Monthly Archives: August 2012

Advice from a 13-year-old on helping kids transition to high school

Montreal Families MagazineIn her first professionally published piece, my 13-year-old daughter offers parents advice on how to make their kids’ transition to high school a little easier:

This time last year, I was heading off to a big, new place: high school. I knew then that it was going to be a challenge for me and my parents. So many things would be different, from teachers, classes and friends to my responsibilities and my parents’ expectations. Now, with a full year of high school behind me, I would like to give my perspective on what parents can do to help their kids with this transition. (Read more)

Aside from my obvious pride in her efforts to get her writing published, I also realize that her words offer her dad and I some insight into how she works. Some takeaways from her advice:

  • Parents, stop talking so much. Give our kids more space. Instead, put more effort into sympathetic listening.
  • Give our kids some more space. They need to make some mistakes to learn important life lessons.
  • Recognize that different kids handle things differently. Some may need more guidance and involvement than others. Respect their temperaments.

Check out Montreal Families Magazine to learn more.

30 years later: The consequences of NOT eating a marshmallow

marshmallowsA little while back, I blogged about the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment and the astonishing things it has taught us about the value of self-control. A quick description: preschoolers were placed alone in a room with a plate of marshmallows and told they could eat one now, or wait 15 minutes and have two.  (For a more detailed description of the experiment and it’s impact on the participants as they grew up, click here). 

The 30% kids who were able to delay gratification showed higher SAT scores and social competence as high schooler, and handled stress and self-organization better as adults. As a result, the study is frequently cited as an important demonstration of the value of self-control and willpower. This is important, because other studies have shown that self-control is something that can (and clearly should) be taught to young children.

An exciting new wrinkle in this study is additional research published by Tanya Schlam  at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who followed up with the former preschoolers, (now in their 30s). As reported by Slate, Schlam and her colleagues discovered that each minute the subjects had been able to wait before devouring the marshmallow accurately predicted a “0.2 point percent decrease in their current body mass index. Schlam told Slate, “Although the effect was not particularly large, the presence of any effect three decades later is noteworthy,” she argues.

“It involves being more strategic,” Schlam wrote to me. “So a child can use will power to delay gratification, but they have a lot of other techniques at their disposal that they can combine with using will power. For example, from studies with this sample, we know that when the marshmallows are hidden by a tray or when the experimenter tells the kids to think about the marshmallows as ‘fluffy white clouds,’ the kids are able to delay much longer.” Kids who picked up the marshmallow and smelled it, on the other hand, soon gobbled it up. Delayed gratification, then, is about “knowing intuitively or being taught techniques that enable your cool system to kick in (which is reflective and rational) rather than the hot system (which is reflexive and impulsive).”

Schlam points out that the best route to self-control is to avoid having to exercise it: to stay away from trays of marshmallows and cookies. But since we live in a world of too much food, it’s a comfort to know that we can teach kids to hold back on their own. Even kids whose reason for delaying gratification is that they want a second marshmallow.

Self-control is about more than weight loss, of course. And weight loss for many is about more than self-control. But nevertheless, this new finding is exciting for the way it connects childhood behaviors with adult traits, and for the emphasis it places on teaching kids self-control.

So how can we teach our kids that kind of willpower? Some suggestions (feel free to add others):

  • Encouraging them to save up for toys or products they want. Or wait until their birthday/ holiday time to get them.
  • Letting even very young children make challenging choices between desired items on their own. (You can have a snack now, but then there is no dessert after dinner. OR You can buy that t-shirt now but then you won’t have enough money for the dress you’ve been saving for. )
  • Letting them experience the real consequences for their behavior: if you don’t do your homework now, you will have to do it after dinner when everyone else is watching TV/ playing outside/ going to bed.
  • Modelling self-control yourself.


Concerned about Facebook pictures of your teen daughter in a bathing suit? Read this.

Headless swimmerJust had an interesting discussion with another mom upset over yet another argument with her teen daughter.

What horrible thing did mom do this time?

She requested that a picture of her 13-year-old daughter in a teeny bikini be taken off Facebook. So embarassing, right? What was she thinking?

Most parents of pre-teen and teen daughters can relate. Several months into summer, how many of you have newly minted teen daughters posting pictures online of themselves looking adorable in their bathing suits? The images are (mostly) innocent, showing how much fun they are having in camp, on vacation, at the local pool. They are undeniably beautiful and as parents we are proud of how they have grown.


Does it make you a little uncomfortable? Do you have a vague sense it’s not OK to distribute these images of their bodies, but you aren’t sure why? Perhaps you keep quiet because “everyone is doing it” and you don’t want to get into a fight with them. Perhaps you have resigned yourself to this new normal in a social media age.

Now obviously you need to make your own decisions for your family, reflective of your personal values and beliefs. If you think I’m making too much of a fuss over nothing, you might want to stop reading here and move on with your day. But if you share my niggling feeling of discomfort when you see those scantily clad 13-year-old bodies (often looking like 18-year-olds) paraded about for full public consumption, read on.

But first, I know some of you will ask why I am focusing just on girls and not on boys. Don’t half-naked images of boys cause problems too?

Perhaps. And that would be a great post topic too. But the research overwhelmingly suggests that our culture’s messages to girls about their sexuality is much more narrowly defined than it is for boys, and potentially much more damaging. Check out this quote from the American Psychological Association’s report on the Sexualization of Girls:

In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.

In some studies, the focus was on the sexualization of female characters across all ages, but most focused specifically on young adult women. Although few studies examined the prevalence of sexualized portrayals of girls in particular, those that have been conducted found that such sexualization does occur and may be increasingly common. For example, O’Donohue, Gold and McKay (1997) coded advertisements over a 40-year period in five magazines targeted to men, women or a general adult readership. Although relatively few (1.5 percent) of the ads portrayed children in a sexualized manner, of those that did, 85 percent sexualized girls rather than boys. Furthermore, the percentage of sexualizing ads increased over time.

So what does it mean to let our tweens and young teen girls depict themselves in tiny bathing suits on Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter?

Posting these images means you lose control of how you are seen. Images can be copied, modified (putting bigger breasts, changing faces, adding sexual overtones, etc.) and distributed beyond their control. Any image of a girl or woman on the Internet runs this risk, but one that is already sexualized will get even more attention.

Young girls and teens are not mature enough to handle the repercussions of broadcasting their sexuality. I have heard many stories of bullying, disturbing replies with sexual overtones, dissemination of images (sometimes modified) to pornography sites, stalking and generally creepy behaviour. A 13-year-old with the body of an 18-year-old may get attention she is not ready to handle.

It has clear cognitive consequences. The research has repeatedly shown that self-objectification detracts from the ability to focus and concentrate one’s attention. Several studies have shown that girls who dress scantily underperform on math tests and other assessments of focus, showing a clear disruption of mental capacity (Tweet this).  (As an aside, these findings also offer more supporting evidence for school uniforms and girls’ only schooling). No differences were found for young men. Make no mistake that the girls posting these images of themselves are aware of what they are showing – the thought process going into these picture posts are totally different than posting themselves in sweatpants or winter jackets.

It leads to anxiety and self-esteem issues. You might think all those barely dressed girls are super-confident, right? Wrong. The research shows that self-objectification in 12 and 13-year-old girls led to feelings of shame, anxiety about their appearance and even self-disgust. Moreover, studies have repeatedly shown that sexualization leads to three of the most common mental health issues for teen girls and adult women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression  (Abramson & Valene, 1991; Durkin & Paxton, 2002; Harrison, 2000; Hofschire & Greenberg, 2001; Mills, Polivy, Herman & Tiggemann, 2002; Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw & Stein, 1994; Thomsen, Weber & Brown, 2002; Ward, 2004).

The sexualization of girls makes them less likely to use condoms and has overall negative impact on sexual health. Objectification is objectification after all. When girls come to see their bodies as things to be displayed and used, they are less likely to assert themselves in healthy ways.

It impacts their attitudes and beliefs about women. Girls who are exposed to sexualized images of female bodies (and arguably, who perpetuate those themselves) are more likely to endorse stereotypes of women as sexual objects. They place appearances at the centre of a woman’s value. These may well affect their personal sexual relationships, their life choices and their health.

These images have a negative impact on boys. They teach them to see girls in exclusively sexualized ways. It’s bad enough that teen boys can access an array of soft and hard core porn images on the Internet that adults would have had trouble finding even 10 years ago, but when they begin to see images of their female friends and girlfriends posed in similar scantily clad, sexualized ways on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or other social sites, then it reinforces a narrow, dangerous view of women as sexual objects. Research reports that this creates damaging expectations of sexual promiscuity and performance for teen boys as well, and may lead to more sexual harassment and violence.

So what should parents do?

  • Discuss your views and values with your kids. Explain your concerns about these images.
  • Clarify your expectations for posting pictures online. Be very specific. Show them the kinds of images that are OK for you to show (maybe in a bathing suit with a cover-up or a head and shoulders shot, or sitting down in a group).
  • Show them how to adjust their Facebook settings so all pictures of them tagged by friends have to be sent to them for approval first. That way they can remove tags of inappropriate pictures.
  • Ask friends to take down images of your kids that make you uncomfortable.
  • Maintain an open dialogue about sexualized images of women in the media. (About Face is an excellent site to visit.)