Archive for Celebration

It’s All Fun & Games Until… It’s Something More

Teaching our children to be helpful and generous is all fun and games…at least in part. That is what I learned from a study published in November 2014. Actually, it was a series of four studies. The first study involved 1- and 2-year-olds assigned to one of two groups. In the first group, a researcher engaged a child in reciprocal play such as rolling a ball back and forth, pushing buttons on a musical toy together, or handing large rings to one another. In the second group, the researcher engaged in parallel paly with the child. Specifically, the researcher played with one set of toys while the child played with another set of toys.  After six minutes, the researcher acted as though they needed help reaching an object. Those who had engaged in reciprocal play helped the researcher get the object significantly more often than those who had engaged in parallel play.

The second study involved assigning children to the same two groups as the first study. It also added a third group in which the researcher merely sat nearby and talked to the child while he played. This time, the researcher left the room and a second researcher, who did not know which child was in which group, came into the room and exhibited a need for help. Once again, those who had engaged in reciprocal play helped significantly more often, even though the person they helped was unknown to them, a stranger.

The third study involved 3- and 4-year-olds in the same two groups as the first study: a reciprocal play group and a parallel play group. As in the second study, the researcher left the room and an assistant carried out the rest of the study. This time, rather than asking for help, the researcher offered the child 6 opportunities to give stickers to him- or herself or to the absent experimenter through the assistant. Guess what. Those engaged in reciprocal play were significantly more generous.

Finally, in a fourth study involving 4-year-olds the researcher asked two assistants to play with the child while he left the room to complete a task. One assistant engaged the child in reciprocal play for one minute. The other engaged in parallel play with the child for a minute. Then the experimenter returned. He showed the children a picture of the two assistants and asked them to point to the one they thought would give them a gift, help them open a door, or share a toy with them. The children consistently pointed to the one who engaged in reciprocal play with them.

These studies suggest that engaging our children in interactive play—play that involves sharing, taking turns, working together—nurtures their willingness to show kindness to others, even those they do not know but trust. It also increased their tendency to act generously toward others. Generous and kind children…triggered by our own interactive play with them. Simply playing a different game next to them did not promote kindness or generosity. Neither did sitting next to them and talking while they played. Getting involved in their play, interacting with them—tossing a ball back and forth, sharing play objects (dolls), or working on a project together (Legos)—promoted kindness and generosity. In other words, teaching our children to be generous and kind is all fun and games. So, be generous enough to kindly give your children the time to interact with them in play…and they will grow in kindness and generosity as well.

A Challenge for Families of Teens

The media often tells us about the challenge of teens. We hear about their fluctuating moods, out-of-control hormones, and risky behaviors. We raise concerns about the prevalence ratings of teen sexual activity, drug use, or bullying. But maybe these stories sell our teens short. Maybe there is much more to our teens than the media would suggest. In fact, research published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology asked 191 ninth grade students to engage in five acts of kindness in a week. In response, the students completed 943 acts of kindness during that week! 94% of the teens reported completing 3 or more kind acts of kindness in response to that challenge. Not surprisingly, after completing one week of kind acts, the students showed an increase in their perception of their own kindness. Binfet, the author of this study, noted that “when encouraged to be kind, the teens surpassed expectations.”

This reminded me of a concept Tony Campolo espoused many years ago in his book Ideas for Social Action. He believed that young people are attracted to challenge more than entertainment, meaningful action rather than “pie in the sky when you die” promises. In this study, Binfet challenged students to kindness and their response “surpassed expectations.”

What does all this mean for parents and families? Perhaps, rather than focus on the challenge of teens, we need to offer our teens a challenge, a challenge to kindness, a challenge to reach out to the others in love, a challenge to live a life of service, sacrifice, and meaning. In response to the study above, Binfet suggested that our teens would benefit from parents and educators finding “ways to best structure opportunities for youth to be kind to help foster their development.” I believe this challenge begins at home. How can we, as parents, provide opportunities for our children and teens to show kindness to others? When we do, I believe we will be pleasantly surprised as our teens “surpass our expectations.” So, rather than bemoan the challenge of teens, lets challenge our teens and our selves to engage in acts of kindness.

Here is an experiment you can try this month. It is a challenge for the whole family, including your teens. Challenge every member of your family, including the teens, to engage in 5 acts of kindness every week for a month. Note the acts of kindness can be done within the family or outside the home toward friends, acquaintances, or even strangers. At the end of each week, talk about the kindnesses each one has shared and how those acts of kindness impacted you as an individual and the world around you.

Six Reasons to Hug Your Family

A hug is defined as the “holding or squeezing of someone tightly in one’s arms.”  But, in reality, a hug is much more than simply holding or squeezing another person. A hug is powerful. A hug can change a life. In fact, here are 6 reasons to hug your spouse, children, and parents on a regular basis.

  • Research out of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that receiving a hug on the day of a conflict contributed to feeling less negative emotion the day of the conflict and the day after the conflict. The hug also prevented the conflict from reducing positive emotion on the day of the conflict. In other words, a hug helps people feel better even after a conflict.
  • In another study involving 404 participants, hugs were found to buffer the stress caused by daily stressors and resulted in less severe symptoms when infected with a virus for the common cold. Want your loved ones to be less stressed and have fewer symptoms of illness? Give them a hug.
  • Hugs may boost heart health also. A study published in 2003 found that people who held hands with their loved one for ten minutes and then hugged them for 20 seconds (compared to those who simply rested for 10 minutes and 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure & less increase in heart rate during a public speaking assignment. In other words, physical affection, including a hug, reduces our reactivity to stresses and promotes better heart health.
  • A good 20-second hug releases oxytocin…and oxytocin counteracts stress, helps us relax, increases our level of trust, and increases our empathy and feelings of intimacy. You could say hugs release oxytocin and make us feel good.
  • Hugs also communicate affection and love to the other person. A hug communicates “You belong.” Who doesn’t like to know they belong? Everyone enjoys knowing they are loved. Communicate your love…give a hug.
  • Last, but not least, hugs feel good. You can feel the comfort and the relaxing of the muscles even as you feel the other person’s arms engulf you in a hug.

Hugs benefit our physical health, our emotional health, and our mental health. They communicate love and help people know they belong. Give your loved ones a hug today. Better yet, give them several hugs today.

A “Glass-Half-Full” Kind of Marriage

Are you a “glass-half-full” or a “glass-half-empty” kind of person? According to research, your answer could impact the future life and cognitive health of your spouse! A study (A happy partner leads to a healthier future) published in the Journal of Personality (2019) reported this link after following 4,500 heterosexual couples from the Health and Retirement Study for eight years. Specifically, the research suggests a link between being married to an optimistic person and preventing the onset of cognitive decline. It appears that being married to an optimistic person helps prevent the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cognitive decline.

How can this be? An optimistic person tends to focus on aspects they can change and control rather than dwell on those things they cannot change or control. As a result, they tend to eat healthier, exercise, and take better care of their body. After all, they believe these are things they can manage and even change. This lifestyle encourages their spouse to do the same.

An optimistic person also tends to see problems as temporary and specific. Combining this with their tendency to look for what they can manage and change, optimistic people become better problem-solvers.  When stressors arise, optimistic people view them as specific to situation, time, or person. They look for ways within their control to manage or change those “temporary” stressors. As a result, they manage stressors better and exhibit fewer of the emotional and physical consequences of stress. Once again, their spouses benefit from this problem-solving as well. They also learn to become more optimistic problem-solvers themselves in the process.

You might be thinking, “Well great because I’m not optimistic and neither is my spouse.”  Fortunately, you can learn to become more optimistic. As you can see above, optimistic people think differently. They view problems as temporary and changeable. They look for ways in which they can influence the stressors and problems they encounter. 

You can learn to do both things by paying attention to how you think. Change the “I can’t do anything about this” into “What can I influence in this situation?” Change the “This is never going to get better” or “This always happens to me” into “This is not good right now” and “This does happen sometimes.” Then ask yourself again, “Where do I have influence? What do I control in this situation?” (Read more on Nurturing Your Muscles of Optimism.) In other words, learn to respond to problems and stressors by considering:

  • What part of this situation do I have influence over? What can I do to help create change?
  • Is this stressor or problem specific to a time? a person? a situation?
  • How often does this really happen? Think of all the times it has happened differently.

Using these questions, you can begin to change your thinking to become a more optimistic person…and, in turn, contribute to your spouse’s happy and fulfilling life.

Spread an Emotional Contagion that Builds Relationship

Emotional contagion describes when one person’s emotions and related behaviors trigger similar emotions in another person. Our emotions can trigger other people’s emotions and vice versa because People mimic the facial expressions and body language of other people during social interactions and “catch” their emotions. You have probably experienced the impact of emotional contagion in your family. Someone (mom, dad, teen) comes home in a bad mood and suddenly everyone’s mood takes a turn for the worse. On the other hand, the same person comes home with a smile on their face and a bounce in their step and everyone feels better.

A smile on their face…that reminds me. Ka-shing Woo and Bobbie Chan conducted a study (2019) focusing on the impact of different types of smiles and nodding on warmth and friendliness between people. They found that a fake smile did NOT pass along good feelings. However, a genuine smile did pass along good feelings. They also found that slow, vertical head nodding communicates supportiveness and indicates the listener is paying attention. When the study participants combined a genuine smile with a slow, vertical head nod, they found a “potent emotional contagion” expressing warmth and friendliness that also served as a catalyst for reciprocal feelings of warmth and friendliness. In other words, genuine smiling and attentive nodding spreads warmth and friendliness, it draws people together in positive emotions, it builds intimacy…it is an emotional contagion of warmth and friendliness.

Interesting, isn’t it? A genuine smile combined with a nod of interest conveys a warmth and friendliness that is “catchy.”  Now that is a contagion I would like to spread through my family. That is a contagion I would like to see spread through my family to the community as well. So, let’s start spreading that contagion today. Pass along a genuine smile and a nod of interest every chance you get.

The Satisfaction of Small, Meaningful Doses All Day Long

Families need a healthy diet of love and connection to thrive. How do we meet our family’s dietary need for love? Some families have one big meal a day to satisfy their “love cravings.” They try to engage in some extravagant show of love once a day (at best) in hopes that it will last until the next big show of love. It doesn’t…it never will.

Other families fear there is not enough love and connection to go around. They fear it will run out so they cling and “act out” to monopolize whatever attention and “love” they can get. This doesn’t work either. It ends up pushing others away.

Others, fearing love resources are limited, dole out love in scanty portions, just enough to keep you hungry for more. Everyone ends up feeling just little disconnected, confused as to whether they are really loved or not.

A better way of maintaining a healthy diet of love and connection is by sharing small but meaningful doses of it throughout the day. A study out of Penn State published in 2020 (see The Undervalued Power of Experiencing Love in Everyday Life for a review) called these small, meaningful doses of love and connection “felt love.” Participants in this study were randomly sampled via cell phone to determine when and where they experienced “felt love,” when and where they felt a connection with another person. Two findings were of special interest to me.

  1. Experiencing small, meaningful doses of love throughout the day led to increased feelings of optimism and purpose. In other words, if you want your spouse, children, or parents to feel greater optimism and purpose, intentionally do and say things throughout the day that will make them feel loved. Give them physical affection. Compliment them. Appreciate something about them. Serve them. Sit and talk with them. Empathize with them. Connect. They will feel love and connection…and their feelings of optimism and purpose will increase.
  2. “Nudging study participants to be more mindful of ‘felt love,’ and encouraging people to recognize random moments of warm-heart connection actually increased their sense of being loved” (Oravecz). Simply raising a person’s awareness of “felt love” and opportunities to express “felt love” raised feelings of being loved and connected.

Based on these findings, we could do at least three things to increase the feelings of love in our families.

  • Encourage each family member to offer a daily diet of multiple, small, and meaningful doses of love to other family members throughout the day.
  • Spend time at dinner or bedtime sharing stories of when each one received love and connection during the day and how each one shared love and connection with another that day. Making this conversation a routine will “nudge” your family members to “be more mindful” of such moments.
  • Model the intentional sharing of small, meaningful doses of love and connection with others in your home and outside your home. Hold the door open for other people. Let the other driver merge. Share the remote. Pay for a stranger’s coffee. Be creative and share small, meaningful doses of love and connection with others, including your family.  

I don’t know about you, but I think our families and our world are hungry for this kind of diet. I know I am…so I’m going to share it with my family now.

A Stay-at-Home Date Night for Every Room

The “stay-at-home” orders are slowly starting to shift as we move from “red” to “yellow” to “green.”  Still, it remains challenging to eat out or go someplace for a date night. Even before the current crisis you may have felt the challenge of going out for a date night due to financial constraints. But, no fear. You can have a date night without even leaving home. In fact, you can have a date night in every room of your house. Here are a few date night ideas for each room.

  • The Dining Room Date. Of course, you could have a dinner date in the dining room. Make it interesting though. Have a candlelight dinner with romantic music playing. Order your food through DoorDash or UberEATS.
  • The Living Room or Family Room Date. Pull out the cards and board games to enjoy a game night date. Or, rent a movie and have a movie date night. Don’t forget the  popcorn, chips, and drinks for game dates or movie dates.
  • The Kitchen Date. The kitchen date involves cooking together. Think about a food you have always wanted to try or a food you really liked when you ate it in a restaurant. It might be a main dish, a dessert, or an appetizer…or one of each. Look up the recipes and have a kitchen date making it. You can even find a cooking class with expert chefs on YouTube to enjoy as a cooking class date night.
  • The Bedroom Date. You can go all kinds of directions for the bedroom date. You could simply enjoy a breakfast-in-bed date. Or, you could enjoy a candlelight-romantic-massage date night. Or, do the breakfast-in-bed date in the morning and the candlelight-romantic-massage date at night. You can use your imagination for other bedroom date ideas.
  • The Back Porch. For the more casual date, enjoy an evening on the porch with a ­just hanging out date night. Simply sit together, cuddle up, and enjoy conversation remember fun times from the past and fun times you look forward to in the future.
  • The Yard Date. Pack a picnic and go into your back yard for a picnic date. Then, lay out the blanket and lay down to watch clouds go by. Or, do it later in the evening and stargaze. Listen the concert of birds and watch the firework of the stars with your spouse. It’s a nature’s concert date night.

If you want to have an even more unique date night, make it a progressive room date night. Order your favorite meal through DoorDash and then start your date in the kitchen while you wait for the food to arrive. In the kitchen, make your favorite appetizer or dessert together. When the food arrives, enjoy a candlelight dinner in the dining room that includes the appetizer you made. Then move to the family room for a movie. Afterward, enjoy your dessert in the living room. By this time, the sun will have set and the stars come out. Lay on your blanket in the back yard to enjoy God’s light show of stars for a time. Finally, end your date in the bedroom with a romantic massage. 

What are your ideas for a date in every room of the house?

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned At Dinner

Family having a big dinner together at home

I enjoyed daily family dinners as a child. Well, most of the time I enjoyed family dinners. Sometimes tensions and disagreements cast a shadow over the meal. But I still remember family dinners with great fondness. My wife and I did our best to keep the tradition of family dinners alive in our own family. Looking back, I realize that everything I really need to learn I learned at family dinners. Let me share a few of those lessons with you.

  • Come to the table when you are called. Opportunity does not wait. At the very least, it grows cold. So, when opportunity calls, respond. Come to the table or you might miss out.
  • Always begin by giving thanks for the blessings you received and the people who make those blessings possible.
  • You do not always get what you want or even like. Give thanks anyway. Not everyone is fortunate enough to receive such an abundance; and many people contributed to the raising, harvesting, transporting, selling, purchasing, and preparing that made this blessing possible. Be grateful.
  • Share. There are others at the table with you. Keep them in mind. Take some for yourself and joyfully pass it along to the others. Share.
  • Take only what you know you are going to eat. No need to be greedy. If you want more after you finish what you have, you can have more. Each time you get more, take only what you will use.
  • Remember, there is always enough to go around when each person remains considerate and mindful of everyone else.
  • Wait your turn. Your favorite dish will make it to you even if you have to wait a bit.
  • Serve one another. Sometimes the dishes are too hot to pass. In such cases, everyone patiently passes their plate to the person nearest the hot dish. That person scoops the food onto each person’s plate while carefully assuring they receive the amount desired. It is an exciting privilege to be deemed mature enough to serve and an honor to be served.
  • Practice patience. Wait for everyone to get their food before you begin. We are a family, a community. It is polite to wait for everyone before you “dig in.” After all, we are eating dinner together. Enjoy it together. 
  • Just because you are upset about something does not give you the right to ruin dinner for everyone else. Remain polite and kind, even if you are upset with the person sitting next to you.  
  • Enjoy the conversation. Don’t simple “shovel food into your mouth.” Be curious about the other people present. Learn about their day. Converse. (As a bonus, this will also increase your children’s vocabulary.)
  • Ask for what you need rather than reaching impolitely in front of everyone and so intruding into their space and disrupting their composure.
  • Dessert is coming…but only to those who are grateful for the gift they received, gracious to receive even what was not perfectly prepared, and well-mannered.

Eating as a family proves much greater than simply filling our stomachs with needed nutrients.  It is a microcosm of the larger community. Indeed, family dinners teach us everything we need to know to live a life of honor, grace, and celebration in our world.

*Titled with a “shout out” to Robert Fulghum who wrote the excellent book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Graduating Quiet as a Mouse? No Way!

My youngest daughter is one of the many young men and women graduating from college this year.  Like so many others during the covid-19 pandemic, she transitions quietly from one phase of life to another. No pomp and circumstance. No announcing of her name before a crowd of people. No walking across a stage to be given a congratulatory handshake as she receives her diploma. No cap thrown into the air with her classmates. No gathering of family and friends to celebrate. Just a quiet step from one stage of life into another.

But, do not let the forced isolation of this year’s graduation fool you. We recognize your hard work.  You have worked hard, and your hard work has paid off.  You have achieved a milestone in your life. We recognize your success.

I ask you not to let this time pass by without taking a moment to reflect in the quietness. Reflect on the long nights you conquered and the seemingly impossible demands you met. Reflect on the knowledge you have gained and the life experiences from which you have learned. Reflect and celebrate the friends you made, the joys you shared, and the obstacles you have overcome. I think you will discover, like I did, that although you are graduating quietly, you are more like a lion than a mouse. Yes, more like a lion quietly prowling through the tall grasses of anxiety and confusion that distract the world from seeing your hard-earned success. A lion stealthily studying the current climate, confidently looking for just the right moment and the right angle from which to gain the best gain in the current environment. Muscles primed for the quest of life’s next stage as you crouch, kneading the ground under your feet to assure good footing. Quietly preparing and watching for the right moment to pounce at full throttle into the next phase of life. Ready to conquer. Ready to run. Yes, you are much more like a lion.

But for now, it is quiet. Don’t worry. Wait patiently. Reflect on your accomplishments. Continue looking ahead to survey the possible opportunities. They will come and you will go. We have confidence in you and your ability, a confidence born from watching you achieve so much already, a confidence undergirded by our pride in who you have become.  Yes, we are proud of you. We may not be able to take you out to dinner or gather with friends and family to celebrate…we may not get the opportunity to applaud your success at a graduation ceremony…but, we are proud of you. We know you have worked hard. We watched you struggle with obstacles and overcome. We see you planning and waiting–patiently biding your time, itching to take that next leap. And we are as excited for your next step as you are. It will come. And when it does, you will leap. And through it all, we are behind you cheering you on. We are proud of you.

The Digital Bedtime Story?

I love to read. When my daughters were young, I loved reading to them at bedtime. I also loved lying in the bed with my wife and children listening to my wife read Little House on the Prairie or The Chronicles of Narnia to our children. We read physical books to our children…you know, books made of real paper as opposed to e-books. I’m not sure we had the choice of using e-books when my children were young. Still, the smell and touch of the paper, the sound of a turning page…it all has a certain beauty to it.

Today, you might think to read bedtime stories from an e-book, a nook, or a kindle to your children. But before you do, consider this small study published in 2019. This study involved 37 parent-child pairs. The children were an average of 29-months-old. The researchers observed and recorded behaviors while these parent-child pairs read stories together. In fact, each pair read each story in three different formats: a physical book, an e-reading tablet, and an e-reading tablet on which the story was interactive (touching added sounds, enhanced pictures, read words).

After observing and coding behavior, the researchers found that parent-child pairs using e-readers battled for possession of the tablet more often than they did when using a physical  book. Children moved so the parent could not see the e-reader more often, controlling the parent’s ability to read. Children and parents touched the book more often, pushed the other person’s hand away. Parents and children grabbed the book or attempted to move it out of the other’s range as well. In other words, parent and child exerted more effort to control the e-reader. They exhibited more behaviors aimed at “managing possession” of the tablet.

Why? The researchers note that tablets are generally for solitary use. For instance, parents may use the e-reader as an electronic babysitter for the child, letting their play with it alone while they clean the kitchen. This may increase the difficulty of using it collaboratively as a pair. Children also love to explore what is generally off limits to them. So, when an e-reader, which is generally off limits to them or turned off so they cannot use it, is suddenly presented to them, they may want to possess it. The researchers also suggest that both parent and child may be “mesmerized” by the screens that invite each one into a solitary interaction with the screen. In other words, in the long run, we really do not know why parents and children battled more for control of the e-reader when they can collaborate and share with the physical book. Perhaps that will be the next study we read.

But, whatever the reason, physical books led to greater interactive sharing versus attempts to control and possess. I like what the author of Bedtime Stories in the Digital Age concluded after reviewing this information: “if our parent-child interactions shape our future behaviors (and they do), we might want to read physical books with our children. Doing so is a more collaborative, less controlling interaction.”  And, if our world needs anything right now, it needs more collaborative, less controlling people. So, pick up a couple of physical books and enjoy reading them with your child.

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