Encouraging Children to Assess Risks

It’s Health and Safety gone mad.
At least that was the predicable reaction in a recent magazine article to the news that pre-school children as young as three are being given clipboards, builders hats and hi-viz tabards, and encouraged to spot the dangers in and around their nursery.
On the contrary, I think it’s a brilliant idea (and a quick google showed that other nurseries are already doing it).
Giving children responsibility and encouraging them to problem-solve and think for themselves, rather than simply telling them what to do (often over and over again with no apparent result)  is always going to be a win-win situation for adults and children.
I recently worked with a parent whose family referred to her as ‘Heath and Safety Mum’ because, they thought she was obsessed with what might go wrong. In fact, she was simply taking responsibility for everyday risk assessment because no one else, including her husband, ever did. As a result she spent every day out and holiday nagging at her children, they stopped listening, and no-one enjoyed themselves, least of all her.
I suggested that perhaps she should tell her family how she felt, something like: “I don’t like nagging you but I’m frightened that you are going to get hurt.”  Then she could let them identify the possible dangers and come up with solutions that would reassure everyone.  She was a bit doubtful but prepared to give it a try.
At our next session she was thrilled. The day before a trip to a country park the children had identified that the appearance of occasional cars on the otherwise quiet road was the main problem and that when this happened they would all shout to warn each other and stand on the right.  As this didn’t happen very often, they were free to whizz down the road on a skate board which was such fun that before long their mother joined in too.
The result of such a simple action was nothing short of miraculous. The woman had stopped being an annoying nag who no-one listened to, and simply become what she had been all along – a caring mother who loved her children and didn’t want to see them get hurt. The children had taken responsibility, assessed the risks and come up with practical solutions. Everyone was happy. Most important of all their mother had shown that she trusted them.
When you think about it, risk assessment is what we all do, all the time in our daily lives (unless we are very stupid), and it’s something that children used to have far more experience of when they were allowed to play outside in the streets and parks.
And who doesn’t love a builder’s hat and a hi-viz tabard? Bring on those clipboards and let your children start learning about how to cope with the world around them.

Emotional Intelligence

When educating your little one, it’s not all about teaching facts and figures. Learning about emotions is a vital element, too

You’re a model parent – from solving quadratic equations to researching Henry VIII’s wives, you’re always on hand to help your children with their homework. It’s giving them the edge over their classmates, right? Not necessarily. The latest research shows that if you really want your children to excel at school, you’ll be better off helping their emotional intelligence – or EI.

Psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire found that children with greater emotional intelligence did better in SATs and GCSEs, and that children with lower IQs often did better than those with higher ones as long as their EI was higher. ‘Faced with failure, a student low on IQ but who is emotionally intelligent will be able to manage their feelings about failure, reconcile poor performance and work to improve,’ says research leader Dr Pamela Qualter. They also tend to be better at setting goals and dealing with the stress of exams, she adds.

It’s not just academic performance that benefits either. According to John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (available from www.amazon.co.uk), a child with high EI is more able to cope with everyday highs and lows, relates better to others and forms stronger friendships than one with lower EI.

Luckily, we’re not stuck with our emotional intelligence and there’s plenty we can do to improve it. ‘Emotional intelligence is laid down in childhood but you can still learn a lot of inter-personal skills in adulthood,’ says psychologist Dr Pat Spungin of www.raisingkids.co.uk. And working with your child’s emotions will help you look at your own emotional intelligence, says Dr Qualter. ‘It’s also a great excuse to have a lot of fun in the process.’

Talk about feelings
‘Children copy their parents, so, if you don’t talk about emotions, your children will be emotionally illiterate,’ says parenting coach Dorothy Boswell. Say things like ‘I feel sad that Granny is in hospital’ or ‘I feel nervous about this new job’. And don’t forget the positive emotions too, such as ‘I feel happy when we watch DVDs together’.

‘You should also ask your children about their emotions,’ says Boswell. ‘“How did you feel when your friends didn’t play with you?”, for instance.’ It can help to talk about your own childhood experiences and how you dealt with them.

And never belittle their feelings. If your child admits they’re scared to do something, don’t say, ‘I don’t know why you’re scared – there’s nothing to be scared of’. Say it can be scary to try new things. You may need to give very young children the words to describe their feelings – disappointed, frightened or excited, for instance.

Acknowledge their emotions
‘In everyday life, notice your child’s emotions,’ says Dr Spungin. ‘Say, “I can see from your face that something has upset you”.’ If a young child is angry or upset, show him that you’re taking his feelings seriously before trying to pacify or distract him. ‘With older children, let them know that it’s fine to feel angry – what’s important is what you do with it,’ says Boswell. ‘By asking the right questions, you encourage them to find their own solutions.’

Read and play together
Working out what other people think is a large part of EI. When you’re reading or watching TV, Dr Qualter suggests talking about the emotions of the characters in the stories and how these might affect the plot. Books also increase the number of feeling words your child knows – characters are not just excited, for instance, but can be elated, overjoyed or thrilled.

Young children can also learn the effects their feelings can have on their behaviour through pretend play. ‘It’s fun and teaches children how emotions affect the way other people feel and behave,’ says Dr Qualter.

Deal with conflict
‘Ideally, don’t get angry and lose your temper with your children,’ says Dr Qualter. ‘But it happens – and when it does, apologise and calm down to talk through the problem.’ If your children see you and your partner arguing, they should also see that, in the end, you work things out.

‘People with high EI learn to remove themselves from a conflict situation for a while, perhaps about 20 minutes, to let their emotions adjust,’ says Dr Qualter. ‘Then they come to the discussion again calmer and more composed.’ Seeing their parents do this could be a good lesson for children.

Be open with children
‘We often try to protect children from problems,’ says Dr Qualter, ‘but they are very perceptive so they will build up their own ideas of what is happening and why.’ She says it’s important for parents to talk to children about family decisions and problems – without frightening them. ‘It’s another chance to teach them about emotions and appropriate responses,’ she says.

Teach them it’s OK to fail
‘We all want our children to be successful at school,’ says Boswell. ‘In reality, children who have an easy ride and are unused to failing often don’t know how to bounce back the first time they encounter failure.’ She suggests allowing your child to fail from a young age. ‘Let your two-year-old hold a drink and spill it – and show them it doesn’t really matter,’ she says. This helps them realise it’s alright to fail sometimes.

‘And if your child has done badly in maths homework, for instance, encourage them to think back about how they could have done it differently or whether they could have asked the teacher for help earlier on,’ says Boswell. ‘In other words, help them work out their own solutions by asking them questions and listening.’

Mind your language
The language you use makes a big difference to the way your children perceive your emotions. The general rules of EI thinking are that you should label your feelings rather than label your children, take responsibility for your feelings rather than blaming your children, and suggest rather than tell your children what to do. So try our low to high EI swaps:

After a clash with your child

LOW EI: ‘You’re making me angry.’

HIGH EI: ‘I feel upset and angry when you don’t listen to me.’

Before leaving the house

LOW EI: ‘Get your hat and gloves.

’HIGH EI: ‘What do you need to be ready for school?’

When you’re tired

LOW EI: ‘Leave Mummy alone.

’HIGH EI: ‘I’m tired. What do you think will make me feel better?’

To your teenager

LOW EI: ‘You can’t go there or come back at that time.

’HIGH EI: ‘I don’t want you to go there because I worry about you. Sorry, but that’s how I feel.’

When talking about another child’s behaviour

LOW EI: ‘What an idiot!’

HIGH EI: ‘He seems like an angry boy.’

Further information
– For a consultation with Dorothy Boswell or for details of her courses and workshops, visit www.parenting-coaching.com.

– If you think your child needs some help, visit www.u-think.org.uk – a computer programme developed by Dr Pamela Qualter and her team to help children boost their EI.

Words: Karen Williamson

Why playing outdoors is great for children and parents

Walk on the Wild Side .

When did you and your children last dam a stream, skim stones or build a den together? Chances are it’s been a while. Our children are in danger of losing touch with the wonder of nature as they spend far more time indoors than was usual a generation ago. Parents often feel it is much safer for their children to play indoors, which is odd given who and what they may account on their computer screens. It seems that we are allowing our fears about the dangers of outdoor play to outweigh its enormous joys. Outside in the real world, on the streets, in parks, woods and fields, we have to use our ears and eyes and judgement, and take responsibility for ourselves and each other. Only in recent years, when fear of litigation has created a culture of excessive health and safety has that become such a novel idea. As Lady Allen of Hurtwood,  campaigner for children and advocate for more challenging playgrounds once said, ‘Better a broken arm than a broken spirit.’

Outdoor play has lots of obvious benefits for children: fresh air and exercise, of course, a break from the all-pervading grip of screens, but it teaches other essential skills such as risk assessment, decision-making, planning and co-operation – all of which can only be learned by actually doing them.

The National Trust has launched a new website 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ to help get children (and their parents) back in touch with nature. Summer may be over, but that doesn’t mean we have to draw the curtains and stay inside (and many of the suggestions won’t cost you a thing).There are still blackberries to be picked, conkers to be found, leaves to be kicked and trees to be climbed. Get out there with your children and enjoy them.