Reach Out For a More Intimate Family

Have you ever thought about sending an old friend a text or giving them a call but then decided not to? You may have thought of many reasons to not reach out to them: “They’re probably busy.” “They won’t remember me, anyway.” “Maybe tomorrow.” I know I’ve done it. But a study published by the American Psychological Association changed my mind about the excuses…and maybe it will change your mind as well.

This study included a series of experiments involving over 5,900 participants. The objective was to explore how accurately people estimate another person’s appreciation of an attempt to connect. In one experiment, the participants reached out by email, text, or phone “just because.” In another experiment, participants sent a note or a note and a gift to someone they had not seen in a while. In all the experiments, participants estimated how much the person they reached out to would feel appreciated, grateful, thankful, or pleased by the contact. Then, the recipients were asked to rate how much they actually did feel appreciated, grateful, thankful, or pleased by the contact.

The results suggested that those who initiated the contact consistently underestimated the positive impact their actions would have on the one they reached out to. In other words, the person reached out to felt more appreciated, grateful, thankful, or pleased than the initiator predicted. A couple things come to mind in response to these results.

  1. A simple text or note to your spouse, child, or parent, no matter how busy they are, will likely be more appreciated than you imagine. In fact, it will probably increase their awareness of how much you care for them. Let them know how much you love them. Reach out to them.
  2. If you’re missing an “old friend” with whom you lost touch, reach out to them. They will likely appreciate it much more than you imagine.

My fears hold me back from reaching out. Sometimes I disguise my fears as concern for the other person’s busy schedule or their “not wanting to be bothered.” But to be completely honest, it’s my fear that holds me back. This research suggests I’ve been fearful about the wrong thing all these years. I’ve decided to reach out more randomly to my spouse and my children (who have moved away from home). I may even reach out to a few old friends. So, if you’re reading this and you haven’t heard from me in a while, don’t be surprised if you get a random text…unless I get one from you first.

The “Marshmallow Test” & Parenting…A New Twist

I never knew we could learn so much about raising children from a simple marshmallow. But, the classic “marshmallow test” suggested that children with greater self-control also experienced greater health and success as adults. In response we wondered: “How can we nurture self-control in our children?”

A twist on the “marshmallow study” showed that children exhibit more self-control when the adults around them followed through on their promises. In other words, when children see their parents as reliable, they practice better self-control. Reliable parents, parents who follow through on promises, nurture self-control in children.

Now, a third twist on the “marshmallow test” gives us another parenting hint. This study tested the ability of children from Japan and the United States to delay gratification for either food (a marshmallow) or a wrapped gift among children in Japan and children in the United States. The researchers hoped to discover how culture might influence self-control. Interestingly, children in Japan waited significantly longer for food (about 15 minutes) than did the U.S. children (less than a 4-minute wait); but the U.S. children waited longer before opening a gift (almost 15 minutes) than did the Japanese children (less than 5 minutes). These differences may reflect cultural training differences. Specifically, waiting to eat is emphasized more in Japan than in the U.S. and waiting to open gifts is emphasized more in the U.S. than in Japan. In other words, culturally specific habits impact delayed gratification and self-control in children.

What does this mean for our families? Families can nurture self-control in their children by…wait for it…wait…yes…building a family environment that is comfortable with waiting, even encourages waiting. You can do this by identifying opportunities to politely and appropriately allow your children (and you) to wait. In doing so, we will develop a culture (a home environment) that emphasizes habits nurturing delayed gratification and impulse control. Life is filled with opportunities to nurture the ability to wait, the ability to strengthen self-control. Here are some examples:

  • Wait until everyone sits down at the table and the family has prayed before eating the food on the table.
  • Wait your turn to open your presents. Or wait until everyone is present before opening your presents.
  • Play games that involve taking turns so each person has to wait his or her turn.
  • When you want to watch a show with your family but two people want to watch a different show, pick one and let the other show wait for another time. Make sure it’s not always the same person who has to wait.
  • Wait for dessert until the table is cleared and kitchen cleaned up.
  • Teach children how to wait by occupying themselves with another activity. Engage your child in calm waiting activities. Prepare ahead for activities you know will involve waiting, like going to a doctor’s office.
  • Save the favorite activity for the second half of the day…and enjoy the wait.

You get the idea. One other caveat, avoid pulling out your cellphone while you wait and just let your mind wander. You’ll find it rather enjoyable. Now get out there and…wait for it…wait…. enjoy strengthening self-control in your family.

Your Popsicle-Toed, Cover-Stealing Spouse & Sleep

I love my wife… but when we go to bed, she has the coldest feet, real “popsicle toes.” She steals the covers too… and makes snoring sounds from time to time.  Of course, to be fair, she accuses me of “twitching” and moving too much all through the night. (I try to deny it, but my brother told me the same thing in high school. And, come to think of it, my grandmother told me she could hear me “kicking around” in my sleep as well. And my college roommate…well, I guess it’s hard to deny the truth with so many witnesses. Anyway….) So, when my wife went on an overnight trip with her sister, I envisioned a blissful night of sleep—no cold feet, no stolen covers, no alarming sounds. But it didn’t work out that way; it never does. In fact, it seems I sleep worse when my wife is not home to share the bed with me, not better…always worse. Talking with my wife, she has the same experience. What’s the deal? Well, I finally found an explanation.

A study analyzing the data of 1,007 working age adults confirms my experience…and more. This study found that people who share a bed with their spouse reported less severe insomnia, less fatigue, and more time asleep than those who report never sharing a bed with their spouse.  In addition, they fell asleep faster and had less risk of sleep apnea. In other words, people sleep better sharing a bed with their spouse than they do alone.

But wait, there’s more. Sleeping with one’s spouse was also associated with lower depression, less anxiety, and less stress as well as greater satisfaction with life and relationships.

As I read the study review, I thought, “Maybe it’s just sleeping with a family member.” As if they read my mind, the researchers compared sleeping with a spouse to sleeping with a child.  Those who slept with their children most nights reported greater insomnia, exhibited a greater risk of sleep apnea, and had less control over their sleep (that last one is a “no kidding” one, right? Who has any control over their sleep with a child in the house, let alone in the bed?).

And, sleeping alone (the blissful moment of rest I had awaited) was actually associated with higher depression scores, lower social support and lower life and relationship satisfaction. Apparently, sleeping without my spouse in the bed is not what I had it cracked up to be.

Overall, this study suggests that sleeping with your spouse—cold toes, twitching, cover stealing, and all—results in greater emotional health and greater life satisfaction. All kidding aside, this fits with my life experience. There is comfort and peace in sleeping next to the one you love and to whom you’ve committed to sharing life.  It helps us connect and puts our “life rhythms in sync.” In the long run, I’m grateful for those popsicle toes and cover-stealing roll-overs. They let me know that the one I love is lying next to me and sharing life with me.  I’ll sleep better knowing she’s next to me, even as I pull the covers back over me in the night.

Children’s Chores Do What?

Every parent knows that children benefit from doing chores to learn basic household skills as well as responsibility. Research also suggests children benefit from chores. For instance, research suggests that children who do chores have a greater sense of autonomy, improved prosocial skills, and greater life satisfaction.

A study published in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal suggests in even more intriguing benefit for doing chores. This study, completed by a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, suggests chores may even benefit a child’s brain functioning. Wait…what? Chores might improve brain function, really? That’s right. In this study, the parents of 207 children between the ages of 5- and 13-years-old completed questionnaires assessing their children’s involvement in household chores and their children’s executive functioning—which includes their cognitive ability to plan, self-regulate, remember instructions, and similar mental tasks. Household chores included self-care chores (like making themselves a meal), family-care chores (like helping prepare the family meal or weeding a family garden), and pet-care chores. Here’s the kicker. A child’s engagement in self-care chores and family-care chores predicted their working memory and their ability to act before thinking. Specifically, children who engaged in age-appropriate chores also exhibited better working memory and a better ability to think before acting. Better working memory and a better ability to think before acting translates into better problem-solving, improved academic achievement, and even greater career success.

What does this mean for your family and your children? You guessed it. Engaging your children in age-appropriate and ability-appropriate chores can facilitate their cognitive development. It can improve their brain functioning. So let your children help you with household chores and involve them in independent household chores. Encourage them to join you in cooking meals, cleaning, or yard work. When appropriate to their age and ability, let them have the primary responsibility of sweeping, mowing, or dishwashing. Give them the responsibility of keeping their room clean. They may not know it, but you’ll be helping their brain grow and function even better.

Thanksgiving Dinner? What’s the Big Deal?

Norman Rockwell captured the iconic moment of Thanksgiving Dinner in The Thanksgiving Picture. But really, what’s the big deal about a family dinner? Who cares about family dinners anyway?

Family dinner is about so much more than simply sitting at a common table to eat food. We learn important lessons at the family dinner. It is during family dinner that we learn we belong. As we pass the potatoes and negotiate who gets the turkey leg, we learn that life is shared. We are not alone; and we have to think about the “other guy” and his welfare, not just ourselves. We have to listen to learn what others have to say, to learn about their wants and desires. And we learn to leave enough of the “good stuff” for everyone to get some.

At the family dinner table, we also learn that we have something to say, and that others will listen to us. We have needs and desires to express and others will not only hear us tell of those needs and desires but will graciously adjust their behavior to satisfy our needs and desires.

We also learn that manners and civility are important while sitting around the dinner table. We learn that respect leads to greater generosity and that moderation is important to fairness.  And what better place to practice respect, generosity, moderation, and fairness than at the dinner table.

Why have Thanksgiving Dinner? Because our families and our children need to learn these important lessons of belonging, listening, sharing, respect, generosity, moderation, and fairness. Our communities are crying out for these virtues. Why celebrate with a Thanksgiving Dinner? Because changing the world starts with how we share Thanksgiving Dinner with our friends and family. (For more, read Everything I Needed to Know I Learned at Dinner.)

Will You Commit to Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving. We’re nearing the end of “30 days of gratitude.” Most of us will enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey as we sit around our tables and declare what has made us thankful this year. It’s easy to be gratitude for a day or a month, but what about the rest of the year. After all, we will experience difficult days in which we just don’t feel grateful. We will have days in which we struggle to even muster words of gratitude, let alone feel it. The world will press in and stress will overwhelm. The moments in which we don’t feel gratitude may even grow exponentially at times.

Fortunately, gratitude is not just a feeling. Gratitude is a choice, a hard choice but a choice, nonetheless. And this year I am choosing to make gratitude a practice. This year, I am going to choose to exercise my muscles of gratitude even when the feelings of gratitude are not present. 

I will choose gratitude when tempted to complain. Complaining focuses on what we don’t like and brings greater frustration. In choosing gratitude I will recognize what I don’t like while still giving thanks for the inherent blessings of the situation as well. Rather than complain in traffic, I will focus on the blessing of having a car…the employment to afford a car…the manufacturers who made the car…the air conditioning and heater that keep me comfortable in the car…the opportunity to visit with the passenger in the car…. I will choose gratitude and gain greater peace.  Rather than complain about the burnt toast, I will give thanks for the wealth to purchase bread…and the toaster to toast it…and the electricity that powers the toaster.

I will choose gratitude rather than pessimistically think the worst of mankind. I will recognize the complexity of people, their mix of positive and negative qualities. I will give thanks for the unbelievable strengths of people while recognizing their blind spots. I will give thanks for acts of exquisite beauty and grace while recognizing the ugliness of a fallen world. Through gratitude I will invest in the value of the people around me and perhaps nurture their better self.

I will choose gratitude to combat discontentment and counter envy. I will allow gratitude to open my eyes to the abundance I have received and the abundance around me. With gratitude for the abundance I enjoy, I will rejoice and be thankful for the gifts another receives. In a spirit of gratitude, I will find contentment in my life. 

I will choose gratitude in an effort to rise above the worries and momentary anxieties of this life. I will express gratitude for the support, love, and resources available to accomplish whatever task is arousing worry and anxiety.

I will choose gratitude even in the face of anger. Doing so will keep me aware of the many gifts the one who has aroused my anger has given in the past. In giving thanks for the blessing received from them in the past, I will not let their current “mistakes” take on apocalyptic proportions. 

I will choose gratitude to protect my relationships from the tyranny of callousness, ingratitude, and entitlement that leads to resentment and bitterness.

I will choose gratitude to elevate life and encourage love.

It may prove the more difficult road to travel. It may require practice. But I will choose gratitude because it will bring the greatest joy, the greatest growth, and the greatest opportunity for healthy relationships.

I will choose gratitude. Will you?

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?

It’s NOT All About You…or Me

My wife asked me a question, a simple question. “Where’s the cinnamon?” But there was an edge of irritation in her voice that sent “my mind a wandering.” Why does she sound irritated? Does she think I stole it? Why would I steal cinnamon? She is probably accusing me of putting things in the wrong place or not even putting them away at all. What’s the big deal with cinnamon anyway? Why does she always think the worst of me? On my mind ran, escalating my fears and defensiveness. You can imagine my response was less than ideal.  

Have you ever had a similar experience? Your spouse asks a simple question and sounds slightly agitated. The agitation strikes a fear within you. You jump to a conclusion and assume the agitation is pointed toward you. You personalize it and think it’s all about you. It’s a common response, but not the best response.

When we take our spouse’s agitation personally, it almost always makes the interaction go south. When we personalize their agitation, we tend to respond with defensiveness. They hear our defensiveness and feel misunderstood. And so begins a downward spiral of communication that began when we personalized our spouse’s mood and thought it was all about us.

But I have a secret for you…and for me. It’s not all about you…or me. Most of the time it’s about something totally unrelated to you…or me.

What can we do instead of personalizing and getting defensive? How can we nurture a better response and interaction? Good question. Here are some suggestions (given in no particular order).

  • First, take a deep breath. Let the breath out slowly as you start talking to yourself. Begin with statements of curiosity: “Hmmm. I wonder what’s going on here.” Then offer yourself soothing internal thoughts in a calm tone using calm words. Remind yourself of the love you and your spouse share.
  • Second, believe the best about your spouse. Practicing a calming internal dialogue, leaves space for alternative meanings to your spouse’s behaviors and words. It allows room for a compassionate interpretation of what your spouse said or did. Look for those compassionate, loving interpretations and let your mind dwell on them.
  • Third, acknowledge your spouse’s feelings in a calm, non-defensive way. Simply reflect back the emotion you perceived in what they said. This opens the door for clarification and communication. It provides space for your spouse to clarify what’s going on for them and for the two of you to come together in a common understanding.

These 3 simple steps can help save an interaction from the downward spiral of personalizing, defensiveness, and feeling misunderstood. They will help you create a calm interaction of clarification and support instead. That will go a long way toward building a more intimate, loving relationship. And it all begins with realizing that “it’s not all about you.”

Let the Adventures Begin…To Prevent Anxiety

We have witnessed a dramatic rise in children with depression and anxiety that began even before the COVID pandemic. In fact, anxiety among children increased 27% from 2016 to 2019. Depression increased 24% during the same time period. In 2020, about 9.7% of children carried a diagnosis of anxiety and 4% had a diagnosis of depression. (See Research Update: Children’s Anxiety and Depression on the Rise.) I don’t know about you, but I find this very disturbing. So, you can imagine how excited I get when I find research suggesting a simple way to potentially reverse this alarming trend.

A study led by the University of Exeter offers a perfect example. In this study, researcher surveyed nearly 2,500 parents of children 5- to 11-years-old. The surveys asked parents how often their children engaged in “thrilling and exciting” play that might arouse “some fear and uncertainty” as well as their child’s play in general and their general mental health and mood. They discovered that children who spent more time playing outside had fewer of the “internalizing problems” associated with depression and anxiety. In other words, they were less likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Playing outside provides greater opportunity for “thrilling, exciting” play. It gives children the opportunity to experiment with and safely test their limits. It is adventurous, rewarding… and free. Experimenting with their ability, experiencing adventure, and feeling rewarded combine to increase a child’s confidence, ability to plan, self-awareness, and positive sense of self. And, because it’s fun children will do it often.

So, if you want to decrease the chances of your child experiencing diagnosable symptoms of depression or anxiety, take them outside for some adventurous play. Give them the freedom to encounter challenges and risks in their daily play. If you’re looking for some adventurous activities to try…

  • Go for an overnight camping trip.
  • Go for a hike.
  • Go swimming, paddling, or rafting on a river or lake.
  • Create an obstacle course in your backyard…or living room.
  • Explore the woods with a friend.
  • Let your children walk to the store alone.
  • Try out new skills like skateboarding, jumping on a trampoline, or rock climbing.
  • Climb a tree.

What other adventurous activities have you engaged in with your children? Or allowed your children to engage in with other children?

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