What Legos & Ducks Teach Us About Our Children’s Drive to Learn

It may sound like it was a day in preschool, but it was a group of 22 adults recruited for a study. Each recruit was given five small plastic bags containing six Legos in each one. Four of the Legos were yellow (one of which had an eye on either side) and two were red. In part one of this study, researchers asked the participants to build ducks in ways that “felt playful.” In the second part of the study, they asked the participants to build ducks in a way that “did not feel playful.” Finally, the researchers helped the participant process and describe the two approaches to building ducks using the bags of Legos.

When asked to be playful, the participants reported consciously accessing their autonomy so they could intentionally do what they wanted and build a “creative duck.” Those asked to build a duck in a “non-playful” way reported tapping into their mechanical mode to build the prototype duck.

Playfully building the ducks also led the participants to approach the Legos more thoughtfully, “sensing the bricks” before building and thus allowing ideas and possibilities to arise and flow more freely. In a manner of speaking, they playfully sensed the Legos and followed the Legos into a playful version of a duck. And, in fact, they surprised themselves with novel-looking ducks, not simply ordinary ducks. And participant asked to build a duck in a “playful way” enjoyed building their ducks. Moreover, their unique designs motivated them to want to do it again.

Approaching the duck construction in a non-playful way, on the other hand, did not result in surprisingly novel-looking ducks but in the mechanical construction of expected ducks. It also did not result in an enjoyable or motivating experience.

This study suggests an important factor in helping our children develop a love for learning, a drive to learn. The factor? Play! The playful approach in the study noted above provided three ingredients that culminated in the motivation to learn more.

  1. Autonomy. When building the ducks in a playful manner, the participants had to choose how they wanted to create their duck. They were implicitly given choices. We can encourage our children to learn by giving them choices. Play provides a myriad of choices for our children, beginning with the choice of what they want to play. When given a variety of items, they can choose how to assemble those items or even what they might represent. A box can become a car in one game and a television in another. Autonomy is further bolstered as children negotiate with one another to reach a compromise on how to play the game. In this whole process, our children learn. They learn about one another and about effective social interactions. They learn about the properties of the objects they are playing with. They learn about creative story telling. They learn physics and the limits of their physical abilities. They learn autonomy.
  2. Absorption with the materials with which they are engaged. Children get lost in the play as their stick becomes a magic wand or a royal staff or the building block for a secret fort. Who knows what the play materials will become? Barbie may fly and birds may swim. It’s their choice. (Remember autonomy?) So let the play begin with interesting and engaging materials. Such materials are often simple. In fact, the best toys for children are those they can act upon and use to create whatever action they desire rather than toys with predetermined rules of play. After all, imaginative play can make our children a head taller than themselves.
  3. Surprise often occurs when given the freedom to manipulate the materials of play and create something of their choosing. Surprisingly, the tree gives advice rooted in wisdom, the negotiation turns toward compromise and an ingenious resolution, or a blanket magically provides safety from the monster only when used to help another. Yes, children’s play will be full of surprises and insights.

Overall, this process of play creates a cycle of creative exploration and learning that leads to the “personal reward of surprising discoveries.” This, in turn, will encourage and motivate our children to continue learning. It will create a drive to play and learn. Let’s not squelch the drive. Let’s just play.

Sweet Marital Moments That “Keep On” Giving

We all experience disagreements and arguments with our spouses. We probably even get irritated and agitated with them from time to time. Researchers in this study opened the door for such experiences by asking 154 middle-aged and older heterosexual married couples to have an intimate conversation about a “conflict in their relationship.” Can you imagine? “Have an argument about something you know you disagree about… and we’ll record you while you do.” Sounds like an invitation for trouble, doesn’t it? But researchers invited this trouble into the lab by asking couples to have this type of conversation in their presence every five years from 1989 to 2009. Trained coders observed all the videos to identify times the couple experienced moments of shared positive and negative emotions during the conflict conversation as well as positive synchrony. They witnessed these shared emotions and synchrony through nonverbal signs or unconscious “mirroring,” subtle facial expressions, head nods, smiles, leaning forward, tone of voice, body language, etc. The researchers also measured each person’s heart rate, recording times in which both partner’s heart rates slowed down or sped up simultaneously.

What did they discover? Couples who, even in conflict, shared positive moments of humor and affection and whose heart rates “beat as one” (speeding up or slowing down together) enjoyed better physical health over a 13-year period and were more likely to still be alive 30 years later. In other words, couples whose hearts literally “beat as one” and who could inject moments of humor and affection into their moments of conflict, lived longer, healthier lives. Isn’t that a wonderful gift to give your spouse?

This knowledge invites us to build a marital environment in which our hearts “beat as one” (aka—to become attuned) and an environment that will encourage mutual affection. You can do that by:

  1. Become a student of your spouse. Remain curious about your spouse, their world, and their thought life. Learn about your spouse’s day. Remain curious about their hopes and dreams as well as their worries and concerns. Enjoy conversations about their perspectives on the world around us. Learn something about your spouse every day.
  2. Sync your lives. Eat together. Go to bed together. Spend time each day talking together. Have a regular date night. Worship together. Sure, you will still have times you do things as an individual. But when you do things together you “sync your lives,” you get your hearts “beating as one.”
  3. Become your spouse’s number one fan. When I was in high school, I knew a woman who was our school’s number one fan. She knew the students and the teachers. She attended the school functions. And she only had good things to say about “her school” and “her kids.” Become your spouse’s number one fan. Learn all about them. Give voice to the things you admire about them. Have only good things to say about “your spouse” to other people. Praise them in public. Encourage them and thank them privately and in public. Let your spouse experience your adoration through your words and actions.
  4. Turn toward your spouse. When problems arise, turn toward your spouse for support and encouragement. And offer your spouse support and encouragement when difficulties arise in their lives. When times are good, turn toward your spouse to celebrate and enjoy.
  5. Dream together. Talk about your what would be your dream for 5-years, 10-years, even 15-years down the road. Start dreaming about your 25th or 30th anniversary when you get married…& don’t stop dreaming about it together. Talk about your dream vacation and plan how you might make it happen. Discuss your personal dreams and help one another achieve those dreams. Dream together and live toward your dreams.

These five ways you can create sweet marital moments that will help you and your spouse live a long, healthy life…and a happily married life. Once again, isn’t that a tremendous gift to give your spouse?

This Daily Experience Can Increase Your Family’s Happiness

Rather than trying to pique your interest, I’m just going to say this plainly. According to a study published in 2020, daily spiritual experiences, defined as experiences related to God as well as “transcendent feelings not related to God” (like feeling a deep inner peace or harmony), make people happier. Daily spiritual experiences also help reduce the effects of stress according to this research.

These findings are the result of monitoring 2,795 people via their phones for 2 weeks, asking them about positive and negative emotions as well as their current activity at random times throughout the time of the study.

The results go even further by suggesting that if two people experience equal amounts of stress, the one with more spiritual experiences is less likely to report depressive symptoms and “more likely to indicate feelings of flourishing.” On an individual level, a person experiences greater mental well-being on days in which they have more spiritual experiences. Why? Perhaps because spiritual experiences reduce self-centeredness and increase a sense of connection with Someone/something bigger than our selves.

Here’s the takeaway for our families. We can use this knowledge to increase well-being in our family by encouraging individual and family spiritual experiences. How can we do that?

  • Pray as a family and individually. Take a moment as a family to offer a prayer of thanksgiving before meals. Make prayer part of your family bedtime routine. This offers a time to offer prayers of gratitude, pray about difficult circumstances, and offer pray for other people.
  • Attend worship services. Worship services offer a wonderful spiritual experience for the whole family.
  • Watch for moments of awe throughout the day. When you experience a moment of awe, share that with your family. Savor moments of awe with your family as well.
  • Practice daily spiritual exercises such as meditation, mindfulness, silence, serving others, or gratitude, to name a few. Make one or more of these spiritual exercises part of your daily routine.
  • Sing together. Singing brings people into sync with one another. It can also contribute to a spiritual experience. Sing with your family.
  • Attend religious services together.

These ideas will help shape an environment in your home that is conducive to spiritual experiences for your family and for each person in your family. With those opportunities for spiritual experiences, your family will also enjoy the benefit of greater happiness.

“Forgivingly Fitness” & Your Children’s Grades

You might be asking, “What is ‘Forgivingly Fitness’?” Good question. Robert Enright, a forgiveness researcher refers to the benefits of building our “forgivingly fitness,” our openness and ability to forgive those who hurt us. Of course, we want our children to learn how to forgive. After all, forgiveness builds resilience and helps us not fall prey to resentment. Forgiveness restores a more positive outlook on our life. But did you know it can also improve academic performance? According to one study (discussed by Robert Enright in this Like a Sponge podcast) participating in a 12-week forgiveness class was associated with a full letter improvement in their grades. A control group of students who did not participate in the forgiveness class did not experience any academic improvement (see this study also).

Why would learning about forgiveness improve academic performance? I like Dr. Enright’s answer to that question: “If you are a 13-year-old in middle school and you have a throbbing knee that day, you’re going to miss the lesson because your knee is getting in the way of concentration. What if you have a broken heart…? You’re going to miss the lesson too. But, what if we can bind up the heart? Now, you have more time, focus, and energy to focus on your lessons.” In other words, unforgiveness leads to resentment. Holding a grudge takes up space in our minds. Resentment and holding a grudge interfere with our ability to concentrate and learn. Teaching our children to forgive, on the other hand, allows them to let go of the resentment and not hold the grudge. It frees them up to expend energy on more important aspects of life…like learning.

How can you teach your child to forgive? First, model forgiveness in your own life. Many “small opportunities” arise for the practice forgiveness. Take advantage of those opportunities. Practice forgiveness and talk about your work to forgive with your children and family. Something as simple as, “Someone ran through a stop sign and cut me off on the way home today. It really made me angry. It’s dangerous and not fair that they cut me off (Acknowledging the Wrong Done). I don’t know why they did it. Maybe they were daydreaming, had an emergency, or they are new to the area and kind of lost. We all have those times. (Acknowledging Our Mutual Humanity with the One Who Offended Us.) So I just took a breath and let it go. No need to hold on to that. (Altruistic Choice to Forgive.) Hopefully he’s safe. (Wishing Compassion for the Offender.)” (Steps of the forgiveness process noted in italics.)

Second you can talk about forgiveness while watching movies or tv shows in which one person offends another.  Let the discussion loosely follow the steps alluded to above. If you’re not sure about questions to ask or how to discuss forgiveness for a character, consider some of the questions in “Enright’s Forgiveness Process Model.” The conversation doesn’t have to go from beginning to end. It doesn’t need to lead to a complete understanding of forgiveness. It’s simply an opportunity to discuss some of the questions about forgiveness, what it involves, and the benefits it might have for that character.

Becoming “forgivingly fit” will help you and your child navigate life in a healthier way. You will experience more joy and contentment. Most important, your child may even experience greater academic success.

Science Proves “Noodle Dance” Effective

When my children were younger, one of my favorite cartoons to watch with them was “PB&J Otter.” Actually, I liked one part of the cartoon in particular. Each episode led to a moment in which the main characters didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, one would suggest they “do the noodle dance.” Peanut, Jelly, and Baby Butter would start to dance as lyrics sang in the background:

“Noodle, use your noodle; noodle, do the noodle dance… Solve a problem, it’s no strain, use your noodle, that’s your brain…There’s an answer you can find, use your noodle, that’s your mind… In a bind, just use your mind, use your noodle.”

As they danced, something happened. They moved from the “paralysis of analysis” to the “I got it” moment.  In other words, they discovered a solution to the problem.  Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? But research supports the idea that movement helps us “get unstuck” and “frees up” our thinking. When we “move” with another person, it helps us get “in-sync” with them and increases our openness and cooperation. In other words, the “Noodle Dance Principle” could come in handy in your home! No, I’m not saying you have to do the noodle dance itself…although you can if you want, and it is kind of fun. I’m simply suggesting you utilize the “Noodle Dance Principle” when problems or disagreements arise in your home. Specifically, when you get stuck on a problem or disagreement:

  1. Get up and move. Go for a walk alone and think. This can help you calm down and think more clearly. Or go for a walk together as you discuss the issue at hand. Research suggests that moving increases motivation and the likelihood of resolving conflict. It frees up your thoughts and feelings, increasing the probability of finding a solution or of reaching a compromise.  Don’t want to walk? Try going on a bike ride. Still too much? Pull up a couple of rocking chairs and rock while you talk. Or sit on a swing and swing as you put your heads together to find an answer. Find a seesaw and take turns talking as you go up and down the issues that need resolved.  Whatever you do, get up and move. As noted earlier, moving enhances cooperation and gets us in-sync with those we move with. It also makes people more willing to make personal sacrifices that benefit the group. Get up and move.
  2. Physically map out the problem or disagreement. Grab a whiteboard or some paper and sketch out your main points. Not only does this get you moving, it also makes an abstract issue visible. You can draw arrows connecting areas of agreement and highlighting common priorities.  You might even move these areas of agreement and common priority to a common area on the whiteboard. Then you can co-create a solution incorporating areas of agreement and consideration for areas of difference.

These two suggestions can help you get moving toward a solution when family problems arise…or moving toward a resolution when you find yourself in a heated disagreement. So go ahead. When a problem or disagreement arises in your house, do the noodle dance…at least get up and get moving. 

Take Your Teen From Screen Time to “Exer-Time”

We hear a great deal about the potential impact of “too much” screen time on our teens’ mental and emotional health. An international study published in August of 2021, however, offers a more nuanced look at screen time and a possible “antidote.” Specifically, this study (summarized here) utilized data from over 577,000 adolescents between 11-years-old and 15-years-old from 42 countries. The teens completed surveys reporting how much of their free time they spent on screens—watching TV or YouTube, gaming, checking social media, chatting or emailing, and surfing the net. They also reported their patterns of physical exercise and several mental/emotional health factors. The study revealed several interesting results.

  • Lower amounts of screen time had no effect on the participants sense of well-being. Specifically, less than 60 minutes per day for females and less than 90 minutes per day for males seemed to have little effect on teen well-being.
  • If screen time went over 75 minutes per day for girls or 105 minutes per day for males, life-satisfaction began to drop. The more time spent on screens above these cut off points, the less happy the teens were with their lives. One of the researchers of this study even said, “If screen time goes beyond about two hours per day, there’s a detrimental relationship with mental health.”
  • The more regular exercise the teens experienced, the greater their life satisfaction and the fewer physical complaints for both males and females.
  • Perhaps most fascinating result to me: teens reported the positive effect of exercise regardless of how much time they spent on screens. This may mean that exercise helps “undo the damage to their well-being” that results from excessive screen time.
  • The greatest life satisfaction was reported by females who exercised every day and had less than an hour of screen time a day and males who exercised every day and had less than two hours of screen time a day.

This still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—like why the male/female difference or the different impacts of various types of social media. However, it also offers parents an excellent course of action. Rather than fight your teen to “get off the screen,” you might encourage them to get involved in some physical activity. Get them involved in a sport. Take up regular bike riding or jogging with them as a hobby. Go hiking on a regular basis. Find some physical activity your teen enjoys…and help them get involved. It may cut down on their screen time. And it may counteract some of the negative effects of excessive screen time on their mental and emotional health. So get out there and get active with your teen.

Raising Children Who Love

I ran across this wonderful poem by Nicolette Sowder. I wanted to share it with you.

May we raise children who love the unloved things–dandelion, the worms and spiderlings. Children who sense the rose needs the thorn

& run into rainswept days the same way they turn towards the sun…

And when they’re grown & someone has to speak for those who have no voice

may they draw upon that wilder bond, those days of tending tender things

It’s a beautiful wish for all families and children, a hope for our children and our world. I pray you will “raise children who love the unloved.” It begins with you loving them and exploring, with them the small, wild aspects of the world that others take for granted. For one day we may find ourselves in the category of the “unloved things” who desire our children’s love. (PS-Please see link for the proper layout of the poem. I couldn’t get the layout to transfer to this blog.)

4 Surprising Things Happily Married Couples Do

Happy marriages don’t just happen. They develop between spouses who consistently engage in certain actions. In other words, happy marriages are cultivated by couples who actively nurture their marriage. With that in mind, here are 4 surprising ways happily married couples nurture their marriage.

  1. Happily married couples disagree and argue. They know that disagreements offer them an opportunity to learn more about one another. Disagreements and arguments open the door to the intimacy of knowing one another more deeply. So rather than defend, blame, and criticize, they respect, listen, and validate. In doing so, they learn that even their points of disagreement are times to cherish as they nurture a happier marriage.
  2. Happily married couples spend time alone. Sure, happily married couples spend a lot of time as a couple, but each spouse also spends time alone. We all need some “alone” time. Happily married couples enjoy that alone time. Each spouse has a confidence in their relationship that allows them to spend alone time to take care of themselves without fear of it damaging their relationship. As a result, they can purse hobbies and personal growth. They can come back from time alone refreshed and ready to pour themselves into their marriage in new and loving ways.
  3. Happily married couples accept one another’s influence. My friends once asked me to go out with them after work. I told them I had to “check with my wife.” You know what they said: “You’re whipped man.” And that is the most complimentary insult I’ve ever received. It means I allow my wife to influence me. It means my wife and her happiness are more important to me than a night out. It means my wife knows she has priority in my life. It means I accept her influence in my life. Do you accept the influence of your spouse?
  4. Happily married couples give it up for one another. In other words, spouses in a happy marriage sacrifice for one another. Every marriage demands some sacrifice. We sacrifice our unbridled freedom to commit to our spouse. We sacrifice time doing what we want in order to do things our spouse wants to do. We sacrifice the remote to watch a show our spouse wants to watch. We sacrifice the last piece of pie. We sacrifice…. You get the idea. From small sacrifices to grand sacrifices, happily married couples are willing to give it up for their spouse. No, they aren’t just willing, they are happy to give it up for their spouse to lift up their marriage. After all, they love their spouse.

Happily married couples do more than just these 4 things (like serve, honor, encourage, admire, etc.), but these are 4 rather surprising things happily married couples do. Do you?

In Family, Is It Better to Give or Receive?

If you are a student of ancient Biblical sayings, you probably think you know the answer to this question already. In fact, you will quote the words of Jesus in response to the question: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Researchers from Ohio State University put that to the test in a study involving 1,054 healthy adults between 34 and 84-years-old. Each participant completed three measures: one of their social integrations, one of their perceptions of how much they could rely on others, and one of their perceptions of how available they were to support family and friends. Two years later they returned for follow-up blood tests that measured markers of systemic inflammation in the body. These markers are associated with increased risk for health issues like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

What did they discover? Lower inflammation markers [and, as a result, the risk for related diseases] was associated with increased availability to give social support to family and friends. In other words, the researchers found the healing power of relationships increase when a person gives support to family and friends rather than simply receiving support.

Don’t mistake, receiving support is also good. It, too, is associated with greater health. But the greatest health benefit comes when we offer support as well. So, it’s true. When it comes to giving and receiving support in your marriage and family it really “is more blessed to give than to receive,” even in terms of our physical health. With that in mind, how can you give support to your spouse and family? The ways are endless but let me offer three principles.

  1. Being available to give support to your family takes time. You have to give of your time to your spouse and your family to remain available to offer support. Get out your calendar and prioritize time with your family.
  2. Giving support to your family means setting aside your personal agenda at times. The need for support often arises at “inconvenient times.” You might have to sacrifice watching your favorite game or TV show to spend time supporting your family. You might have to change your schedule, postpone an activity. But, in the long run, what really is more important to you, your family or a sitcom? Your spouse or a video game? Your children or reading the news? Postpone your agenda and make yourself available to support your family.
  3. To truly support your spouse and children, you have to know them well. Each person receives support in slightly different ways. One person may feel supported with encouraging words while another desires hands-on assistance. Moreover, each person may need support in a different area of their life depending on their developmental needs and current needs. Take time to know your family so you can support them in the ways that are most meaningful to them. If you can’t figure out how a family member wants support or in what area they might like support, ask them.

These three principles will open up a “world of opportunity” to support your family. As you do, you will experience the joy and health of giving support to your family. You will gain firsthand knowledge that “it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

Will You Take the 30-Day Clandestine Marriage Challenge?

You can support your spouse and your marriage in at least two ways. One, you can offer support in a very visible way. This way often involves receiving some acknowledgment or fanfare in return. Generally, the more fanfare the giver requires, the less appreciated the support.  Still, recognizing and acknowledging your spouse’s support will definitely strengthen your marriage.

But I want to focus on a second way to support your spouse—the invisible, clandestine way. Clandestine support often flies under the radar. It is done without your spouse asking for it. They may not even know you did it, even when they recognize it has been done. And clandestine support will often alleviate stress for your spouse. To me, the most beautiful aspect of clandestine support is the pleasant surprise I see on my spouse’s face when she recognizes what was done.

How can you offer clandestine support?

  • Do a chore that your spouse normally does. And do it without being asked.
  • Prepare your spouse’s favorite food.
  • Bring home a treat your spouse enjoys—flowers, candy, pie (that one’s in case my spouse reads this post).
  • Plan a night out for no special reason…and make it a surprise.

I’m sure you can think of more ideas. The point is to do it without being asked and with no expectation of any fanfare or recognition in return.  Then, enjoy your spouse’s delight and surprise when they recognize what has been done.

In fact, I want to challenge you to participate in a Clandestine Marriage Challenge. Complete as many clandestine acts of service for your spouse as you can over the next 30 days. While you do, pay attention to any changes you notice in your spouse, your marriage, and your children. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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