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.)
Our children have questions that only we, their parents, can answer…and we need to answer them. They don’t ask these questions directly and they may not even realize they ask them at all. But they do. They ask these questions with their quiet presence and their disruptive presence. They ask them while waiting for us to notice and acknowledge them. They also ask these questions in the form of more subtle, seemingly benign questions like, “Do you like my new hair color?” or “Can we get dessert?” They even ask them with their misbehaviors. Let me share just 6 of the real questions our children are asking in these behaviors, 6 questions they need us to answer.
Am I important? When our children know we value them, they feel valuable. We communicate how much we value our children by accepting them, listening to them, and taking time to learn about their world. We also express how much we value our children through gratitude. Become a student of your children. Spend time with them. Communicate how important they truly are to you.
Am I good enough? In fact, am I enough? This question is a question of identity. Our children need to know we that know them and recognize their worth, even when they feel like they’ve failed. This requires us to give them space and assistance, support and encouragement, in exploring their strengths and interests. Our children also need to know they are good enough even when we discipline them. To communicate this message, we need to give them unconditional positive regard, even when we disagree with them or discipline them.
Do I belong? As our children turn to teens, friends become increasingly important. Still, they need and want family. They need to have a sense of belonging in their family even while they explore and establish a sense of belonging among their peers. This is a tightrope for many families. Let your children try new things. Encourage then to recognize how various groups of people impact them and their behavior. Help them find the peer group in which they feel most comfortable, whether it be the theatre group, the music group, the sports group, the academic group, or some combination of them all. At the same time, always communicate that they will belong in your family no matter the peer group they choose.
Am I romantic enough? I’m not sure this represents the best way to word this question. It’s a question delving into attraction, romance, and intimacy. Teach your children from an early age that romance entails mutual kindness and respect. Teach them that physical and emotional intimacy cannot be separated without resulting pain. Teach them that restraint and self-control are as important as sex; and, without self-control, sex leads to emotional hurt. “Ultimately, encourage them to wait and wait and then wait a little longer. Waiting for sex is based on good science” (From Raising Healthy Girls). (See Cheat Codes” for Dads: Your Daughter’s Beauty for more.)
Do you trust me? The answer we give our children to this question begins much earlier than most of us imagine. It begins as early as those toddler years when our toddler says, “No” to our assistance and we step back, trusting them to work at completing the task. It extends into the school years when we put a reasonable structure in place and trust they will complete their schoolwork. They continue this question into adolescence when they ask us if they can “go to my friend’s party” or ” use the car tonight.” Trusting demands a step of faith on our part. Take the step. Trust unless given a clear reason not to. Even then, leave the door open to reestablish trust by taking a step of faith. Remember, a child who feels their parent trusts them is more likely to act in a trustworthy manner.
Am I strong enough to be my own person? The most difficult aspect of a parent’s job is to prepare their children to become independent adults, to let them leave home and become their own person. This goal is the end result of a process that evolves over their first two decades of life. It is the result of a parent teaching their child a task and then letting them do it independently, even if they want to do it differently than us. It is the result of letting go when they go to preschool, letting go when they go on their first dates, letting go when they drive to the mall on their own for the first time…all while remaining available in the background as a safety net, ready to respond to their call for help IF they need it.
Our children ask these questions every day. We answer them through our words, our actions, and our interactions. For your children’s sake, answer them wisely.
Do you know what team your child wants to be part of the most? Team family. Yes, they desire to be part of the family team. If they feel disconnected from the family team, they may misbehave to gain your attention. They will act up so the team will notice and include them, even if it means inclusion through yelling and discipline. So, one of the best things you can do for your children is to make them part of Team Family. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.
First, making sure children are part of Team Family means making a careful assessment of how we manage our family time. Our culture tends to shape the family around child-centered activities. But, when our lives become focused on getting our children from one activity to another, we have cut them from the varsity team and relegated them to junior varsity. We have sent them to the minors. We have taught them that they are not part of the Team Family but are an entitled individual with an entourage to manage their world and meet their needs.
Instead of getting overwhelmed as a family in child-focused activities, welcome your children into the “adult world.” Involve your children in family activities that are naturally a part of your adult life. Let them observe your daily life and participate when they desire to do so. Let them accompany you as you run errands. Let them observe you as you work around the house or in the yard. Encourage them to work alongside you when opportunities arise. Doing this teaches your children that their needs, although important, are not the only needs to consider. Their needs will be met, but they, like every other family member, may have the opportunity to sacrifice a desire to benefit the family. After all, that’s what all members of Team Family do.
It also teaches your children that they belong. It teaches them that they make a significant contribution to Team Family and are valued by Team Family. They are part of the family, a team that looks out for everyone, not just one person. They belong to a family in which everyone enjoys time and activity together.
Don’t get me wrong. You can still involve your children in organized sports and child-centered activities. But be careful not to let your family life be enslaved to those activities. When families become enslaved by child-centered activities, they have cut their children from the team and sent them to the minors, teaching them they don’t really belong on Team Family. Involve your children in the family. Let them know they belong, that they are an integral, significant member of Team Family.
Words have power. An ancient king once wrote, “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (King Solomon—Proverbs 15:4, NLT). Our relationships are built up or torn down by our words. I want to focus on how words, our words, can build our families up. For instance, our words can make our spouse and children feel welcome in the home. They can promote their sense of belonging. Simple words, like:
“I’m glad you’re home from school (work) now. I missed you.”
“I have a job that you can really help me with. I know you would be good at it. Will you help me?”
“I’m glad we were able to spend this time together. I enjoyed your company.”
“I’d love to share an ice cream with you. Do you have time to get some now or would another time be better.”
Our words also inform our family of their importance to us, that they hold a significant place in our lives. They let our family know how we keep them in mind, even when they are not physically present.
“I was thinking about all the fun we’ve had together. Remember when….”
“I heard a song on the car radio that made me think of you.”
“I remembered how much you like…. So, I picked some up for you on my way home.”
“I really had a good time with you last weekend. My favorite part was….”
Words help us repair damaged relationships.
“I’m sorry. That was wrong of me. Will you forgive me?”
“I can understand how you thought that. I really didn’t mean it that way. Sorry for the misunderstanding. Can I try to explain better?”
“I forgive you. What you did hurt me, but I love you and forgive you.”
Words also encourage and teach persistence and resilience.
“That was even better than last time. Your hard work is paying off.”
“That didn’t work out the way we had planned. But we learned a lot that we can use the next time.”
“Oops. We all make mistakes. Let’s clean this one up and keep going.”
“Sometimes we all need a little help to learn how to do something.”
Words can instill a sense of belonging and value. They repair damaged relationships and nurture relationships. Use them wisely for “wise words satisfy like a good meal; the right words bring satisfaction” (King Solomon—Proverbs 18:20, NLT).
It can happen anywhere. My mind
wanders and I find myself in another world, a fantasy world. At times, my
daydreaming got me into a little bit of trouble. Teachers often didn’t
appreciate it. But now, thanks to a group of researchers, I’ve discovered how
being a daydream believer can benefit my marriage. Perhaps it can help you and
your marriage, too. Have you ever had times in which you and your spouse had to
be apart? It may be as simple as having to spend the day at work. Or it might be
more involved or lengthy, like a business trip, deployment, or living in different
time zones due to work for a period of time. Could daydreaming help you
maintain your connection?
In a study completed in 2015, 126 people were divided into three groups. One group was asked to daydream about a “another person that you have a close, positive, relationship with like a friend, family member, or significant other.” A second group was to enjoy a daydream “just about yourself. It shouldn’t involve thinking about or interacting with anyone else.” And a third group was given a simple working-memory task (a control group). After being assigned to one of the three groups, each person took a quiz designed to elicit feelings of loneliness. Then, each group did their assigned daydreaming or working memory task. Following this, each person took several measures of feelings, desire to connect with others, and willingness to help another person.
What were the results?
Social daydreamers (those who daydreamed about a loved one or friend) and non-social daydreamers (those who had a daydream that only included themselves) exhibited an increase in positive feelings. BUT, only social daydreamers exhibited an increase in positive social feelings. In other words, only social dreamers exhibited an increase in feelings of connection, love, and belonging!
Social daydreamers also exhibited a greater willingness than non-social daydreamers to help another person. In other words, their increase in positive social feelings went beyond mere feelings and led them to take different actions than non-social daydreamers. They “put their feelings where their actions were” and responded to requests for help.
Social daydreamers also expressed less desire to interact with others (strangers) in a future task. Their “need” for connection and belonging was satisfied through daydreaming about their significant other.
What does all this mean for you?
Well, if you’re missing your spouse you don’t need to look for some connection
at the bar or on-line chats or pornography. You don’t have to sit in your room
feeling blue either. Instead, you might spend a little time daydreaming about
past interactions and possible future interactions with your spouse. A little
daydreaming and you’ll likely feel greater connection, love, and belonging.
That’s why I’m a daydream believer.
PS—By the way, you don’t have to
limit yourself to a daydream if you’re missing your spouse. You might also give
your spouse a call.
Did you know girls tend to report a decrease in loneliness between first and fifth grade? It’s true. They report less loneliness as they develop more peer relationships and become more comfortable with their social skills during the elementary school years. There is an important caveat to this trend toward less loneliness though; a subtle factor every father needs to know. Girls don’t all move toward less loneliness at the same rate or to the same degree. Guess what makes the difference in their move away from loneliness? Fathers! That’s right. Daughters who report close relationships with their fathers also report a greater decrease in loneliness over a shorter time period. In other words, a close father-daughter relationship helps your daughter overcome loneliness. Mother-daughter relationships didn’t impact loneliness…only father-daughter relationships! This was revealed in a study of 695 families in which mothers and fathers rated their relationship to their children in grades 1,3, 4, and 5. Children rated their levels of loneliness in grades 1, 3, and 5. The results affirmed the importance of father-daughter relationships in decreasing a daughter’s sense of loneliness. The message: Fathers, you are important to your daughter’s development.
And, if you’re like me, you hate to
see your daughters looking lonely or complaining of loneliness. Now you know YOU can make a difference. Spend time
with your daughters. Pay attention to your daughters’ crazy emotions. Talk with
your daughters. By doing so you will help your daughter feel less lonely! Now that
is an important role and a joyous task!
We all desire to have a sense of belonging, the feeling we have when we find unconditional acceptance in relationship to others. A sense of belonging is a crucial aspect in healthy relationships. It leads to greater happiness in family relationships. Children flourish when they grow up with a sense of belonging in their families. It is also foundational for healthy romantic relationships. Marriages thrive when both spouses have a sense of belonging in their relationship. But, a Contender has arisen to rival our sense of belonging, especially within the family. This Contender challenges our efforts to build a sense of belonging among our family members. Amazingly, we have welcomed the Contender into our living rooms and our bedrooms. We have invited the Contender to our meals and our activities. In each area, the Contender seeks to spoil the sense of belonging between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister. And, the Contender will defeat our sense of belonging unless we battle wisely. Let me introduce the Contender: YOUR cellphone. Research completed by Kent’s School of Psychology explored how “phubbing” (snubbing someone by ignoring them to respond to your cell phone) impacts relationships. They found that “phubbing” a person threatened their sense of belonging. They greater the “phubbing,” the greater the threat to one’s sense of belonging. (Read “Phubbing” Can Threaten Our Basic Human Needs, Research Shows for more.)
In other words, when you reach for your phone during time with your spouse, you threaten your spouse’s sense of belonging. Do this often enough and your spouse begins to question how much your value them or if you even accept them at all. Romance will dwindle. Marital happiness will drift. Pick up your phone while engaging with your children and their sense of belonging gets called into question. “Am I more important than that call or text?” Your children may even begin to resent your relationship to your phone just as you might grow to resent their relationship to their phone.
I must admit…the Contender is strong. It exerts a mighty pull. It can hold great power over you. But, there is good news. Every one of your family members (including you) have a secret weapon to defeat the power of the Contender. It’s true. In fact, you have two secret weapons that the Contender cannot defeat. The secret weapon is YOUR thumb! You can silence your cell phone. You can put it on “do not disturb.” You can even turn it off with the power of your thumb! When you do, the Contender’s power dwindles to off (literally and figuratively). It cannot disturb your interactions. It cannot intrude upon our conversations. It will do nothing but sit silently…preferably in another room and out of sight. Even more, you are free to look your spouse in the eye and talk. You are free to engage your children with no distraction. You are free to celebrate your relationships and build a stronger sense of belonging!
Researchers from Penn State University followed 687 families for three years. Each family consisted of a mother, a father, and an adolescent child. The three year period spanned the adolescent’s 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years…the dreaded middle school years. (Read more here.) The study examined whether family relationships impact friendship during middle school. Of course, the short answer is “yes,” “you betcha,” “without a doubt.” But, the study did expose a couple of very interesting nuances to that “yes.”
First, a mother’s rejection, a father’s rejection, and the overall family climate not only predicted changes in the quality of the adolescent’s friendships but their sense of loneliness as well.
Second, feeling rejected by one’s father in 6th grade predicted social anxiety in 7th grade and social anxiety in 7th grade predicted loneliness in 8th grade. This was significant for rejection by one’s father but not so much in regards to one’s mother. It seems (in agreement with other research) that rejection by one’s father impacts how confidently a person moves into the world outside the home.
So, if you want your children to have the ability to develop and maintain high quality, positive friendships in middle school, nurture and strengthen your relationship with them. Their ability to form positive relationships outside the home begins at home…with you. Dads, this seems to be especially true for your relationship with your teen. Here are a few key ways to strengthen your relationship with your children.
Spend time together…lots of time together. Enjoy uninterrupted time with your children. Put aside the distractions (cell phones, papers, TV) and get to know your children. Learn what they like and who they like. Talk about classes, interests, strengths, and fears. Learn about their struggles in the community and which peers present them with the biggest challenges and why. Enjoy fun stuff and endure boring stuff…together. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn. And, you’ll be amazed at how cool your children really are.
Listen more than you lecture. The more you lecture, the less they’ll talk. The less they talk the less you will know them. On the other hand, the more you listen, the more they’ll talk…and the more you’ll get to know them. Listen intently. Listen patiently. When they say something that arouses your urge to lecture, Don’t Do It! Instead, show empathy for their feelings around the topic. And, get curious about their thinking about the topic. Ask them questions out of a genuine curiosity to know them better. As you do, they will continue to talk…and you will get to know them better. They will continue to talk…think…and learn. They’ll learn about the topic and you’ll learn more about them as they review their approach to the topic out loud. All you have to do is listen and….
Problem-solving together. Our children will approach us with concerns and struggles when they know we will listen and empathize. As they recognize our efforts to understand their concern and their point of view, they will open up to discuss and problem solve with us. We will have created an environment of mutual respect that allows for cooperative problem solving. In the process, we will also deepen our relationship with our teen.
Practice these three actions and you can help prevent pervasive loneliness in your middle schooler. You will also increase your middle schooler’s confidence in making friends and the quality of their friendships.
We underestimate children. By and large we expect too little of our children. We schedule every minute of their day to give them opportunities…and because we think they can’t learn as much on their own. We succumb to video games and TV shows because we think our children incapable of inventing their own activities. We fear they’ll get bored, under our feet, and on our nerves if we don’t turn on the X-Box. We jump in to tidy up their messes, fix their mistakes, and constantly remind them of their innate abilities because we fear their self-esteem will plummet from a momentary failure or less-than-perfect mark. In all actuality our children will learn more from mistakes than successes. They will create amazingly imaginative activities if we allow them to get bored. Yes, we underestimate our children. Unfortunately, discipline issues arise as a result. We underestimate their ability to complete household tasks. We expect they will not complete their homework. We assume they will get bored and nag. Our children simply live down to our expectations. Yes, we underestimate our children. But, there is a way out of this cycle. It takes some time and effort, but it yields huge benefits. “All you have to do” is let your children make a significant contribution to your household. Let me explain.
Let your children contribute to the household in ways that connect them to the family. Give them jobs that care for the family, not just themselves. For instance, let them help clean the family room, not just their own bedroom (although their bedroom is good to clean, too). Encourage them to help with everyone’s dishes and everyone’s laundry, not just their own. Then thank them for their contribution.
Collaborate with your children in choosing the tasks they will complete. You don’t need to dictate every chore. Sit down, discuss, and divvy up the household tasks. Then you can talk about doing “our” work rather than “your” After all, everyone does their part. Let your language reflect that you and your child, not just your child, have chores that contribute to the household in a significant way.
Make your children’s contribution part of the daily routine rather than something done on occasion. Give them the privilege of making a daily contribution to the family just like you do.
Make the task one you can do together. For instance, gather the garbage from around the house together. Work in the yard together. Clean the family room together—one can vacuum while the other dusts. Fold clothes together. You get the idea. Work together on the household chores. And, talk while you work. Or, if you want to be like one of the seven dwarves from Snow White, whistle while you work.
Your children will gain many benefits when you allow them to work with you to make a significant contribution to your family. Check these benefits out.
Your children will gain anincreased sense of purpose as they are part of something bigger than themselves. They become part of a family, not just an individual with a self-centered focus.
Your children will gain an increased sense of competence as they master various tasks. They will gain greater independence and confidence in their abilities.
Your children will gain an increased sense of intimacy. As you work with your children you can talk and laugh together. As you do, you will learn about their interests and values. You will learn about their dreams and fears. You will grow more intimate with them.
Your children will gain an increased sense of belonging. They will feel like an integral part of the family to which they contribute, the family that needs their contribution.
Your children will gain an increased sense of personal value and significance as they become an integral part of the family.
As an added bonus, you will have fewer discipline problems. Children and teens who have a healthy sense of purpose, belonging, and significance are better behaved. Children and teens with a sense of competence have nothing to prove. Children and teens with an intimate relationship with parents have less desire to rebel.
For more on children and chores, read Dear Children, The Real Reason I Make You Do Chores and Tips to End Chore Wars
I like Pooh…that sounds bad. Let me rephrase and start again.
I like Winnie the Pooh. He brings us a great deal of wisdom. For instance, consider the wisdom in this sketch and Piglet’s request to “be sure of you.” Very wise, especially when it comes to family. Sometimes we just need to know our loved ones are there.
Our spouses need to be sure of us. They need to know our ears are attuned to their whispered needs. They need assurance that we will respond to their subtle requests by turning toward them in love. They need to feel our touch reminding them of our presence and involvement in their lives, assuring them that we yearn to walk hand in hand with them through life.
Our children need to be sure of us. They want to be heard and acknowledged by us no matter how quiet and inept their voice might sound. They need to know we are available to them. They seek assurance that we delight in them and rejoice when they approach us. They long for us to take their hand and gently guide them through the dark woods.
Assure your spouse and children of your presence in their lives. Remind them of your desire to respond to even their subtle needs and desires. Constantly communicate your unending love and delight in them. All it takes is a smile, a hug, or a word of affection…but the joy and comfort it gives will last a lifetime.