rugby, ballet, piano and so on. We worry about children’s diet, (what to do if my child eats non-organic, or doesn’t eat their vegetables); about children’s health, about children’s social skills, the list goes on. The point is we worry. We micro manage, instead of keeping an eye on the big picture. All of these worries are valid….but perhaps are indicative of anxiety gone too far. For now, we are told by every parenting ‘expert’ out there what good parents do and don’t do. As Jennifer Senior suggests, there is a book for everything to teach our toddler, short of disarming a nuclear bomb.

What did my experience with my teen’s peer reinforce to me? That my child’s happiness is not dependent on whether we continue to allow him to be friends with another boy with such vastly different social skills to our son. We could be so focused on his happiness that we allow him to liaise with this peer without regard for what he may learn in the process. My child’s happiness is more guided when we return to the basics of parenting. It is by focusing on the good old fashioned stuff that has worked for centuries in parenting. Values of life. What is really important. That you treat others with respect and that you will be respected in return. That respect means saying please and thank you, it means looking at someone when they talk to you, it means being respectful of another persons home when in it, and ultimately it means respecting your friend by respecting their home and family. That that is the value of friendship.

Values are even more important than our child’s happiness. For if we, as parents, can impart values that will serve our children’s future, then surely this will ultimately lead to their own, intrinsic happiness….rather than relying on others for some external sense of satisfaction? And really, if we, as parents are so focused on our children’s happiness, then it is the way of values that will ensure our own happiness in a job well done.

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Parent Power

My 14 year old becomes 15 in less than a week. This is somewhat of a horrifying thought, as it only reminds us of how little time we have left with him to guide, teach and advise him on the ways of being a responsible adult. So when life lessons arise, we work hard to ensure every moment is utilised, as he inches one step closer to adult responsibility.

What makes this difficult however are the parents of his teenage friends. For some reason, many parents feel that as their children become young adults, they can loosen up and shift roles……becoming more friend than parent. That they don’t need to worry about consistent boundaries or maintaining the role of ‘guide to life’ and ‘wisdom council’. Instead they try to become a cool parent, for fear that their child will turn away, angry, mad or embarrassed to be in the same room as them. And in adopting this approach to their teenager, they then have to assume the same role with their child’s friends – because it is the friends that influence the final seal of ‘approval’ from their child. If their friends hassle their child “Man your olds are stink” or “oh my god is that what your Dad said….” their popularity ratings decline and the likelihood of your child ‘liking you’ decreases.

Which is what raising a teenager is about right? Them ‘liking’ you? Not in our household. We have decided not to look at the micro steps our teenager will take from age 13-20 years. We have our sights firmly focused on the young man he will be at age 25. The strength of character, moral compass and set of values that he will have to give him the resiliency to move through the adult world successfully. Which then allows us to make parenting decisions that will (and there’s always the fingers-crossed clause) assist him to get to this point. Our latest goal is to have him understand money does not descend from the heavens at any given time. That if he wants money for his mobile phone, or movie tickets, or lollies or the latest clothes, he has to do like everyone else and work for the money. We began this process early in the year by suggesting that if he wanted a fun, exciting summer holiday he would need to begin the process of looking for a job. Easier said than done in today’s employment climate. Lessons are continuing to being learned around gaining wilful employment. We have provided him with many opportunities to earn money doing labour around our property. We pay well and are somewhat flexible employers. However we stick to our bottom line, if the job isn’t completed to our satisfaction, you don’t get paid.

So when our teenager negotiates his taxi fare (aka Mums car) out to a friends beach house for an invited stay, we agreed to his terms. Lawns were to be mowed and bedroom was to be spotless. An employment contract was entered into. But when the time came for us to keep to our end of the deal, we had no option but to decline the taxi ride. Lawns had been left too late in the day and with the rain arriving could not be completed. The bedroom had not been cleaned. Instead, he had chosen to watch movies ‘putting off’ the jobs till the last moment. This is a current theme of life presently…..putting off for another time. And yet the look of shock and disdain that came when he was informed the taxi ride was not happening still surprised me. He genuinely thought that he could continue the approach and ‘finish it later’ as he had a deal with his mate to head to the beach. We had no choice but to stick to our guns and decline him his ride. We compromised and advised him that if we saw a change in his attitude and the jobs were completed by the following lunchtime, he had one last chance at the taxi ride. But he had to pull finger and show a change in his focus.

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But this is where it gets tricky. I then had to advise the mother of the said friend at the beach. I was simply delivering the message that, providing the jobs were completed, my teenager would be arriving later than expected for the visit. I explained we were trying to grow a responsible work ethic and the value of integrity……something which was lost in translation as she conveyed to me that her son would be ‘guttered’. I had to continue to apologise for the inconvenience and reinforce what we were trying to teach our son. At no time did I receive a ‘good on you’, or ‘I understand completely’, or ‘absolutely, you do what you need to do, we can wait’. Instead it became about how she was going to keep her disappointed son happy for an additional half-day.

Where has Parent Power gone? What has happened to parents having each others’ backs? This is a tough gig. There is no rule book, no user manual. We are required to make calls in split seconds with minimal information, that can influence the character and integrity of our future adults. We need to support each other, rather than the fragmented, each-to-their-own approach that is so common these days. What concerns me is that as my son moves towards the teenage experiences of driving, parties, girls and alcohol who are the parents of his friends that I can trust will have my, and consequently, his back? Who will be the parents that will ring and say ‘hey have just heard our boys planning ….. we need to address this with them’? Sadly, I can’t count too many of them on one hand.

Parents need to be a team – they need to be that collective village that raises our children together. And it begins with knowing that you can’t be your teenager’s friend. As the parent it is your job to make the hard calls when they don’t have the developmental, emotional or moral ability to. They may be bigger than you (my son now towers over me), but they haven’t got the years behind them to allow them to make decisions that may be life-impacting. So being their friend isn’t the reality as the parent of a teenager. Being their advisor, chief of staff and moral compass is. Friendship comes when they have matured into the wonderful adults you worked so hard to create in their formative years.

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Magic and Fairy Tales

“If you see the magic in a fairy tale, you can face the future.”
Danielle Steel

I have recently returned with my family from our inaugural trip ‘Around the World’. We entitled it the Aiono Adventure 2013 and it was a much anticipated and focused event for all of the months leading up to our departure. We, as a family of five, travelled for a month to Los Angeles, Washington DC, Toronto, London, France and Hong Kong. Many thought we were utterly insane even considering this level of travel with kids in tow, let alone with one just-turned-4 year old who struggles on a good day to be seated for any length of time. The preventative manager in me began planning for every eventual occurrence. I had wrist labels for lost children. I had a bound activity book tailor made for each child on the plane to ensure their engagement and quiet contemplation. And when that had worn off I had the iPad loaded with movies, tv programmes, talking books and educational apps. I was prepared to circumnavigate the earth with my rambunctious kids in tow. And we were going to get our money’s worth……they were going to see the world!

So when people ask me now what was the most memorable moment of our Adventure, or the highlight, I surprise even myself with what that actually is. We saw and experienced the most amazing things, such as fireworks over Niagara Falls and pain au chocolat beside the Eiffel Tower. We saw and experienced the most simple and humbling of things, such as accepting the kindness of family and friends in accommodation and sightseeing tours. We were taught to appreciate how to slow down and to truly see things that, if we were the locals in the town, we may not necessarily appreciate. We also came to learn a whole lot more about ourselves and how we exist with each other. The moments when we are most tired and hungry through to the moments of ridiculous joy.

So what was the most memorable moment of all for me on our amazing Adventure? The epiphany that occurred to me 3 days into our travel about who my 6 year old daughter truly is. And that, somehow despite all I uphold and value, I had lost touch with the magic that we had once worked so hard to create for her. Day 3 of our adventure involved a second day exploring all that Disneyland has to offer in Los Angeles. We were off to explore California Adventureland after bumbling our way around Disney Park the day before. After a disastrous experience on the Matterhorn ride, we were all becoming a little less tolerant of my daughter who was being very dramatic when it came to anything ‘scary’. We kept reminding her that she was almost 7 and that she had nothing to be afraid of. We considered that she should be able to manage the bigger rides …… her height certainly wasn’t the issue. And it wasn’t like we were putting her into the screaming tower or haunted-type attractions. But it was when the Ferris wheel at Paradise Pier caused more anxious anticipation in the line my tolerance became incredibly thin. After all, what really was the problem….right?

And then we stopped to notice the lack of a queue outside the Little Mermaid ride. So we rushed in, relieved to not have to wait once more. Seated inside a giant shell I figured this would be a little too ‘young’ for my daughter, and my husband seated behind us with my 4 year old would be better entertained. What a mistake I made. My daughter’s eyes literally danced and sparkled. I had never seen her so in awe and wonderful rapture than at that moment. She knew every character and was so thoroughly excited to see Ariel (never mind her robotic nature) that I found myself welling up with emotion. I had forgotten. I had really forgotten all the ground work my husband and I had done while she was a pre-schooler to encourage her imagination and belief in magic. I had forgotten we had been the fairies in the forest writing back to her……we had never discounted the possibility of mermaids or other such wondrous creatures. And we had always said she was a princess in our eyes. That anything was possible. And yet here I was so surprised by her engagement with this magic, I was completely overwhelmed. In that moment I decided that we needed to catch ourselves and slow the pace right down, so that she could be the little girl she was for as long as possible. Her belief of magic and love of fairy tales allows for a kind of innocence that, as parents, we hope will continue for a while yet. As I continued to observe her wonderment during Disney’s World of Colour, I made a silent promise that we would continue to ensure she had every opportunity to believe and continue the magic for as long as she was wanting to do. That it was not up to us to be reminding her that she was growing up and hurrying her along the path. That we would take each step beside her, not in front telling her to keep up.

So that was my life lesson as we circumnavigated the world. We, of course, learned so much more about ourselves as individuals, as a family and about the places we visited. But the most profound learning was just that – my children will grow and continue to grow at their own pace. And that we should never be too old for magic and fairy tales.

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How playing with your child will help them at school

If parents have ever wondered what more they could be doing to either prepare or support their children while at school follow the link at Kiwi Families for the latest article contributed by Cheeky Kids. This is a great website for families and the latest edition focuses on all aspects of Active Families. Be sure to check it out!

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Throw Away the Instructions

I am known for purchasing ‘educational’ toys, games and resources as an alternative to the endless (and often mindless) stuff available to children these days. I actively try to avoid games that provide little challenge to my children, offer violence as a form of attraction or sexualised concepts such as boyfriends, inappropriate clothes and makeup. I figure my 3 and 6 year old have all the time in the world to become familiar with these adult concepts, so in the meantime I will give them as much opportunity as I can to be kids. To use their ‘kid power’ to grow their creativity, imagination and intelligence all the while preserving their wonderful innocence of youth.

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So despite feeling like I’m pretty aware when purchasing toys, I have still made an interesting discovery about two well-loved toys, known for their ability to encourage creative and deeper-level thinking. Lego, historically, I am sure, has been responsible for the stimulation of creative thought processes in young inventors for many decades. More recently, Marble Run has blossomed onto the market, appearing nationwide in classrooms as students test the many laws of physics in order to have the marble race down the track to the finish line. Despite having these two sets of toys in our house for the past few years, it was only this morning that my children truly used them in an unadulterated, purely creative manner. And why, after all this time of having them in our house? Because I threw out the instructions for their use.

Marble Run comes with a variety of pieces that, when joined together can create mind-boggling towers and paths with which to run a marble from top to bottom. It is about deciding the most creative ways with which the marble can wind, spin, rotate and speed down to the end of the run. In the same game is a brochure demonstrating the sorts of structures the manufacturer suggests children could make with the pieces. When my children were given this game, they initially explored how to use the pieces and familiarised themselves with the concept. And then my son found the instructions along with the visual examples of structures he could make. The focus drastically changed. Instead of spewing forth with ideas and trials in creating his own structure, he held up the instructions and said ‘Mummy I want to make that one’. Suddenly his ‘kid power’ was switched off and he desired the easiest option available – that of imitation. He no longer was hypothesising, problem solving, imagining and creating. He simply wanted a copy of someone else’s idea.

So the instructions magically disappeared from the package one day in our house, never to be found again. Their absence has not been missed. And this morning we saw the benefits of this in my son and his sisters play. Not only did they both create unique structures, but when his top-heavy creation did not balance by itself, he was able to problem solve a solution. He learned the technique of counter balancing. He also learned the art of trial and error, as well as the skills of patience, turn-taking and compromise. All because he was working toward the picture in his head, rather than the picture on the paper. When both he and his sister had created their own structure, they then found a way to combine them both into a super structure, from which the marble could travel through extensively. The sense of achievement as the marble raced through its first successful run was immeasurable. The excitement and enthusiasm to better each run was infectious and the engagement by both children was high. Far more than I had observed in any previous play with the same equipment.

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So engaged in the creative process that he remembered the Lego packed away in the wardrobe. The big container was pushed out and the lid opened. As he dug through the box he unearthed a pamphlet showing once again a variety of suggestions of use that had once been attached to a Lego package. ‘Mum, I want to make a fire engine’. Back to square one. Now to have those instructions magically disappear………

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The Quiet Abuse of our Modern Children

In the grand scheme of things I have not been working in the education profession for long. I am not a ‘seasoned’ teacher with a significant number of years under my belt. In the time I have worked in education, however, I have worked primarily in an area where one would see the very worst in child behaviour and emotional well being. I have met children with lives outside of school filled with violence, neglect and poverty. Children who, as a direct result of their parents actions, have been traumatised to where their lives will never be the same again. This level of abuse against children has always captured the eye of the media, for its shock and stun factor with the general public. As a society, it is agreed without doubt that this is a completely unacceptable way in which children should experience their childhood years. And so the big sweeping statements from central government are made, the policies are created, the government agencies are sent out in troops and these offenders (where possible) are rounded up with children relocated…..often into equally unsuitable home settings.

But there is a quiet and subtle abuse that  appears to be significantly increasing yet to capture media (and therefore government) attention. Neglectful Parenting will also have life-long, and inter-generational impacts on society that we are yet to fully comprehend. But neglectful parenting does not seem to be understood in its entirety. Neglect comes to the attention of our government agency charged with child safety when children’s basic human needs are not being met. Primarily food, shelter and supervision from adults. What does not seem to be considered as neglectful within these categories is the inability of adults to love and give attention to the children they are responsible for. Yet, anecdotally, there would seem to be an ever increasing number of children walking through the school gates who are experiencing a level of neglect that is having a detrimental effect to their emotional and social well being. They come from a home where they have food, are clean, and have basic clothing requirements (mostly) met. But they do not have an emotional connection to a significant parent. As a teacher, this is by far the hardest level of neglect to address in a classroom.

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Children from these home environments typically struggle to manage themselves socially and emotionally on a daily basis. They are anxious, defensive, reactive and can display what seems to be an overreaction to minor issues. They do not have the resilience that a child from an emotionally-secure background would have. Simply, they are lost. Lost in a world in which adults are not there to provide calm and comfort, love and care. For some, they learn that when they demonstrate a need for comfort (such as crying, or raging) an adult is not there to respond to them and keep them emotionally safe. For others, they may have had this initially, but as they lose the ‘cute-factor’ of babyhood, they have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘harden up’ and so subsequently lose a model of appropriate emotional response to the trials and tribulations of life ahead. Some children are simply so tired because their lives outside of school are either rushed with parents juggling from one job/event/appointment to the next, or because parents are so unpredictable and have little routines at home to communicate a sense of order for their children. And there are a growing majority of children coping with the emotional burden of adult worries, particularly where relationships have broken down and separations have occurred. For these children, their childhood is not only impacted with the loss of their two-parent family structure, but they are then burdened with the care of their (usually) Mum and her emotional needs of company and companionship.

What is of most concern is that there would appear to be a generation of children growing up that simply do not have the skills to cope with the rigors of adult life. As a result of these types of neglectful parenting, they will enter adulthood without a secure emotional foundation on which to build positive and fulfilling relationships with others. They will have needs that will go unmet. And this will then begin to impact on their ability to appropriately parent the next generation. Thus the snow-ball effect will continue. Predictably there may be far reaching effects into areas such as adolescent and adult mental health, crime rates, rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce statistics and so on. If we do not meet the emotional needs of our young, the problem will become society’s as they reach adulthood.

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There does not appear to be an easy answer. It does appear that the snowball has already begun its alpine descent, and is quickly gathering momentum (and size). What would slow its pace somewhat would be a nationwide focus on preventative, rather than reactive care for parents and their families. Making it acceptable for parents to acknowledge that this job is horrendously complicated, complex and damn hard work. Allowing parents to share their struggles without judgment of their abilities. Having a government department not focused just on the bottom of the cliff, but getting in early and providing parents with education around the fundamental emotional needs of children in the first few years of their lives. Providing families in the midst of separation with education around how to not burden their children with the adult problems going on around them. In short, protecting children from adulthood and all that it comes with for just that little bit longer. Allowing children to experience a pure childhood……with a sense of emotional security that ultimately builds resilience and self-identity. All while modelling to children a pattern of responsive parenting that they can then adopt in adulthood as they become parents themselves.

It is time parents were given the opportunity to reflect on the quiet form of abuse that is neglectful parenting. Parenting is so much more than feeding, clothing and sheltering children. It is so much harder than that. It is about stepping outside of yourself and putting your children first. In every part of your day.

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The Last Noo Noo

Tonight my 3 year old son asked me to read a favourite of his before bedtime – The Last Noo Noo by Jill Murphy. Being that this book was his favourite, I am now in a position to read the book from memory, given the numerous requests for it each night. Despite having read this book to the point of exhaustion I had never considered the way in which I could use it as a teaching tool around emotional literacy.

Emotional literacy is the awareness and understanding of our emotions. When a child is emotionally connected, not only will they be able to explain how they feel, but also know what to be able to do with the emotions they have. This is a particularly difficult skill to master, even for many adults. There is an assumption that children just know how they are feeling and what it’s called. Unless parents consciously teach emotional literacy to their children, children will pick up parts of these skills by osmosis and observation, rather than in more conscious and meaningful ways. And more often than not it is their peers that they imitate rather than adults modelling appropriate skills and strategies.

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Many parents are unaware of those teachable moments in the day that serve to shape children’s emotional regulation. The way in which parents use their attention is a powerful tool in consciously teaching children about their emotions and how to regulate them. In reading The Last Noo Noo tonight, I was able to seize on one of these such moments. I was able to point to the illustration of the Monster and say ‘look at his face, he is looking really sad isn’t he?’ And that was it. A simple moment in which I highlighted to my son the look on his favourite characters face and gave it a name. That is what sad looks like. We then carried on with the story and he was not subjected to a barrage of formal teaching in the last few minutes of his day before sleep.

This is such a simple starting point for parents unsure as to how to go about helping their children to develop emotional literacy. Using those moments to point out the faces or behaviour of those around them and giving the underlying emotion a name. As children are exposed to more and more real-life moments of seeing what sad, happy, angry, frustrated, proud and jealous looks like, they will begin to be able to notice it more in themselves and in others. What is key at this point is for the parent to assist their children in identifying how those feelings feel in their own ‘insides’. Again, a simple way to do this is by parents noticing their own child’s feeling and specifically commenting on them as the observer. Almost as if their child were the character in the book and the parent pointing out ‘you are looking very happy’. I was conscious of this just last week when my daughter flew through the door with her first Principal’s certificate. The smile on her face reached from ear to ear and she looked as if she were to burst. After the initial congratulatory exchange, I commented ‘you must be so proud of yourself…..are you proud?’ to which she nodded (too proud to speak). Another teachable moment in which she connected her ‘insides’ to a label within a context that was relevant to her.

The struggle for many parents is in how to approach children when they are unable to manage their negative emotions, such as anger and frustration. There is no different an approach to the ‘noticing’ of the emotion discussed above. But in order for our children to learn how to manage these emotions, or what to do with them, they must be taught what is appropriate. Discussions need to happen with children when they are not consumed with these negative feelings about ways to manage and what to do. For example, ‘when I am mad, I need to go and stomp ten times outside before I can calm my body down’. Children need to know it is ok to be mad, sad, angry or frustrated. These are perfectly normal human reactions to events that occur. What children need are guidelines for what to do when they are feeling these negative emotions. They need to be coached in order to develop self-regulation and management of their behaviour in these moments. It is unrealistic to expect that children will know how to safely be angry, when they have not had anyone to teach them the relevant strategies. And yet, for many children, they are often scolded or punished when they use inappropriate strategies in moments of anger or sadness. By coupling the labelling of the emotion (you look angry) with a coping statement (but you are taking some deep breaths) children begin to understand what is expected of them when feeling these negative emotions.

Children are arriving at school today with an increasing inability to manage themselves and engage in appropriate pro social behaviour. By looking for teachable moments whereby parents can coach children to understand and build emotional literacy, they will be giving children opportunities to learn how to manage themselves and regulate their emotions. Children need the adults around them to model appropriate pro-social behaviour and coping strategies when things get tough. They will not learn these skills from their peers or siblings. Parents need to consciously notice, comment and support children’s emotional literacy. These moments can be brief and sporadic through the day, but they are moments of invaluable learning for our children. It can be as simple as just noticing a little monster and the sad look on his face on the page of a favourite book.

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