Dad’s Superpower & Children’s Self-Control

Fathers have a superpower, a superpower that contributes to their children’s emotional future. What is this superpower? Play! Yes, play. Researchers at Cambridge University and the Lego Foundation uncovered this superpower in a review they completed of 78 studies. Each study examined the impact of fathers playing with their children (zero to three-years-old). The results were published in the Developmental Review in September, 2020. Let me share two of the findings from this review.

  1. Father-child play tended to be more physical than mother-child play. Fathers were hands on. They liked to pick up their infants and engage in rough and tumble play with their toddlers. They enjoyed playing chase and wrestling, swinging, and bouncing.
  2. Father-child play improved emotional and behavioral outcomes. Specifically, more father-child play was associated with less hyperactivity and fewer behavioral problems in school. More play with fathers contributed to the children exhibiting a better ability to control their aggression. The children also exhibited fewer emotional or physical outbursts during disagreements at school.

It  seems that physical play with dad helped children develop better emotional and behavioral self-regulation. The authors believe this improved self-regulation occurs in at least three ways.

  • During the rough and tumble play, fathers model self-regulation by controlling their own strength, actions, and words. Children also control their own strength, actions, and words to avoid “hurting” their dad. Of course, seeing self-regulation modeled and engaging in self-regulation themselves is a wonderful practice in self-control.
  • During rough and tumble play, a father or child may experience an accidental minor hurt (a foot gets stepped on, a ball bounces the wrong way and smacks someone in the face). When such an accident occurs, that play stops momentarily to make sure everyone is OK. Then the fun continues. Both have survived the minor accident. Both have learned to better control themselves to avoid similar hurts in the future.
  • During father-child rough and tumble play, children may also experience times in which they “get carried away” and Dad must slow the play down. Their children follow suit, learning to better regulate their behavior and emotions.

This all adds up to children who learn better emotional and behavioral regulation from their Dad’s superpower, play! Now get out their Dad and put that superpower to use. Play with your child today!

Family Happiness -Tips From Norway

Winter approaches quickly as the days get shorter and the nights longer. Many people suffer from more sadness and even depression as we move through winter. (Click here for more information on SAD.) We may find an even greater struggle this year as the number of COVID cases increase our levels of anxiety and force many to stay inside even more than usual. In the midst of this dark winter, a light of hope appears. An article in the Good News Network suggests this light of hope may come to us by way of the “Norwegians’ unique cultural mindset.” Norway experiences as little as 30 hours of sunlight in December. Their winter nights are long; their days are short. However, they have small numbers of people who suffer from SAD. Perhaps their “unique cultural mindset” protects them…and perhaps we can adopt their “unique cultural mindset” to help us survive our winter days and the current pandemic. What does this mindset involve? Good question.

People like those in Norway choose to view the dark days of the sun-deprived winters as an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. Their use their internal and external dialogues to speak of the opportunities that winter presents. Rather than saying “Winter is boring,” they focus on “the many things to enjoy about winter,” the “coziness of winter months,” and the “activities only available in winter.” You may think this simple “positive thinking” is a waste of time. But how we frame our outlook on the current situation and the future has an impact on our overall mental health. Martin Seligman calls this healthy framing “learned optimism.” Studies suggest that this “optimistic frame” not only leads to improved mental health but improved physical health and higher motivation as well. So, rather than look at the ways winter “brings you down,” begin to explore the possibilities winter brings. It brings the possibility of learning a new craft, of snuggling on the couch, of learning to ski or play hockey. Winter brings the possibility of games and get-togethers as well as the opportunity to witness a different beauty outside…which brings me to another “hint from Norway.”

The Norway people apparently enjoy “friluftsliv,” or “free air life.” Friluftsliv involves enjoying outdoor, physical activities at your own pace. It can include activities as simple as taking a family walk to fishing to skiing, whatever activity you and your family might enjoy in the “great outdoors.”  

So, rather than let your family get bogged down by the cold, short days, and long nights of winter, do like they do in Norway. Reframe your inner dialogue and your conversation to talk about the opportunities of winter. Then get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. It might just give your family a little more “hygge” (Oh wait, wrong country. That’s Danish and another way to help avoid the winter blues. Learn more in Make a Little Christmas Hygge anytime of the year.) Enjoy!

Multitasking, Your Brain, & Family

We live in a fast-paced world. Information, both wanted and unwanted, constantly “pops up:” breaking news, tweets, Instagram messages, weather reports, work messages, advertisements, calls, notifications…the list goes on. This fast pace is compounded right now as many families are working from home while helping their children navigate on-line school. Speaking of our children, they have not escaped this fast-paced, information flooding world either. They message friends, catch snippets of their favorite game, and watch videos while signed into their on-line school setting. It is an epoch of extravagant multitasking…especially if we do not intentionally and mindfully slow down the input and learn to focus.

“Who cares?” you might ask. “Why not multitask? I have a lot to do, a lot to get done. I have to multitask.” Well, a study published in 2017 suggests multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%. In other words, we get less done when multitasking. The fMRI’s used in this study showed that multitasking, and quickly switching from activity to activity, interferes with brain activity. Concentration decreased. Stress increases. Thinking is hindered. The lack of focus inherent in multitasking reduces efficiency and cuts productivity by up to 40%.

A more recent study suggested that multitasking contributed to an increase in stress. That stress triggered feelings of sadness and even a touch of fear. This is bad news for families because emotions are “contagious.” If one person’s stress triggers an increase in sadness, that sadness can spread to others in the family. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. One person becomes stressed and sad, frustrated because they’ve been trying to complete an important task amidst the constant interruptions of emails, phone calls, tweets, and questions. Then they “take out” this stress and frustration on the innocent spouse or child or parent who tells them dinner is ready. Suddenly, the whole house is on edge.

What can you do to limit multitasking, increase productivity, and decrease the risk of a negative emotional contagion? Here are a few tips to help.

  • Work on one task at a time. Set aside distractions (see bullets below). Let your family know you need an hour (or whatever time you allot) so you can do your work distraction free.
  • Turn off the notification on your phone and computer.
  • Schedule specific times to answer emails. Do not look at each email as it arrives. Schedule a time to answer them in groups. You might set up two times a day or 15 minutes every two hours. Whatever works best in allowing you blocks of time to focus on single tasks.
  • Schedule your social media use as well. We do not have to answer every tweet and message immediately. Let your friends and family know that you respond to messages at set times.

Putting these 4 tips into practice will help you escape the trap of multitasking. You will find yourself more productive. Your mood will likely improve…and your family will definitely appreciate that!

That Glorious Fight with Your Teen

If you have a teen, you will likely have some conflict with them. You may even get into an argument or two…and that’s great news! Why? Because the way in which you repair the relationship with your teen is an opportunity for everyone to grow “strong in the force” of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to reflect on their own thoughts, feelings, and actions combined with an awareness of other people’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Your efforts to reconnect and repair the relationship with your teen following a conflict provides them with a “master class” in emotional intelligence. (For more on emotional intelligence read The Wings on Which Your Children Soar.)

Only you can teach this class because only you meet the required qualifications—someone with whom your teen feels secure, someone with whom your teen has a loving relationship, someone who is motivated to maintain a relationship with your teen through thick and thin. Who else but you, their parent, meets these criteria? So, prepare yourself to lead your teen in a “master class” in emotional intelligence.

As the teacher of your teen’s “master class” in emotional intelligence, what is the lesson plan? Here is a brief outline.

  • Following the conflict, allow at least twenty minutes for all parties (you and your teen) to calm down.
  • Approach your teen calmly and acknowledge your teen’s emotions. Offer understanding of their emotions and a label for them. Doing this informs them that emotions are beneficial. You understand and accept their emotion. In doing so you model one aspect of emotional intelligence—the ability to be aware of and understanding of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  You also encourage them to reflect on their own thoughts and emotions, another aspect of emotional intelligence.
  • Apologize for any inappropriate actions or statements on your part. As part of the apology, explain your own emotions. Do not blame your teen for your emotions. Take responsibility for those emotions but voice an awareness of your own emotions. In doing so you model the aspect of emotional intelligence involved in reflecting on your own thoughts and emotions. You also teach your teen to be aware of other people’s thoughts and emotions, in this case yours.
  • Allow time to calmly discuss each of these two bullets. Then you can discuss solutions to avoid future conflict. Those solutions may involve limits and boundaries for both of you. Fortunately, the “master class” in emotional intelligence will help you both respect the boundaries and limits that make up the solution.

Next time you find yourself in conflict with your teen, do not beat yourself up. Instead, be glad you for the opportunity to humble yourself, accept responsibility for your part in the conflict, and lead a “master class” in emotional intelligence. Teach it well in your actions and your words.

Baseball Reveals the Power of Dad

I read an interesting article that was initially published in 2016. It described the findings of “Called Out at Home” from the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. In this study, I learned about the surprising increase of African American plays in Major League Baseball (MLB) between 1947 (when Jackie Robison became the first African American in the Major Baseball League) and 1981 when 18% of the players were African American (which was higher than the percentage of African Americans in the general public). However, the percentage of African American players declined to 7% through the 1980’s and 1990’s. Why did this drastic decrease occur? That’s the questions asked in this study.

To answer that question, the researchers looked at the birth data of about 85,000 college and professional baseball players. They sampled over 600 current Major League Baseball players and researched their families’ structure. They discovered something interesting.

  • 80% of the African American professional players came from a home in which their father was present (compared to 40% of African Americans in the general population).
  • Children who live with their father had about a 25% greater likelihood of playing baseball than those who lived in a home without a father. More specifically, 20% of those living with a father played baseball compared to only 16% of those living without a father.
  • While African American players in MLB declined, players from Dominican Republic and Venezuela increased…and many of these plyers had grown up in poor communities. This suggests that the decrease in African American MLB players was not determined by money or socioeconomic status alone.
  • As an aside, the researchers also discovered that high school students living with their fathers were actually less likely to play basketball than students without a father in the home.

As the authors of the study considered these findings, they suggest that some sports require a great deal of support and finances, like football, hockey, and lacrosse.

Other sports require little support or finances, like basketball and track. Kids can excel by practicing alone or with a group of peers in a “pick-up” game at the park.

Baseball falls in between these two extremes. In baseball you need one other committed person, a ball, a bat, and a glove (preferably two). The authors make the case that the best person to be the committed person in the case of baseball is a father!

Whether a father is in the home or not may not be the only factor explaining the decline in African American players in the MLB, but it does point to the power of a Dad. I’m not suggesting that a child can become a professional ball player simply because he or she has a dad at home either. But this research supports the idea that having a father at home helps a child thrive. Whether it be in the sports their children choose or the life choices their children make, a father makes a powerful difference. So, get your child and grab a ball and glove. Go outside and play some catch. After all, the real goal of playing catch is not just learning to catch and throw a ball. The real goal is to develop a relationship, impart life, and promote values of love and compassion.

**After I published this blog, a friend told me about another African American player who played in the Major Leagues 6 decades before Jackie Robinsons. Read the fascinating story of Moses Fleetwood Walker here. And thank you for correcting me and helping me grow.

The Heartbeat of a Hug

Parents hug their children as an expression of affection, comfort, and joy…and because we like to hug them. Even as adults we recognize a hug as a communication of love, comfort, or celebration. But did you know that hugs have a physical impact on the hugger and the one hugged. A study published in 2020 in iScience confirmed this by monitoring the heart rate of infants under the age of 1-year-old while they were given a 20-second hug, held for 20 seconds, tightly hugged for 20 seconds, or in their crib for 20 seconds. The hug, holding, or tight hug was given by their parent and by a female they did not know (who had experience in childbirth and childcare). Some of their findings you might expect. For instance,

  • Children four-months-old and older exhibited a slower heart rate when hugged by a parent. They physically relaxed when hugged by their parent.
  • They did not exhibit a slower heart rate or physically relax when hugged by a stranger, even though the “stranger” in this experiment had experience in childbirth and parenting. Experience with children and infants does not replace the hug of a parent!

Some results were a little more unexpected. For instance,

  • The parents’ heart rate also slowed when they hugged their children. Parent and child both physically relax when a parent hugs their child. 
  • The children did not exhibit a slower heart rate or physically relax when simply held or hugged tightly, even if it was their parent.  This suggests that a child can differentiate a hug from simply being held and from being held “tightly” (perhaps as a parent holds the child to protect them or while experiencing their own fear or negative emotion.)   It is not just physical contact that impacts heart rate and relaxation but an affectionate, loving hug.

This study reveals the heartbeat of a hug for infants and parents. But I wonder if this ever changes in life. Who doesn’t relax into the arms of a spouse’s hug? Who doesn’t rejoice in the hug of their teen? And, if truth be told, what teen doesn’t really enjoy the occasional affectionate hug of a parent? The heartbeat of a hug is more than just a slowing of the heart and physical relaxation. The heartbeat of a hug is a life-giving, joyous celebration of connection. Today, share a few hugs with those you love and experience the heartbeat of a hug!

What Values Do You Prioritize in Your Family?

The conflict and chaos in the world today have brought priorities and values into the limelight. Whether you agree with the values and priorities portrayed by various groups and leaders or not, we are all forced to stop and reflect. What priorities do I want to pass on to my children? What values do I want them to learn? How do I model those priorities and values in my daily life? And how do I teach them to my children? Those are tough questions that require reflection and thought. Let me share some of the priorities and values I deem important for family. Wait…on second thought, my daughters are young adults now. Let me ask them what priorities and values they learned from my wife and me. Perhaps their answers will shed light on our practical values rather than my “philosophical ideals.” So, I asked them, “What priorities and values did you learn from us?” Their response?

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. What priorities and values would you add to the list? What priorities and values do you want your children to learn from you? How do you model them for your children to see?

“Stop Trying to Fix Me!”

“Stop trying to fix me!” Has your partner or child ever said that to you? Have you ever said it yourself? “Stop trying to fix me!” When people in our lives experience struggles or problems, they generally do not want us to fix it for them. They want connection…and connection involves empathy. Unfortunately, empathy does not always come naturally. The desire to “fix it” and “make them feel better” is often what comes naturally to us. We hate to see our loved ones hurt. We want to “make them feel better,” to “fix the problem.” So, rather than show empathy, we unknowingly say things that minimize and invalidate their feelings, things like…

  • “It could be worse….” During their painful situation, your loved one will find it hard to imagine anything worse. Besides, they do not want to think about something worse. They want someone to listen. They want someone to accept their feelings. They want you to hear their pain and validate their emotions.
  • “This could turn out well if you just….” No one really wants to take the moment of pain or sorrow to learn. There will be opportunities to learn after they navigate the current pain. Instead, your family member desires you to “be with them” in the moment, to “sit with them” in their struggle and support them through the pain.
  • “When one door closes, another door opens.” Many people have described the pain of this statement to me. It invalidates their current pain and implies that a person can only have one positive experience in their life at a time, one open door at a time. Instead, your family member simply needs to mourn the door that closed before moving to another door.
  • “It’s not that bad. I remember when….” This statement comes across as a “one-up” statement. It comes across as though you are minimizing the current pain by saying, “You want to know pain. I have felt pain. Your pain is nothing compared to mine.”

Statements like those above (and there are many others) are generally made with good intentions. They represent an effort to “make the other person feel better” and ease their pain. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect. They make the other person feel unheard, devalued, and even more upset. Why? Because at the root of our emotions, we want connection and empathy, not “fixed.” We want to know we are understood and that our emotions are accepted. After we understand our emotions and know another person has accepted our emotions, we can work at resolving those emotions and finding a solution. 

So, instead of “trying to fix” your spouse, your children, or your parent, use these four skills to empathize.

  • Listen without judging. Hear more than just the words. Listen for the emotions underlying the words. Knowing that another person hears us deeply and has the strength to witness our struggle, gives us more strength to manage the struggle effectively. (Remember, the art of listening is more than responding.)
  • Identify and label emotions. Labeling an emotion puts a buffer between our emotion and our actions. It helps us avoid impulsive reactions and empowers us to respond appropriately instead. (Check out these 6 tips to make your children’s emotions your friend.)
  • Sit with them in the emotion. Walk a mile in their shoes. Allow yourself to experience their emotion to some degree. Maybe you have not had the exact experience yourself, but you have endured the human experience. You have experienced the joys, triumphs, pains, and struggles of humanity. Be vulnerable and sit with your family member in their emotion.
  • Summarize and validate their perspective and emotions. This will facilitate organizing their emotions as well as the opportunity to develop a potential response to the emotions.

When we “stop trying to fix” our family we are free to listen deeply and lovingly “be with them” in their struggle, to empathize and validate. By doing so, we open a door to future solutions. Perhaps more importantly, we open the door for deeper intimacy and love.

What Your Family Needs Now…

What the world, and your family needs now is NOT love, sweet love. No. your family needs a specific type of response from you, especially during these uncertain times. Sure, this response falls under the category of “loving action,” but many (including me) have missed the mark at times. A study published in the Journal of Communication revealed how we can hit the mark, and even the bull’s eye, more often. In this study, the authors recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. They offered these adults one of six types of supportive while talking to them about their disagreement. These six responses types ranged from low to moderate to high in “person-centeredness.”

Low “person-centered” responses were critical and challenged the person’s feelings… statements like, “Nobody is worth getting so upset about. Stop being so depressed.” Or “I don’t know why you’re so upset. You do the same thing.” 

High “person-centered” responses recognized the person’s feelings and may have even invited them to discuss or explore those feelings… statements like, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is hard. It makes sense you’re upset.” 

Which response elicited the best results? Well, not the low “person-centered” responses. These responses created resistance and anger in the person. They did not help the person manage their emotions or resolve their marital disagreement. In fact, they often led to the person feeling criticized and experiencing more negative emotions.

The high “person-centered” responses led to greater emotional management. The person felt validated and free to discuss their thoughts and feelings. This contributed to a move to resolution. In other words, high “person-centered” responses proved more effective in helping a person resolve marital conflict.

In our families, arguments and disagreements will arise. How you respond to those disagreements can lead to feelings of resistance and anger or to feelings of validation and acceptance. Your response can contribute to escalating disagreement or quicker resolution. The more “person-centered” your response, the more acceptance and validation your family member will feel…and the more quickly you will reach resolution. What would high “person-centered” responses look like?

  • High “person-centered” responses involve listening intently to understand even before speaking.
  • High “person-centered” responses express acceptance. They seek to recognize and validate the emotions and feelings of the other person, your spouse.
  • High “person-centered” responses recognize, respect, and accept your spouse’s experience, even if it seems different than your own.
  • High “person-centered” responses express sympathy, care, and concern for your spouse…even if you do disagree. It communicates that your relationship is more important than your disagreement.

Next time you find yourself in an argument with a family member, do an experiment. Focus on giving high “person-centered” responses. Listen to understand. Communicate acceptance and respect. Validate their emotions and their experience. Express care and concern. See if the resolution comes more quickly, if the intimacy feels more secure, and if you and your family member are more content with the process. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Helping Your Child Become Likeable: A Barrel of Fun

Children love to have fun…and having fun is no laughing matter. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Personality (2020) suggests that fun is one of three traits (prosocial behavior, leadership, and fun) shown to predict changes in a child’s “likeability and popularity” between the ages of nine and twelve years. This study, completed in Florida and Colombia, focused on fun. By letting peers nominate who was “likeable” and what made them likable, they discovered that children perceived by others as fun experienced an increase in the number of classmates who liked them over a two-month period. The perception of fun remained a key factor of “likeability” even after controlling for the influence of prosocial behavior, leadership, physical attractiveness, fairness, athletic ability, disruptiveness, and aggression. In other words, fun influenced likability.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising. After all, who doesn’t enjoy being around someone who is fun? But maybe we can learn something important for our families. Instilling a sense of fun into our family life may help our children learn to be fun. We often focus on teaching our children academics, sports, and manners. We teach them to listen and behave appropriately. Sometimes we become so “serious” about their academics, sports, music, and manners that we forget to teach them to have fun. And being fun is no laughing matter. How can we teach our children to have fun?

  • Model having fun. Let them see you engaging in activities and having fun. Even if you engage in a competitive sport, let them see how fun it is.
  • Laugh. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at a joke. Laugh at a funny show on TV. Laugh with your children and laugh as a family. Enjoy the moment and laugh. Teach your family to laugh because Laughter is No Laughing Matter for Families.
  • Encourage your children to do their best in their chosen activity. However, never let them lose sight of fun in that activity as well. Those who have fun are the same ones who do their best. Teach them to enjoy playing their sport or their instrument. Teach them to have fun in the activities they choose.
  • Encourage creativity. Whatever creative activities you enjoy—music, storytelling, art, photography, dance—whatever mode you may choose, enjoy creativity. (Discover Your Inner Musician is one way to encourage creativity.)
  • Play games together and make them fun. You can play anything from “Salad Bowl” to badminton. It doesn’t matter what you play. Just play and have fun. After all, it’s all fun and games…until it’s something more.
  • Tell a joke or two…or three or more. Make funny stories and jokes part of your family heritage. (My favorite joke, of course, is The Infamous Dad Joke.)

I’m sure there are more ways to teach your children to have fun. What are ways you encourage your children and your family to have fun? Don’t hold back. Share them below so we can all join in the fun and watch our children reap the benefits of learning to be fun.

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