The Greatest Battles Parents Face

I’ve often heard it said that “parents have to pick their battles.” It’s true. No use battling about eating jello when your child has already eaten their broccoli (Oops…Parenting Surprises & Lesson’s Learned). However, the biggest battle a parent faces does not involve their children. The biggest battle a parent faces involves only themselves…and it is fought on three fronts.

  1. The first front in this battle involves the memories we have of our own childhood. We remember the emotional hurts we experienced in our childhood and teen years. We project our own teen angst and misbehaviors onto our children and work to save them from the pains we remember. We also remember our own teen behavior…or should I say misbehavior, those risky or disobedient or down-right stupid behaviors we engaged in. Once again, we project them onto our teens and fear they will engage in the same behaviors and experience the same painful consequences we did…or worse!
  2. The second front in the battle against ourselves as parents involves second guessing decisions we made when our teens were children. We look back and fear we didn’t do enough of something…or too much of something else…or the wrong thing completely. In reality, we likely did the best we could with the information and knowledge we had at the time. And, our children were (and are) resilient enough to overcome a few of our mistakes. In fact, connecting and loving our children will cover a multitude of mistakes (see part three of this experiment in An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in Three Parts).
  3. The third front in the battle of parenting is the “great what if.”  We begin asking ourselves, “What if my child keeps going down this path?” “What if they don’t do all their homework?” “What if they don’t make the basketball team…or don’t make the school play…or miss the school dance…or…?” The list goes on. Unfortunately, we too often answer the “what if” with the most catastrophic scenarios imaginable.

Each of these battles push us toward fear-based parenting. They push us to set stricter rules so our children won’t “make the same mistakes we did.” Fear-based parenting can even lead to a parent invading their teen’s treasured privacy because “I know what I did as a kid. I know all the tricks. They’re hiding something in that room (or on that phone).” Eventually, fear-based parenting turns dictatorial. Fear-based parents focus on performance and achievement.

Guess what results from fear-based parenting. You got it. Our children become defensive and even rebellious. Teens end up engaging in the very behaviors we tried to prevent through our fear-based frenzy of control, rigid rules, and invasion of privacy. What’s the answer? How can you avoid this? Begin by winning the battle against yourself as a parent—your fear of repeating your past, your fear of making a mistake, and your fear of the “what if.” Move from a fear-based parenting style to a parenting style guided by love and recognition of your children’s developmental needs. Also, remember that your children grew up in a different environment than you did. They had different parents than you. They have different information than you. They might make different choices than you. And when they make mistakes, you’ll deal with those mistakes together. You will take the opportunity provided by mistakes and misbehaviors to love them in spite of their mistakes and to help them learn from those mistakes. Rather than let fears (the fears of “what was done” in the past and the fear of “what if” this happens in the future) determine your parenting response, let love and knowledge determine your parenting response. Let your knowledge of your teen as a unique individual, with unique developmental needs, and a recipient of your unique love guide your parenting decisions.

A Breath of Fresh Ears

I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve communication skills in marriage. Communication skills involve the sharing of ideas. They include the ability to verbalize ideas effectively and to listen more attentively. Learning both these skills will help any relationship, including our marriages, grow stronger. So, when I came across this little communication gem, I had to share it with you. It is a simple, powerful tool to help both the speaker and the listener communicate more effectively. I call it “a breath of fresh ears” (yes, “ears” not “air”).

Many times, communication breaks down because we respond too quickly. We impatiently finish the other person’s sentence, interrupting them in mid-sentence or talking over them before they have finished talking. On the other hand, you’ve probably had times when your spouse left you little to no room to even respond. They go on and on as though in a filibuster for the floor. Conversation becomes almost like a competition to “get a word in edgewise.” In this process, ideas are lost and misunderstandings arise. You and your spouse begin to feel “talked over,” ignored, or unheard. Emotions flare. But, “a breath of fresh ears” can change all this.

What is “a breath of fresh ears”? Before you respond to your spouse, take a breath. That’s it. Pause long enough to take a breath. When you do, several things might happen. First, you’ll realize how difficult it is to slow down long enough to take a breath before responding. We live in a frenzied world that has grown uncomfortable with a slower pace that allows for miniscule moments of silence. So, we jump in with what we believe our spouse is saying or respond to get our idea “on the floor.” We are saturated with the self-absorbed mindset of our world and so interrupt our spouse to make sure our “oh-so-important-point” is heard. Taking a “breath of fresh ears” means slowing down. Take a breath. Then speak…which brings me to the second thing you might learn.

Second, you’ll experience times when your spouse starts talking again. You thought they were done but, in the momentary pause of your breath, they decided to tell you more. Humble yourself by putting your agenda aside for a moment and listen some more. As a reward, you will learn more about your spouse. You will find they had more to say and in that moment of silence created by your small breath, were able to formulate a greater understanding of what they really wanted to communicate. Their communication may even become more clear.

Third, you’ll find that the “breath of fresh ears” really does give you fresh ears. In that momentary pause you will find the time to reflect and reconsider your response. You will answer more in tune with your partner. You will answer with greater compassion and wisdom. You will answer in a way that “gives grace to the moment.” And all of that will strengthen rather than hinder your relationship.

Three benefits from “a breath of fresh ears…” oh, and a fourth benefit. “A breath of fresh ears” will create a more relaxed and enjoyable conversation with your spouse. The conversational competition will end as interruptions decrease and everyone is allowed to finish their own thoughts. You and your souse will relax. And, perhaps most important, you will learn more about yourself and your partner. Try it out. Give your conversation “a breath of fresh ears” and enjoy the growing intimacy you will experience.

Your Teen’s Body Image

Our children and teens are under a lot of pressure when it comes to body image. They see the “perfect bodies” in pop culture through photoshopped magazine images, bodies of celebrities sculpted by personal trainers and time, and deceptive beauty created by make-up and camera angles on social media. Physical appearance and body image have become a hotbed of insecurity for our teens and young adults. But the University of Missouri has outlined a simple routine that can improve your teen’s body image. You can engage in this routine right in your own home and as a family. To uncover this routine and its benefits, the researchers from University of Michigan analyzed data from 12,000 students from more than 300 schools that stretched across all 50 states and Washington DC. Your children can benefit from this activity if they engage in it without you, but they will gain even greater benefit if you engage in it with them. It only requires a short amount of time and you probably already do it anyway. All you have to do is start engaging in this activity with your child and it can help improve their body image. What is this activity, this routine? Eating breakfast. That’s right. As simple as that. Research suggests that the more frequently a child ate breakfast during the week, the more positive their body image. And, the results were even greater if they ate breakfast with a parent. Eating with a parent allowed the parent to model a positive relationship with food, build stronger a parent-child relationship, and encourage a healthy start to the day. A.A. Gill, a British writer and critic known for food and travel writing, is credited with saying, “Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to a new day, a continuing life.” Breakfast not only serves as a commitment to the beginning of a new day; it serves as the beginning of a positive body image as well. So, buy a box of cereal, toast up some bagels, make some pancakes or fry some eggs. Whatever you choose, enjoy some breakfast with your children.

The Infamous Dad Joke

I noticed it again this year, did you? Every Father’s Day people start to talk about the “Dad Joke.” (What do you call someone with no body and just a nose?  No-body knows.) Someone will bring up the “Dad Joke” with a groan, moaning about “how corny” they are. Usually everyone begins to talk about the “Dad Joke” in a somewhat belittling manner, as if the “Dad Joke” is inferior to other types of joking. Disparaging remarks circulate as each person recalls the various “Dad Jokes” they heard from their beloved father.  Mostly one-liners. (Our dog used to chase people on a scooter…so we took away his scooter.) All simple puns. (What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? “Where’s popcorn?”) All easily understood after a moment’s thought. (Why did the police go to  the baseball game? Because they heard somebody stole second base!) But, the most ironic thing I notice…everyone starts to smile (You’re probably starting to smile already).  Groans turn to grins. The mood lightens. Laughter starts to break through. Faces light up as smiles grow larger. Before long, everyone is having a good time. Why? All because of the “Dad Joke.” ( You might enjoy the “Dad Joke,” but I would still avoid the sushi if I were you…it’s a little fishy.)

Yes, the “Dad Joke” may be simple to understood…but sometimes the wisest statements are those most easily understood. (Treat others like you want to be treated.) The “Dad Joke” is clean and short…no lectures just right to the punch line. (After winter, the trees are “re-leaved.”)  but, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had fewer lectures and more clean news to watch.  The “Dad Joke” may be looked down upon by many…but it always lifts other people up by bringing joy and laughter into their lives. The “Dad Joke” brings a smile to people’s faces even while being spoken of disparagingly. And, the “Dad Joke” is ok with that because it knows the other person is more important than him. (BTW—having a 12-inch nose is impossible…at that point it becomes a foot.)   Isn’t that just like a good Dad?  Wise but easily understood… always encouraging and lifting their children up by bringing joy and laughter into their lives…bringing smiles to their families because they believe their family more important than themselves. (Did you know Beethoven got rid of all his chickens because they kept talking about “Bach, Bach, Bach?”)  I don’t know. Maybe I’m reaching here. But I think the “Dad Joke” is great…and so are Dads. And, if you think about it, they both come into existence at the same time. Think about it—when does a joke become a dad joke? When it becomes “apparent.” Give your Dad a little loving today. He needs it; and he deserves it.

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.

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