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Children in Crisis; The Asphalt Flower

August 18, 2010 1 comment

Between the Asphalt and the Paver

I have a very small 4’ x 5’ garden between my front door and my garage. I always plant Impatience there in the spring. They thrive in the shade and don’t need much water. I love their colors and happy faces. This year a seed must have blown over from the garden and landed between the asphalt and garden wall. Moss is growing in this small in between space with very little soil. From my perspective, a desert for flowers as the car is always pulling in and out with its exhaust fumes settling on the hot asphalt and concrete of this space.

A miracle occurred! I looked down today and saw the most wonderful flowers flourishing in this tiny unlikely place. I smiled in wonder. I thought to myself that if a flower could grow here, in this alien place, why couldn’t children flourish anywhere if their teachers and curriculum engaged their real curiosity? It isn’t the place or the amount of money that delivers information and education to the open minds of children; it is the fertile seeds we spread in their imaginations that engage their curiosity and lure them into learning. The human mind is a wondrous thing. Once it connects to an intriguing idea it doesn’t let go. Children are tenacious!

The worst possible disease for a young mind is boredom. Are we boring our children with information that is no longer applicable to their realities? Are our teachers bonded to curriculums that even they find irrelevant in our “Technological-Information Age”? Are we teaching subjects to children that offer no solutions to the problems they face? Let’s look at what we require them to learn in our public educational system and where they usually are mentally at each of these stages:

PRIMARY SCHOOL: Kindergarten age 5, and age 6 to 11 – grades 1 through 6

When children arrive in primary school they usually have a fixed classroom and one teacher for the entire day. The major goals of primary education rest in achieving basic literacy and numeracy for all children. These are important things; we have to read, speak, and calculate. It is also structured to establish a foundation in mathematics, science, geography, and history. As we all know, the priority of various matter and methods used to teach them are of considerable political debate.

This is the time in a child’s life when they are exploring their world. They ask a lot of questions and want to experience everything they imagine. Children love color. We should have them in huge rooms with lots of paint buckets, brushes, and huge pieces of paper, foam core board, or canvas so they can run amuck expressing themselves with vigilant assistance. They love music, but they love better to make music. Anything will do, old wooden sticks banging on pots, spoons banging on glass jars semi filled with water, or combs covered in tissue that make a harmonica. They will invent their own band with their imagination. They love bugs, and frogs, and worms, and bees, and butterflies. They love tinkering and dissecting into things. They love splashing in streams, gathering rocks, running in fields, and climbing trees. They love to build forts and hide out in them. They especially love to plant seeds and impatiently wait for them to grow into beanstalks! How can we fit these wondrous curiosities into their Primary School curriculum?

Brain studies prove these are the best years for a child to learn a foreign language but we don’t introduce this to them until Junior High School. What a waste!

MIDDLE SCHOOL: Generally age 12 through 14 – grades 7, 8 and 9

Upon arrival in Middle and/or Junior High School, students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take different subjects from several teachers in a given day. They move from room to room for instruction. The classes are usually a set of four or five core academic subjects. This core course includes English or “Language Arts”, Science, Mathematics, History or “Social Studies”, and in some schools a Foreign Language. They may also have two to four other classes, either electives or supplementary or remedial academic classes. When they complete Junior High School they will have had 9 years of core subjects in English language, 9 years of Mathematics and 9 years of Science.

This is the time in a child’s life where they are becoming aware of the other gender. Girls are interested in makeup; boys are strutting about like peacocks. They are curious about their bodies, their moods, their social structure within the group, and their appearance. They are experiencing puberty, a complex of emotional chemistry, and some frustrations. They have questions they don’t know how to ask and so they remain silent or talk amongst themselves. They love music, technology, games, and the outdoors if it doesn’t blow their hair in a mess.

I have often wondered why we don’t include courses during these years in Human Anatomy, Personal Hygiene, Social Manners, Communication Skills, Debate, Nutrition and Health, and Personal Grooming to name a few. Wouldn’t this ease their path into young adulthood?

HIGH SCHOOL: Generally age 15 through 17 – grades 10, 11 and 12

Upon arrival in high school a class period is the time allotted for one class session. The courses a student signs up for are arranged in a certain order to fit his or her individual schedule and generally do not change for the remainder of the school year, with the exception of semester courses. A period may vary in time, but it is usually 45 minutes long. There is wide variance in the curriculum required each year but many American high schools require the core courses; English, Science, Social Studies, Mathematics. The majority of high schools require four English credits to graduate. Generally, three science courses are required; Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Usually only three math credits are required for graduation; Geometry, Algebra I, Algebra II, Trigonometry, and Calculus are offered. The Social Studies include; World History, U.S. History, Government and sometimes Economics and Accounting are offered. Two to three years of Physical Education are required. There are also a number of electives allowed depending on where a child attends school.

During this time in a teenager’s life they are interested in and confronted by a host of challenges: Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco, Sex, Family Upheavals, Peer Pressure, Emotional Stress, Image Building, Ego Wars, Obesity, Money Management, Family Financial Problems, and many other subtle influences. This is the time in their lives when they are searching for knowledge that may help them solve their existing or impending life issues.

The most important personal decision a person will make in their life is who they select to marry, for that is the person with whom they have and raise children. The most important significant financial decision a young person makes is the first house they buy. This commitment creates a lifelong debt.

Shouldn’t we be offering courses of instruction which include dating, courtship, engagement, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing, family structure, childhood education, and more? Shouldn’t we be offering instruction in financial matters such as; money handling, personal banking, savings accounts, checking accounts, balancing a check book, personal loans, budgeting? How about offering real estate courses; how to buy a home, financing options, real estate agents and real estate contracts, real estate laws, home inspection, closing costs, taxes, recording documents, home construction, or more?

Do you remember when you were doing these things for the first time? It was a little unnerving!  Some preparation would have helped to make better and more informed decisions.

Above all remember that by the time a student graduates from high school they will have had 12 years of English language, 12 years of Mathematics, and 12 years of Science. Why is it our children are unable to speak the English language articulately, compose a well written paragraph, prepare for a job interview, balance a checkbook, develop and manage a budget, understand the principles of nutrition, health, body balance in chemistry and biology, and other life enhancing, essential behaviors? To prove my point, ask your child to write a story, or tell you about vitamins and minerals that are indispensable for the body and good health, or create a budget and a financial plan for the month. Try it.

These are the things I think about when I look at my impatience growing on the pavement next to my garage.



Children in Crisis; Taking on the Challenges of Parenting

It seems these days that all things begin simple and go to complex as the discussion moves up the chain of command. For example, what is complicated about parenting? It takes common sense, serious thought, dedicated action, and daily commitment. Instead of focusing on the simplicity of what should come naturally to parents in raising children, we build elaborate explanations for poor parenting. Instead of tackling the parenting issue in a straightforward manner as Bill Cosby does, we build an array of complex solutions that require funding, governmental intervention that support places to dump our children, and academic treatise that define a multitude of esoteric explanations devoted to “parenting problems”.

Having said this, I was ruffling about in the stacks of papers on my desk looking for my latest thoughts on parenting when I came across an article I read and printed on March 7, 2010. It was printed in “The Daily Monitor; Truth Everyday; Uganda News…” It came from the Sunday Life section of the paper. I have no recollection of the article and I was intrigued as to what it was that made me print this article by Dennis D. Muhumuza. He credited Fagil Mandy, an educational consultant in Uganda, who developed a series of trainings. Mandy says, “The rising cases of child sacrifice, street children, starvation of children and violence in homes has resulted in a parenting crisis.” The article is amazing in its simplicity of solutions. Follow below the thinking of Fagil Mandy as he is interviewed by Dennis Muhumuza on Uganda’s “parenting crisis”.

Why have you started the Good Parenting training?

Because there is a parenting crisis and we cannot afford to have our future generations going without proper tuning and direction. Parents or potential parents, young people and university students, policy implementers or leaders both in government and private sector or even those interested in learning more about good parenting need to know about addressing the challenges of parenting today; we are going to look at the world of work and education; how to train a child to be a worker, thinker, leader. The world is changing so fast that the demands on a child or the growing up generations are so intense and diversified and the parent must be brought along to understand the diversity in the world today.

You talked of a parenting crisis. What really is the problem?

I’ve run workshops for parents and young people and have made some discoveries: I’ve found out, particularly children from middle class parents have no capacities to deliver, to work, to produce or generate ideas. And, today, because most parents are working, the child is largely neglected so there is an increasing mystery or this huge gap between the parents and the children. Also, I’ve met a lot of parents who think parenting is simply producing a child; most of them think that a child of four or five years doesn’t need any particular guidance and counseling, or driving in a certain direction, so there’s a heavy dose of ignorance. Even more, our education system is not equipping our children with the right attitude, mindset and physical skills to succeed in this tough world.

What are the major concerns of young people in regard to the way they are brought up?

The last time I carried out a leadership training programme, I asked the children what they would have wished their parents to teach them. Many of them regretted that their parents had not talked to them enough about issues of love, relationships, sexuality and even politics and leadership. Also, most of them complained their fathers hardly featured in their lives and that they feel not protected or guided by their parents.

Did you also register any complaints by parents about their children?

Of course! Most parents cried out about the cartoons on TV; their children are becoming cartoons themselves; TV has become a preoccupation for young people. And most TV stations show pornographic material – it is killing their children.

But how can children keep themselves occupied meaningfully in a situation where parents are at work and cannot keep a close eye on them?

But you see, I don’t agree that every parent must work away from home. One of my sons works but his wife is a stay-at-home mother. But most mothers don’t want to first stay home and raise their children because of greed, it’s all primitive accumulations; we think that the wife must produce so much money and the husband so much money but I think someone intelligent enough must sacrifice; why can’t wife and husband organize their activities in such a way that, say, the husband works out and the wife stays at home or looks after a small family business that involves the children too? Parents must involve children in the family business.

In this age of emancipation, women cannot surely be expected to stay at home to look after children.

Why not? I think, again, it is greed; a lot of women are running around in this so called economic independence because they want to run wild programmes. I disagree with that sort of thing because every child needs a stay-at-home mother because there is no way you are going to compensate for the emotional dislocation of a child who has not had proper parentage.

What is the true measure of a parent?

First, one must be knowledgeable enough – one is not going to be a parent worth their soul when they are ignorant; a parent must know a bit of everything because they are the encyclopedia for their child. Secondly, parents must know how to do several things because a child must follow their example; you must be a good reader, be able to clean your own compound, fix a bulb and have a multi-skilled capacity for your child to emulate. Also, you must be healthy; no child likes to grow up with a dying parent; remember, a parent must help the child lead a healthy life and how can you do that if you are not healthy yourself? Then of course, a parent must be able to generate enough income to look after the family and be available to provide the time required for the child. If you are unavailable, don’t produce the child.

Simple, straight forward, uncomplicated – Mr. Fagil Mandy is on to something in Uganda!

Are animals better parents than humans?

Deferred Gratification – OR- The Marshmellow Test

February 14, 2010 3 comments

DEFINITION:

Deferred gratification or delayed gratification is the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants. In formal terms, an individual should be able to calculate the net present value of future rewards and defer near-term rewards of lesser value. Animals don’t do this. This challenge is fundamental to human nature.

EXPERIMENT:

In the late nineteen-sixties, Carolyn, a four-year-old with long brown hair, was invited into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School, on the campus of Stanford University. The room was little more than a large closet, containing a desk and a chair. Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room.

OBSERVATIONS:

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. Most struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. “A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.” About thirty per cent of the children successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.

GOAL OF EXPERIMENT:

The initial goal of the experiment was to identify the mental processes that allowed some people to delay gratification while others simply surrendered and how this influenced behavior. What they discovered is that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

QUESTION:

Psychologists assumed from their observations that the children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

CONCLUSIONS:

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. For example, when Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.

Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

Mischel found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is give them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

This information was taken from the following site where you can read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer?printable=true&currentPage=6#ixzz0fXCrbwh9

MY CONCLUSIONS:
Teaching Deferred Gratification to infants and toddlers gives them a promotion into their future. It prepares them for a lifetime of choices that determines their success. We cannot always have what we want when we want it. As Parents we have the advantage of teaching our sons and daughters character, focus, and self determination. If you want to see what happens to our children when we do not parent responsibly, go to your local mall any day after school. Sit down on a bench and observe the “wandering herd”, who all look alike because they lack character and have failed to delay their choices.

Infant Brain Development – OR – Pay Attention to My Synapses

February 10, 2010 1 comment

We are buried in 4’ of snow here in the DC area. Fortunately our household has power so we are warm and I now have the time to write this post about infant brain development. The streets are deserted, the government is closed, and all is quiet. So in this silence let us go together into the infant brain.

The peak of infant brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 2. Human growth and development, through observation and neurological research, confirms our understanding that the early years of life are of critical importance for laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning and loving.

The brain is the most immature of all organs at birth. It continues to grow and develop after birth. This growth was thought to be determined primarily by genetics. Scientists now believe it is also highly dependent upon the infant’s experiences. Research shows that interactions with other people and objects are vital nutrients for the growing and developing brain. Different experiences can cause the brain to develop in different ways. It is this “plasticity” of the brain and its ability to develop and change in response to the demands of the environment, that enable children to learn how to use computers as successfully as their ancestors learned how to hunt animals in the wild. Along with genetics there is mounting evidence that experiences affect the way genes are expressed in the developing brain. While good early experiences help the brain to develop well, experiences of neglect and abuse can literally cause some genetically normal children to become mentally retarded or to develop serious emotional difficulties.

To understand how this happens, we need to understand a bit about how the brain works. The brain is comprised of many regions that perform specific functions, such as identifying what we see, processing spoken language, or assessing danger. Within each of these brain areas are millions of neurons, or nerve cells, which send messages to each other across synapses. These trillions of nerves and synapses and the pathways they form make up the wiring of the brain.

[Synaptic Brain Density – These are the neural connections that enable the brain to do its work. They increase more rapidly in the first year of life than at any other period of human development. Dendriatic Connections – These are less ingrained by experience and repetition. They are pruned away by our bodies during the second and third years of life.]

In most regions of the brain, no new neurons are formed after birth. Instead, brain development consists of an ongoing process of wiring and re-wiring the connections among neurons. New synapses between cells are constantly being formed, while others are broken or pruned away. In early childhood the brain is genetically programmed to produce more synapses than it will ultimately use. By 8 months of age a baby may have an astounding 1,000 trillion synapses in his brain! This blooming of synapses happens at different times in different areas of the brain. Development then proceeds by keeping the synapses that are used and pruning away those that aren’t. The pruning of synapses happens over the childhood years as the different areas of the brain develop. (Huttenlocher & Dabholkar, 1997).

Pruning allows the brain to keep the connections that have a purpose, while eliminating those that aren’t doing anything. Pruning increases the efficiency with which the brain can do what it needs to do. But, because the brain operates on the “use it or lose it” rule, an “over-pruning” of these connections can occur when a child is deprived of normally expected experiences in the early years. This leaves the child struggling to do what would have come more naturally otherwise. Some areas of the brain become less “plastic” or changeable when the pruning is over. This has led to tremendous concern about providing what the brain needs to prune and organize itself correctly before the “windows of opportunity” close.

A fundamental task undertaken by infants is determining how they get their needs met in the world in which they live. They are constantly assessing whether their cries for food and comfort are ignored or lovingly answered, whether they are powerless or can influence adults. If the adults in their lives respond predictably to their cries and provide for their needs, infants will be more likely to use these adults as sources of safety and security. With safety taken care of, they can focus attention on exploring, allowing their brain to take in all the wonders of the world around them. If their needs are met only sporadically and pleas for comfort are usually ignored or met with harsh words and rough handling, infants will focus their energies on ensuring that their needs are met. They will have more difficulty interacting with people and objects in their environment, and their brain will shut out the stimulation it needs to develop healthy cognitive and social skills (Lieberman & Zeanah, 1995).

Children who receive sensitive, responsive care from their parents in the first years of life enjoy an important head start toward success. The secure relationships they develop with the important adults in their lives lay the foundation for emotional development and help protect them from the many stresses they may face as they grow. Researchers who have examined the life histories of children who have succeeded despite many challenges in their lives consistently found that these people had at least one stable, supportive relationship with an adult beginning early in life (Werner & Smith, 1992).

Increasing numbers of U.S. infants and toddlers spend hours each day in various child care arrangements because their parents work or attend school. It is critical that the care these children receive promotes their healthy growth and development. Too often child care providers are poorly trained and do not provide children with appropriate stimulation. Research has shown that in the majority of infant care arrangements in the U.S., children are not talked to and played with enough, and they do not have the opportunity to form the kind of comfortable, secure relationships with a caregiver who will promote their healthy emotional development (The Cost, Quality and Child Care Outcomes Study Team, 1995; National Center for Early Development and Learning, 1999).

As our society becomes more technically and socially complex, we cannot afford to continue to allow large numbers of children to miss out on the positive experiences they need in infancy and early childhood. The costs in terms of lost intellectual potential and increased rates of emotional and behavioral problems are too high. The new developments in brain research show us what children need; our challenge is to ensure that every child receives it.

When you really think this over, it is just common sense!

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