6 Tips to Make Your Marriage a Taste of Heaven on Earth

Marriage can provide us with a taste of heaven on earth…or leave us living in hell on earth. Unfortunately, we don’t generally receive training in how to make our marriages a happy, fulfilling experience. I know you can’t learn everything you need to know about a wonderful marriage in a blog but let me give some tips to offer a good start. Here are 6 tips for making your marriage a taste of heaven on earth.

  1. Practice radical generosity. Radical generosity means giving your whole life to your spouse. Give your best energy to your spouse. Give service to your spouse…with joy. Give affection to your spouse on a daily basis. Give your spouse compliments. Give your strength and effort in keeping a home. Give your time by doing an extra chore. Give your time by engaging your spouse in conversation and togetherness. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, even when they hurt you. Give all of this and more with radical generosity.
  2. Be the first. Of course, be the first to apologize when you make a mistake. Be the first to apologize when an argument arises or when you have a disagreement, even when it isn’t your fault. Be the first to volunteer to do a chore around the house. Be the first to offer your services to your spouse. Be the first to offer genuine forgiveness. Be the first to sacrifice for the good of your spouse and your marriage. Be the first.
  3. Don’t complain, adore instead. We often find it easier to complain and nag than to adore and compliment. Make an intentional effort to look for the positive in your spouse and your marriage and then acknowledge those positives verbally. In fact, set a goal to say nine positive things to and about your spouse for every one negative. That’s a 9-positive to 1-negative rule. Verbally appreciate or adore your spouse multiple times every day. Focus on the joy and the beauty your spouse adds to your life and verbalize your appreciation of it on a daily basis. Doing so will change your marriage.
  4. Have fun. Make it a point to laugh with your spouse. Find activities you can engage in together just for fun. You might enjoy bike riding, reading a book together, sampling restaurants, hiking, going for walks, listening to music, going to plays…. The list is endless. Make it a habit to enjoy at least one fun conversation daily and at least one fun activity weekly. Have fun together. Laugh. Celebrate your love.
  5. Listen deeply. Listen with respect to hear their wisdom. Listen to understand their intent. Listen to understand their emotions. Listen to understand their desires. Listen so you can understand their view of the world. Listen so you can respond lovingly to what you hear. Yes, listen deeply—for by listening deeply you come to know your spouse better; and in knowing your spouse better you come to love them more.
  6. Accept completely. When we live with someone we begin to see their flaws (just as they see our flaws). But you can’t change your spouse. Don’t even try. Accept them in all their uniqueness instead. Take time to remember all those aspects you love about your spouse. Focus on the aspects you admire and adore about (return to #3 on this list). When their “little traits and idiosyncrasies” begin to irritate, remember how those same “traits and idiosyncrasies” made you love them when your first met. Accept them completely.

Once again, this list is far from exhaustive. What have you done to help create a marriage that gives you a little taste of heaven on earth? What would you add to this list to help others have a heavenly marriage?

Six Common Parenting Mistakes

Parenting is both one of the greatest joys of life and one of the most difficult tasks of life. In spite of the many parenting help books, your child does not come with an instruction manual. We know generalities and principles to apply, but every child is unique. Every child demands something just a little bit different than the others. If you have more than one child, you know this to be true. Still, we know some principles that apply across the board. And we know some parenting actions that just don’t work well. In fact, here are six common parenting mistakes you can avoid.

  1. Making comparisons. Comparing our children to their siblings or another child invalidates our children’s uniqueness. It makes them doubt their own worth. Instead of comparing, celebrate their unique personality and strengths.
  2. Invalidating feelings. We all hate to see our child emotionally or physically hurt. For many, it actually hurts to see their child in pain. We quickly rush in and try to make them feel better by saying, “You’re okay.” Actually, they wouldn’t be crying or upset if they were okay. They are hurt. Telling them they’re ok may actually make them feel worse. The more effective approach is to acknowledge their emotions. Give them a hug and label what they might be feeling. Here is a great way to make your children’s emotions your friend and ally.
  3. Global praise. Telling a child “You’re really good at that” or “Great job” or “Super” may actually backfire. It can contribute to the creation of what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.” Children with “fixed mindset” give up more easily and may even avoid challenges. Instead, offer a specific praise by acknowledging an aspect of their activity like and why you like it. “That was a great throw to first base.” “I really like your choice of colors in that picture, especially the yellow.” Follow it up with curiosity. “How did you keep you balance throwing that ball?” “What led to you choose those colors?” And acknowledge the effort that contributed to their work. “Your hard work is paying off. You’re catching more hard-hit balls.” These comments will contribute to a “growth mindset.”
  4. Turning to your child with your problems. Too often I hear a parent talk to their child about problems at work, frustrations with housework, or anger at a spouse. Your problems are not your child’s problems. They are too young and too emotionally immature to manage your problems. Instead, take your concerns up with your spouse, your boss, or a peer. Let your child enjoy their childhood. Resolve your marital issues with your spouse (and a therapist if necessary) so your child can enjoy the benefits of happily married parents.
  5. Name-calling. Of course, avoid all name-calling. Avoid words like “stupid,” “lazy,” “fat,” or any other label. We need to also avoid more subtle name-calling like calling your child “spoiled” or “just like your father.” Even calling your child names in jest can have a negative effect. Rather than name-calling, remember you are the adult—wiser, stronger, and more mature. Don’t resort to childish name-calling. Be the adult and talk to your child.
  6. Jumping in to solve their problems. Our children thrive when we let them experience the consequences of their choices; when we give them the opportunity to solve their own problems rather than jumping in to fix it for them. So, before you jump in to “help them out,” ask yourself whose problem you are fixing. If it is their problem, give them the opportunity to fix it. You can stand in their corner but let them win the match.

Avoid these six parenting mistakes. Your child will be glad you did.

What A “Pittsburgher” Learned About Family in Cleveland

My wife and I enjoyed a trip to Cleveland. We had a great time and met some wonderful people. (Yes, I am from Pittsburgh AND I found Cleveland fun & enjoyable…go figure.) After breakfast one morning we strolled through the Arcade 5 and saw this sign outside the Johnnysville Woods store. It lists “The 5 Commandments for Being Happy.” I thought I’d share it with you and how the same “commandments” can help our families.

  1. Free your heart from hatred. Hatred destroys. It takes root in the heart and fills a person with resentment, bitterness, and mistrust. Hatred destroys relationships, even within the family. The antidote to hatred is apology and forgiveness. Both apology and forgiveness are crucial to a healthy, happy family life because families are made up of people who make mistakes—who say the wrong thing, forget the important thing, offend unknowingly, and blame wrongly. Each will demand apology and forgiveness to restore the relationship. Humble yourself to apology. Become vulnerable enough to forgive. Often.
  2. Free your mind from worry. Worry can kill a family too. Worry flows out of fear, usually irrational fears and fears about things over which we have no control. Excessive worry creates unnecessary limits. It hinders our exploration and our growth. It hinders our risk taking, our willingness to “put ourselves out there,” and our ability to nurture our relationships. Don’t let worry and fear drive your family life. We can begin to let go of worry by nurturing gratitude and trust toward our spouse, our children, and our parents.
  3. Give more. Give more love. Give more gratitude. Give more service. Give more consideration. Give more encouragement. Give more benefit of the doubt. Give more…and give more generously. Give so much that your family will remember you as a generous person who enjoyed giving to others. When you do, your family will grow healthier and happier.
  4. Expect less. While you give more, expect less. In fact, “consider one another as more important than yourself. Don’t look out only for your own interests but for the interests of others.” Rather than expect your spouse and children to serve you, serve them…generously. Look more to what you can give than to what you want to receive. After all, “it’s better to give than to receive.” (For more on expectations in marriage, read Do Expectations Help or Hinder Your Marriage.)
  5. Love simply. Yes. Love simply…but realize that loving is not always easy. Even when it is hard to do, love simply. When a family member says something that hurts your feelings, love anyway. When your spouse forgets to finish the “honey-do-list,” love anyway. When your child does not listen, love anyway. When your parent doesn’t understand, love anyway. Simply love.

These “5 Commandments for Being Happy” will not only bring greater happiness to you as an individual, they will also fill your family with happiness. Practice them for a month and see if you don’t agree.

From Complaint to Opportunity in One Word

Words are powerful, both the words we think and the words we speak. The words running through our thoughts influence how we feel about ourselves, the situations around us, and others. The words we speak influence those around us and our selves. For instance, modifying one little word in a sentence can change the sentence from a complaint to an opportunity. “I have to go to the store now” sounds like a death sentence. So does “You have to practice” or “We have to go to church.” But notice how it changes from a burden to an opportunity when we change one simple word. “I get to go to the store now.” “You get to practice.” “We get to go to church.” Simply by changing “have” to “get” the sentences produce different feelings. They change a complaint into an opportunity. They give a sense of anticipation, something to look forward to.

Let me offer another example. “I can’t do this” sounds hopeless. “I can’t make a basket.” “I can’t hit the ball.” “I can’t do math.” They all sound hopeless, deterministic with no chance of growth or change. Consider what happens when we simply had one little word. “I can’t do this yet.” “I can’t make a basket yet.” “I can’t hit the ball yet.” “I can’t do math yet.” Adding “yet” offers hope. It opens the door for the possibility of learning and growing. It presents the opportunity of doing each of those actions in the future, either through maturity, practice, or the gaining of knowledge.

One more example. Consider how these sentences rob us of our agency and fill us with guilt. “I should have eaten an apple instead of the chocolate cake today.” “You should start practicing now.” “I should study more to get a better grade.” “Should” provides a shorthand method of describing a choice we have made or need to make. As shorthand, it does not describe both sides of the choice. It only describes the choice not taken or less desired. By not describing both sides of the choice and not admitting to the choice, we rob ourselves of responsibility and agency. In fact, we often replace responsibility with guilt. And we take away the opportunity to practice the responsibility needed to do it differently in the future. Look how simply rewording these sentences allows for greater personal responsibility and opening up the possibility of doing it differently in the future. “I chose to eat an apple instead of chocolate cake today.” “You can start practicing now.” “I am going to study more to get a better grade.” Do you recognize how these sentences communicate personal responsibility? They open the door for the practice of agency. They proclaim that you have a choice; and your choice makes a difference.

What does this have to do with family? Practicing these subtle changes will make you a happier person—a person more focused on opportunity than complaint, more open to growing, learning, and changing, and more practiced at taking personal responsibility. Your family will be glad for to live with a person who does these things. Who wouldn’t? And your children will learn to do the same. (Read My Children are Copy Cats…Now What? to learn more about children learning from our actions.) They will also grow more focused on opportunity than complaint. They will be more open to growing, learning, and changing. They will practice taking personal responsibility more often.

The Greatest Compliment You Can Give Your Spouse

Everyone wants to know others recognize and appreciate them. In fact, Mother Teresa said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”  I agree. You may not find the opportunity to share appreciation for “everybody,” but there is one person who you can express appreciation to multiple times every day…your spouse. Here is a simple, yet powerful way to makes sure your spouse knows you appreciate them. Compliment them. Look for daily opportunities to compliment your spouse as often as you can.

You can compliment your spouse verbally, but there is another way that might prove more powerful than all the words you could ever say. Randy S. Woodley (link) brought it to my attention when he wrote, “Listening is perhaps the greatest compliment one person can pay to another.” Listening compliments your spouse in at least 4 ways.

  • Listening communicates that you find your spouse interesting and of significance. It communicates a curiosity about them and their ideas, a desire to know them more deeply.
  • Listening expresses how much you value your spouse’s emotions, ideas, and perspectives. In fact, you value them and their emotions, ideas, and perspectives enough to sacrifice your time to intently listen to them.
  • Listening respects your spouse’s voice as equal to your own, important and informative. In fact, you respect their voice so much that you desire to hear their insights and thoughts.
  • Listening communicates that you value your spouse’s opinion. It lets them know you consider their voice as valid as your own, so valid that you will put aside your own ideas and opinions long enough to understand theirs.

As you truly listen, you learn. Your spouse becomes an “open book” from whom you learn. You learn about them and their view of the world. And, you learn things you wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Just as important as what you might learn, listening also represents the greatest compliment you can give your spouse…a compliment of their significance, value, and importance…a compliment of their knowledge and their influence…all without saying a word!

The Best Response to Your Child’s Ingratitude

I’ve heard many parents express frustration over their child’s lack of gratitude. Maybe you have done it yourself. It seems even grateful children go through times in which they become ungrateful, demanding, and even presumption. They stop expressing thanks and expect to receive anything they want from their parents. Or, they expect their parent to do anything they want for them…as if we, their parents, were put on this earth to serve their every whim. They express frustration or anger because they don’t get something they want, even though we just spent an afternoon doing nice things for them. Or maybe they bemoan that the other kids “have it better” because their “parents understand.” You’ve probably encountered a time like this. Most of us have experienced our children doing at least one of these things. I know I have. When it happens, we ask ourselves: “What’s the best way to respond so my children will become more grateful as they mature?”

That’s the question Andrea Hussong (from the University of North Carolina) and colleagues sought to answer in 3 -year study involving over 100 parents and children. They considered 6 parental responses to ingratitude: self-blame, letting it go as a “phase” the child will outgrow, becoming frustrated or distressed, punishing, giving in, or teaching/instructing.

They discovered several details about gratitude between parent and child, but I want to focus on what responses parents and children in the study thought fostered gratitude. Parents believed their children showed more gratitude after 3 years when they responded to ingratitude with negative consequences, for instance, putting a toy left out where someone might trip over it into time out or taking away an opportunity for dessert because the child expressed ingratitude for supper.

Children, on the other hand, reported increased gratitude when their parents “got upset or frustrated by their ingratitude.” In other words, when parents express their authentic emotions about their children’s ingratitude, their children listen… and learn.

So, if you get frustrated by your child’s ingratitude and the expectations that accompany that ingratitude, let them know.  Stay calm, take a breath, look them in the eye, and tell them: “I get upset when you don’t appreciate the food I give you and my effort in preparing it.” “It’s very frustrating that I spent all evening playing a game you wanted to play and now you demand to stay up late.” “I really get angry when you leave your toys where someone could trip over them when you know how to put them away when you’re done playing.”

Then, if the ingratitude continues, a negative consequence may also help. “No dessert” due to ingratitude over dinner. An “earlier bedtime” in response to demanding behavior in the evening. A toy “put in time out” for the day because a child did not put it away when asked to. The important thing is to make sure the consequence is associated with the area of ingratitude.

And just as important, when your child expresses gratitude, show a little gratitude in return. Your gratitude will reinforce the behavior you desire, the behavior of showing gratitude. Children learn from their parent’s example. Your gratitude will set a good example. It will “rub off on them.” In fact, your children will rarely become more grateful than you. The more gratitude you show, the more gratitude they will show.

The Perfectly Inadequate Parent

Have you ever worried about your skills as a parent? Have you ever just hoped you were doing a “good enough” job as a parent…and still had your doubts? Have you ever thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing… hopefully not destroying my children”?  If you answered “yes” to any of those question, I have good news.

First, welcome to the world of honest parenting. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all fall short. We all make mistakes; and we all learn as we go. We are a work in progress, a group of perfectly inadequate parents…and that is great news! Our times of “falling short” of perfection while doing our best to lovingly parent our children actually benefits our children. That leads me to the next benefit of being a perfectly inadequate parent.

Second, our children learn from our shortcomings and mistakes.  Our shortcomings give our children the opportunity to learn how to manage stress in an imperfect work. Our mistakes allow our children to learn how to handle their own mistakes by watching how we handle our mistakes. Our ability to learn and grow through our mistakes, to accept responsibility for our mistakes, and apologize for our mistakes teaches our children to do the same. In other words, our shortcomings provide our children with the opportunity to learn how to manage the stress and “momentary hiccups” they are bound to experience in our imperfect world of relationships.

Third, being a perfectly inadequate parent makes us aware of our need to ask for help. We need to gather a community of other parents (young and old) who will lend us their eyes to see how we might improve, their ears to listen empathetically to our concerns, their shoulders upon which to cry, and their mouths to voice encouragement. We need a community with which to celebrate the joys of parenting as well as share the emotional burden of parenting. Our shortcomings drive us to that community…and that’s good news for us and our children.

Let me repeat: if you feel like you’re struggling as a parent, as if you’re inadequate, that’s good news. It means you care. You love your children…and you want to be the best and most loving parent you can. That “love covers a multitude of sins.” When you love and connect with your children, they will learn and grow even through your shortcomings. Our children learn positive lessons through our mistakes and our successes when we begin and end by building a genuine, loving relationship with them (see An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in Three Parts). In other words, parenting that flows from a loving relationship with our children will turn our perfectly inadequate parenting into perfect parenting.

To Deeper Connection and Beyond

Buzz Lightyear challenges his friends to go to “infinity and beyond.” I’m ok avoiding infinity actually. But I do want to move to deeper connection and beyond with my spouse and family. I think most people do. Connecting with other people in a deep and meaningful way makes us happy, especially when that other person is our spouse. In fact, we have a deep need for emotional connection to our spouse. And, if we perceive something as threatening our connection with our spouse, we do all sorts of crazy things—like argue, blame, accuse, give the silent treatment—in an attempt to reconnect. These actions rarely work well; but, like a toddler crying and screaming when dropped off at day care, we hope our behavior will bridge the disconnection and bring us back into synchrony and deep connection with our spouse.

There is a better way to restore our connection with our spouse, a way that doesn’t involve those “crazy actions.” Ironically, a series of twelve experiments focused on building greater connection to strangers provides us with solid instructions for restoring connection to our spouse as well. In these experiments, researchers asked pairs of people to discuss either deep or shallow topics. Sometimes they gave them the topics and sometimes the pair came up with their own topic. Shallow topics involved small talk like questions about weather, a TV show, or a recent sporting event. Deeper topics included more personal, intimate information about emotions, values, or personal desires. Participants also made predictions before having the conversation about 1) how awkward the conversation would be, 2) how connected they would feel, and 3) how much enjoyment they would experience. After the conversation they rated their actual experience in the same three areas.

Not surprisingly, those who discussed the deep topics found the conversation more enjoyable than those who engaged with one another on shallow topics. Those who discussed deep topics tended to overestimate how awkward the conversation would be. Additionally, if allowed to have a shallow conversation with one partner and a deep conversation with another, they preferred the deeper one. Most importantly, those who discussed deeper topics also experienced a stronger sense of connection with their partner.

As one of the researchers said, “If you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important exchanged in return, leading to a considerably better conversation…” and, I might add, a deeper connection.

The application to marriage is obvious, right? We want to know meaningful, important things about our spouses and their lives. They want to know meaningful and important things about us. We are interested in having a deeper conversation as a couple and so does our spouse. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life and only talk about the “shallower topics” needed to manage our lives together, topics like family chores, children’s schedules, dinner plans, house maintenance. All these topics need to be discussed and managed. However, for deeper intimacy, we need to make time to discuss deeper topics as well. Put down the cell phones and tablets, turn off the TV, look at your spouse, and enjoy a conversation about the deeper, more meaningful aspects of life. If you struggle to think of what might constitute a deeper conversation, try these 10 conversation starters.

  • What first attracted you to me?
  • Would you rather talk about your problems or wait until they are resolved?
  • What are the top 5 things on your bucket list?
  • What is something you cannot live without?
  • What is your biggest struggle right now? How can I help?
  • What makes you the happiest?
  • What has been your greatest accomplishment as an individual? What do you think has been our greatest accomplishment together?
  • What is the best part of our relationship?
  • If you could change one thing about how you grew up, what would it be? Why?
  • What qualities do you most love about me? 

Enjoy sharing these questions with your spouse…and enjoy going to deeper connection and beyond.

What Does Homework Have to Do with Conscientiousness?

Did you know that conscientiousness—the desire to do one’s work well and to do it thoroughly—takes a temporary dip in late childhood and early adolescence? However, a study that followed 2,760 students as they transitioned through grades 5 through 8 suggests a way to avoid this dip. Specifically, they found that students who “thoroughly and meticulously” completed their homework did not encounter a dip in their conscientiousness. Instead, they actually exhibited an increase in conscientiousness. In other words, students who invested effort in completely their homework showed greater conscientiousness in 8th grade than in 5th grade. Peers who did not invest in homework showed a decline.

“So what?” you might ask. Well, the benefit of conscientiousness reveals itself in higher incomes, better health, and healthier relationships in adulthood. So, developing this skill as a child and young teen has long-term benefits. That being said, how can you help your child become more diligent in completing their homework? Here are five ideas.

  • Remember whose homework it is. The homework is your child’s responsibility, not your responsibility. Allow them to do their own homework and suffer the consequences of not doing it or doing it haphazardly as well as the consequences of doing it thoroughly and well. Let them the freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This will help them grow a greater sense of autonomy and competence as well. Don’t rob your children of this chance.
  • Your child or adolescent may benefit from a routine time and place in which to complete their homework. Pick a time that works best for them and your family. That may be immediately after school. Some children, however, may need a break after school and complete homework better after that break. Also, pick a place where your child can complete their homework with minimal interruptions. Determine what works best for your child and your family. Then establish a flexible time and place in which they can complete their homework.
  • Appreciate your child’s effort in completing their homework. Acknowledge that they have taken time out of their day to do their homework when they could have been playing outside, watching tv, or playing a video game. Don’t go overboard with the appreciation and praise. Simply observe their effort and their dedication and acknowledge it. Everyone loves a little recognition for their effort.
  • Separate homework from watching TV or playing video games. Don’t watch tv or play video game while doing homework. Your example will provide a strong example in this area. If you sit in front of the TV while reading for work or completing a work task, your child will learn that doing homework in front of the TV is ok. Teach by example.
  • Make homework fun. I know…it sounds crazy, but you can make homework fun. Provide a favorite snack. Turn the homework into game. For instance, you might make it a race that combines time, correct answers, and neatness to achieve a final score. Or you could turn homework into a bonding experience by completing your work tasks in the room where they are completing their homework. You get the idea. Be creative and make homework “fun.”

Five ways you can help your child become more diligent in completing homework…which will translate into greater conscientiousness with all its benefits.

3 Activities for A Happy Family

In the midst of everything happening in our world today, it seems like we have to make a conscious effort to pursue happiness, even with our families. Fortunately, there are simple activities we can engage in to pursue happiness. We can make them part of our family routines and help the whole family develop a lifestyle of pursuing happiness. To help you get started, here are three activities from positive psychology that can make you happier in just four minutes!

  • Simply “relive happy moments.” Sit down as a family and go through your photos of happy moments you shared as a family or as an individual. Share a few words about each photo and the experience it represents. In a study involving 531 adults who self-reported seeking or being in recovery from substance abuse, this activity had the greatest boost in increasing happiness.
  • “Savoring” also boosted happiness. Savoring involved taking the time to recall two positive experiences “from yesterday” and then appreciating those experiences. Think about the qualities of the experience that made it such a positive experience. Focus on those positive, pleasant feelings for a moment as you recall the experience in its entirety.
  • Finally, an activity called “Rose, Bud, Thorns” increased happiness in the same study mentioned above. In this activity, first list a positive, pleasant experience from yesterday (a “rose”).  This may include any pleasant experience such as a success or small win, a pleasurable connection with another person, or an experience of awe.  Then, recall a challenging experience from yesterday (a “thorn”). Finally, consider a pleasure you anticipate appreciating tomorrow, something you look forward to experiencing tomorrow (a “bud”). 

You could do these 3 activities as a family on a regular basis. They don’t take long; and they will build positive memories. Making one of these activities a part of a regular bedtime routine can allow children to go to sleep after recalling a happy time or determining how to turn a “thorn” into a future “bud” that will blossom into a “rose.”  These activities would also make great family mealtime conversation starters.

You don’t need to do all three activities. Pick one each day. Do a different one each time. You’ll be filling your family with happiness and teaching your children how to manage their emotions in a positive manner. You will all learn to “relive a happy moment,” “savor” it, and turn “thorns” into “buds” that will blossom into a “rose” of happiness for your whole family.

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