Category Archives: Blog

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Open Their World

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As seen in Ladue News, September 25th

Last month, St. Louis and Ferguson dominated national headlines. As the story surrounding Michael Brown’s shooting grew, my 11- and 13-year-old boys had many concerns about the incident itself and their safety, but they also had more general questions about racial conflict, economic differences, and why everyone was so upset.

My wife and I were impressed by the intelligent and sensitive questions that our children were asking. But as we listened, I also started to think about how do we get our kids to a higher level of cultural understanding? How do we ensure that our kids get to know people as people and not as social stereotypes? And how do we, as parents, promote tolerance, acceptance and kindness?

According to the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 75 percent of Caucasian families rarely—if ever—discuss race and cultural diversity. Many parents, at least on a subconscious level, believe that simply exposing children to different cultures is just as good as talking about it. We are happy to take our kids to an ethnic restaurant, but most are unable to speak about the cultural significance of the food or how geography impacts diet.

Becoming aware of ethnic differences is difficult because it takes effort to understand the history. It also is in our nature to talk about how people share similarities as the differences are often ‘foreign’ to us. Parents unfamiliar with Chanukah, for example, may call it the Jewish ‘Christmas’ instead of explaining the historical importance of this celebration.

Interestingly, young children are very alert to differences, albeit, on a concrete level. By the age of 6 months, babies can easily differentiate between skin color and gender. Toddlers make sense of the world by sorting things; and many will actually count or classify their schoolmates by appearance, including race, hair color or size. And by the age of 5 or 6, kids both understand and perpetuate stereotypes.

The best time to fight cultural stereotypes is before they form. For the little ones, it is easy to find toys and books that educate about intercontinental differences, and expose them to characters from different places. Ethnic street festivals also provide opportunities for young kids to try food, enjoy unfamiliar games and ask questions. Small children are unbiased, so take them to the action and open their world.

Older kids are able to think deeply, empathize and intellectualize. Ask your adolescent about how they view specific events and gently challenge with deep questions. It is one thing to know about Michael Brown, but it is another thing to understand the role of local government in law enforcement, or see all sides of the situation before forming an opinion.

Parents might also consider taking a step back to reflect on their own values. Being aware of one’s personal perceptions can be difficult, as our beliefs often exist on a subconscious level. Parents need to appreciate their own blind spots if they are to truly teach their children about diversity.

There is no recipe or instruction booklet that specifically states how to boost a family’s understanding and acceptance. Continually modeling the appropriate attitude, however, can provide a platform for a child to be inquisitive and sensitive. And most important, exercise empathy. Through empathy, we can teach how others might like to be treated.

Our world is merging; there are global economies, cross-cultural education opportunities, and the other side of the planet is just a SKYPE call away. To bring our kids to a higher level of social consciousness, parents should take initiative to both expose and teach about differences. To be successful in the 21st century, today’s youth need to learn how to be sensitive to everyone, no matter where they are from or what they look like.


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Kids & Resolutions

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As seen in Ladue News, December 26

The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions dates back to the ancient Romans and the mythical god, Janus. He was a two-faced man who represented the opportunity to reflect on the past and forgive one’s enemies while, at the same time, look toward the future and create goals for the New Year. Janus was so important to this ancient culture that they named the month of January after him.

The epic story of Janus is an important history lesson. It teaches us that for thousands of years many have made New Year’s resolutions; and that for thousands of years, many also have failed at keeping them—a practice that still occurs today. Recent studies indicate that 50 percent of Americans make resolutions and, by the end of the first month, most fail. With this in mind, is it fair to ask our children to do something that most adults can’t accomplish?

Teaching kids about resolutions is an excellent way to educate about personal responsibility and self-improvement. Early on, children develop habits that they perpetuate through the rest of their lives. Encouraging kids to reflect on the past and create positive goals for the future is a worthy endeavor, and the New Year is the perfect time to introduce our children to this idea.

How a parent assists a child in creating yearly goals depends on age. For pre-school aged children, parents need to be directive and focus on typical life expectations such as brush your teeth and clean your room. During the elementary years, kids are able to comprehend the value of resolutions. Work with your child to choose specific and concrete objectives such as being healthier by eating one fruit or vegetable a day. For teenagers, goals can be more abstract and should emphasize personal responsibility such as learning better skills for conflict resolution and resisting drugs and alcohol.

No matter a child’s age, parents should start with a conversation. In fact, creating a tradition around yearly goal-setting is a prosperous way to engage the entire family in this process. Over a special dinner or dessert, talk not only about future ideas but also reflect upon the past year’s successes and failures. The atmosphere should be light, supportive and fun.

With the kids excited about future possibilities, the next step is to provide your child with guidance. Resolutions should be personal and something your son or daughter wants to achieve. Goals made out of obligation to please a parent or friend often result in failure. A child should start recycling because he or she wants to make the world a greener place and not to impress someone else.

Parents also should encourage their children to make resolutions that are manageable. Making all As in schools, for example, is much less realistic than focusing on improving a specific skill such as becoming a better writer. Further support your goal-maker by helping him break big tasks into small, tangible measures such as seeing an English teacher for extra assistance before the next big paper is due.

Most fail at keeping resolutions because they lack the proper support. Minor missteps are to be expected and children may need additional guidance to fulfill expectations. Parents should engage in regular family discussion where progress is acknowledged and pitfalls are discussed. It also can be helpful to post goals on the family fridge; this creates a sense of internal obligation and makes it difficult to forget one’s aspirations.

Lastly, parents should not only make their own resolutions but also should share these with their family. No matter what age, kids will value the goal-setting process more if mom and dad demonstrate a commitment to self-improvement. Additionally, have your son or daughter assist you with keeping resolutions, sending the message that it is okay to ask for help. Our children are always watching us, and modeling expectations is a powerful motivator.

Resolutions are different than dreams. Everyone should have dreams and I say dream big, but dreams are not goals. Goals are specific, measurable, attainable and realistic. And while resolutions are timely, it takes time to successfully implement these life-changing behaviors. Rome wasn’t built in a day so be patient and celebrate even minor milestones as your children strive for success.


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Learning Disabilities: Trust Your Instincts

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St. Louis truly is a unique educational marketplace. There are more private schools in St. Louis than most any other city in the United States. Because many of these institutions have small classes and a unique educational niche, students who learn differently thrive in our city. In fact, many of these children and teenagers enroll in honors-level curriculums, take advanced placement classes, or attend the city’s best preparatory schools.

One can have a superior IQ yet still have cognitive challenges. In fact, being learning disabled (LD) does not directly correlate with having a lack of intelligence or low motivation. However, LD students do manage information differently because they have a neurologically based processing challenge that interferes with the ability to master specific concepts when taught in a traditional manner.

Learning differences can take on multiple forms. Some students have difficulties getting content into the brain. These children struggle with information integration such as the ability to organize, sequence, retrieve or infer meaning. Other students have difficulty getting information out of the brain. These children struggle with fine motor skills (handwriting), organizing thoughts on paper, or finding the right words to express ideas.

Knowledge acquisition is unique for each child and difficulties can surface at any age. There are, however, some specific signs that may indicate your child learns differently. During the pre-school years, look for language complications such as acquisition difficulties or word-pronunciation problems. And some young students may have struggles with coordination and finger use, finding simplistic tasking unusually frustrating. If any area of development feels delayed, check with a teacher to determine if an early intervention is needed.

As children enter the elementary years, subject-area concerns often become more prominent. LD students may be able to master many skills but have difficulty grasping certain concepts. Frequent reading errors, constant misspellings, or atypical troubles with basic math computations can be markers of a learning issue. Additionally, some may experience social struggles and communication problems, which also impact knowledge acquisition.

Further confusing the identification of LD students is that these problems can go unnoticed during the elementary years because these intelligent kids often develop self-compensating strategies for their learning deficits. Additionally, grade school teachers are particularly talented at supporting individuals of all abilities. Maturing students, however, face new challenges as they juggle the demands of a busier scholastic schedule, attempt more demanding academic tasks and negotiate increased independence. Grades may decline and unknown learning issues can surface during the high school years.

It can, however, be difficult to sort out typical teen distraction from true learning issues. Some older students struggle with classroom attention, avoid homework, and fail literature tests because they have no desire to read Jane Austin. Others, unfortunately, put forth appropriate or even excessive effort, but still experience low grades. Review homework and look for unusual sequencing, overly sloppy work or excessively long completion times. Also, check on your child’s emotional state. School anxiety or a confidence crisis often can be the result of an unknown learning issue.

Trust your parental instincts and pursue assistance if you think there is a problem. Start by talking to your child’s teachers. Next, consult with your pediatrician and rule out any medical concerns. Finally, and perhaps most important, work with a qualified educational specialist who will review academic records, interview the family and consult with the school. These professionals also can administer a comprehensive set of intelligence tests and academic assessments to develop a detailed learning profile and determine if a problem exists.

It can be upsetting for a parent to consider the possibility that their child may learn differently. It is, however, important for families to own the problem, understand how their child thinks and learns, and seek the services they need. Don’t adapt a wait-and-see approach; attack the problem. With intervention, advocacy and support, LD students succeed in school, college and life.


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Family Arguments: Too Hot for Kids to Handle?

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Many children don’t listen to their parents, especially when asked to engage in some tedious task like emptying the trash or cleaning their rooms. When Mom and Dad argue; however, most kids will stop what they are doing and—for better or worse—seriously listen to their parents’ impassioned conversation. While family conflict is inevitable, many wonder if it is ever acceptable to argue in front of the kids.

In the past, family experts often directed parents away from having outward disagreements in favor of private, behind-closed-door debates. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned individuals perpetuated the parenting myth that children should never see Mom and Dad passionately disagree. However, recent research indicates that these professionals may have been wrong, and that overhearing ‘heated negotiations’ actually is a healthy situation for children to experience.

Now, I am not actively advocating that parents engage in battle, but many modern psychological theories do consider that dismissing or delaying disagreements can be potentially detrimental to a child’s emotional development. In fact, as long as parents fight fairly, it is good for kids to see their mother and father having the occasional dispute.

Of course, it is never proper to participate in over-the-top, name-calling, knock-down, drag-out fights. But kids should understand that two people who spend a significant amount of time together will experience conflict, and it is how one handles a disagreement that differentiates acceptable arguing from harmful hollering.

The first rule of the ‘healthy’ family fight is that parents should be aware of what they are arguing about and where they arguing. While many children are mature beyond their years, certain topics should be avoided. Conflicts regarding intimacy, money, addiction or how to raise the kids should only occur in private. Moreover, these disputes should focus on a particular situation rather than a negative character trait. What parents fight about is as important as how they fight.

When arguments do emerge, it is essential that parents model appropriate communication strategies. Keep voices low as yelling escalates the situation, demonstrate listening by engaging in proper turn-taking exchanges, and respond with clarifying statements that convey understanding. If the discussion escalates into an angry, rambling rant, it is time to retreat to neutral corners and resolve the conflict at another time.

It also can be tempting to ask your child to provide an opinion regarding the debate. Don’t! This creates internal turmoil, as your child is forced to choose a side. All kids want to see is a proper resolution, and children should never have to divide loyalties.

Most important, end arguments properly. Keep discussions short and resolve the situation. Sometimes, this will mean agreeing to disagree. Later, talk to your children. Younger kids, in particular, often need reassurance that Mom and Dad are truly happy parents and that the conflict is over.

Children who see their parents engage in appropriate communication, which includes arguing, learn how to form healthy relationships, relieve stress and solve problems. In fact, children react to peers in the same manner that their parents react to each other. Through modeling proper behavior, parents are able to teach their kids how to ‘let off steam’ and successfully work out disagreements.

If, however, your household is terribly turbulent, don’t settle for an angry relationship and an uncomfortable atmosphere. Children of parents who engage in high-frequency fighting often experience depression, anxiety and long-lasting emotional scars. It is better to seek assistance from an outside professional than to expose your kids to an unhealthy marriage.


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Summer Boredom

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The start of summer is a time of unlimited possibilities for most kids. But as the excitement of being free from academic structure morphs into the dull days of summer, kids often become bored and many parents become frustrated. Arguments escalate as parents tell their children to just ‘do something!’ The problem is that today’s youth don’t really understand how to enjoy their free time.

 


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Is Summer Camp Worth the Cost?

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The high cost of raising a child is indisputable, and my wife and I are somewhat in denial about how much we spend on our children’s extra-curricular activities. Sure, we know what it costs to sign up for hockey, and we know the fee for each tennis lesson. It is those incidentals and unexpected opportunities that are difficult to determine. And to be honest, my parental enjoyment of these activities might be diminished if I paid too much attention to these financial expenditures.

There is, however, no way to ignore summer camp costs. Furthermore, it does not matter if your child is going for a sleep-away experience or attending a local day program, tuition and expenses add up quickly. Parents should investigate a variety of options before pitching a tent because higher prices do not necessarily equate to a better experience.

The biggest factor that determines camp cost is that some are for-profit programs. These camps often offer specialized curriculums, professional instructors, premium facilities and unique off-campus excursions. Furthermore, many aim to not only provide a fun experience, but also to improve a particular skill. If you can afford these camps, and if you think your child will enjoy the experience, then this may be your best option.

There also are nonprofit programs, which are typically supported by an agency such as the YMCA or Scouts, and may or may not have a religious affiliation. Interestingly, about 75 percent of all overnight camps fall into this category. These programs cost less than their private counterparts but are just as capable of providing a ‘rich’ experience as their higher-priced competitors. Most also are geographically desirable, which allows your child to make new friends from the area.

Before making a decision about which camp is best, parents should engage in some pre-purchase research. Learn about the facility’s character, reputation, service and quality. Also ask your child what they would like to do. Just because you enjoyed canoeing and camping, it doesn’t mean that your daughter will have the same interest. Explore alternatives and collaboratively discuss what makes the most sense.

The decision is made, tuition is paid and the excitement is building. Unfortunately, there still are more costs to be incurred. Medical physicals, extra medications and completed doctor form fees can quickly add up. More expensive, however, are the trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods and REI for specialized gear and equipment. And then there is the price of travel and other unknown factors, which create further expenses.

If you feel like you need to take out a second mortgage to pay for your child’s summer time fun, you are not alone. Don’t despair. While camp itself does not typically provide any tax breaks, check with your accountant to determine deductions for related medical expenses or child care credits, especially for day camps. And to save money, inquire about discounts for referrals or sibling attendance. Also ask about volunteer opportunities as some programs provide price breaks in return for free labor.

Still cringing at the potential expense? Consider the huge personal value that camp offers to parents. Summer programs provide a safe, fun, and supervised environment: no need to worry about reliable babysitters and bored children spending mindless hours in front of a screen. Take advantage of a quieter house and enjoy a peaceful afternoon at home doing whatever you want!

Lastly, keep in mind that camp truly is an incredible investment with a great return. Kids learn independence and self-reliance as they become personally accountable for their own things. Camp also further develops a child’s interpersonal abilities as they navigate new relationships. But best of all, this personal development occurs while kids are having fun doing the things they enjoy.


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When Your Child Should See a Therapist

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My oldest child is 11 years old. And I believe that if you do something every day for 11 years, experience alone should make one proficient. However, parenting is more of an art than a science. What works one day may not work the next, and there are many factors that contribute to the ebb and flow of family functioning.

I have daily conversations with my wife about our kids. We continually strive to be appropriately involved without being overbearing. Our two boys seem truly happy, enjoy school and have engaging outside interests. Would it ever make sense to seek counseling when there are no apparent problems? And would seeing a therapist create an issue when one doesn’t exist?

The field of counseling is slowly changing. In past decades, only troubled individuals sought out mental health services. I have, however, noticed modern, well-functioning families are frequently reaching out for assistance to work through life’s regular challenges—study strategies, curfew conflicts, technology troubles and minor parent/child disagreements. These clients come with an agenda, set goals and collaboratively solve problems with their counselor.

For those families, therapy is a normal process like going to the doctor for an annual physical. They find no stigma with seeing a counselor and appreciate the professional perspective. Unfortunately, many parents feel conflicted about their child seeing a therapist and question the decision to do so. It truly can be worrisome to determine when additional assistance is needed.

Of course, there are obvious situations when a child needs therapeutic support. In some unfortunate instances, circumstances beyond a family’s control such as the death of a loved one, major illness or an unsettling life event causes undue stress. Other times, there are noticeable behavioral changes such as excessive crying, emotional withdrawal or inappropriate weight loss. And in some cases, a child’s teacher or family doctor highlights a concern that needs attention. Unfortunately, knowing when a child is struggling also can be very challenging.

Kids are constantly moving, growing and changing, making it difficult to determine the difference between normal developmental changes and truly turbulent times. Judging a child’s behavior in relation to their physical age is a great place to start. It is normal for a 5-year-old to constantly poke another child when they are supposed to be quiet, and it is normal for a teenager to have a major parental disagreement over a seemingly minor thing. When the frequency, intensity and/or the duration of the behavior seems disproportionate to the causing catalyst, it is time to seek professional help.

Regrettably, some parents avoid seeking a therapist because they worry that they may be the problem. In fact, the opposite is true: Seeking a counselor means you are an engaged and active individual trying to improve a life circumstance. Furthermore, a good therapist will view you as an ally toward healthier family functioning. If your ‘gut’ says help is needed, don’t let your own anxieties get in the way.

OK, you finally made the decision to take your child to a counselor. The nerves are setting in and you are worried that your daughter might refuse to attend. Start with an honest, age-appropriate conversation discussing why you want your child to participate. Emphasize it is important to you and simply request she attend a couple of sessions. When approached in this manner, most will go—not necessarily without complaining—but they will honor your feelings.

Therapy is about improving the self and one can’t argue with the desired outcome. While counseling can be long-term, it also can be only a few, as-needed sessions. Imagine having a trusted professional on your speed dial whose only agenda is to help you and your child. Develop a relationship with an understanding therapist. It is a great place to process not only major issues, but also life’s unusual challenges.


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College Drinking

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There is a difference between knowing that your teen is drinking alcohol at college and allowing your child to drink at home. Parents should never endorse alcohol use when their children are under the legal drinking age. In essence, when you say it is okay to use, you are also encouraging your son to break the law. Furthermore, if you allow drinking in your house, you are breaking the law and can be arrested for social hosting.

It is, however, reasonable to assume that your student is going to continue to engage in his social life, and parents should have a discussion about alcohol use. Choose a mutually agreeable time to engage in a conversation about summer expectations. Don’t ambush your teen, rather set a time and let him know you want to speak about drinking and your parental thoughts.

The most important rule is to make sure your college student knows it is never acceptable to drink and drive. Your child should understand that he can always call for a ride without parental judgment. Next, discuss summer work expectations. The best way to minimize alcohol use is to make sure your student has a busy summer schedule. This could include working, volunteering, or going to summer school. Lastly, discuss daily expectations including what time your teen should be home at night and what time he must rise in the morning.

Your son is maturing, and he should be open to discussing expectations. Listen to his perspective but also remember that you are the parent. Keep in mind that as the summer ends, the effects of excessive alcohol use can endure for many years. Lastly, if you feel your college student is drinking excessively, seek professional assistance.


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Moms with ADHD

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If you have a child with ADHD, there is a 60 percent chance that either you or your mate also has ADHD.

What is the difference between childhood ADHD and adult ADHD? Children with ADHD generally have problems paying attention or concentrating, can’t seem to follow directions and are easily frustrated with everyday tasks. Some will move constantly and act impulsively not stopping to think before they act. Adults with ADHD have some slightly different or additional symptoms which often include issues with time management, organizational skills, and goal setting.

Life is extra difficult when you’re a parent with ADHD. Being a mom, in general, is a hard job, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or a busy professional trying to balance a career, kids and everything else. Yes, it is true that in recent years, men have been more hands-on with household and childcare responsibilities; the bulk of the work still, however, lands on the woman. Balancing a slew of commitments can get overwhelming for anyone, let alone a person with ADHD.

It can be difficult to identify adult ADHD because many women who have ADHD also have depression, anxiety or some other co-occurring condition often as a result of behaviors associated with their undiagnosed ADHD. You feel bad because you can’t focus or organize life. Further, when treating those other mood issues one does start to feel better, but the ADHD symptoms are still present.

ADHD must be addressed as a family issue when the mother has ADHD. Most mothers are so used to tending to the needs of others that they often overlook their own needs. It can be difficult for many women to admit that they can’t do it all. Accept your attention challenges and go with it.

Here are a few tips to manage your ADHD, but, in reality, they are good for any parent, not just attentionally challenged ones.

  1. Create Structure –Structure is the key for calming the sensation of being overwhelmed. Without it, inertia can set in, leading to even more stress over time. When creating a structured schedule, record everything you need to do each day and make sure to block free time, too.
  2. Take a Step BackReassess your situation and options. Can you switch your work schedule to better accommodate your life obligations? Do you need to hire some help…..a housekeeper, professional organizer, or baby sitter. Don’t think of this as a luxury; rather, as an accommodation so that you can manage your schedule without falling apart – which could really be expensive.
  3. Set Limitssay ‘no’ to the things that are not a good use of your time, or things that do not make you happy. Saying no can feel uncomfortable, especially if you’re a people-pleaser. Determine which activities provide energy and which drain you before agreeing to anything.
  4. Revise Your Expectations Avoid setting the bar too high by comparing yourself to others. Don’t expect your home to look like your neighbor’s or sister’s. Give yourself some slack. Create a happy environment not a perfect one.

Having ADHD doesn’t make you a bad mother! On the contrary, having ADHD gives you the ability to empathize with your children, come up with creative solutions for problems, and create a loving, nurturing and exciting home for you and your family. Learn to appreciate the gifts and minimize the weaknesses of ADHD.


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Do Grades Matter?

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When I was in elementary school, I distinctly remember earning ‘letter’ grades. In fact, I also remember the occasional—OK, frequent—parental lecture that went along with my C-quality work. To mom and dad, my ‘average’ marks signified that I was “not working to my fullest potential.”

Things have really changed in modern-day education. My elementary age kids do not earn traditional grades; rather, their school uses a standards-based approach, which consists of telling students that their skills are emerging, satisfactory or exceeding expectations. Interestingly, educators have long debated the merits of a standards-based evaluation system versus the traditional letter-grade approach.

Most professionals tend to prefer the newer, modern-day methodology because evaluation is based on a clearly defined set of standards, as opposed to a more subjective teacher-generated letter grade. Further, it has been validated that younger kids are not motivated to study harder when given a letter grade; rather, they look for easier assignments so they can score a better mark.

Parents typically are frustrated when their children do not meet expectations, and this new standard of evaluation can be confusing. Some students score low marks because they are disorganized, have difficulty communicating their knowledge, and/or need additional assistance. Others, however, may be on the verge of a light-bulb moment and about to master the content. Don’t panic; instead, consult with the classroom teacher for additional insight and strategies that can assist with building your student’s educational development. Furthermore, parents should make sure they truly understand the grading system because most schools provide different marks for mastery, attitude and behavior.

To ensure the best possible performance, speak with your kids in an age-appropriate manner about academics. Interestingly, younger kids often are mystified about how grades are determined—sometimes assuming they are based on luck or magic. Parents should communicate that good grades are a result of hard work without focusing too much on the actual outcome. When excessive emphasis is placed on a final score, younger children often develop premature anxiety about school performance.

As students enter middle school, the grading system changes to a more traditional ‘letter’ system. Kids also start to understand the importance of doing well as they wonder about what it takes to be successful. However, some question if middle school marks matter because colleges will not see them. While that is true, grades still are important because they impact what classes a student takes in high school. Additionally, a large number of St. Louis students attend private preparatory schools and an academic record review is part of the admission process.

If a family has not done so, middle school is the time to instill proper motivation. Create a family culture that values hard work by celebrating good grades received on papers or projects, not just high scores on report cards. This doesn’t mean buying the latest video game or paying for As, instead bake a special dessert or go out to a fun family dinner, making the hard-earned grade a celebratory event. Emphasize that you are just as proud of the process as you are of the high mark.

In high school, academic measurement becomes even more confusing with GPAs, weighted grades and AP curriculums. Furthermore, your child may actually work very hard at a difficult subject only to receive a low mark. Examine effort and attitude before criticizing a performance. Have a conversation about why your student is struggling, and ask what can be done differently to improve the situation. Being supportive can build confidence and teach students to understand both when and how to seek assistance. That lesson often is more valuable than a high test grade.

Good grades can have a rewarding effect on any student. Earning a C in trigonometry; however, does not doom one to a life of underachievement and minimum wage. Yes, grades do provide valuable insight into a student’s proficiency, but keeping scores in perspective is the key to creating a child who is a lifelong learner. To earn high marks as a parent, teach your children to celebrate successes, understand failures, and work to the best of their ability.