Preparing for Real Life – Mindful Disconnection Pt Seven(!)

We all know them: the bright high-achievers who bomb-out once they leave school. We all know the others: the bright hard-working early high-achievers who never seem to reach their potential once they’re away from home. We all know the ones we want our kids to be: the hard-working high-achievers who know when to party and when to work.

The trick to helping our children achieve once we’re not around and they’re out of school is to help them develop something called Executive Function.

Executive Function is all about self-regulation: the ability to initiate activities and to know when to stop them; the ability to monitor and change ones own behaviours; the ability to plan for the future and to deal with change. It’s implicated in improved  memory, adaptability and abstract thinking. It’s important for perseverance, personal organisation and coping when things don’t go our way.

Academic achievement alone

doesn’t cut it in the real world.

The other thing to realise with executive function is that much of it doesn’t fully emerge until adolescence. Much of what we do before then will help executive function to develop later on. If you like, before the age of nine we’re putting in the foundations.

Until the age of five and a half or six our job is really about nurturing first. (You know all this already: babies who are never left to cry alone, parents who know how to truly listen and use eye-contact properly. More information here Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing and here Attention Seeking is a Big Fat Lie. These things help children to manage their emotions in a way which is useful to them.) 

Second, it’s about NOT pushing independence, but allowing children to do things as they show they are ready to do them. Even if we’re not ready for them to: feed themselves; climb on to the slide alone; jump off the top step – we pretend that we’re not worried about their safety and let them do it! (Perhaps hovering ready to catch, but in a nonchalant Mindfully Disconnected sort of way!) Letting our kids play out of sight and without any adult input fits here.

Third, it’s about developing a truly, deeply, madly incredible imaginative life. It’s providing them with the best possible environment for imaginative play. Toys that don’t look like phones or cars can become phones and cars if deep imagination is used. (Old fashioned wooden blocks are great for this.) A piece of fabric can be a river, a blanket, a cape, a wall, a sausage, a train or a skirt. So the rule of thumb is: the more the toy does (looks like/sounds like reality) the less imagination used. And yes, electronic entertainment is a sure fire way to reduce your child’s own imagination. It’s what comes from inside them that is important – not their recreation of something they’ve seen on the screen. Executive function is all about imagining the future – consequences, the actions of others etc. If you’re imaginative life is small you’re chances of developing executive function are less. Olympic athletes and high-achieving business people talk about the power of visualisation all the time – that’s imagination!

Fourth, it’s about having those times of Mindful Disconnection (considered and temporary) in which they learn that not all their behaviours are OK. Always with Mindful Connection afterwards and never using humiliation.

I used to chuckle to myself when our six year-old Mr Owl said things like, “I’ll be the X and you be the Y and you do this and I’ll do that and then we’ll…” But really it was/is a sign that he is starting to develop executive function. He can plan and play. It is now something I actively encourage to help his EF develop further.

From around the age of nine we can step the process up a little. It is useful to start passing more personal responsibility over to them.

For example, in a Mindful Disconnection – Connection sort of way we do the following…

With the toddler: we give him his food to eat, dress him and put him in the car when it’s time to go.

With the six year-old: we tell him to put his pjs away, get dressed, brush his teeth, fetch his bag and hop in the car. (No more than two or three things to do at a time.)

With the nine year-old: we say, what do you need to do to get out the door on time, we’re leaving in half an hour. And we Mindfully Disconnect by getting on with our own day or concentrating on the other two boys.

Yes, the six year-old is capable of sorting himself out and could probably cope with the approach we use with the nine year-old some days. But it’s not what his brain is truly ready to deal with (EF really kicks in at adolescence remember) and I would rather he was concentrating on imaginative play. It also means we’re not getting angry with him that he can’t manage and he’s not feeling overwhelmed and forced into independence. We expect that he will use EF on some days, but on most days he won’t. And that it will happen spontaneously at this stage. (We could get caught in the ask-too-much and then have to rescue him or persecute him trap if we pushed him now. Karpman’s Drama Triangle.)

Our lovely nine year-old did struggle a little with this in the first place. But at parent-teacher interviews a few weeks ago his teacher commented on his increased self-management skills this year. He’s ready for it, so it’s happening easily for all of us.

Other trick which works is one I learned from my  lovely friend Vanda (if you like to read crime fiction, you ought to buy one of her books 🙂 At the age of 10 her Mum bought her a notebook. In the back she wrote some long-term goals. In the middle the mid-term goals and in the front some short-term goals. She’s gone on to have a great career in pharmacy and now a new career in writing. She’s one of the loveliest people I know and she has great executive function! talks about self-discipline as a myth. Really. I had to agree that self-motivation is what people usually mean whne they say, self-discipline. That and establishing and keeping great habits. 

Executive function is all about our children developing the sort of habits which will truly help them achieve in life. Getting a great school report doesn’t mean squat at six, nine, or 12 – if we then drive ourselves into a tree at 17, get expelled from university or fall apart when our first love leaves us. Executive function is what helps our kids to manage real-life. Academic achievement and independence are important, but are they urgent. Really?

Series starts here: Connection and Disconnection: Optimal Parenting Part One.


(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )



About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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14 Responses to Preparing for Real Life – Mindful Disconnection Pt Seven(!)

  1. Marcy says:

    I had a parent-teacher conference with Amy’s preschool teacher this afternoon, and this sort of thing is exactly what the teacher said Amy is great at — working independently, choosing appropriate works from all areas of the classroom and using them appropriately, dealing with it apparently fine if she asks a friend to do something together and the friend does not want to or is busy. She doesn’t fuss or have outbursts at school — no screaming or yelling or persistent arguing.

    I wonder if the difference is that we are unintentionally asking too much independence of her, or too much self-organization. That, and I understand kids do tend to save their outbursts for safe home.

    I guess I should be encouraged that she manages these things so well at school; but I also guess we all need some help in how to help her do them well at home, too.

    • That’s great that Amy is doing these things at school. Personally, I think there is a lot of unneccessary stress in families because some parents get caught up thinking that their children ‘should’ self-organise when they are younger than nine. If we just replace that word ‘should’ with ‘could’ it would make a huge difference to family relationships. Directing our children to do things they can manage, in small chunks, is appropriate before adolescence. If they self-organise before then, celebrate – if they don’t, give them the direction or help they need. We keep all our directions down to two or three things at a time so that the boys don’t feel overwhelmed and we usually end up with them being organised quickly with little or no fuss.

      • Marcy says:

        I’m worn out enough right now that I have no idea if I need to connect more or less, spend more or less time directly playing what she wants to do at every turn, stand firm about more things or invite negotiation about more things, or what. I’m tired of being hit, tired of the instant fussing, even tired of exuberance (especially the frantic-sounding fake laugh). Even though it doesn’t always last that long (she often returns from her room or the chair within seconds of being escorted or directed there), it happens so frequently that I’m just tired of it. I don’t want to be with her at all right now.

        That said, I will make a conscious effort to give smaller / more specific and fewer directions.

        • It does sound exhausting. I hope you can find your way through Marcy. Thinking of you. 🙂

          • Marcy says:

            There was a breath of fresh air in the afternoon. Things fell apart again in the evening. We’re also navigating the transition to summer — this is her last week of preschool for the year, and Mark’s done with his teaching and currently in a week of meetings and planning, and next week begins his summer job.

  2. Li-ling says:

    I don’t think academic achievement and executive function need necessarily be independent of each other, in fact, I think they interleave and work really well together. Hence the point about self-motivation, could become self-discipline.

    I keep coming back to the fact that the bottom line always ends up being parental expectations, so long as they are realistic and attainable, having goals and working towards them goes a long long way.

    • Hi.
      I agree that academic achievement can be helped by having well established executive function.(And if you’re motivated by doing well at school that could help EF too.)
      What I’m saying here is don’t expect EF too soon. It will come more naturally from adolescence/pre-adolescence on – and then is the time to really focus on it. All good to celebrate early signs of it, but without getting carried away and thinking it should happen all the time. Academic achievement, in my opinion, is the same – important in the long term but not urgent for wee ones.
      I would have agreed with you about the self-discipline before I read the post I’ve linked – I’m just not sure about the self-discipline idea any longer, couldn’t it just be good habits fired by self-motivation? (And the ability to visualise/imagine positive outcomes.)

      • Li-ling says:

        Hi Karyn, I’ve thought a lot more about this and while I’m a fan of ZenHabits usually, I think I don’t agree completely on this one. For me personally, there is a distinct difference between self motivation and self discipline. A lot of what I do requires constant motivation and self motivation, so I do see the big picture, visualise the outcomes etc, however self discipline comes in when I actually sit down and choose to, say, write that blog post instead of watching a film or going to sleep (which I do occassionally – and have learnt not to berate myself for taking a break ;)!
        In kids though, I’m inclined to veer towards the inculcation of self-discipline, at the younger age, ie ‘you just have to do it’ and as they grow older, say 9 or 10 onwards, the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards become more obvious, and self-motivation starts becoming more key.
        That said, of course, there’s self-motivation even from a young age….
        Really enjoyed Po Bronson’s book! A lot in there for thought.

        • It’s always good to hear your opinion Li-ling and I think we can agree to disagree on this one. 🙂
          I do agree with zenhabits -for me it makes sense that: good habits + self-motivation = what we usually call self-discipline.
          I agree that with small children the ‘you just have to do it’ approach works well (in a kind way, usually no need to be ferocious). Pleased you enjoyed Nurture Shock.

        • @Li-ling – You are correct. Self-discipline is not to be equated or confused with self-motivation. They are cats of two different colors.

  3. janektcs says:

    I think parental expectations are important–but for learning executive functioning there’s nothing like letting a child have time to figure out what he/she is passionate about and helping that child figure out what is needed to succeed in that area. Kids building with blocks stretch their abilities to make plans and predict what will happen, follow the plan, compromise, deal with frustration when it all falls down, and try again. This is executive functioning 101!

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