Can Mindfulness Calm My Child?

Mindfulness has become one of the buzzwords of the past decade. Mindfulness is receiving hype in corporations, educational institutions, psychologist’s offices, fitness centres, and increasingly in our family homes. In fact, mindfulness in families is becoming almost essential. And for good reason.

Where science once rejected mindfulness as too “woo-hoo” and wishy-washy, recent research has shown that practicing mindfulness with our kids can have tremendous positive impacts.

Mindfulness training boosts children’s self-regulation, so they can stay in control better. It increases their ability to pay attention, and academic results improve. And mindfulness reducesanxiety, depression, andstress, helping children be calmer than they would without it. Their blood pressure and heart rate drop, andADHD symptomshave beenreduced. In short, mindfulness makes people feel better – childrenand adults.It builds resilience.

When it comes to children with special needs and challenges, mindfulness seems especially beneficial. One experiment found mindfulness reduced anxiety, built social skills, and improved academic performance for children with learning disabilities. A PhD dissertation with a small sample of children with significant emotional and behavioural difficulties found that mindfulness reduced children’s verbal aggression. 

So what is mindfulness? 

This is where experts get a bit fuzzy. It depends on who you ask. Meditation practices are brought in to mindfulness, but at the other end, some people say mindfulness is simply being mentally present. 

Here’s how I define mindfulness: 

Mindfulness is when we are actively focused on the here and now, and we feel engaged with what we’re doing. This is the opposite of mind-less-ness, which is where we are not really focusing on where we are or what we are doing, we are caught up in our emotions or other distractions, and we become super-rigid, only seeing things one way. 

These are pretty big ideas, so how do we teach them to our children? And how do we act on them ourselves? 


Babies are going to learn from us. The more calm, centred, and focused on them we are, the calmer and more centred they are likely to be. Gaze into your baby’s eyes. Focus on them when you’re with them. Leave the phone alone and engage with your baby mindfully. You might breastfeed (or bottle-feed), walk, sing, or talk with your baby. Perhaps you’re just lying on the bed, scratching their back and smiling at them. All the while, focus on being present and attentive to them right now. You’ll feel better, and so will they. 

Toddlers and Pre-schoolers 

Toddlers can be demanding. And we’re no longer on maternity leave so we often don’t have as much time to focus on them. That’s why it becomes increasingly important that we slow down a little and pay attention. Try getting them involved with you while you cook or tidy. Toddlers are usually willing helpers. Drop onto the floor with them and wrestle and play. Roughhousing is guaranteed to keep you mindful and alert. And put the phone away so you can focus on reading stories, singing songs, and saying goodnight. 

By the time your children are toddlers, you can get them to do simple breathing exercises or body scans and progressive muscle relaxation. You can buy products to help, or simply lay on the floor beside your child and do some breathing for a few minutes, counting the breath as it goes in (for three seconds), hold it (for 3 seconds) and breathe out for 3-5 seconds. A body scan or PMR is easy too. Get your child to sit or lie comfortably and close their eyes. Then, starting at their toes, work your way up their body, asking them to imagine each body part being excited, and then relaxing completely. 

Kids love these exercises, and they can genuinely reduce their stress, anxiety, and over-active jitters. 

Primary School Children 

In addition to the ideas for the younger age group, older children can start to become mindful as they interact with siblings, parents, and friends. They can learn to really listen. They can learn to be patient, to say thank you, and to say sorry to others or forgive. All of this requires them to be right there in the moment so they can understand what is going on around them. 

If you are into meditation, you’ll find useful mindfulness meditations online and in stores to help your children become more mindful. 

High School Children 

For older children, everything above applies, but now it’s time to teach them about acceptance. A simple exercise, known as R.A.I.N., can help us (and our teens) stay in the moment and not get caught up clinging to their own emotions and everything that is happening around them. 

R: Recognise. Acknowledge what is happening, just noting it in a calm and accepting manner. 

A: Accept. Allow life to be just as it is, without trying to change it right away, and without wishing it were different somehow. 

I: Investigate. See how it feels, whether it is making you upset or happy, giving you pleasure or pain, just note it. Focus on what your senses tell you. What do you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste? 

N: Non-Identification. This is about being in the moment but a little emotionally detached. It can help to realise that the sensations you are feeling are just here for a moment, and they’ll pass. They’re not necessarily “true”, and they shouldn’t necessarily guide your decisions. 

Mums and Dads 

If we can do these things with our children, we’ll be far more mindful ourselves. This will help us be calm, kind, and compassionate. It will help us be balanced, even, and aware. And it will reduce stress and anxiety for everyone in the family. It will slow us down a little. 

Sometimes, we need to stop and remind ourselves to be mindful though. That’s where the STOP acronym can help, so: 

Stop. Just take a pause when you can feel things getting stressful, no matter what you’re doing. 

Take a breath. As you pause, focus on your breathing. It will bring you back to the present moment. 

Observe. Acknowledge what is happening, for good or bad, inside you or out. Just accept it. 

Proceed. Now you’ve briefly checked in with the present moment, continue with whatever it was you were doing – but do it mindfully. 

The benefits of mindfulness can’t be denied. But most families don’t do it. We’re too busy doing everything else! Tonight pause for a moment. Pay attention to where you are. Focus on your family. Be mindful. Feel the difference. 


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My Son Won’t Talk About His Day

Hi Dr Justin 

My son won’t talk when he comes home from school. I ask him how his day was and he just says, “Fine.” I ask him what he did and he says “Nothing”. I ask him who he spent time with and he shrugs or mentions a friend or two. That’s it. Why won’t he talk? Is he being bullied? How can I get him to open up? He’s 9 years old. 


Parents have been complaining about this problem for at least 50 years! Kids come home from school and won’t talk. 

Let’s spin the question around for a moment. When you come home after a long day and someone asks you how your day was, how talkative are you? Most adults acknowledge that they’re pretty uninterested in talking when they walk in the door. They want some time to decompress, relax, gather their thoughts, and get back into the feeling of being at home. 

Instead of asking kids “how was school” the minute we see them, I suggest welcoming your child home with “I’m glad to see you.” You might not ask about their day, but instead reassure them, “I hope you had a really nice day today.” You are just as likely to get conversation from that statement as the question, “How was your day?” But the conversation will be less forced. Your child will be choosing to elaborate rather than feeling he must answer a question. 

Think about the times your child is most communicative. Is it while doing homework? In front of the TV? In the yard playing? In the car on the way to an activity? Bed time or dinner time? 

Most parents suggest that their kids are more likely to be chatty when they’re in the car, eating a meal (no screens at the table!), or going to bed. Alternatively, some parents find that if they sit quietly in the living room, their kids will gravitate to them and want to talk because mum’s not busy. 

Take advantage of these times to find out about how things are going with your child. Ask questions that encourage curiosity and conversation. 

When you say “how was your day?” there are usually only a few answers. It’s a relatively closed question. “Fine. Ok. Not bad.” By changing the question just a little, you can open up a conversation that is entirely different: 

“Tell me about what you did today.” 

“What did you do that was fun?” 

Ask questions like: “What was the most unexpected thing that happened in the playground today?” Try “did anything happen today that made you laugh?” “Was anyone extra kind today?” 

Think about some characteristics and virtues that you would like to encourage in your children. Ask questions about those attributes. It could be anything from honesty and loyalty through to friendship or something to do with a great work ethic and a growth mindset. Then ask some questions about how they developed those attributes during the day or how they witnessed someone else doing it. 

For example: 

“Who did you help today and how?” 

“Tell me about something you did that was really hard and required your determination.” 

“What was something you saw or experienced at school today that made you grateful?” 

Instead of the usual boring questions that leave us with the usual boring answers, here are some other suggestions: 

What was the best thing that happened at school today? 

Did anything happen today that made you laugh? 

Did anything happen today that left you feeling upset? 

Teach me one thing that you learned today. 

What challenged you today – in class, in a relationship, or something personal? 

What was the most interesting thing your teacher said today? 

Who did you play with today? What did you play? 

What did you eat for lunch today? 

When did you feel most proud of yourself today? 

These questions ensure that we stay connected to our kids. They help us to know what’s going on in their lives, identify anything amiss, and instil in them the values we wish to encourage. 

Remember, though, that sometimes children don’t feel like talking. And that’s ok. Be near them, let them know they’re safe and loved, and that they can talk with you later if they feel like it. No pressure. 

Finally, there is one question that matters most. This is the question I like to ask my children as they settle into bed. It’s a question that helps us know that everything is ok in their lives. 

“What are you looking forward to tomorrow?” 

If they’re not looking forward to anything, we can discuss why and uncover difficulties and challenges we may not have realised existed. We can listen, understand, and help. 

Hopefully they are looking forward to something though. When our children have something they’re looking forward to, they’re less at risk of depression and anxiety. It shows that they have good things in their lives. And it gives us reassurance that things are going ok after all. Even if the kids don’t feel like talking sometimes. 


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How Play is Changing

In today’s blog I want to ask you two questions. Pretty simple ones.  

First, how do your children play? 

Second, how is their play different from the play you enjoyed when you were young? 

Consider your answers for just a moment. Is there much difference between the two? 

Our kids need to play. Lots. Child development experts say play is not just important, but essential, for learning and development. It’s through play that children develop motor skills. They explore and extend their physical capabilities. Children practice curiosity and creativity through play. They develop listening skills and social abilities as they try on new identities with social games like “mummies and daddies” or “doctors and nurses”. They grow and develop socially, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and cognitively through play. 

But there is little question that children today play differently to children two decades ago. Children’s play in the twenty-first century has changed. 

What’s new? And is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or does it not matter at all? 

Professor Susan Edwards is the director of the Early Childhood Futures Research Group in the Learning Sciences Institute at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. Professor Edwards says “play is evolving, but not shrinking.” 

As evidence of this evolution, the Australian child health poll recently investigated digital media use for children. Our infants and toddlers are engaging with screens of one kind or another around 12-14 hours per week. To put that into perspective, experts argue that this figure should be as close to zero as possible. And 2-6 year-old children are on screens around 26 hours per week. That’s over 3 hours per day! (Our teens hit a whopping 43 hours per week, or just over 6 hours per day.) 

I don’t like these numbers. And I see them taking away from play time. However, Professor Edwards suggested an alternative perspective. 

“While it isn’t what we did as children, being on the iPad in the car is play. If you’re on the way to swimming and your kids are playing an online game with friends – the same friends they’ve been with all day, that’s still play. If they’re building a world on Minecraft, that is play, isn’t it?” 

She acknowledged that this new kind of ‘play’ is encroaching on kids’ play in other areas. And some researchers have highlighted concerns that screen-focused play may interfere with healthy development. 


While children are focused on a screen, they are less likely to be moving. Physical play is crucial for a child’s health and wellbeing. 

While children are focused on a screen, they are less likely to be outside. Nature is fuel for the soul, and is also crucial for a child’s health and wellbeing. 

While children are focused on a screen, they are less likely to be engaging with others socially. Social skills are being affected. It is true that older children have social platforms where they can be “with” their friends, but a significant amount of time online is spent in less social activities. Building social resources is crucial for a child’s health and wellbeing. 

When children are focused on a screen, they are likely to struggle more with language development. The ability to communicate is obviously crucial for a children’s health and wellbeing. 

When children are focused on a screen, they experience less sleep and poorer quality sleep. Studies confirm that adequate sleep is crucial for children’s health and wellbeing. 

While children are focused on a screen, they are less likely to build their cognitive resources. Most apps have been shown to be anything but educational. There are very few apps that are truly good for cognitive growth – and the reality is that our kids don’t need a headstart with reading and number recognition via an app. We have a perfectly adequate school system to guide them. Counting while they move toys around, or counting while cooking with mum or dad in the kitchen (or while they put apples into a basket at the shops) will be a more valuable educational experience. 

While children are focused on a screen they are less likely to creatively use their imagination, experience cognitive complexity, or build and create things. It is true that some kids have done amazingly creative things and the Internet can facilitate their curiosity, but this is unusual.  

It is true that they are playing. And no one is arguing that screen-play is not play. It clearly is. But there are very real concerns that it is not always the kind of play that leads to the best outcomes for our children. 

So what kind of play is optimal? Professor Edwards suggests:  

  • Where possible, try and make play outside and active. Younger kids love tactile experiences, so sand, paint, water, rice, or anything else they can explore with their hands will be fun. 
  • Promote talking, cooperation, and interaction by encouraging social play over solitary play where possible (although children should have the opportunity to do both). 
  • For kids under age 2, stay away from screens. For older kids, screens are fine in moderation, but consider whether they’ve had physical play, social time, and reading. Make sure they’ve done their chores, and ensure that they don’t have screen time too close to bed. 

Ultimately, according to Professor Edwards, “how and what children play depends on experiences and resources available.” If they don’t have screens, they’ll play something else. If they don’t have toys, they’ll play with a stick or whatever they can find around the house. “So long as they’re playing”, she told me, “they’re learning, growing, and developing.”

Is all play equal? 

We really don’t know. But as play evolves, I am feeling a craving for the kind of play that encouraged physical activity, face-to-face interaction, and a tactile creative process. I long for my kids to explore the nearby bushland or park, and come home exhausted and ready for high quality sleep. The evolution of play feels as though it is taking that away. 


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People Matter More Than Things

As Chad walked into the kitchen he spotted his three-year-old son riding a skateboard around the kitchen island. He was in a hurry, so he quickly told his son to stop riding the skateboard in the house and turned away. 

He paused. 

His son couldn’t ride a skateboard. He was only three. In fact, his son didn’t own a skateboard. 

Chad turned back to his son… and froze. His son was not riding a skateboard. He was skating across the kitchen tiles on a Macbook Pro laptop computer. Fully open. Screen and keyboard down. 

About two weeks earlier, Chad had been working on a major project when his computer had stopped working. With not enough time to purchase a new computer and set it up, he had gone to his neighbour and asked if he could borrow a spare computer for a few days so he could complete the project.  Chad had to complete the project, travel interstate for a week and use the computer for presentations, and then, he promised, he would then return the computer. 

Lunging across the kitchen, Chad already knew it was too late. He had left the computer on the kitchen bench so that he could return it to his neighbour, and his son had found it. As he inspected the damage he could see that the screen was scratched beyond repair. The keys were damaged and falling out of their casing. The computer was ruined. 

Chad panicked.  

What would he say to his neighbour? 

How would he tell his wife? Now he was up for two computers. A new one for his neighbour and a new one for himself.  

What would he say to his son? 

Chad decided to postpone the inevitable. He left the kitchen, biting his tongue. The lecture for the three- year-old could wait. He explained what had happened to his wife. “You’ve got to tell them” she said. But Chad couldn’t do it. 

Later that day as he drove up his driveway he saw his neighbour in the front yard. He waved to his neighbour but didn’t say anything to him. Instead, he went directly inside. Over the following week he continued to avoid contact. His neighbour emailed. Chad promised he would return the computer that night, but then “something came up.”  

Finally, several weeks later, Chad’s neighbour knocked on the door. “Chad, you’ve been avoiding me. Something has happened with the computer hasn’t it.” 

Chad admitted that he had bad news. After explaining what had happened he was surprised to hear his neighbour respond, “Chad, it’s ok. People matter more than things.” 

What a great lesson from a wise neighbour. “I hope you didn’t get mad at your son. He’s just three. He didn’t know how serious what he was doing was.” 


How often do we, as parents, become angry at the cup of spilt drink, the broken toy, the texter scrawled along the wall, carpet, or lounge suite, or even some of the more costly things our children ruin? 


In what can only be described as poetic perfection, as I was writing about Chad’s story in this article, my almost four-year-old daughter, Emilie, came and asked me for a pen so that she could draw on some paper while I worked. I handed her the pen and went back to typing. Within ten seconds I heard a snapping sound. Somehow, she had opened the casing of the pen, pulled out the insides, and snapped the plastic that makes the pen work. 

As I looked at her, I saw panic on her face. “I’m sorry Dadda. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Sorry Dadda.” 

Before I could comfort her, Emilie had run for the office door. I found her, a few minutes later, hiding behind the car in the driveway. 

I lifted her into my arms and held her. As I did so, I heard myself reassuring her. “You’re upset that you broke the pen aren’t you Emilie? Give me a hug. It’s ok. You matter more than that pen. People matter more than things.” 


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How to Motivate Kids – and Why Rewards aren’t the Answer

How do you motivate kids? It may be one of the biggest struggles parents and teachers experience. We remind them to clean their room or do their schoolwork. They reply that it’s too hard. We cajole them to turn off their screens and play outside or read a book. They reply that it’s boring. We plead with them to do their chores and they whine, procrastinate and even ignore us.

The common trope, repeated about the rising generation by the older generation for… well, generations, is that we’re raising a spoilt, entitled, self-absorbed and narcissistic generation; that kids are lazy, obstinate and ill disciplined. And the common solution: we need to motivate them.

So how do we motivate our kids?

Western society has adopted a standard response to this question. We motivate with carrots and sticks. The legacy of psychology’s founding fathers and early influencers (such as John Watson and B. F. Skinnercasts a long shadow over our view of motivation. The answer, they say, is a token economy.

A ‘token economy’ is simply a system of reward or punishmentFirst used in a controlled setting in the early 1960s, it relies on being given a reward as a reinforcement of good behaviour, and a punishment as reinforcement of bad behaviour.

While parents punish their children every day with time-out, withdrawal of privileges and even smacking, the stick has fallen out of favour. Today the focus is on the carrot, or the rewards. Reward charts proliferate – stuck to our walls, cupboard doors and refrigerators like gum to the bottom of a shoe. ‘Do as I say and I’ll give you a star. Get enough stars and I’ll give you a goody.’ That’s the ‘carrot’. The ‘stick’ is still there in the carrot though. Implicit in the promise of reward is the threat of punishment.

The Victorian Government has recently determined that the best way to motivate students to attend school and do schoolwork is with carrots. They are offering students incentives. It seems much sweeter than the threat of punishment.

The idea resonates with people. Offering bribes (or threats) usually leads to desired behaviour. For example:

  • the government finds kids aren’t studying. They offer rewards and school attendance, engagement and achievement increase.
  • a parent wants to encourage her kids to clean their rooms but measures room cleaning behaviour over a two-week period and discovers that room cleaning is at zero, even with nagging. It just doesn’t happen. Mum implements a reward system to ‘motivate’ better behaviour. After a few weeks of measurement, she finds that room cleaning behaviour has increased enormously. Back-slapping and high-fives ensue. It MUST be working!

Eventually, however, one of two things usually happen.

First, the reward system is taken away. Suddenly school attendance and achievement drop off. The room cleaning behaviour stops. The reward system starts again and results improve.

Surely this proves that a reward system will motivate our children to do what we want them to do?

Au contraire. The fact that a token, bribe or threat gets a child (or a student or an employee) to engage in a specific behaviour only when the reward is offered or the punishment is threatened highlights that we have not solved the motivation issue at all. They’re not motivated to do the task one bit. That’s why we need to keep offering rewards. Rewards may effectively control children’s behaviour in the immediate context, but studies show that they can (and regularly do) have negative consequences for children’s ongoing interest and engagement, motivation and even wellbeing.

As an aside, many parents have emphasised rewards and discovered that children become remarkably creative in their attempts to minimise the efforts required to gain their reward. ‘Clean your room and I’ll give you five bucks’, often leads to a quick job where clothes are shoved under beds or other convenient hidey-holes. Shortcuts are taken. Our kids’ central focus becomes ‘what’s in it for me?’ There’s no internal motivation for the task at all. The motivation is to get the goody.

The same thing has happened where rewards are employed in education, for example, receiving pizza vouchers for reading books. Sure, more books are read. But the quality of the books chosen is low. Short books. Fewer pages. Lower comprehension. Polemic writer, Alfie Kohn, highlights that ‘rewards motivate us to chase rewards.’

The second reliable outcome of rewarding people is that the reward eventually becomes insufficient. Our children become habituated to the reward. Entitlement ensues. Then their expectation increases. ‘I want more.’

The ‘free-choice’ experimental paradigm is often utilised to discover what motivates and what doesn’t. A large number of studies have divided participants into groups where one group receives a reward for participating (or completing or succeeding) in an activity, whereas another group does not. (People in each group are unaware that others are receiving (or not receiving) a reward). Results are measured, and then the participant is given a ‘free choice’ period where they can choose to continue with the activity or engage with other enticing activity options.

In over 30 years of research, people of all ages, including infants, toddlers, school children, adolescents, college students and adults, have consistently shown that rewards reduce interest in continuing with the task. That is, once a reward is received, there’s no motivation to keep participating. Motivation is high for those who are rewarded for participating – until the free choice period. Once the reward is received and the opportunity for further rewards is removed, motivation vanishes.

Conversely, those who were not rewarded are usually happy to do the activity even without a reward during the initial period. Once the free-choice period commences, the unrewarded participants are significantly more motivated to do more of what others refused to do because they had been rewarded. Participants who receive rewards become less motivated and engaged.

A simple example involving toddlers: developmental psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello conducted an experiment where 20-month-old children were given an opportunity to help others. Following their helping behaviour, the children received either an unexpected tangible reward or no reward, depending on the experimental condition. Receiving a reward led to less subsequent helping behaviour when given further opportunities.

Similarly, in a classic older study, pre-school kids were invited to drink a special yogurt drink and were rewarded with a goody or with praise. A control group received no reward. Researchers returned with more of the yogurt a few weeks later and invited the kids to drink again – this time with no reward. Kids who had been rewarded, either with a tangible reward or praise, were not interested in the drink. They didn’t want it or like it. Those who had not been rewarded consumed it as enthusiastically the second time as they had the first time.

And rewards have been shown to reduce motivation in adolescents and adults too. For example, in a classic study done in 1971, pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss showed that many blood donors stopped giving blood once rewards were offered.

The research evidence shows that our intuition about rewards is probably wrong. Rewards may increase motivation – but it’s the wrong type. It is extrinsic; outside of us. And it only lasts while the reward is on offer. More of the wrong kind of motivation doesn’t help anyone in the long term. We need to reduce our reliance on rewards to build more of the right type of motivation: autonomous motivation.

So how do we do that?

We have a couple of options. First, we need to understand the reasons for the lack of ‘motivation’. You see, rewards and punishments ignore what’s going on for the person struggling with motivation. We see them refusing to attend school or do their chores and our response is to reward or punish them. Instead, perspective is needed. What are their challenges? Why are they lacking intrinsic motivation? Is the task really boring? Or is there something else going on?

Ask your kids, ‘What’s really getting in your way here?’ When we genuinely understand their challenge, we typically find that it’s not going to be fixed by a goody.

They say things like, ‘It’s boring’… and a reward isn’t going to remedy this. Rewards don’t make things interesting. They simply shift the focus from the task to the reward.

They might complain, ‘I don’t understand’, or ‘it’s too hard’. Rewards aren’t the answer here either. Your child needs you to spend more time helping them with the task.

Perhaps they’re self-conscious and are worried that if they try something in front of others they’ll fail and look foolish. A reward doesn’t fix that. While we are busy handing out tokens and rewards, we are ignoring the reasons your child doesn’t want to participate. Rewards won’t solve his problem.

We need to focus less on behaviours and more on obstacles to desired behaviours. Are they tired? Lonely? Stressed? Is it too hard? Does it seem to lack meaning? Addressing the obstacles requires us to consider how we might be contributing to the problem and work creatively with our child to find ways around the obstacles. Is the work we are asking them to do meaningful to them?

What else?

Give them a choice. Being able to choose what they’ll do leads to automatic increases in motivation. Why? Your child feels volitional. He is actually choosing for himself. It’s an intrinsic and internalised decision.

If your child doesn’t want to choose because nothing is appealing we can consider whether our requests are reasonable. If they are, we move to the next idea.

Build up the relationship. People work hard for those they love. A child who never liked science will turn out incredible projects when a new teacher inspires them. When a child feels our concern for their welfare, they trust us. They are open to our influence. We can guide them more successfully.

Finally, recognise that when a child feels competent, they are going to be more motivated than when they feel incapable. Our job is to build their sense of mastery so they feel like the things we invite them to do are achievable.

If you MUST offer a reward, make it unexpected. And assure your child that this isn’t going to be a regular thing.

When it comes to motivating our kids, our focus is misdirected. We see motivation as something they either have or don’t have. If they don’t have it, we try to provide it for them. Our question should not be ‘How motivated are you?’, but rather ‘How are you motivated?’ When we create conditions for motivation to be internal and autonomous, we’ll never need to ‘motivate’ our children again.


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Making Mornings Magic

A mum recently had the morning off. Her husband agreed to get the kids set for school, and she took advantage of her newfound freedom by taking a walk around the block. 

“I felt so relieved” she told her friend later that day. “Every house I went past that had kids, I heard all of the parents screaming at their kids. I thought I was the only one that hated mornings. I felt guilty about it, but I was so glad I’m not the only one that has kids that can’t get it together in the mornings.” 

But it doesn’t need to be so hard. Here are the tips you need to make mornings magic at your place. 

Remember that your morning starts the night before 

Running late because the kids can’t find their sports uniform? Or their socks? Or their shoes or lunchbox or reading folder? Sort it out the night before. 

In our home we follow this routine every night: 

1. Screens off at dinner 

Yep. That’s it. For everyone. As soon as dinner starts, screens go into the basked in the parent’s room and stay there until morning. All screens. I repeat: for everyone including parents. If the big kids need them for homework, they can negotiate after dinner. 

2. After dinner, check uniforms for tomorrow

Make sure that uniforms are ironed, shoes and socks are found, hats are sorted, and everything is set out for the next day.  

3. Organise school bags and lunch boxes 

Check your calendar and ensure the kids have their bag packed with their sport gear, their library books, or anything else that may need to take to school the next day.  

4. Give your kids a breakfast menu to fill out 

In our home, we do it like they do in hotels. The kids circle the food options they want – and we give them plenty to choose from. Spaghetti and baked beans, eggs however you like, toast, cereal, muffins, drinks… the works. Make sure they fill it out completely.

(I can feel you stressing already. Stay calm. You’ll see why this works well soon.) 

5. Give your kids a lunch menu to complete 

Think of everything your kids might possibly eat for lunch. Their fruit. Some chopped vegetables. A sandwich. Leftovers. Whatever else you’re happy for them to eat. Put it on the menu and get them to fill it out. 

6. Finish your normal night routine 

When kids go to bed early and relaxed (without screens) they’ll wake up happier the next day. Cuddles, stories, baths, teeth and hair should take care of your evening. And then YOU make sure you get the sleep you need. Screens off. Talk to your partner or loved one, read a book. Get your full 8 hours. 

Create a morning checklist 

If you’re constantly telling the kids what to do in the mornings, save your energy by creating a simple checklist for them to follow. Stick it on their wall. Use pictures if they’re younger. 

And no rewards. Just a check-box if they want to ‘tick’ that they’ve done it. The list is there so you don’t have to keep track of who’s not done what. 

Wake up ten minutes early 

Start the day off by getting up earlier than you need – and by getting the kids up earlier than they need. But do it the right way. 

My suggestion: sit on your kids’ bed and scratch their back. Spend a few minutes talking to them about their day and what they’re looking forward to. Then let them know it’s time to get moving and you’re there to help if they need it. 

Do as little as possible 

This is the best bit. 

Walk into the kitchen or living area. Then watch your kids do their stuff. 

They’ll leave their room dressed in their uniform because guess what? It was laid out the night before. 

They’ll walk into the kitchen for brekky, grab their menu, and organise things themselves, because guess what? It was laid out the night before. If they get stuck, you can help them to scramble the eggs or whatever is beyond them. But they’ll be able to organise most of it themselves. 

They’ll grab their lunch menu and organise their fruit, their veggies, their snack, and their drink. They might ask for a bit of help with a sandwich if they’re small. Maybe cling wrap is tricky. You can give them a hand. But guess what? They can do most of it on their own, and it’s easy because they did the thinking last night. 

Now and then they’ll look a little lost. You get to say, “What’s next on your list?” Or you might ask, “Is there something you need a hand with?” 

But most of the time, your job is to sit, smile, and help out where needed. 

Some of these things are a little tough for kids under the age of five. It can still be tricky. But most kids can manage most of these things without too much trouble. And that means that when someone walks past your house in the morning, they’ll hear your family having a magic morning. 


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Toddlers and Television

I have written in this column – for years – that excessive screen time, including watching television, is not good for anyone, but is especially detrimental to children. A study published just this month about the effects of television watching on toddlers makes this clearer than ever. 

Researchers from the University of Montreal, in Canada, asked parents of nearly two thousand 2 year-olds how much TV they watched, and then reviewed the lifestyle habits and health outcomes for those children 11 years later, at the age of 13. For every 1 hour and 13 minutes per day a 2 year-old watched television there was an 8.2% increased risk of unhealthy eating habits, a 13.3% increase in BMI, a 4.7% decrease in student engagement, and a 5.8% increase in concurrent screen time (where the child uses another screen while watching TV). If the child watched 2 hours and 26 minutes of television, those numbers doubled. 3 hours and 39 minutes, tripled. 

Recent research from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) shows that watching television and other screen content is a regular part of daily life for Aussie kids as well. Their study found children under the age of 14 are increasingly viewing entertainment on tablets, smartphones, and laptops, and ignoring free-to-air broadcasts in favour of pay-TV and online streaming services like Netflix. And they’re watching, on average, 10.6 hours of programming. That doesn’t include games and social media time. 

The Australian Institute of Family Studies tells a more concerning story. Theirresearch, conducted as part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, tracked the screen habits of 4,000 pre-schoolers through to their early teens, recording a steady increase in time spent watching television, on computers and playing electronic games. 

By the age of 12-13 years old, Australian children spent an average of 3 hours per weekday and almost 4 hours per weekend day using screens. This is around 20% of their waking time on weekdays and 30% on weekends. 

Parents, we need to pay attention. Excessive television viewing by children is associated with worsening health and obesity. The physical health costs are significant, but the flow on to psychological health is even more so. Social opportunities are reduced. Kids who are overweight and obese are more likely to be bullied. They’re more likely to have low self-esteem. And they’re less likely to flourish academically. The longer-term ramifications may be even more serious. 

TV has been around for ages. But it seems too many of us are not aware of the metaphoric deepening water and the danger to our kids. 

Here’s what we can do. 

Be the example.

Technology use has increased exponentially among adults, and because of it, “technoference” (everyday intrusions and interruptions due to technology devices) has increased as well. Research shows technoference leads to more conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, more symptoms of depression, and less life satisfaction. When technology interferes with conversations, activities, and quality time with our loved ones, our relationships suffer, including the relationships with our children. So getting off the screens is good for us too. 

We need to show our kids that we control technology, we aren’t controlled by it. Have a set of rules governing screen use, and follow them. Lead by example. 

Have awareness of how our children spend their waking hours. 

Parents need to be aware of how their children are spending their limited waking hours. What they are doing now affects the rest of their lives. The ACMA study showed that too many parents don’t monitor anything that their kids do on screens. 

Our kids’ brains need the right kind of stimulation to develop. To get this stimulation they need to be interacting with others, especially their parents. They need use their bodies to run, climb, tumble, and just generally move. This is how humans develop the ability to focus, concentrate, pay attention, develop language, and show empathy. 

Excessive screen time takes away the opportunity for developmental stimulation. If a child spends two hours every day in front of the television, this is two hours not spent playing in the garden, riding bikes, or reading.  

Practical advice. 

Screens and devices are, for better or for worse, part of our lives. But they should remain just that, part of our lives. 

Children under two should have no screen time at all, including television. Their brains are still developing and they need all of their waking hours to get the experiences this requires. 

Older children should have consistent limits set on the time they spend in front of the television or on electronic media, and on the content as well. Our children are ceaselessly exposed to content that is inappropriate, developmentally and morally. When they do use screens, we should ensure the content is good quality and age appropriate. 

Our kids don’t need smart phones, but they do need smart parents to give guidelines and set good examples. 


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Can We Discipline Other People’s Kids?

Hi Dr Justin 

I was in a park recently with my two kids (aged 4 and 1). A boy there was being a little rough so we went to the other side of the park, but soon the boy found us and tried to take my son’s matchbox car. They had a confrontation and the boy grabbed my son’s shirt. I intervened and said, “it’s OK. He’s going to let go now and his mummy is going to come over and get him in trouble.” The boy did let go, but  the mum didn’t come over.  Did I do the right thing? And should other people be allowed to discipline kids who aren’t theirs? 


The short answer is “Heck yes! We have a responsibility to discipline other people’s kids – particularly when they’re not doing it themselves. 

But as always, it’s not quite that simple. 

What does discipline mean? 

Often people think that “discipline” means to punish someone, to give them consequences, or even to go and hurt someone (smacking!). In other words, “I don’t like what you are doing and there will be consequences!” 

But let’s take a look at the etymology of the word “discipline.” It derives from the word Latin word, disciplina, which means instruction or knowledge. This puts an alternative spin on things! Disciplining is not about punishing, it is about teaching. And if done correctly, with gentleness and kindness, most parents would welcome another parent teaching their child about the right way to behave. In fact, it is really important that in situations such as Sarah’s that we do so. 

We have a social requirement to calmly intervene

Every single one of us should intervene and teach, to guide, and to instruct, when children need it, whether it’s our child or somebody else’s child. 

It’s what you did, politely and calmly. At a young age, distraction and separation will typically be enough.  Being polite and calm helps everybody involved (the children and the other parent), recognise that we aren’t there to hurt or punish anyone. This should defuse the situation. Then some short, simple teaching that grabbing someone else’s toy, or someone else’s clothes is not OK should be all that is required. 

No judgments! 

As parents it is easy to become emotional when someone is intimidating or hurting our child. It is easy to become angry with the other child and his or her parents. But we don’t know what is going on in the lives of other people. There might be a mental condition or a physical ailment that is affecting the child,  or there could be something going on in his home life. 

Dads beware

Dads dealing with other people’s kids can be particularly tricky. Sadly, we live in a time where people are suspicious of men near children in public places. If a dad decides to intervene, I recommend the following: 

First, keep some distance so no one feels physically threatened. Second, crouch down and speak softly. Third, try not to look mad! 

I know it’s hard to read this and even harder to imagine dealing with it. As a dad, I wish it were different. 

What to do and say 

It helps to know what kinds of things might be useful to say in these tricky situations. Our natural instinct may be to be mad. Sometimes talking to your child about what the other kid is doing and laying on the guilt trip can work well, such as the one in your example, “He’s going to stop doing that so you can have your turn on the slide.” 

As incidents become trickier, or as children get older, using gentle statements such as “It seems as though…” in a deliberately non-judgmental way. “Hey kids. It seems as though things aren’t working so well. Do you need some help?” 

The offer to help is far more effective than a threat to hurt. Children will be responsive in most cases when a stranger approaches them to carefully help a situation rather than when a stranger storms into a situation and demands everyone “cut it out and stop being so nasty.” 

If things escalate, perhaps because children are older and cheeky, it is best to find the child’s parent. Use the same approach, “Hi, it seems like the kids could do with our help.” (And make sure you smile a little.) If things can’t be fixed because the other parent is aggressive or the child is an older kid with no parents present (and a horrendous attitude), it’s best to leave. Take the kids for an ice-cream and let the incident go. Some wars are worth fighting. This one almost certainly won’t be. 

Kids need discipline. But it should always be focused on guidance, instruction, and helping. When it is, we can be safe in saying that it’s everyone’s responsibility to be involved in raising and disciplining kids. It takes a village. 

I discussed this topic is in last week’s podcast. You can listen to it here.

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How To Keep Kids Motivated To Play Sport

In some circles, junior sport has become a hotbed of competition and comparison. The push to “do your best” starts early. Kids want to win and they put pressure on themselves to beat their competitors. But often there is downward pressure from parents and even coaches (who, let’s face it, are often just enthusiastic parents themselves). 

Parents have told me of how their children have been pushed down grades in their netball or soccer teams or have even been pushed out of a club (or sport) because they haven’t measured up, or couldn’t commit to the four, five, or six nights per week practice – at the age of 8! 

Other parents explain that their kids have quickly noticed they can’t play or compete nearly as well as the other players and they suffer a lack of confidence. Resilience takes a battering when you can’t keep up. It’s no fun being on the field when you don’t get the ball, can’t hit the ball, or you simply lose, lose, lose.  

Then there’s the costs. There is, in too many instances, little on offer for the kids who just want to play for fun and fitness. 

How do we, as parents, help our children to feel encouraged and motivated to play sport? Is there a special strategy that will keep resilience high when the going gets tough and they see their loss as a debilitating indictment on their innate athleticism, and give up? 

I believe that there is an alternative approach. It’s one that eschews the competitiveness and dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest approach. It’s an approach that says turning pro shouldn’t be in the conversation for juniors, but having fun, being active, developing relationships, and learning skills should be.  

In 2017, Cricket Australia announced that they were changing the rules of cricket for junior sport. For the Under 11’s and Under 13’s the pitch is shorter so there are fewer wides. The field is smaller and the number of players is down (from 11 to 7) so boundaries are easier to hit. Everyone plays wicket-keeper, and bats and bowls in every game. They’ve shortened the game, and… no one gets out! 

Around ten years ago Tennis Australia introduced Hot Shots. Kids under age 11 play tennis on smaller courts with a lower net than standard, and a low compression ball that doesn’t keep bouncing over their head. More than 380 000 Aussie kids are learning the skills of tennis without worrying about competition, and they love it. (As they get older they can participate in match play, but this is several years in once skills and confidence are built.) Even in the elite pathway, there is a strong emphasis on doubles tennis to foster relationships and teamwork. The proof is in the numbers. There were only 6000 kids playing in 2006. That’s an increase of over 6000% in ten years. 

Some AFL leagues have capped scoring to ensure margins don’t blow out, leaving kids feeling even more despondent when their backsides are kicked. Juniors play on smaller fields in smaller teams. Tackling rules are stricter, grounds are smaller, and fewer players means more kids can touch the ball. The focus is participation and being involved. And recently, more females than ever are playing the game. 

The purist might ask “Why would they do this? It’s just not cricket (pardon the pun)!” But the reasons are clear: kids are dropping out of sport when they don’t feel competent, when they don’t have great relationships with others, or when there’s too much pressure. Each of these is related to an over-emphasis on competition at an early age, and various sports are making changes in an aim to change that attrition. 

Dr Ian Renshaw, a researcher and lecturer in the school of exercise and nutrition sciences at Queensland University of Technology, is an advisor to Cricket Australia. He explained that with these changes “the kids can actually play the game now. In the first three days of the Australian Primary School Cricket Carnival, 7 balls in every 10 weren’t scored off. These are the best kids in the country at the age of 12. Only one boundary was scored! (It was a 60 metre boundary.)” 

If the kids can’t play their favourite sport like adults, perhaps we need to reduce the pressure on them to do that, and make that sport into something they can play. 

Cricket Australia’s changes are being piloted right now. So far, Dr Renshaw told me, “in community cricket the kids are playing better. There’s a significant reduction in wides being bowled, more runs being scored, and more wickets are being taken.” 

And, as with Tennis Australia, the results are pointing in the right direction when it comes to keeping kids in sport and making it fun. 76% of parents agree that their kids are happier playing the game and feel their skills are improving (because they bat longer, bowl more, and succeed at both). 74% of clubs like the shorter games – so it’s also practical. And 89% of coaches say it helps them coach better. Most important of all, 87% of kids enjoy cricket more with the changes.  

I think they could do more. Here are some significant sporting changes I think would be easy to implement at junior levels, that would make the game even better for kids: 

  1. Where a team is completely dominating, change the teams up to make the game fairer. This might ruffle a few relationships feathers, but if expectations are explained early and clearly, parents and kids might be more willing to go along. Dr Renshaw described a time where he did that. At half time, his son’s team was decimating the opposition. He spoke to the other coach. They recorded the score as the end result. Then they matched the teams more evenly. “That’s what you do in the backyard. Why not do it on the field?” he told me. “Let’s be less serious. They’re kids.” (The result… a tightly contested second half where everyone left the field smiling.) 
  2. Get everyone cheering for every child’s successes, regardless of whose team they’re on. The object of the game (at this stage) is to encourage competence and mastery. 
  3. Design games based on what kids can do. The size of the kids should influence the way the game is played. Maybe use smaller balls (basketball) and courts so they can shoot three-pointers. Pragmatism means we play junior sport on adult facilities. Perhaps new facilities could be designed with kids in mind. 
  4. Move away from the belief that we have to rigidly coach and teach sport to kids the same way that the adults play it. 
  5. Keep kids involved as long as possible, and avoid representative teams (where the bigger kids born early in the year get all the advantages.) 
  6. Recognise that winning under 8’s is NOT the most important thing in the world. Seriously. It’s not. 

There are also a few things parents can do to help their kids get more out of their sport. 

First up, get away from the focus on winning and encourage fun, improvement, and sportsmanship. Again, at any age this should be the focus. Go play sport. Run around. Have fun. (If they really want to play representative sport, that’s great… but let them choose it when they’re old enough.) 

Second, shift the focus from competitive sports. Kids have all kinds of strengths and natural interests. In many cases, individual or team competition will be their thing. But in the early years, simply being outside and developing strengths and talents will be all they need. 

Third, encourage your children to own their decisions and have some autonomy. Make sure that your children aren’t being forced to play or compete. If they hate it, complain, cry, or resist, ask yourself, “Does this matter more to me than it does to my child?” If the answer is yes, it might be time to rethink. 

Fourth, resilience comes from steady successes rather than frequent failures. The more they can feel competent, the more they’ll thrive. Remember, however, that false and undeserved praise will lead to hollow kids. They know when they’re succeeding and when they suck. Give them credit where it’s due and encourage the ‘have-a-go’ approach when they struggle. 

Finally, help them to build great relationships. Children (and adults too) gravitate to activities where they have friends. When relationships are strong, children feel positive and want to engage. 

This year one of my daughters began playing tennis. We had no idea she was interested in tennis. Netball had always been her thing, until she told us how much fun she had hitting tennis balls with me over Christmas on the court at a holiday park where we had stayed. 

Four tennis lessons later and Ella, aged 14, found herself standing at the receiving end of the court one steaming February Saturday morning, rallying for points from the baseline as her opponent thrashed her six games to love. 

As a teen, Ella doesn’t get to enjoy a non-scoring approach to the game. But on that Saturday, and every Saturday since, Ella heard parents cheering for her. They weren’t just her parents. They were the parents of other competitors who wanted this new girl to feel their support. Ella knew she wasn’t the best on the court – not by a long way, but she was focused on learning, mastery, and development rather than winning. And the girls she has played against have been kind, smiling, and eager to encourage her to keep it up. The games have been played in a spirit of sportsmanship and joyfulness rather than hyper-competitive aggression. 

And Ella has been hooked.

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Are Smart Toys Safe?

There is a toy revolution building. Kids toys are becoming smarter. It’s part of the internet of things, which basically means that every “thing” you can buy can be connected to the Internet. 

Toy developers are finding new – and amazing – ways to integrate technology into the toy cupboard. This means that next time your four-year-old asks for yet another dinosaur – to which you will most probably inwardly groan – you’ll find that the new ones are different! The toy manufacturers will assure you, despite any empirical evidence to support their claims – that the new ‘smart’ dinosaur is great for cognitive development (it says so right on the box!). It can answer the million questions your child asks daily. And if it doesn’t have the answer, there’s a team of analysists or engineers out there who update the answers the toy can give based on your child’s question. This is a learning dinosaur! And everything it learns, it can teach your child. 

Spelling? Check. 

Games? Check. 

Guided mediation? Check! 

New smart toys come with games and stories and easy set-up. What’s more, you can personalise them to your child, and because of their “learning” capabilities these toys are constantly evolving. 

Some experts suggest, however, that there are dangers implicit in this new wave of connected toys that “listen”. These dangers typically revolve around privacy and security concerns. As an example, toys that encourage conversations with children have microphones and receivers. If a toy hears something, it’s probably transmitting that information as well. 

New research studying the interactions of children with smart toys concludes kids are often unaware that others might hear what they say to their toy. Stories abound regarding children sharing personal information with the toy, with toys transmitting voice messages, internet history and location data. In some cases, this has led to identity theft, online scams and, most worrying, exploitation of your child. 

The research also showed that parents were also often unconcerned over privacy and security risks. (After all, “who’d want to listen in to, or watch, my kid in their bedroom?”). Some parents mistakenly believe that the toy manufacturers would have adequate security measures in place (much like Apple’s Siri). But toy companies do not have the same comprehensive cybersecurity systems that companies such as Apple or Google do. 

A toy called “My Friend Cayla” was banned in Germany because it contained an unsecured Bluetooth device that could allow strangers to listen in on, and even talk to, the children using the toy. In fact, a Bluetooth device would allow an eavesdropper to listen in through the doll from a radius of 10 meters and even through several walls. 

In the United States, personal information, photos and voice recordings stored on internet-connected stuffed animals called “Cloud Pets” were found to be accessible in a poorly secured internet database. Anyone could access the information on the exposed database and at some point someone did, and even tried to hold the information for ransom. 

It’s such a serious issue that the FBI has encouraged consumers to “consider cyber security prior to introducing smart, interactive, internet-connected toys into their homes”. They advise that smart toys often contain sensors, mics, and cameras, and may have other capabilities such as speech recognition and GPS. These things could put the privacy and safety of your children at risk.  

Suddenly the claims made by the company manufacturing your child’s toy dinosaur take on new meanings. 

First, the dino is designed to engage children in conversation and encourages them to ask questions. But this also means it’s receiving potentially private information from your child. 

Second, it is easy set up. What this means is that once you’ve connected the dinosaur to Wi-Fi, it stays connected. All the time. 

Third, it’s personalised, so it remembers what your child shares. All the information your child provides is being streamed and stored. 

Fourth, it’s “constantly evolving” or, in other words, there is someone out there listening to your child, and updating the toy’s responses to better engage them. 

In today’s world of instant connectivity, it’s not enough to hope that the manufacturers of smart toys and internet-connected goods are protecting our kids. We, as parents, have to do that. Be aware of the transmission and data capabilities of the devices (and toys) your children have, whether it’s a toy dinosaur, a smart watch, or the next big thing this Christmas. We need to understand how our private information is being shared and the security measures and disclosure and privacy policies of each company we purchase from. We need to do our own research to understand if (and where) there are risks for our families. And we always need to monitor our children’s use of smart toys. 

There is one more consideration when it comes to smart toys. It’s this: research is showing that our kids are doing less well psychologically than ever before. They’re connecting with their screens and smart devices more than they’re connecting with us. To be happy, healthy, and resilient, they need connection with us far more than they need connection with toys, devices, and WiFi. And they need connection with “outside” and other people!  So before introducing smart toys, or any new tech gadget to your home, become aware of the risks. And, perhaps more importantly, educate your children. Use these items as an opportunity to start a conversation with your kids about online safety and how the internet works. Focus on building relationship connections rather than data connections. 

New technology can be overwhelming for parents. In many ways we are exploring a new world. But with consideration and education we can incorporate the best of technology into our lives, while maintaining the safety of our kids. 

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