7 January 2010 03:39 PM

Why Family Dinners are Important to Learning.

by Dr. Rick

One of the easiest ways to ensure that your family is doing all it can to help its youngsters do well in school, feel safe, learn family values, build affection for one another, and have a good time is to enjoy a family dinner together as often as possible.


Common sense tells us that when families routinely share special events they form strong relationships and build a foundation for lasting commitment.  What easier routine to establish than the family dinner, filled with companionship, conversation, and sharing?


The research is there, too.  A study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University a few years ago showed that teens who have dinners with their families five or more times a week are less likely to smoke, drink, or abuse drugs, and are more likely to receive As and Bs in school.


How to set up this important routine if you’ve not already done so?  Here are some tips.


1.  Commit to it.  Determine with your family that dinners together are a reasonable and worthy goal.  Ask for everyone’s commitment that you’re going to enjoy family dinners every night or on as many agreed-upon nights as possible.  The more the better.  Talk about why this is a good thing to do for each of you individually and for all of you as a family.  Then, stick to it.


2.  Turn off all screens.  Dinner is “special” time.  Turn off the TV, cell phones, video games, BlackBerries, and Ipods.  The whole purpose of family dinner is to bring the family closer.  Screens isolate us from the people immediately around us.


3.  Talk.  There are so many things to talk about. The important thing is to be a good listener, to ask pertinent questions, to make supportive comments.  Make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute and to be heard.  Here are some ideas.

  • Stories about each person’s day.  The favorite part, the funniest part, the hardest part, the most important part.  “What I learned today” is a good conversation starter, prompting reflection and thought.  You’ll be amazed at how the younger folk listen to the older folk’s stories.
  • Favorite stories and memories about family members who are no longer alive.  Tell immigration stories, stories of where ancestors came from, memories of weddings, family gatherings, and unforgettable events.  Make the family’s past come alive and be a part of your children’s present.
  • Tell about your job, its interesting aspects and its challenges.  Talk about your favorite colleagues.
  • Interesting readings.  Talk about books you’re reading for fun.  When kids see that adults read, too, reading becomes more than just a subject at school.  Show an interest in the books they’re reading for school.
  • Progress on upcoming assignments.  “How’s that biology term paper coming along?  It’s due in two weeks, right?”  This casual remark shows you’re aware of important dates and have high expectations.
  • Current events.  No shortage of topics here.  We live in interesting times.
  • Teacher stories.  Encourage kids to talk about their favorite teachers.  What are the characteristics that each favorite teacher shares?
  • Sports.  Home teams, school teams, favorite professional teams.
  • Hobbies.  Take an interest in each other’s pastimes.
  • Movies.  Talk about each family member’s favorites.
  • Events you’re looking forward to.
  • Personal goals and our progress toward them.  How can we all support each other?
  • Family challenges that will require everyone’s commitment.
  • Travel goals.  Where to go on the next vacation?  Where in the world do you want to go someday?  Why?

4.  Make other routines.  Establish routines that go along with family dinners, like helping each other prepare the meal together, setting the table, clearing the table.  Take turns saying a blessing and acknowledging things each of you is thankful for.  Listen.  You can learn a lot during grace.


5.  Invite others.  You’ll see.   Your family dinners will begin to attract others.  Allow kids to invite their friends from time to time.  Who knows?  You may start a very constructive trend.


What are your family’s dinner traditions and favorite conversation topics?  Share them with us by clicking on “Comments” below.




4 January 2010 12:57 PM

New Year's Resolutions

by Dr. Rick

It's new year's time, and we're busy making resolutions for all kinds of well-intentioned improvements.  We want to lose weight, stop smoking, save money, find love, and all kinds of self-improvements.  What's more important, though, than our kids' learning?  If you and your kids want to re-focus on school success at this mid-academic-year point, here are some gentle suggestions for kick-starting learning throughout 2010 and beyond.

  1. Commit to learning.  With your children, come up with one or two major goals that you want to accomplish for the remainder of this school year.  Raising that algebra grade?  Getting homework done on time and turning it in the next day?  Organizing a study area at home?  Using a planner regularly and efficiently?  Studying for those weekly spelling tests?  Improving time management skills?  Whatever's right for your kids.  Agree on some age-appropriate rewards and consequences.  Commit to a family-centered goal that education is important to all of you, and you'll all work together to support, encourage, and help each other.

  2. Set up helpful routines.  Give your kids the consistency of fairly regular routines (weekends and holidays can be breaks).  Bedtime, wake-up, study, homework, play, family time -- kids rely on these routines, and the structure helps them to feel safe, to know what's expected of them, and to be successful.

  3. Help them organize.  Organized kids do better in school than haphazard kids.  Help them to set up their planners (written or electronic, doesn't matter), to keep their notebooks and backpacks neat and orderly, to break up large assignments into smaller ones so they don't seem overwhelming, to maintain a work space at home that's actually workable and not a disaster area, and to stick to the goals you've set together.

  4. Maintain healthy habits.  Healthy kids are better learners.  Help your children by monitoring their screen-time (TV, video games, cell phones, etc.), making sure they're getting enough sleep, insisting on their good eating habits, making sure they're involved in regular and aerobic exercise, and sticking to those goals and routines you've established.

  5. Be a good role model.  Kids learn from us.  If they see that you're organized, focused on what's important to you and your family, staying healthy, and being true to your values, they'll pick up some pretty important life lessons.  Stay positive and diligent -- they'll test your patience often.  Remember they need your guidance more than they'll ever tell you, so be strong.  When you or your family slips a little, pick yourself up and start over with renewed determination.  That's an important lesson in itself.

  6. Don’t give up.  Academic resolutions are every bit as important – maybe more so – than social or personal ones.  Let your kids know that you’re serious about these goals, that their school success is as critical to you as it is to them.   Show them that you’ll be there for them when times get tough, that you’ll be their cheerleader, and that you’ll also be their Nagger In Chief when necessary, too.

  7. Stay positive.  Who needs a negative cheerleader?  Keep a sense of humor because you’ll need it.  In my forty years of teaching I’ve discovered that humor, common sense, and laughter go much, much further than rigidity, cynicism, and sarcasm.  Learn from mistakes, admit when something’s not working, insist on giving 100% most of the time, and find every opportunity to laugh.  If you can’t find something to laugh about with kids, re-examine your life.  You’re missing a lot.

  8. Get help early if you need it.  When your kids show that they’re having trouble despite your best efforts, get help early.  Ask a teacher or guidance counselor for help.  Get a tutor.  (The company I work for, Sylvan Learning – www.sylvanlearning.com – has a great record.)  Find a “study buddy” for your kid.  Just get help now, before the little problem grows into a big one.

  9. Trust your instincts.  Chances are, you already have a good feeling for what’s helpful and what’s not.  Neatness counts.  Study routines are necessary.  Punctuality is necessary.  Creativity helps with problem solving.  Hard work produces results.  Multitasking is a myth.  Haste makes waste.  Alibis satisfy only the person who makes them.  These are not new discoveries.  Your parents told you the same things.  They were right.  Now, you’re the parent.  Insist on excellence.

  10. Ask other parents.  You’re not the only one trying to keep your kids on track.  Get the wisdom of other parents who’ve been through this, of teachers who’ve guided hundreds of kids, and of others whose opinions you respect.  No one has all the answers, but all of us together have a lot of ideas.

Pick up other tips at www.drrickblog.com and share your school-related New Year's Resolutions with us.



24 December 2009 11:34 AM

Teaching Kids Civility

by Dr. Rick

Sometimes it seems as if everyone is pushing, shoving, arguing, and fighting – look at politics, “reality” TV, the crowds at the mall, the commotion in the halls at schools, and maybe even our own homes at times.  And don’t get me started on rush hour traffic or overcrowded highways.  I’ve heard the terms “road rage,” “office rage,” even “school rage.”  When will it end?


Why can’t we just be nice?


Well, as a matter of fact, we can.  Civility has become a sort of cottage industry lately, giving rise to books, college courses, lecture series, and even a fifty-state “road trip” by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach.  In what some people might find a delicious irony, a former politician plans to lead discussions on civil discourse in American society.  (I’ve heard Mr. Leach interviewed on National Public Radio, and he’s quite eloquent on the subject.)  I wish him success in his mission – and civil audiences.


The simple truth is that the world can, indeed, be a little more pleasant with an increase in civility.  Live with civility constantly and it’ll become a part of who you are.  The earlier the better.


So, in an attempt to add to the efforts of well-meaning civility advocates, here are some tips of my own for us parents, teachers, and significant adults in kids’ lives.  These tips, learned many years ago, come from my own experiences with teenaged students, and I’m not about to give up now.

  1. Be a role model.  This is key, as it is for just about everything we want our kids to learn.  Kids learn from us, they emulate us.  They pick up our habits, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  So set a good example.  There are plenty of bad examples out there, many masquerading as cool “entertainment,” so you have to be strong.

  2. Do good things.  When you’re around kids, you have a special responsibility, so say “please” and “thank you.”  Use positive language, especially when it’s most difficult like when you’re frustrated by traffic, long lines, or other annoyances over which you have no control.  Maintain self-control as best you can.  Watch your table manners.  Respect others.  These behaviors are not always convenient or easy, which makes them even more valuable lessons – hard victories are worth more than easy ones.  When you don’t do so well, ’fess up, and move on.  That’s a lesson in itself.

  3. Reward civility.  Praise kids when you’ve “caught” them being civil, thoughtful, honest, kind, or responsible.  Tell them you’re proud of them.

  4. Notice civility in others.  Point out acts of civility and fairness in others, so kids will recognize it when they see it.  These can come from family members, strangers you see in the grocery store, athletes, or fictional characters in stories, movies, or on TV.

  5. Talk about civility.  Tell why it’s important to you.  Share stories of civility from your life, either your own kindness to others or others’ kindnesses to you.  Tell about family members’ kindnesses.  Talk about how these good acts affected you.  Talk about people you look up to and why.  This is how values are passed on.

  6. Teach about others’ feelings.  When you and your child witness a kindness – or a hurtful act – take the opportunity to ask, “How do you think she feels right now?”  Being aware of others’ feelings is the first step toward civility.

  7. Develop children’s sense of responsibility.  Chores are a good way to do this.  Give kids age-appropriate tasks to accomplish, like putting away toys, helping with meals, setting the table, dusting, vacuuming, raking leaves, getting homework done on time.  Responsibility develops self-worth and self-respect, which in turn promote respect for others.

  8. Encourage charity.  Charitable giving is an excellent way to get kids to recognize that others don’t always have it so easy and to count their own blessings.  Let kids choose their favorite charity, and encourage them to donate a small percentage of their allowance.

  9. Have clear, high expectations.  Let your kids know that you will not tolerate purposefully unkind, disrespectful, and rude behavior.  You don’t have to be a prude about this, just consistent.  “The Golden Rule counts in this family” is a good and timeless motto to live by.

  10. Have a sense of humor.  We don’t have to be saints and boy scouts all the time (although maybe that wouldn’t be so bad).  Teach your kids that it’s the mark of maturity to adjust one’s behavior and language to the situation at hand.  We don’t talk and behave in church or the classroom the way we talk and behave while hanging out watching TV with our friends, for example.  It’s okay, even natural, to let loose a little once in a while, but not when it comes at someone else’s expense.  That’s all I’m saying.

Thoughts, readers?  Click on “Comments” below and share your opinions.  We’re particularly interested in your family’s anecdotes and successes.



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