A Mommy War Peace Accord

Band together, mamas.

Before we start, let’s get something straight, the so-called “Mommy Wars” are overblown. The term might be good for creating click-worthy headlines and perpetuating the stereotype of women as catty but it isn’t as prominent as you might believe. A 2013 Parents survey found that while 63 percent of survey respondents believed the mommy wars existed, only 29 percent had ever seen an actual battle in their own community.

While the war might only be a skirmish, no doubt many mothers often do feel criticized for the choices they make. Here are a few simple steps to create a Mommy War peace accord.

Get offline

The first step is to step back from online message boards and comments sections. Message boards might be invaluable resources for getting a recommendation for sippy cups or new baby food recipes, but too often they can devolve into capitalized screaming matches. When was the last time someone called you selfish for working or lazy for staying at home to your face? Probably not very often, and hopefully never. But online? I bet it was the last time you dared to read the Facebook comments on an article even tangentially related to motherhood.

Stop judging, and stop feeling guilty

I’ll be the first to admit that I occasionally jump to judge my fellow mothers. For me, it’s typically rooted in my own insecurities. If I see a mom friend celebrating her promotion on Facebook, I find myself bitterly thinking, “Well, at least I’m home to make my children chocolate chip cookies whenever I want!” (Side note: I don’t remember the last time I actually made my kids chocolate chip cookies.)

I realize that the jump to judge has nothing to do with her, and everything to do with the fact that I occasionally am self-conscious that I don’t have a successful career. Plus, research shows that working moms actually spend more time with their children now than stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s. The same study also found that it is the quality of time that matters, not the quantity.

The truth is, I feel guilty for ignoring my children to write this article even though I see them all day, every day. But they’re fine without me (even though I’m 90 percent sure Dad has them in front of the TV right now). As hard as it might be, owning up to our own tendency to judge, plus our guilt and insecurities, frees up more room for compassion.

Realize no one has a clean house

I like to ignore my own advice, so yes, I’ve read plenty of comment sections on articles about motherhood. Certain themes always pop up: “I spend my whole day cooking, caring for children, and cleaning up after their never-ending messes!” or “I do everything a stay-at-home mom does, plus I work!”

The truth is: we’re all doing everything we can to have a clean house at the end of the day and none of us are succeeding. Stay-at-home moms have all day to clean and their children have all day to undo their efforts. Working moms have to squeeze all their chores into evenings and weekends. But here is one thing we can agree on: working or not, women spend more time than men on housework and childcare. Instead of tearing each other down, let’s use that energy to congratulate each other on how hard we work.

Recognize the struggle

No matter how you slice it, being a mom is tough. Whether you work at home, work out of the home, or stay at home, each path has its own struggles. Working moms have less time for leisure and are more likely to say they always feel rushed. Stay-at-home mothers are more likely to worry, feel sad, or report depression, especially if they are low-income. Getting into a “who has it harder” argument is no more than a race to the bottom. But recognizing each other’s struggles can help build each other up.

Make a friend with a different job than you

As a stay-at-home mom, most of my friends are also stay-at-home moms. But when I worked, I hardly knew any. We tend to gravitate to people with similar lives. I’m not likely to meet a working mom at the park on Tuesday morning, and a working mom probably won’t run into a stay-at-home mom in the lactation room in her office. But connecting with someone who leads a different life than you do can open your eyes to the struggles and benefits of choosing another path.

Realize it’s not always a choice

For many women, the decision to work or stay-at-home might not always be a choice. Some families cannot survive on one income. Others cannot afford the cost of daycare. And in reality, many women have done both at one point or another. Of women with children, over 40 percent have taken time off of work voluntarily, and nearly three-quarters of those return to work, according to the Harvard Business Review. If a friend is telling you her struggles balancing work and kids, or maintaining her home life, don’t just tell her how lucky she has it. Every mom has made the decision that is best for her family, even if that decision occasionally comes with painful consequences.

There is no right way to be a mom. Whether you work or stay-at-home, challenges and benefits abound. But there is a right way to be a friend to a fellow mom – by supporting her no matter where she works. The best way to end the mommy wars is to stop pretending they exist and to start recognizing what we know: moms work hard, and we all do amazing jobs.

How to Raise an Adult Who Remains Civil Even When They Disagree

Well, the last few months have been fun, right?

Well, the last few months have been fun, right? No matter what side you’re on, I think we can all agree that the negativity, the arguing, the winds of change…they’ve been uncomfortable to say the least.
Personally, the hardest part of it all has been seeing neighbors and friends act so horrendously toward one another. The next hardest part has been thinking about how it’s affecting our children. What is this name-calling, judgmental, my-way-or-the-highway behavior (that’s echoed throughout our culture) teaching our little people?
Right now, I may feel small. I may feel somewhat helpless to the madness surrounding us. I may be discouraged and not sure of how to fix these seemingly mountain-sized rifts in the ‘we’ of ‘we the people’.
But there are things I can do – at least five things, actually – to know that I’m not contributing to the problem. So, regardless of the political climate, be it this election or the next, here’s what I will teach my children:

Be kind

It seems simple, so simple that we don’t feel that we should have to say it. But we do. From a very early age, we teach our kids to be nice to their friends, not to fight with one another, not to call names. Yet here we are, a bunch of adults, not being kind to one another and calling each other all sorts of names. What does that show our kids?
Research has shown that lessons stick when our kids see us doing, not just telling. We are sending an incredibly conflicting message to our youth: “Treat your neighbor like you want to be treated, but mommy’s going to treat her neighbor the way she thinks he deserves to be treated for reasons x, y, and z.”
Not cool, parents, not cool.
No matter who’s in office, no matter what the social climate dictates, I will teach my kids that it’s always the right choice to be kind. Resentment and hostility only breed further resentment and hostility. No one ever wished they would have been crueler to others on their death bed.

Diversity is a gift

One of my favorite ways to think about diversity is to first recognize that on a scientific level, we are all very much the same. Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy!) explained it perfectly when he described a man and woman of different ethnic backgrounds having relations…and what happens nine months later. 

No need to go into more detail. You know how it works. 

To summarize Nye’s statements, we’re all the same species. We’re humankind. Race is but a human construct that would be more accurately described as tribes, if approaching the topic from a purely observational, unbiased standpoint.
Here’s where I think the lesson comes in for our children. Diversity within a species allows that species to flourish: new genes, new ideas, new physical attributes, new ways to communicate, new methods of feeding and housing our kind. Whether we’re talking caveman days or right this very moment, this idea holds true. 

Diversity allows us to grow and succeed. Not being the same is what keeps us from becoming a creepy sci-fi movie. Regardless of all the outside noise we may be hearing, I’m taking diversity for the win.

Everyone thinks differently

Thank the Lord for this one. If we didn’t, we’d still believe the world was flat and use blood letting as a treatment for strep throat. I think that alone makes my point. 

Difference in opinion and thought processes make us smarter. We learn from those who have ideas unlike our own, not unlike in school, when a concept can make absolutely no sense until someone else explains it in a way that you hadn’t come up with yourself.
By nature, we are selfish creatures, who tend to conform to notions that the world exists everywhere as it exists where we are. The upbringings and experiences of others shape their worldview and ideas, just as ours do for us. It’s important to encourage our children to be open to the thoughts of others.
This year, and every year, I will surround my children with culture and positively reinforce variation in their thinking.

Stand up for the underdog, even when you’re not one

Our current political climate has sparked so much within me that I never really knew was there. It forced me to confront social biases I didn’t think still existed thanks to growing up in a generation of people who are notoriously tolerant and accepting.
One idea that has really struck me, that I feel a personal responsibility to instill in my children, is that of giving a voice to those who don’t have one, or to those who may not be heard. 

I once believed that there were no benefits to being a middle class, caucasian kid. I was wrong. No one ever looked at me and questioned my motives. No one made harsh and rash judgements about my character without even speaking a word to me. While I’ve worked hard and been gracious, I already had a leg-up by not having to clear the social-bias hurdle. Then I realized my ignorance.
Due to recently implemented extremist policies, the lives of those who are different and those who represent diversity are being torn apart. Their voices aren’t being heard or respected. It is the job of those of us whose safety and security are not being threatened to speak up for those whose safety and security is on the line. 

If we are kind, if we value diversity, if we welcome different thinking, we stand up for the guy who isn’t being represented fairly. It is our responsibility to give our children every advantage and every opportunity to make it, to thrive. It is also our responsibility to teach our children to use their position in life, whatever it may be, to advocate for those who have not been afforded the same opportunities. Now, tomorrow, and forever.

Strive to be better

In life, in politics, in school, we all make mistakes. Sometimes we think we’re doing the right thing, and we go about it the wrong way. Sometimes our country’s leaders are trying to do good, and circumstances happen that turn the whole thing into a big flop. Sometimes we disagree on how to do what’s best, so the end result isn’t so great. 

All that matters is that we have good intentions and that we strive to be better.
If you’re in a heated disagreement and forget to be kind, do better. 

If you get into it with a friend on Facebook who has polar opposite political viewpoints, and you don’t stop to think about why he thinks the way he does and ignore the journey through life that he’s taken, do better next time. 

If you are witness to an injustice and don’t do anything to stop it, be better to lessen the chances of seeing that injustice again.
If you are discouraged by what we’re seeing, how we’re acting, and how we’re treating one another, teach your children to do better so that our next generation can avoid our mistakes and rise above our bitterness. 

I will teach my kids that, on both sides of the political spectrum, we all have room to do and be a little better.

Someone Please Care of Me

That is not a typo.

My youngest (and likely my last) child – currently somewhere in that bizarre phase between just born yesterday and growing up so fast I can’t even deal – still hasn’t mastered all of the complex nuances of the English language.
He’s getting there though, and quickly. After a few ill timed slip-ups by yours truly, he knows every word he shouldn’t and the right context in which to use them. “I didn’t do it!” is a phrase I think he knows not just in English, but in French, Spanish, ASL, and interpretive dance.
There are some outliers, though, and my current favorite is how he thinks “carry me” is actually “care of me.” I find it adorable enough to not want to ever correct it, pretty much ensuring that he will figure it out on his own one afternoon and suddenly say it right (and with a little embarrassment), and my heart will crack open a little bit more.
But for now he stands at my hip, arms extended, and asks: “Will you care of me, Mommy?”
It’s not always – he’s an independent little bugger – but still sometimes, like last night when I came home from work, set my bags down, went upstairs to de-bra, and made it as far as my bed before I collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
Five minutes, I told myself. I can lie here for just five minutes.  
But I could hear him from where I lay, still down at the foot of the stairs, yelling, “Care of me! Who is gonna care of me? I need to be cared of!”
And I was like yes. Preach, little one. 
That’s where I am right now. Three words. Care of me. For God’s sake, someone, care of me. God, Jesus, the universe, my mother in heaven, the nice lady in line at the grocery store today, who reminded me to breathe when the register froze and wouldn’t spit my card back out and I had to get home before the Popsicles melted and my bladder failed and my family starved:
Please care of me.
And my friends, too, and these babies of mine, and my poor neglected husband, and all those people who are not as privileged as I am to even have the luxury of these five minutes of rest on my bed. And anyone else who feels as if their rights are threatened or under siege right now or who generally doesn’t have a space to feel safe in. And people struggling with mental illness or chronic pain or to pay the next bill or to make it through the next day or the next hour: care of them, too, please.
Care of the people who are worried they might actually lose it if one more person tells them how stupid they are for voting the way they did or believing the things they do. Care of the people who are scared to wear their uniforms to work, and care of the people who are scared when they see those uniforms. 
Care of all of us. 
Care of that same lady from the grocery store, a minute later, screaming in the parking lot because someone had parked so close to her car that the bumpers were touching. It looked like a kiss to me; but to her it was a threat.
And that’s okay. We don’t have to see it the same, as long as I took the time to meet her eyes as she raged and smile a little, just enough for her to know that I was there, that I really liked her flowy dress, that if she needed me to, I would care of her, too.
So I forced myself up from my bed, planted my feet firmly on the ground, and went to care of my boy there at the foot of the stairs, arms and face both raised up towards me in a joyful plea.
When I lifted him, he wrapped his arms back around me in return, and I felt some of that fatigue flow down my shoulders and out my body and somehow, even though I was carrying an extra 40 pounds in my arms, I felt lighter.
I think that’s how it works. Sometimes we care, and sometimes we are the cared. And sometimes, if we are really lucky, we are both.

"Your Judgement Made A Difference," Said No One Ever.

We focus on points of differentiation, creating distance, hostility, and loneliness in an already draining parenting culture.

Just like you, the love I have for my children is ferociously and unconditionally deep. Not all moments are happy, but the good ones satisfy my soul.
A freshly bathed baby viscerally and immediately transports me back to fond memories. When my oldest quietly shares a private feeling, it hooks me in. When my middle son’s eyes transform into tiny slits, and he lets out a hysterical giggle, his youthful joy is contagious. And my youngest, she gives the best bear hugs. Her love emanates through her little chubby arms that can barely wrap around my neck. I luxuriate in the warmth.
I live for these moments of love and connection. You know these feelings, too. We’re all connected through the common experience of unyielding and jarring love. We’re also connected by the moments of difficulty, uncertainty, and frustration.
Unfortunately, we often lose sight of these commonalities and find ourselves judging and criticizing each other. I frequently hear, “That Mom should not let her kid…” and “I would never…” as if they somehow know best about another person’s reality.
We focus on points of differentiation, creating distance, hostility, and loneliness in an already draining parenting culture. We use our personal take on parenting to assess and judge other’s behavior rather than to share in the many points of mutual understanding – those hugs and those days you feel like you’re losing your mind.
Parenting is hard enough. Let’s apply some basic psychological practice and assume a non-judgmental, empathic stance – not only for our own good, but also to model empathy for our children. Research shows people behave best when they feel supported and good about themselves. Parents thrive and are free to raise the healthiest children possible when they don’t feel judged for their decisions (good or bad). Making mistakes is an organic way humans learn.

Recently, on my town’s community Facebook page, a resident posted “a friendly reminder not to leave a child unattended in a car” after she saw a toddler buckled in a car seat down the block from a coffee shop while the parent presumably got a coffee. A storm of judgment erupted.
“Should have taken a picture and really shamed her…bad parent.”
“I probably would have called 911.”
“It was extremely negligent. I would teach the parent an important lesson. Inexcusable.”
This pinned a modern day scarlet letter to the minivan with the young, unattended child. The comments unleashed the punitive reprisal of an unforgiving, middle-upper-class community, and read as a threat to other parents to not step away from their children or else.
Ironically, the act of leaving a child in the car to run a quick errand is obviously contentious, but NOT illegal in Massachusetts. And although many people may feel that the child was in grave danger, the statistics don’t support that.
Violent crime rates have decreased since the 1970s, for both children and adults. According to the FBI, violent crime is at a historic low. NPR reported on how we have come to judge parents for putting their children at perceived, but unreal risk.
The irony is that a child is much more likely to experience a dangerous event like choking (1/3,408, The National Safety Council) or be killed in a motor vehicle accident (1/113, The National Safety Council) than he would be kidnapped by a stranger (.00016%, according to U.S. Census Report in 2000; 1.6 children per 1,000,000).
Harvard law blogger, Phillip Greenspun, cites a U.S. Justice Report and states that it would take an average of 26,000 years of a child sitting alone in a parking lot before that child would be kidnapped by a stranger – and 50 percent of these children would be returned.  
The intention of this essay is not to debate whether this was a sound decision or not, but rather to highlight the intense judgment present right here in my own town. Much attention has been paid to the divisiveness of our country, but clearly thrives in our educated, progressive town as well.
Most often, the criticism is unintentional and automatic – casual comments about neighbor’s choices made in a few quick clicks on a public forum, spewing judgment that you’d probably never hear in person. We often feel justified when it comes to ‘the best interest of the child,’ but that view is unempathetic and short sighted. It creates a hostile environment where people parent out of fear. This is dangerous.
In therapy, we know telling someone how to behave is pointless. It creates a space where secrets live, negative feelings pervade, and bad things brew. We need to pause, step back, and think about how we contribute to our culture. Are you behaving in a way that is consistent with your overall belief in caring compassion? Do you want to raise empathic children? I am sure your answer is a resounding yes.
A large, 30-year study from the University of Michigan found that we are raising kids who are significantly less empathic than prior generations. College-aged kids were deemed 40 percent less empathetic than their peers 30 years ago. How can we teach empathy if we don’t model it? Do as I say, but not as I do? Let’s begin with empathy and kindness at home and in our towns.
Think about all the ways you feel connected to the mother in question on the Facebook thread. Focus on how she is relatable, how you can relate to her. How can you help, rather than judge? Could you wait around to make sure the kid is safe rather than quickly calling the police?
I am sure that mother loves her child as ferociously and unconditionally as you love yours. She hugs and snuggles, laughs and plays, just like you. She is there, present and unyielding, just like you are.
Practice empathy. Practice love. Practice acceptance. That is good parenting. It is healthier for you, and your children. And it builds a better future for us all.   

How to Raise an Open-Minded Child

Open-mindedness is hard, especially in this era of intense political polarization. But raising our kids to think that way benefits everyone.

I grew up in a religious cult.
I’m not talking about a church where our pastor said a few fundamentalist things. I mean a church where repeated instances of physical, sexual, drug, and emotional abuse occurred over a period of years. I remember one time on a camping trip when the pastor offered me, a seven-year-old child, a hit on his joint. Yeah, C.R.A.Z.Y.
But do you know what could have stopped this cult from emerging in the first place?
If one of the families had allowed themselves to see the other side of the coin, like, “Hey, maybe our family members telling us we’re in a cult are right,” they could have avoided some of the deep wounds the cult caused before it finally imploded 15 years later.
As extreme as my cult experience may have been, we all have these hidden close-minded areas in our lives. For example, if you’re anti-Trump in front of your children, have you explained to them the legitimate reasons why people voted for him, or do they only see the fire and brimstone held out for “those crazies?”
If your children are preschoolers like mine, open-mindedness might look like trying out new games they come up with even though it takes you out of your comfort zone. The point is that open-mindedness is hard, especially in this era of intense political polarization.
Yet we all want our own children to be open-minded because being this way makes them more kind (because they can empathize), less likely to get taken advantage of (e.g., cult), better at problem solving (by seeing all angles), and a whole bunch of other good things.
But it’s not always easy knowing how to teach these things. To that end, I’ve put together five things you can do to teach your children how to be open minded:

Fix you first

If we explain the importance of being open-minded to our children, but then rail against pro-choice people or people of faith without explaining the legitimate reasons why those people might believe what they believe, we are modeling close-mindedness to our children.
The change starts with you and me. Identify the issues you are most passionate about, and consider the reasoning of the other side.
For example, I did not vote for Trump. But I know that Trump voters didn’t vote for him because they approve of his lewd comments and other subpar behaviors. They voted for him because of his business experience, or because he’s an outsider who they believed could make a change in Washington.
Understanding this allows me to talk with my Trump-supporting friends without having to bring their character into question (and, therefore, driving a wedge into our friendship).

Allow them to question

Despite my cult experience, I stuck with my faith. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I began questioning the foundation of my faith (for reasons other than the cult craziness). And it took the entirety of those two years to find answers to my questions. Now, I feel that I’m at a much better place.
Had I not allowed myself to question my faith and instead chose to believe that “everyone else is wrong,” or something similar, I would have remained closed off, stuck in my close-minded ways.

Expose them to different things

When I was in high school, I traveled to Africa for three weeks and saw, for the first time in my life, what true poverty looked like. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.
Serving in soup kitchens, helping foster families, and visiting different countries has helped me understand that the world is much bigger than my white middle-class life lead me to believe.
If you want your children to better understand the world and be open to the unfamiliar, be intentional about sharing it with them, including the ugly parts.

Point out prejudice

When my son was just learning to talk, I used to put words to his emotions for him. If I had to take a toy away and he began crying, I’d say, “Are you feeling sad?” Pointing out his emotions taught him how to recognize them.
In the same way, we should point out prejudices whenever our kids are faced with them so that we can help them, first, to recognize them for what they are and, second, to teach them how to resist that way of thinking.

Teach them how to listen

I just told an acquaintance today that I’m in the process of selling my house. The first words out of his mouth were about how he needed to sell his house and all the things he needed to do to it before putting it on the market. From there, the conversation moved on. I didn’t feel heard at all.
You have to be able to truly listen to others before you can understand a different viewpoint.
Our world needs more open-minded, loving people. Start with your children. Teach them today what open-mindedness means and how it can change the world.

How to Strengthen A Child’s Character Through Empathy

Empathy rarely requires rules be changed, expectations be lowered, or concessions be made for a child.

Every school in the United States is battling a bullying epidemic. The compilation of nationwide surveys completed since 1986 indicate an ever growing trend of entitlement ingrained in America’s youth (Reuters 2010).
Why? It is the result of parents who continually confuse sympathy with empathy. When parents do this, they tend to engage in enabling behaviors. Such behaviors instill a sense of entitlement in children, causing them to cry victim in order to excuse themselves from accountability. They readily blame or judge others, manipulating and bullying to get ahead, instead of working hard.
Empathy, on the other hand, rarely requires rules be changed, expectations be lowered, or concessions be made for a child. Empathy is healing, in and of itself. It fosters children who are secure, resilient, and encoded with a solid work ethic.
The difference between sympathy and empathy seems convoluted, but it isnt. Regardless, clarification is absolutely necessary if America is going to survive. Sympathy is equivalent to feeling sorry for someone. When parents feel sorry for their child, theyre tempted to “save and rescue,” which does nothing but strip the child of their self-efficacy. Pity automatically puts the parent in a position of power in the interaction, disrupting any chance of emotional attunement.
Empathy is entirely different. Empathy occurs when a parent allows themselves to feel their childs hurt for a moment (emotional attunement). When a parent thinks about how their child feels, allows themselves to feel it, too, and then honors the feeling, the child does not feel alone in their predicament. They feel understood and connected. This is the healing component of empathy, which creates resiliency and security in the child as well as closeness in the relationship. Bending the rules or shrinking expectations becomes unnecessary.
For example, a mom is driving her eight-year-old daughter home from tennis practice when her daughter says to her softly and sadly, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I was the first one out every time. Im pretty sure Im the worst one every night.”
Now, this is the last thing the mom wants to hear from her child after a long day. She realizes she has three choices:
1 | Deny her daughter of her feelings (which is never okay) and say, “Oh no. You’re not the worst one. There are other kids worse than you.”
2 | Sympathize with her and say, “You poor thing. I am going to talk to your coach tomorrow about this. He needs to change things. It doesn’t seem fair.”
3 | Empathize with her feelings and lovingly say, “That hurts…. It hurts to feel like the worst one. I get it. I have felt like the worst one a lot in my life, and it stinks.” Then follow it with, “Stick with it, kiddo. It will get better. You’ll get better.”
Of course, choice number three wins. The empathy prevented the little girl from feeling alone in her hurt. She felt understood and connected to her mom, which immediately allowed her to metabolize the hurt feelings and begin to recover, stronger and more determined than before.
True story.
One more caveat regarding empathy: if utilized, your child wont be anxious. Studies in neurology have shown that when a child’s brain has good Vagal tone (the Vagus nerve originates in the Medulla, which controls the nervous system) she is calm, centered, and focused. Empathy creates good Vagal tone in a child’s brain, allowing them to settle down and learn.
In essence, if parents want to end bullying and raise children with a rugged work ethic and strong character, they must refrain from confusing sympathy and empathy.
Love and love well. The results will be priceless.

How to Raise Critical Thinkers in a World That Desperately Needs Them

We should be striving to raise kids who ask thoughtful questions, challenge the “experts,” and closely examine the answers.

Our world is facing a lot of challenges, with even more coming. We need citizens and leaders who question things that are presented as “fact,” who ask critical and thoughtful questions of their leaders, and who think carefully about how they make decisions that impact their own and other’s lives. In short, this world is in desperate need of strong critical thinkers.

As a doctoral student, I spent four years studying college student and adult development, with a focus on whether innovative teaching and learning strategies were helping to foster critical thinking skills. I came to passionately believe that critical thinking skills are some of the most important skills we can emphasize in higher education. But as a parent, I became passionate about starting well before college. 

Learning to think critically and to make decisions based on those thinking skills is a lifelong pursuit; even traditional-age 18- 24-year-old college students do not always possess the complex analytical skills that allow them to balance their own needs with the needs of others or to analyze the extent to which an “expert’s” perspectives are well-informed. We can’t expect our young kids to achieve these skills right away either, but we can plant the seeds that will help them to be prepared for complex thinking as they grow older.

In my studies, I found that critical thinking skills are developed when four conditions are in place. 

  1. The individual needs to feel that his/her contribution to knowledge development is welcomed within an environment of trust.
  2. Learning experiences need to offer both challenge and support.
  3. Development often emerges from unexpected or new experiences (in which a person needs supported time to reflect and process).
  4. Educational experiences need to support both intellectual and emotional growth of the individual. 

So how can we translate these conditions to our role as parents? 

Create an environment of trust in which your kids’ feel that their opinions are welcome.

By asking your children to contribute to family decisions, you’re helping them learn how to ask respectful questions of those in authority (like their doctors or teachers), and encouraging them to ask questions even if they worry that their questions are silly. We can listen closely to their questions, stop what we are doing to engage in the conversation, compliment them on their curiosity, and let them know that we appreciate how hard they are thinking. 

Instead of simply telling our children that their conclusions are wrong, we can ask them if they have considered alternative interpretations or we can tell them what we think about when we make conclusions.

Offer challenge and support as your children navigate complicated concepts.

One way to do this is by selectively utilizing the Socratic method. While sometimes our children just want an answer from us, there are other times when they benefit from answering a question with a question. When my six-year old asks, “Why don’t you let me use toy guns?” I could launch into a complicated political discussion about my feelings on gun control or I could ask him to speculate on why he thinks I have that rule. 

His speculation, in turn, helps me understand how complex his thinking is on the topic before I choose my own words. I challenge him to answer his own question, but also support him to figure it out as the conversation continues. Thus I am also helping him learn that he has the right and responsibility to try to answer his own questions and formulate his own opinions. If he later wants to argue a different perspective, I can respectfully enter into that conversation, even though I will sometimes have the last word.

Expose your children to unexpected and new experiences.

Bring your children into the world with you at whatever level is appropriate. I take my child with me to vote and talk to him about why I am choosing certain candidates without getting into confusing (or even scary) conversations about terrorism or healthcare debates. In order to help him learn how to process these experiences, I try to model critical thinking by walking him through some of my own decision-making, without overcomplicating things or talking so long that he gets distracted and stops listening.

We can also expose our children to new experiences by going out of our way to ensure that they are engaged with diverse perspectives in our communities and our daily lives.  Living in a predominantly white community means that my child is not often exposed to children or families of color, thus I spend time thinking about diversity as it is represented in other sources of “input,” like books and media. 

When my child has questions about people who are different from him I do not aspire to the “color blind” perspective. If my child notices that there is a person of color or a person with a disability or a transgender person and is unsure how to talk about it, I try to help him explore his questions and choose respectful language. I don’t say, “Shh…don’t talk about it.”

Support the intellectual and emotional growth of your children in the critical thinking sense.

Realize that engaging in critical thinking and the discussions that go along with it can be emotionally draining. While it’s important to ask our children good questions and to challenge them to come up with their own answers, there are times when they are going to be too tired or overwhelmed to do so. We can observe our children and be sensitive to their emotions and sometimes simply help them to find a resolution that works for the time being. 

Likewise, when a topic arises that is intellectually complex but also emotionally challenging, we can help them to name the emotions that are coming up for them: “Are you feeling confused, honey? It’s okay if you want to take a break from this conversation and come back to it later.”

We can also model observation and acknowledgement of our feelings: “Isn’t it hard to understand this idea? I sometimes can’t make up my mind how I feel about it. That can be frustrating, but I know I don’t have to make this decision right away so that helps me.”   

And lastly, we can help them to develop the ability to understand others’ emotions – a highly important component of critical thinking – by engaging with them in discussions about putting themselves in someone else’s shoes: “ I know it seems like it doesn’t cause much harm to pick an apple from someone else’s tree, but how would you feel if you looked out our window and saw someone picking from our tree?” 

illustration of an apple

As my children grow older I hope to translate these lessons into more complex situations. I want to teach them things like “the danger of a single story” or the ways that politicians or media can twist statistics to serve their own purposes. I want dinner table conversations to equip them with the skills to engage in respectful dialogue with others, even when we disagree.  

When they go to college (if they so choose), I want them to be the students who are already equipped to make the most of their classroom and real-world learning – the ones who ask questions that even the professor can’t answer and who come up with new ways of interpreting even the most accepted theoretical concepts. 

If we can succeed in raising these kinds of children, just think about the potential for innovation and leadership for generations to come.

What Empathetic Parents Know About Tears

Sometimes the best way to be there for our children is to give them the freedom to cry.

This past summer, my preschooler was running along the sidewalk when he tripped. I picked him up and held him close.

The fall didn’t seem so bad, but he unleashed fierce tears. I asked him if he wanted some ice or a Band-Aid. How about some animal crackers? I just wanted him to feel better. He shook his head and said, “I just want to cry.”

His statement was profound, and made me think that sometimes the best way to support my child is not to stop his tears quickly, but to be patient enough to let them roll. I could see he was having a good cry, and thought about how healing tears can be. In fact, studies show crying reduces stress and improves mood.

How can I show my child I’m there for him while giving him the space and power to handle his own hurts?

I also considered the importance of children managing their feelings with a certain amount of independence. I hoped my insights would help me navigate the wild world of mothering young children, but still, I struggled.

How can I show my child I’m there for him while giving him the space and power to handle his own hurts? How can I comfort him without coddling? If tears from sadness and pain are encouraged, what about expressions of frustration and rage? How can I give him the freedom to express uncomfortable feelings without making fit-throwing commonplace?

My desire to encourage his emotional strength gets halted by my fear of being too aloof. And as much as I want to show him that his feelings aren’t scary, enduring his meltdowns make my blood run fast and hot.

I had questions and luckily I found answers by bumping into Dr. Linnda Durre in Trader Joe’s. My cute kids and I attracted her attention, and she handed me her business card, which I made good use of. She is a world-renowned psychotherapist with over 40 years of experience working with young children, teens, and families.

She has shared her expertise on Oprah, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and the Today Show, among many other platforms. By chance, I got to tap into her wisdom, too.

Interested in the balance of being a sensitive, yet commanding mother, I asked her questions like, “How can parents allow their children to express negative feelings without pitying them or inviting tantrums?”

She said her go-to strategy for validating the unpleasant emotions of young children is mirroring their words and facial expressions. She advises parents to vocalize the inner voice of the child. She gave an example of what she would say to a child who just had something taken from her, “Amy, I know you’re upset. Bobby took the toy that you wanted. You’re angry and sad. We’re going to go play with something else right now and when we’re done, you will be able to have that toy back because we will talk with Bobby and he’ll probably be finished playing with it.”

Dr. Durre’ explained that tears contain depressants, so when a child or adult needs to cry, they are doing exactly the right thing to eliminate depressants from their system. “I feel so much better after a good cry,” is an accurate statement, both emotionally and physiologically.

I told her that sounds lovely, but what if the parent feels too frustrated to calmly and warmly mirror their children? I told her about my 4-year-old who whines and complains when it’s time to turn the TV off. I’d love to patiently say, “You’re upset. It’s hard when the TV goes off. We’ll watch more again tomorrow.” But in reality, I’m often too aggravated by his behavior to respond like that.

In this case, Dr. Durre says to state the rules, take a break, and let them have their temper tantrum in their room in private.

I mentioned how hard it is to endure temper tantrums. My son was a three-year-old not so long ago, and his intense displays of emotions worked me up, no matter how detached I tried to be. Dr. Durre recommended repeating to them, “I know you’re angry and it’s OK to be angry. You can cry as loudly as you want in your room, so it’s fine with me for you to go there now, Justin. When you’re finished crying, we can talk about it. I love you and care about you and your feelings.”

You can walk them to their room, carry them there, or point the way so they can have their fit in while you put in your ear plugs.

Empathy does not mean parents should take on the emotions of their children or allow themselves to be a punching bag – from emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse from their children. It’s perfectly okay to wait for the storm to pass before connecting. It’s the equivalent of a much needed time-out.

One of the keys in giving children freedom to express themselves is providing a firm framework of acceptable behaviors, as well as clear expectations and predictable routines. This gives them a sense of safety and they know you are in charge. It’s authoritative parenting – clear, firm, and warm, with limits, boundaries and high expectations. This differs from authoritarian, permissive, and negligent parenting styles.

If children know what the rules are regarding TV time, they are less likely to have a difficult time when it’s over. They are free to be angry, and know they are not allowed to hit, throw things, or damage property. Want to yell? Go outside or go to your room. Boundaries are important. Children are given freedom, but not free-reign.

Dr. Durre’ could feel my overwhelming desire to be understanding and accepting of my little ones even when they’re at their worst, and warned me that children can be master manipulators. She stated that research from infant study centers revealed babies as young as 3 months can “read the room” and know who will pick them up.

Empathy should not be confused with over-indulgence and excessive permissiveness. An empathetic parent would say, “I know you’re upset that the TV is off now. Let’s find something else to do.” An overly-permissive parent might say, “Okay, you can watch another episode.” The firm parent actually fosters greater emotional security and resilience in her children because she gives them more opportunities to work through unpleasant feelings and the child knows you’re there to set limits, be the parent, and enforce the rules.

You can be warm and “friendly”, but you are not their “friend” – which connotes equality. Dr. Durre says if a child doesn’t respect the parent there is endless limit testing, temper tantrums, sneakiness, rebellion, and passive-aggressiveness.

 Kids feel safer knowing they will be kept in bounds. It gives them security, which they all need.

When children don’t get their way, they tend to say hurtful things, like “You’re a mean mommy!” or “I wish Bryan’s mommy was my mommy because she’s nice.” But parents shouldn’t be fooled by their harsh words – kids truly feel happier knowing their parents are leaders. They feel safer knowing they will be kept in bounds. It gives them security, which they all need.

Empathetic parents are understanding, but aren’t afraid to say no. Children learn their feelings aren’t scary, and are free to process them fully. They also learn that tears carry little weight in manipulating a parent who sees crying as merely a normal emotional response. Handing over quick-fixes sends the message that their feelings make us uncomfortable. Letting children face their frustration shows that we trust in their ability to solve problems and cope.

As my son revealed when he skinned his knee, sometimes the best way to be there for our children is to give them the freedom to cry.

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