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What Do You Really Want for Your Children?

I hate to say it, but parents have a huge responsibility. A tremendous burden rests on our shoulders. The future of our world depends on the priorities and values we instill in our children. I mean, it’s true but I didn’t think about that kind of responsibility when my wife and I decided to have children. But we quickly came to realize the need to take that responsibility seriously. We had to ask ourselves what values we really want to instill in our children. We needed to assess what we really want our children to learn. We had to nurture and teach our children to enable them to “see the big picture.”  Here are some of the questions we ask of ourselves. What are your answers?

  • Do we want our children to learn that the most important aspect of life is to win at any cost or do we want them to play the game while encouraging and supporting even the competition?
  • Do we want our children to learn to “get over on the system” or to live with integrity and honesty while working to change the system?
  • Do we want our children to pursue their own interests to the neglect of others or to pursue their interests while remaining aware, respectful, and encouraging of other peoples’ interests as well?
  • Do we want our children to fight for “my rights” or to have a more expansive view that also considers the rights of others and balancing the rights of all through service and sacrifice?
  • Do we want our children to get rich or to share with those who have genuine need?
  • Do we want our children to work to the neglect of relationship or to work to gain the resources they can use to build relationships?
  • Do we want our children to worry about the future at the expense of enjoying the moment or to prepare for the future while enjoying the moment? In fact, to even believe that how we enjoy the moment shapes our future!
  • Do we want our children to learn that “my” job or interests is most important and prestigious or to learn that everyone’s jobs and interests carry importance, prestige, and an amazing set of knowledge not everyone shares?
  • Do we want our children to learn that “my” opinion is best or to develop a genuine interest and respect in other people’s ideas and opinions, even if you disagree?

You cannot NOT teach your children these values. In your everyday words and actions, you teach your children these values.  They learn them from what you say and what you do, how you treat them and how you treat one another. Consider the values you want them to learn. Then start living them out in your daily life today!

Christmas–You Don’t Want to Miss This!

The Christmas Season is a wonderful family celebration. We fill our time with traditions and rituals that draw our families together and remind us of the true meaning of the season. Those traditions and rituals create an emotional bond we can cherish throughout our lives with our spouses and children. This holiday season seems to have been rushed and modified for my family. Still, we look for opportunities to fit each of our traditions into the season and, with each one, grow more connected as a family. Let me share some Christmas Traditions we enjoy as a family and a couple of traditions from other families to fill your season with joy and remembrance. My family enjoys:

  • Dad helping boy to decorate christmas treeReading “A Gathering of Angels” by Calvin Miller.
  • Decorating the Christmas tree. Buying a family ornament for our tree each year. Hiding the Christmas pickle…sort of.
  • Sharing gifts with one another, one on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas morning. Christmas morning we play music, sip a hot drink, and pass around the gifts.
  • Listening to the Christmas concerts given by the high school band and chorus.
  • Singing Christmas carols.
  • Contemplating and talking about the birth of Christ. I especially like the story of the shepherds!
  • Enjoying a special family Christmas dinner and enjoying a Christmas dinner with our church family.
  • Attending a Christmas Eve service.
  • Setting up a manger scene.
  • My children bake cookies and I help by eating them. (I love eating them fresh from the oven!)

Some traditions our friends celebrate and enjoy…you might, too:

  • Leave the wise men out of the manger scene and place them somewhere on the other side of the house. Each day, move them closer to the manger scene. They finally arrive at the manger scene the day after Christmas.
  • Bake a birthday cake for Jesus and enjoy it on Christmas day.
  • One of our friends shares with his whole community in a traditional Slovak Christmas Dinner each year, complete with ethnic entertainment.
  • The Elf on the Shelf…who magically moves around the house on his/her own.
  • Watching the Christmas TV specials. Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer are my favorites.

I know the season is well under way, but what are some of your family’s favorite traditions? We would love to hear how you celebrate family at Christmas time. And, who knows, your tradition may help another family celebrate their Christmas this year!

Are You a Manipulative Parent?

I have often heard about the dangers of using manipulation when parenting. Manipulation in parenting contributes to an increased risk of rebellion, excessive guilt, and even depression in the child being manipulated. But what exactly is manipulative parenting? What practices make up manipulative parenting? We need to know the answers to these questions, so we don’t accidentally engage in manipulation. With that in mind, let me explain 5 ways in which parents might manipulate their children as they try to discipline.

  1. Withdrawing love or isolating their child. Children need their parents. They need to know their parent’s love for them is unshakable, present, and available. When we send our children to their room for an indefinite period of time or suddenly withdraw ourselves emotionally from their world, they become insecure. They question their own lovability. And they will do almost anything to regain the security of their parents’ love and attention.  When we withdraw our love or isolate our children, we have used their innate need for our loving presence and attention to manipulate them into behaviors we desire. So, rather than give your child an indefinite time out, give them a timeframe (a short timeframe). Then restore the relationship. Even better, give your child a “time-in” instead of a time-out. If you find yourself needing some emotional distance from a situation with your child, talk to them first. Explain to them that you simply need time alone and how they can provide that space without even leaving the room by quietly engaging in an activity on their own. Also, give them a time frame for your time alone. Once again, reunite with them immediately afterwards.
  2. Eliciting a “guilt trip.” We have all seen parents attempt to make their children engage in desired behavior or make a particular decision by sending them on a guilt trip. You know…phrases like, “I can’t believe you would do this to me after I…” or “I taught you better than that” or “You drive me crazy. Why don’t you just sit still and be quiet?”  Even a look of disappointment and shame can send our children on a guilt trip. Using guilt to elicit the behavior or decisions we desire in our children is manipulation…and detrimental to their emotional health. Rather than sending your child on a guilt trip, explain what behavior you desire and the reasons you desire it. Take time to teach.
  3. The “silent treatment.” “Silent treatment” is another way parents isolate their child. The still face experiment (seen in this video for both an infant and a married couple) reveals how the silent treatment negatively impacts our children. They become emotionally dysregulated and will do anything to reengage with their parent. Getting our children to do what we want by engaging in ” silent treatment” is manipulation. Learn, instead, to talk with your child. Teach them. Explain yourself. This may include becoming a bit vulnerable at times. But, when we talk, teach, and listen, our children will grow. You will grow. And their positive behavior will increase.
  4. Humiliating, shaming, or embarrassing. Of course, this is manipulative. We never want to humiliate, shame, or embarrass our children. Really, we want to model healthy ways of interaction in our own interaction with them. We want to treat our children with the same respect and love with which we want them to treat us and others in the world. They will learn through their experience with us.
  5. Social comparisons. Social comparisons manipulate by inducing guilt, embarrassing, and even humiliating our children. There is no need to compare our children with anyone else. In fact, we find our children’s best self in their uniqueness. Accept them for “who they are,” strengths and weaknesses alike. Acceptance carries great power to promote their growth and maturity. Children learn to value themselves and their capacity for growth when they find acceptance in and from us.

These five practices are signs of manipulative parents. Each one has a detrimental effect on our children. Each one backfires in the long run. Each one interferes with healthy relationships. But each once can be replaced with loving respect, kind instruction, healthy interactions, and acceptance. When we replace manipulation with respect, instruction, acceptance, and healthy relationships, we will enjoy a growing relationship with our constantly maturing children.

Your Child’s Executive Functioning Needs to Go On a Diet

If you want your infant to develop healthy executive functioning (things like healthy working memory, planning abilities, organizing abilities, and behavioral inhibition) as they mature, you may want to put their executive functioning on a diet, a healthy diet. A study utilizing the data of 294 families involved in the STRONG Kids2 birth cohort study found the diet of 18-to 24-month-old infants correlated with their executive functioning. In this study, infants who ate more sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with emotional control, behavioral inhibition, and planning and organizing—all components of executive functioning. That may not seem like a big deal for 2-year-olds. After all, “Kids will be kids.” But previous research suggests that children who had a higher consumption of sugary, processed foods also scored lower on academic tests than those who ate a healthy diet.  And another study found that a healthy diet was associated with better executive functioning than a diet high in snack foods in both children and adolescents.

What’s the takeaway for our families? If we want our children to develop optimal executive functioning skills in the present and in the future–if we want our children to exhibit their greatest abilities to plan, organize, inhibit unwanted behaviors, and effectively manage emotions–put away the donuts, chips, and cookies. Have healthy snacks and drinks on hand instead. Keep a fresh supply of fruits, nuts, and water for your children to snack on. You’ll be nurturing better executive functioning which, in the long run, means greater academic success and healthier social relationships. Go ahead…have a snack…there’s apples in the fridge.

Help Your Children Get “Ready to Learn”

Learning can happen anytime and anywhere…not just in school. In fact, most learning probably occurs outside of school. Our children learn by watching us. They learn while playing. They learn everywhere. But if you really want to get your children “ready to learn” in more formal settings like school, a series of five studies out of Ohio State University offers a simple, yet powerful suggestion. In this series of studies, participants played a simple computer game in which one group saw “colorful images of unfamiliar creatures” later identified as “flurps” and “jalets.”  They received no information about these creatures in the first phase of the study. They simply saw them. A second group played the game and did not even see the creatures.

In the second phase of the study, both groups received explicit instruction about “flurps” and “jalets.” The researchers measured how long it took participants to learn the difference between them. The first group, who had previous exposure to the creatures, learned the differences between “flurps” and “jalets” more quickly than those who had no exposure to them. Simple exposure prepared them to learn.

In another study, participants would see the creatures in the middle of the screen and have to push a one button if the creature jumped to the left or a different button if it jumped to the right. No one told them that one category of creature always jumped left, and another category always jumped right. Surprisingly, participants did not recognize this difference while playing the game. Mere exposure did not teach them which creature jumped in which direction. But, that exposure did allow them to learn the differences between the creatures more quickly than a group who had received no exposure to the creatures. In other words, the exposure did not teach them about the creatures, it simply prepared them to learn about the creatures.

What does this mean? It means that merely exposing your children to new places and things prepares them to learn about those places and things. They may not learn from simply experiencing the new object or place, but the experience prepares them to learn about it more quickly when they receive actual teaching. In other words, you can prepare your child to learn by simply exposing them to new things. Here are some ideas to prepare your children to learn.

  • Go on vacation. When you go on vacation, your children encounter new places, new people, new foods, new ecosystems, new animals, new history, and more. Simply experiencing these things prepares them to learn about them in their school studies, readings, or family talks.
  • Listen to a variety of music. Don’t get stuck in one style of music. Let your children experience a variety of music. Also, buy some toy instruments and let them play with them. Let them bang on the Tupperware, shake the toy tambourine, hum in the kazoo. As a result, they will be better prepared to learn about rhythm, melody, harmony, and instruments.
  • Play with sports equipment. Toss a ball around. Play catch. Swing a bat or a tennis racquet around. Run. Have fun. It will prepare your child to learn about sports when they get more serious.
  • Play board games and card games. Games can expose children to the concept of “chance” and numbers as well as strategy and more. Counting dice, counting moves, deciding if it’s worth the risk to ask for another card…all these prepare a child to learn math and science skills.
  • Cook with your child. Measuring ingredients for pies or cookies prepares your child to learn about math.

These are just a few ideas. There are many more. Take the time today to engage your child in something new and get them “ready to learn.” What activities can you think of that will expose your child to a skill that they will later learn as part of life?

Strengthen Your Family in 3 Words or Less

Want to build a stronger family? Of course you do. We all do. We want a stronger, more intimate family. A healthy family. A connected family. Sometimes it sounds like hard work to “build” a strong, healthy family. But you can do it in three words or less…as long as you use those words often. Let me share some examples.

  • You see your spouse washing dishes. Now is your chance. Build a stronger relationship with these 3 little words: “Can I help?” Then follow through when she says “yes.”
  • Your parent is washing the car or raking leaves. “Can I help?” are the perfect 3 words to strengthen your connection with your parent.
  • Your child is frustrated with their homework. Now is not the time to lecture about waiting until the last minute. Instead, strengthen your bond with these 3 simple words: “Can I help?”
  • Your spouse asks for help cooking dinner or putting the summer porch furniture away. They ask for your help. I know. You’re busy. You have your chores too. But they’ve asked for your help; and you want to build intimacy, strengthen your connection. So, three simple words will help: “I’d love to.”

You can strengthen your relationship in less than three words too. Take these examples.

  • You ask someone in your family to pass the salt at dinnertime and they do. Reply with a simple “Thank you.” Two words, that’s all. But those two simple words strengthen the bond in your relationship.
  • You just finished putting away the clean dishes. You do it almost every day so it’s no big deal. But your spouse thanks you. You could minimize their gratitude; but then you would miss the opportunity to build the relationship. Instead, you say “My pleasure” –two words that deepen your spouse’s appreciation even further.
  • You said something mean in the midst of an argument. It just slipped out. You know it was wrong and you don’t really mean it. Nonetheless, it hurt the other person and erected a barrier between you and them. “I’m sorry” begins to repair the breach. “I’m sorry” accepts responsibility and opens the door to restore the intimacy lost.

These are only 2-3 word phrases. But, when shared generously, graciously, and authentically in our family, they will strengthen your family, increase the intimacy in your relationships, and bring greater health to your family relationships. What other simple 2-3 word phrases can you think of that will strengthen your family?

My Teen Doesn’t Listen Anymore

Did you know that fetuses recognize their mother’s voice? That’s even before a child is born. It’s true. They do. And from birth, children prefer their mother’s voice. A study using MRI technology has even shown that the brains of 7- to 12-year-old children respond differently to their mother’s voice than to other women’s voices. In response to their mother’s voice [but not in response to another woman’s voice], the 7-12-year-old’s brain lights up in brain areas associated with emotional processing, reward processing, and the processing information about the self. In other words, a child’s brain is uniquely attuned to their mother’s voice even before birth.

But something happens around the age of 13 years. If you’re a parent, you probably noticed it. Our children turn 13-years-old and suddenly they become deaf to their mother’s voice. They appear to quit listening. A 2022 study published by the Stanford School of Medicine reveals that this change is not necessarily a willful choice to disregard their mother. The change is deeper than that. It’s a change reaching deep into the brain itself.

Researchers utilized data from teens who were 13 to 16. 5 years of age for this study. These teens listened to recordings of their mother and two unfamiliar women say 3 nonsense words. Researchers used nonsense words to avoid meaning or emotional content eliciting a response. They also listened to recordings of random household sounds. While listening to all of these voices and sounds, brain activity was recorded using MRI. Not surprisingly, teens easily distinguished their mother’s voice from the other women’s voices. All the voices elicited greater activity in several brain areas when compared to younger children. Interestingly, researchers could even predict the teen’s age based on this increased brain response.

But, and this is the kicker, unfamiliar voices created greater activity in the area of the teen’s brain associated with reward-processing and the area involved in determining the value of social information. In other words, our teens’ brains biologically responded differently to unfamiliar voices than they had prior to 13 years of age. For teens, the brain areas associated with reward processing and determining value light up for unfamiliar voices more than they do for their mother’s voice. All the voices were heard (even your voice, Mom) but the unfamiliar voices were more rewarding and valued.

What does all this mean for the parent of a teen? Teens are naturally moving toward individuation. They are preparing to move away from home and into the world. As a result, they are becoming more attuned to those voices outside of the family. Ironically, they still need a parent’s guidance and wisdom. So here are some tips to help you maintain effective communication with your teen, even has they become attuned to the “outside world.”

  • First, don’t take it personal. It’s not about you. Your teen is maturing and preparing to leave the home. As a result, they are becoming attuned to the world outside the home. Don’t take it personal.
  • Trust what they have learned from you and your home over the last 13 years. They have internalized a great deal of knowledge, values, and even a family identity. Trust the time and love you have invested in your teen over their childhood years. You would be amazed how many times a parent brings a child to therapy and says, “They just don’t seem to listen.” They explain things they have told their teen that they fear their teen has not hear. Then, I meet with their teen who tells me, many times word for word, what their parents have said. And the teen voices these statements as their beliefs, not their parents’ beliefs. Our teens are listening. Our children have learned. Trust the love you have invested in your teen already.
  • Remain involved. This begins with listening. Give your teen your full attention when they want to interact with you. Listen intently and deeply to your teen. Sometimes parents have a difficult time learning that the art of listening is more than simply responding. Your teen will more readily hear you when they know you consistently do your best to listen intently to them.
  • When you have something to tell your teen, make sure you get their attention first. Address them by name, with kindness. Look them in the eye. You might gently put a hand on their shoulder or their arm. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily. And if you need to interrupt, do so politely and respectfully.
  • Involve your child in other community groups with like-minded adults. You might involve your teen in youth groups, drama groups, sports groups, dance groups, academic groups…whatever group might spark your teen’s interest. Meet the adults who manage these groups. Sometimes our teens will hear advice from a coach long before they hear the same advice from their parent. I used to laugh (or, more honestly, boil with frustration) when my daughter would come home and tell me this amazing piece of wisdom she had learned from a teacher or music instructor. Why? Because I knew I had told her the same thing many times over the last several years. But she needed to hear it from another adult.

Our teens are maturing. They are preparing to leave home and make their mark on the world. That’s what we have worked for…but it comes with some sorrow, doesn’t it? Part of that “letting go” involves realizing that our voices take on a different meaning to our teens. Don’t take it personal. Listen to them deeply. Love them with your presence. And watch them blossom into adulthood on the other side of the wilderness of adolescence.

The Parent-Child Relationship, Trust, & Your Child’s Future

Trust. Our children need to develop a healthy ability to trust if we want them to have healthy relationships. In psychology, our ability to trust develops based on our relationship to our parents—our attachment to our parents. If children have a secure attachment to their parent, they learn a healthy trust of other people. If they have an insecure attachment to their parent, they may struggle to trust other people and, as a result, struggle to some degree in relationships throughout their lifetime. Is this truly the case? Good question.

A ten-year study of 128 toddlers and their mothers assessed this idea. At the beginning of the ten-year study, researchers evaluated the mother-toddler attachment using the Strange Situation procedure (a state-of-the-art method of measuring secure vs. insecure attachment in toddlers). Ten years later, when the children were in their early adolescence, the researchers observed how the adolescents evaluated the trustworthiness of a stranger.

Adolescents who had tested insecure as toddlers showed less ability to identify “low trustworthy” facial cues. On the other hand, toddlers who had tested secure in their mother-child relationship were better able to differentiate trustworthy from untrustworthy facial cues.

The ability to differentiate between trustworthy and untrustworthy facial cues contributes to adolescents having fewer relationships in which an untrustworthy person hurts them…and more positive relationships with trustworthy people. That sounds like something I want my children to experience. How about you?

You might be thinking, “But my children are well past the toddler years. Is it too late?” No. It is never too late to develop a positive, secure relationship with your child. And as you do, they will grow and learn. They will better learn who to trust and how to trust. How can a parent develop a positive, secure relationship with their child. Here are five brief ways you can build a more secure relationship with your child.

  1. Set apart time for your child. Developing a secure relationship takes time, lots of time. Spend time with your children.
  2. Enjoy your child’s exploration of the world around them. Get to know your child and their interests. Get excited about their interests and provide them opportunities and ways to explore those interests. Talk to them about their interests and what they are learning. Be excited with them. Admire their exploration of themselves and their world as they explore interests and hobbies.
  3. Be available when your child encounter struggles, obstacles, and fears. You don’t have to fix the situation or make it easier. In fact, bailing them out will hinder their growth. But your relationship with your child will grow when you are available to support, encourage, and gently hold them accountable in difficult situations.
  4. Comfort your child when they become upset or disappointed, hurt, or frustrated. Be available as a safe haven to which they can return for comfort and love when challenges arise. Listen to them. Empathize with them. Comfort them. Problem-solve with them. Do all this within the loving embrace of a comforting relationship.
  5. Play. Play is an opportunity to spend time with your child, allow them to explore themselves, and comfort them in challenging situations. Play is an opportunity to have fun with your child, admiring their abilities and their wisdom. Play will build trust. Play is an opportunity to build relationship. Enjoy times of play with your child.

Committing to these five actions will build a stronger more secure relationship between you and your child…a relationship from which they can explore themselves and the world, knowing you are a safe haven to which they can return to refuel with love and go on.

Save Your Way to a More Satisfying Sex Life

Stresses related to money and sex are often listed among the leading causes reported for divorce. Reasons for this go well beyond the simple issue of money and sex. Nonetheless, both money and sex are often reported as one of the reasons couples seek divorce. (See Why Do People Get Divorced? 10 Reasons And Statistics | ReGain and What Is The Number One Cause Of Divorce In The United States: Legal Dissolution Statistics In The U.S. | ReGain.) However, a study using data from 1,447 couples offers an interesting alternative to letting money and sex contribute to divorce. This study explored the connection between “financial management behaviors” –like creating and sticking to a monthly budget or paying off a credit card in full each month—and sexual satisfaction in newly-married couples. 

Not surprisingly, the study reported that consistently practicing smart financial management behaviors was linked to couples reporting less financial stress. That’s good news, but I find financial management tedious and boring. It’s not my “go to” activity for fun and relaxation. I hate sitting down to pay bills, manage savings, figure out budgets. But, in this study, the result of these financial management behaviors and the resulting reduction in financial stress was very exciting. First, decreased financial stress for the wives was associated with reports of a more satisfying sex life for BOTH the husband and the wife. This was not the case for husbands. A husband’s reduction in financial stress did NOT relate to the sexual satisfaction of the wife or husband. However, this study also found that when husbands practiced smart financial management behaviors, they experienced greater satisfaction in their marital sex life.

Let me restate those two findings. One, reduced financial stress for wives led to a more satisfying sex life for husband and wife. Two, practicing smart financial management behaviors increased a husband’s satisfaction in his marital sex life.

So, if you want to have a more satisfying sex life in your marriage, practice smart financial management behaviors. Reduce financial stress for your wife. This will increase the satisfaction of your sexual relationship as a married couple. Now that makes financial management and financial management behaviors a whole lot more exciting, doesn’t it?

Be Your Spouse’s Dream Champion

Everyone wants their spouse to grow into their best self.  Unfortunately (or, maybe fortunately) you cannot make them grow into their best self. But you can nurture and support their dreams. You can help them grow into their dreams and their best self by keeping these four practices in mind.

  • Be your spouse’s dream champion not their dream blocker. Show interest in your spouse’s dreams and goals. Talk about their dreams. Learn what that dream means to them and how they need to do to move toward that dream. If there are ways in which you can help them achieve their dream, do it. Celebrate their successes with each step they make toward their dream. Your support will nurture your spouse’s self-confidence to take wise steps toward achieving their goals and their dream.
  • Be your spouse’s encourager not their controller. If there are ways you might help your spouse move toward their dream, do it. However, do not intrude and take over their dream. Do not push them toward their dream or act as though you know how to best achieve their dream. Don’t take control of their dream by telling them what they need to do in order to achieve it. It is their dream. Let them have it. Encourage them when they feel discouraged. Encourage them when they feel overwhelmed. Be your spouse’s encourager…not their controller.
  • Be your spouse’s wise sounding board not their micromanager. You may have insights into how your spouse can move toward their dream. As you and your spouse talk about the dream, offer your insights. But don’t micromanage. Don’t interfere with their exploration of their dream and the pathway to it. Let them own their successes and their failures.
  • Be your spouse’s comforter not their sergeant. When your spouse experiences a setback or a temporary failure, comfort them. Don’t brush off the doubts that arise because of the setback. Don’t push the stress aside as common to everyone chasing a dream. Don’t motivate them with threats or powerful motivational speeches. Instead, remain emotionally available to share that time of disappointment and sorrow with them. Sit with them. Comfort them. Then, become their encourager again…their dream champion.

Our spouses help us become our best selves (I know my wife is My Michelangelo) …and we can help our spouses become their best selves. However, we must act wisely for that to happen. Encourage but don’t take over. Be a wise sounding board, not a micromanager.  When necessary, comfort rather than motivate. When you do these things, you will become your spouse’s dream champion and they will become their best self.

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