Don’t Forget to Teach This to Your Children

Our children need to learn many skills in order to move successfully into adulthood. Perhaps the most important skills have more to do with how they think than what they do. For instance, how they view themselves will play a bigger role in their success than their ability to throw a ball, dance, or do the laundry. One important aspect of how our children learn to view themselves has to do with their beliefs around power. For instance, children who develop a strong sense of self-efficacy (a belief that they have the ability and capacity to successfully complete tasks and achieve) challenge themselves more, put more effort into those challenging tasks, and focus on how to make improvement when they fall short. As you can imagine, this leads to greater success and greater joy in life.

How can you help your children develop a sense of self-efficacy? I’m glad you asked.

  • Provide your children with opportunities to try new things. Encourage them to try things they are not immediately good at. Children have an amazing ability to learn simply through exposure. They don’t have to become experts to gain some knowledge and learn that they have power to influence and learn in many areas.
  • Praise specifics. Rather than providing broad sweeping praises like “Great job” or “You’re a good boy,” praise specific aspects of the job well done. “I really like the colors you used. How did you choose those colors?” “I can tell you’ve been practicing dribbling the ball. You got down field so well this game.” Such specifics point out how effort produces improvement and highlights your children’s experience of “getting it right.”
  • Turn failures and mistakes into learning opportunities. Corrections do not need to be harsh or overly critical. Let mistakes become opportunities for improvement. This will begin by empathizing with any feelings they have about the “failure.” Listen. Understood. Weep with those who weep and be sorrowful with those who are sorrowful. Then, after they know you understand and empathize, begin to explore how they might avoid the same mistake next time. You might ask how they think they might improve or what their teachers/coaches have suggested. You might even teach them from your own experience of learning from “failures.” Just be sure to follow their pace in the process.
  • Part of learning from mistakes is recognizing strategies. Point out strategies that have helped them or others. For instance, pointing out how studying helped them do well on a test might sound like, “You did great on this test. I’m not surprised because I know you studied hard for it.” When they improve their ability to throw a curve ball or their time in a 100-yard dash, a simple “Your practice and hard work are really paying off” points out the strategy of effort contributing to progress.   

These four practices will help your children develop a sense of self-efficacy and that sense of self-efficacy will prove to be one of the most important things you taught them for their life.

I Can’t Say “No,” What Will They Think?

Do you ever begin to feel overwhelmed with the busyness of your schedule? I know I do. In fact, right now I’m feeling a little overwhelmed trying to get everything done amidst the “one too many” commitments I’ve made. During those times, our families suffer. They suffer from our lack of availability and presence in their lives. We also suffer with our family by missing out on a growing sense of intimacy and closeness.

There is one thing you can do to help prevent this from happening. In fact, a well-delivered single word can help prevent the number of times you feel overwhelmed. This one word can help you maintain the time needed to love your family with your full presence—your physical, emotional, and mental presence. What is this powerful word? What word can allow you the time you need to care for yourself and love your family? “NO.” Yes, that’s right. “NO.” Yes, I know it’s hard to say “no” sometimes. We struggle to do so for at least two reasons.

One, we really want to do things. We want to help others. We want to enjoy various activities. We want to travel. We want…. But we can’t do it all. At some point we have to sit down and do the hard work of determining our priorities. We have to decide what is truly most important in our lives. Of course, family will like fall in the top two priorities on our values list (your relationship with God may fall higher) because our children’s future depends on our making them a priority, as does the happiness and longevity of our marriage. Really, our happiness hinges, in great part, on our family happiness. So, keep family within the top two spots of your priority list.

Two, we fear how other people will respond to our “no.” We fear the ramification of our “no” on our relationships. We fear our friends will be angry or disappointed if we say no. We assume they won’t understand and will quit inviting us because of the one time we said “no.” We fear the other person will feel rejected. However, studies suggest we “overestimate the social consequences of saying no.” In fact, other people (like our friends and family) often consider the thoughts we struggle with behind the “no.” You know… thoughts like “I would really like to go but I’m so busy” or “I already made another commitment and I just can’t back out” or “I would really like to do this, but I’m so exhausted I need to rest before I get sick.” In reality, our friends will understand our occasional “no’s” and respect the boundaries of healthy self-care and family care that we establish by saying “no.”  

Overall, a kind and polite “no” will nurture greater self-care, stronger family ties, and even a deeper understanding in friendship. So go ahead and say “no” when you’re feeling it. Friends will understand. Your family will rejoice to have you present with them. Everyone will benefit.

No One Told Me

When my wife and I had children, no one told me how difficult it would be to let them go, especially as they left home. No one told me the emotional challenge inherent in allowing them to leave home and begin their independent, adult journey through life. The first person I heard talk about the struggle of letting go was Kevin Lehman. In fact, he may have been the only one I have ever heard talk about this. (You can view it here.) I have a friend with similar age children. He who compared the children leaving home to a death. I compared it to breaking off a long-term relationship, an engagement. I found that out by experience, but no one told me it would be so challenging, so difficult. It’s filled with mixed emotions—pride, sorrow, joy, longing…. And, as Kevin Lehman explains, it is a challenge for our children as well. No one told me that either.

Don’t get me wrong. It may prove challenging to let our children go, but it is also necessary and rewarding. Which brings me to a second thing that no one told me. I learned this lesson recently. My wife and I have had several friends and even some family members pass away over the last couple of years. Recently, a friend of mine passed away. When my daughters heard, they contacted us to offer support and comfort. They made themselves available to us. They offered support and a listening ear. They chose to be present in our lives during a time of need. No one told me that would happen. No one told me that one day after the children have “left home” they would return to offer support and comfort, to be a present help in our lives. Maybe I should have known…but no one told me.

Those two things go together, don’t they? Our children have to leave home to become independent adults. The transition of a child into adult life happens more smoothly for those whose parents have nurtured a positive, loving relationship with them. The security of that parent-child relationship emboldens a child to move into the world with a greater sense of confidence and agency. The positive, loving relationship nurtured throughout their childhood and teen years also “sticks with them.” It establishes a connection between parent and child that continues to grow and develop. It opens a child’s heart to their parents just as the parents’ heart has been open to their child from the time they were born (and probably even before).

I don’t know if anyone ever told you these two things facets of parenting or not. If not, read through this short blog again. Letting go is challenging…an exciting challenge filled with a whole cocktail of mixed emotions. It’s a moment of sorrow and longing as well as pride and joy. But it doesn’t mark the end of your relationship. It marks a new beginning. That new beginning will fill you with an even greater joy as you discover your children remaining present in your life by their choice and returning the love you have shared with them all their lives.

In the Shadow of the Cross

It’s Saturday, the day after Good Friday and the day before Resurrection Sunday. I’m left only with my thoughts as I sit in the silence between the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. I imagine the friends and family of Jesus sitting silently, hopelessly pondering a myriad of questions. What would happen next? Why did He die? What will become of us? Was it all a lie? I join them in confusion as I look at our world and wonder what the cross has to offer. In a world so distraught by greed and pride, conflict and war, what does the cross have to offer? Closer to home, what can our families and communities learn from the cross? Of course, we know the end of the story, so we know the resurrection brings life and hope. But what of today, the day before the resurrection? What do we learn in the silence?

We learn that the cross calls us to give ourselves up in humble submission to one another. Jesus “gave Himself up” for us in humble submission to His Father. For that very reason, He was “highly exalted” and given a “name above every name.” He returned to “the right hand” of His Father, “having become as much better than the angels.” Giving ourselves up in humble submission to one another opens the door to not only returning home but returning to a home filled with greater intimacy and joy. It opens the door to having a “greater reputation” as one who loves deeply enough to “give himself up” for the benefit of his family, his friends, and his community, as one who models true love for the whole family to emulate. Every family will benefit when they give themselves up in humble submission for the benefit of one another.

We learn that the cross points us toward reconciliation. We all make mistakes. We will offend one another, both unintentionally and intentionally. We will say the wrong thing. We will renege on our promises. We will neglect to speak or act in love. How can a marriage, a parent-child relationship, or a friendship continue in light of such offense? There is only one way: by offering forgiveness and so opening the door to reconciliation. Ironically, in following the model of the cross, the offended one, the one who was wronged, will pay the price of that wrong in order to initiate forgiveness and open the door to reconciliation. The cross teaches us to forgive and even bear the burden of pain brought about by the other person’s offense in order to open the door of reconciliation. Take a moment to think about that. Imagine how that type of cross-based forgiveness will impact your family.

Not only does the cross point us to reconciliation, but it also convicts us of our shortcomings. After all, “it was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished….” The cross calls us to “speak the truth in our hearts,” confess our wrongs, and bear the fruit of that repentance. In light of the cross, we cannot hide from our responsibility. We must “speak the truth in our hearts” and acknowledge when we hurt our spouse or children or neighbor or friend. We must apologize and seek forgiveness. We must then “change our ways” and live a life that reveals the depth of our sincere apology. To whom do you need to apologize? Your spouse? Your children? Your parent? Don’t wait. Do it.

Giving ourselves up…forgiving one another to open the door of reconciliation…taking responsibility for our wrongs, apologizing, and living the “fruit of repentance… They’re all found in the shadow of the cross. They’re all necessary for a healthy family. Imagine how such actions would impact your family. Then commit to living out these practices starting today.

The “Big Little Leap” & All the Leaps That Follow

Ah…the experience of joy on the first day of kindergarten. I never really understood the parental struggle mixed with pride and joy when “letting go” of children until I dropped mine off for their first days of school. It was the first of many leaps that culminated in dropping them off at college or watching them walk the aisle with their spouse. Still, that first day of kindergarten was a “big little leap” for parent and child. Interesting, research finds that the more successfully a child makes the “leap” (AKA—transitions) into kindergarten (over a 10–14-week period) the higher they score on academic and social-behavioral skills tests at the end of that school year. That doesn’t surprise me. Transitioning easily leaves more time and more mental and emotional space to learn. The real question becomes: how can a parent prepare their children to successfully make that “big little leap” and all the other leaps (AKA-transitions) of life?

The answer to that question does not rest on academic or cognitive training but on relationship security. Children and parents will make the “big little leap” and other life “leaps” more successfully when they have experienced, and continue to experience, secure relationships at home. Having a secure relationship with our children helps them answer a couple of important questions. One question is: “Will you, as my parents, be there for me? Are you available?” A second question asks, “Do you think I’m capable? Am I capable?”

These two questions get answered in the everyday interaction of a parent and child. It begins as our children explore the world around them. As newborns, they simply want us to notice what they notice and match their curiosity with our own, reflecting back to them what they see in an ever-expanding way. “Oh, you see the squirrel. He’s fast isn’t he? Watch how he runs with that acorn in his mouth.” “Here comes the dog. He wants you to pet him. Gentle….” We join them in their experience and expand upon it somewhat, encouraging them to explore more deeply.

As they grow and become increasingly independent, they need us to allow them the freedom to explore in a more independent fashion. While they do, they need us to delight in their exploration by noticing what they notice and becoming excited and curious about things that arouse their curiosity. They need us to allow them the freedom to explore independently rather than hover in an overprotective way.

During their independent exploration, our children may experience times of stress and look to us for assurance. At those times, they need us to look at them with delight and confidence as they prepare for their “new venture.” For instance, the first time our child approaches a slide in the park they may look up the ladder and experience nervousness and doubt. They look to us to see our response. If we look with delight and confidence, they are empowered. They climb the ladder and “enjoy the ride.” However, if we look distressed or concerned for some reason, they will likely forego the slide and come to our side to confirm their own security.

This scenario will happen time and time again in all types of situations, like setting the table, joining a group, playing a game, getting on a slide, riding a bike, and so on. Each time, they find the answer to their questions: “Are you available to me?” and “Am I capable?” Each time these questions are answered in a positive way, security is enhanced. They being to internalize important messages:

  • My parents are available to help me and so there are helpers in the world.
  • I can manage my emotions whether they be joy or sorrow, courage or fear, and if I struggle, there are supports to help me.
  • I can take appropriate risks. I know my limitations and how to risk in a healthy way.
  • I am safe.

With these beliefs in place, the “big little leap” has a greater chance of success and just adds another layer of support for those beliefs. In fact, with each leap, parent and child grow more confident and trusting of one another. With that confidence comes greater joy and greater success. Isn’t that what we want for our children? Sure, letting go is hard…but watching them grow into amazing young adults is well worth the “leap.”

The Starter Ingredients of a Healthy Marriage

Marriages require at least two basic ingredients added in the right order at the start. The first ingredient is dedication. That makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, if we desire to find success in any enterprise, we must dedicate time and energy into creating that success. In marriage, dedicating our time and energy means moving from “me” to a “we” and an “us.” We don’t simply move to an “us in the moment” either, but an “us with a future.” In practical terms this means placing a greater priority on our relationship than our individual self. We express our desire to remain an “us” by investing time together to build our relationship with our spouse. We willingly serve our spouse because we love them and are dedicated to their happiness. We forgive minor offenses because we are dedicated to a future together and have already seen the joys of our time together. We recognize that our love can continue to grow, and our intimacy continue to deepen, so we willingly make sacrifices, some small and some large, for one another.    

Dedication is supported by a second ingredient: constraint. Constraints are the bonds that naturally grow in relationships and make it more difficult to separate. For instance, when a couple announces to their friends that they are in an exclusive relationship, they have taken on a constraint. To break up after that announcement requires explaining to additional people and forcing those people into the awkward position of caring for (and possibly choosing between) both parties in a painful situation. Another constraint is buying a house (or getting a dog or buying a car) together. Joint ownership adds a layer of complication to separating as you have to negotiate how to “divey up the goods.”  Of course, having children adds another layer of constraint. As you can see, constraints arise naturally.

When dedication is strong, naturally arising constraints simply serve to strengthen an already strong relationship. However, without dedication, constraint begins to feel like a prison, an inescapable trap. This brings up a third surprising ingredient: timing. Ideally, a couple begins to build dedication before constraint, commitment before accepting the constraints of moving in together or having a baby together, for example. If a couple “slips” into a relationship through constraints, the relationship begins to feel like a trap. For instance, some couples move in together for convenience rather than dedication—it’s closer to work, a way to save money, an experiment to see if “we want to dedicate.” Such situations, often made without consideration to the level of dedication in the relationship, result in ambiguity, dissatisfaction, and even resentment. If constraints arise without dedication, the relationship eventually suffers. With that in mind, it becomes important for couples to clearly communicate their level of dedication and commitment before adding any level of constraint to their relationship. Your long-term happiness depends on it.

The Parent’s Key

I like what Alison Gopnik said in The Gardner and The Carpenter:

“The key to love in practice is doing things together, participating in the world in a way that acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of both of you.”

Her book, and this quote, are about becoming a parent as a form of love. One of the best ways, if not the best way, to nurture love with your children is to do things together, not just child-centered things but all things–shopping trips, yard work, baking, playing, riding bikes, whatever daily tasks you do you can do with your children. Involving your children in your daily tasks provides the key that opens up doors of opportunity.

Behind the first door of opportunity, door number one, lies the opportunity for time together. Time together translates into greater intimacy. More time together means more opportunity to interact, converse, and learn about one another. Your child experiences the opportunity to witness your character and your values in a variety of settings, a variety of places, and with a variety of people. You get to witness your child interact with a variety of settings, places, and people as well. You learn about one another’s priorities as well as one another’s limitations and weaknesses. You also learn ways of managing those limitations. All of this leads to a deeper knowledge between parent and child. It leads to deeper trust and deeper intimacy.

Behind door number two we find learning life skills. Children watch us, imitate us, and learn. They learn life skills like cooking, cleaning, money management, how to use a fork and knife, how to approach store clerks and strangers, and…. Actually, they’re learning about anything you expose them to while you’re together. In fact, our children learn almost everything by observing, imitating, and participating with us. Who needs flash cards to learn new vocabulary words when family dinners encourage a growing vocabulary and teach conversational skills? Why limit our children to the math on flashcards when learning to grocery shop on a budget or measure ingredients for a cake can teach so much math? Allowing your child to do things with you allows them the opportunity to observe, imitate, and participate, which are three ingredients that contribute to amazing learning for you and your child. 

Behind door number three you will discover social skills. Once again, children learn by observing you engage in social interactions and imitating those actions. Not only will they learn by interacting with you, but they will have the opportunity to interact with adults, and children, people they know and people they do not know, people on the job and people passing by as well. All this contributes to amazing opportunities for social skills practice.

In the midst of all this, door number four becomes apparent. Behind door number four your children will enjoy the opportunity to learn and practice emotional management skills. They will observe, imitate, and participate in tolerating boredom, expressing frustration and anger, managing disappointment and sorrow, and sharing joy and happiness.

Fortunately, unlike the game show Let’s Make a Deal, you don’t have to pick a door when you “love your children in practice by doing things together.” All four doors will open to you and your child, allowing you to enjoy the prize behind every door and more. Know why? Because you have the master key for all four doors—the key of doing things together.

The Harmony of Truth and Love in Conflict

The happiest marriages hold a beautiful harmony of truth and love, even in the midst of conflict. I like how Jimmy Evans puts it (You can read this quote from Jimmy Evans and more @ Jimmy Evans Quotes (Author of Tipping Point) (goodreads.com)):

“Truth without love is like surgery without anesthesia. Love without truth is like a cheerleader without a team. But truth in love is meaningful…and it is the only way communication can be effective and cause growth in relationship.”

In other words, a healthy marriage requires a harmony of truth and love, especially in conflict and the expression of our thoughts and feelings. Healthy couples strive to create a loving environment in which they both feel safe enough to share their true thoughts and feelings. The ability to share our deeper thoughts and feelings demands truth and love on the part of both partners, the one listening and the one speaking. 

The speaker must give voice to their thoughts, concerns, and feelings in a loving manner. This requires a great deal of self-awareness. They must remain self-aware enough to know how their choice of words and their tone of voice impact the meaning of their message and the listener’s ability to hear that message. It also requires integrity, a deep truthfulness within our hearts, to recognize how “my” speech impacts the listener and then a humility that allows one to adjust my communication based on that truth.

In love, the speaker will start the conversation gently rather than harshly. They will begin with kindness and love rather than casting blame, making accusations, or throwing out negative labels. They will begin with the objective truth of what has happened, the objective situations that cause them distress, rather than speculation about the other person’s intent or motivation.

In love, the speaker will reveal themselves to their spouse, offering them the gift of knowing them more deeply. In love, they will reveal their subjective feelings about the situation while still taking true responsibility for managing their emotions and their response to their emotions. They will offer the gift of their vulnerability as they describe ways in which their spouse’s actions or words have contributed to their distress. 

In love, the speaker will also believe the best about their spouse. They will believe their spouse did not intend harm. They will believe their spouse will desire reconciliation and will apologize for any hurt caused. In other words, the speaker will speak in love, believing the best about their spouse in love, and assuming the best response from their spouse in love until there is some objective reason (truth) to believe otherwise.  After all, “love believes all things.”

The listener must also act in truth and love. In love, the listener will accept the gift of revelation from their spouse. They will postpone their defensiveness and their explanation to listen fully, to listen to understand. As they listen, they will consider the truth of their spouse’s message. They will hold the truth of their spouse’s message in their heart and allow that truth to influence them. In love, they will apologize as needed and in truth they will bear the fruit of their apology. They will lovingly change their behavior according to the truth.

In love, the listener will focus on their spouse’s emotions, their feelings, so they can offer comfort and deepen their understanding of their spouse. Selflessly, in love, they will postpone their own response until their spouse feels heard and understood. Even then they will speak with love, accepting what their spouse has said and allowing it to influence them.

As you can see, throughout this process the speaker and the listener must harmonize truth and love in their words, their actions, and their responses. Truth by itself would simply cause more pain. Love, without truth, is no more than a shallow blowing in the breeze…in fact, it’s not really love at all. But the harmony of truth and love produces a beautiful intimacy. The truth brings concerns to the surface so they can be addressed and resolved. The truth compels each one to assess their own actions and behaviors. Love drives each one to tell the truth so the relationship can be strengthened through the resolution of even minor concerns. Love compels each one to state the truth gently, objectively, caringly so the other can hear it more easily.

When we learn to speak the truth in love, the harmony we experience is profound and the intimacy we share is beautiful.

The Cycle of Communication & Trust

Relationships are built on trust and trust is built upon self-revealing communications. On the other hand, meaningful communication requires trust and trust is nurtured by meaningful communication. Trust, however, doesn’t just happen. It needs to be refined. It requires testing. In fact, a wise person tests the water of trust before diving in with deeper, more vulnerable communication. Even in marriages and families, trust is continually tested. In fact, communication and trust form a cycle of increasing or decreasing trust. Let me give an example.

My wife walks in the room and sighs, “What a day.”  With that simple statement, she has “put a toe in the water” of trust. Is it warm or cold? Can she trust me to listen or not?

If I continue staring at my computer screen and say, “Well, what’s for supper?” I have shown the water cold. She cannot trust me to listen or to make myself available to her. If this scenario occurs more often than not, trust diminishes. Communication becomes less frequent and more shallow. As communication decreases, so does trust. And the cycle continues.

However, if I respond by looking up from my computer screen and say, “Sounds like a long day. What happened?” I have shown the water of trust to be warm. I have opened the door to communication. My wife feels more trust and delves in a little more. She begins to tell me about her day.  As I respond with interest and concern, matching her mood with empathy and understanding, her level of trust continues to grow. Feeling safer, she reveals more of herself and her heart. I learn more about her as she trusts me to reveal not just the events of the day but her emotions and concerns as well. If this scenario occurs more often than not, trust grows. Communication increases and deepens. As communication deepens, so does trust.

Responding with interest and empathy creates a beautiful cycle in which trust invites deeper communication. Deeper communication leads to greater trust, which invites the communication of deeper disclosures that lead to greater intimacy.  This beautiful cycle of trust and communication ultimately leads to greater joy, deeper intimacy, and greater security for both partners.

A Simple, Brief Reminder

Anxiety and depression have increased dramatically in the U.S. over the last several years. Specifically, between 2005 to 2017, anxiety and depression have increased 63% among young adults. Several contributors have been identified implying that our society will likely need to address several areas over time to bring those numbers down. That being said, you can take a simple action today that will help reduce the number of young adults struggling with anxiety and depression. It’s true. We, the adults in this world, can play a huge role in reducing the number of young adults with anxiety and/or depression.

A Columbia University study (among others) revealed the simple action you can take to reduce anxiety and depression in young adults. All you need to do is develop a warm, nurturing relationship with the children in your life. Children who have at least one positive, committed adult-child relationship are less likely to develop depression or anxiety in their life. That is amazing, isn’t it? Even more amazing, if enough adults commit to having a positive relationship with the children in their lives, we could decrease the number of young adults struggling with anxiety or depression in one generation. Take a moment now and consider the impact. Then answer these two questions.

  • Who are the children in your life?
  • What could you do to nurture a positive relationship with them over the next week?

It’s a simple, brief reminder: the power of forming a positive, healthy relationship with children can have long term benefits for their life. Make the time to enjoy your relationship with the children in your life. While you do, bask in the knowledge that your relationship is a step toward making their life better and toward changing the world.

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