look for the good

I just found this while cleaning up some archived emails. I wrote it back in 2005 ...


I am all aglow this morning, having just spent 30 minutes over at the middle school with my son.

Each month, the teachers there are encouraged to nominate a student who quietly, day in and day out, makes the school a more positive and fulfilling place to be. These students receive an award for their leadership at a celebratory breakfast, which their parents also attend.

I think it's common knowledge that I'm a sap, so it will come as no surprise to hear that I always have to bring tissues to these things. It's very gratifying to hear that others recognize wonderful qualities in my son, but warm little tears were trickling down my cheeks long before it was his turn on stage.

What gets me is things like this:

A slouching, acne-afflicted teenage girl shyly straightens up and smiles as her teacher tells us story after story about her positive attitude and eagerness to help...

A tall and beautiful girl is recognized for her deep compassion and trustworthiness, rather than for her physical attractiveness and popularity...

A gangly snowboarder kid stands up there next to his choir teacher, hair all spiked up, pants halfway down his bottom, parents in the audience, and hears her tell us all that she witnessed him comforting a classmate who was crying outside the music room.

It just chokes me up. Few people passing this tough-looking kid on the street would have suspected that he had such a kind heart. (In fact, his teacher winked at us and told us to keep this info confidential, or it might ruin his reputation with his peers!)

so what's fresh in my mind is this: please, please, please make a huge effort to find something that you appreciate about your child, and tell him or her about it, EVERY SINGLE DAY.

and hey, while you're at it, why not do this with your mate, your coworkers and even yourself, too!

I could just see the wheels turning in those kids' heads up there - someone had noticed their inherent goodness and their positive action, and the recognition felt so good. And now, they want to do and be more of that. When we see the goodness in others, they usually try to prove us right by living up to it.

I'm not advocating shallow or manipulative praise, or suggesting that without external reward these kids would stop doing good deeds. I'm simply observing how nice it feels to notice and appreciate kindness, as well as to be noticed and appreciated for your kindness. And I'm wanting to remind us all of the magical power of our attention. Shine it like the sun on the things you want to grow!


For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com

internet safety for girls

interesting article from CNN about how teenage girls can minimize the risk of receiving unwanted sexual advances online:


For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit http://www.karenalonge.com/

grounding and curfew violations

There's an important distinction between grounding for protective or punitive reasons.

Punitive grounding is intended to apply uncomfortable consequences and restrictions which can be avoided in the future by complying with parental rules. It may appear to work in the short term, but rarely triggers permanent changes in high risk behaviors. In fact, punitive grounding often simply inspires teens to find creative ways of not getting caught. (Such coming home on time and then sneaking out their bedroom windows later ...)

Protective grounding is intended to maintain safety; to scale choices and privileges back to the zone where teens can handle their freedom without risking harm to themselves or others.

Let's listen in on both types of groundings being applied to a curfew violation such as coming home late without calling first:

Punitive: You blew it and were irresponsible. Now you have to stay at home for the next four weekends. That'll teach you a lesson!

Protective: Well, it seems like you aren't quite ready yet to handle the freedom of being out that late with your friends. I'll know you are ready when you are coming home on time or calling me to let me know when something legitimate prevents you from doing so.

For now, I'm scaling your curfew back to 9:00 to see if that's an easier target to hit. When you are consistently home on time, we can look at extending it in 30 minute increments. I'm sure it won't be long before you are ready to try 11:00 again.

Here's why I advocate for protective grounding rather than punitive: brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought, logic, planning ahead, and consequential thinking, is not fully and reliably connected to and in charge of the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain until age of 25 or so.

It's the cortex that controls impulses in order to prevent unwanted consequences. Think of the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain as the steering wheel and gas pedal, respectively. The prefrontal cortex is the brake pedal. When the wiring is not fully connected, or shorts out occasionally, your teen moves full speed ahead in whatever direction her emotions steer her. She acts first, and if she's lucky, she might think about it later.

(Insurance company statistics provide very compelling evidence of what happens until that cortex is fully wired in, which is why their premiums are sky high until the mid-twenties. And rental car companies won't even let anyone under 25 behind the wheel of their cars!)

You might protest that your teen is perfectly responsible and logical most of the time, and you are right, of course. The cortex/brake pedal has been wiring itself in since birth, and is usually fairly well connected by high school under ideal conditions. But add a little alcohol, a little peer pressure, a little mob mentality, or a little sexual tension, and the tenuous connections between the cortex and the rest of the brain fizzle out. Without the brakes, accidents are bound to happen.

Protective grounding is like lending your teenager your fully functional brake pedal. It's saying, Hey, I know your brake isn't reliable under all conditions quite yet, so I'm not going to put you on the highway in a blizzard. Let's start with the back roads. I will keep you safe, and my brakes will stop you when yours can't.

When our teens show us that they can't yet make safe choices in certain conditions, we are wise to scale their freedom back to the last level where they demonstrated consistent self-control, and then inch them forward slowly again, with our support. It's not helpful to lock them in their rooms for a month and then send them back into the fray again!

They need baby steps. They need practice. They need support, and guidance, and protection from the damaging consequences of their own impulsivity while their internal brakes gain strength and consistency.

Protective grounding provides exactly the kind of resources that the teenage brain needs to fully wire in that prefrontal cortex; safety, information, a rational and reasonable adult to imitate, and compassionate parental protection until he can trust his own brakes.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com

My son is so hard on himself!

Q: My son sets impossible standards for himself and then gets upset when he can't meet them. I try to tell him that it's okay to make mistakes because that's how we learn, but he still gets so down on himself for "failing." I know how painful it is to be a perfectionist because I'm the same way. How can I help him lighten up?

A: Yes, perfectionism can be painful. And it can also be a gift. I suspect that you've achieved some amazing feats in your life because of your visionary idealism and your drive to improve upon whatever you can. No doubt your family has also been blessed with many gifts because of the kind of parent your inner drive has motivated you to become.

brain 101

this is sort of a user's manual for your brain, written by a self-proclaimed 'grumpy' scientist who is scrupulous about his research and sources. I think you'll find it illuminating, and I bet you'll learn something new about how your child's brain functions. ( and yours, too!)


For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com

a sweet story for mother's day

You might want to have some tissues handy when you read it. It's about a Boulder woman who offers to give birth to her best friend's child.


For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com

Parenting a high school senior

Q: During the past 3 months, my straight A daughter, who is a senior in high school, has become a C student. Her grades started slipping when she started dating -- before then she had no real interest in boys. She says she is 18 and can do as she likes. We have always been a close family and are just worried, not about our daughter growing up, but about her future. If you have any suggestions about how to take care of this I would appreciate it greatly.

-Concerned Dad
(note from karen: this question was edited for brevity)

A: It can be really painful to witness our offspring learning from experience ... even excruciating at times. We can feel so powerless -- like our children are slipping from our grasp and there's nothing we can do about it. It's easy to fear for their future. We've seen so much more than they have, and we worry that a few poor choices now can irrevocably change the course of their lives.

Helping your athlete deal with poor sportsmanship

Q: My daughter pitches on the Little League (LL) softball team. Last night, the coach of the traveling team, who is also the father of another pitcher, stood a yard from my daughter when she was doing her pitching warm-up. He then stood at the fence next to her dugout during the game and tried to intimidate her by staring fiercely at her.

I didn't say anything to him, but am really angry. My daughter said that it bothered her having him stand there, but that she finally was able to ignore him. However, she played worse than I have ever seen her play. It was so frustrating.

What should I do, if anything?

- Her Number One Fan
(note from karen: this question was edited for brevity)

A: Yuck. No wonder you are frustrated! Bullying is hard enough to deal with when it comes from another kid, but from an adult? And a coach, no less? That's out of line!

consequences vs. collaboration

How many parents have ever heard their young children issuing ultimatums? Playmates may hear If you won't play Barbies, I am leaving. Toys and dolls are ordered to Stop crying or go to your room. Even parents are not exempt: Mommy, I'll only eat these green beans if you give me two cookies for dessert.

Where does this stuff come from? I have a theory. (Of course ... don't I always have a theory?) The Top Down model of parenting teaches our children that big people are in charge of little people, and can therefore unilaterally impose their will on them. Remember that story where the boss yells at the father, who comes home and yells at his wife, who then yells at their children, who in turn kick the dog? It's a big long chain of pain.

At least the techniques for domination have been updated for modern times. These days, we rarely hear mothers threatening, Just wait til your father gets home. He'll take his belt to you! Instead we hear, Okay, Junior, if you don't get your shoes on right now, you are choosing 10 minutes in time out.

I don't believe we've come as far from our belt-wielding days as we'd like to think. In my opinion, issuing consequences is still a coercion-based technique. Many popular parenting models still tell us that we must decide unilaterally what our children should do, and then impose unpleasant consequences for non-compliance.

If little Sarah speaks to us in an angry tone of voice, we are supposed to tell her to go to her room until she can be sweet. If Timmy bops Joey over the head with a truck, he is told to take a time out. If Jenny isn't hungry at dinnertime, we are supposed to tell her there will be no more food until breakfast.

Sometimes consequences do appear to work. Sanctions may create enough pain or discomfort that the other party temporarily does what we want. Even so, if we stop and ask ourselves why they did what we want, what the cost is to the goodwill between us, and what it will take to sustain their compliance, we realize that Top Down is a lot of work. That's because it is still very much about wielding power and control.

To verify the presence of a power and control dynamic, ask yourself if issuing consequences would fly between two equals, such as a husband and wife, or two neighbors. If you don't clean out the garage by the end of the day today, I'm taking your car keys.

How about between two countries? If you don't do what we want, we will bomb you. (Well, yes, that is actually what happens sometimes, and it often triggers a major chain reaction that leaves both sides hurting.)

I think we usually squirm a little when we hear kids issuing our ultimatums back to us because we hear the disrespect inherent in the Top Down model; it's not relational, it's dictatorial.

When we take a closer look, imposed consequences may not be teaching the lessons we want our kids to learn. High level relational skills, the kind that prevent wars and lead to loving and respectful coexistence, involve acknowledging the other party's perspective as valid even if it differs from our own, and working together to generate productive solutions that feel acceptable to each side.

Children learn what they live. Top Down parenting does not teach them to listen; it demands obedience. It does not teach our kids to understand and accept different perspectives, or to consider the needs of other. It teaches them that Might = Right.

So what's the alternative? Collaboration. We communicate our concerns, invite the child to do the same, and then work together on finding a solution that satisfies both of us.

I (parent) want to stay and talk to my friend a while longer, and you (child) are ready to leave now. What can we do? (possible collaborative solutions you may decide on together: child waits in the car, child has a snack while adult finishes talking, child runs around the whole playground one time and then we go, we leave now and adult calls her friend on her cell phone to finish talking during the walk back home)

You want to play Barbies, and Amy wants to paint. What can we do? (possible collaborative solutions you may help them decide on together: Let Barbie paint, too -- maybe she can foot paint instead of finger paint. Maybe Amy can paint something for Barbie, like a beach scene. Maybe you can take Barbie outside and Amy can water paint with the hose while you give Barbie a bath. Or maybe a complete change of scene is in order: Hey, let's all head over to the park!)

If the child is too young to verbalize his or her perspective and needs, we tune in to their non-verbal messages and take a guess at what might be going on for them. I see you are dropping your banana chunks off the highchair tray. I bet it's fun to see them fall!

Then we verbalize our own perspective and needs. Bananas make the floor slippery, and I don't want to clean the floor to make it safe again right now.

Finally, we speak out loud the process by which we come to a solution that may work for both of us.

Let's put your high chair out in the yard and you can drop the bananas where the birds can clean them up later.


Here are some blocks that you can drop off your tray instead. They aren't slippery, so they won't make the floor unsafe.


Let's get you down and drop some soft toys over the back of the couch together.

You get the idea, right? A whole world of creative possibilities open up when we get the perspective and needs of each party on the table. When we work together to find win-win solutions, rather than simply imposing our will, we teach our children how to acknowledge other perspectives, and hold them accountable for cooperating rather than either becoming dominant or submissive.

I realize this is a somewhat radical idea, and it's very different from how most of us were raised, and therefore doesn't always come naturally at first. If you read this and think, Okay, but what about .... please feel free to send me your yeah-buts, questions or concerns, and I'll answer them here.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit http://www.karenalonge.com/