Archive for Author John Salmon

Don’t Make Children Prisoners…Set Them Free

I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I repeated out loud what I had read. Nope…can’t believe my ears either. But it’s true. Prison inmates in an Indiana maximum security facility are guaranteed two hours of outdoor time every day; but a survey completed in 2016 found three-quarters of children in the UK spend less time than those inmates outside each day. Half of the children didn’t even spend an hour outside each day. Twenty percent (that’s 1 in 5) didn’t even play outside at all on an average day! (More in Children Spend Less Time Outside Than Prison Inmates and Three-Quarters of UK Children Spend Less Time Outdoors Than Prison Inmates—Survey.) I imagine these numbers are very similar in the US.  In fact, a study in 2018 found that children spend an average of 10.6 hours on outdoor play per week (Study: Despite Known Benefits, Kids Are Playing Less). That is only 1.5 hours per day. Our children spend less time outside than prisoners even though outdoor play helps relieve stress, teach safety, and increase immunity (Who Needs a Prescription for Play).

It gets worse. Our children’s free time has decreased in the last 50 years. Take the time between 1981 and 1997. Children spent 18% more time in school, 145% more time doing schoolwork, and 168% more time shopping with parents (Read more in All Work & No Play: Why Your Kids are More Anxious, Depressed). Unstructured play time has decreased even though research suggests children need twice as much unstructured play time as structured time (The Decline of Unstructured Play). Once again, our children have become the prisoners to the structures imposed on them. They miss out on the free, unstructured time that allows them to grow and learn.

One last comparison…our children grow increasingly isolated from supportive, non-parental adults as they progress through school. Rather than have a single teacher for most of the day, our children gain a “revolving cast of characters” in their lives as they switch to a new teacher every hour. This change occurs when our children are going through the massive changes of adolescence and they most need the support of caring adults. (Teen Suicides Are on the Rise.)  In effect, they become less isolated from caring adults and more involved with peers struggling with the same issues and who have the same lack of experience as they do. Our children need us.

The big question I had to ask myself as I contemplated these “prisoner comparisons” is: what can we do to break our children out of this prison? Thankfully, there are ways to do it. 

  • Encourage your children to engage in unstructured, self-directed play with peers. Learn the benefits of such unstructured time in How to Spend Quality Time with Your Children.
  • Encourage outdoor play. Outdoor play can accomplish great things. For instance, even risky outdoor play plays a purpose, helping to overcome anxiety…so Let Them Take a Risk.
  • Limit screen time. Limiting screen time can increase levels of happiness and increase our ability to  understand nonverbal communications and recognize emotions in others (See Just So You Know: Screen Time & Teen Happiness).
  • Provide opportunities for your children to build relationships with trusted adults outside the immediate family. In fact, It Takes a Village to raise a child.

Break your children out of prison…beginning right now!

Welcome to My House … aka “Bicker Central”

Do you live in a home called “Bicker Central”? Does everything escalate into arguments, angry comments, and hurtful jabs? Do you walk away from interactions fuming with frustration? Worse, has any relationship in your family escalated to the point that you feel tension just coming into the same room as the other person? “Bicker Central” is a hard home in which to live…but all too easy to move into. Moving into “Bicker Central” generally begins with simple hurts, criticisms left unresolved. These criticisms come in the form of words and actions—a parent redoing a child’s chore because they didn’t do it well enough, a left-handed compliment, a disagreement on priorities, feeling as though your loved one invests more time and energy in other priorities and leaves you feeling neglected or abandoned, etc. The underlying hurt of unresolved criticisms erupt into burning lava flows of anger, resentment, bitterness, withdrawal, ignoring, and possibly even name-calling and threats. Each person involved begins to see the relationship through filters that justify continued resentment.  Innocent remarks are received as though they are negative comments, adding fuel to the fire of anger. Effort and positive actions are overlooked while mistakes and actions that innocently “miss the mark” are used to justify continued bitterness. A negative cycle of disrespect, anger, guilt, and bitterness drive the relationship further into the pits of hurt and despair. “Bicker Central” is a painful place to live.

Knowing the foundation of “Bicker Central”—the resentments of unresolved hurts—gives you the opportunity to rebuild your relationship. You can change it from “Bicker Central” to “House of Peace” with a few key actions.

  • Consider how your own actions impact the other person. How does your resentment and your angry responses influence the other person? How does your “look” and your tone of voice influence the other person? How do your actions, gestures, words, and tone of voice perpetuate and escalate the problem? Answer honestly and begin to make changes that can have a better outcome, the outcome you desire. As the saying goes, “Be the change you want to see.”
  • Consider what hurts underlie the foundation of “Bicker Central.” How were you hurt in the constructing of “Bicker Central”? How was the other person hurt? If you have hurt the other person, apologize. If you have been hurt, practice forgiveness. The important question is NOT “who started it,” but “what can I do to help change the relationship for the better?”
  • Practice empathy. Imagine how the other person feels in this situation. What have they lost as a result of living in “Bicker Central”? Allow yourself to have compassion for the suffering the other person has endured because of their conflict with you. Yes, you have suffered as well. However, someone has to initiate the change…and you can do it by nurturing compassion and empathy for the other guy.
  • Practice kindness. Intentionally seek out opportunities to show kindness to the other person. Determine to speak and think kindly about them. Perhaps you can begin this step with a 30-day kindness challenge as suggested by Shaunti Feldhahn.
  • Practice gratitude. Once again, this demands intentionality. Find at least one thing every day for which you can thank the other person.  Then do it. Verbally thank them for something they have done.

These are not simple actions. They take effort and intentionality. However, they will change the environment of your home from “Bicker Central” to a “House of Peace.” Will you begin today?

It’s Not Easy Being Green… But It Is Definitely Happier

Remember Kermit the Frog’s song:

It’s not easy being green…But green is the color of spring. …And green can be cool and friendly-like. ….And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree….

Maybe it wasn’t easy for Kermit to be green; but green truly is cool and friendly and big. And, it can do great things for our children and teens, like reducing stress. A study conducted with 179 urban-area teens over a two-year period revealed that teens who spent more time in natural green spaces away from home had lower stress levels. Lower levels of stress…that means better moods! Interestingly, this effect held true for any season—spring, summer, fall or winter. On top of that, other research suggests that playing outside and getting dirty may actually help the immune system. Less stress, better immune system…being green may not be easy but being in the green sure sounds good.

Why do I mention all this? Well, when your children come to you this summer saying, “I’m bored…” or when you see them “stuck” inside playing video games all day, tell them to “get out of the house. Go for a walk in the woods. Climb a tree. Enjoy the green outdoors. Have a picnic. Get dirty.” It will make them happier and do them some good.

Are You Planning a Wedding…Or a Marriage?

The average cost of a wedding in the United States today is $33,931. That is a lot of money. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with spending money on a beautiful wedding; but, it does raise an important question: are we investing in a beautiful wedding or are we investing in a long-term committed relationship? In 2014, two people collected data from 3,000 people in the US that helps to answer that question…and the statistics did not give a great answer to that question.  They found that the length of a marriage decreased as the price of the wedding increased! To state that the other way around: the greater the cost of the wedding the shorter the marriage lasted. Perhaps this is due to the increased debt of higher priced weddings, but really debt related divorce is more about how couples handle the stress together rather than the stress itself. These results are more likely related to whether the couple and their families prioritize the marriage or the status of the big wedding more. Either way, these results should make us think twice about our wedding preparations, to lead us to focus more on relational strength than on just the wedding ceremony itself.

On the other hand, this same study suggests that the higher the number of guests in attendance, the less likely the divorce. In other words, a relatively inexpensive wedding (one that fits the budget) that is highly attended, is a predictor of a longer marriage. I believe that this “attendance factor” provides a couple of advantages. One, it reveals the number of people invested in helping this couple succeed in marriage. Second, it allows the couple the opportunity to make a public commitment to one another and to their marriage before loving witnesses. This public commitment invites those witnesses to support and nurture their marriage.

As you prepare for marriage ask yourself: are you planning a wedding or a marriage?  Planning for your marriage involves much more than simply planning a beautiful wedding. Planning for a marriage means investing less in the ceremony and more in ways to build your relationship skills and relational strength. It means investing in your ability to resolve conflict, work as a team, develop a marital purpose, sacrifice, and serve. Planning for a marriage means inviting other long-term married couples into your life as mentors and supports. It requires humbling yourself as a couple to learn from other successful couples. Don’t worry…you’ll still have a wonderful wedding day and a fantastic honeymoon…but you can also have a long and happy marriage.

…And A Hug to Grow On

Virginia Satir is quoted as saying,

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” You may read that and think, “That’s a lot of hugging. Who came up with those numbers, anyway?”

I don’t know who figured out the numbers; but research does reveal that hugs improve our physical and emotional health. For instance, 404 volunteers from the Pittsburgh area participated in a study exploring social support, hugging, and physical illness. The volunteers were asked every evening for 14 days about their social relationships and whether they had received a hug that day. Then, the volunteers were given nasal drops containing a virus that produced symptoms like the common cold (yes, they volunteered for this!). Volunteers who had received more hugs showed a decreased risk for actually “catching the cold.” In addition, of those who did “catch the cold,” those who had been hugged more often had less severe symptoms. And, the more hugs a person received, the more social support they felt. Hugs increased a sense of social support and decreased the risk of physically “catching a cold.”

Another study, involving 59 women in long-term relationships, shows that hugging can help reduce blood pressure too. In this study, the women were initially separated from their partner for 30 minutes. Then, their partner joined them for 10 minutes. During their 10 minutes together, they were encouraged to hold hands, watch a romantic video, and hug each other for at least 20 seconds. After 10-minutes together, the partner left, and the woman had to give an unprepared, spontaneous speech about an event that made her feel stressed. Blood pressure and oxytocin were measured throughout the procedure. The women also completed a questionnaire that included how frequently they hugged their partners. When all was said and done, more frequent hugging was related to higher oxytocin levels (Read 3…2…1…Oxytocin Release for more) and lower baseline blood pressure. In other words, more frequent hugging can help reduce high blood pressure and, as a result, the risk of heart disease.

Hugs can do even more too…but I don’t have the time or space to share it now. I just got an urge to hug my wife. She’s only had 4 today and I don’t want to quit hugging her at mere survival. I’m shooting for enough hugging to really us grow. What about you? Will you give the one you love 12 hugs a day for growth? 

Parenting Inuit Style

Did you know Inuit adults have an “extraordinary ability to control their anger”? I didn’t either; but anthropologist Jean Briggs spent years living with the Inuit people and reports that it is true. Inuit adults have an “extraordinary ability to control their anger.” That ability begins when parents teach their children to control their anger…and doing so in a rather unique manner. How do they do it? What’s so unique about the Inuit parenting style? An NPR article  entitled How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Their Anger describes three parenting strategies used to raise adults with an “extraordinary ability to control their anger.” Perhaps we can learn some important lessons from Inuit parenting.

First, Inuit parents do not shout or yell at young children. When adults yell at their child, it escalates the parent’s heart rate and impedes the child’s ability to think and process. In effect, a yelling parent shows a child what an adult tantrum looks like and teaches them to use similar behavior in solving problems in the future. In addition, yelling demeans the person being yelled at, even if that person is a child. Instead of yelling, Inuit parents focus on modeling calm behavior and calm problem-solving. They work to discover what has upset their child and contributed to them exhibiting problematic behaviors. We can take several positive actions from this lesson: 1) Treat your child with respect, even when you must discipline, 2) look for the underlying cause of their negative behavior (Why Do Children Misbehave?), and 3) model positive ways to control your own anger in the process. (For tips on reducing yelling, read Rewire Your Brain & Stop Yelling.)

Second, Inuit parents also use stories to teach consequences of inappropriate behavior, desired behaviors, and the values underlying appropriate behaviors. Inuit parents often used imaginative stories to teach. In fact, children learn through stories. The story of Pinocchio can teach a child the danger of lying and following the crowd. The story about “the boy who cried wolf” teaches a child the importance of being honest about needs and not creating drama. A story like A Child’s Fish Tale can teach the importance of limits and listening to parents. Stories teach important lessons and we can use them to teach our children about the behaviors we desire, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and the values undergirding both. These stories can be imaginative stories or “real life stories.” They can be stories you tell from your experience, stories you make up to emphasize a point, stories you read (find stories that help children overcome various struggles and teach important lessons, check out the blog at Books that Heal Kids), or stories you watch through various media streams. Keep an eye out for the lessons you can learn in the stories around you…and tell them to your children.

Third, perhaps the most interesting of the parenting strategies, Inuit parents re-enacted the negative behavior to show the negative results. You may not do this in the same manner as the Inuit parent (How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Their Anger), but you can still utilize this strategy. You can re-enact the negative behavior and results with puppets, stuffed animals, dolls, or even yourself to show the real-life consequences of their behaviors. However you choose to do it, let the parent play the role of the recipient of the negative behavior and the child play the role of the misbehaving party. Throughout the process, ask your child questions to help them understand the consequences of their behavior. Begin by asking your child to act out the role of one engaging in the negative behavior. “Why don’t you pretend to do that to the puppet?” As they do, think out loud with questions and statements like, “That hurts.” “Don’t you like me?” “I’m going to cry because that makes me sad.” “Why are you being so mean?”  This is all done with a tone of playfulness until the misbehaving child becomes bored and stops repeating the drama.

Perhaps we can practice some of the Inuit people’s parenting style and raise a generation of children who have an extraordinary ability to manage their anger…and have some fun in the process.

Give It Up to Lift Up Your Marriage

Do you want a stronger marriage? Do you want greater happiness for yourself and your marriage? Well, one of the best ways to get a stronger, healthier, happier marriage is to give up. It’s true. The best way to lift up your marriage is to give up. I don’t mean giving up on the marriage or giving up on happiness. I mean give up your own personal desires and making your spouse’s desires your priority…give up the need to push your own opinion and listen to understand your spouse’s opinion. Give up your need to have it “your way” and do it your spouse’s way.  Yes, sacrifice, or giving up, will lift up your marriage. Scott Stanley, a marriage researcher who has completed several studies regarding sacrifice in marriage, defined sacrifice as an action in which a person freely chooses to give up something for their spouse without resentment (italics & bold added).

This type of action, this “giving up,” can be as simple as watching the TV show your spouse wants to watch rather than demanding the family watch “my TV show.” Or, it might be as simple as giving up the last piece of pie so your spouse can have it.

Sometimes sacrifice can be life altering, like giving up a job to move to a new town where your spouse will begin a new and better job…or giving up time and energy to care for a spouse going through medical treatment for a major illness.

Overall, sacrifice often involves giving up personal control and self-gratification in favor of a commitment to our spouse’s well-being, intimacy, and growth…giving up our agenda for the betterment of our marriage. The moment of “giving up” to “lift up” your marriage can be difficult. However, the dividends for that moment of struggle are amazing—long-term happiness, growing security, and deeper intimacy. So, give it up…give it up to lift up your marriage! (For more read The Lost Art of Sacrifice in Family.)

What a 10-year-old Gains Eating with Family!!

Everyone has heard about the benefits of eating together as a family (Read some of the benefits in The Lost Art of Family Meals).  However, a question remained about whether the results associated with eating together as a family reflect a healthy family or truly flow from the activity of eating together. Now, a study from the University of Montreal has attempted to settle that question. They followed children who were part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development from 5-months of age. At 6-years, their parents reported whether they had family meals together. Then, at 10-years-old, their parents, teachers, and even the children themselves provided information on the children’s lifestyle and well-being. The researchers accounted for factors like temperament and cognitive abilities of the child, parent’s education and psychological characteristics, and family functioning. In other words, they were able to factor out any pre-existing conditions that might influence the child’s well-being and focus solely on eating family meals together. What did they discover?

  • Children who enjoyed a positive family meal environment at 6-years of age had higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption at age 10 years…regardless of cognitive abilities, parental education, and family functioning.
  • Children who enjoyed a positive family meal environment at 6-years of age also had less physical aggressive, less oppositional behavior, and less delinquent behavior at 10-years of age…regardless of cognitive abilities, parental education, and family functioning.

Positive family meals, in and of themselves, contributed to children’s well-being at 10-years-old. They ate healthier, exhibited less aggression, and less negative behavior. Really, that is not surprising, is it? After all, children engage in social interactions with their parents and siblings during family meals. They learn how to discuss day-to-day concerns and even disagree over various topics in a civil and polite manner. They gain communication skills as they practice expressing themselves. They learn to associate eating well with positive experiences and so have eating well reinforced.  They experience the joy of acceptance at the family table and enjoy the growing bond with family that increases their sense of security (Learn how that security translates to better relationships in Hot Sauce vs. the Power of Relationship).  So, if you want to optimize your children’s communication skills, social skills, and overall maturity, make time to enjoy family meals.

My Teen Isolates…Is That Bad?

Parents often ask, “My teen comes home and goes straight to his bedroom, closes the door and isolates. Isn’t that bad?” Well…it depends. Researchers from the University of California and Wilmington College published a study showing not all solitude is the same. Some solitude was problematic. It was a red flag revealing a deeper issue. Other solitude was good, even helpful. It provided a refreshing, restorative time of self-reflection leading to personal growth and greater self-acceptance.

How can you tell the difference? By recognizing the reason your teen is choosing solitude. The motivation for choosing solitude differentiates problematic solitude from healthy solitude. If a teen chooses solitude in response to social anxiety, lack of friends, or rejection, they are at a greater risk of depression. They tend to have a lower level of autonomy and fewer positive relationships.

If solitude is imposed on a teen as punishment, they often feel like they are “missing out” on activities and opportunities. This can lead to feeling left out and lonely. It can contribute to depression and anger.

If a teen chooses solitude to help themselves “calm down” or for “peace and quiet,” it can prove helpful. In this case, solitude provides restorative time for self-reflection. These teens learn the skill of being alone and learn how solitude can enhance creativity and personal renewal.

Still, how can a parent know the difference? One way to determine if your teen is using solitude in a healthy or an unhealthy way is to ask them why they spend time alone. Allow them to explain what they are doing and why. This might be the start of a simple discussion about emotional self-care. You might also ask yourself some questions about your teen, questions you can begin to answer based on your own observations.

  • Does your teen have friends or are they a loner? If they have no friends, their isolation may raise some concerns. Why do they not have friends? Is it due to being bullied? Anxious? Fearful? Sad? This observation may lead to a discussion with your teen about their mood, their perspective on friendships, loneliness, and relationships in general.
  • Does your teen exhibit social anxiety? It’s ok to be shy and introverted. As an introvert they will likely still have a few good friends. However, if a person has social anxiety that interferes with them going places or interacting with others it may be good to seek outside help.
  • Does your teen seem energized after spending time alone? Many teens just need time alone to “re-create” their inner sense of peace after spending all day interacting in a somewhat chaotic and over-stimulating school setting. They need to unwind and enjoy a moment of “peace and quiet.” They need a time of personal restoration. If so, they will often feel energized after a period of solitude. 
  • How does your teen seem overall? Do they sleep well? Do they enjoy times with friends? Do they become tearful often? The answer to these questions can provide a great deal of information about the health of their solitude.
  • Does your teen talk negatively about themselves? Do they put themselves down? Are they excessively self-critical? If so, their isolation may raise some concerns.

These observations may help you decide if your teen’s desire to be alone is a problem or simply a healthy part of their development. If your answers raise concerns seek out some counsel from friends who have older children, a pastor, or a therapist.

Another Benefit of a Responsive Spouse

A responsive spouse—one who not only listens and understands but also responds with sympathy and compassion. Who doesn’t want that kind of spouse? I know I do. And really, who doesn’t want to be that kind of spouse? After all, I love my wife. She deserves a “responsive spouse.”

Responsiveness validates our spouses. It lets them know we care for them. It reduces anxiety and arousal. It increases a sense of security in the relationship. It comforts. Overall, responsiveness is a powerful way to improve your marriage. And, a 2016 study involving 698 married and cohabitating couples suggests responsiveness does something more. It improves sleep quality. Not surprising, right? We sleep better when we feel safe. We sleep better when we feel less anxious. We sleep better when we know someone cares for us and validates us.

There you have it…another benefit of a responsive spouse: improved sleep quality. Good sleep quality contributes to a better rested person. A better rested person is happier, healthier, and more able to respond to their spouse. Not only…. Oh wait. I hear my wife calling. Sorry. I have to go. After all, a wife responded to is a happy wife who sleeps well…and loves her responsive husband.

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