A few weeks ago I had the chance to hear Dr. Bruce Ellis deliver the keynote address at a conference I host on resilience every five years. He showed us that kids with low inhibition (they’re highly impulsive) may actually have something to teach us about how important it is to be able to switch from one task to the next without becoming overly stressed. In other words, to Ellis, there is a time and a place where impulsivity is a desired trait. In practical terms, this means that the rambunctious child in the backseat of your car who is driving you nuts on the way to see the grandparents is actually seeking a level of stimulation that may be good for his neurological development. Before you tell the child to sit still, stop annoying everyone, or threatening to leave him on the side of the road if he doesn’t stop asking questions, consider some advice from Ellis. Offer the child a substitute way of finding the same level of stimulation.
If you can do that without turning on a computer or television screen you may just discover that you have stumbled upon a chance to help your child develop emotional and social skills right there in the car that will serve the child well later in life. Let me explain.
Ellis noticed that in laboratory experiments children responded well if redirected away from troubling behaviors and if the new behaviors they were asked to perform could meet their needs for stimulation in socially desirable ways. Building on his psychological experiments, and to confront bullying and other problem behaviours in schools, Ellis has started a program where children are given meaningful roles inside and outside their classrooms. The kids most at risk of problem behaviors are the real focus, but every child in a school gets some important task to do, like being a hall monitor, bulletin board maintainer, plant waterer, or playground inspector. Ellis and his colleagues have generated hundreds of possible jobs for kids to do, each one offering an opportunity to develop social and emotional competencies.
Now, back to your child and the dreaded car ride. I believe Ellis’ work can be useful turning a very stressful situation into one that benefits your child. First, turn off the movie, at least for a while. Try something new. Give the child a task like navigator, or food option generator, gasoline calculator, hunger monitor, massager, game inventor, or sunblock dispenser.
My favourite assigned roles are those that give kids real control over something that they want to have a say over. So, give the 8-year-old your cell phone (assuming he doesn’t have his own). Bring up a web browser and let him find the location of the next place to get ice cream. Heck, go further, and tell him it has to be a place that sells orange pineapple ice cream (my wife’s favourite). Then take orders for everyone else. Develop a budget. Use Google maps and find the best route to the ice cream shop. Discuss the options. If you think this is too much for an 8-year old you may be surprised that you’re wrong.
My point is that kids can do more than we think. On a trip to Spain when my daughter was 12, I put her in charge of finding us hotels. She’d seen me using the Internet to book accommodations for years, so it was reasonable to ask her to do the work. I set price points, though I agreed to spend more if I could be convinced it was worth it. I also kept control of my credit card. She did everything except enter payment.
Amazingly, she was so motivated to do a good job that she found us wonderful deals that were often better than I could find myself. One memorable resort in Malaga right on the seaside boardwalk was just $65.00/night.
My point is that social and emotional capacities which are critical to resilience involve exposing our children to real time life lessons where their actions have consequences. While I would double check a child’s calculation of how far I could drive before needing gas, I would still love to have the child do the calculation.
Math not your child’s thing? No problem. How about music selection. Shout out an old favorite you’d love to hear and get the child signed on to iTunes, then download the song. Make it her turn next. Tease her with that silly song she loved as a baby or toddler. In other words, show your child what it is like to interact with others sensitively.
Indeed, let your imagination run wild. Travelling with a pet? Make it your child’s responsibility to keep it watered, fed and walked. Going camping? Make it your child’s responsibility to do the grocery shopping and plan the menu. Even a child of seven or eight can contribute meaningfully to such tasks.
Forget the drive thrus and tell your child to go into the coffee shop or burger joint and order the snack. Give her the cash and see what happens. Worried about strangers? Don’t be. Watch from outside and enjoy the show. After all, if we want children to develop emotional competencies they need to talk to strangers.
None of this may look like rocket science, but it is brain science, according to people like Ellis. Resilient brains and socially attuned children do not become that way by being endlessly distracted by movies and gaming systems in the back seats of our cars. They learn important life lessons when the adults in their lives provide them opportunities to have novel experiences that enhance their capacities to cope with life. In the process, their brains create the neurological paths that bolster problem solving and emotional regulation. Car time is just as important (and maybe even more important) than time spent in classrooms if we as parents enrich our child’s environment.

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