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Secrets of the Language of Love

Language of Love by Jennifer MillerThe coming of Valentine’s Day seemed an ideal time to write about one of the greatest, most enduring loves that has ever existed. No, I am not writing about Romeo and Juliet. This is about our love for our children and how we express it. There are moments in our lives when we feel like bursting with love for our kids – when we see their sweet faces poke out from their blankets just before going to sleep at night or when we see their faces light up at the discovery of a bug under a rock. But how do we express our love through our words? There are some ways we can become more conscious of the words we are selecting to build deeper, more trusting relationships between family members and truly express the love we feel for them. Here are my secrets (or now, not so secret!) of the language of love.

Express love everyday. As a person who has experienced multiple deaths of relatives in my life, at times I will ask, “What if this were my last day?” Have I said the things I want my family to know about how I feel about them? Kids will always benefit by hearing a direct, sincere “I love you.” from a parent. A friend told me, “I was never told that I was loved as a child so it feels strange and unnatural to say it to my own. But I do. Sometimes I have to get up for it. Force myself because I know it’s the right thing to do.” That’s the kind of commitment that is required if we are to break patterns we don’t like or value from previous generations. Our children are ready and eager to hear that they are loved and in the absence of that, they create stories – untrue stories – about why they are not loved. Make sure they hear that they are.

Express love after a conflict or misbehavior. Children feel particularly vulnerable after they have made a poor choice or have argued with you. It’s human nature to worry that behavior can influence or even determine love. And we, as parents, put a premium on actions (since we often focus on them) so children have a hard time understanding that they can make a poor choice, you can be mad and you can still hold love for them all at once. So when a poor choice occurs, focus your words on the action not the doer of the action. You may not be able to express love in the heat of the moment (though sometimes it does help to de-escalate a conflict but only if it’s genuine and from the heart). But say it at the end of the day so that your child knows she is loved no matter what, unconditionally. Tomorrow she can make a new better choice knowing that you love her and will support her in doing so. Call it your own legacy. She will be well-equipped to love her family members unconditionally as she grows because of your example.

Listen actively. There may be no greater demonstration of love than deep listening. Listen with empathy to truly understand both thoughts and feelings. If your child only shares a thought but you can hear there is feeling behind it, ask. “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated about your friend. Is that what you’re feeling?” The insightful book Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds suggests that, though tempting, it’s important to keep advice out of your reflective listening.

Even the best listeners can unwittingly put ideas and suggestions into the mind of others – it can be so subtle that people don’t know they are doing it…They (those who use clean language) use only the other person’s words and questions related to those words to get results. 1

And the “results” to which the authors are referring in this case would be showing trust in your children’s ability to think through their actions and feelings to better understand themselves, the people around them and the effects of their actions. Facilitating a child’s thinking in this way can support him in internalizing thought processes that lead to responsible decision making. It also paves the way for a more trusting relationship so that if problems arise, he feels safe enough to come to you to discuss them.

Use feeling words. We tend to be in the habit of not using feelings words. Despite all of the important work done in the field of emotional intelligence, culturally, there is still a sense that feelings are a weakness. Emotion words don’t have to signal weakness if we use them intentionally. But they do open us up and make us more vulnerable. And that is the very reason why it’s so important to share with family members how we are truly feeling. Emotional honesty allows for intimacy. As we search for the words to articulate our emotions, we are becoming more self-aware. And simultaneously modeling self-awareness for our children. We can address their hurt, anger and frustration much more effectively if we have helped them develop a way to communicate so that they can be understood. In any upsetting situation, try and pinpoint the child’s feeling and always ask, “Is that right?”

Use similes and metaphors to help discover and define feelings. We use metaphors so often in life, we tend to take them for granted. “She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.” “He is eating like a pig.” “This match was made in heaven.” Kids hear and attempt to figure out the metaphors adults use regularly but sometimes get confused by them. I find myself often explaining metaphors in books I read to my son. The Clean Language authors claim that metaphors can allow us access to our unconscious minds and can serve as a powerful tool for understanding how we are really feeling about a situation. For children who are just learning about metaphors, we can become more aware of the language we use and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. For example, if I were to say “I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders today.” I might catch myself and talk a bit further to describe the feeling. “I am feeling overwhelmed by how many items are on my to do list. I’m thinking about it so much that it feels like a physical pressure. I need to do something to help ease my worries. I could make a list. Or I could sit and breathe. You want to help me?”

Do no harm. Adults use any number of words, phrases and expressions that children don’t understand. Even in adolescence, though kids may “try on” sarcasm, they still do not truly understanding the intention since the words are the opposite of the feeling behind the words. Speaking directly, cleanly and clearly can be an aspiration we can all work toward. Try to eliminate language that shuts others down like “Shut up.” by asking how it makes a child feel when it’s said to him. In addition, children sometimes retaliate in a parent-child argument with hurtful words like “I hate you.” Try not to take those statements to heart. Though they are intended to wound in the moment, they are coming from a feeling of a lack of control. If you meet that lack of control with you own lack of control by getting upset, it will only escalate the situation. Better to walk away and take time to cool down. In calmer moments, discuss how those words are painful and how you could rephrase in order to express upset without harming. You might ask, “Could you say instead, ‘I hate what you did. I hate what you are doing.’?” Also, I’ve heard adults say that in moments of anger and upset, they have “joked” about not loving a child or loving another more or wishing a child hadn’t been born. Those kinds of remarks can stay with a child for a lifetime. Better to walk away or simply stop talking so that you don’t regret your words later.

Maybe all love is complicated and simple at the same time. This certainly is true for the love we have for our children. We feel so deeply for them that we want them to have the best of everything in life. Yet they have their own minds, personalities, desires and purposes along with the need to express who they are in their own unique way. Often the toughest, most important job of a parent is stepping back and letting children think and act in ways in which they can learn for themselves. And knowing that, we will always be right there to love them.

Happy Valentine’s Day! heart pic 001

 

References

1 Sullivan, W. & Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

Teaching Kids Empathy and Ethics with Money

Pathway to Goal Achievement by Jennifer MillerIf you are concerned about your children making a living in the world on their own someday, you are not alone. And because financial acumen is not typically a rigorous part of school curricula, we know, as parents, it’s up to us to help our children. It’s likely you’ve considered teaching your child about money or have already begun the process. In fact, experts recommend giving your child plenty of practice with early money management by opening a saving account, providing a small allowance and divvying up Grandma’s greeting card funds to savings, charity and spending.1 These are indeed helpful experiences for children to begin understanding money’s value and its role in their lives. But the ethics developed around the use of money can be equally important and can be taught right alongside those practical first experiences. In addition, empathy goes hand in hand with ethics since acting as a responsible citizen means working to understand others who may have very different lives and circumstances than our own.

The way you educate your child about the values and ethics of money can play a significant role in their future mental health. After all, it is not just paper and metal but a source of livelihood and sustainability. What we emphasize through our parenting can go a long way toward helping our children develop a work ethic, achieve their goals and contribute the best of themselves to the world. Here are some considerations when educating your child about money, ethics and empathy.

Discuss gratitude.

A spokesperson for a relief aid organization came to speak at my son’s school yesterday. He lives in Ghana and spoke about his childhood as an orphan who relied upon a relief organization for his food, shelter, clothing and education. “I felt bad for him,” said my son. “He didn’t have any parents and didn’t even know when his birthday was.” “And how did he say he felt about his life now?” I wanted to know. “Grateful.” said my son. “He was grateful.” I was thankful that my son had that opportunity to encounter a person who lived a very different life on another continent in simpler living circumstances yet he was very grateful for his life. His story enhanced our family’s gratefulness and so it goes, as you encounter others and learn about their lives, it can enhance your family’s gratefulness for the abundance you enjoy. Certainly, it helps you not take your life for granted.

The authors of Making Grateful Kids say their research supports the idea that materialism and gratitude are opposing values so it’s up to parents to balance doses of gratefulness with the materialism children experience.2 It seems there are a full range of attractive toys associated with any given television program, movie or video game. So if children are viewing screens each day, they are getting regular exposure to those commercial messages. The key is to balance those messages with your family’s own sense of gratitude. Look for chances to discuss what you are grateful for. Make it a daily ritual at breakfast, dinnertime or bedtime. Those researchers found that it can significantly impact a child’s feelings of motivation and satisfaction with their own life so it’s worth that daily effort.

Exercise self-control and persistence.

There are numerous ways you can encourage the practice of self-control with kids. (Check out, “Strategies for Teaching Self-Control”) One small, simple way is to recognize and focus on hard work and effort versus end products whether its related to a homework project or learning to ride a bike. Ruby Payne, expert on mindsets of poverty, middle class and wealth, writes

Emotional resources provide the stamina to withstand difficult and uncomfortable emotional situations and feelings. They are the most important of all resources, because, when present, they allow the individual not to return to old habit patterns. 3

And they allow the individual to achieve their goals whether they are monetary or other.

Clarify goals and priorities.

When valuing and achieving extrinsic goals such as wealth, image and fame as central aspirations, people can become hindered in terms of fulfilling their fundamental needs, which can lead to feelings of emptiness and despair. On the other hand, when valuing and achieving intrinsic goals – such as kinship, friendship and personal growth – as central aspirations, people can more easily fulfill the fundamental human need which support mental health. 4

Consider how you talk about your work. For most, their work is critical to supporting their lifestyle but that is not the only concern related to a job or career. Do you discuss the meaning and purpose of what you do? Do you describe the service you provide? Do you help others? Do you value the relationships in your workplace? Children can benefit from hearing you talk about the aims of your work in addition to the monetary goals.

Employ a caring Socratic method.

Ask good questions in order to help your child explore their thinking and examine assumptions they may not be aware they have developed simply by living in a consumer society. Here are some examples:

  • What if everyone got everything they wanted from the stores all of the time? What would be the implications for employees? For others?
  • What could happen if you spent all of your money on one big toy?
  • What would happen if Mom and Dad spent all of their money on one big toy?
  • What kinds of things do you think Mom and Dad have to work to pay for in our lives?
  • What happens to people who are in a car accident and handicapped and cannot work to gain money? What do you think they do?
  • What do you think the experience of being homeless is like?

Also, explore ethical dilemmas with your child so that he can think the problem through to his own conclusions. For young children, you could explore the issue of lying or stealing. For middle grade children, you might talk about social issues such as prejudice related to class issues or cheating. For high school age, you could explore larger topics such as extortion or mental illness.

The book Talk with your Kids encourages parents to not offer answers or a final conclusion. 5 Explore the complexities and gray areas. Children will wrestle with those dilemmas themselves and when they do, it will contribute to their moral development.

Cultivate empathy for others.

Look around and take a moment to examine how often you interact with others of a differing income level. Because class can determine much of a person’s worldview, it can be mind-expanding to experience those differences. Return to your question asking and explore your own assumptions as well as your child’s. “How might that homeless woman see the world differently than we do from the vantage of her wheelchair?” “What do you think she thinks about?”

The resource book listed below, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, contains a helpful graph entitled “Hidden Rules among Classes” to help see what the assumption mindsets might be from each income level around people, education, time, food, clothing and other daily aspects of our lives. The author’s website offers a video to explain more.

Understand the roles of fairness and reciprocity.

It is human nature to return a gift with a gift. The norm of reciprocity is true even among strangers. 6 Over the holidays, my family went to deliver needed food and gifts to seniors living with a limited income but each one gave something to our son, E whether a piece of candy or a hug. One man ran down the hallway to get us and bring us back so that he might offer E his prized Little Debbie cupcake. Perhaps it’s human dignity that requires individuals to give back in return. Help your child understand the value of accepting what is given and expressing gratitude (when you are not in the those situations so that it’s not nagging but discussing in advance). Focus on the care of the giver and not the thing itself. And from the receiver’s perspective, when gifts are too large, they can feel overwhelmed. “How can there ever exist fairness or reciprocity?” the receiver might think. Discussing gift giving and receiving and the complexities only raises your children’s sensitivity to those issues. He will be prepared and able to act graciously when he participates in future giving and receiving.

Share your own values.

What ethics do you adhere to when it comes to money? Where do you draw the line? What if you came into a large amount of money? What would you do with it? What if you and your husband lost your source of income? What then? Do you practice regular giving to others, to charity? Do you accept gifts of money? What is your comfort level with debt? Would you borrow money and if so, under what conditions? Raising questions with your family can help you talk through the complexities of these questions that often have no certain answers. It helps for your children to understand that you are grappling with questions and trying to figure out your own boundary lines too.

Families that regularly express their gratitude attract more abundance into their lives contributing to their sense of well-being and ability to pursue their goals. Families that hold people and relationships as a central value as they consider the complexities of money and consumerism are prepared to be thoughtful when challenges arise. It’s renewing and empowering to know that gratitude can be freely experienced no matter an individual’s circumstances.

References and Resources

1. T. Rowe Price. Money Confident Kids site to assist parents, educators and kids on the practicalities of learning about money.

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

3. Payne, R.K. (1996). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process.

Hidden Rules among Classes Video, http://www.ahaprocess.com/homepage/content-form/

4. Richards, C. (2012). The Psychology of Wealth. Understanding your Relationship with Money and Achieve Prosperity. NY: McGraw-Hill.

5. Parker, M. (2012). Talk with your Kids. Conversations about Ethics, Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality and 103 Other Things that Really Matter. NY: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers.

6. Diekmann, A. 92004). The Power of Reciprocity. Fairness, Reciprocity and Stakes in Variants of the Dictator Game. Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, No. 4, August, 487-505.

And check out this book which contains guidance on this important topic from regular reader and commenter, Dr. James Casale!

 

Wise Up and be the Solution; How to Create a Culture of Learning at Home and Make your Child a Success in School by James Casale

Teaching Kids about Money from the Social and Emotional Perspective: Part One, Self-Awareness

Teaching Kids about Money by Jennifer Miller“Wouldn’t it be awesome if every toy in the world were one dollar?” exclaimed my son, E yesterday with great enthusiasm. “Then,” he went on, “I could buy everything on my wish list with the money in my piggy bank!” “Hmmm. Let’s think about that.” was my response. “What if?” I eagerly await those opportunities for thought experiments to help play out the thinking and see where it could lead. If every toy in the world were one dollar, what might happen? We played out the scenario in the following way.

What if you could buy every toy you’ve ever wanted with your piggy bank money? You could play with them all until you got bored and wanted more. But there would be nothing more out there to buy. We, as a family, might struggle with storing all of those toys in our home and could not invite people over. There simply would not be the space. Our family and friends would stay away from our house and we would go to visit them instead. Sadly, you couldn’t play with your friends with the toys because of the lack of space. In addition, you spent all of your money. An emergency might arise in which you need money but you would have spent it all. Meanwhile in the greater world, the people who made each of those toys are suffering. They received one penny for the hard work they put into making your toy with the other ninety-nine cents going to the company that runs the toy-making operation. Those employees go home to a family they are struggling to feed and clothe. Hmmm.

The role of money in our lives is so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily existence that we may often not be aware of the social, cultural and ethical implications and values that we are passing on to our children. The brand of breakfast food we eat, the clothing we put on, the work we engage in and the entertainment we choose all involve money. Sure, it’s just paper; a tool on which we place a number value. But because it determines so much of our lifestyle, it is loaded with emotions and rife with beliefs. If we are to raise children who will become informed consumers, grateful individuals and ethical contributors to society, it’s critical that we examine our assumptions and beliefs about money. To do this, we need to uncover and be clear about what our values are and how our lives are in alignment with those values. And we need to raise questions with our children about the role of money in people’s lives. How does money help them to become responsible decision-makers, cherish the abundance they enjoy and hold empathy for others?

In all of my reading and research on this topic, I searched to find what might be considered a “healthy” relationship with money. And the bottom line came down to our own state of mind. Though looking around, it’s easy to see that many consider money a direct route to happiness, freedom or power. Those are illusions, however, or so says research. A 2010 study with 450,000 U.S. respondents found that well-being does not correlate with income level. An annual income of $75,000 was the most/least individuals needed to experience the greatest satisfaction with their lives. 1 Researcher Doug Short took that study a step further in 2014 and played out the state-by-state “benchmark for happiness” as it relates to annual income with similar results. 2 “Our attitudes about money are more important than the amount we make. As always, in our pursuit of happiness, our inner resources assume a greater role than our material resources.” writes Howard Cutler summarizing His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s words. 3

I share my own story with you as a work in progress. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my personal journey with money, much more than I could possibly share here. I want it to inform my own life and how I teach my child about money. Self-awareness is an important place to begin when teaching a child any topic that relates to their social and emotional development. Perhaps the questions I am asking myself may help you examine your own assumptions about the role of money in your family life.

Question: What are the stories you’ve been told about your family history before you were born related to money?

My Story: My paternal Grandfather once split a single hard-boiled egg with his new wife for dinner, times were so lean, during the Great Depression. He worked extra shifts for years at Ford Motor Company in order to allow my father to be the first to go to college. My maternal Grandmother, who lost her Mother at the age of three, had to wear purple high heeled, hand-me-down shoes with newspaper shoved in the toes to school and began working in a bar when she was a teenager.

My Father sold off all of his possessions in his twenties to join the Jesuit seminary. He sought a simple, spiritual life. He owned two shirts when he met my Mom. And my Mom, right out of high school, joined the Notre Dame convent and took a vow of poverty. Though both she and my Father left their religious institutions eventually, they retained a commitment to simplicity. Those stories shaped my commitment to service, to a hard work ethic and to being grateful for what I have and it raised an awareness about materialism. Those stories also certainly contributed to my romanticized view of poverty.

Question: What do you remember from your own childhood experience of money? How did your parents make a living? Were there family conflicts over money?

My Story: I remember my Mother working full-time as an English teacher with my Dad out of work and in graduate school. She was making $10,000 a year to support our family. I was well taken care of but there were few extras. She hand-made most of my clothes and my toys.

I surprised myself when I dug deeper and fully answered this question. My maternal Grandmother was my primary caretaker while my Mom worked full-time before I was school-age. She often used money and extravagant gifts to buy love and had lots of expectations tied to her giving. That led to arguments that resulted in my Grandmother not speaking to me or my Mother for twenty years. When I thought back, I remembered the story incorrectly as an argument about money. That experience shaped so many of my feelings about money – that it could be evil, that it could destroy relationships. But in truth, the conflict was over much deeper, more fundamental issues – love and worthiness, not really money at all. And my uncovering of those feelings related to money have been important in understanding some of my false perceptions.

Question: When you became an adult (early twenties), what were your first experiences of making a living for yourself and managing your own money?

My Story: Right out of college, I signed up to fight the War on Poverty by becoming a full-time Americorps*VISTA volunteer. I was immersed in low income communities, experiencing life on the “literal other side of the tracks,” working with youth from various Indian tribes and struggling to pay my own bills. I know for certain that the ethic of service was learned from my parents and has been an important part of who I am and aspire to be.

Question: Do you currently have conflicts over money in any of your relationships? What are your feelings about money’s role in your life?

My Story: After much reflection, I realized I had some disturbing feelings about money. The myth that resided somewhere in the recesses of my mind was that money was the root of evil, a destroyer of relationships, a power without conscience. All of this time, I think I’ve carried a fear that money might destroy any relationship in its path. So I get very anxious when I talk with my husband about our budget. I cringe when I encounter luxuries because it seems to go against my moral fiber. All these are important realizations about the emotions I bring to conversations about money. They allow me to communicate better with loved ones and catch myself when I bring false beliefs to opportunities to teach my son.

There are cultural messages we often receive about money. Urban myths and sayings abound. “Neither a borrower or a lender be.” “You can’t take it with you.” and “Money can’t buy me love.” to name a few. And no it can’t, but it certainly can stir heated emotions in relationships. The 2014 American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that almost a third of adults with partners reported that money is a major source of conflict in their relationship. 4 And compared to other hot button topics, couples’ arguments about money tend to be more intense, more problematic and more likely to remain unresolved. 5

Because I have examined my beliefs and assumptions based on my own past history, I can ask questions about that state of mind I want to possess and what I want the role of money to be in my life and my family’s life. This can inform how I want to talk to my son about money to help him learn about not only the practical realities of money, but also the cultural, emotional and social implications.

Because this is such a fundamental issue, it seemed that one blog article was not enough to address all of the implications money has for our family lives. In this article, my goal was to raise questions to help you and me elevate our own self-awareness about the issue so that we might think on a deeper level when we return to the subject. So for the next two blog articles, I will discuss 1.) teaching children ethics around money and 2.) teaching children empathy related to money.

In the meantime, I hope you will share your thoughts to inform the discussion.

What beliefs do you hold that may be helpful to you or, as in my beliefs about money as a relationship destroyer, what beliefs do you want to let go of?

What ethical principles do you hold dear and how do you share them with your children?

And how do you help your children become more empathetic to those of differing economic statuses?

Further Reading:

Educating the Consumer-Citizen; A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising and Media by Joel Spring

Savage Inequalities: Children’s in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol

A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne

References

1 Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. (2010). High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United State of America. 

2 Short, K. (2014). Here Is the Income Level at Which Money Won’t Make You Any Happier in Each State. The Huffington Post, July 25.

3 His Holiness The Dalai Lama, & Cutler, H. C. (2003). The Art of Happiness at Work. NY: Riverhead Books.

4 APA. (2014). American Psychological Association Stress in America Study. 

5 Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M. and Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009), For Richer, for Poorer: Money as a Topic of Marital Conflict in the Home. Family Relations, 58: 91–103. 3

6 Kirkcaldy, B., and Furnham, A. (1993). Predictors of beliefs about money. Psychological Reports 73 (3), 1079-1082.

Home Base – Creating a Safe Haven for Calming Down

Jack's Base by Jennifer Miller“I call base!” my son would say at any place and any time in the days when he was first introduced to the game of tag. If he wanted to end the tickling or stop the chasing, he would claim a piece of furniture, staircase banister or corner of the room as his safe haven. No one could touch him there. And he relished the power and security of his base. I considered that as I recently heard from friends with multiple siblings who would experience an emotional game of tag during times when children were overtired or hungry or otherwise on edge. “Tag! You’re it!” was the sub-text as one upset child passed her mood to the other. Unfortunately unlike tag, the upset was not only passed on but also retained by the tagger and often grew stronger among all members of the family.

When emotions are high, wouldn’t it be nice to call “Base!” to stop the escalation? What if kids were taught to create their own safe base so they could, in those heated moments, select to go to their safety zone? Kids may tend toward this instinctually – reacting to the fight or flight response – and hide in their room or under furniture.

However, parents can use home base as a tool for teaching their children self-regulation skills and benefit during the most upsetting times. The process is simple. Here are the ways you can make the creation of a home base work for you.

Talk about the creation of a base when all is calm. Select a moment when you don’t have time pressures to get somewhere and it’s just playtime around the house. You might ask, “Wouldn’t it be helpful if you had your very own space to go to when you are upset where everyone knew they needed to leave you alone?”

Let your child pick his base (within reason). You may want to provide some guidance about how to pick a safe base. Ask your child to consider where it might be easy for him to be alone and quiet (the middle of the kitchen floor, for example, may not be the most practical choice).

Designate the space as his own. Involve him in deciding how he wants to designate the space. Would he like a pillow in the corner he has chosen? Would he like to make a sign with his name on it? Would he like to keep his favorite polar bear stuffed friend in the space to mark the spot? Some other items that could help him calm down are books, crayons and paper, music or a blanket. My son has a moving picture aquarium that has always helped him calm down. Consider what helps your child the most and encourage him to place that item there.

Do a dry run. Make it like a game so he tries it out in an enjoyable way. If you have multiple siblings, engage all in it. Pretend you are upset. Where can each go? When they are there, you may want to show each how to breathe (check out hot chocolate breathing) so that they can practice calming down. Then, talk about what happens after they’ve calmed down. You might add, “When you are ready, you can leave your base. Then we can sit down and talk about what was upsetting you.”

Create a family rule to respect bases. Ten year old Sydney would not want five year old Ben to invade her safe base and it works the other way around as well. If each member wants to retain a safe base, each member has to respect the others’. When a family member selects to go to their safe base, they need to be left alone by all other members so that it truly acts as the safe haven they need in those moments.

Remind. When your kids are upset, calmly ask, “Would you feel better if you went to your safe base?” If you cannot calmly remind them, it’s better to not mention it. I have marveled when my son has remembered on his own and gone to his safe base without prodding.

The concept of the safe base will not work if

  • it’s used as a punishment. In other words, “Go to your safe base!” (said in a yelling or punishing tone).
  • the space or content of the space has been chosen by anyone other than the person using it.
  • the base isn’t respected by others. All family members, including parents, have to leave a child alone in his space when he self selects to go there if it truly is going to promote his own self-regulation skills.

The skill you will be promoting by the creation and use of a safe base is self-control. Not only will it serve you in the moments when conflicts are escalating, but it will offer your child the opportunity to cultivate his own ability to self-regulate for the future. Walter Mischel, the researcher who designed the famous Marshmallow experiment, found that even a child who feels vulnerable in his relationships can overcome that feeling if he is practiced in self-control. 1 In other words, the ability to calm down in the midst of upset, anger or frustration can promote greater resilience in any of life’s challenges. He claims it may just be the greatest factor in later success in life. Try your own at-home experiment and see if the creation of a home base with your child might offer the safe haven they need.

For further reading on similar topics, check out:

Positive Time-Out And Over 50 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in the Home and the Classroom by Jane Nelsen

References

  1. Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test. Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success. NY: Little, Brown and Company.

I Remember and “I Have a Dream” Today

hand shake for MLK Jr post

Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I hope you’ll take a moment to watch the “I Have a Dream” speech today with your children and talk about why this day, why this speech and why the message of Martin Luther King Jr. lives today and is still as relevant and as critical to dream for our country and our world.

 

Morning Routine Redux – Adjusting to Winter Weather

Adjusting to Winter Weather by Jennifer Miller“Where are your gloves? Uuuuhhhrrrr!” I growled this morning. Hats, gloves, boots, shoes and socks have been strewn everywhere through our tiny hallway and into our kitchen from our side door – so much so that I can’t walk without stepping on some article of clothing. I thought we were doing okay in the mornings. That first week back from holiday break is typically tough on the sleep routine – getting up and out of bed on time. But we’ve got that mastered now so we should be right back into our smooth mornings, right? Then enters the snow factor and sub-zero temperatures and we are not in as great of shape for mornings as I might have thought. And I’m not alone. Each time I’ve talked with parents in the past few weeks, the issue of the morning routine has come up. Here are some questions you might consider to help you determine whether it’s time to revisit your morning routine.

Do you feel aggravated most mornings of the week?

Do you start your day feeling anxious and stressed?

Do you feel you need to nag in order to get your kids moving?

Do you raise your voice or yell a couple of times a week or more in the morning?

Are you able to get your kids to school on time each morning or are you late sometimes?

If you answered yes to any of these, you’re human. But making adjustments in the winter just makes sense. Harsh weather adds so much to our typical routine that if we don’t accommodate those additions, we will end up consistently stressed and our kids will too. And the resulting negative mood can trickle down into our work and school days. But there’s good news from research done on self-control. Apparently, we have the greatest capacity for self-control in the morning when we are fresh and rested. As the day wears on, our self-control can experience fatigue like a muscle. 1 The implication is that if we have set ourselves and our kids up for success in the morning, then we can draw upon our refreshed self-control to proceed calmly and with patience while our child struggles to get on his boots. Why not plan for success and make some small adjustments with your kids to help each member contribute to making the morning go smoothly?

To engage your sense of self-control while you are still drinking your first cup of coffee, try out the Self-Control Morning Stretch. When it dawns on you that you are nagging or yelling, try this out. For example, “E get your shoes. E, seriously, we are going to be late. Come ooooon! Get your shoes on!” I’m repeating myself so it may occur to me after these statements that I am nagging, maybe moving into yelling. Here’s how I employ the stretch.

The Morning Self-Control Stretch Part One by Jennifer MillerThe Morning Self-Control Stretch
When the realization hits you (that you are nagging or yelling or engaging in any coercion that you’ll regret later), stop! Freeze. Breathe in deeply. Then as you breathe out, sink down to your child’s level. Crouch down eye to eye. Don’t talk until you can speak in a normal to soft tone even if you have to stare at your child for a minute. Ask, “How can I help you get this task completed?” Responses could range from “I don’t need help.” to “I can’t get this knot out.” to “Would you do it for me.” If help is asked for, do it with no to few words. Then, express confidence in his ability to finish for himself or direct him to his next task in as few words as possible and in a calm tone. For example, “Shoes are tied. I know you can do this next step of getting on your coat.” Now move away with trust that he will do his job. We all need reminders after developing patterns of nagging or yelling but how do we help ourselves in those circumstances? Treat this like an exercise each morning. It may not produce results on the first try but your child will get the hang of it and respond accordingly after you do it a few times.The Morning Self-Control Stretch Part Two by Jennifer Miller

My video (shown below) outlines a way that the whole family can plan for a successful morning routine. But I have additional ideas for simple, small ways to adjust to the winter weather and tweak a routine that may have been successful when the school year began.

Make a Checklist Together. Use a small white board so that you can easily erase marks and start over. Pick one evening well before bedtime (to eliminate time pressure) to write out a morning checklist with your kids. You may want to focus on “things we need to get” and/or “things we need to do” to get out of the door on time. It seems human nature that checking items off a list offers satisfaction. And research now supports that when there is added complexity in any situation, using a checklist can offer a simple organizer to ensure all issues are addressed. 2 Give your kids the opportunity to check off their list. “Today’s special class is library. What do you need to put into your backpack?” you might prompt. “Books, check!” replies your highly responsible child! The checklist can help your child get involved in making sure everything is ready for the day.

Organize. Take time after school to organize your winter wear and school project materials. It seems at the same time the wet, snowy outdoor clothing is piling, there is an influx of historical dioramas and science poster boards. Where are the repositories for completed academic work that were brought home? Where do you keep academic materials that have to travel back and forth to school? Be certain there is an assigned container, bin or binder that your child can regularly use. And then, how do you deal with all of the extra winter wear? Where do wet scarves, gloves and hats go? Those are the buggers that tend to run and hide at the last minute before everyone needs to leave. Create a solution together. The more you can involve your child in that solution (perhaps she draws a sign for a bin? perhaps the bin is her favorite color?), the more ownership she will take over keeping track of those articles.

Evaluate Time and Adjust. It’s a simple fact that if you have added winter clothing and academic projects to your morning routine, you should be allotting more time than when the weather was pleasant. Never plan for the exact amount of time it takes for your routine to go smoothly. How often does that work out? Instead plan extra time for problems so that when they occur (Tommy has a meltdown about wearing new pants.), you won’t panic because you don’t have the time for a problem. Delays still may occur on occasion. But with a little padding, you will possess that additional calm to get through most mornings.

Do a Dry Run. Instead of playing your favorite board game, host a game of “Morning Routine.” Once may be enough to allow you and your kids to practice and provide a significant memory from which to draw. Be certain to make it enjoyable. With a doughnut in hand (this is my personal version of making it enjoyable), go through each of the steps of the morning with your checklist. Set a timer to see how quickly you can get through each step. Allow your kids to tell you what’s next. When you come upon typical morning struggles, stop to brainstorm. “How can I help you with this? What could make this easier so we can beat our time?”

Prepare the Night Before. Instead of trying to get ready for the next day on your own after the kids have gone to bed and you’re exhausted, involve your kids in getting ready. Perhaps after dinner, set aside time. Use your checklist to call out items that need to be in backpacks. Lay out clothing. If there’s any new clothing, this would be the time to try it on so there are no morning surprises.

Have Back Ups. For school supplies, medications and winter wear including snow and rain gear, try and have inexpensive back-ups easily on hand. Gloves get lost. And the realization typically occurs when your foot is halfway out of the door. Make it easier on all involved and have a second pair.

Particularly if you have kindergarten-age children or younger, going over the full morning routine will set you up for later success. You will have involved your children and taught and reinforced those behaviors you want to see each morning at a time when they are still figuring out the rules of school. So do watch the following five minute video for that helpful information.

Winter mornings don’t have to begin with stress. With some teamwork and a little planning, they can go smoothly once more. And you can stop nagging and yelling and feeling guilty. It’s worth a little extra effort to not start your day on a negative note. I treasure the mornings when my son gets out of the car at school and I feel like we’ve both had a positive start. And that is my wish for you! That most of your mornings prepare each family member to start the day feeling calm and ready.

 

References

Hagger, M.S., Wood, C., Stiff, C. & Chatzisarantis, N.L.D. ( 2010). Ego Depletion and the Strength Model of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis. National Institute of Education, Singapore.
In Press, Psychological Bulletin.

Gawande, A. (2009). The Checklist Manifesto; How to Get Things Right. NY: Picador.

 

 

Directing Kids’ Energy When Indoors

Keep It Off the Ground by Jennifer Miller

As I watched kids of all ages, bundled in hats and gloves, burst out of the school building at pick up time yesterday, I thought about the exercise they weren’t getting (during indoor recess) and the energy my son would need to exert when he got home. The snow continued to fall and he had energy to burn. During this time of year, it can be a daily struggle. Kids’ bodies just weren’t designed to be sedentary and hibernate through the winter. And often, that need to get out the wiggles leads them to misbehaviors and us to irritation. Whether it’s throwing their bodies around in ways which are destructive to your indoor furnishings or jumping on you, kids can use help in finding constructive outlets for their energy so that they don’t resort to behaviors that will be a problem for you and your family.

If the temperature is not below zero, bundle up and get them outside. Fresh air and the room to run can do wonders for that physical exertion need. But if it’s too cold or you’ve already had your outdoor fun but the wiggles continue, you need indoor solutions. Here are my ideas for ways to get them moving!

Hard Floor Spin Off
See how many times your child can spin on his or her bottom on the hardwood floor. Keep track and try to beat your own scores. Parents may get dizzy just watching but for many kids, this is pure fun.

Dance Party
Turn on some music and dance it out. Give your kids the chance to pick or select their favorites. To extend the activity, they could decorate the dance room with their own handmade disco ball or confetti but it’s not necessary. Just dance!

Keep It Off the Ground
Regardless of the age of the child, it amazes me at the interest in a single balloon. Blow up an average balloon and challenge your kids to keep it off the ground. This winter, we added that if anyone misses the balloon and it touches the ground, he or she has to take a lap around the house.

Hide the Object
Find an object that your child agrees he’d like to seek and find. Then, take turns hiding it in all corners of the house. You can use “cold, warm and hot” as indicators of how close he is to finding it.

Indoor Olympics (with safety rules first)
If your kids are familiar with the Olympics, involve them in creating their own set of household-appropriate Olympic games. Maybe you do a ball roll or a long jump and measure it. Perhaps kids create a pillow obstacle course. Maybe they see how many push ups they can do. Demonstrate one Olympic challenge you create and then, challenge them to create their own. Use a timer and encourage them to beat their own time. Do set safety rules before they begin such as, balls stay on the ground or the basement is the only place where games can take place. Do a finale in which they have to do each game in a row.

Climbing Rhyming Game
Start at the bottom of the stairway. Kids can pick any word (such as dog) or phrase (such as dog food) and then, they move up a step. Each time they climb, they need to add a rhyming word (such as fog) or phrase (fog mood). They stay on the step until they can come up with one. Try it a few times and see if they can get all the way up.

Lively Clue (for several kids)
Dress up a stuffed friend with a costume and accessories. Pretend he has perpetrated an innocuous crime, like littering in the park. If you can give him a name and a back story, it will stir kids’ imagination and they’ll have more fun with it. Now all but one hides the criminal in a remote part of the house. Those who know where he is have to provide clues to help the “detective” who does not know how to find him. If they can add to his story and embellish his character through their clues, so much the better.

Family Back Massage
Be certain to demonstrate first and set boundaries before trying. Show kids the acceptable area on a person’s back and shoulders that they can massage. Show on each child’s back how to be very gentle or apply a little more pressure. When finished, do the “Tennis Ball Tighten and Release” exercise which helps with calming bodies down. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then let it go. Try this at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time tighten those muscles for a few seconds and then fully release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.

Follow the Leader Tai Chi Style
Have you ever watched individuals doing Tai Chi in the park? Practitioners move every muscle in their body but slowly, fluidly and with control. The movement tends to flow and not stop. Challenge your kids to do the game follow the leader with this slow, ongoing movement. It can be very difficult so they may need to take breaks but see if they can move through the entire house in this way.

Alphabet/Word/Phrase Treasure Hunt
This can be great practice for kids who are learning letters, words or phrases. Write each letter of the alphabet (or word or phrase) on single index cards, one per card. Tape a letter or word card to an object that begins with that letter. For example, the “P” card gets taped to the piano. Place the cards all over the house. You can make the placement of the cards easy or hard to find depending upon what kind of challenge you anticipate will be enjoyable for your child. Give your child a full alphabet as a reference throughout the game (if finding letters) and also a gift bag to collect the cards. Now hunt! Each time your child finds a card, in order to “claim the prize,” (a.k.a. put it in his gift bag) he must name the letter (or word). If he cannot, no problem. Look and sing through his alphabet reference and find it together or sound out the word.

For Tweens/Teens:

Family Snow Removal
You may not be able to motivate your kids to go out and shovel if you just tell them to do it. But initiate the activity as a team, work with them, and they may enjoy the process and get exercise too. Hot chocolate with extra marshmallows at the end always helps too! If you or your partner are highly efficient or have to shovel before work, later ask your kids instead, “Are there neighbors we know who are older or who have physical impairments that might make it difficult to get their shoveling accomplished? What about going and helping them out together?”

Music Video Dance Routine
Can you mimic the dances that are performed in favorite music videos? Look up some videos that you know and dance along! Teens will be sweaty in no time!

Jumping Jack Challenge
Have your teen select a favorite high energy tune and see how many jumping jacks she can do in a row. Work up to doing it throughout the entire song.

The cold winter months can be a time when families laugh, play and connect with one another without many of the distractions that come with the warmer months. Thinking about a few ways to get your family moving can create a more positive environment in your household. Kids will get their physical needs met and you can enjoy that extra time together.

The Unique Opportunity for Our Children

E and I discussing issues by Jennifer MillerOur children have an uniquely expanded voice. They have a significant platform from which to project who they are and what they believe. They have access to any number of social media vehicles from websites, Facebook pages to tweets. And that alone, the voice they are permitted, is a significant evolution from the perception of generations’ past that “Children should be seen and not heard.” But what is the substance of that voice? Our unique role as parents of this generation is to help children use their platform with sensitivity, self-awareness and thoughtfulness.

Our children have a sense of agency. They have choices whether it’s where they attend school, with whom they become friends or how they spend their free time. They may frustrate us as they demonstrate their strong wills. But how will we help them channel that energy? How will we help them grow their internal moral compass so that they are able to make decisions that are self-nourishing and take into consideration the greater impact on others?

And voice and agency constitute great power. But with great power comes great responsibility. Strong will can be exercised on the dark or light side of “the Force.” The difference between those who are able to contribute to our global community and those who have the potential to harm it is that the first group have had the chance to cultivate consequential thinking – to grapple with the ethical dilemmas of our day and decide for themselves what they believe. They need the chance to grow in their self-awareness to be able to contribute the best of who they are. They need to have practice in understanding others’ thoughts and feelings raising their empathy and social awareness.

I hope you will join me again for another year of dialogue on how we, as parents, can offer experiences to our children to train their voices so that they may significantly contribute to all of us. I made one resolution at the beginning of the school year, in particular, toward this greater goal of helping train my son’s voice. “How have you done on the school year resolution you made in the Fall?” collaborators from NBC’s Parent Toolkit wanted to know in the new year. Here’s what I wrote that I was going to try to do this year:

I resolve to dive into discomfort with my child when I know it’s important. I will look for windows of opportunity to discuss sensitive issues such as racism, sexuality and historical events that are shameful. I will ensure that the information I provide is well-informed and if I am not sure, I will research before I communicate so that I feel confident in what I am relaying. I will also ensure that the information I provide is developmentally appropriate so that my seven year JenniferMiller.V2
old son can begin to understand that people have made choices in the past and in the present that we never want to repeat. Though these issues make me squirm and would be easy to overlook and avoid, I will face them in a sensitive and empathetic way so that my son may do the same.

As with so many resolutions, it changed in the midst of actually doing it. Yes, I did dive into discomfort. I looked for opportunities to discuss critical issues facing our family, our community and the world. And they were abundant. Thanksgiving brought conversations about immigration, racism, ancestry and cultural appreciation. The holiday season offered chances to talk about the numerous traditions and rituals that were taking place around the world based on beliefs very different from our own. In the midst of our celebrations, we remembered those dear relatives who had passed on and discussed what we think happens when people are dying or when they are dead. The news produced the chance to talk about gun violence and safety. The release of the PG-13 new Star Wars movie offered another window to discuss sensitivity, movie violence and age readiness. Classmates went through moves and divorces. Time at holiday parties raised discussions of alcohol and its effects. Aggressive words and actions were experienced. And gender roles and love explored. All of these issues arose within the small time from the start of school until now.

As I had resolved, I did indeed provide facts that I knew. I did research with my son those facts I didn’t know. I shared my beliefs too. But the one critical aspect of my resolution that changed, that I didn’t anticipate was that the questions – what we do not know for certain – were much more important than any answers I might have provided. Those questions left hanging for consideration made my son think – really think. Authentic wisdom is being able to make responsible decisions with uncertain or limited knowledge. And that is what I desire. I want my son to hone the skills of thinking responsibly so that some day, when faced with the dark or light side, he’ll have practiced thinking through the complexities and have wisdom from which to draw. My hope for this new year is that we all cultivate our wisdom, to make responsible decisions in the midst of uncertainty.

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