Alexa, Turn On the Lights?… You Gotta Be Kidding Me

Did you see the Alexa commercial? I usually don’t say anything about commercials that bother me…but did you see that Alexa commercial? A girl comes home from a soccer game and is apparently upset about her game. Her mother “pauses” Alexa (who was reading an audio book to her when her daughter came home) and follows her daughter as though she plans to talk with her about the game. All well and good. In the next scene we see the mother in bed when she is suddenly awoken by “a noise.”  Once again, she speaks to Alexa, “What time is it?” “4:40 a.m.,” whispers Alexa. The mother looks out the bedroom window to see her daughter in the backyard “practicing” her soccer.  What does she do when she sees her daughter playing soccer in the backyard at 4:40 a.m.?  “Alexa, turn on the backyard light.”  That’s it? She turns on the lights before giving a proud nod to her daughter’s early morning practice.

Somehow that commercial really bothers me. What is the message communicated by that commercial? That Alexa, the mother’s only companion and confidante in the commercial, will helps us parent our children? I don’t think so. Alexa has no input…it only offers an obedient response to whatever “parental wisdom” we offer. Not a great parenting partner. No emotional investment. No experiential knowledge. Yeah, not a great parenting partner.

Maybe the message is one proclaiming that persistence and hard work help us achieve our goals…with the help of Alexa of course. But we never see the success…so I don’t think that’s the message. Really, I think I’m bothered more by the missing messages. For instance, where is the message about “a time and a place for everything”…a time to practice and a time to sleep? What about the message of learning to lose a game with grace and dignity? The message that our self-worth is not based on our performance…especially our performance in a single game? What does this commercial teach us about the importance of sleep for our physical and mental well-being…and even for improving performance, especially for teens?  Of course, the commercial is not trying to teach us anything. It only wants to sell us a product. But it does send a message…and I’m not sure I like the message.  Do you? At any rate, I better quit my rambling. “Alexa, turn off my computer.”

“Being There” for Family… When?

What does it mean to “be there” for your spouse and children? We often consider “being there” as giving comfort during tough times or caring for others in difficult situations. We think of “being there” as supporting others when they need help. Those are good times to “be there” for our spouse and children; but they are not the only times we need to “be there.” We also need to “be there” during the good times to share the pleasant news, the times of joy, and the times happiness. In fact, sharing good news and good times with those we love builds stronger relationships. It helps the both person “being there,” the person we are “being there” for, and the relationship. Let me name just a few of the many ways “being there” in good times can help a relationship.

  • Sharing good news or good experiences with a spouse, parent, or child who is engaged in the conversation enhances the meaning and weightiness we attach to those joyous times. These moments of sharing become foundational to our memory. We remember positive experiences more vividly when we share them with someone who engages in conversation with us about them. So, if you want your spouse and children to have lots of good memories filled with meaning in their lives, engage them in conversation about those events. “Be there” for them in celebrating the good news.
  • On the flip side, the person hearing about their loved one’s good news or happy experience feel happier. You’ve likely had that experience. Someone told you about their positive experience and you were genuinely happy for them. You rejoiced with them and felt happier yourself. So, listen intently to your family member’s good news and rejoice with them. Share genuine happiness for their good fortune. You’ll be happier for it. Along these same lines, share your own good news and positive experiences with your family members. Don’t hold back and keep it secret. Let them rejoice with you. They’ll be happier for it…and you’ll be happier that they are happier. Everybody’s happy…sounds like a good family night of sharing.
  • Sharing good news and happy experiences with one another also builds stronger, more intimate relationships. Sharing our good experiences is linked to relationship bonding and safety. When a person telling about their good experience knows the listener is receptive and engaged, they feel more secure in the relationship. To go even further, sharing good news with a receptive family member makes us more grateful for one another, enhances our sense of fondness for one another, and increases our dedication to one another. Sound good? It sure sounds good to me.

Don’t just “be there” for your family during the hard times. “Be there” for the good times as well. Celebrate the joyous occasions. Rejoice together. “Be there” in good times and in bad.

Good for Both Giver & Receiver

Life seems stressed these days, doesn’t it? Turn on the news…stress. Try to manage your schedule…stress. Weather…stress. Work demands, school demands, extracurricular demands, church demands, demands, demands, demands…stress. All that stress is bound to impact our marriages and our families. It robs us of mental clarity and patience. As a result, we have a greater chance of conflict with our spouses and our children.

But there is good news. I have discovered a way to reduce stress and improve mental clarity. Not only that, but this activity will increase a sense of closeness and intimacy, especially in your marriage. It’s true. A study showed this activity reduced stress and improved mental clarity after only one time. And, the reduction of stress accrued over the 9 times couples did it during the 3 week study. In other words, stress continued dropping with each time the couple engaged in this activity. What activity did all this? Massage. Yes, massage. In this study, 38 couples took a massage class each week for 3 weeks. Each class focused on massaging one part of the body (back, arms and shoulders, legs). Then, they practiced giving each other a massage three times a week (Yes, they had homework). Both the giver and the receiver of the massage experienced a reduction in stress and an improvement in mental clarity…BOTH the giver and the receiver! I like a massage…and I like the sound of reduced stress and improved mental clarity.

Although not part of the study, I believe this likely improved intimacy as well. Taking the time to massage one another means more time focused on one another—quality time focused on the one we love. Giving a massage means increasing our awareness of the one we are massaging (our partner).  Massage reduces stress and that means greater patience. Greater patience means less conflict. In addition, touch releases oxytocin and oxytocin increases a sense of connection. Massage involves a lot of touch. Your spouse will appreciate your massage and appreciation build deeper connection. So, why not take the time this weekend to give one another a massage. In this world of stress, we all need a little haven of relaxation and intimacy.  Enjoy!

The Miry Muck of Parenting

One of the most challenging (if not THE most challenging) job in the world is the job of parenting. Parenting brings new challenges every day. It demands different strategies for different situations and different children. It thrusts us into an awareness of our need for personal growth and pushes us to our limit. Is it any wonder we make a mistake here or there? I know I’ve made my share of mistakes (Read Oops…Parenting Surprises & Lessons Learned for more mistakes I made). Here are 5 mistakes parents often make without even realizing it. By becoming aware of these mistakes, we can avoid falling mindlessly into the miry muck of parenting they create.

  • We make the mistake of constantly pointing out what “not to do.” I often felt myself falling into this pit. “Don’t yell.” Stop running.” “Don’t do that.” “Don’t hit.” “Don’t turn the TV on.” “Stop fighting.” On and on. It’s so easy to tell our children what they are doing wrong. Sometimes they seem to give us so much opportunity to do so. However, it will prove much more effective when we tell them what we want them “to do” instead. “Hold my hand.” “Walk.” “Gentle.” “Tell me what’s wrong.” “Get out a board game.” “Read a book.” Sure, there are times we need to tell them “not to do” something, but always follow it up with what they “can do” instead. Many times, however, we can just tell them what they “can do.”
  • Sometimes we expect more from our children than they know or are developmentally ready to do.  Our children are not born experts; we need to teach them…everything. Teach them how to whisper in the library. Teach them how to load the dishwasher. Teach them how to clean a room “up to standard.” Don’t assume they know; teach them. Teaching them involves more than just telling them what to do. Pull up your sleeves and do it with them a few times. Teaching is a hands-on activity that builds connection and intimacy.
  • Too often, we model the wrong behavior. I know I modeled the wrong behavior at times. If you don’t believe me, read (blogs about parenting failures). We might react in anger to traffic and says something we wish our children had never heard…because now they repeat it all…the…time. Instead of modeling the “wrong” behavior, model as much positive behavior as you can. Let them see you apologize for your wrongs. Let them hear you speak the truth. Let them witness your affection for your spouse. Let them hear you encourage and thank other people. Model the behaviors and words you want them to follow.
  • In exhaustion or frustration, we discipline our children when they are simply being annoying. You know what I mean. Sometimes a four-year-old acts like a four-year-old (go figure) and we get annoyed. They ask questions constantly, a normal behavior that helps them learn; but we get annoyed and tell them to sit in silence. They play chase through the house while we are trying to get some work done so we send them to their rooms. They spill a drink accidentally and we yell at them.  We have disciplined for normal, age-appropriate behaviors that were simply annoying at the time. These behaviors are not misbehaviors requiring discipline. If anything, these behaviors may simply require redirection or simple instruction. Let kids be kids…and teach them to be aware of others.
  • We tend to be all talk and no action. Parenting is not merely a verbal task. You cannot sit in your chair and yell, “Turn the radio down,” “Get your hand out of the cookie jar,” or “Clean up this mess” and expect it to happen. Parenting is a hands-on job. We need to talk less and act more. Nag less and take action. Get out of the chair. Walk over to your child. Put a hand on their shoulder and look them in the eye before giving them a request or directive. When they follow through, give them a high-five or a simple “thank you.” If they ignore the request, follow through with an appropriate consequence. It doesn’t have to be a crushing consequence. Just a simple consequence. Can’t clean the room, lose the opportunity to go out (or watch TV) until it is clean. Won’t turn the radio down, lose the radio for a day. Won’t get your hand out of the cookie jar, no dessert today. You get the idea. Less talk, more action. 

Don’t get caught in the miry muck of parenting by engaging in these mindless parenting mistakes. Stand on firm ground with mindful action that will promote your childrens’ growth.

Ancient Wisdom For Your Best Family Life

An ancient saying, included in many marriage ceremonies, states that “Love is not arrogant and does not boast.” In a roundabout way, research now supports the truth of this statement. I say “roundabout” because the truth of the statement comes by way of awe. We experience awe when we experience something that expands our view or understanding of the world. For instance, we may feel awe in response to the vastness of nature, the beauty of a truly compassionate act, or the all-encompassing beauty of a majestic piece of music.  Each of these experiences expands our view of the world around us and makes us feel…well, smaller. Feeling a sense of awe plays a role in our health, happiness, and social connection. It increases our humility.  In fact, individuals who report experiencing awe more often in their daily lives were rated as more humble than those who did not report experiencing awe in their daily lives by friends and family. Those who experienced awe also acknowledged their strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way and recognized the impact of outside forces (including other people) on their personal achievements. This sounds like the very definition of humility, doesn’t it? The sense of humility, in turn, increases a person’s desire to engage with and feel connected to others.  Of course, a humble person also tends to have deeper, more secure relationships than an arrogant person. A humble person is more likely to take the other person’s best interest into consideration and is more easily trusted as a result. And…trust leads to better relationships.

And there you have it…awe leads to greater humility lead to better, more secure relationships. So, if you want a better family life, experience awe together. To get you started, here are 4 ways you can experience awe with your family. (Read more in Using the Power of Awe for Your Family.)

  • Experience nature. Go for a hike in the woods. Climb to the top of a mountain and look over the valley below. Look up at the stars on a clear night. Stand on the ocean shore and ponder the vastness of the sea. Go snorkeling and enjoy the colors. Watch the sunrise or sunset. Nature often elicits awe. Enjoy it as a family.
  • Try something new and exciting. Novelty contributes to awe. Visit someplace you have never been before. Try something new. Go to a symphony or musical. Visit the art museum. Go to an area of the country or state that you have never visited before. Novelty opens the door to awe.
  • Get curious. We experience awe when we experience a sense of smallness and we often experience that sense of smallness when we learn something that amazes us. Get curious and learn. Learn about the complexity of the human body, how a bird flies, the character of God, or the wisdom of ancient sayings. Each of these can expand our sense of the world and put our own lives in a different perspective, a perspective of humility.
  • Practice spirituality. Stand in awe of God. Worship as a family. Pray as a family. Experience the awe of answered prayer. Gather with other people and sing as a family. Many people experience awe in the religious setting of worship.

When you do experience awe, you will experience greater humility. When you experience greater humility, you will experience greater intimacy in your family. The ancient wisdom is true again, “Love is not arrogant and does not boast”…and that is awe-inspiring!

A Television in the Bedroom

I have to start this blog with a caveat, a confession. I love TV. So, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against televisions. I enjoy a good show or movie as much as the next guy. In fact, my wife and children would say I even enjoy a bad movie more than the next guy. But, a television in our children’s bedroom?  Bad idea…for children of any age. A study published in December, 2018 revealed a link between having a TV in the bedroom at the age of 4 and higher body mass index, more unhealthy eating habits, and lower levels of sociability at the age of 13 years. A TV in the bedroom of a 4-year-old was also linked to higher levels of emotional distress, depressive symptoms, victimization, and physical aggression at the age of 13 years. This study found these results true regardless of any pre-existing individual or family factors that would predispose such problems. A TV added to these problems on top of any other family or personal issues.

“But,” you might be saying, “I wouldn’t put a TV in my 4-year-olds room?” Dartmouth surveyed 6,522 children between the ages of 8- and 18-years of age in 2003. 59% of these youth had TV’s in their room. The researchers surveyed them again two and four years later. They found that those who had TV’s in their room were more likely overweight two years later. Two and four years later they continued to exhibit a growing body mass index. In other words, they were getting more overweight over the entire time of the study.   

Another study involving 781 adolescents found that older adolescents who have a TV in their bedrooms watched four to five more hours of television per week (over those who had no TV in their bedroom). That’s four to five hours they could be doing homework, playing outside, or helping around the house, making friends, or reading a book! They were also less likely to exercise, enjoy family meals, or eat fruits and vegetables.  

As these studies suggest, whether your child is 4-years-old, between 8- to 18-years-old, or an older adolescent, a TV in the bedroom leads to problems in health, mood, and social interactions. Like I said, I’m not against TV’s. I love a good show. But these studies give me pause; they make me think. Even more disconcerting, these studies focused on television prior to the age of smartphones and iPads. Perhaps we need to exercise even more caution with the extra options for show viewing available to our children and teens today. Take the screens out of the bedroom. Design your children’s bedroom as a safe haven for rest and relaxation, a place to sleep rather than text, binge watch Netflix, post on Instagram, or watch videos. Let them charge their phones outside the bedroom in a public area. Keep all electronic screen devices in a common area rather than the bedroom. Make the bedroom a place of rest, relaxation, and sleep.

Men, This Decision Will Change Your Brain for Good!

Researchers have discovered several activities that help reduce the risk of Dementia. Things like education, regular intellectual stimulation, financial security, gardening, knitting, and a mother’s diet during pregnancy have all been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. However, one decision helped men specifically. This one decision helped men live longer and reduced their risk for dementia. Lawrence Whalley, professor of mental health in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, puts it this way, “a boy is never told what he needs to do if he wants to live a longer life. But what he should do is marry an intelligent woman.” Yes, you heard it right. Men who marry intelligent women live longer, happier lives. And, they are at lower risk for developing dementia. In fact, some men with “intelligent wives” showed physical signs of dementia in brain scans but did not experience any symptoms of the disease. Despite what the scans revealed about the structure of their brains, they were “fully functional and ‘highly intelligent.'”

So, if your wife engages you in conversations that challenge your thinking, if she encourages adventures that present new opportunities for learning, or if she accompanies you on stimulating activities, take a moment to reflect on the precious gift you have been given. She is a gift that contributes to your long and happy life. She is a gift helping you remain mentally healthy. Why not do something today to show her how much you appreciate her presence in your life?

PS—I told my wife about this research. She just smiled and said, “No surprise there.”  I have to say, if marrying an intelligent woman helps a man live long, healthy, and wise…I have a lot of years left! I am truly blessed. How about you?

Parents Learning “Baby Talk”?

If you have an infant in the house and want them to develop strong language skills with a larger vocabulary, then you want to learn a new language. I don’t mean French or Spanish, Chinese or Japanese, or even Swahili. I mean you need to learn “parentese.” That’s not “baby talk.” I’m talking about “parentese,” the language in which a parent talks slowly and clearly with exaggerated vowels and inflections. Parentese still uses real words as opposed to the nonsense syllables of “baby talk.” Parentese involves fully grammatical sentences spoken with an exaggerated tone of voice that sounds happy. Ironically, in this world of division, parentese crosses all boundaries. It is used in all languages and benefits children from all cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. All children who are spoken to in this language are engaged by it. They listen more intently. They even respond more often. At least that’s what researchers at the University of Washington discovered. Specifically, they found that infants of parents coached in parentese when their children were six- and ten-months-old babbled 43% over two days, whereas infants of parents not coached in parentese babbled only 30%. In other words, those who used parentese got more engagement with and responses from their infants. And, at 14-months-old, the children of parents who used parentese produced significantly more words than children of parents who did not use parentese. That’s the result at 14-months. The impact of learning “parentese” continues even into elementary school and beyond. Other studies have shown early language skills predict a child’s learning to read and success in school.

So, if you have an infant at home…or if you have a family friend who has an infant, why not learn the language of infants, parentese? (If you need a little tutoring lesson on parentese, check out this short video.) When you do, you will help them learn the flow of conversation and the art of engagement. You enhance their production of speech. You contribute to their future reading and success in school. Who knows, learning and practicing parentese might just start a whole learning revolution.

4 Tips for Communicating with Your Teen

I remember the advice given to me as my children approached their teen years. “Whatever you do, maintain open communications with your teen.” Sure, I thought. Great idea. But, how do you do that? After some research and trial by fire (both my “children” are now in their early twenties) I have a few suggestions, ideas that can help keep those lines of communication open with your teen. I must admit, these ideas were often in opposition to my first impulse, but, when I was able to implement them, they really helped keep those lines of communication open.

  1. When your children or teens come to you with a desire to talk about something, give them your full attention. Put down the paper. Turn off the TV. Don’t check your messages or respond to a text. Don’t google. Just give your them your attention. Look at them and listen. Watch their expressions. Listen to the tone of the voice. Hear what they are saying and understand the emotions behind the words.
  2. Stay calm. They will say things that make you want to jump out of your skin. Don’t do it. At some point they will say something that triggers your core fears. They may even say things that hurt, feel like an attack, or arouse your anger. But, if you want them to continue talking about it and then listen to your response, stay calm. Remember, sometimes our teens just need to think out loud. Let them do it in your earshot. When you overreact, they will shut down. If you stay calm, they are more likely to continue talking, thinking, processing, and even listening.
  3. Listen. When you want to give a suggestion, listen instead. When you want to criticize, listen a little more. When you think you understand, listen to make sure you really do.  Don’t “spray” them with questions. Instead, use your questions wisely and sparingly to gain a greater understanding of what they are saying, what it means to them, and how they think about it. Listen and repeat back to them what you think they are saying until they know you understand. Then you can offer advice. But, even in offering advice, keep your words to a minimum and then…listen.
  4. Show grace. Grace is the willingness to put aside our own agenda to become a present witness to the agenda of our children and teens. Put aside your own fears in order to create a safe haven in which your teen can express themselves without judgment. Put aside your own ego and create a secure sanctuary where your teens can voice their fears and anxieties to someone they know will strive to understand them. Doing so will build a home environment in which they feel comfortable talking to us…and they will talk with us in that environment.

To summarize these 4 tips, I want to share a quote from Kenneth Ginsburg, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “The parents who know the most and who have the most influence over their child’s academics and behaviors aren’t the ones who ask lots of questions. They are often the ones who are the least reactive and who express warm, unconditional love and support.” Put these tips into action today. They are not easy, but you’ll be glad you did.

A Family Experiment You’ll Love

If you want your family to experience more happiness, exhibit more empathy, and have lower   levels of anxiety, I have found a great idea. Well, I didn’t actually come up with the idea on my own. Researchers Douglas A. Gentile, Dawn M. Sweet, and Lanmiao He did…and I’m glad they did.

They recruited college students for a simple 12-minute experiment. Each of the participants took surveys measuring anxiety, stress, empathy, and happiness levels. Then they were divided into four groups and each group was given an assignment to complete while walking around for 12 minutes.

  • One group was to walk around and focus on the appearance of the people they saw.
  • A second group thought about ways in which they might have a better life than the other people they saw. 
  • The third group looked at the people they encountered and wondered about any hopes, aspirations, or feelings they might have in common with them.
  • Finally, a fourth group looked at people and thought (with conviction), “I wish for this person to be happy.”

Afterward, they all completed surveys measuring anxiety, stress, empathy and happiness levels again.

Comparing the before and after surveys revealed some interesting results.

  • First, looking at people and thinking about how my life is better than their life simply made people less empathetic and caring.
  • However, thinking “I wish for this person to be happy” led to higher levels of empathy and happiness as well as lower levels of anxiety! It also improved their sense of caring and connectedness. Let me repeat that because it sounds too good to be true. Simply walking around for 12 minutes and thinking “I wish for this person to be happy” when you look at someone led to increased happiness and empathy, decreased anxiety, and a greater sense of care and connectedness. Simple!

Why not start doing this in your family? Make it a daily practice to think about each family member and how you “wish for them to be happy.” Expand this “well-wishing” beyond the family by making it a family project to think “I wish for this person to be happy” for each person you see while grocery shopping or taking a walk or going to soccer practice or any other family activity. Then, on the way home, talk about the experience. You might just find yourself living in a happier, more empathetic, caring, and connected family with less anxiety. By the way, “I wish for you to be happy”…so give this experiment a try.

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