Archive for Family Shepherds

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.

“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.

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.)

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.

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 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.

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.

Go Ahead…Take a Nap

Last weekend we changed our clocks, “springing forward” into daylight savings time. In the process, we lost an hour sleep. That, on top of the fact that most of us do not sleep the recommended 7-9 hours a day, makes today the perfect day for a nap…and National Napping Day. Actually, every day is a good day for a nap. According to the Sleep Foundation naps not only reduce sleepiness, they also improve learning, aid in memory retention, and help us regulate emotions.  Napping also strengthens our immune, reduce cardiovascular disease risk, boost work performance, reduces stress, and decrease risk of cognitive dysfunction.  (see Benefits of Napping | Sleep.org ). In addition, napping as a family can help your family “get in sync” and in rhythm with one another. And, according to the “Nap Bishop,” if you’re looking for a way to resist the overworking mentality of our society that leads to burnout and contributes to oppression, napping is the resistance in which you need to engage. So, call the family together, grab your pillows, and resolve to take care of yourself. Take a nap.

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