Archive for Family Shepherds

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.

This May Change How You “Do Vacation”

Summer is approaching and many families have started planning their summer activities. Maybe you plan on taking a summer vacation with your family this year. I hope you so. But before you plan your summer vacation, I want to tell you about a study that may change how you “do vacation” this year. This study deals with communication skills. In particular, it explored 6th graders’ ability to read nonverbal communications and emotional cues in others. The researchers divided a group of 6th graders into two groups. One group attended a 5-day, overnight nature camp with no TV, computers, or mobile phones. They had no digital screens for a full five days. Instead, they engaged in group outdoor activities (hiking, archery, learning survival skills) that promoted face-to-face interactions. The other group continued using screen time as usual. At the end of five days, the 6th graders who attended the 5-day nature camp without screens had improved their ability to understand nonverbal communications and to recognize emotions in others. The group that continued using social media stayed the same. It seems that practice leads to improvement…but so what? Who cares if our children learn to better read nonverbal communications and emotional cues in others? Because these skills translate into healthier relationships, better employment, and greater success in life…and we all want that for our children.  

What does this have to do with vacation? You can enhance your children’s social skills and increase their opportunities for healthier relationships, better employment, and greater life success by simply making your vacation free of TV’s, computers, and cellphones. Maybe you think it too much to eliminate them completely. Then you might consider at least cutting down screen time to a mere half-hour per day during vacation. I know it sounds crazy but contemplate the benefit of your children’s increased ability to understand nonverbal communications and emotional cues. Even more, think about the fun you’ll have interacting with one another, playing games, and sharing conversation. Imagine the things you will learn about one another, the experiences you will share, and the intimacy you will gain. It will be amazing…and the long-term benefit for your children’s communication immeasurable!

A Parenting Assessment

Many parents assess their parenting skills based on their children’s behavior, successes, and achievements. They base their parental identity and parental success on their children’s performance in academics, sports, or the arts. You might be surprised, but these are terrible measures of parental identity and parental skills. After all, children misbehave. That does not mean we failed. As children become adults, some of them make bad choices with lasting consequences. That does not necessarily mean we were “bad parents.” After all, children have a mind of their own. Still, parenting has a huge impact on our children. So, how can we measure our parenting? How can we determine our parental success? How can we develop a healthy parental identity? I have a suggestion. We can ask ourselves a few questions in three basic areas. Our answers to those questions can help us assess our parenting and determine our parental identity. So, assess your parenting. Ask yourself:

  • Do I have a relationship with my child? (Realize the relationship you have with your children will change over time. You will also have times in that relationship when you feel closer than others. You will even experience times when they are angry with you. But the question remains an important question: Do I have a relationship with my child?)
    • Am I available?
    • Am I approachable?
    • Am I respectful of their emotions?
    • Do I listen well? Do they know I strive to understand them?
    • Do I express my love for my children explicitly?
  • Do I provide a healthy, age appropriate structure in our home and my child’s life?
    • Do my children know the limits and expectations?
    • Do I allow my children to experience the limits?
    • Do I hold my children accountable for their actions?
    • Can I allow my children to suffer the negative consequences of their behavior?
    • Do I say what I mean and mean what I say?
  • Do I set a positive example for my children?
    • Do I set a good example in self-care?
    • Do I set a good example in accepting limits and consequences?
    • Do I set a good example in expressing gratitude?
    • Do I set a good example in admitting my mistakes and making amends?
    • Do I set a good example in managing my emotions?
  • In all these areas—relationship, structure, and example—am I consistent?

I don’t know about you, but I find these questions both reassuring and convicting: reassuring because I believe I do fairly well in several areas and convicting because I fall short in some areas. I need to work at improving in the areas where I exhibit weakness…which leads me to one last question: Do you love your children? If you love your children, you will continue to grow in the areas listed above and you will remember that when you fall short “Love covers a multitude of sins” (Peter in 1 Peter 4:8).

Oops…Parenting Surprises & Lessons Learned

Parenting is full of surprises. Sometimes the biggest surprises involve catching myself doing the absurd. For instance, my daughters were having an argument upstairs. They kept getting louder and louder. Their comments became harsher and harsher. I could just imagine balled fists and reddened faces. So, I walked to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “We don’t yell in this house.” Did I just do what I think I did? Yes, I did. I yelled at them to stop yelling…and I did it with a rather harsh tone. Surprise! I surprised myself and learned a lesson that day: to discipline effectively, don’t yell across the room (or into another room). Walk over to your children. Let them see your presence next to them. Get down on their level and talk to them rather than yell across the room. You might even touch them gently on the shoulder as you remind them of the expectations. Your presence next to them speaks volumes more than your voice from across the room. That wasn’t the last time I surprised myself though. There was the Battle of the Red Jello, too. 

We were enjoying a family dinner at a small restaurant. My daughter had eaten her chicken and her broccoli. She had even eaten two helpings of broccoli.  We now prepared to order dessert. But my daughter still had a small square of jello on her plate. “Eat your jello.” “I don’t like red jello.” With that short exchange, the stand-off began. I cajoled, demanded, and even offered minor threats. Still, my daughter stood her ground. “I don’t like red jello.” After a short, but epic battle in which I sustained great damage to ego, a realization dawned. I’m arguing with a 7-year-old to eat her jello even though she has already eaten her chicken and two helpings of broccoli. Hmmm…surprise! Lesson learned: make sure the battle really is worth the fight. Make sure it really matches the priority your trying to teach. The Battle of the Red Jello just wasn’t worth the time and energy. Let it go.

One more surprise…I can only embarrass myself three times, so I’ll have to quit after this one. It all happened when I couldn’t find a piece of sheet music. I wanted to play it on the guitar and I knew I had the music somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I remembered hearing my daughter playing it earlier, so I asked her where it was. “I don’t know.”  Convenient, I thought as I began to scold her for being careless and losing things that don’t belong to her. “Why do you always take things? I wish you’d learn to put things back where you got them from!” “Hey Dad,” she politely interrupted. “Didn’t you have it in the kitchen at lunch?” Oh yeah…now I remember. I had put it on the table after showing it to my daughters. Oops. Surprised…and embarrassed. Another lesson learned: Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t cast blame when you don’t know where blame lies. And, “never” use words like “always” or “never.”  You might have to eat them sooner than you think. This incident taught me another lesson, too, and this one was hard to swallow. Sometimes I have to apologize, even to my children. “I’m sorry I accused you and yelled at you.” “It’s OK.”   “Thank you for being understanding.” “Why wouldn’t I? You taught us that way.” What? Another surprise?! We taught our daughters to show grace and forgiveness. Forgot about that. Cool.  I guess the surprises aren’t all bad after all.

I’m the Boss Around Here Mom

Do you have a “bossy child”? You know the type. They like to be in charge. They don’t just play with their friends, they direct their friends. At times you might even cringe at how they speak to the adults in their lives. If this sounds familiar, you probably have a “bossy child.”  No fretting though. It’s not all bad. We want our children to mature into assertive young adults who can take on leadership roles in their home and community. Your “bossy child” has already acquired some of the skills necessary to do so. They are naturally assertive. In fact, it is probably a good idea to stop labeling them as “bossy” and start calling them an “assertive child,” a “take charge kind” of person. Talk about their leadership qualities rather than constantly scold them about their bossiness. Just by changing the label you have begun to change how you view them…and how they will view themselves. Rather than scolding them for being “bossy,” you can teach them how to treat others with dignity while being assertive. Rather than squelching their natural ability to “take charge,” teach them how to lead with grace and politeness. Instead of getting upset that they demand their way, teach them the proper times to comply. Rather than fight against their natural ability, work with them to shape that ability into a mature strength. (Read Parental Assumptions & the Cycle of Discipline for more on how our labels impact our parenting.) Here are some ideas to help you do this on a daily basis.

  • Offer your children choices, lots of choices. When we offer our assertive child a choice, we are acting in authority. Our child has to comply, but they also get to remain in control and decide how they will comply. You can make many choices available to your child every day. They can choose whether to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt, either way they wear a shirt. They can decide whether to take a bath before or after dinner. They can choose the vegetable for dinner—”corn or green beans,” “cauliflower or mixed vegetables.” They can control the order in which they pick up their toys. You get the idea. Give your children lots of choices.
  • Give your children chores over which they can practice control. Give them a job and let them do it independently. Teach them one way to do it but let them do it in their own way, as long as it gets done. For instance, you could let your children separate the laundry, fold the clothes, run the sweeper, clean the living room, or load the dishwasher.  They may choose to do it in a different order than you. But they still will have grown in independence. (Remember, Chores Are the Gift of Significance.)
  • Acknowledge times when they accept authorities and follow the directives from adults. Strong-willed, assertive children may struggle to do this. Acknowledge that struggle. Talk about the benefit of accepting authority in life. Let them know there are times when all of us follow the directives of others.
  • Don’t be afraid of giving consequences. There will be times when they push against the directive no matter what you do. As an authority, you need to give a consequence at such times. A consequence could be as simple as losing a privilege or having their toy or game placed in a “time out” where they cannot play with it. You know what consequences impact your children the most. Don’t be afraid of giving appropriate consequences in response to defiant opposition or extreme bossiness. (If the thought of giving a strong limit & consequence arouses fear in you, read I’m Afraid to Discipline for some insight.)

If you have a “bossy child,” rejoice. Celebrate your “assertive child.” Take joy in their ability to “take charge.” Admire their “leadership quality.” Then practice the four ideas above and you’ll watch them blossom into an assertive leader who gives those who follow them dignity and respect.

A Teen Epidemic & Containment

The epidemic of depression and suicide is spreading among our teens (13-18-years-old) like wildfire, especially among girls. Consider these statistics:

  • Suicide rate has increased 31% from 2010 to 2015 among teens. Even more disturbing, the suicide rate has increased 65% among adolescent girls over the same time period!
  • Symptoms of depression have increased 58% among girls from 2010 to 2015 (Excessive Screen Time Linked to Suicide Risk).

In searching for potential causes of this rapid increase in depression and suicidal rates among teens, researchers realized that cell phone ownership increased dramatically over the same time period. In 2012, about half of Americans owned a cell phone. By 2015, only 3 years later, 92% of teens and young adults owned one.  This does not mean that cell phones cause depression, but an association between does exist between the two. Interestingly, this same research does not reveal a link between homework load, academic pressure, or financial problems and the rapid rise in depression and suicidal rates among teens even though it looked for such links (The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use, Study Says). On the other hand, the study did reveal that:

  • 13-18-year-olds who spend 3 or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to exhibit a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour or less on electronic devices,
  • 13-18-year-olds who spend 5 hours or more a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour on electronic devices.  
  • 48% of teens who spent 5 hours or more per day on electronic devices reported suicide-related behaviors compared to only 28% of teens who spent an hour or less on electronic devices. (OPEN LETTER FROM JANA PARTNERS AND CALSTRS TO APPLE INC.).

Fortunately, recognizing the link between electronic devices and depression and suicide offers us a way to contain the epidemic of depression and suicide rates among teens…not a complete cure, but a way to reduce the spread of an epidemic robbing us of our teens.  With that in mind, I offer four suggestions.

  1. Limit screen time to 2 hours per day or less. Our teens have not developed the skills to manage the addictive nature of electronic devices. (Perhaps many of us as adults have not developed those skills yet either.) Limiting screen-time to 2 hours per day keeps a teen in the area NOT associated with an increase in depressive symptoms or suicidal behaviors. This may involve teaching our teens to limit time spent on social media, turn off alerts, not spend down-time watching videos, limit video game time, and check social media less often. (For more, consider The Burden of a Smartphone.)
  2. Model limited use of electronic devices. We can’t expect our teens to use their devices less when they see us, their parents, wrapped up in our phones and devices. I thought I would never use electronic devices for 3 hours in a day. Surely, I was in the “safe zone.” Then Apple put “Screen Time” in the phone settings and my time usage started popping up. I discovered that I can easily average 3-4 hours per day on my smartphone! Clearly, I have to learn how to limit my time on the phone in order to model a healthy use of electronic devices to the children in my life. Do you?
  3. Encourage non-screen activities like sports, outdoor play and exercise, face-to-face interactions, church, non-screen hobbies, and family games. Teach your teens to have fun without screens. Let them learn by experience that face-to-face interactions are more enjoyable than social media, “real-life games” are more enjoyable than “virtual games,” and hands-on hobbies more enjoyable than screen-time games.
  4. Take a vacation from electronic devices. A study from UCLA noted that after only 5 days of a “device-free outdoor camp,” children performed better on tests for empathy than did a control group.  Another study showed that a month without Facebook led to greater happiness.  Take a vacation. Do it as a family and invest time previously spent on devices engaging in “real-time” interaction with one another and “real-life” experiences. (For more ideas, check out Don’t Let Them Take Over.)

We all have work to do in balancing our lives in a world where electronic devices impinge more and more on our daily lives. But the work we do to limit electronic devices in our lives and the lives our family members,’ could save a life…maybe even the life of your teen!

Bucking the Weaker Trend

According to a study conducted in Chelmsford, Essex, 10-year-olds reported a decline in physical activity between 2008 and 2014. The study’s authors believed this was the result of increased time on computers and greater parental concerns about children safety when engaging in “riskier” activities like climbing trees or wandering from home. 

“So what?” you might ask. “What’s the difference if children show a decrease in physical activity?”  The real concern is the consequences of this decrease in activity. To uncover the potential consequences of decreased activity, the study also looked at changes in height, weight, standing broad jump, sit-ups, handgrip, and arm-hang in 10-year-olds between the years of 1998 and 2014. Over that 16-year period (1998 through 2014), children have grown taller and their BMI has remained the same. However, they have experienced an overall 20% decrease in muscle strength and a 30% decrease in muscle endurance!  Children have become weaker. They have also become less tolerant of discomfort.

There is a way you can buck this trend though, a way to keep your children stronger and more tolerant of simple discomforts. Encourage them to engage in physical play outside. Give them significant household chores to complete. Encourage them to work with you in the yard or in the house. Let them experience the joys of hard work and the reward of completing a hands-on job. When they do these things, they will gain a greater sense of competence than any they can learn through video games. They will grow more aware of their body and be better able to maintain their own physical safety. They will acquire a stronger and healthier self-image than the self-image learned from watching television. They will grow stronger…not only physically but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well.  Then, maybe in another 16 years we will earn how 10-year-olds have not only grown taller but stronger.

4 Parenting Mistakes to Avoid

Let’s face it. Parenting is hard work, an emotional and mental endurance workout. It comes with great hopes and joys as well as difficult challenges and struggles. Unfortunately, it does not come with an easy-to-do manual.  Each child is different…and each child demands something different from their parent. Although I can’t tell you the one perfect thing to do as a parent to assure your children becomes healthy and mature adults, I can tell you about four common parenting mistakes to avoid. Avoiding them can help you enjoy more of the hopes and joys of parenting than the struggles and disappointments. So, here we go…four parenting mistakes to avoid.

  • Enabling. Parents enable their children by indulging them, satisfying their every desire and “bailing them out” in an effort to save them from discomfort.  Saving your children from consequences and discomfort only leads to children who avoid challenges and hard work. It contributes to entitled children. Ironically, enabling our children in this way also contributes to lower self-esteem.  So, instead of enabling your children, begin to empower them. Teach them personal responsibility. Let them experience the consequences of their behavior. Let them “suffer” the reality of not having every need satisfied. Let them grow strong. (Three Simple Steps to Discipline Children)
  • Inconsistency. Consistency provides predictability and security in family life. Children thrive when they feel secure. Inconsistency, on the other hand, leaves them guessing and frustrated. They begin to second guess themselves and feel inadequate to meet demands that they can’t even quite figure out.  In other words, inconsistency hurts our children. Consistency, on the other hand, leads to growth. Children grow more mature and experience more happiness when we strive to maintain consistency in our homes—consistency in rules, consistency in routine, consistency in love, consistency in attention, consistency in expectation…consistency. (All Parents Fail Without This Ingredient)
  • Invalidating their feelings. Everyone has feelings. Feelings give us important information about priorities, needs, and concerns. They energize us to meet those priorities and communicate our needs. We invalidate our children’s feelings when we minimize them, contradict them, or lecture them rather than empathizes with them. When we invalidate our children’s feelings, they feel misunderstood at best and possibly even feel like there is something wrong with them for having feelings. As a result, they may become more defiant or experience mood problems like depression or anxiety. Empathize with your children’s emotions. Listen. Understand. Empathize. Then, and only then, discuss and problem-solve.
  • Phubbing. Phubbing is snubbing someone by looking at your phone: phone snubbing or phubbing. Multiple studies reveal that cellphones interfere with relationships. They make the person being “phubbed” feel invalidated, unimportant, and disregarded. Our children whither when they feel disregarded and unimportant in their parents’ lives. They begin to “act out” to gain attention when they feel ignored. Quit “phubbing” and start loving. Give your children healthy attention. Interact. Play. Engage. Enjoy…and they will realize their importance and significance. (A Sense of Belonging Phubbed & The Power of Your Thumb)

Avoiding these four common mistakes will not assure a perfect child…but they will help you a better parent.

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