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Child videos linked to night terrors

When we first had our kids, we knew we had to toss our TV.  It’s pretty common knowledge that television and videos aren’t exactly positive influences on early child development.  We have all heard the rhetoric about television overloading young children’s brains with too many flashing scenes, and stimuli, not to mention bad language and violence.  However, until only recently have we been able to make a direct correlation with our 5 year old watching videos, and then having night terrors.  The only case we will allow child appropriate vides generally is when she is sick, and unable or willing to do anything else (after exhausting games, crafts, book reading etc).  We also carefully prescreen and watch videos with them where possible, only allowing very benign age appropriate content such as Cailliou, and try to avoid the Disney Studios etc.

The Waldorf school system also warns strongly against overstimulation of our children, especially from mainstream media.  Here is a passage from an experienced Waldorf teacher;

“The etheric body is the life wisdom which builds in the body.  Up until the change of teeth, the child’s forces are forming their organs.  If we wake up the child’s thinking prematurely then these forces move into the nervous system before the organs are properly formed. “

Basically, the jist of this I think is that we need to protect our children from over-stimulation at all costs.  It hurts not only their imagination but also impacts their delicate nervous systems. Children  lack the filters that adults have for sense impressions that flood into our bodies.  Children are imitators, and will echo bad language, violence and actions that they see in videos, or elsewhere for that matter.

The best way to stimulate the imagination and mind with young children, according to Waldorf and other education experts, is through spoken stories.  In fact, since the beginning of time, spoken word storytelling was the only way to carry our culture forward through the generations.  Books are still of course great for visual cues, especially at a younger age when they don’t have language skills yet, but books can actually give too much visual information and can actually hamper child creativity.  It’s often a good idea not to just read a book, but also pause at the pictures, and engage children with questions about them. Ask them to explain what they think is happening in the story just from the pictures first, before you read it to them.  Better yet, tell them true stories about your day or stories of when you were young.  I know my daughter loves when I tell her about my adventures after I come back from backcountry skiing, complete with “snow ghosts” and “tree bombs”.  As long as it’s age-appropriate and told in kid language, then she laps it up.

So, does this imply don’t read your children books?  No, of course not, but it does raise an interesting concept about letting our children’s mind do the work rather than us.  Waldorf dolls, for example, have blank faces and basic body forms… vs Disney characters that show all details on the face, with ornate dresses, make-up etc..  Waldorf toys are typically basic wood objects, such as blocks or a simple stage or shelter where kids can then embelish and decorate with their own imaginations. What is important I believe is in planting seeds of ideas and stories in our children’s minds, and then let their creativity and imagination grow them organically.

Teach Self-Compassion over Self-Esteem

Childhood development experts used to believe that if we taught our kids to have good self-esteem, they would grow up to be more self-confident and resilient.  The problem with that is that boosting self esteem means that you are actually teaching them to compare themself to others, often in a competitive way.  Competition in children is widely discouraged in many leading alternative school systems such as Waldorf and Montessori.  Competitive behaviour and even competitive sports among young children actually can harm self-esteem and makes having compassion or empathy for others more difficult.  When a child tries to be a “winner”, there are also “losers”, and having a child feel that they have “lost” is extremely damaging. Where self-compassion is a way of relating to your self — especially when times are tough — self-esteem is a measure of yourself against others. In order to keep self-esteem high, you have to convince yourself you are better (or the best), either by denying your faults and pains or by putting others down, and usually both.

Constantly offering praise to your children has also been shown to cause more fragile emotional states and narccism.  Rather than praising your child, you should think about praising (or evaluating) what they have done, not themselves.  Saying “you are a great artist!” when a child makes a nice looking bit of artwork leaves them open to having their own self criticized the next time a picture doesn’t work out as well.  Rather, the approach should be, “I really like the colours you used in that painting”.  This separates the person from the action.  Children need unconditional love, and a strong attachment bond to feel secure and be resilient.  Conversely, “punishing” your child by separating them also creates long lasting resentment and can cause them to pull away from you into adolescence (e.g. using timeouts, a mass media and often harmful technique that has numerous negative and long-lasting effects).

Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She is involved in psychological research on self-compassion and wrote “Self-Compassion” (William Morrow, 2011), released this April. This field of research now has  psychologists finding that self-compassion may be the most important life skill, imparting resilience, courage, energy and creativity.

But how do you create children with strong self-compassion?

1) Be kind to yourself

Modelling and imitation is the most important way your children learn from you.  Self-compassion is hard, but if you can understand your own emotions and use this in a positive way, then your children follow your example (see Gordon Neufeld’s book “You are your child’s first teacher”).

2) Teach kids the truth about life

Show children that everthing doesn’t always work out. Avoid sugar-coating the truth, and help them dwell a little longer on situations which aren’t going their way. Don’t be in a rush to “fix” everything.  Sometimes, it’s best to just recognize and talk about the emotions they are experiencing, rather than solving their current dilemna (“I see you are very frustrated this morning.  That’s hard isn’t it?”).

3) Ease into self-compassion slowly

Help children become more mindful of their own emotions.  Talk about what they are feeling and why before looking ahead to what to do about it.  This will help them recognize why they feel the way they do, and will foster more resilience in the future.

4) Judge the behaviour, not the child

Separate the action from the individual.  Don’t tell your child that they are great when they do a somersault, since when they can’t do a cartwheel, they will take it personally.

5) Model future behaviour, don’t punish the past

Compassionate discipline means understanding and listening to the child first. Without empathizing, you won’t understand truly where your child is coming from.