Positive Outcomes for Kids In Montana

Learning from a Recent Study of Parenting Supports

“How could we better the lives of kids if we asked a wide range of parents throughout a state about aspects of their parenting – hopes, challenges, worries – and used that information and language to develop practical tools based on solid research that can support them at every age and stage?” That was the basic, but also giant and visionary question that research scientists who study health and safety at Montana State University asked six years ago. They found supportive partners at the state government level in the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. And they engaged Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents five years ago to serve as the lead author of those tools after extensively surveying 1,200+ parents in the state of Montana (and have subsequently surveyed parents each year since). 

From all of that information from parents, we, a team of research-to-practice translators led by Annmarie McMahill, Senior Research Scholar, began developing an intentional parenting process that could be applied in a general way to each issue of concern based on developmental science and particularly social and emotional research. That simple five-step intentional parenting process is:

  1. Seek input.

Begin by finding out from your child what they know, how they feel and what their experiences are about a particular topic. Whether it’s a skill like listening, a poor choice like lying or a challenge they are facing like homework or bullying, you can always discover greater empathy, patience and compassion by seeking input and it signals you on where to begin in addressing the issue with your child.

2. Teach.

There are a number of ways parents can teach their child a new skill or a positive behavior to replace a poor choice. Particularly when you ask the question: what opportunity do I have to promote a social and emotional skill?, it can lead to modeling, trying it out together and increasing your child’s independence with skills like self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills or responsible decision-making.

3. Practice.

New skills are just that – new. It’s only when we practice and rehearse a skill over time that we can achieve mastery or create a new habit. Practice guided by a parent can take the form of a game, story or fun activity where parent and child try it out together. For example, in building listening skills, you may tell a story aloud and see how many details your child can recall including the feelings of the characters.

4. Support.

This step includes noticing, offering encouraging feedback and also, providing constructive tips and coaching as needed. We all require support in trying something new. So this is a necessary component of introducing new positive behaviors in your household.

5. Recognize.

It’s easy to notice the behaviors we don’t like or are annoyed by. It’s more challenging to notice those small, incremental efforts toward positive change. Yet, our noticing is precisely what reinforces how important the hard work is that our children are putting into building new skills. Using “I notice…” language is a simple way to recognize that they are making progress.

The intended outcomes of this work were to improve social and emotional skills in children and in parents which, we know from research, leads to increased well-being and reductions in risky behaviors. From a recently released small study by Kaylin Greene, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Montana State University, we have preliminary results that point to this process and these tools working. 

A small sampling of parents in Montana used the online parenting tools with their children with access to a parenting coach over the course of six months. Check out the following data graphs and charts. Children’s social and emotional skills grew over that six month period with each competency. Some of that could relate to natural development over time but not to the degree and consistency of the improvement shown.

In addition, the parents increased their social and emotional skills on each competency over the intervention period.

And we learned from parents that they felt their relationship grew in intimacy and trust because of the process. Though more research is needed to understand whether these supports really make a difference – for example, does a parent require a coach in order to use the online tools effectively? – this is important feedback that they are valuable tools for families.

ParentingMontana.org is a model for other states in providing supports to families that are both informed by research and also, by the parent community who will be utilizing the tools. Check out the site! You’ll discover numbers on the home page. Click on the age of your child and you’ll find a wealth of tools on many subjects of concern at that age.

Thank you Jay Otto and Annmarie McMahill, primary Co-investigators, for providing the visionary leadership for this important work!

Check out the research brief to learn more.

Full Study:

Greene, K., (2022). 2022 ParentingMontana.org Preliminary Evaluation Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.

New Parenting Site by Highlights for Children

Highlights for Children has been a long time partner of Confident Parents, Confident Kids. We are delighted they are creating their own set of resources for confident parenting on their new site. Here’s their introduction! Check it out!

Here’s Highlights for Children’s Parenting Site Launch Announcement

Join us tonight on Instagram Live!

Visit the Highlights for Children Instagram page to check it out at 8:00 p.m. EST tonight. We’ll discuss the difference between teasing, bullying and social aggression and how we can support our children and teens through it all!

Do check out the new site here with family games, arts and crafts, learning and school readiness supports and social and emotional development tips and resources!

Check out our recent collaborations with Highlights for Children!

Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents was honored to be interviewed for a recent article they published over the holidays entitled “When the Holidays Hurt; 4 Ways to Parent through Grief.”

AND their “Dear Highlights” Podcast featuring Jennifer Miller on social aggression was the most popular of the season. You can check that our here: “What’s the Difference between Teasing, Bullying and Social Aggression?”

Thank you, Highlight for Children, for your continued partnership and the new support you are creating to promote confident parenting!

Dr. King, Nonviolent Revolutionary

Persistent and Advanced Models for Parents and Caregivers

At the heart of every revolutionary is a person who sees from a different perspective, often a larger perspective and instead of following rules and other people’s expectations, they actively set out to change the rules and expectations. I’ve written about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the visionary, the peacemaker, and the courageous. This year, I am reflecting on Dr. King, the nonviolent revolutionary and what insights we can learn today from him in our roles as parents, caregivers and changemakers.

There was much talk of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s nonviolent protests in India and their ability to change the treatment of the poorest citizens named “untouchables” in America’s South in the early to mid 1950s. With many years already spent in laying the seeds of change and small scale efforts, Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement was beginning to take its first large scale steps. And according to Harris Wofford’s “Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties,” Dr. King credits a quiet seamstress as the catalyst for the large scale civil disobedience that followed.1 Rosa Parks claims she got on the bus with the same intention she had every other day of her life – to go home from work to be with her family. But that fateful day when she was told to go the back of the bus, a flame grew within her of courage and conviction. “It’s a sudden spark like that that starts great conflagrations — when the tinder is ready,” reflected Dr. King later (p. 114). What followed – led by Dr. King and the Women’s Political Council – was the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott planned originally as a one-day event. This daylong protest expanded into a twelve-month protest involving 50,000 souls.2

Before the bus boycotts began, they agreed to nonviolent principles and also, to three basic demands for change including 1. courteous treatment by bus operators, 2. seating on a first come, first serve basis, and 3. Black American bus operators were employed for predominantly Black-populated routes.

Dr. King led the civil rights movement in part through his wise, charismatic oration and stirred crowds to visionary, aligned action. Here’s what he told the packed Church the day after Rosa was arrested for her civil disobedience and the evening before the bus boycott began:

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you. If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history. If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people — a black people — who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization (p. 115).

– Harris Wofford, “Of Kennedys and Kings; Making Sense of the Sixties”

Nonviolent protest was to be the differentiator, the powerful lever of change. And it worked. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Why did it work? We know their opposition would use violent force. Yet with enough people to unite and show a healthier way society can live, that force overpowers old, outdated beliefs and practices. Evolution continues to advance.

As a changemaker, we can learn, model and teach our children the discipline of nonviolent communication. These skills can prepare them for uncertainty, injustice and hardship like no other set of practices. These tools ensure that they can navigate relationships in healthy, generative ways and when they meet destructive forces can, with confidence, move out of harm’s way or refuse to move or participate in a way that changes the dynamic but does not harm individuals. 

Can you imagine the resistance to Dr. King’s radical idea? If you followed him, you might be tear-gassed, you may be shot, dragged to prison, beaten in any number of ways. How might you be convinced that the means of nonviolent protests is worth the suffering for the opportunity of a sea change? This applies to family life too – I promise! Let’s look at power versus force from a book by the same name…3

If we analyze the nature of force, it becomes readily apparent why it must always succumb to power; this is in accordance with the basic laws of physics. Because force automatically creates counter-force, its effect limited by definition. Power, on the other hand, is still. It’s like a standing field that doesn’t move…Power gives life and energy — force takes these away. (p. 132).

David Hawkins, MD, PhD, “Power Versus Force; The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior”

Force creates a winner and loser. Power retains agency – your own and in others. Perhaps now you see the many implications for your parenting and indeed for any relationship you value in your life. Here are a few reflections Dr. King might whisper for you to consider:

– When do you empower your children or teens to make choices, to learn how to do tasks for themselves, to co-create rules and routines together? When do you teach, model and practice healthy ways to resolve conflicts building skills?

– When do you use force? Do you punish? Do you act in ways that intend to hurt? How does it make you feel? How does your child feel? Do you experience counter-force? What does your child learn from those interactions? Are there alternative ways of teaching, modeling, practicing and coaching the positive behaviors you want to see you might consider?

There’s a reason the book “Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg is in its third edition.4 It lays out in simple terms the ways in which we can communicate assertively, kindly, and firmly to keep our relationships healthy and generative. Often, these ways of communicating are not only not intuitive but they require focused practice and discipline. That’s because we have largely been raised in a “force” paradigm so that aggression – passive or active – is a regular part of the language we are accustomed to. Yet, these changes can make a significant impact in our relationships. Here are a few of the key principles Rosenberg lays out with my own adaptations for parents and caregivers.

  1. Observe instead of evaluate.

It’s been said that observation versus judgement is the highest form of human intelligence. And if you’ve practiced mindfulness in any form, you have practice in non-judgmental observation. Have you ever spied an unsafe or problematic behavior in your child and merely stated that you notice it? Most haven’t. Yet if you have, you’ll note that if your child is aware that what they are doing is unsafe or inappropriate, they are likely to turn around the behavior with your simple observation only.

To turnaround behavior:

“I notice it’s dinnertime and you haven’t started on homework.”

“I notice the garbage is full.”

To reinforce behavior:

“I notice you got your homework done before dinner.”

“I notice you made your bed this morning.”

“I notice you were ready and on time!”

This can work with any family member of course, not just in the parent-child role.

  1. Express feelings and needs.

Though both of these may sound easy, they tend to offer the greatest challenge. The reason is that each place the owner of the feelings and needs in a place of vulnerability. Yet that is precisely the stance necessary in order to move a conflict forward in a healthy way. If you are arguing with someone including your child, they can become fearful or suspicious if they feel your anger or anxiousness but do not have the full insight from you to explain and understand your inner state. Here’s how you might express yourself:

“I’m feeling intensely frustrated with… myself, the situation. I feel helpless too.”

“I need to gain more of a sense of control.” Or “I need to pause to calm my insides.”

  1. Take responsibility for our own feelings and role.

This can mean the vital distinction between healthy relationships and enmeshed or co-dependent relationships. In taking responsibility, we avoid the pitfall we are susceptible to of projecting our own feelings on another’s heart when we solely own our inner state and role. We offer our loved ones agency when we approach with curiosity but not assumption about their feelings and needs. And we avoid the blame game (which automatically creates a “force” dynamic) when we own our role in a problem and not any other part of the problem. If taking responsibility for our part (and if we are engaged in a conflict, we always play a part. It takes two after all.), then we open the door to the other to take their own responsibility for their feelings and role. Rosenberg writes about emotional slavery versus emotional liberation in the following ways:

  1. Emotional slavery. We feel responsible for other people’s feelings.
  2. Stepping toward liberation – We feel anger to free from being responsible for other’s feelings. If we allow, accept and honor this feeling, we can achieve…
  3. Emotional liberation – when we take responsibility for only our own intentions and actions.

4. Request honesty and “that which would enrich life.

Whether in conflict with a child, a partner, a co-worker or a friend, after we’ve owned our feelings and needs, we can ask for honesty from them. How are they feeling? What is their role? What responsibility can they take? Without honesty, it can be leave us stuck swirling in the problem without the heart information to move ahead, to mend, to heal. We have a right to ask our intimate others – how can we proceed in a way that enriches our lives collectively?

Sometimes this honesty can only be brought about when we ensure the other that unconditional love is present. Our children must hear: “I love you no matter what.” Isn’t that what Dr. King was insisting of the congregation before they not only inconvenienced their daily lives but literally put themselves and their families in mortal danger?

This is one of the many lessons essential to understanding how to raise confident kids by acting as confident parents that Dr. King and the civil rights movement continue to teach us. Thank you, Dr. King, Rosa Parks and the many others who courageously demonstrated a better way of living.

References:

  1. Wofford, H. (1980). Of Kennedys and Kings; Making Sense of the Sixties. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  2. History.com. Montgomery Bus Boycott. Retrieved on 1-12-23: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott
  3. Hawkins, D.R. (2002). Power Versus Force; The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Inc.
  4. Rosenberg, M.B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.

Further Reading:

One of Confident Parents most popular articles of all time… nonviolent ways to deal with misbehavior: 50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention or Punishment by Jennifer Miller, CPCK

From Dr. King’s Sermon “The Mastery of Fear,” What Can We Learn Today? by Jennifer Miller, CPCK

Today We Hear the Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Jennifer Miller, CPCK

Differences Do Matter — Why Talking About Them Helps Us Raise Compassionate Kids? By Shuana Tominey, CPCK

How Can We, As Parents, Live the Values of Martin Luther King Jr.? by Jennifer Miller, CPCK

New Year Back-to-Basics Parenting

Happy New Year, Confident Parents! 

We, in the Miller household, are in a very back-to-basics mode starting out this year. It was a renewing break. But we had a few breakdowns toward the end of our time off that focused our attention on household repairs. In addition, we find ourselves shoring up our exercise routines, revisiting our plans for nutrition (after indulging in some serious sugar over the holidays), looking at our connections to nature and our environment, and discussing financial planning. 

In addition to thinking about intentions for healthy, sustainable living, we are dealing with the very practical day-to-day reality of returning to the routine. Getting our teen son to bed at a reasonable hour at night is an adjustment. Getting up and out of the door with a laptop charged, water bottle refreshed, and all systems-a-go is another feat that feels rocky and uncertain. We’ll get there but we clearly are out of practice. Here’s some fuel for you if you too are need of a boost to your family’s wintertime routine.

As we generally are working on our foundational needs, it’s pushing me to ask the question:

What are some of the basics of parenting for and with confidence?

The following are key.

Noticing Outdated Patterns from our Past

We know that every part of parenting from our everyday conversations to our greatest challenges can serve as an opportunity to grow a social and emotional skill in our children and teens and in ourselves. In fact, we have some of the greatest opportunities for growth as adults through the pushes, pulls and difficulties of being a purpose-led parent. If instinct guides our every move and choice in reaction to our children, then we have decided to replicate the training from our own upbringing for better and for worse. Yes, at times, instinct will lead us to act just as our parents did. And we recognize it the minute the phrase comes out of our mouthes… “That’s not me” you think. “That’s my mother (or father).” And at other times, instinct instead may lead us to the opposite reaction our own parents displayed or intended and if that counter-reaction was born out of an act of resistance, it’s likely we will go to extremes. Often neither of these responses lead to confident and competent actions.

Parenting with Intention

And so in order to alter the patterns of the past that we do not want to repeat, we need to become intentional about how we parent. If we have regrets for reactions of the past, that’s a perfect place to begin. It helps to become reflective about the following questions:

– What do I want to replicate from my own upbringing? 

It’s well worth listing these out and then, noticing whether these are already a part of our parenting. They most likely are. If so, this is an important affirmation and validation that these can be checked off of your worry list. You are already doing them – and you have the necessary training to do them well!

– What do I want to change that stems from my upbringing either as a repetition of outdated words and actions or an outdated counter reaction?

– When, where and how do those reactions occur?

Pick one pattern you’d like to change and set a new year’s intention. Maybe you end up nagging at homework time or end up yelling or fighting over getting work accomplished? Write down your intention to formalize it in your mind and heart. Here’s how it might look:

I am confident in my child’s ability to get her homework accomplished. I will set her up for success by co-creating a routine with her and establishing clear boundaries about when, where and how it will take place. I will review these, remind her and support her. If upset, I’ll pull away and breathe before interacting.

Using the Social and Emotional Growth Filter

Our son used a few of his phone filters on photos of us this Christmas and we played with the many distortions and crazy faces it produced. There are always multiple ways to view any one situation. Why not view a thorny challenge with the filter of your child’s growth and development? It can not only alter your reaction, but also it can change your motivation level to work hard to transform the problem into a growth opportunity. 

Imagine in your mind’s eye the scene of challenge. What does it look like? What does it sound like? Now, freeze the scene and ask the question:

What opportunity exists in this moment to build one or more social and emotional skills? 

I notice that when I ask that question, I typically can come up with more than one skill that is being challenged. Let’s use the homework example.

Your daughter may not be self-aware of her procrastination as a sign of a fear of failure when she approaches homework. Opportunity: Self Awareness Skills (identifying her true feelings and how they impact her lack of motivation, knowledge of her strengths, ability to work hard and also limitations where she needs to seek help)

Your daughter may struggle to use her self control when friends are texting and online gaming when it’s time for her to focus on her work. Opportunity: Self Management Skills

Your daughter may not be aware that her neglect of homework has a ripple effect on the rest of the family. It can interfere with dinner and getting to bed at a reasonable time which can impact the next day’s morning routine. Opportunity: Social Awareness Skills (like taking social cues, empathy, perspective-taking)

Your daughter may feel like a victim in this scenario being forced to do hard work when she doesn’t feel capable. Yet the conflict that her avoidance creates between you and her eats away at your relationship since it occurs day after day. Opportunity: Relationship Skills (like communication and constructive conflict management)

Your daughter is not feeling a sense of independence and responsibility for accomplishing her work. Opportunity: Responsible Decision-Making Skills

Our Child’s Behavior as our Report Card

We can use our child’s words and actions as a way to gauge what we need to work on. This report card is NOT ever a pass/fail grade. There is always another chance to learn, to try a new approach and to react differently. Instead this is a measure of progress and where learning opportunities continue to exist — or persist. Our opportunity for growth does not come from one time words or actions. Children and teens (and parents too!) must make mistakes, have accidents, and try and fail in order to learn. But when we catch our children repeating words and actions that do not align with their best, most confident selves – or bring out our own shadow sides – then, we have an opportunity to stop and reflect on the chance for transformative change.

One key foundational principle we can remember and recite is that when adults change, our children’s behavior adapts. We can lead the charge. It’s an empowering start to our new year! How can we be the change we want to see in the world? How can we begin at home? How can it begin inside ourselves?

Here’s to a year of well-being, growth and learning for ourselves and our children!

Connecting to the Natural Rhythms of the Season: Winter Solstice

The Welcome Chance to Step Back from Holiday Noise and Quietly Reflect

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

Tomorrow, 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. Today, there are winter solstice traditions celebrated in India, China, Japan, South Korea, England, Ireland, Canada, Guatemala and more. 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. All of the major world holidays involve an appreciation for light in the darkness as a previous article explored including Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa. 

This year, we have the opportunity to engage again in this ritual with dear friends and we are grateful to extend our family tradition to include more. This passage of dark to light offers so many opportunities for meaningful connection and reflection. Positive change begins inside ourselves and then, at home with our families. And as positive changemakers – which if you read and follow this, you are! – the solstice presents an opportunity, a moment to ask “how am I being the change I want to see in the world?” If I am to authentically embrace empathy and compassion for others – even and especially those who are challenging me or making destructive choices – I first must invest in letting go of judgement and that includes my own self-criticism – which can serve as the toughest critic of all. I can only do this if I remind myself that each person is coping with their pain in vastly different ways. And there is no one right path. What if, this Solstice, each person took the time to reflect on their voices of judgement for others and themselves and sent them into the fire to burn to ashes? If we did this in a wholehearted way, I wonder if we could rise like a phoenix and offer the compassion to ourselves and others that is so needed? I know the potential is there. How can you become a model for your family?

I so appreciate this day as a silent pause in the hustle of the holidays for introspection. If you, as I do, want to take this sacred moment to recognize how nature is offering us this opportunity for transformation, here are some ways to bring your family into the reflection with you. The following are themes that are emphasized across the world’s solstice traditions.

Theme: Letting Go, Forgiveness and Rebirth
In ancient Rome during the solstice, wars stopped, grudges were forgiven and slaves traded places with their masters. Today, the theme of forgiveness and rebirth 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 stories, judgements of ourselves and others, 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 people in your life disappointing you with their choices? Are there hurts that you are holding onto from the past? Have you disappointed yourself? How can you focus on letting go realizing that holding on only hurts yourself and keeps you imprisoned with those judgements? With the burning of a candle, can you imagine those disappointments burning into the ash, forgiven, and offering you a new chance?

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. We can begin to explore the many other ways we are connected to one another regardless of how different we feel or seem at times.

Question for our Family Dinner: How have the ways in which we connect changed this year? What connections have been nourishing and satisfying that we want to keep or promote more of? What connecting have we left behind that we do not miss? What are ways that we are connected to people from places far from us in the world? What are the ways we are connected to people who are different from us or challenge us in our own community? 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, sickness 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. Our actions can reflect our deepest values.

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, it 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 all of 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? How can you become more aware of the changes in nature around you? Have you gained more appreciation or a new view of the natural world during the pandemic?

Our family will be lighting a fire and sitting by it, noticing its brilliant light and feeling its warmth. As I toss my ceremonial evergreen bough on the fire, I’ll be considering what judgement stories I need to send into the fire with the bough. How can I place those kernels of anger, fear and disappointment into the flames to help myself truly let them go? 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 let go of your outdated stories during this emergence from dark to light. May you allow it to transform you and create a bigger, wider space for compassion that can emerge from you fueled by more light in future days.

Adapted from an original post on December 14, 2014.

Gifting Social and Emotional Learning during the Holidays

Nikkya Hargrove

The holidays can be tough for all of us for many different reasons. For some of us, it involves the emotional roller coaster ride of buying family and friend gifts, teacher gifts, and shuffling from school events to work events, and so forth. And then there are the added financial burdens just to name a few. There is a way to replenish our tank when it feels like we are no longer running on the fumes of joy during the holiday season – volunteering. Giving back during the holidays is one of the most renewing activities a person can do, especially with one’s family. While the pandemic certainly threw us all in a tailspin, realizing we could go out and help others is exactly what my family and I chose to do around the holidays. While volunteering is and should be a yearlong endeavor, it is so special to interact with people, spreading a little extra joy during the holiday season.

From discussion to action, volunteering helps support social and emotional learning and well-being for those serving and for those receiving. Who doesn’t want to know that someone cares? For me, that is what volunteering, both indirect and direct, is all about. Have you tried sitting and writing a note of gratitude to someone you don’t know and leaving it in a high traffic area for a random person to pick up? And let’s go one step further. Can you imagine being the one to receive the note, a simple “Have a good day” or “You are amazing”! We know words matter and mean so much.

Two Thanksgivings ago, my family and I decided to help the homeless in our neighboring communities. We went shopping for hygiene supplies, headed to McDonald’s to purchase $5 gift cards, and with the items we’d purposefully collected, we packed each backpack with love and care. While in the store, we talked about which items a homeless person could use. We talked about what being homeless meant, especially during the winter months. We talked about the why of volunteering and why we decided to help this particular community building our children’s empathetic thinking. Once we finished packing the bags, we went to the intentional communities our local homeless population made. My son and wife went into their makeshift homes. We spoke to them about what their other needs were. They left and were waved on their way by grateful humans who were touched that someone took the time to care about their needs and wanted nothing in return.

Volunteering is an opportunity to increase one’s social awareness about issues that need more attention, like homelessness and poverty.

Volunteering builds one’s capacity to communicate effectively. Communication is key.

My family and I had a job that day. We needed to work together towards our common goal – building our collaboration skills. Our first goal was to shop for the items. Then we needed to communicate effectively to one another to understand what was going into the bags. From parents to kids, there was a job for everyone. Everyone had a purpose along the way. 

Once we were in the car, traveling towards the predetermined locations, everyone also had a job: to look out for any homeless person – someone holding a sign asking for help. And they did. When they saw someone, I, as the resident driver, would head in that person’s direction. My twin daughters were responsible for handing out the McDonalds gift cards to each person. I knew we’d chosen the right activity for our family that Thanksgiving when the kids argued over who would give out the final gift card.

And it didn’t stop there. The kids learned how incredibly grateful they were for their warm car, their full bellies, and the opportunity to be with their family members – people who loved them and supported them. As we all reflected on the experience that evening, we recognized another important part about our day, everyone we met wanted to be heard and seen. The act of volunteering does exactly that for all. 

Nikkya Hargrove is an alum of Bard College and a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow. She has written for the The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Taproot Magazine, Elle, and more. Her memoir, Mama: A Black, Queer Woman’s Journey to Motherhood, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. She lives in Connecticut with her one son and two daughters and is a staff writer for Scary Mommy. Learn more at https://www.nikkyamhargrove.com.

The Unforecasted Snowstorm of Feelings in the Holiday Season

Yes, the magic of the season is in the air. For me, that means Christmas coffee is brewing, the seasonal tunes are harmonically humming, and the twinkle lights are being hung with care. And with it, the speed of life is picking up from a steady fall of snowflakes to a blinding sideways torrent. You know what I’m talking about. Work deadlines and school papers, volunteering and purchasing gifts, managing relatives’ expectations, decorating and plugging into or pulling off holiday traditions. All of this and the hope that under the weight of the wind and flakes, we’ll wear a smile and bring a calm, jovial attitude to it all.

Enter the first grader. She’s so excited about anticipating the gifts, and the break ahead and the gifts that she can barely sleep at night (not to mention that her pockets are filled with empty candy wrappers from advent calendars, school staff and that kind bank teller). She saves up and uses every ounce of her best self-management skills with her teacher who she doesn’t want to disappoint. But loses it in a swirl of tears and sobs when she comes home hungry, tired and beaten by the storm.

Enter the sixth grader. He is concerned with his friends. And they’ve all checked out with school work. How can you possibly concentrate in class or study for Spanish when there are new video games to check out and play with one another online?

Enter the ninth grader. I’ll take the example of my son for this one. Thanksgiving break was enough to shift his focus fully to his passions and away from the hard work of school that is expected before the next long break. We noticed he could not get up in the morning this week. And we noticed our nagging quotient rising as it became more and more difficult to get him moving.

In schools, when there is not a social and emotional learning curriculum present, that learning still takes place but can be referred to as the hidden curriculum since the modeling of reacting to feelings and engaging in social interactions still occurs and children still learn from it – whether we like it or not. So too, we have a hidden social and emotional narrative operating during the holidays. When our impatience shows or we feel overwhelmed, we are likely burying any number of challenging emotions we just don’t feel we have time for.

John Lennon croons on the radio, “another year over” and he presses, “and what have you done?” We are coming to the end of another year and perhaps, reflections on that year are making our way into our heads as we busy about our days. And as we pull out our beloved decorations like the reindeer cut-outs produced by the small hands of our former kindergartner that hang on the banister, we may feel the sting of nostalgia and the sadness and loss of the hands that are not so small anymore. We may pull out ornaments from loved ones who are no longer with us and even, those who left us in the past year.

Brene Brown, the bestselling author and researcher, likes to say that when we wall off one emotion, we wall them all off. Can’t take the sadness? Then, you don’t get to experience the joy either. It’s just how we are wired. The media is so concerned with the phenomena of FOMO (the fear of missing out) but what about FOF (the fear of feelings)? It may be more palpable during this season. We might all take a fresh breath in the new year but in the meantime, why take the chance that we can allow this snowstorm of feeling to take us over and snap – saying something we regret to someone we love?

What can we do? And how can we help our children and teens too? Here are some ideas.

  1. Create a daily ritual.

What small – and I truly mean small (cause if it’s not, we won’t do it, right?) – practice can you do daily that will renew you? Deep breathing, listening to a calming piece of music, or lighting a candle and noticing the scent can all be restorative. Maybe you take time out for an afternoon cup of tea? 

And how can you help create a daily calming ritual for your child or teen? Perhaps think together about what best helps restore your son or daughter. Create a list and post it so they have a selection of options they can go to when they need some calm. Check out this example!

2. Feel the feelings.

Sometimes the moment at hand is not the moment for your big feelings. And so there are important reasons we table our emotions and use our self-management skills to cope, distract and reframe. But if we continue to suppress big feelings, they will emerge louder and stronger and we’ll feel that blinding snowstorm beating us down, like it or not. That’s biologically how our feelings gain our attention. So carve out a space for journaling and writing down what you are experiencing. You might consider: what are the many or possibly mixed emotions you are feeling? Where are they coming from? How can you let them in so that you can feel through them to the other side? Because some – like sadness – can feel so uncomfortable that we feel as if they’ll last forever but no snowstorm ever lasted forever. They are temporary. That reminder can help us be brave and accept our walk through the storm.

For your children and teens, sit down and take the time to reflect with them if they are “off.” Pinpoint together what’s going on. Name the feelings. For younger children, use emojis, draw pictures or use a feelings list to help them express what’s going on inside. Just the simple act of identifying frustrations together can help remove some of the intensity as they feel heard and understood.

3. Make a plan for the really big storms.

If we believe that our own or our children’s feelings storms will not come, we are simply kidding ourselves. We know they will. It’s only human. So plan for those moments. And check out the following simple tools to help you plan ahead.

For tweens, teens and adults, check out the Family Emotional Safety Plan, a one-page printable that will help you decide what you will do when you get really upset and need to calm down.

For younger children, I love teaching them self-management skills by proactively creating a safe base that is ready and equipped for them to self-select to calm down and feel better. Learn more about how to do that here.

Perhaps the most comforting notion is that the blinding part of the snowstorm passes – just as emotions do – and sometimes quickly in the scheme of things. And what’s left is the beauty and magic of a blanket of pure white snow that we can appreciate and enjoy with our loved ones. Wishing you that enjoyment this season! 

Learning about Holidays Around the World…

This is a Confident Parents’ favorite already viewed by many this season.

Because of the numerous holidays celebrated through the fall and winter months, it is an ideal time to discuss how people celebrate around the world – both the uniqueness of traditions and also the many commonalities. I was struck by the number of similar themes and symbols when I did the research for the following world holiday facts. Most notably, the major holidays celebrate light in the darkness, show gratitude for food, family and life and pause for reflection or prayer. I was so enriched by learning about the beautiful traditions of celebrations around the world. I hope you will take a moment to share these with your family. Happy holidays!

Hanukkah
Cultural or Religious Origin: Judaism
Purpose: To celebrate a miracle that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the temple.
Symbols/Practices: For eight days, Jews light a special candleholder called a menorah.
Traditions: On Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes called latkes, sing songs, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins. Families also give one gift each of the eight days.
http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday7.htm

Kwanzaa
Cultural or Religious Origin: African-American
Purpose: Started in the United States to celebrate African heritage for seven days based on African harvest festivals and focused on seven African principles including family life and unity. The name means “first fruits” in Swahili.
Symbols/Practices: Participants wear ceremonial clothing and decorate with fruits and vegetables.
Traditions: They light a candleholder called a kinara and exchange gifts.
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/kwanzaa-history

Chinese New Year
Cultural or Religious Origin: China
Purpose: Celebrate the new year.
Symbols/Practices: Silk dragon in a grand parade is a symbol of strength. According to legend, the dragon hibernates most of the year, so people throw firecrackers to keep the dragon awake. Each new year is symbolized by a Zodiacal animal that predicts the characteristics of that year. 2016 will be the year of the monkey.
Traditions: Many Chinese children dress in new clothes. People carry lanterns and join in a huge parade led by a silk dragon. People take time off of work for seven days and celebrate the feast with family.
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/chinese-new-year

Diwali
Cultural or Religious Origins: Hindu, India
Purpose: The festival of lights honors Lakshmi, India’s goddess of prosperity. It celebrates the inner light that protects all from spiritual darkness.
Symbols/Practices: Millions of lighted clay saucers with oil and a cotton wick are placed near houses and along roads at night.
Traditions: Women float these saucers in the sacred Ganges River, hoping the saucers will reach the other side still lit. Farmers dress up their cows with decorations and treat them with respect. The farmers show their thanks to the cows for helping the farmers earn a living.
http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/diwali/

La Posada
Cultural or Religious Origins: Mexico and parts of Central America, Christian
Purpose: Reenacts the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter to give birth to their son, Jesus. It is a festival of acceptance asking, “Who will receive the child?”
Symbols/Practices: Candle light, song, prayer, actors dressing as Mary and Joseph
Traditions: People celebrate through song and prayer doing musical re-enactments of the journey. In Mexico and many parts of Central America, people celebrate La Posada in church during the nine days before Christmas. It is a reenactment of the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter before the birth of their child, Jesus
http://gomexico.about.com/od/festivalsholidays/a/posadas.htm

Boxing Day
Cultural or Religious Origins: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Holland
Purpose: To share gratitude and give to the poor.
Symbols/Practices: Alms boxes were placed in churches to collect donations for the poor.
Traditions: Servants were given the day off as a holiday. Charitable works are performed. And now major sporting events take place.
http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/boxingday.shtml

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
Cultural or Religious Origin: Islam, Muslim
Purpose: An entire month is spent re-focusing on Allah (God) and participating in self-sacrifice to cleanse the spirit.
Symbols/Practices: The crescent moon and a star are shown to indicate a month of crescent moons in the night sky. Participants pray daily in mosques. On Eid al-Fitr, they break the fast by dressing in their finest clothing, decorating homes with lights and decorations and giving treats to kids.
Traditions: Not only do celebrants abstain from food, drink, smoke, sexual activity and immoral behavior during the days of Ramadan, they also work to purify their lives by forgiving others and behaving and thinking in positive, ethical ways. They break their fast each day by eating with family and friends after sunset. Breaking the fast on Eid al-Fitr involves making contributions to the poor and gratefulness.
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/ramadan

Omisoka
Cultural or Religious Origin: Japan
Purpose: This is the Japanese New Year.
Symbols/Practices: Thoroughly cleaning house to purify it.
Traditions: People remove any clutter and clean their homes to purify them for the new year. They have a giant feast with traditional foods. There’s a national talent competition. Bells ring at midnight and people go to pray at Shinto shrines.
http://www.kidzworld.com/article/26414-omisoka-japanese-new-year

St. Lucia Day
Cultural or Religious Origin: Sweden
Purpose: To honor a third-century saint who was known as a “bearer of light” through dark Swedish winters.
Symbols/Practices: With a wreath of burning candles worn on their heads, girls dress as Lucia brides in long white gowns with red sashes.
Traditions: The Lucia brides wake up their families by singing songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”
https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lucia/

Christmas
Cultural or Religious Origin: Christianity and Secular
Purpose: To celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the son of God. For the non-religious, the purpose is to give gifts, receive gifts from Santa Claus and celebrate with loved ones.
Symbols/Practices: Santa Claus who was originally named after St. Nicolas, a bishop in Turkey, who was a giver of gifts to children. The evergreen tree was originally a German tradition. The star is the guiding light that led to the animal manger where the baby was born.
Traditions: Presents are delivered in secret by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve while families are sleeping. Families and friends exchange gifts.
http://www.history.com/topics/christmas

Counting the Blessings of Our Children

Reflecting on the Best in Our Children this Thanksgiving

As we begin our break for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reflecting on how I might bring more gratitude into my life and my family’s life. I finished up our work/school responsibilities yesterday by attending my son’s parent-advisor conference at school. I felt well-prepared for that meeting thanks to last week’s article from Dr. Jenny Woo and as she predicted, the conversation began with problems-to-fix but I found myself able to shift the conversation to talk of progress, learning growth, social and emotional well-being and strengths on which to build. From that meeting in moving toward Thanksgiving preparations, I realized there’s more I can do to ruminate less on the details of the meal and the household and more on the gratitude I have for my son and my family. It’s easy to slip into a habit of ruminating on worries but that only produces more of the same (and doesn’t fix anything). Additionally, we are often engaged in trying to get others to reflect and participate. But change starts within particularly with a mindset like gratitude which can serve as a lens through which we view our lives and our loved ones.

So consider with me the benefits of ruminating a bit this season on the gifts, assets and blessings of the children in your household. I see multiple benefits including:

  • a mindful awareness of loved ones and how they contribute to your life;
  • An enhancing of your own sense of well-being as you not only accept but appreciate your children right where and as they are (not in some imagined successful future state);
  • A modeling for others of what it means to deeply appreciate others in the family; and
  • Extended patience, understanding and forgiveness for anything that might go awry (a spilled juice mess at the dinner table?) because of your appreciative thinking.

Though the clock always seems to be ticking with our children and teens, for me, having a teenager in the house has sensitized me to the fact that we have less of a time horizon with him around in our household. How can I make the most of it?

This holiday, I’m going to practice reflecting on gratitude for him, his friends, my niece, our neighbor’s kids and the many children and teens in our lives. Here are some fun ways you can do just that:

  1. The Best of Each Age

I began with going through each age and naming the top things I loved about that age. Spend time thinking this through while you are peeling potatoes, share in dialogue about it with your partners or other family members or even make a chart for all family members to fill in. Imagine what you might learn about the memories and appreciations of other family members’ experiences of your child at each age.

Age 1: He had such a determination to walk and such pride when he was able to. I remember him parading down the street with his go-cart looking up at the neighbors to ensure they were watching him take those strong steps forward on his own.

Age 2. etc.

Age 3.

Age 4.

Age 5. 

2. Doing a present-day gratitude inventory.

Consider what it is you appreciate about your child’s physical abilities, social abilities, and emotional skills. You could use Howard Gardners’ full list of intelligences: 1. Spatial; 2. Interpersonal; 3. Intrapersonal; 4. Linguistic; 5. Musical; 6. Naturalist; 7. Logical-mathematical; and 8. Bodily.-kinesthetic.1 This could be your own journal reflection or post pictures of children with space to write what famiiy members see, value and appreciate.

3. Follow a passion.

In preschool research and practice, this is called “sharing the focus.”2 Yet focusing on someone’s passion at any age may offer one of the most significant demonstrations of love. Commit a full hour, half day or full day during the break to be mindfully present to learning about a passion of your child or teen. We’ll be spending a full day at the biggest model train show of the year, our son’s passion. What are your children passionate about? How can you offer the gift of your full attention to show that what’s important to them is important to you.

We are given the gift of a holiday this season that centers our focus on family and gratitude. This break from school and work can bring us social comfort as we deeply connect with those we love. It can offer emotional support as we focus our mind and energies on appreciating the abundance in our good lives, a feeling that fundamentally alters anxiety and brings us into a more peaceful state. I wish you all these benefits by being intentional about where you focus your mind and energies this Thanksgiving.

Here are some of my favorite books on gratitude!

“We are Grateful; Ostaliheliga” by Traci Sorrell

Adult Books Nonfiction:

“Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character” by Jeffrey J. Froh and Giacomo Bono

“Gratitude Works; A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity” by Robert A. Emmons

References

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York, Basic Books.

Center on the Developing Child.  Five Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

How to Have Productive and Honest Dialogues at Parent-Teacher Conferences

By Jenny Woo, PhD

My very first parent-teacher conference as a new parent was disheartening. I remember holding back my tears and walking out of the room feeling judged and diminished. I had a hard time shaking off these feelings for weeks.

Here’s the irony: my son was fine—he was not in trouble and was on track academically and socially. Yet, it was the way that teacher had talked to me: the tone of voice, the dominating stare, and the anticipatory pause. I felt inferior and reduced in her presence. Second irony: this was only a preschool conference!

This formidable experience took place before I became an educator myself. Having played a role on both ends, I believe conferences are a time of anticipation and strain for both parents and teachers. In a single day, teachers meet with 15-20+ parents/caregivers for 10-20 minutes with no downtime. Back-to-back meetings are tiresome. When one session runs late, the train derails. The prep work leading up to the conference can leave teachers feeling frazzled and drained.

The parent-teacher conference is an evaluation of everyone’s progress and expectations. It’s a time for parents and teachers to sync up on a student’s progress at school. Inevitably, it’s also a time when parents and teachers size up each other to understand why the student is saying what they are and behaving the way they do—and in some cases, whether the stuff the student told about a teacher (or a parent) is true. If parent-teacher conferences are an evaluation, no wonder all parties come to the table feeling raw and vulnerable.

To mask discomfort, parents and teachers often rely on ritualistic pleasantries and surface-level recaps of the progress report. As a result, parents may leave the meeting empty-handed and mildly dissatisfied. Or worse, an unexpected comment could leave parents feeling blindsided and paranoid.

How do we have productive and honest dialogues at our next parent-teacher conference? Below I propose goals, questions, and strategies to make the most of your conference.

Focus on Progress.

Many times, we walk into a conference curious about how many kids in our child’s class got a particular grade. Or we’re compelled to ask the teacher how other students did compared to your child. This may stem from our need to gauge where our child stands and, for competitive parents, a need to feel validated. When we do this, we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our children, deviating from what we really should be focusing on: progress.

Instead, we can ask: 

“Is my child performing at grade level?”

“In which areas has my child shown (or not shown) progress since you’ve known him/her?”

“How do you measure progress?”

“What might be holding my child back from progressing?” (i.e. knowledge, skill, confidence, motivation, self-discipline, focus)

“What does progress look like for my child?”

These questions will help you quickly understand how your child is doing and pinpoint areas of growth, needs, and barriers. Equipped with this insight, you can work with your child to celebrate recent successes, set specific and visible goals, and direct efforts toward individual growth.

Understand Your Child’s Performance Across Domains.

Kids develop at different paces and excel differently across various domains. Howard Gardner proposes evaluating intelligence (competence) by modality, such as musical, interpersonal, visual-spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic.

In parent-teacher conferences, conversations often isolate academic performance, which is related to the verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical domains. However, your child’s teacher may also be able to offer insights on domains such as your child’s interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

We can ask:

“How does my child do in social situations with peers?”

“How does my student contribute to the class atmosphere?”

“In what subject does my child struggle/excel?”

“In what kinds of activities has my child performed particularly well?”

“Does my child get easily frustrated? Can you give me an example of the context?”

Understanding your child’s academic, social, emotional, and behavioral tendencies will help everyone better understand how to relate to and motivate your child. Understanding which domain(s) your child excels in will also help you to address areas of weaknesses creatively with a strength-based approach. For example, if your child is highly musical, then he/she can practice language skills through singing and songwriting. Remember: our goal is to spark and preserve the joy of learning in our children.

Build Lasting Partnerships.

The truth hurts sometimes. Even the slightest blemish could feel like judgment and criticism on our part. Therefore, it’s even more important to remember that everyone in the meeting wants what’s best for your child.

If your child has complained or said negative things about their teacher to you, you could be walking into the conference with a biased outlook. If you are shocked by the grades on your child’s report card, you might be walking into the room feeling defensive, perhaps even combative.

A child can behave differently at school than at home. The conference serves as an excellent opportunity to establish home-school partnership to define and align language, expectations, and norms surrounding the child.

We often expect the teacher to do most of the talking and sharing. However, to sync up, you must be willing to share situations and developments at home that could impact your child’s engagement at school. 

Viewing the conference as an opportunity to reciprocate coaching can give your child the best support in and out of school. This is not the time to point fingers or erect barriers. By speaking the truth, you give the teacher the permission to do so, as well. This mutual understanding creates a safe place for honest and objective dialogues.

Remember, the purpose of these meetings is to create:

  • Open dialogue between the parent and teacher.
  • Honest conversation about student’s progress and performance.
  • Collaboration and involvement in student’s education.

Click here for a printable list of “Progress-Performance-Partnership” questions to ask during your next Parent-Teacher Conference. 

For strategies to strengthen your partnership with your child’s teacher, check out 52 Essential Relationships. To support your child in commonly struggled social situations at school, check out 52 Essential Social Skills for K-3rd grades, Social Situations for 3-6th grades, and Social Dilemmas for 6-8th grades.

Reference:

Gardner, H. E. (2008). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic books.

DrJenny Woo is a Harvard-trained educator, TEDx speaker, and founder/CEO of Mind Brain Parenting.  Jenny is the creator of a series of award-winning emotional intelligence games: 52 Essential Conversations, 52 Essential Relationships, 52 Essential Critical Thinking Skills, and 52 Essential Coping Skills. Her games have won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Awards, 2021 National Parenting Product Awards. Based in Irvine, CA, Jenny is a mother to three elementary-age children. 

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