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GIFTS THAT GROW

This is not about toys or clothes with deep hems.

This is about those practices we can introduce our children to that give them strengths and a life-long source of inner contentment.

There are three time-honored ways to do this: music, gardening, and serving others.

Something has happened to the way we expose our kids to music over the years. When I was growing up in Boston every home had a piano and every child–boy as well as girl–took piano lessons.

Music was taught in school. We learned how to read music enough to sing in a glee club. We were offered instrument lessons. Many elementary schools and almost all high schools had an orchestra as well as a band.

Classical music was a part of every child’s life. Buses took us to symphony concerts. Music teachers taught us about the lives and music of the great composers.

Sure we listened to the radio and knew all the pop songs by heart. But we were also exposed to the beauty of the classics.

Kids today are not exposed to classical music. Even in some enlightened upper class households where Mozart is played on the nursery because parents think this will increase their child’s smarts (no evidence for this) the kids don’t get piano lessons. Big sums of money goes into stereos and CD players–one in every child’s bedroom–but comparatively few children get the opportunity to play an instrument.

I suggest a renaissance of music lessons. Yes, it’s an investment. Pianos cost money (you can rent one while you see if the child enjoys it enough to continue). Lessons and music cost money. There is a time investment as well because parents should practice with young children until they know what they are doing and are self-motivated.

But think about what the child gains: knowledge of how to read music–a new language, a new skill, self-discipline, a fun way to entertain self and friends, help in getting over shyness about performing in public. And for those who continue their music until they are good enough to play easily (this doesn’t mean play well or professionally) they have a life-long source of pleasure that doesn’t cost much and doesn’t require anybody else, just yourself.

If I had my way I would start every child in America on the piano. After two years in my Utopia I would let the truly not-interested stop but a bunch of kids will continue with a little encouragement from parents and teacher. I would also encourage children to chose another instrument (string or wind or brass) so they can have the fun of playing with a group like an orchestra.

And every child should be taken to concerts, be exposed to ballet and opera at least on video, and know that there is more to music than MTV.

Gardening teaches a child about the future and encourages patience as well as creativity. You live in an apartment? Use pots and window boxes.

Serving others is a habit that should start in childhood. Take the kids with you when you drop stuff off at the food bank. Make it a family holiday tradition for each child to give a toy to a child who would otherwise not have any. We know that children who watch their parents volunteer their time for others are much more likely to do this when they are adults than children who were not exposed to such activities.

What do playing music, gardening, and serving others have in common? They all require an investment on the child’s part, an investment of work and commitment in return for downstream rewards that can last a lifetime. That’s what I call a good investment. So give your child at least one of these gifts that grow.

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