Around the World, We Celebrate Light – Solstice Traditions

Celebrating the Solstice 2014 illust by Jennifer Miller 1

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

- The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper

This Sunday, December 21, the shortest day of the year, will mark the turning from dark to an increase in sunlight. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the coldest time of year and in the Southern, it marks the Summer Solstice. The traditions that recognize this passage seem to touch numerous cultures around the world and date back to ancient times in which the Mayan Indians, ancient Romans, Scandinavians and others celebrated. Years ago, my own neighborhood friends would gather on this day, say some words of gratefulness for the gift of light in our lives, and each person would contribute a stick or evergreen branch to the fire. This tradition has remained in my memory as one of the most sacred I have attended. As we approach this passing of dark to light, I reflect on the themes cultures throughout the world have recognized and consider how we can learn from their wisdom and reinforce those themes in our own family.

So this Sunday evening at our typical family dinner, I will light a candle and talk with my family about the following themes. I’ve included questions that we will ask and offer them to you as well to consider around your own dinner table.

Theme: Connection

Our connection to one another during this time is one of the most valuable. Ironically savoring our moments with our loved ones can get buried under a mound of anxiety, expectations and commitments. When it comes to focusing on our appreciation for one another during this passage from dark to light, we can be made aware, if we stop long enough to notice, that we are more alike than different. Numerous religions, nations, indigenous cultures and popular culture celebrate light with a wide variety of rituals and traditions. We can enter into our own celebrations, whatever our traditions may be, with the awareness that we are inter-connected and inter-dependent with one another and our environment.

Question for our Family Dinner: What are ways that we are connected to people from places far from us in the world? If there have been disagreements among family and friends, how do we remain connected to those individuals?

Theme: Relationship of Light and Dark

Darkness has long been a symbol for emotional turmoil and violence in the world. The darkness seems to hold fear and danger but with the light of day, the perspective changes dramatically to one of hope and possibility. Moving from short, gray days to lighter, brighter days can help remind us that there is always another chance to make a better decision. There’s always an opportunity to be who we really aspire to being.

Question for our Family Dinner: Is there sadness, fear, disappointment or other darkness you want to leave behind? How can you let it go and begin again? What hopes do you have for the new year?

Theme: Gratefulness for the Natural World

It is humbling to step back and watch the changing of the seasons unfold. In ancient times, people feared that the lack of light would continue. They worried that if they did not revere the Sun God, “he” may move further away from their days. Take this moment in time to appreciate the sun, the moon, the trees, the birds and all of the natural world around us that profoundly influences our lives.

Question for our Family Dinner: What aspects of nature influence you regularly? What do you appreciate about the environment you encounter each day?

Theme: Rebirth, Purification and Forgiveness

In ancient Rome during the solstice, wars stopped, grudges were forgiven and slaves traded places with their masters. Today, the theme of rebirth and forgiveness is carried out in a diverse range of religious and cultural practices. The burning of wood to create light in the darkness also symbolizes that we can let go of old wounds or poor choices and begin again. For children, it’s a critical lesson to learn that one choice does not determine who they are. There is always the light of a new day to offer a chance for forgiving the old and creating the new.

Question for our Family Dinner: Are there hurts that you are holding onto from the past? How can you heal and move on? Have you disappointed yourself? With the burning of a candle, can you imagine those disappointments burning into the ash, forgiven, and offering you a new chance?

There is a silent calm that comes over me when I light a candle or watch the flames rise in our fireplace. That calm gives me the space to reflect on the meaning of this time of year and connects me to the many individuals and cultures today and of generations past that have recognized this passage. May you find ways to appreciate and focus on the people most important to you during this emergence from dark to light.


The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper retrieved on 12-17-14 from

Winter Holiday Tools #3: Snowball Goodbye

Snowball Goodbye 2014 illust by Jennifer Miller 1

Winter Holiday Tools #3: Snowball Goodbye

Our friend, seven year old S, led a “Snowball Goodbye Game” at the end of a lovely holiday evening of food and playing. Leaving the merriment of a holiday gathering can be a great challenge for children who may be tired but just don’t want the fun to end. This game is an excellent holiday tool to use for the often challenging transition of leaving.

Grab some blank sheets of white paper and markers or pens. Rip off a strip and give one to each person. Ask each individual to write their name on the paper. Then, crumble it up into the shape of a snowball and throw it into a pile on the floor or in a bowl. Each person then picks a snowball. They get to decide how they will say goodbye to the person whose name they selected. Fist bumps, hugs, handshakes or high fives are all possibilities.

Try this game out and maybe instead of crying, whining or pouting at the end of your event, your goodbyes will be filled with laughter and joy.

Game Origin:

S learned this game at her school where they implement the Responsive Classroom approach, an excellent evidence based social and emotional learning curriculum. The Snowball Greeting, adapted by S as a “goodbye,” is listed in one of their books, The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete.

Variation: Secret Snowball Game

The Morning Meeting Book also offers a variation for this game. You can utilize it as a winter holiday tool to create acts of kindness toward each other in your family during this busy season. Each family member can place his or her name on a piece of paper, create a snowball and place them in a bowl. Individuals pick a snowball at the start of the day. Then, they secretly observe the person whose name they picked. At the end of the day, they share one time that day they observed the person being kind.

Involving Kids in Service at Home and at School – A Podcast Interview with Rachel Choquette Kemper

Jennifer Interviews Rachel Choquette Kemper 2014 illust by Jennifer MillerThis week I hope you’ll listen to Confident Parents, Confident Kids‘ very first podcast interview (20 minutes in length). The winter holiday season seems a perfect time to discuss giving and service. My guest, Rachel Choquette Kemper, M.Ed., in addition to being my longtime childhood friend, has been an educator for nearly twenty years. She is a Community Service Learning Director for St. Ursula Academy, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In that role, she develops community partnerships, enlists adolescents in service, facilitates their learning about social issues and sustains their involvement over time. Her husband does similar work in another area high school. Rachel is also a mom of three children ages 5, 8 and 11. Bringing a service commitment home, she has developed some excellent ways to do service with her own family.

Rachel and her Family

Rachel and her Family

We start teaching our children about service by doing little things together at home. It all begins with empathy…

Don’t miss her easy to replicate Sunday night tradition that prevents sibling rivalry and promotes trust and connection for the week ahead. Our family plans to get this started at our Sunday evening dinners.

She also recommends numerous resources so, after you listen, check out Rachel’s resource list. Thanks so much Rachel for being the first Confident Parents, Confident Kids podcast interviewee!


Rachel’s Resources

How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer

My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen

Kiva – for giving with your children

Heifer International - for giving with your children

Winter Holiday Tools #2: The Quiet Hour

Holiday Quiet Hour 2014 illust by Jennifer Miller

Winter Holiday Tools #2: The Quiet Hour

This year, we have added a new custom to our holiday season. Along with our parties, shopping and preparations, we have declared a quiet hour to be kept sacred each afternoon we are home. Our flurry and scurry have already taken its toll as E lies on the couch with a miserable cold. We know we need to find a way to deal with competing demands on our time and manage our stress so that we can actually enjoy our celebrations. We’ve assigned the time between 3:30-4:30 in the afternoon as quiet time in our house. That means no media blaring, no running children, no loud voices. Reading is welcome. Snacks with high protein are encouraged (to combat the onslaught of sugar) and a hot cup of tea for Mom and Dad. I also tuck my to do list away so that I can’t look at it. And play happens too as long as it is not noisy and physically taxing. Naps could occur during this time. Whereas I view a nap like I would a piece of fine chocolate, a rare luxury to be savored, my husband and son view it as punishment for the weak. So I know naps will not occur. But creating a calm, quiet space where individuals respect each other’s sense of calm can take place during this time.

Talk about creating this sacred time at a family dinner or time when all are together. Be sure to agree on expectations ahead of time. What activities are acceptable for the quiet hour? What activities are not acceptable? Also, an hour may just be too long for a quiet time in your household but wouldn’t a family agreement to stay quiet for 15 minutes a day be a relief to you — and perhaps to all? Decide on reasonable amount of time. Set a kitchen timer to remove the temptation to argue. Do it each day you are home at the same time so that the routine takes hold and family members begin to expect it. Maybe they will even rely on it. And maybe it will give each member the fuel to truly be present to the possibility of joy and wonder this season.

What Are We Teaching Children about Giving? Gifts from the Heart, Part Two

Giving from the Heart 2014 illust by Jennifer Miller

It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.

- Mother Teresa

Over our Thanksgiving holiday this past weekend in the presence of multiple family members, the discussion focused on Christmas preparations and specifically, the question was raised and debated, “How are we going to handle gifts this year?” There were many and varied opinions, most of them passionate, about how we should go about celebrating the holiday and one another. There was talk of tight budgets, consumerism, consideration of the greater good and those who don’t have the means, upholding traditions from the past, setting limits and empowering individuals to make their own gift-giving decisions. Why are gifts such a loaded topic of conversation? What’s so controversial about giving?

Many thoughts and feelings are connected to gift giving and receiving. Rejection and acceptance, love and sadness, regret, nostalgia, tradition, disappointment, guilt and compassion to name just a few. So after the storm of opinions, I had to return home to think for myself about the meaning of gift giving and what I want my son to learn and experience. After all, if there are a complex of emotions surrounding the gift giving experience, it threatens to divide rather than deepen connection. I asked myself and now, I ask you,

How can we help children experience both the joy of giving and receiving graciously and the joy of trust and connectedness to family?

There is no greater gift than showing your love and appreciation for the people who are most important in your life. These thoughts helped me return to a post entitled “Gifts from the Heart” for which I created a list of ideas for heart-driven gifts. I continue that discussion here with more ideas for those of you buying gifts for any of the Winter holidays. If I shift the focus in my mind from “What can I buy my Mom that she’ll really like?” to “How can I deepen my connection with my Mom and show her my appreciation?” I begin to think differently about my holiday preparations. So here are my thoughts and ideas for meaningful gifts from the heart. These gifts, embedded with meaning, can be made with love and without much money or grand artistic talents.

For Adults from Your Children (and You):

Time – For so many who live abundant lives, more “stuff” to fill your rooms is not even a desire. But time is precious for everyone, particularly time spent with people you love. Think about an outing that you can do with someone who would enjoy your company. Enlist your child’s input. For example, have your child draw a picture of a visit to the Zoo with his Grandparents. Set a time and date and place a message on the back of the picture gifting a day of fun with one another.

Recognize People’s “Gifts” - This year we are borrowing a tradition from Great Britain. We are making family “crackers.” Traditionally, crackers are given at various holiday celebrations and contain small items such as, party hats, ornaments, party horns and a joke or riddle. Instead of those trinkets, we are placing a note inside each about a family member. The note will highlight one “gift” a family member contributes to the rest of the family. Such as, “Aunt Anna contributes a connection to our family history through stories, pictures and food that reminds us of our heritage.” Instead of noting a person’s gift, you could build on the British riddle tradition and place the message in the form of a guessing game to build knowledge about family members’ little known experiences or talents. For example, “Which family member has journeyed the farthest from home? Where did they go and what happened on that adventure?” We are collecting cardboard toilet paper rolls and wrapping them with beautiful paper. Involve your children in creating the messages. This can be a no-cost, highly meaningful gift.

Bookmarks - Do you have kid art hanging around the house? If you are anything like me, you have piles of it. Take out a few choice pieces and cut a slice of the best portion down to a 2 inches by 6 inches, bookmark size. Be certain your child signs and dates her art. You can glue the art to a thicker card stock paper or if you like, have it laminated.

Your Child’s Hand or Thumbprint - My sister-in-law had the idea to place our children’s handprints on oven mitts. But you can also easily do this project with minimal to no expense involved. Brush your child’s hand with kid-safe paint and Handprints 2014 illust by Jennifer Millerplace her hand print on a blank sheet of white paper. Mat and frame it for family members. You could also use thumb prints. This will be a unique representation of your child at a
particular age.

From You to Your Child:

Sometimes we tend to think that children only want toys for the holiday and may not value a personal treasure that is handmade and thoughtful. This dilemma forced me to think even harder about what my son might enjoy opening up during our holiday celebrating that would not cost money but would provide connection and meaning. How do you do this for a seven year old boy who can’t wait to get his hands on some new Star Wars Legos? Here are some of my thoughts.

Write a Baby Story - Hopefully you read stories daily with your children as we do. Some of E’s favorite stories told are not from books but about himself as a baby. It can be small and mundane but he will sit riveted to listen to accounts of his younger years. “Remember, Momma, I can’t remember anything so you have to tell me.” he will urge. Write down one of your stories from baby or toddler years. Be sure to consider when selecting a story, what it might say about his or her character so that it is not only funny or endearing but also affirms a strength. You can even illustrate the story with photographs. This will be a guaranteed keeper to be read over and again!

Video Compilation or Photo Collage - Put together videos from holidays of the past and your child will be able to relive the joy and watch her own journey through each. Or create a bulletin board for your child’s room that contains pictures of friends and family and gives your child a sense of their community of love and support.

From You to Your Partner:

Write a Letter - In our busy lives, we don’t often have a chance to give a family state of the union address or reflect deeply on our relationships. Sequester yourself for a quiet hour (less time than it would take you to get in your car and shop for a gift at the store). Really think about what you value about your partner. What if he were unexpectedly gone tomorrow? What would you miss most? Write about it. It just may become the most treasured gift of your holiday.

It does take a bit more thought to create gifts from the heart. But it can transform the gift giving experience for all family members to truly deepen connections and show your love for one another.

Holiday Tools #1: A Hot Chocolate Break

Boy smelling hot chocolate 2014 illust by Jennifer Miller

Each Tuesday during the winter holiday season, I’ll be posting suggested tools – social and emotional tools – to help achieve peace and joy in the midst of the hustle and bustle. These should add to your sense of calm. And they should be simple enough to incorporate into even the busiest holiday schedule. Here’s the first of the winter holiday tools.

For Your Children: Hot Chocolate Breathing

Last winter, I learned this simple technique to use with kids from a teacher and have utilized it for myself and E ever since. It’s particularly helpful during the winter holiday season. Deep breathing, or abdominal breathing, reduces anxiety and fatigue and can increase overall health. During the month of December, whether you are preparing for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Winter Soltice or any other celebration, it can be a time of high anxiety for both you and your children. So to begin this month of holiday tools, I offer you a simple practice to deal with the emotional ups and downs that often accompany this time of year.

Practice hot chocolate breathing with your children at the beginning of the season at a time when all is calm. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate. And then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your child practice. Then, look for chances to do it daily. Children will hopefully enjoy the practice and your whole family will benefit from the addition of a stress management tool in your daily chocolate illust 001

Post this picture on your refrigerator or on a family bulletin board as a reminder. Perhaps your children will become familiar enough with the practice that they will request a “hot chocolate” break?

For You: Deeper Breathing 

Most of us are in a pattern of shallow breathing from the chest. In our busy days, it’s difficult to remember to breathe deeply from the abdomen. You can use cues in your daily life to remind yourself about simply taking deep breathes. Consider it a gift to yourself to help you manage the stress of the season.

1. Use the hot chocolate breathing with your kids and you will benefit too!
2. When you go outside at any point in the day, take deep breaths of fresh air.
3. When you open the refrigerator or any door in the house, use it as a reminder to take a deep breath.
4. When you make physical changes from sitting to standing, from standing to sitting, use it as a reminder to take deep breaths.
5. Keep an essential oil in a tissue on your desk (eucalyptus or peppermint both will open up your airways) to encourage breathing in the aroma.
6. If your belly either aches or calls to you in hunger, use it as a reminder to breath from your abdomen.
7. And if you feel stress rising in you, use it as a reminder to breathe.

We can all use more stress management techniques to help us deal with the competing demands of our parenting role, the needs of our household and other responsibilities in our lives. Though this practice will only require a little thinking and one minute each day, it has the potential to positively impact the quality of your holiday season.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving in Owensville

Every repast can have soul and can be enchanting; it asks only for a small degree of mindfulness and a habit of doing things with care and imagination.

- Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life

This photo depicts my father’s experience of Thanksgiving on a farm in a small town in Ohio. Though my experiences have taken place in an urban setting, this picture seems to remain in my head as a quintessential portrait of the celebration. I remember and am grateful for those who went before me. I appreciate their hard work and the sacrifices they endured in order to bring about the opportunities I have enjoyed. As you gather with your family and friends this week, I hope it is an experience that feeds both the body and soul. Happy Thanksgiving!

* For my father’s account of the Thanksgiving photo above along with some of his gorgeous artistic photography, check out his blog on contemplative photography,

A Rush of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving illus by Jennifer Miller
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

- John F. Kennedy

I came into the bathroom this morning a little foggy-eyed to put on my makeup and get ready for the day as my son was putting on his school uniform. He bounced to the bathroom door and said, “Did you notice?” as he pointed to the condensation on the window. There was a clearly traced “I love Mom” carefully written by his index finger. A rush of gratitude filled me and as I was thinking about how I could begin my article on gratitude today, it was easy. He was feeling it. He shared it. And then so was I. Simple as that.

On Tuesday evening, I had the joy of participating in a dialogue on “Raising Thankful Kids” hosted by NBC’s Education Nation. My partner contributor, Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and TODAY Show Contributor, and I offered our ideas for cultivating gratefulness in our families lives along with input from many organizations, scholars, parents and other individuals who were interested in the topic. As we shared our ideas and learned from others, it occurred to me that living a grateful life in the busy, messy context of a family means finding small opportunities during each regular day to make gratefulness a habit. It is in those small, simple actions – attempts to incorporate an attitude of thankfulness, to not take for granted those we people we love and the environments that serve as the backdrop to our lives – that we change our thoughts and feelings and influence those around us. If you missed out on this rich conversation, here are some of the highlights.

What does it mean to be thankful and why is it important?

Thankfulness is a frame of mind, both thinking and feeling, of appreciation for the world and your place in it. Research shows grateful people have better physical health, less stress and depression, better sleep and a greater sense of well-being. The Templeton Foundation found that 90% of people say they are grateful but only 52% of women and 44% of men express it on a regular basis.

Is being thankful more than just being polite and saying “please” and “thank you?”

Those expressions of politeness are important but thankfulness goes well beyond politeness. It’s a way of thinking and feeling about our lives. Kids can say “Thank you.” but still not internalize the feeling of gratitude. Amy writes that gratefulness “begins with a recognition of life’s blessings, feeling a genuine appreciation for people and circumstances that bring joy.”

At what age can a child grasp and learn the concept of gratitude?

From birth, the seeds of gratitude are planted in infancy with a parent’s love and responsiveness to needs. Every time a baby cries and a parent responds, they expand their healthy attachment creating the foundation for gratitude. Toddlers can learn to express thanks for specific things with some modeling and guidance from caregivers. Parents of young children may worry that their kids struggle with empathy and gratitude if they struggle to share their toys. This is not the case. It is developmentally appropriate for young children to hold onto their toys, the essential tools of their learning. Parents can guide young children to take turns and show kindness to others. Amy suggests, “Teach preschoolers to say “please” and “thank you” through role plays with stuffed animals or action figures.” By the age of four, children can understand being thankful for acts of kindness, generosity or care from others. And by ages 6 or 7, children can practice genuine gratitude toward others without prompting.

What can parents do to instill gratitude in elementary-aged kids and in tweens and teens?

You can model gratitude to children of all ages through your own appreciation of family members and of your life. Recognizing the small everyday tasks can make a big difference in people’s feelings of being appreciated. “I noticed you helped set the table without my asking.”

Build trusting connections.
Look for ways to build a trusting connections and be present with your children through playing or reading together. Each night, E and I cuddle up with two books of his choosing. It is typically the calmest part of our day and a time I can count on to truly connect with him.

Appreciate other’s gifts.
Work on thank you notes for gifts and other contributions together. Spend time on crafting a meaningful message or drawing a beautiful card.

Be present.
Scattered attention prevents feelings of gratitude. Savoring the moment and being aware of the people and events around you moment to moment provides a conducive mental state for gratefulness.

Give positive, specific feedback.                                                                              How often do we recognize our mate for taking out the garbage? Probably not often. And how often do we feel unappreciated for all of the hard work we put into maintaining a household and raising children? Perhaps frequently. Make a point of noticing the small contributions. “I notice you did the dishes tonight. I so appreciate that.” Just this one simple practice can help move family members toward a more grateful state of mind.

Find the “silver lining.”
Amy writes about modeling optimism with your children by finding the silver lining in a difficult situation. Her example was, “This traffic jam is awful but I’m sure glad we have heat and fun music in our car!” Validating feelings first if a child is upset or frustrated is important before offering the silver lining.

Do small, everyday random acts of kindness.                                                                As you do these acts of kindness for others, it models ways that might contribute to the family too. Involve your children in doing something special for Dad, the smaller the better so that it can not seem to be a chore to check off the list and can fit into your busy schedule.

Involve in contribution and service.
Service does not have to be a grand gesture done once a year. Each family member can contribute to a household. Families can contribute to neighbors. And they can also contribute their time and energy to their school community. To learn more about simple ways to involve kids in service, check out “Citizen Kid.”

Consider other’s perspectives.
Placing yourself in someone else’s “shoes,” thinking about their thoughts and feelings can lead to gratefulness. The holidays often drum up conflict with family and friends because of expectations of how things will go or how traditions are to be upheld. Before getting upset about differing views, try to think about the others’ perspective. Realize most people have good intentions. They just may be different from your own.

Practice coping strategies.
Coach kids on what to do when angry or upset. Having coping tools gives them a greater sense of control and enables gratitude (for more, see “Cooling the Fire” and “The Mask of Anger”. Tweens and teens can journal feelings and write down what they are grateful for. Model self-control by managing your own anger constructively (for more, see “A Better Version of Yourself”).

Encourage sibling’s to be grateful for one another and express empathy and kindness.
You may ask, “How can we think about helping your sister today? She seems to struggle often before dinnertime. Do you have any ideas for engaging her in a fun activity during that time to help her?”

Heading into the holidays, how do you get kids to focus less on presents and an attitude of gratitude?

Remind your children of the people in their lives for whom they are grateful and think about how they might celebrate them through gift-giving over the holiday season. Amy writes, “Make a giving list. Encourage kids to make a list early of the things they plan to make or buy for family and friends.” This is such a smart idea. My son is always eager to make his “getting” list so we will work on creating his getting list early. Balance out the “gimmies” with lots of thinking about what others would like and enjoy for the holidays. And in addition to shopping, balance out the consumer time spent with time playing outdoors together or participating in activities that do not require dollars spent.

I have tremendous gratitude to you, reader for participating in this dialogue with me. I realize that there are many readers from places far away from my community in the U.S. who are not celebrating Thanksgiving. To you who do celebrate, I wish a happy Thanksgiving and to all, I wish many days and years of a grateful family life.


For the full Twitter Chat conversation, check out “Attitude of Gratitude; Raising Thankful Kids” on Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit site.


Prepare for Thanksgiving: How to Raise Thankful Kids

Thanksgiving is a reflective holiday in which we not only enjoy the bounty of the harvest but reflect on our appreciation with family and friends. Why not take this opportunity to reflect on how you can raise grateful kids and cultivate a thankful family life? Please join me this evening at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time along with TODAY Show Contributor and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, Amy McCready for ideas and inspiration! Simply follow the #Toolkittalk conversation on Twitter and if you like, add your comments and questions. Thanks NBC Education Nation and Pearson for sponsoring this important discussion!

ToolkitTalk_11 18 14

Healthy Relationships: The Cornerstone of Gratefulness

Family playing in the leaves illus by Jennifer Miller

“You have brought yummy treats! You are so nice to share. But me, I have nothing. My cupboards are bare!” Mouse squeaks, “Don’t fret. There’s enough, dear Bear. You don’t need any food, you have stories to share!” His friends hug him tight. “It will be all right!” And the bear says, “Thanks!”

- Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman1

Our family tradition in November has included a countdown to Thanksgiving by writing one thing we are thankful for each day of the month and placing the notes in a beautiful felt October 2012 025tree Grandma Linda made for us. It’s a welcome tradition that establishes the habit of thankfulness throughout the entire month instead of relegating it to one glorious day. So our family has been thinking frequently about gratitude. The excellent book, Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character by Jeffery Froh and Giacomo Bono,2 confirms that healthy relationships serve as the critical cornerstone upon which gratefulness is built. But what defines a healthy relationship? And how can we help our children find and define healthy relationships in and outside of our home life?

First, I think we tend to know when we see an unhealthy relationship. Abuse whether physical or emotional, manipulative or deceitful are indicators of unhealthy relationships. But we also need to know the indicators of healthy relationships so that we know what to model and what to strive for. It can also help us empathize with children who become friends with our own children but may struggle with consistently acting caring and respectful in a relationship. The research on attachment seems a good place to begin.

Basics on Attachment

Secure attachment – From birth, children who are securely attached can trust that their parents will be responsive to their needs. Researchers have determined there is a necessary 3:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences in order for children to flourish. A secure attachment will allow children to venture forth and form healthy relationships with others throughout their lifetime because they have the training and structure for it from their earliest days.

Anxious/avoidant attachment or Anxious/resistant attachment or Disorganized attachment (showing traits of both of anxious/avoidant and anxious/resistant) – Children cannot trust that their needs will be met by a parent. They have received inconsistent care. Perhaps sometimes they were ignored. Perhaps they were yelled at or punished without needs met. Children as they grow older and even into adulthood may struggle with trusting others. They may act out to gain attention – though the attention is negative – and may also pull away and refuse to be helped or comforted. 3

The critical distinction in healthy family relationships is that children and adults feel that their emotional and physical needs are being met. Children rely on parents to meet those needs so healthy parent-child relationships involve regular responsiveness. Children who are ignored or inconsistently cared for will develop an insecure attachment because they are unable to trust that their caregiver will help them when they need it. Secure attachment is not only healthy but also biological. Infants, children through elementary and even teenagers realize at a deep level that they are reliant on their parents for their very survival. Children will, at a variety of ages, test parents to see if they will truly come through for them despite poor choices or misbehaviors. “Will you love and protect me even at my worst?” is the sub-text behind those actions. Trust is deepened and reinforced when parents care for the child even in those difficult times.

How does a parent promote healthy relationships?

Be responsive to children’s needs. As in the aforementioned attachment research, children maintain their trusting connection with you as you demonstrate your ability to meet their physical and emotional needs. Needs are different from desires. A child needs love, attention and care but may not need an extra toy. If a parent cannot meet a child’s emotional needs, seeking additional support from a trusted mentor or counselor is a helpful way to address the issue. Limits and boundaries are important tools to ensure that all needs in a relationship are met. Critical boundaries should be drawn on the parental side when it comes to their own emotional needs. Adults should seek emotional support from other adults (including professionals – therapists, counselors) and not their children.

Model constructively coping with anger and fear. The most powerful way to teach a child to sustain a healthy relationship, in addition to responsiveness, is to model your own effective emotional regulation. Moms and Dads will lose their temper. And when they do, it is a prime opportunity for them to demonstrate that they can be emotionally intelligent in that difficult moment. Plan ahead! What will you do when you feel overcome with anger or anxiety? What will you say? Where will you go? Establish a routine with your family in advance. “Mommy needs five minutes.” is all you need say if you’ve let all know that you will go to your safe space when you are angry and need a cool down. For more check out, “A Better Version of Yourself.”

Listen intently and with empathy. Reserve judgements when your child is emotional and launching into a story. Allow her to tell you about what is on her mind. Ask open-ended questions. Encourage her to come to you whenever she needs to talk. Avoid criticizing friends since your child might share personal stories about herself through the guise of friends.

Play, explore nature or read together. Activities that allow parents and children along with friends to savor the moment without a need for acquiring stuff promotes trusting, healthy connections. Froh and Bono write that the enemy of a grateful state of mind is busyness. Spending playful time together can bring a family closer together like no other experience can.

Use logical consequences. Not only do logical consequences help a child become self-disciplined, they give children a stronger sense of the impact of choices. If a child says something mean to a neighborhood friend, a logical consequence is NOT taking away a favorite toy for example. How does the toy relate in any way to the hurtful words said? A logical consequence relates directly to the poor choice. Sometimes logical consequences occur naturally and all a parent need do is point them out. Spencer does not want to play with you tomorrow since you said some disrespectful words to him today. Punishment may stop the misbehavior in the moment but creates fear in the child. That fear works in direct conflict with his trust of you and promotes an insecure attachment. This can inhibit his ability to form healthy relationships in school and later in life.

Provide specific guidance about repairing harm. When children have made a poor choice, they may feel doomed to live with the guilt. They may also feel that their choice is part of who they are as a person. Talk to your children about the fact that they always have the chance to make another better choice. If they have caused harm, on purpose or inadvertently, guide them about making reparation. Could they draw a picture for a friend they hurt? Could they bring a bandaid to a child that they pushed and check on them? Give them ideas and then support those actions. Talk about how they felt after they made a choice to help heal instead of hurt.

Model forgiveness. If you’ve had an argument with your partner, show how you make up, forgive and move on. Forgiveness is a critical tool in healthy relationships to ensure that you are healing wounds and demonstrating care for the other.

What if a child enters into an unhealthy relationship? What should you do?

Talk about the qualities of a healthy relationship. Ask what qualities your child desires in friends? Kindness, trust and respect are critical. Encourage your children to listen to their feelings. If they get uncomfortable and feel that a friend or adult in their lives is crossing a boundary line, coach them to clearly say “Stop,” leave the situation and let you know about it.

Help the child communicate for herself. Remember that the primary relationship is between your child and the other person. So coach her on language she can use to communicate her needs and desires. “You were calling me a name yesterday and it hurt. Stop.” The more direct, assertive and brief a child can be with another, the better the results. It helps to practice the language so that they are ready in the moment.

Intervene. Of course, if your child is truly being harmed and unable to communicate adequately himself, you’ll need to intervene. This is not always a simple process. If it’s a school situation, go to a teacher or the direct supervising adult first to discuss the problem. If it’s a neighborhood situation, you might first try talking to the child. You could make a simple, respectful comment such as, “I think you know that harming others is wrong.” If this doesn’t work, then you will need to talk to the parent. Whatever the issue is, remember that your intervention will have a ripple effect after the incident occurs so think through first how you can build relationships through the process and not “burn bridges.”

If healthy relationships are the cornerstone of gratefulness, then it’s worth thinking about whether we have them and are encouraging them in our children’s lives. It’s never too late to dialogue on what makes healthy friendships or work on responsiveness, consistency and kindness in your family life. Wishing you a healthy and grateful season!


Also, check out the article on helping your children with Making New Friends.

Check out this video, a reading of Bear Says Thanks.


1. Wilson, K., and Chapman, J. (2012). Bear Says Thanks. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

2. Froh, J.J., and Bono, G. (2014). Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

3. Hazen, C. and Shaver, P.R. (1994). Attachment as an Organizational Framework for Research on Close Relationships. Psychological Inquiry. Vol. 5, Iss. 1.