The Kids Are All Right

Concern about the impact of technology on our minds and behavior has focused especially on young people. Acting on this concern the Center for Humane Technology has partnered with Common Sense, the leading advocacy organization of kids in the digital age, to develop educational approaches directed toward children. The question is what form of education is potentially strong enough to counter the new forms of technology that capture our minds and attention?

This question is especially relevant in thinking about young people who literally have grown up with technology, unlike their parents who have at least known life without a smart phone, iPad or computer. Children seem to have their own phones almost as soon as they can talk, games on tech devices are the new baby sitters, and computers are part of school curriculum.

The use of a scare approach showing how tech can alter the brain is reminiscent of the approaches used to stop drug use or smoking. The problem is that while saying that becoming addicted to tech is like the impact of drugs, the story is more complicated than that. The factors that lead kids to try drugs or start to smoke are not the same as the use of technology that is part of their parents and their everyday live. The benefits and pleasures of technology are already deeply entrenched in the culture.

The challenge becomes how to help young people become aware of negatives they haven’t experienced while not denying the positives aspects available to them. This is a somewhat more complicated set of ideas to convey. The “just say no” type of campaign seems unrealistic in light of the pervasive – even by now necessary use of technology in so many spheres of life.

Some have suggested that the campaign to encourage safe driving may be a more applicable model for educating about abusive use of tech. The idea here would be to promote the safe use of technology. On the other hand, the current behavior of young people in response to gun violence should give us something to think about in a broader sense. Far from fitting the more familiar picture critical of today’s youth, young people have arisen with almost one voice to assert an unacceptable reality they see as the failing of their elders. They are not simply protesting the failure to be protected by the adults in charge, they are taking the lead in spelling out the kinds of changes that are necessary.

Showing a sophisticated understanding of the role financial support has played in preventing needed controls, these young people have projected the role they believe they can play in the future in bringing about change. In media interviews on the air and in print, they speak of themselves as being the largest cohort of future American spenders who will have power over family spending.

They also point out their potential power of the ballot, which for many high school seniors will begin this November. They promise to remember those elected officials who stood with them and those who did not. They also define their mission as protecting the nation’s children without reference to political party alignment.

These students have better articulated the need for common-sense gun control laws and school safety then their elders ever have. Perhaps the message to us should be, “ask the children” about the serious issues that impact their lives, in particular the threat of technology.

Instead of focusing on a need to educate them, young people themselves if confronted directly with the problem, may help to educate us.

Tech Addiction

The Center for Humane Technology, a group of prominent industry insiders concerned about the willingness and ability of certain tech companies to control the actions and attention of billions of people, wants to liberate us from tech addiction. Its goal is to spark a mass movement for more ethical technology in order to put pressure on Silicon Valley giants that the Center’s leadership says has been entirely missing in Washington. Tristan Harris, the former Google design ethicist who has been called the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience, has said, “I see this as game over, unless we change course.”

The concern of Harris and others in the tech world, is the need for people to understand the way tech tools are tailor-made to make addicts of us all, forever altering the way billions of people think, feel and interact with one another. To this end the group has partnered with Common Sense, the leading advocacy organization of kids in the digital age in a campaign to educate consumers and put pressure on the tech industry to make its products less intrusive and less addictive.

According to Harris the most powerful tech companies in the world have created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids. This has been described further as altering the chemistry of kids brains. Pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig explains how collecting coins in Minecraft rewards kids brains with a hit of dopamine which feels good and makes them want more.

Over-stimulating dopamine neurons causes them to die, and according to Lustig causes changes in the brain that manifest themselves as mental illness. Research has shown spikes in the rate of depression and suicidal thoughts among kids. Tech is designed to give users constant rewards. “It’s not a drug, but it might a well be,” according to Lustig.

While there is wide concern about the role mobile devices increasingly play in young people’s lives, experts are split over the question of whether internet addiction is a legitimate disorder. Actual evidence of addictiveness and harm is more complex than the colloquial use of addiction as a descriptor would suggest.

What comes to mind is “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” written by media guru Neil Postman in 1985. At that time, it was the emerging power of television that was of great concern, and Postman saw the medium’s entertainment value as a present-day “soma,” the fictitious pleasure drug in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

Drawing on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Postman makes the point that form excludes content, meaning a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. The medium of television runs counter to the kind of rational argument integral to print. Television de-emphasizes the quality of information in favor of satisfying the need for entertainment.

Postman describes how oral, literate, and television cultures radically differ in the processing and prioritization of information and argues that each medium is appropriate for a different kind of knowledge. The faculties requisite for rational inquiry are weakened by televised viewing. According to Postman television news had become a form of entertainment programming and that the change in public discourse meant that politics had ceased to be about a candidate’s ideas but about whether he/she comes across favorably on television.

The concern of the media experts of the Center for Humane Technology has taken the indictment of technology a step further than Postman’s discussion of the nature of the medium. They want us to understand that technology has been intentionally used commercially to bring about our attention and involvement in ways we do not control and are doing us harm.

The question is, what form of education is now available to us that can counter the newer forms of capturing our minds and attention?


Controversy has raged for some years now about the quality of public education, specifically failure of graduation rates and poor achievement on the part of segments of the population. Schools were held accountable and the No Child Left Behind law led to an emphasis on testing to assess outcomes. Schools and then teachers were penalized for not reaching prescribed results.

This approach led to some unexpected outcomes, specifically classes and teachers becoming geared to “teaching to the test,” in other words defeating the purpose of education by focusing mainly on learning specific facts in order to answer test questions and meet required outcomes. Basically, education was becoming primarily the memorization of facts.

As this approach was discredited, the search has continued for the reasons behind poor outcomes. What has become increasingly clear is that inequality of outcome is related to inequality of input. In other words, academic success is related to many factors, as is the quality of individual schools. Economically advantaged children are given a wider range of early learning experiences, not only in preschools but in exposure to books, language and other precursors to academic learning.

A recognition of the relationship between early developmental experiences and later academic success has given rise more recently to a focus on early childhood education. Increasingly, public schools in various communities have added programs for three- year-old’s and numerous preschools now have programs for two’s and under.

Unanswered however, is an underlying agreement about the purpose of education in general and more specifically what the goal is we wish to achieve in having children in groups at younger and younger ages. There is no way to measure the success of such an approach unless we agree about what we are trying to accomplish. And it would seem that there are some fundamental differences in ideas about the purpose of education.

Ideas about the purpose of education has evolved over the years. In the United States, a country built by immigrants, public education was instituted in the service of the “melting pot,” that is a means of creating a cohesive whole out of new and older arrivals. At the university level, however, the ideal has been one of free enquiry, that is open-ended learning and research for their own sake. But this conception has always operated in the middle of counterforces.

The modern university has always had more utilitarian functions than liberal education and pure research, such as professional education. This in turn has led to an increased emphasis on credentialing through comprehensive exams – again encouraging a student culture of learning for the test.

American universities have tried to straddle the divide between practical economic pursuits and the “life of the mind.” Apparently, however, the pressure for outcomes pervading the grade school years is afflicting higher education as well, with an attempt to obtain quantifiable data that reveal what skills students are learning. The hope is that a supposedly data-driven analysis will deflect the charge that students pay too much for degrees that mean too little.

The emphasis on assessments seems to have coincided with an attempt throughout the country to reduce spending on public universities as well as other social services. This began moving more of the cost of higher education onto students. It has been politically convenient to hold universities responsible for this higher cost. It is similar to the attempt on the grade school level to hold schools responsible rather than the socio-economic factors involved.

Along with the higher cost of education has gone the demand for training in skills that will enhance employment opportunities. The irony is that the true value of the university may be that of carving out space for pursuits of the mind apart from their market value.

The conflict continues.

Speaking Out

Once again, the country is horrified by a violent school shooting. Parents are mourning the loss of their children while other parents wonder how to talk about this with their younger children. Once again, too, the larger conversation focuses on mental illness and school security. But something different is happening as well, which may be the one bright spot on the horizon. This time, children are speaking out on their own behalf.

This is a generation that has grown up in an era of mass shootings. Their school life has included practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. Their experience is reminiscent of school days during the cold war in the fifties when school drills were related to the fear of a nuclear bomb. But this is also a generation that has grown up with twitter and Facebook as vehicles for the expression of opinion.

These students are now a force in the national debate over gun violence, calling attention to a need for gun control and using social media to make their views known to politicians. Part of the new high-tech world, they used their phones to make videos even as the shooting was happening, as one student said, to leave a record if he didn’t survive.

How widespread was this kind of student reaction? By chance, I had an opportunity to discuss this with two high school freshmen from a different part of the country. Both were 14, the same age as many of the students from Parkland. They started by expressing confidence in the better security of their own school – perhaps as a way of reassuring themselves about their own situation. They reported that the school entrance was kept locked and identification was required to be buzzed in. Also, a police guard is stationed at the school.

In terms of the reaction to this recent event in their school, they reported that the principal spoke to the students through the loud speaker but there was no further discussion in any of the classes they were in. One of the girls expressed her opinion that the teachers steer clear of anything that might be controversial, whether from concern about possible parent or school administration disapproval. They worry about not seeming neutral.

I said it seemed as though they could be neutral by presenting all the points of view, such as that of those who believe the second amendment protects gun ownership rights. The student replied that they had never studied the second amendment – except in history class as part of more general teaching about the constitution.

This same student had sent a tweet to a political figure criticizing a focus on mental illness rather than gun control. In her opinion blaming mental illness was a way of avoiding taking action related to needed control of guns. Both students reported that their fellow students seemed less aroused in calling for political action than the students reported on in the press.

It is understandable that young people directly affected by the recent school shooting would react both more emotionally and with a greater call for national action. The students with whom I spoke commented about how open the school hit seemed and apparently took comfort in what felt to them like the greater security of their own school.

Nevertheless, striking is the degree to which young people today feel ready and able to speak out on their own behalf. Although adolescence is a time of self-assertion, often directed at parents in seeming rebellion, this appears to be a more constructive form of self-expression.

A generation often criticized for acting out, may instead be speaking out.

A Better Way?

What are American parents searching for in rearing their children? Bookstores have shelves of books offering answers to those who search. The internet brings unending streams of information and advice – often contradictory – for every aspect of parenting. The search has been international with Amy Chua telling why Chinese mothers are superior to American mothers, followed by Pamela Druckerman wishing to emulate the “superior” French parents she came to know while living in France.

More recently we have “ACHTUNG BABY: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children,” by Sara Zaskie. Living in Germany with two young children for a number of years the author reports, “We raise free and responsible children by giving them freedom and responsibility.” In particular, kids walk to school by themselves, ride the subway alone, cut food with sharp knives, play without direction from parents or teachers and spend more time outdoors.

But why do parents get caught by the idea that there is a better way to raise children than the way they are doing it? The ideas that seem to surface are those that relate to independence and self-reliance. Americans have been accused of helicopter parenting, creating dependent, less resilient children. Whether true or not, the search for new or better ways to parent suggests some dissatisfaction with current results. Does a feeling prevail that our children are not turning out the way we would like?

There are several reasons for a sense of inadequacy parents sometimes feel about their method of child-rearing. Implicit is the pervasive feeling of wanting to do it perfectly. Since it is impossible to raise children without stumbling blocks when they appear the feeling in a parent is of having done something wrong – that means imperfect. This in turn points to a second idea, that everything a child does is caused by the parent so if something is wrong with the child, it is the fault of the parent. Such ideas are reinforced by pop articles and reports on various kinds of research.

Much is written about supposed failings in children’s behavior which is then attributed to particular behavior on the part of parents. The various books and articles that report on child-rearing in other countries point to specific parental behavior that differs from ours, attributing supposedly better outcomes in the children to those supposedly superior parental behavior and attitudes.

This in turn rests on the simplistic cause and effect idea that doing certain things will produce a specific outcome, leading to parents search for the “right” way to do it. But if such is the case, what are the outcomes parents are looking for? Here we come back to the question of values. Parents have different aspirations for their children which influence their own behavior and their judgements of their children. Also, children are raised to live in a particular society and cultural values play a role in the outcomes parents seek.

This is what is missing in the judgments brought back about raising children in a different country and culture. Children reflect – as do parents – the values and behavior of the whole society. Chinese, French, German children have various personality characteristics which reflect not only their parents but the society as a whole. There are aspects to their personalities other than the characteristics admired which may be less admired.

In other words, different cultures produce behavior characteristic of the culture as a whole. Isolating individual child-rearing methods and applying them in the search for a specific outcome, ignores the less desirable outcomes that may result. The same is true for the search to produce specific outcomes in our own society.

Children are the product of their genes, family, social and cultural environment. They are total beings who only need help being who they are, which cannot be engineered through specific methods.

The Medium is the Message

That phrase, attributed to Marshall McLuhan, was introduced by him in the 1960’s in reference to media – at that time television – but more generally expressing his idea that it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled the scale and form of human association and action. McLuhan’s point was that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message transmitted, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

The power of that idea is even more apparent today when the term “media” now has expanded to include the computer and all the other tools of the digital world. Moreover, the “symbiotic” relationship described is now increasingly viewed with alarm by many who see it overtaking other forms of communication and social association. The concern is that the medium is shaping human interaction in unacceptable ways as well as creating actual damage to the development of children.

Cited most recently is a messaging service introduced by Facebook for children as young as six. Pediatric and mental health experts joined in a letter saying the service “Messenger Kids,” pushes the company’s user base well below its previous minimum age and preys on a vulnerable group developmentally unprepared to be on the social network. A former chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has said, “Facebook is making children into a market, and the youngest children will be more likely to get hooked even earlier.”

Increasingly, the problem of tech addiction as well as that of disinformation corrupting political life, is being attributed to advertising; the fact that the industry is built on sophisticated technology used to aggregate user attention and sell advertising. The ad business has become proficient at profiling, targeting and persuading people.

It is interesting that advertising is being pointed to as the culprit now, when in fact it has been a driving force in media since the early days of broadcasting. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, Edward Bernays, now considered the father of public relations, promoted his ideas about the engineering of consent. Interested in propaganda, which he renamed public relations he wrote, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and influenced by Freud’s theories of the impact of the unconscious on behavior, he concluded that by understanding the group mind it would be possible to manipulate people’s behavior without their ever realizing it. His own ideas were adopted by the world of advertising and tested in some famous marketing campaigns such as cigarettes, with great success. The goal was to convince people they want something they do not need.

Steve Jobs is known to have taken this a step further, saying the goal was to convince people to want something they did not know they wanted. This has led to the sophisticated technology that enables the profiling and targeting of potential consumers.

Bernays developed techniques to shape public opinion based on understanding the motivation of behavior. Today, the world of technology has made such understanding irrelevant. We, as consumers, let those advertising know through our clicks and likes how to target and mobilize our purchasing power.

In the 1930’s Bernays’ ideas about propaganda interested the Nazis, who put those ideas to their own use. Today, the concern is that the advertising capability of the media also enlists bad actors, as is being discovered by Facebook and others.

Is the problem the medium – or the message?


We have a long history in this country of looking to education as a solution for social problems. In a country built by immigrants, a compulsory public education system became the way of making everyone an “American” and building a cohesive allegiance to national ideals and values.

In more recent times, education was thought to be the vehicle by which various social ills could be addressed. During the Johnson years, the “war on poverty” created Headstart, an early childhood program which targeted children who were thought to be “culturally deprived”, a euphemism for families at the low end of the socio-economic ladder. The idea was that unlike in middle class families, such children were not read to by their parents and were not surrounded by books and other educational materials. As a consequence they were behind other children when they started school and kept falling further and further behind.

These days an increased concern with the problem of inequality has put a renewed focus on early childhood experience and education. Research suggests that an effective early-education program can level the playing field for low-income black and Hispanic students relative to their white or wealthier counterparts. Studies show that the best programs can produce effects that reach beyond the early years, increasing the rates of high-school completion and college attendance and reducing the incidence of teenage parenthood, welfare dependence and arrests.

At the same time, the idea that we can deliberately influence the cognitive and social development of very young children is a relatively new one. Biological and social sciences have changed our understanding of early-childhood development and the capacities of infants and toddlers. We have learned that the earliest years are a period of rapid neural development and that a child’s ability to capitalize on these years is directly related to environment.

All of this knowledge has led to an interest in creating curriculum and teaching methods to meet the needs of the youngest learners. What is it that defines an excellent preschool education? Answering this question obviously relates to what the goals are of such an education. As in other such questions, these days the emphasis seems to be on outcomes, or evidence-based results. In other words, what are we trying to accomplish and then, have we accomplished it?

Too often outcomes end up being measured in concrete terms, such as increased I.Q., college attendance, better work or career achievement. Is success to be measured in economic or social results? Both? Do such outcomes require a greater focus on academics in the preschool years? If academic achievement moves to the forefront what does this say about the kind of teachers that will be required for preschool education?

Here we confront the historical reality that preschool teachers along with others involved in the care of children have been at the low end of the pay scale. Those working in programs for low-income children in minority neighborhoods often confront problems similar to those in the population they serve. Ultimately, the preschool experience for children will rest on the quality of the teachers as well as on the physical settings and materials provided.

Clearly, providing quality preschool education requires a significant financial commitment. At the same time, however, it may require a different way of looking at outcomes, which cannot be measured in statistical terms. Perhaps we need to consider a return to the earliest goals of a national compulsory education system, applied to younger ages than before, namely a cohesive allegiance to ideals and values.

Teachers are the one who transmit these values in their interactions with our children. A teacher can make a difference in the way a child feels about school, the way she learns, and most important, the way she feels about learning.


Addictive Attention

In loco Parentis is a Latin term meaning in place of a parent, or instead of a parent. It refers to the legal responsibility of some person or organization to perform some of the functions or responsibilities of a parent. At one time it was used to refer to the role of colleges, with many children living away from home for the first time, and where it was believed, some form of supervision was required.

This phrase came to mind when hearing that we must turn to technology to solve the problems created by technology. For some time, researchers have been warning about the negative effect of addictive use of digital technology on our cognition, psyche and well-being. Now tech experts themselves have expressed fears about how social networks alter our emotional lives and relationships, and what they’re doing to children.

The thought seems to be that we are no match for the sophisticated machinery of engagement and persuasion being built into smart phone aps. Since technology has created this undesirable level of use – or abuse – it is technology that must create a solution. Many experts designate Apple as the company best able to address the problem of tech addiction.

As one who did not grow up in the tech world, learning about some suggested ways Apple could do this was itself an education. Specifically, what comes to light is the source of the addiction – what it is that keeps continuous attention on one’s phone.

Most people using any form of technology soon become aware of how much has become known about you through your use. This information is used to solicit ads – a source of revenue for those advertising, as well as the carriers of the ads.  Such ads are placed in ways to capture the attention of tech users, speaking as they do to already known interests of users.

Another feature is that users are notified when something in which they have expressed interest appears. Such notification, or buzzing, also occurs to alert users to social interests they may have demonstrated. Now I understand why my computer notifies me about twitter entries by people I know. Commercial interests underlie the techniques to gain the attention of tech users.

Apparently, Apple has been designated as a potential problem solver because of its role in inventing the smart phone and devising changes and improvements. One thought is that Apple could curb some of the worst excesses in how apps monitor and notify you to keep you hooked by installing ad blockers in its operating system.

Another suggestion is giving people feedback about how they are using their devices. Can you imagine your phone telling you how much time you spent on Facebook, or scolding you for wasting time on Twitter? Or suggesting you will be reminded in the future if you overstep your agreed-on time limit for social media use?

What comes to mind is the “just say no” campaign, or more significantly the use of advertising to address the dangers of, and curb smoking, which has proven successful. Using advertising would be an attempt to change society rather than building a less-addictive phone. More significant, however, is the attempt to replace what once might have been thought of as the role of parents. In Loco Parentis.

In place of parents the devices themselves will monitor your use, will set limits on time spent – or wasted – signing on to adds that involves spending money, take on the role of protecting your health, ability to focus, and emotional life.

Will technology itself prove to be a higher authority than parents? That remains to be seen.

Talking to Our Children

These days I find myself thinking of Neil Postman, the late author, educator and cultural critic who wrote, “The Disappearance of Childhood.” He pointed out that our concept of childhood is a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy. In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.

Postman wrote that the print culture made it essential that children learn how to read and write. Childhood was an outgrowth of an environment in which information controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be ways they could assimilate psychologically. “The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”

Postman’s point was that the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible. It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience. He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.

Most parents would agree with the difficulty – almost impossibility – of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process. New development in technology have eroded the distinction of children from adults even further. They are exposed to the sights and sounds of natural disasters, such as fires and floods. They are surrounded by ever-present media presenting stories and pictures of unimaginable events here and around the world. But more than that, they are exposed to adult responses and controversies that dominate the environment in ways that may seem equally dangerous or at best incomprehensible.

For example, what are children to make of the raging controversy about sexual harassment? “Me too,” can almost sound like a children’s game. What is it that women are mad about, and is it that men do bad things? In a similar vein what are young children to make of various comments relating to immigration, or the idea that certain groups don’t like other groups? Even political discussions and commentary can take on an angry or ominous tone.

Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are or would like them to be. Yet sometimes, our own emotions get in the way of recognizing or understanding what our children are thinking and feeling. In thinking about the issues that are currently dominating the environment we may need to confront our own ideas and attitudes that influence what our responses may be to our children’s ideas or questions. Questions are being raised about which we ourselves may be conflicted.

The issues currently generating much heat require that we think through our own values in determining how we want to talk about them to our children. To what degree do we wish to impart a point of view or to what degree do we want to encourage children to think through some of the questions themselves?

The way we talk to a child about disturbing events or questions depends a great deal on the age and developmental stage of the child. The best way to know what is on a child’s mind and how to respond to him, is to listen to his questions and what he says. In that way you can correct any distortions in his understanding and offer a simple story about the issues or facts involved. The story needs to match the child’s age and developmental level but can be straightforward.

We can’t protect children from life’s painful events or confusing experiences. We can listen and respond to their concerns and in that way help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront life’s questions.

Speaking Without Words

A friend was surprised at my expression of concern that she hadn’t sounded like herself in a recent conversation. She explained that a new medication was giving her difficulty and she was amazed to hear that somehow this had come through in her communication.

Along these lines, a young man told me that he has difficulty reading people’s reactions when they are not expressed in words. In other words, he has trouble with non-verbal communication. This is a problem for him socially because he often misses the cues needed to make appropriate responses himself. He sometimes doesn’t get it that he has annoyed someone with something he did or said.

The role of non-verbal or behavioral communication is of particular relevance to parents given the limitations in young children’s ability to use language and the degree to which they express themselves through behavior. It is not hard to understand why it is sometimes difficult for parents to understand their children’s behavior. Observing children at different stages of development it is clear that the meaning of behavior at one stage may be quite different than that of the same behavior at a different stage. Beyond that, each child within himself may be at different stages with regard to different areas of development.

Often what is confusing is what we think of as social behavior. As adults our expectations can go awry if they don’t match where children are in their development, but also if we don’t recognize the variations in the abilities of our own child. For example, children clearly are interested in other children from very early on. However, the way they express that interest varies considerably as their behavior is affected by other aspects of their development. A child who is still limited in language ability may protest by pushing or hitting if another child takes his toy. In the same way, a child with good language may be struggling with controlling his impulses and unable to use words to express what he feels or wants.

Parents often worry when a child seems to do something, such as hitting someone for “no reason”. The “reason” may be clear to the child if not to the adult, such as something the other child did earlier of which the adult is not aware. Or it may be an expression of a child’s wish to gain the attention of another without yet having the skill necessary to make a better kind of approach. Or it may even tell us that a child is tired and out of sorts, and is expressing it by striking out at the nearest target.

When a child behaves in a way that we don’t like, or embarrasses us, our own emotional reactions can get in the way of seeing the behavior as a communication. Then our response becomes one to our own feelings rather than to what a child’s behavior is actually saying.

One thing I have found helpful is to ask myself, “If this child could put what he is feeling into words in this situation, what would he be telling me?” Answering that can often make intelligible, behavior that seems meaningless or simply “bad.” It then becomes possible to respond to your child instead of to your own feelings. It opens communication between you and your child and the ability to help your child learn how to communicate in a different way in the future.

Understanding a child’s behavior as his or her means of communication is empowering to parents. Most parents are good at it and are already doing it. The next step is providing the words a child can use the next time a similar situation arises – a meaningful way of promoting successful communication.