Life Unmasked — Revealing Authenticity

What does it mean to live authentically and to raise kids who are true to themselves?

We’ve just come off of several years of mask wearing during this global pandemic to serve as a barrier between ourselves and those infamous aerosols that contain the coronavirus. Yet, it’s likely we’ve worn invisible masks for much longer. We begin putting them on as early as third grade when our social awareness raises as well as our social anxiety. We begin to become self-conscious. Other children snicker at our high-water pants, our crooked nose, our skin color or our snorty laugh — anything that might call attention, that might be slightly different from the factory-mold of the day. And we fashion our first mask – our first line of defense against the contagion of judgment, criticism and dashed expectations for a perceived perfection.

In fact, there’s a distinct benefit to our layers of invisible masks. Brene Brown in “Daring Greatly” writes, “we need to feel trust to be vulnerable and we need to be vulnerable in order to feel trust.”1 So at times, the masks we wear serve as important guard rails. They offer our hopes and dreams protection against potentially harmful criticisms that may seek to destroy them.

Last year, I had to change my diet drastically to find out why I was feeling so badly. My doctor recommended an elimination diet in which you remove many aspects of what you eat and pair it down to simple whole foods and then, one by one gradually add in what you’ve removed to see which foods have an adverse effect. The pandemic, in a sense, has given us a social elimination diet opportunity. We paired down to our home and our immediate family in these past years and now have been adding back in more and more friends, extended family and a range of work and social engagements. This social elimination diet has given us a chance to discover which aspects of our engagement in the world fit our sense of who we are and why we are here and which do not. 

The writings and research on what it means to be authentic and act with authenticity go back to Socrates who said the “unexamined” life was not worth living. When it comes to understanding what authenticity is, the research refers to a range of concepts including well-being, ethics and contributing to the higher good, self-understanding, integrity in interpersonal relationships and yes – confidence.2 Aristotle explained living authentically as “an archer with a target to aim at,” or uncovering your unique sense of purpose and consistently orienting your life toward it.3

As we re-engage in social and work engagements of all kinds, we bring a fresh perspective. And in our privileged culture, we often have choices – granted, some of us more than others. As we watch our children or teens taking on new social and school engagements, we can watch and support them with fresh eyes as well. Does this activity deeply align with their passions and deepest curiosities? Does it contribute to a higher good? And what is that higher good for them and us? These are all questions that we can ignore as we place our social invisible masks back on our face. But why? If we’ve taken advantage of the many moments we’ve had at home to look deeply inside and uncover our purpose, then the important questions is — how can we live and socialize and contribute in the world at times, unmasked? How can we bring our whole selves to our community tables — unapologetic about who we are, why we are here and how we are going about contributing to a higher good while respectful and accepting of others’ whole selves and core purpose.

Social and work obligations, expectations and judgments tend to be the frenemy of authenticity. They can snap our masks back on our face in the blink of an eye. But pausing, returning to calm and allowing the rippling waters to settle allows us back into the depths of who we are and why we are here. And we have to continually return to that place of calm to ask those essential questions of ourselves. Why? To what end? After all, at the end of the day, we have to answer to ourselves in the mirror. Were you true to yourself and your inner guidance? Were you?

I watch as my teenager grapples with social overload – too much activity, too much social time. And he feels anger without really understanding why. That anger comes from giving himself away to others when he knows he needs time to replenish, to be quiet, to engage in activities he loves and to regenerate his ability to be social. 

As parents, living a life of reflective authenticity – aligning our actions with our purpose and how we are contributing to a higher good – offers all of the modeling needed to bolster social and emotional intelligence in our children. It requires us to self-regulate impulsive actions and consider if and how we show up. As our children and teens formulate their growing and changing identity, they require that modeling. We worry about how peer pressure might impact them and their choices particularly in the teen years when adult-level risks become accessible but that peer pressure is equally powerful in the adult years. If we succumb and give ourselves away straying from our values, our purpose, our sense of higher good, how can we possibly expect our children to resist the judgements and expectations of peers who will eagerly guide them in any number of directions?

It turns out being authentic and acting authentically is a tricky issue, one in which we, as adults, tend to question ourselves time and again. Just yesterday, a dear friend asked me about a difficult work decision she had to make. “Do I go with my gut or preserve relationships?” She already knew the answer when she asked it but often, the consequences to relationships feels severe. We know we cannot be fully vulnerable to others at all times. That would compromise our safety and perhaps, the safety of others. Boundaries remain critical in all healthy relationships. So how do we help our child or teen navigate their growing identity in ways in which they feel a sense of authenticity? Here are some ideas.

Elementary-Aged Children (ages 6-10)

Our elementary-aged children are developing a newfound social awareness, practicing understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, necessarily making mistakes as with any new skill. Depending upon the culture a child is living and schooling in, they can tend toward exclusivity or inclusivity. What are you most promoting at home? And what is most promoted in your child’s school culture? How are peers discussed in both places? If there’s criticism being voiced of others, that exclusive environment is teaching your child about ways to shut down others authenticity – which also shuts down their own. They won’t feel safe. So how can you review how you discuss people outside of your home in family life? Can you assume best intentions and the goodness in others and focus on problems themselves and not on individuals and their character? 

If you reflect on your child’s school culture and realize that there exists an exclusive culture or a culture where aggression and judgment of others is permitted, even encouraged, what can you do? Begin by getting involved and asking supportive questions. Approach the parent teacher association. Ask how you might work to support a more safe, caring school culture. There are many ways in which parents can contribute if they ask these simple questions and offer their time and support. Here are more ideas on how you can get involved in creating a safe, caring community culture in your child’s school.

Middle School Students (ages 11-14)

Middle school is a unique time of reformation for your tween or teen. Not only are they undergoing significant physical changes, they are also undergoing a brain reconstruction which amounts to major social and emotional upheavals too. We sense it. And they may hide in their room seeking privacy during this highly vulnerable time when they are defining their identity in a wholly new way as they work toward independence. Major questions at this age are: what do you love to do and how can we invest time and energy in supporting what you love to do? Who do you love to spend time with? And how much is too much? Our tweens and teens want to spend their primary waking hours with their friends. They also have more homework, more need to study, more extracurriculars and opportunities for involvement. Add to that fact, they have not yet figured out time management skills and it can become a challenging time. They need your support in figuring out what balance of activities and down time or home time is right for them to feel safe and able to give their best. Learn more about how you can teach them time management skills and create a more balanced schedule.

This is also an ideal time to point them inside when they are grappling with tough issues. Instead of fixing their problems for them, encourage them to take time to be quiet, to deeply consider their feelings. We did this recently when our fourteen-year-old had a tough choice to make. He came back after an evening of consideration and surprised us with his thoughtful choice. We’re all better after sleeping on a thorny issue. Letting those waters calm, going inside and reflecting brings us to a place of knowing what’s true for us and we no longer need to debate.

Additionally, they need your encouragement and support on the loves, passions and interests they hold dear that may not be considered cool, mainstream or acceptable in their social circles. How can they continue to follow those passions in ways that keep them sacred? What social injustices do they feel deeply and can they champion or continue to learn about? These are the early building blocks of their sense of purpose that are critical to nurture as they develop.

High School Students (ages 14-17)

High school is a time when students will spend the majority of their time out of the house often at school involved in extracurriculars, attending events, spending time with their friends or taking on part-time work. Though all of these will strongly influence your teens’ developing sense of identity, you are still a critical influence. They will come home at times needing emotional support as they retreat from the world. And though it will test our resolve, our teens also need us to set boundaries kindly and firmly when we see that outside forces are crossing lines we know are important to maintain. What do we need to agree to when our teen is out at night with friends? What kind of boundaries are critical when borrowing the car? Though situations become more complex, our teens need us to talk through with them the complexities of each to understand how we decide on what’s fair, what’s in the interest of the higher good and how we bring our family’s authenticity to the discussion. This is the very heart of developing responsible decision-making skills requiring higher order thinking and lots of practice. Check out more on how to begin to facilitate your teen in thinking about their sense of purpose in life.

For all of these ages and stages – in addition to our modeling – we also need to notice, recognize and celebrate when our children, tweens and teens offer their vulnerability through a close friendship, an art project, a performance, or a confession of a secret passion. We have to demonstrate that they can feel safe with us to share those secret passions and we will care for them just as they do. 

Masks have been important in keeping us safe and will continue to be. But what is the point in living if we cannot truly show who we are to those we love and care about? There is no end of the rainbow in being and becoming authentic. Clearly, it’s an ongoing process for us to continue to work at, strive for and commit to. But I do believe it’s the work of confident parents. To support our children and ourselves in bringing the best of who we are to help, to serve, to contribute to the world around us.


  1. Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly; How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. NY, NY: Gothan Books, Penguin Group.
  2. Goldman, B.M. & Kernis, M.H. (2006). Authenticity Inventory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38: 0065-2601.
  3. Irwin, T.H. (2003). Aristotle; Nicomachean Ethics (367-323 BC); A sort of political science. In J.E. Garcia, G.M. Reichberg, & B.N. Schumacher (Eds), The classics of western philosophy: A reader’s guide (pp. 56-69). Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Upcoming National Social and Emotional Learning Conference

Coming Next Week, May 17-18 Online! This conference hosted by the Center for the Promotion of Social and Emotional Learning (CPSEL) is specifically geared toward administrators, educators, higher education faculty and professionals, and anyone interested in social and emotional learning in K-12 education.

Keynote Speakers include: David Adams, CEO of The Urban Assembly and Author of “The Educator’s Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence” as well as Irvin L. Scott, Ed.D.. Senior Lecturer on Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Additionally, Shannon Wanless and Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be presenting a workshop entitled “Creating Family Routines that Practice the Values We Hope to See in the World.”

This session will offer an opportunity to imagine the kind of society you might hope for and come up with ways to make your own family a microcosm of this society. There is no better place to start creating a just and equitable world than at home. We ask, “What would it look like to create rituals, routines and practices in our families that reflected a commitment to compassion, trust, equity, justice and self-awareness?”

With Jennifer Miller, Founder/Author, Confident Parents Confident Kids, Columbus, Ohio and

Shannon Wanless, Director and Associate Professor, Office of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

To learn more or register, check it out here!


Happy Mother’s Day!

To all of the mothers we know and love including those who serve in a mother role – the aunts, the grandmas, the step moms, the big sisters – your love, care and dedication to your sons and daughters young and old is exactly what we need more of in the world. What if our governments were run with that same kind of love, care and dedication? What if major corporations were run with that same kind of love, care and dedication? What if all educational systems were run with that same kind of love, care and dedication?

Thank you Mothers for serving as a model we can all learn from.

Happy Mother’s Day!

The Spontaneous Unity of Family in Flow

By Jason Miller

Amidst these wildly changing times, an unprecedented shift is occurring in the timeless dance of workplace and family life. Forced to limit in-person interactions to curtail the spread of COVID-19, most employers in some way loosened requirements to report to work in a physical setting.  Employers counted on these measures to keep their employees and organization safe, while also finding ways to keep the work of the organization going forward. The remote working arrangement that many employers offered did, in many ways, achieve these objectives.  What employers did not count on, however, was the wake-up call that this arrangement has initiated. 

Now, a historical moment has emerged that is radically shaking up the old order of work/life balance.  It is being coined by economists, scholars, and media outlets by a number of titles: “the Great Resignation”; the “Great Reshuffle”; and the “Great Reset” are perhaps the most familiar.  All point to the same phenomenon in which workers, after several years of being forced to rebalance their lives while working from home, are choosing to leave their positions and/or take pay cuts in lieu of going back to a daily in-person work schedule.  It is creating a watershed moment for the employer-employee relationship, in which the old contract of what constitutes a meaningful exchange is being fully re-written.

Consider the current situation for Rachel*, a divorced mother of two young children, whose employer has recently announced that all employees were required to come in at least four days a week, after two years of giving the full ability to work from home. “The last two years have been incredible for us as a family,” Rachel said.  “We are truly in each others’ lives every single day.  When one of the kids has a need, I am able to quickly go to them because I am right there, and my employer has come to expect these interruptions (which are minimal, because we have set rules at home).  For example, just the other day, one of my kids had something challenging happen at school, and really needed to talk about it shortly after coming home.  I was able to have this impromptu conversation in the moment in which it was needed, which helped her to clear her mind so she could have some enjoyable free time before starting homework.  That emotional support I could give her was because of my ability to work from home.  And, my partner is also here most of the time. So when I am occupied with a work requirement and I cannot respond, he is able to often pick it up, and we can trade off as needed.”

In addition, Rachel continued, the arrangement has enabled unexpected opportunities to emerge that have deepened their family bonds as a supportive unit.  “I have a chronic health condition that can create challenges for me with my energy levels, and it can affect how I am able to engage in my day.  Being in each others’ lives the way that we have, my kids have also learned how to take care of me too. This has been so valuable for all of us, and it is helping me to raise very caring and loving kids who tune into the needs of others.  I am also able to take care of myself more appropriately by responding to my body’s needs when they emerge.  How could I possibly give this up by going back to the office four and eventually five days a week?  My profession is important to me, and this place is all I’ve known for 13 years.  But now I see that there is a different life that is possible, and I can’t go back. I don’t know where I’ll go, but I can’t work there anymore.”

Rachel’s story shows us that the title of “the Great Reshuffle” is perhaps the most accurate for what is really going on in these present times.  So many have been forced inside – both literally and figuratively.  Forced physically inside, they have found themselves also being forced to look inside themselves and their life.  For so many like Rachel, there has also been a wake up to family life.  

Of course, not everyone has created the levels of intimate support that Rachel’s family has managed to co-create.  For many others, the forcing inside has led to breakdowns and breakups.  It is well-known that the realities of neglect and abuse have skyrocketed these past two years (divorce, addiction, abuse, depression, and overdoses have all risen during the pandemic). These trends are indeed troubling, but they were not born during the past two years.  Rather, they all point to a much longer-term trend that is fueled by a cultural context that emphasizes our separateness rather than our unity. We see this emphasis in all parts of our culture, with consumer products and mass and social media outlets turning the importance of individual tastes, preferences, and opinions into an algorithmic science.  

Yet, despite these disturbing trends, the possibility of a “Great Reshuffle” illuminates a path to a new future of a different order.  Rachel’s example, along with a rising mass of others, suggests that there is perhaps no better time than this very moment to rethink, reimagine, and reshuffle the ordering of our conscious energies and priorities in our life. Going a step further, this is the moment in which we can collectively shift our focus toward arguably the greatest influence on all of humanity: the family unit.

When we hear the word “family,” a wide and complex array of memories, emotions, stories, and images can flow through us.  Family experiences and relationships are deeply formative, and therein lies the power and potential of the family system.  But, so much of the strength of the family system has been tried, tested, and eroded in a culture that places supreme value on extrinsic rewards (e.g., money, consumption, pleasurable escapist experiences, fame, etc.).  While it is easy for each of us to point the finger and find someone to blame, the truth is that each of us is both at the effect of AND a contributor to the currents of our cultural context.  The Great Reshuffle gives each of us the opportunity to make significant adjustments to how we live our lives.

We have, in our given moment, the possibility to dramatically shift the center of our lives from work and economics to family and well-being.  When we pause to really see, as the pandemic period has offered so many, we spend a large amount of conscious energy on work, and all that work affords us.  In this work-earn-consume paradigm, family life can often feel like something to manage or “balance” as a trade-off (which feels like a cost).  What would life be like if we chose to invest the same amount of psychic energy into family that we do in work and consuming?  What if all the hours we spend sweating work deadlines, tasks, and promotions were instead directed toward the well-being, growth, and flourishing of our family members?

This is the culture change that each one of us can facilitate, and it starts right at home.  In the landmark 1990 book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi leveraged decades of research from multiple fields to give us the concept of flow.  Flow experiences are situations in which conscious attention is unusually well-ordered, with thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all senses focused on the same goal.  The result is an experience in harmony.  Chances are that we have all experienced flow at one time or another.  It is marked by a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of novelty, and an altered sense of time.  It is being completely tuned in, usually with an inner calm and confidence even in the face of intense challenge.  The “family in flow” is a useful and powerful aim that could serve as a vehicle to transform the family unit, the members in it, and the various communities the family touches.

How might family members co-create the conditions for flow to occur as the norm of family life?  Below are a few first steps that a family can take to create a home life that is best depicted as experiencing “spontaneous unity.”  “Spontaneous” in that each day will present unexpected and unplanned moments to create flow experiences for each individual; and “unity” in that the family experiences a sense of deep interconnection with one another around a strong sense of shared purpose.  

  1. Proclaim Individual & Shared Purpose & Values.  

Start with reflecting on and sharing why you, your family members, and your family as a whole exist, and what you stand for.  By engaging with all family members in a process of individual and collective introspection, you will be going a long way toward setting the solid foundation for your shared focus, choices, and actions.  Each individual, and then the group as a whole, can reflect on questions such as these:

  • Why are you here?
  • What are you uniquely meant to change in the world?  As a person?  As a family?
  • At the end of the day, what do you and your family believe is most important over all else?
  • What do you and your family want to be remembered for?
  • What do you and your family hold as most sacred?
  1. Activate Purpose and Values through Concrete Opportunities.  

To fully create a flow experience, it is not enough to stop at your ideal purpose and values.  You have to put them into action through the identification of real paths of contribution for each family member.  For example, if your collective family purpose is to advance learning and education in the world, how can every member of your family actively participate in this purpose, regardless of their age and/or life stage?  Part of this might include everyone engaging in ongoing formal learning, such as classes, workshops, webinars, podcasts, books, etc. (both individually and collectively).  For certain family members, they might take on a mentoring or tutoring role in the community. For others, it might take the form of advocacy work to create access opportunities to education. The key is to arrive at a common purpose and to help each member activate their individual purpose and unique gifts through what is shared as a family.

  1. Engage in a Daily Family Flow Practice.  

External forces are quite powerful, and there is no shortage of distractions that regularly work at pulling the family unit apart.  Failure to turn inward toward the relationships of the family every single day can diffuse attention, distort divergent goals, and amplify conflicts.  A shared daily practice by all members of the family can help to build a spontaneous unity throughout each day, even when all members are not together.  One such practice might look something like this simple, three-step approach:

Step 1: Attune.  Simply pay focused attention on each other, and on your own personal experience as well.  Get curious.  Listen deeply to what is arising within you (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and between you.  Release judgment, which shuts off your ability to tune in.

Step 2: Discern.  Now that you have noticed what is arising in your interaction, be deliberate in interpreting and making meaning.  Is what is arising in you coming from a place of purpose in unity with flow?  If you are feeling a sense of joy, love, and/or peace, without attachment to any outcomes, those are good indications that you are.  Or, is it coming from a place of personal ego needs that may work to separate us?   If you are feeling tension in your body, getting defensive, or experiencing anger, fear, or anxiety, chances are you are not in flow.  Go back to step 1, getting curious about what is triggering this response.

Step 3: Choose on Purpose.  Each moment presents an opportunity of choice.  Once you have discerned that you are in flow, make the choice that enables you to act on your purpose.  This may or may not be the easy path.  But you know you have chosen the path of purpose by the levels of peace and sense of knowing that you experience, even sometimes in the face of adversity.

Underpinning all of this, at the basis of any family in flow, is the fundamental principle of unconditional loving acceptance of all – including of yourself.  Success is predicated on each member self-emptying by releasing judgment, cynicism, fear, and the need to “fix”.  Simply being with each other, without the need to change anything, paradoxically is the very force that can change everything.

As we continue to face unprecedented shifts amidst the Great Reshuffle, let’s seize this opportunity to make this the new age of the family.  Family can be where the melodies of compassionate love are sung.  And, taking these melodies outside the home,they work to harmonize with our communities, and life in the world.

Jason Miller has over twenty-five years of experience as an Organizational Development leader, coach, and consultant. Jason currently has his own coaching and consulting practice called Inner Sound, and serves on the leadership and faculty team of the Hudson Institute of Coaching. He cultivates a more purpose-led approach by helping clients to shift focus from outward achievement and external validation to inner wisdom, joy, creativity, and contribution. Jason has coached and developed leaders and teams across multiple industries and Fortune 500 clients–including Google, Amazon, Panera, OhioHealth, Accenture, Caterpillar, The Gap, and Fidelity Investments. In Columbus, Ohio, Jason is husband to Confident Parents Founder Jennifer Miller and father to a teenage son. Learn more at Inner Sound Coaching & Consulting, LLC.


*Name changed.

Healthy Ways of Coping with Upset and Other Challenging Emotions

Have you and your child created your list?

Creating a healthy coping strategies list with your family is easy and comforting. After all, it can mean the difference between destructive behaviors during upsetting times or a set of options for a healthy calming down process. You might begin the conversation at a family dinner or another time when you are at home with no time pressures. You might ask, “What helps you to feel better when you are upset?” and start generating ideas. Have your child or teen write and/or draw their favorite calming down activities. In fact, each family member can create their own since different activities will be calming to different people. Learn from one another as you share your ideas. Mom may need to expel physical energy by walking outside while a teen may need to be alone and quiet with her journal. Post these ideas somewhere convenient to your main living spaces so that when upset occurs, you can offer a gentle reminder to consult their list.

Of course, healthy coping is ONLY a start! Once your child or teen has had the chance to calm down then it’s just as important to follow up and reflect on the thoughts, feelings and actions involved. If harm was caused to self or others, then that reflection needs to include generating ideas of steps they can take to repair harm to the relationship damaged.

We offer a big thank you to our partners at the National Parent Teacher Association for translating our healthy coping strategies example into Spanish! Here it is… and check out our many parenting tools now in Spanish!

What Would It Look Like If We Treated Earth’s Gifts as Sacred?

Learning from Indigenous Peoples

Last year, though we loved our seventh grade homeschool curriculum, we felt that there was just not enough coverage of indigenous cultures. We chose to take a deep dive on our own learning about tribes, nations and civilizations past and present to supplement what was missing. The unquestionably glorious part of homeschooling is that, as a parent, you can relearn, learn and unlearn those lessons that now bring greater meaning to your life with your student. But, of course, this learning opportunity does not have to only occur in a homeschool setting. Families can examine how indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land and its resources can inform how we live.

In our study, we began in the Arctic Circle in the Aleutian Islands reading historical fiction about the Aleut people we encountered in “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” and in “Aleutian Sparrow” in Language Arts and worked our way south. We studied the Alaskan Tlingit’s totem pole meaning and design to create our own in Art class along with the story of the trickster Raven. In History, we travelled to Mississippi in the 1500s when the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek nations were pushed away from their lands through the Indian Removal Act to a new, unfamiliar location of Oklahoma where those nations reside today. We learned the art of the pow wow dance in physical education. And finally, learned from a Mayan scholar (I call him Dad! 🙂 who has studied and written books on the Mayan civilization in Central America his whole career. We remained in the western hemisphere last year (because of the sheer amount to cover) but now his new school is exploring the eastern hemisphere and the many indigenous peoples on the other side of the globe.

According to the United Nations Permanent Form on Indigenous Peoples, we can understand who indigenous peoples are by a…

“historical continuity or association with a given region or part of a given region prior to colonization or annexation; identify themselves as indigenous and be accepted as members by their community; have strong links to territories, surrounding natural resources and ecosystems; maintain at least in part, distinct social, economic and political systems; maintain, at least in part, distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems; are resolved to maintain and further develop their identity and distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions as distinct peoples and communities; and often form non‐dominant sectors of society.”1

– United Nations Permanent Form on Indigenous Peoples

Because of this interconnection with land and its natural resources, indigenous peoples are the most advanced in preserving and conserving nature and also, the most at-risk for consequences from abuse of our natural resources.

There were numerous principles my Dad taught my son and I that the ancient Mayan Civilization adhered to that, if we applied today, would have a considerable impact on the Earth’s sustainability. These were not only true for the Maya but also many other indigenous peoples. The following I’ve adapted from my father’s article, “Indigenous Principles; The Ways of Harmony with Nature and Other Human Beings2 and from the book “Shift; Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change” by Glenn Geffcken.3 These may offer us some opportunities for reflection on how we respect and connect with nature and how we teach our children about their use and interaction with natural resources. Though there are many, here are just a few common principles across indigenous cultures.

  1. Every natural resource is alive and has a spirit. 

Mayans, as an expression of their beliefs, asked permission to pluck a plant from the ground or cut down a tree. They asked for the trees’ forgiveness and offered deep appreciation to the spirit of the tree for giving their life for the purpose needed. When a plant or animal was killed, every part of it was used. No part of it was thrown away or wasted. Rocks, mountains, the sun and moon — all natural creations – are living and therefore, sacred.

2. In decision-making, we consider the impact on the next seven generations.

When you’ve made a bigger family decision like moving to a new home, selecting a new school, or even navigating social gatherings during the pandemic, have you considered your child’s child’s child’s children (seven generations ahead of us)? It’s difficult to conceive. If we go back seven generations in our family tree, we can think about people who lived in the early 1800s. How did they think about and make decisions related to the economy, transportation, use and development of machines, freedom, beliefs and human expression and advancement? The decisions they made are having an undeniable impact on us now. Are we doing what we can to preserve our natural resources for that seventh generation? Are we creating systems and structures that are environmentally sustainable in the world and in our family? How about our everyday decisions? Are we teaching this generation how to care for others and the environment, how to show love, how to act with integrity, ethics and authenticity? How to be a champion of inclusion and kindness, of truth-telling?

3. If we are truly observant, there’s much we can learn about our lives from plants and animals.

Observing the behavior of animals who may show up at our doorstep (a squirrel scratched at my door this week for the peanuts he knows I have!), we can ask deeper questions about their acceptance of the way things are and how we can learn more in our lives about the nature of nature. Though the squirrel is cautious, he asks for his needs. How do I ask for my own needs or do I suppress them so as not to bother others or disrupt others’ peace? The often anxious squirrel rests in the sunshine when he can. How do I take advantage of the shining sun to calm myself in the busy-ness of the work week? Similarly for plants, I am currently watching the tulips blossom. I so eagerly await their full bloom to see what is at their core. But that full opening of petals only happens toward the last stage of their blooming process. There is no rushing it. Trying to force open petals harms the flower. So too how are we patient with our own learning and development and with our child’s learning and development? If we attempt to force, it can harm us or our child. The lessons in nature abound if we only pay attention. We love The Octopus Teacher documentary in showing our family how to become fully mindful of nature and develop a deep, abiding relationship with it.

4. The Four Directions orient our lives in the context of a larger system.

The medicine wheel, with differing stories, rituals and traditions associated with it depending upon the tribe, includes the four directions of our awareness and healthy development – physical, social, emotional and spiritual which need to remain balanced. In addition, on the wheel, there are the four elements, the four life stages, four seasons, and four locations – north, south, east and west. The Medicine Wheel offers a circle of knowledge that shows that we are apart of the system surrounding us. The natural elements, animals, spirits are all apart of that system. We are no higher or better but play an essential role in creating and sustaining life.

5. Integrity is essential to our participation in the larger system.

We remain in healthy relationship with the four directions and all who are apart of the human, organizational and family systems we are apart of when we are committed to living with ethical thinking at the fore — do no harm to self or others. Truth-telling and transparency are fundamental to remaining in those sustainable relationships.

6. We must Inhabit the “Warrior Spirit.”

This means that we know what we stand for – the betterment of family, community, nature, people as a collective – and defend it. Regardless of personal sacrifice, this principle requires us to do what’s right for the greater good.

Glen Geffcken, author of the book “Shift; Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change” quotes Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux as saying, 

The old Lakota was wise. He knew that a man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew the lack of respect for growing living things soon led to a lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.

Earth Day this Friday, April 22nd is an opportunity to reflect on your own and your family’s relationship with nature. You might ask the following questions with one another:

  • How do we tend to experience nature in our daily lives? What do we notice? What do we encounter? What do we care for?
  • How can we deepen our learning with the nature that we encounter?
  • As we learn, how can we increase our care of the nature we encounter?
  • How do we relate to the aforementioned indigenous principles:
  • Do we treat all of of nature as sacred and living?
  • Do we consider seven generations forward in our decision-making?
  • Do we learn about ourselves from the animals, plants and other natural phenomena we encounter?
  • How do we balance our physical, social, emotional and spiritual development and consider our role in the systems we are apart?
  • How do we ensure we are living with integrity?
  • How can we inhabit the warrior spirit when it comes to what we stand for?


  1. United Nations Environment Programme. Indigenous People and the Nature They Protect.
  2. Smith, David L. (2021). Indigenous Principles: The Ways of Harmony with Nature and Other Human Beings. Contemplative Photography, June 13.

3. Geffcken, Glenn. (2014). “Shift; Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change” Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

More Resources:


National Museum of the American Indian. American Indian Response to Environmental Challenges – Includes student and teacher resources and videos from various tribes and nations.

Facing History and Ourselves. Indigenous Peoples Resources.


Narvaez, Darcia, Four Arrows, Halton, Eugene, Collier, Brian S., and Enderle, Georges (Editors). (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom; First-Nation Know-How for Global Flourishing. NY, NY: Peer Lang Publishing.

Wall Kimmerer, Robin. (2015). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.


Sneed, Annie. What Conservation Efforts Can Learn from Indigenous Communities. Scientific American.

Author’s Note: I am proud of my Navajo heritage and was honored to work with the Chickasaw Nation through Communities In Schools in the nineties.

Making the World More Just and Equitable Right at Home

How can we begin by cultivating justice & equity in our own families? 

By Shannon Wanless

In the past few years there has been more visible interest in disrupting racism and building a more just and equitable world. Anti-racist book lists circulate widely. Businesses and schools hire diversity and equity consultants and hold mandatory staff training. Parenting groups have guest speakers about how to talk to our children about racism. Although these actions could be productive, they remind me of tasks to check off a list rather than catalysts of the deep transformative change that is needed. Individual people accomplishing individual tasks is not enough to disrupt racism. 

Instead, we, as a collective, also need a fundamental shift in our values. We need to be firmly grounded in values of unconditional love for every person, equitable redistribution of power, and accountability to the responsibilities that come with being part of an interconnected community. When we make a deep and intentional commitment to specific values, then it becomes clearer how to make sure that all of our words, relationships, decisions, and actions will reflect them. Living a values-inspired life, together, is how we will make a more just & equitable world. 

So what will it take for the world to undergo a transformative values change? The answer is to start within ourselves. And like just about everything else, our core values start at home. Let’s take a closer look at the values we need to examine. 

  1. Being clear about what our values are.

Have we ever really named the values that are at the core of our being? Because we are living through complex times, we will be put to the test. So in order to be ready to stand for what we truly believe in, we need to name them. Only then can we develop ways to intentionally teach them and make sure they come up in our family rituals and routines. 

Most of us would probably nod if we were asked if we value love, honesty, and responsibility. But have we really thought about what those words mean to us and how they play out through our words and actions? And what other value words we would choose? As my mentor, Michelle King, asked me recently, “What is your working definition of love?” To be honest, I was a bit stumped with this question. I couldn’t believe how simplistic my response was. Love is so complex! If I had really committed to this value, shouldn’t I have a clearer definition of it? As I thought about my working definition of love, I realized that for me love was unconditional — I was adamant about that. But there have been many moments in my life where I was not living this way. What does unconditional love look like, every day, for every person, no matter what? 

I started to look at my daily routine at home. What about when I’m getting ready for work and my kids are getting ready for school? And then I thought about recurring moments such as birthdays, report cards, and graduations. How do I show unconditional love in each of those circumstances? Do they know that I love them even when they are making me late for work, or when they bring home low grades on their report card? I want to have high expectations but also show them that I love them no matter whether they achieve them or not. This seems like a fine line but absolutely critical to living my definition of love.

And what about how I model love for others? Do my children see that I can be frustrated with others and still love them unconditionally? What does it look like to have boundaries and yet feel authentic love in your heart for someone? 

  1. Engaging in regular reflection about how we are living those values — or not.

Everything we think, say, and do reflects a value. If we are thinking about it, then we may be reinforcing social values that we don’t actually agree with. For example, when an extended family member says something that we think is problematic or misinformed, we might tell them that if they say that again in front of us, we will not spend time with them anymore. What is our intention of saying that? Are we trying to punish them for saying what they think is true? Are we just trying to make ourselves feel better by getting away from their annoying comments? How could we rephrase this to reflect our unconditional love? What if we explained that we don’t believe what they are saying and are not going to change our minds, but want to stay in relationship and communicate with them? “Is it possible to spend time together and be our true selves if we do not agree?”

In fact, when I ask people about their values and their most common parenting practices, it is amazing how often they don’t align at all. But when we take the time to decide what values we want to commit to, then we can be intentional about checking regularly for authentic alignment.

  1. Holding each other accountable when we stray from our values.

It is particularly hard to be true to our values when we are under stress, or when we are in conflict with the values that the rest of our community holds. What is our plan as a family to be on the lookout for these moments, call each other in, welcome feedback, and help each other reconnect to what we believe is important? Maybe we should have a family ritual that makes this easier. For example, you could have one special cup that you fill with a snack and then invite the other person to sit down and share it with you while you talk through something that might not be easy to say. You might start with, “Is there a good time for us to talk about something that has been on my mind?” When the other person sees that cup, they know to give you their full attention and be open to receiving feedback. Even if you both hold differing values, you will at least know that you are speaking from a point of view that you each hold dear. This conversation can be tender yet also clear about where each of your emotional boundaries lie. Keeping yourselves accountable to respecting each others’ boundaries is a part of family love.

Tensions over homework and grades are common and can sometimes feel neverending. Even if we try to show unconditional love in the moment, stress can be high for parent and child, and the message may need more reinforcing later.  I can picture sitting down on a weekend with the special family cup full of fresh strawberries and asking your child if it is a good time to talk. Share your unconditional love and your struggle as a parent to hold high expectations but also acknowledge the reality that sometimes homework can be too much. “I love you no matter what the exam grade ends up being, and I also am going to work with you to do as well as you possibly can.” Ask your child to share their experience too. Even if you do not agree, and even if they do not value homework at all, your honest conversation about each of your values will help you both see that you are bringing your best selves to this relationship.

Before we can create a more just and equitable world, we have to begin to articulate what that world would look like, and begin to experience it in small moments so that we know what it would feel like. Beginning to envision and enact a just and equitable world can begin at home. It will likely be clumsy, and require many moments of reflection, difficult conversations, changing-course, and being vulnerable. We need to get more comfortable and skilled with all of that inevitable messiness. Home is the perfect place to practice exercising our social justice muscles. This is what deep, sustainable transformation looks like.

Shannon Wanless is an Associate Professor as well as the Director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, a large university-community partnership center in the School of Education, that is focused on ensuring that all children thrive. Shannon focuses on young child’s development and the adults that help them thrive. Her current work is on social justice and equity. She explores ways that children, preservice teachers, and organizational leaders develop social justice and equity skills and how to create classroom, school, and organizational climates that reflect social justice and equity tenets. Shannon also co-investigated research with Jennifer Miller and Roger Weissberg on Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning. Shannon is the mother of a teenage son and daughter. Visit to learn more.

Parenting with a Purpose; Actively Promoting Racial Inclusivity as Integral to our Roles

By Nikkya Hargrove

Anyone who has had the privilege of being a parent knows it is hard. It is a role we take head-on and as flawed and incomplete as we are, we say “YES” to being a parent. It is a decision. When we do sign up, we also take on the responsibilities which come along with it from cleaning the dirty diapers to teaching them how to drive to lending them money for their first apartment. Parenting is a job that never ends. We all have a purpose as parents, and as such, we too are “works in progress” as are our kids.

Have you read the book “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman to your children? If not, the gist of it is that a little birdie goes around asking anyone (a dog) and anything (a bulldozer) if they are their mother. When reading it to my now 6-year-old twins, even while I know how the story ends, I say to myself, “Sure, the dog can be your mother,” because the dog can give you love, compassion, and provide you with a family little birdie. In my household, I am the birdie and my kids are the exclamation points. The question I ask all three of my kids is, “Were you the only brown person there?” I ask them this almost daily. Why? Because being the only brown person or the only person of color in a room always, can be exhausting, uncomfortable, and frustrating.

I am a Black mom with biracial children who are half Sri Lankan and half Black. I know what it feels like to be in their shoes. I have often been the only Black child in my elementary school classroom and now I am often the only Black professional woman in meetings. I hope that we can change this fact. But it will take work. If we, as a community, put in the work now to do more to be more inclusive, our society will reflect it. Do we say, “it is what it is” or “my hands are tied” or “I don’t control who is in my kid’s classroom?” We are parents who have a purpose and while our job as a parent is a role we take on without pay or reward, we do it because we love our kids and we want the best for them. Embracing racial inclusivity now, while our kids are young, will invariably shape their futures as professionals and as young adults. Here are some steps we can take.

Be Mindful

It’s simple. Read the room, the classroom, the cafeteria, the playground and see who is there. See how diverse the room is. As a mom of color, I certainly scan the room and just take a mental note of who is showing up in the room from the teachers to support staff to the kids. When we are more aware of our surroundings, we can sit with what we have opened our eyes to, and have discussions with our kids. 

Learn Because It Matters

If our children have taught us anything, it is that we must continue to learn, to keep up with them. We must learn the names of their friends and understand how our kids are being treated by their classmates and their friends. Here is where we can discuss race with our kids because it matters. When we talk about race with our kids, it helps them be more self-aware and aware of their surroundings in a crucial way.

You Can Be The One

You can promote inclusivity. My kids are often “the two” kids of color at the party or on the playground because their friends are predominantly white. We, as a family, are comfortable being “the” one because it is what we know. Given that fact, as moms of color, we must also be proactive in befriending more people of color, inviting more people of color, and bringing them to the proverbial table, even on the playground. It’s not a one size fits all approach to being more inclusive. We all have a role to play in bringing inclusivity onto the playground. 

Educate Ourselves

I know in my household, we promote inclusivity. I’ve found myself, as of late, being more aware of how to be more inclusive picking up tools, mostly reading articles, and truly listening to others. With birthday party invitations arriving monthly to my email inbox and playdate requests showing up via text, I am conscious of who is inviting whom to playdates, birthday parties, and everything in between. 

Keep your eyes open. I know, when things get tough, when my day-to-day seems unbearable – the tantrums, the fights, the overload on social media, the screen time, the forgotten homework, the calls from teachers – I want to throw in my hat. I want to quit. But most often, when things are calm, when dinner is served and we are sitting around our dinner table, with a meal that I made with love, and the belly laughs begin, I am reminded of my purpose. I will continue to be intentional, to sit and ponder what the “right” decision for my kids might be, and today, the right decision is to put them in environments that invite them to the table, belly laughs and all. And if that space does not exist, it is my job to make room for them.

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

Rebuilding Our Social Intelligence

“My teacher is trying to trick us. She never puts assignments online. We’re just supposed to remember.” – Middle school student

“I couldn’t stand the angry, defiant people anymore so although I’m not sure it’s time, we’ve removed our mask mandate for our store.” – Grocery store owner

“I think the doctor messed up my care. I’m supposed to feel better by now.” – Retired professor

As a result of the tough times of the past few years, we all seem to be on guard. Though the teacher intends for her students to write down their assignments as an important lesson in work management and the vast majority of grocery store patrons willingly wore masks without argument when it was required and the doctor actually performed the surgery perfectly but it’s taking time to heal and adjust, these are simple examples of how we may be less inclined to trust others’ intentions or motivations now. Our safety has been challenged one too many times. We’ve found ourselves disagreeing wholeheartedly with others we once viewed as close allies including family and friends. We’ve dealt with mixed information and misinformation about issues related to our well-being. We’ve endured losses of individuals to COVID and stress-related illnesses and perhaps, also sustained losses of relationships because of disagreements or destructive choices. And we’ve been more isolated than perhaps ever in our lives. 

This social distance – our keeping away from others – has created an emotional as well as a physical divide. Add to it our daily consumption of social media and we may sit in judgment of others more often than we’d like to admit. Our “othering” tendency may just be at an all-time high. 

Some reflections I’ve heard recently reinforce this notion. “You’d think we’d have less stress as COVID restrictions recede but it feels like there’s more!” “Why is it people seem to be so on edge and making more destructive even outlandish choices when we are increasing our freedoms?” Indeed stress is cumulative. The very definition of anxiety involves the world changing around us faster than we are able to adapt. Generally, many have tapped their resilience reserves to cope with the stressors of our times one too many times. For those who haven’t been doubling-down on renewal and care, their reserves may just be empty.

What happens when our patience, our resilience, our self-management reserves are depleted? We react instinctively, defensively, impulsively. We may blame others for our unhappiness and have less of a willingness to accept our own limitations or poor reactions to our emotions. We may react more from our reptilian brain (fight, flight or freeze) which offers us very limited choices. And our children and teens may be reacting in their own uniquely challenging ways. Those actions can resemble more of a reptile’s reactions versus a rational thinking person… hissing, snapping back, even lashing out. Our kids may surprise us or we may even surprise ourselves.

This can become particularly challenging in family life as our lives speed up going to school or to meetings in-person, increasing our travel, and generally spending more time away from home. Additionally, as we begin to engage in relationships beyond our home more in person, we may approach those interactions with great caution, fear or skepticism. And perhaps we are hearing about or experiencing behavior from our kids that is new, different or disturbing. 

So it’s time to rebuild our social intelligence – in our kids and in ourselves and fortunately, we can work on both simultaneously. Daniel Goleman, in his book “Social Intelligence; The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships” offers two core components of social intelligence: 1.) social awareness and 2.) social facility. Let’s take a look at how these have specifically been impacted by the pandemic.

Social awareness:

a. Empathy = we feel for and with others

b. Nonverbal signals = understanding others through tone of voice, facial expressions. and body language.

c. Attunement = listening fully to another

d. Empathetic accuracy = understanding another’s thoughts, feelings and intentions

e. Social cognition = knowing how social situations and interactions work.

Potential Pandemic Impact:

a. Empathy – There is so much pain right now that if we are feeling it for and with others, it can wear us down. In fact, we/our children may actively work to block others’ feelings because we’re worn with our own emotions. On the plus side, there’s been a greater, wider sensitization to injustices, misinformation campaigns, and other’s suffering as we are keenly tuned into local, national and global news.

b. Nonverbal signals – Masks have covered half of and our faces when out of our homes making it more difficult to read nonverbal cues. This is particularly salient for our children who have been in- person in schools. Though most schools have dropped the mask mandate now, most of the year has been spent missing some of the social cues offered and straining to figure them out. For professionals, we’ve spent our days on Zoom with a limited view of the face and shoulders of the other person missing the rest of the body’s nonverbal cues.

c. Attunement – Masks may challenge us to fully listen to another person particularly when there’s ambient sound like noisy hallways.

d. Empathetic accuracy – We have a heightened sense now of stranger danger – and not just strangers! – family and friends too. Do you recall when the news first told us to assume everyone we come into contact with has COVID? This lack of safety can skew our perceptions of others. We may assess ill intent where none exists. 

e. Social cognition – We are simply out of practice!

This is just scratching the surface of social intelligence. Here’s the second half involving social facility.

Social facility:

a. Synchrony = smooth interactions through nonverbals.

b. Self-presentation = presenting ourselves effectively.

c. Influence = Shaping the outcome of social interactions.

d. Concern = Caring about others needs and making choices that reflect care.

Potential Pandemic Impact:

a. Synchrony – It’s difficult to achieve synchrony if we struggle to see nonverbals behind a mask or with a limited view on Zoom.

b. Self-presentation – For kids, they may have felt safe hiding from social pressures behind their mask and may now struggle as masks come off. 

c. Influence – We may experience increased discomfort and even a lack of agency as we have to literally face individuals we’ve disagreed with or know they’ve voiced very different views.

d. Concern – This is compassion at its finest. This involves our moral compass and consequential thinking. But we can find it challenging to make decisions that care for others when we ourselves feel depleted.

There’s much we can do to help rebuild our social intelligence! First, acknowledging what we are going through is key. Our raised awareness will be an important first step toward accepting our circumstances and offering family members more grace as they deal with their own stressors. Easing back into social situations in moderation can help with making adjustments too. Here are some additional steps we can take to ensure our children and ourselves are rebuilding our social intelligence.

Replenish the Empty Well with Daily Mindfulness and Gratitude

Our families will continue to struggle until we become committed to refilling the empty well. Since anxiety is contagious, we inadvertently share it with one another. So taking care involves the entire family. Here are some key questions about potential daily practices that can nourish your soul and allow the water to flow back into your life-spring!

  • Do you have a daily deep breathing ritual? Nothing replenishes your body, mind and spirit at once quite like deep breathing can.
  • Do you reflect on or voice gratitude with your family at least once per day? Families that do experience greater well-being. Consider that you and your children get plenty of doses of negativity through social media and news. How will you balance those sources so that you see the good in your life?
  • How do you take in fresh air and get into nature? Forest bathing is not the only way to experience nature. Just a walk around the block can be replenishing.
  • How do you limit your screen time – your children’s and your own? Too much screen time can reduce quantity and quality of sleep at night and make you feel lethargic not to mention the content that is often negative or destructive. Limiting screen time matters.
  • How do you reflect and reframe? Do you journal or write down your thoughts and feelings? It’s not enough just to reflect. Reflection alone can turn into rumination, or a churning of the same thoughts over and over. Instead, how can you read wisdom in books, podcasts and through your best sage sources to help reframe your thinking (we hope this is one place you can do that!)?

Accept and Validate Even the Most Challenging Feelings

There are a huge range of feelings we just don’t want to show to the outside world. Yet, they are a part of being human. If we hide them or shove them down, not only will they come out stronger (and produce reactions we may later regret) but also, we’ll model hiding and shoving for our children. Instead we offer our children strength when we name the mix-up of feelings we hold – hurt, anger, shame, jealousy, disgust – and validate that ours and their own feelings are normal.

Initiate the Pause Principle.

When our self-control has been depleted, we run a much greater risk of hurting someone we love — at any age. It’s as simple as that. So get into the habit as a family of pausing when emotions run high. Take some beats to breathe. This super simple step allows for impulse to turn to feeling to turn to thought. It happens within seconds but those are precious seconds that help us consider the impact of our words and actions on others.

Discuss the Impact of Choices.

Have a difficult decision to make? COVID has offered a million opportunities for them. Talk as a family about challenging decisions to gather thoughts and feelings. Include your children and teens in these valuable discussions. Consider the impact today on yourself and others? Is there the potential for harm to anyone with a particular course of action? What about next week? How will the potential decisions impact yourself and others in a month or a year? Now play out making the debated choice. Imagine telling the story of your decision later to someone you admire greatly. Did you demonstrate moral courage? Will you be proud of your choice?

Repair Harm After A Poor Choice.

Though you may need to wait to let emotions cool, don’t wait too long if your child or you makes a poor choice. Often one poor choice can spiral downward into more to cope with the first. There’s always a next opportunity to make it right. Guide your child (or model for yourself) to take responsibility for your role in the problem (even if others made poor choices too). You might ask your child: how do you feel? And how can you repair the relationship? What can you do to make him feel better or safer or trust you more? Children may require your hand-holding through the process of repairing harm. And that’s okay! In fact, adults struggle to do this effectively. So support your child as needed when they apologize to a friend or mend a toy for a sibling. They will learn a critical life lesson as you support them through the courageous act of taking responsibility for their choices. 

Also, check out our Fighting Fairly Family Pledge which lists specific ways of fighting to avoid because they destroy trust and ways in which we can build up trust and come through disagreements stronger and more connected.

We have been facing perhaps the biggest tests of our relationships in recent history throughout this pandemic and its many ripple effects. If we didn’t quite fathom our interconnectedness before, we have evidence of how we are inextricably linked locally, nationally and globally. As we reenter the world, we begin to realize that our ability to care for ourselves and our family has ripple effects for each person with whom we come into contact physically, socially and emotionally. It will take time, mistakes, and many rehearsals to rebuild or for young children to build their social intelligence. But we know the steps we need to take. If we become intentional about this process, we will meet the times and more importantly each other with a sense of gratitude; grateful for the freedom, meaning and life-giving enrichment of being with one another and growing together.

One Process for Healing as a Family; Getting into the Flow

What is it… why you want it… and how to get it! 

Though our world continues to face troubling times, we can feel the sun shining and the hope of Spring. We all seem to be in search of renewal, of healing. There are a number of ways we can invest in our family’s sense of wellness this Spring… by eating healthier, enjoying nature and fresh air, and by connecting witth beloved friends and family. But there’s yet another way… Check out the following ideas and you just might lose track of time and space as you fall into your own sense of flow!

“I had no idea it was so late!” my ten-year-old exclaimed lifting his head up after a few hours of finely-crafting origami Star Wars figures with his cousin, Grandma and myself who were equally entranced in our crafting projects on spring break. Clearly, he was experiencing flow – family flow. He lost track of time, deeply engaged in the creative work in front of him. The top researcher on this topic and author of the national bestseller Flow; The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (may he Rest In Peace with our gratitude for his significant contributions), explains flow this way:

Flow is…

“that state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”1

Flow activities seem to have a few aspects in common. They are that:

  • there is a problem that needs solving; 
  • there is a sense that we have the ability to work toward solving it; 
  • we bring our creativity to the task;
  • the process of working on the problem is the focus (not the outcome or product);
  • the goal feels enjoyable, important or worthwhile.

There are also a few conditions that seem to work against the creation of flow. Flow cannot exist:

  • if the individual is feeling self-conscious (like others are watching and judging); 
  • if the individual feels she did not choose the problem but it was forced upon her; or
  • if the person feels anxious about the outcome or product of her work.

Children are already well-equipped for engaging in flow since they enter that state each time they are playing. Imaginative play, social play, and physical play are all sources during which children experience flow. And you, as a parent, certainly have noticed. When you try and stop the play to move on to the next activity, you often get a disoriented and upset child. After all, they were in a reverie of focused attention. Their goal is to keep the enjoyment going. Your goal to move on is disrupting their flow.

Flow calms. That focused attention is the experience of mindfulness, being fully present. And because focused attention is required for success in school, these experiences of flow, if protected and encouraged, can offer children the chance to exercise their self-control, the executive function that is said to be a predictor of success. They block out noises around them. They do not get easily distracted by the movements of others in the room. They are completely centered on the task at hand. Isn’t that also the kind of attention that’s needed when taking a high stakes achievement test or performing anything with excellence? The flow state offers that chance to rehearse the vital skill of self-control in an enjoyable, highly desirable way.

Not only does Csikszentmihalyi argue that flow is important in family life, he writes that it’s an essential ingredient in order to sustain and grow families over the long run. Without it, he claims families will ultimately become frustrated at impasses with one another and bored and disengaged. That’s because when we engage in flow together, we are engaging in learning. And through that learning, we are individually developing while simultaneously connecting, deepening our trust and intimacy. 

Csikszentmihalyi says that the formula for establishing family flow is trust and unconditional acceptance. When engaged in learning – and our children are consistently engaged in learning whether it is academic or social or emotional or physical – we show our children that we have confidence in their ability to learn anything or achieve any goal they set their mind to. 

Activities can begin as flow-producing, like a new team sport or a new friendship, but can change if parents begin to focus their comments and energies on outcomes as in, “we need to work toward winning every game,” or judging the friend as in, “I don’t like the way she talks.” The intrinsic value of the activity goes away as the outside voices begin to produce self-doubt. 

In the big picture, families can cultivate flow as a part of who they are and how they function. Though the positive goal we set for ourselves will differ from family to family, maximizing each member’s ability to learn and grow and maximizing how your family team learns and grows together can be a focusing force. Here are six ways a family might do this.

  1. Practice Real, Humanly Flawed Unconditional Love.

Here’s what the wise philosopher and poet – a go-to source for my personal renewal – Mark Nepo writes:

Unconditional love is not so much about how we receive and endure each other, as it is about the deep vow to never, under any condition, stop bringing the flawed truth of who we are to each other.2

Yes and wow! How can we do this for our children who hang on to our attention and reflections on their identity?

  1. Learn about our Children’s Development.

Learning about our children’s development extends our patience as we begin to understand why they challenge us as they do. Instead of irritation or upset, we can recognize the learning taking place. We put the frustration in its place recognizing – this challenge is a normal part of what they are going through at this age/stage. We can more easily grasp why they are faltering or even failing in some areas. In order to develop, they have to fall down or fall short. When we know that they are working on a new level of understanding, we can better support that development. This site often provides developmental guidance and check out the NBC TODAY Parenting Guides for lots of resources on each age and stage. Make this the most important birthday gift you give to your child by reading about his or her developmental milestones each time a new age arrives. 

  1. Problem? Poor Choice? Begin with the Magic of Compassion.

When problems arise, if we stop, breathe (to calm down) and activate compassion in our minds, it will help us become responsive to our children and allow us to transform a challenging moment into a teachable moment. Compassion will push us to discover our child’s perspective. 

We can ask three questions:

“What is motivating our child right now? What is his goal here?”

“How can I best help or support his learning?”

“What can I learn from this?”

  1. Do Emotional Coaching.

Research supports that emotional coaching works. 3 When your child is upset, name the feeling and ask if your labeling is correct. The simple act of naming an emotion can help a child feel more understood. Reflect on feelings about problems. And show your confidence in your child’s ability to find a solution. Ask “What do you think you could do about this?” And follow your child’s lead. When children feel capable of solving their own problems, they are going to be more likely to dig in and work through challenges engaging in flow. To learn more about how to use emotional coaching in your parenting, check out: Coaching, A Tool for Raising Confident Kids.

5.  Lean into your own Developmental Journey.

Our development is never-ending. We can recognize that the inner call to our next learning challenge – as toddlers have when they know it’s time to walk – does not end with adolescence. It continues though, as adults, we tend to mute that drive in service to other goals. Listening and leaning into your own adult developmental journey means following your own learning wherever it takes you. Often that can mean facing discomfort, even pain. It can require looking at aspects of ourselves we’d rather ignore. But if we lean in, we’ll have greater empathy for our children who are faced with daily developmental challenges. And we’ll actively participate in family flow as we focus on learning as individuals and as a family.

Coaching can also be a great source for adults to get in touch with their own developmental edge. If you want to identify a credentialed coach in your area for yourself, check out the International Coaching Federation’s site. Or read about adult development. Check out: The Adult Years; Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal by Frederick Hudson. 4

6. Stay on your own Mat.

I love this phrase borrowed from Yoga and frequently, repeat it to myself as I am challenged. First, it means not comparing yourself to others. And not comparing your children to other children. It can also mean that your problems are yours and yours alone to solve. And your children’s problems are theirs and theirs alone to solve. We can support, encourage, coach and love but we can’t do it for them. If we do, we take away their power and their opportunity to learn and internalize the most valuable social and emotional skills that will help them become resilient during even greater challenges to come. 

The small experiences of family life matter too. And there are a million different ways we can experience flow in our time together. Anytime we play together, we have the chance to experience flow. Anytime we participate in creating art together whether that means a dance party, a crafting corner, or a music-making jam session, we can experience flow. When we discover the wonder of nature in our backyard or at a park, when we cook or bake, when we participate in service to our community, and when we read together, these all can produce the experience of flow. Even when we gather as a family to solve a problem together, there is an opportunity to experience flow.

I asked my ten-year-old son when he experiences total engagement in an activity – when he loses track of time. He responded – “bowling, vacation, and school.” I asked “When or what are you doing when you experience flow in school?” and he responded, “Anytime! All the time!” Learning can be a joy in school and in families. Particularly if we are aware of ways we can cultivate those times, they can become our most cherished family memories! 


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper Collins Publishers.

Nepo, M. (2000). The Book of Awakening. Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. San Francisco, CA: Canari Press.

Gottman, J. & Declaire, J. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. The Heart of Parenting. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Hudson, F. (1999). The Adult Years, Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

* The author was fully experiencing flow when writing this article. 🙂

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