The Joy of Giving

the joy of giving illust 001Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.

– Lao Tzu

The holiday season is an ideal time to help children learn about the joy of giving. When parents teach children to think about their giving, it teaches critical skills in self awareness.  For example, the gift giver must think “What talents or abilities do I have that could be utilized to create a special gift?” It also teaches social awareness. Children gets lots of practice making wish lists, looking through toy catalogues and generally, itemizing the many things they want. But thinking about and planning for gift giving also gives them practice in thinking about what other people like and enjoy. The thought process also involves children in a form of problem solving since they need to use their creative thinking to generate ideas for gifts. Don’t get discouraged if a child initially comes up with gifts for Grandma that resemble or are identical to what the child might have on their own wish list. That’s part of their learning process. Grammy likely doesn’t want a Lalaloopsy doll for Christmas or a Lightening McQueen car for Chanakuh. However you can begin to help guide their thinking process to come up with ideas that might resemble something a bit closer to what Grammy might actually like or be interested in.

Here are some simple ways to teach the art of giving.

Think Aloud

…about your own giving. You likely thought aloud often when your child was a baby. As you were going about your daily activities, many parents naturally narrate their lives to help a baby come to greater understandings about their environment and also develop language skills. This may feel awkward at first but remember those baby days and utilize that strategy as ready teaching tool. “I know Aunt Sue loves to knit so maybe I’ll get her some new yarn and knitting needles.” “And I need to buy a gift for Grandpa Bob. I know he fishes and works on his boat. Maybe I might find something for him at the sporting goods store?” Just articulating your own natural thought process in front of your child will help him or her begin to think in terms of what others interests might be.

Ask Good Questions and Wait

…for a response from your child. What do we know about Grandma Helen? What does she like to eat? Wear? Read? How does she spend her time? Ask guiding questions about the gift recipient (take one person at a time). Unless a child’s idea about a person’s taste and interests are completely outlandish, go with it! By accepting your child’s ideas as valid, you will be encouraging them to think more about giving. If your child comes up with expensive ideas, think about ways you might alter them to make them possible. If your child knows that Grandma really needs a new car, maybe your child could draw a picture of a new car she might like. Or maybe you could think about an inexpensive item that she could use to spruce up her current car. As a small child, I knew my Mom liked rings so I cut out a bunch of paper rings and put them in an envelope for her for Christmas. I know it touched her and she keeps them to this day. Adults in your child’s life will appreciate the thought that went into your child’s gift for them.

Draw upon your Child’s Talents and Abilities

…to create a homemade gift for those you love. Is your child a good photographer? Put together a photo collage. Can your child play an instrument? Have a recital or prerecord a song for a loved one. Does your child enjoy art? Have your child draw a portrait of the gift recipient. Has your child learned to write a short story in school? Have them write a short story including the person you are considering. Encouraging children to use their talents creating a gift builds their self confidence and teaches them that often the best gifts are ones that come directly from the heart of the giver.

Find a Chance to Give When You Won’t Get

…any gift in return. One easy opportunity to involve your kids in giving when a gift will not be expected in return is to give a gift of appreciation to a teacher. Teachers typically do not have the resources to give gifts to each individual child. And there is a clear reason to give a teacher a gift thanking them for the daily contribution they make to your child’s life. Create a gift from the heart for a teacher and it will be appreciated. For example, bake goodies, make a pencil holder out of a jar and construction paper, or frame a class photograph.

You can also involve your child in service to your community. Many opportunities exist this month if you plug into them. Pick out food together and take the donation to your local food bank. Adopt a family through an agency and buy necessities and presents. Donate coats to an appropriate nonprofit organization. UGive is an online volunteer matching organization that provides specific opportunities for students and for parents in the U.S. Kids at Pitt River Middle School in Coquitlam, British Columbia began the “Breakfast Club.” They anonymously perform random acts of kindness throughout the school. Watch the powerful YouTube video and grab your box of tissues. The kindness in the school changed the quality of the relationships and the culture of the school. People felt more connected to one another. You can do this in your family life too. Make service a part of your holiday tradition and it will enrich your entire family.

The beauty of using your own giving to create teachable moments is that it doesn’t have to take a whole lot of time, energy or planning. Just be sure to include your child in gift giving discussions as part of your routine for the holidays and see what emerges. I suspect you might have a child who experiences the joy of giving.

Holiday Marathon

holiday marathon illus 001This is it! Don’t get scared now!

–          Kevin McCallister, Home Alone, 1990

This morning I woke up with nervous butterflies uncontrollably circling in my mid-section. I dreamt that I had entered a race but in the midst of many familiar faces, could not find anyone who knew the starting location with only a few minutes left until the starter pistol was to be shot. Ready or not, we are off to the races with the start of the holiday season. No matter which holidays you celebrate – Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or another, you likely have a full calendar of events this month with responsibilities to go with it. Because it’s easy to anticipate that life will be more chaotic, you can also anticipate that children will feel the pressure and be more emotional this month. There may be more upsets, more anger and more frustration and since there will be less time to deal with it, children can get overwhelmed more easily. We all can! Knowing this is the case, what can you do in preparation?

Anticipating Needs 

In the hustle, bustle and excitement of the season, a meltdown can sneak up on a child. Hunger, tiredness or frustration with crowds and chaos can boil over at a moment’s notice leaving a child feeling helpless and out of control. First and very practically, keep a protein snack in your car, travelling bag or purse at all times (peanut butter crackers, cheese crackers). You may feel like you are constantly eating over the holidays but children are much more interested in playing and experiencing the excitement of all of the people around them. They may eat less rather than more. Also, sugar will be abundant in its many tantalizing forms so having some quick protein on hand can indeed save the day when a child’s attitude and blood sugar plummet.

Late nights and lots of time out and about can be exhausting for everyone. Be sure to look for opportunities for a little extra sleep or rest time in which children can be quiet. If you need to, schedule a quiet time each day. It doesn’t have to be long. Model and benefit by making a cup of tea and sitting down with a magazine or good book yourself. For the child, set up a stack of library books, puzzles, or a short pre-selected video. Those moments of down time can boost endurance for the big holiday marathon.

Promoting self awareness

In addition, you can help children become more emotionally self aware. Talk about all of the ways that your body physically experiences frustration, anger or upset. Does your face get red? Do you feel hot? Do you breathe faster? Do you feel shaky or unsteady? Discuss this in a quiet moment when kids are calm. Talk about these telltale signs. You can help them picture a volcano with lava bubbling and boiling. How can you prevent the lava from boiling over? Here are some leading questions you can ask your child:

  • How does your face feel when you are getting upset?
  • How does your body feel?
  • What happens if you stay in the situation that’s upsetting you?
  • What could you do if you feel those signs (face getting hot) to slow down and stop from getting more upset?

Through your questions, work together to identify ways to deal with the feelings in the moment. Ideas may include practicing slow breathing, holding a favorite toy or “lovey” or moving to a quieter place. If they cannot help themselves, they could consider going to an adult for help. A great way to involve your child in the solution is to create a signal (hands on the cheeks like Mcauley Culkin in Home Alone?) that is private for only the two of you so that you know when she’s getting upset and needs a break. This agreement may save you both from embarrassment and make your holiday more joyful.

Preparing a family game plan

Be sure the whole family has a game plan for dealing with the chaos. Having a discussion in advance of holiday plans with your parent partner about how you can work together when challenges arise will ensure that there’s not an additional meltdown between the two of you. Here are some key partnership agreements that will allow you to coordinate as a team.

  • Agree on a response when a child gets upset during a party or in the middle of a shopping mall. How will you both handle the situation? Which one of you will take the lead in dealing with it? Will the other distract the siblings to help? Will you designate a meeting place after you’ve addressed the issue? Will you decide instead to leave?
  • Agree with your partner in advance of a party how long you are going to stay and then stick to the plan. Who and how will you set the childrens’ expectations and give them warning so that there is only cooperation when it’s time to leave?
  • Decide upon family signals that feel natural in a circumstance. Between partners, it’s helpful to find a signal that signifies that one or more of the children needs a break and it’s time to leave before there’s a problem.

Just the simple act of talking about what to do in stressful circumstances can set all family members’ minds at ease. Expectations are set. Agreements are made. And all know what to do in case of difficulty. The holidays can be the “most wonderful time of the year” but acknowledging the stress that accompanies the season can go a long way toward alleviating some of it and creating more opportunity to fully experience your family being together and the many moments of joy along the way.

On Edutopia

Thanks to Maurice Elias, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, Author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, and Edutopia Blogger, Confident Parents, Confident Kids is featured today on Edutopia, the George Lucas Foundation’s website. Check out the blog article below and then, check out this excellent website with loads of valuable resources.


Photo credit: aSIMULAtor via flickr (2)

Parents: Make Bedtime a Social-Emotional Moment with Your Kids

Education consultant Jennifer Miller has launched a wonderful, valuable new blog site for parents, Confident Parents, Confident Kids that I think merits the attention of anyone working in social, emotional and character development…


On “What’s Hot” Radio Show

Jenn on radio illust 001Confident Parents, Confident Kids was featured yesterday on the radio talk show What’s Hot on Cincinnati’s 55-KRC. The feature is ten minutes long. Skip the first five minutes to get right to it! Check out the podcast.

Gifts from the Heart

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

Mother Teresa

Many of the major magazines are publishing gift guides with lots of smart ideas to make holiday shopping easy. That’s fine for presents that cost money but here are some ideas for gifts from the heart. They will not require much expense. They will, however, require some time, thought and effort. For example, as a child I labored over a potholder to give to my Mom. Thirty plus years later she still uses it and claims it’s her favorite. The pastel colors boldly clash with her red kitchen but it’s precious to her because it was from me and from the heart. Certainly the following gift ideas will be appreciated by the receivers because they are all personal and promote connectedness. All of the gifts can be put together with help from children.

Picture Collage

Have you ever laid out a puzzle and had your family contribute to putting together over time? A picture collage could be done in the same way. Use a single sheet of thicker paper stock or cardboard as a base. Have a stack of your best family or friend photographs from the year printed. Lay out magazines to use photographs and pictures as well for background. Ideally, pick ones from each season. Place them on a table with glue sticks and scissors. Recruit your family to contribute. Cut and paste! Place in a nice frame with all family members’ signatures and the year on the bottom or back and it’s ready for wrapping. This is a terrific gift for any family member or friend.

Treasure Box

Purchase or make a beautiful box big enough to hold a pack of pencils. Type or write on fortune cookie-sized strips of paper all of the things you love about the person for whom you are creating the gift. For example you might write “You have a wonderful smile.” Use one strip of paper per affirmation and fill the box. This was made for me once and has become a true treasure that is a go-to when I need a spirit lift.


Your children grow and change so quickly, it’s easy to forget how they sounded, looked and talked at various ages and stages. Do a recorded interview with your child. Prepare questions in advance like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Who is your favorite superhero?” “How do you think the stars got up in the sky?” “What is your favorite song?” If your child will squirm or not participate with video, then just use an audio recorder. This will be a treasured gift for a partner parent or grandparent.

Family Story

In every family there are moments and situations that are recounted because they are so familiar, funny or signify an important turning point. Why not record these stories for your family on paper? Photo stores/sites offer easy ways to make books with photographs and text. Or you can utilize good old construction paper, cut and paste photographs and use your own creativity. Write the story in a way that can be read aloud.


Do you have any dishes, clothing, trinkets, stationary or other items (it doesn’t have to be expensive jewelry or the good silver) that was given to you by your mother or father or grandparent? Is it something that the next generation could enjoy now instead of inheriting when you are gone? Tie a beautiful notecard to it with a ribbon in which you write down the history of the item. If you can find out, include the date it was bought, where it was from, who used it and how. That object may be currently in a forgotten drawer in your home but could serve as a real and usable treasure for the gift receiver and a regular reminder of you.

Parent’s Night Out

Plan a full evening out with your partner. Buy gift cards, pick a date and make reservations (if needed) to ensure that all details are pre-planned and part of the gift. Arrange for a grandparent, friend or sitter to watch the children. Be sure to include plans for dinner and some kind of activity. Ice skating? Bowling? Gallery hopping? If you choose a movie or listening to live music, be sure that a portion of the evening gives you the opportunity to really talk and connect.

Think about the most favorite or precious gifts you remember. Maybe it had to do with receiving something expensive that you had longed for. But often times the gifts we love that have lasting value for us have to do with the investment of the giver in the thoughtfulness and love put into the gift. No matter which holiday you celebrate this season, consider giving a gift of the heart.

Waiting Games

I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.

–       Bob Hope

Waiting can try the patience of the most even tempered adults. If you have to wait with children, it can be a downright painful or embarrassing experience as little ones grow bored quickly and can start to act out. It’s Black Friday so you may be standing in line today. Next time you are waiting in a line at Target, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the airport, the post office, or any other place where there are a number of people, try the following games of skill to pass the time. They are fun, require no materials and offer valuable practice in social and emotional skills.

For children 4-8 years old

I spy interesting people.

Identifying feelings is critical for each child when he or she is trying to become self aware to be able to communicate her needs and challenges and to develop into her own best problem solver.

This is a spin on a favorite game.

I spy with my little eye a person who is… happy

… sad

… bored

… frustrated

… excited

… silly

Try to expand a child’s feelings vocabulary by adding in creative or lesser discussed emotions such as disgusted, peppy, or inspired (my son likes “lovestruck”).

ResourceHow are you feeling today? Poster by Jim Borgman

For children 9 and up

What’s the story?

The ability to understand and articulate someone else’s perspective is a challenging skill even for adults. Understanding another’s perspective is a critical part of problem solving and helps a person become more empathetic in any number of circumstances. As with any skill, children will become more adept with practice.

Find a person in the crowd on which to focus. Now just from her appearance and facial expression, decide what she is thinking. What she’s feeling. Why is she feeling that way? Try to make up either the craziest, silliest story, or the most realistic reason for her feelings. This is a good exercise for teens who attempt to do this all of the time as they size up their friends and classmates.

For children 5 and up

Who Done It?

Mystery lovers will enjoy this game. It teaches skills in careful listening and communicating information in an accurate and concise way. It also stirs a child’s creative thinking.

Pretend that your precious pet turtle – who was, coincidently waiting in line with you – was stolen by someone in the crowd. Describe what that person looked like taking cues from a variety of people around you. “He wore a plaid, flannel shirt and had a large forehead.” “He was carrying the turtle in one hand and a flashlight in the other.” You must include 10 details about the appearance of the turtle-napper. Try repeating those ten details twice for your listener. The listener must be able to repeat all 10 descriptors in order to solve the mystery. Happy sleuthing!

Store these ideas away in your memory so that the next time you are in a situation that necessitates waiting, you can enjoy the time you are spending with your children. Instead of feeling impatient and anxious, you’ll be using the opportunity as a valuable teaching moment, making you feel productive and accomplished, connecting and having fun with your kids, and in no time, your wait will be over.


Who Done It? Adapted from Robbery Report in Nia-Azariah, K., Kern-Crotty, F., Gomer Bangel, L. (1992). A year of students’ creative response to conflict; 35 Experiential workshops for the classroom. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Peace Education.

A Grateful State of Mind

If you worry and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.

–          Count your Blessings, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, 1942

It’s true. People who think about what they are grateful for do sleep better at night. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of well-being and their ability to get more and better sleep at night. One study from a leading researcher on gratitude at the University of California, Davis found that thankfulness can prevent a second heart attack in patients that have already gone through that trauma.[i] A person who experiences the benefits of being grateful is a person who has developed it as a habit of thinking.

Parenting articles often address concerns of entitlement in our culture wanting our children to appreciate their lives and circumstances. Many of us live in a privileged society in which our daily needs are met without worry. When little Jackson receives a gift, Dad tells him “You need to appreciate what you have instead of asking for more…” Yet when children are getting gifts, there is a desire for more and more. They are in the mode of getting and so they perpetuate that frame of thinking. It is our responsibility to at least balance the riches with a sense of appreciation. Scolding or making a child feel bad for wanting more is confusing since adults are typically doing the gift giving in the first place. Children won’t understand why adults are placing a limit on their wishes. And should there be a limit? Dreaming of abundance can lead to more abundance. I want my child to be a practiced wisher and dreamer as well as being a practiced appreciator and contributor. So the question remains. How do we teach our children to truly appreciate their lives and the many gifts they already have? The answer lies in those small habits of thinking that can be reinforced every day in your household.

Morning Modeling

You can create habits of grateful thinking in your family. Begin your day by modeling the habit of thinking that you’d like all others in your family to adopt. Place a sticky note reminder near the coffee maker. Or buy yourself a beautiful mug that will nudge you each morning. Make a point before each member of the family goes off to school and work to look for specific ways to appreciate them. “You are taking responsibility for putting your dishes in the sink when you finish breakfast. I appreciate that.” It works for your partner too. “I saw you took out the garbage yesterday which is typically my job. I really appreciate when you notice things that need to get done and just do them.” This helps each person, including you, the appreciator, start the day feeling good.

Home Sweet Home

Appreciating your environment, your home, possessions, and neighborhood are important since that environment plays a key role in shaping your daily experience. The following idea is borrowed from the Jewish concept of a Mezuzah, typically a beautiful small vessel that contains parchment with inscribed blessings from the Torah. Place a small framed photograph of your home or picture of a favorite spot in your home and touch it each time you leave the house or enter. This recognition of your house as a blessing will help all family members cultivate a regular awareness and practice of appreciating your home.

Also, ensuring that all members of the family have responsibilities in keeping your home a safe, clean and well-organized environment is another way that all members demonstrate their appreciation of your home. It’s not enough to assign children a task. Be sure that you do it with them the first few times, modeling how you want things organized or cleaned, providing adequate tools for the job and making sure that they are capable. Allot a time for your family to do their chores together. This helps children feel a sense of contribution and togetherness and helps you avoid nagging. In many families, one person does the majority of the work and though things may get done more uniformly and in a more timely manner, it does a disservice to the others who may show greater respect and investment if they are contributing to their environment.

Dinnertime Sharing

Whether you say a prayer or grace before eating or not, this is an ideal time to find out what individuals are grateful for that day. Family dinners together are an important way to connect and typically a time to recount the events of the day. Why not include a conversation about what you are grateful for? Lead the way and model by contributing your grateful thoughts. Particularly in the month of November, our family counts down each day to Thanksgiving by using a felt tree made by Grandma Linda with leaves that are pockets for notes of gratefulness. For those who do not have the benefit of a crafty Grandma Linda, get a branch out of your yard and place it in a stable vase. Cut leaves out of construction paper and write your grateful thoughts on the leaves and attach each day. At dinner, we discuss what we want to write as our most grateful thought for our family that day. The same idea can be used for the holiday season as a countdown. During a season of giving and much receiving on the part of little ones, it’s a real opportunity to promote appreciation on a daily basis.

Bedtime Reflection

Bedtime is a natural time for reflection and appreciation. After turning on E’s nightlight and turning off the lights, we talk quietly about the day. As we go through the events, it affords me the opportunity to let him know when I am proud of him. I point those out and name them specifically as they come up naturally with the review. “It was thoughtful of you to offer your friend a snack when he came to play with us this afternoon.” This leads naturally into discussing gratefulness which we call our “happy thoughts.” Each night we have a habit of naming the people, things or experiences from the day that we are grateful for. Thoughts of gratefulness not only put a child in a calm, positive state of mind to promote a restful night of sleep but also help children appreciate the good things in life and focus on them and not take anything for granted.

Holiday Gifts

During the holiday season, many gifts are exchanged with children typically at the center of the gift pile. Remember that in the moment of gift getting, it’s impossible to change or control children’s reactions. So practice in advance. Wrap up a cookie or bag of pretzels in a box and let your children know that you are going to practice. Remind them of the behaviors you want to see them exhibit. Advise them that they should be sure to look at the person who gave them the gift and to say thank you even if it’s something they don’t like or already have. Then, draw on that practice experience before you enter a gift receiving situation by giving a quick reminder. Be sure to involve children in thinking about giving gifts too. It’s not enough to pick up a gift while you are at the mall. Ask your child about Dad’s favorite things and give her the opportunity to brainstorm ideas for potential gifts. Follow through and get or make one of the gift ideas from your child. In addition, involve your child in giving to those who have less. It does not matter how much of the process your child understands. What matters is that you take the time to model and involve them in delivering canned goods to a local food bank or buying a present for a family that otherwise might not have much for the holiday. All of these opportunities for practice will balance out the holiday “gimmies” and teach valuable lessons in gratefulness.
As with any change in behavior or thinking, it’s the day to day changes that make the difference over time. So begin with one small step toward adding gratefulness into your family life and see if it makes a difference. The reward of that first step will help to motivate you toward a grateful state of mind. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.


Parenting books that discuss gratefulness

Carter, C. (2011). Raising happiness; Ten simple steps for more joyful kids and happier parents. NY: Ballantine Books.

Hawn, G. & Holden, W. (2011). Ten mindful minutes. NY: Perigee.

Rubin, G. (2012). Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project,
Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. NY: Crown Archetype Publishing Group.

Childrens’ books on appreciating what you have

Berenstain, S., & Berenstain, J. (1995). The Berenstain Bears count their blessings. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Wilson, K. (2012). Bear says thanks. NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Childrens’ books on appreciating who you are

McCue, L. (2011). Quiet bunny’s many colors. NY: Sterling Children’s Books.

Tillman, N. (2010). On the night you were born. NY: Feiwel & Friends.

Cusimano, M. (2001). You are my I love you. NY: Philomel.

Children’s book on appreciating nature

Yolen, J. (1987). Owl moon. NY: Scholastic.

[i] Emmons, R. (2007). Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


The Heart of Family

A successful marriage (partnership) requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.

– Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook, 1966

Marriage (partnership): that I call the will of two to create the one who is more than those who created it.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Most readily agree that partnerships are the backbone of a family. The strength of the family is dependent upon its leadership and the strength of the union. But in an informal survey of friends, not one couple has a regular date time. And when asked when couples sit down and get to really talk about more than just the logistics of life, most on average say it may happen once per month. Considering that collaborative partnership and decision-making are highly effective only when there is a sense of connectedness and both parties are willing to take the time and effort to work through the issues, that lack of time to connect, reflect and communicate with one another can take a toll on a relationship and a family. But, of course, when and where and how do you find the time to talk and listen?

Work responsibilities often creep into what used to be sacred personal time (whether it’s actual working or the stress and mind consumption that happens with more responsibility), so it’s no wonder we find it difficult to connect.

At the start of working with a school, staff typically tell me all about the kids’ behavior and how they are not doing what they ask them to do. “How can we change these kids? And how can we change these parents?” I am commonly asked. At the same time, there’s little collaboration going on between staff and often, conflicts amongst the adults in the building about how they interact day to day with one another and how they interact with the students. This lack of cohesion among the adults translates to kids testing limits on a regular basis because there’s no consistency and the boundaries and adult standards are unclear. My job is to help the adults come to their own conclusion that they are the ones that must change if they want to change the school. They must focus on themselves and their own transformation if they want to improve at all. This is also true in family life. The adults must continually learn and work to improve themselves and their connection with one another if they want their family life to improve and if they want to help develop their children into reflective, independent, learning and growth-oriented adults.

Take a look at your week. Presumably, you have scheduled soccer, music class, work meetings, volunteer meetings, and maybe a social engagement with friends. Consider setting a time for connection and reflection with your partner on the calendar (in ink!). In our household, if it’s not on the calendar, it likely won’t happen. So find a time and actually send your partner a meeting request, or place the appointment on the family calendar for the sole purpose of really talking. Getting a sitter for this purpose would be ideal but also for many, a luxury that might just be too difficult to make happen. So at the same time, plan a special movie viewing for your children to keep them occupied. If they are old enough to go to a friend’s house, schedule it for that time. If they are too young for friends and movies, schedule your conversation during naptime or quiet time. The point is to make it easy and manageable the first time so that you might decide to try it again.

My husband and I find that we spend half of a date decompressing from the stressors and to-dos of life (sometimes it takes the whole date!) so that it takes a while to really be in the moment with the other person. We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about our worries and stressors so thinking about our “happy thoughts” (as we call it at bedtime with E) can point our minds and intentions in the right direction leading us toward our goals and dreams. With that in mind, I’ve devised some questions to get you started in your conversation to help you dive into the good stuff – really connecting with one another! Be sure and create a conducive environment (but keep it simple) such as drinks or snacks at the ready, a room to yourselves, a candle lit, and quiet. Jason and I have a standing agreement that early Sunday morning is our time to do this with a full pot of coffee in our sunroom while our son is watching cartoons and eating his breakfast. Might it become a weekly ritual for you? Try once and see if you don’t get addicted.

Pick one of the following questions to get started:

What is making you happy these days? If that’s hard to answer, then what might give you joy if you could find the time for it?

What are your current hopes and dreams? How can you work together to achieve them? Is there one small step you could take immediately?

What are each partners’ top three to five values that each wants to be sure are lived out? How are you currently living those values? How might you think about living out those values even more? How are you passing along those values to your children? Are there common values that can be agreed upon for the family and how can you live those out in your weekly plans, actions, interactions and ways of being?

What do you appreciate about your partner day to day? What are some things that your partner does regularly that you know contribute to your family’s health and sense of well being but often goes unsaid? Are there easy ways that you can recognize and appreciate their contributions more often?

What gets your creative juices going? Have you been able to engage in any creative endeavors? If so, what and how can you include more in your life? And if not, what can you do to engage yourself creatively?

How are you connecting with your children? Do you feel you have quality time together? What kind of time do you most enjoy spending with them? What are your hopes and dreams for your relationship with them?

If you heard a teacher describing you simply from the description your child gave to them of you, what would she say? What would you most like her to say? How can you best be that person with your children?

What are your current worries and fears? How can you seek more information or work together to dispel them so that you can focus on living out your hopes and aspirations? Find examples from your history together of how you worked together to overcome obstacles as evidence that you can do it again.

Think about a time when you felt you both were at your best together and individually? What was going on at that time? How did you feel? What was happening that made it so good? How can you harness that energy now? How can you bring some of that spirit into your current life?

Be sure, no matter how short the conversation, you end on either a shared dream or shared connection, even if it’s recounting a happy memory together. You want those connecting thoughts to carry you through until the next time you get the opportunity to talk.


Parent Private Investigator

Ponton: You never cease to surprise me, sir.
Inspector Jacques Clouseau: It’s true. My surprises, they are rarely unexpected.

–          The Pink Panther, 2006[i]

Do you sometimes feel like you have to be a detective when your child melts down? You know that what she seems to be crying about shouldn’t elicit that level of passion. So what is the problem? Why is she crying so loudly and for so long? Why did he storm off to his room over such a simple, no-big-deal issue? We know that there must be more to the upset so we have to dig for clues.

Date: September 25, 2012 – my son’s fifth birthday

Scene: Explorers’ Preschool Classroom – The Cubby Area

Precipitating Event: A lengthy, passionate meltdown by one E Miller (my son) over a sticker (all classmates received one) that we put into another child’s cubby in celebration of E’s birthday.

Yes, my son covets other kids’ stuff despite the fact that he has more toys than he can possibly play with. But my gut told me that he would not, could not get this upset over a sticker in a cubby. So despite my lack of energy, despite my head cold, I had to focus on cooling him off so that we could get to the real issue at hand. It took some time for him to settle down but I waited patiently and tried not to fuel the flames further. I made it clear that we could not leave until we put the sticker back in the other child’s cubby but tried not to say much more except calming words.

When the crocodile tears finally subsided and E started to breathe at a reasonable rate again, I mopped his face with tissues and we stood up to leave. Of course, it didn’t help that he was hungry and tired. His defenses were down. As he stood to leave, he said, “Mama, I don’t want to turn five. I want to stay four.” I got lucky this time and my child had enough awareness of his feelings to specifically identify the problem. Major change is often the source of stress and upset. If you have had a death in the family, are moving, or are starting your child in a new school, you likely acknowledge that those major changes can cause emotions to run high. But sometimes kids feel the pressure of a major change when we don’t perceive what is happening as a major change. Big deals to them may be little blips on our busy radars. So what can you do when your child calms down but is still not able to identify the source of the problem?

Consider these four steps the next time a volatile situation occurs.

  1. Remove him from the crowd to a place where you have some privacy.
  2. Get on his/her level. Stoop or sit.
  3. Have the patience to wait while your child calms down.
  4. Calmly and slowly ask questions and really listen to get to the bottom of the situation.

This, for me, is the toughest part since the timing is not always convenient and typically there are next activities in the day to get to, and sometimes, people waiting. Remind yourself that addressing the problem now slowly and calmly will prevent more meltdowns later in the day. Getting to the heart of the issue does often involve a guessing game for you but here are some ways to narrow your guessing down so that you can be your own expert private investigator.

  1. Are physical needs taken care of or could hunger, tiredness, or coming down with a bug be the primary culprit for the upset? We were quickly trained in the baby years to look for these signs so continue to use that keen sense now.
  2. Has there been any kind of major change in your child or your family’s life within the past few weeks?

Consider what might mean major change to your child because sometimes, it’s a change that adults take for granted like a seemingly small difference in your daily routine. Sometimes the release of emotions happens well after the change has occurred since some children work on being strong during the storm. Even perceived positive changes (a birth in the family, Grandma coming to visit, a new job for Dad, a change of season) are still changes and require adjustment on the part of a child. Strong emotions can accompany the ending of something and the beginning of something new. If you suspect or are unsure whether various events are affecting your child, ask.

3. Are there relationship worries your child might have?

Did he disappoint a teacher? Was he rejected by another child? Was Dad mad at him this morning before school? Is your child getting less attention because of a sibling or a new job taking a parent’s time? These relationship worries can bother a child throughout the day and bubble over when they are tired or hungry. They may be upset and unaware that they are worrying about something that occurred earlier in the day. Asking about these may provide insight into your child’s thoughts and fears.

4. Is a major event coming up?

Some children anticipate the coming of even happy events with anxiety. A birthday party can create worries about being the center of attention. Ask about these events if you suspect they might be the culprit and see if the reaction is one of stress.

5. Could your child fear failure?

Is a test coming up? Are they aware of a conversation you’ve had with their teacher about concerns? Are they working on a school project for which they don’t feel competent? Have they done something they know is wrong and fear your disappointment?

“Emotions heal when they are heard and validated,” writes Jill Bolte Taylor in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.[ii] You are helping your child deal with and move through their upset, worries, anger or fears just by taking the time to listen and understand.

If you are taking the time and exhibiting the patience and calm it takes to get to the root cause of a child’s sincere, passionate upset, then you are teaching the child the invaluable skill of self awareness. You are providing emotional coaching by asking probing questions and allowing your child to articulate the problem. You are also teaching your child the first step in problem solving which is to specifically define the problem so that she can come up with the best possible solution. Remember this the next time you are struggling with patience. These skills will serve your child for a lifetime when you are not there to play parent P.I.


Feelings Identification:

Parr, T. (2010). Todd Parr feelings flash cards. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Kid Detectives in Training:

Landon, L. (2000). Solve-It-Yourself Meg Mackintosh mystery series. Newport, RI: Secret Passage Press. (ages 7 and up)

Mindware (1997). Bella’s mystery deck. Roseville, MN: Author. (ages 10 and up. Deck of 52 cards with a mystery to solve on each.)

[i] Shuman, I., Simonds, R., Trench, T. (Producers), & Levy, S. (Director). (2006). The Pink Panther. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

[ii] Taylor, J.B. (2008) My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. NY: Viking.


Boo! Common Fears and How to Help Children Deal with Them

Halloween is a perfect time to think about what scares us. It’s only human to have fears but there are healthy ways to approach them to ensure that they don’t paralyze you or your child. Certainly the way a parent handles a scary topic with their children impacts how the children will deal with that scariness in the future. “Face your fears.” seems to be a commonly heard phrase but what does that really mean?  Typically a fear is created because a person doesn’t know or fully understand something. He can also be apprehensive about danger associated with a type of creature, imaginary like a dragon or real like a large dog, a stranger or an activity like flying on an airplane. Just as you might get a flu shot to prevent the flu, getting a small, low-to-no risk dose of the scary subject with a trusted parent present can be a way to learn to deal with it and even possibly help worries go away. You can begin to temper their fright by noticing how you react when you encounter those situations. Are you calm? Do you find the fun in rainstorms? Or do you squeal at spiders? Try noticing your own reactions and work on expressing calm and even finding the fun or humorous side of the fear to take away its powerful hold on your child’s imagination.

In honor of this Halloween, the following contains some ideas on ways to proactively help children specifically deal with a fear of the dark. And if you have good ideas to share, please do send to

The Dark

Does anyone grow up without a fear of the dark at some point or another? The beauty and wonder of childhood is magical thinking and the innocence that comes with it. Using your imagination is the primary business of a young person hard at play. We know it’s critical for their cognitive development to engage in make believe. So no wonder they can conjure such scary images that they are convinced real dangers are lurking in the corners of their room or under the bed when the lights go out.

Here are a couple of ideas for helping a child become a little less afraid of the dark.

  • On an evening when your child can stay up a little later without worries, pack up some dessert after dinner, some books, a flashlight and a blanket and take it outside. Set up the blanket to lie on before the sun goes down. Hang out outside while the sun is setting. Maybe read about nocturnal animals or the planets and stars. See who can find the first star in the sky or find the moon. Tell a story about a favorite night-time experience you’ve had. Children are used to being left alone in the dark at bedtime and their imaginations run wild. This allows them time with you to experience the darkness in a way that instills a feeling of safety and security and also produces images of nighttime that provoke curiosity and interest.
  • Another option is to make a nightly ritual of helping your child visualize non-scary images before they go to sleep. Turn on a night light (we love “Twilight Turtle,” which projects stars all over the ceiling for 45 minutes and then shuts off). Then, turn off the lights and get in bed. Have your child close his eyes and ask them where they would most like to go. If it’s the beach, for example, then describe it for them or better yet, ask them to describe all of the sights, sounds, and smells of the beach. Who’s there? What are you doing? Get as specific as possible. This will leave them with images that will hopefully replace their scary images.
  • Assign a new stuffed animal friend to take care of any scary intruders while your child is sleeping. During the daytime, read a story about nocturnal animals or watch “Creatures of the Night,”[i] a Curious George episode. Find a friendly-looking stuffed animal possum or raccoon or other nocturnal animal and give him the responsibility of being a bedtime companion and a lookout for danger. That stuffed animal can be responsible while your child is sleeping for making all bad monsters of the dark go away while your child is sleeping. The more ceremonial you can be with this, the more convincing the role of the animal will be for the child. You might consider presenting a medal of honor for the raccoon or a special hat to wear while he’s on night duty.
  • If you have a young adult in your household, this is the perfect time to bring up a conversation about what scares them. Teenagers often enjoy a good fright so burn a candle and dim the lights at the dinner table. If you want to get creative, serve spaghetti and tell them they are eating brains for supper! Have each person talk about their fears and how they have dealt with them. Parents, you start! It could provide insight into what your kid is thinking and further connect you as a family. Decide on a fear you will scare away together. Consider conquering the fear by dressing up like one of those frights on Halloween night.


Broad, M. (2008). Scaredy cat and boo. London, England: Hodder Children’s Books.

Landa, N. (2011). The great monster hunt. NY: Scholastic.

Smallman, S., & Pedler, C. (2009). There’s no such thing as monsters! NY: Scholastic.

Swanson, S. M. (2008). The house in the night. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Books.

[i] “Creatures of the Night.”  Curious George. Universal Studios. October 29, 2010. Television


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