Here at StyleBlueprint, we’re all about empowering women with useful information, so we feel fortunate to have the opportunity today to hear from award-winning author, trial attorney and TV legal analyst Lisa Bloom on the subject of parenting. Nashville-based freelance writer Jennifer Johnston caught up with Lisa recently – when she was in between calls with clients about pending cases, working on her next book and preparing for a television appearance – to ask her about what parents need to do to raise smart, successful children.
You’ve raised two children – now 23 and 21. What is your personal parenting philosophy?
I’m not a super-worrying kind of parent. I’ve always believed in teaching them the skills they need for their particular skill level and then letting them fly.
Where did you get your non-worrying style?
When I was growing up, it was common for kids to roam around the neighborhood. Fun basically meant leaving the house. Now, there are these very alluring magical boxes at home. We had TV, but there were only one or two good shows per week. We now have several 24-hour kids’ networks devoted to capturing kids’ attention. None of that is good for kids. I talk about that a lot in Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture.
How much screen time do you recommend? Is educational television okay in limited amounts?
This is not what parents want to hear, but the honest truth is that television is not educational. Television teaches kids how to sit and be docile, and none of that is healthy for kids. My brother’s family got rid of all their screens when their kids were born. There’s no question that is a better way if your sole concern is your kids’ intellectual development. Most of us don’t do it. I couldn’t do it. But I would certainly limit it, and if I had it to do all over again, I would limit computer time much more than I did.
But don’t a lot of kids need computers to do their homework?
Our school required laptops starting in fourth grade. My kids were always on the computers and always saying they were doing homework, but it’s very easy to switch your screen. My son, especially, got a bit addicted to the screen, so I finally laid down the law that at 9 p.m., everything goes to the off switch. Everything came to my room with me. Of course the kids said, “We need to do homework.” And I said, “If it’s not done by 9 p.m., then get up with me at 5 a.m. to finish it.”
That’s pretty hard-core, yes. And at that time, I didn’t even know the research I know now. There are so many negatives to screen time. Most adults are addicted to screen time. If we can’t regulate our own behavior, we can’t expect kids to do it either.
Do you recommend oversight of social media for kids?
For every social network they are on, you need to have a user name and password. Go on unannounced and monitor it. We wouldn’t let our kids roam the world unsupervised, and we can’t let them roam the worldwide web unsupervised either. I’ve sat in the courtroom with a crying mother who wished she’d monitored her daughter’s activity. Then she would have seen all of the bullying and the sexually explicit conversations. If kids want to have private conversations, then they can do it the old-fashioned way.
What about video games?
Video games are better than watching television because they are interactive and problem-solving. TV is completely passive. The problem with boys and video games is they just do it too darn much. Before you know it, he’s played two days straight, hasn’t had a meal and has forgotten to go to school. I would allow no more than half an hour a day. It’s especially over-stimulating before bedtime. We already are raising a nation of sleep-deprived kids.
In Swagger, you advocate year-round school.
We should let go of our fantasies that kids are paddling canoes and building forts in the summer while taking computer, music and leadership classes. Poor kids, especially, tend to languish at home in front of screens. One of the best ways to help kids catch up is to have learning year-round.
What about parents who have the means to provide the kinds of summer experiences you describe? What can they do to be part of the solution?
Bring them into family discussions about community service and charitable work. We tend to give money quietly and privately like it’s something shameful. We should talk to our kids about why we’re giving to charity. Bring them into the discussion. Ask them, “What are your thoughts on this program?”
Let them see that community service is a part of life. Do it together. There is a program in New York where you can go to an old folk’s home and dance with the seniors. My kids never wanted to go, and then they never wanted to leave. Working with English language learners is another great thing to do with kids. It lets them see how tough it is for immigrants. You don’t have to lecture kids. Just bring them and let them absorb the lessons from the experience.
I also like to encourage young social entrepreneurs to come up with their own programs. Kids in Florida came up with ways to save manatees and worked out a program to collect wasted food in the cafeteria. Kids come up with problems that bother them and then brainstorm solutions.
As the mother of a boy, I really appreciated the list of suggested reading material for boys at the end of Swagger.
There’s a big divide between boys and girls in literacy. Many boys interviewed for Swagger said they hate reading. Any kid can find books that they love. Boys tend to like different books. I felt it was a great challenge.
Why has literacy become such a cause for you?
Literacy is so important because it’s really the underpinning for almost every subject. If boys aren’t reading well by fourth grade, they’re really in for a lot of trouble. You can peg a boy not reading by fourth grade as someone who is likely to drop out.
What should parents do when a boy seems to be lagging?
One of the big reasons girls are overtaking boys in achievement is that girls are more willing to ask for help. Boys have this swagger mentality and they don’t want friends to know they have a problem. Parents need to make sure boys are getting it. Get help. Get a tutor. Get a high school student to come in for $10 an hour. Get a family member. Whatever it takes to get on the problem immediately.
You are known as an advocate for women. How did you get interested in the problems of boys?
It started because I didn’t see anyone taking on the cultural forces of our time that are very damaging. I was shocked to learn that 25 percent of our girls would rather win America’s Top Model than a Nobel Peace Prize. That led to my book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World. As I went all over the country talking about Think, people would say, “What about boys?” I was not aware of the problems of boys, and I was shocked. I started to get my teeth into it. And that evolved into Swagger.
What book are you reading?
I just finished a fabulous parenting book, Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy. She got some attention a few years ago for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway by himself. I met her on a Dr. Drew show. Her book is about how we have to get over our fears and allow our kids to take baby steps toward becoming independent young people. Say “yes” to helmets and knee pads and not getting in cars with strangers but “no” to confining our kids so much and not letting kids try and fail.
What about fiction?
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It’s a beautiful love story between two teenagers who have cancer. It has a freshness of narration, and it’s a great book to read with a child over 15.
Considering the many hats you wear, I just have to ask, how do you do it all?
Time management is a big part of my life. Especially when I turned 50, which kind of lit a fire under me. I realized I had limited time left and lot of things I wanted to do. I have to limit my own screen time. I post to Twitter and Facebook a couple of times a day. I launch a surgical strike – I get in and get out. I use hootsuite so I can aggregate all my social media. I try to delegate as much as possible. I’m writing a novel now. At the same time, I have active cases and I do speaking engagements. I try to be patient and know that I’ll get back to my writing when I can. But I’m no different than any working mom. We’re all sort of efficiency experts.
Is there anything that you’ve decided to let go of?
Housework! I do next to no housework and watch almost no T.V.
One last question: Let’s say a mother wants to change the way she’s doing things. Is it too late if the kids already are teenagers?
The great thing about kids is they’re so adaptable. We have to stop worrying that we permanently scar them. Many people from tough circumstances turn out happy and successful. It’s a very healthy thing to say to your kids, “You know, I’ve made some mistakes and I’m going to try something different now.” What a great thing to say to your kids — to let them know that you make mistakes and you can change. It’s much harder for kids to think they have perfect parents and will let their parents down when they make mistakes. Not a single one of us is perfect, and what a great opportunity it would be to acknowledge to your kids that you have done things wrong.
Words of wisdom for parents everywhere. Thank you, Lisa. (And thank you, Jennifer, as well.) For more information about Lisa Bloom, visit her website: www.lisabloom.com.