Be a Guide, Not a Guard and Raise a Happy, Responsible Kid

As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished.

“Be a guide, not a guard” perfectly describes the kinds of parenting behaviors that create happy and responsible children. It’s a term I learned at a recent training session focused on reducing controlling parenting behaviors.
When I ask parents “what have you tried to help change your child’s behavior?” little breaks my heart more than hearing a long list of punishments. The story will go something like “the rule is that he is to clean up his room but he never does it so we took away his tablet, then banned watching TV, we smacked him, we put him in time out all day, cancelled his play dates with his friends and then grounded him for a month. It doesn’t matter what we do, he doesn’t care.”
This is parenting like a guard. It is inflexible, rules-based parenting that requires punishment when a child doesn’t behave. The punishments often escalate and may be harsh, cruel even. In the worst case scenario, a child raised in a controlling environment will comply due to a fear of being beaten but will not do anything other adults say if there is no risk of being hurt. The most anti-social children are often parented in this way. They don’t care about the meaning of the rules set; instead they decide whether to comply based on whether they will get hurt. Controlling parenting practices are also correlated to poor mental health in children and youth.
When we parent like a guard we are trying to stop behavior through control and dominance. In an attempt to get rid of the behaviors we don’t like, we use consequences. A guard expects trouble and treats people as such. A guard does not care whether you feel sad, confused or don’t feel like you belong. A guard only cares if you comply. As a guard we can’t be flexible and this means if a child doesn’t comply, regardless of the reason, our only option is to escalate the consequences until they do. Even if this means excluding them from the very systems we want them to belong to.
When we parent as a guide we work to encourage behaviors we want to see in our children. We help children belong in our world and all the systems that come with that. We use care and compassion in our parenting practices. When we see unwanted behavior that cannot work or is unacceptable in our systems, we look at what steps we can take to help that child learn to fit better in our world. We don’t use harsh consequences that will exclude the child from the system; instead we see their difficulty as a skill deficit. We don’t use escalating consequences; instead we look for ways for children to want to be part of the system and to want to please us.
As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished. We want our children to comply because they want to be part of our community, they want to help us and because they understand the value of their chosen behavior.

How to be a guide

See your child’s perspective

Being able to hold your child’s perspective is essential to being a guide. It helps parents understand how best to help their child. It helps us identify that difficult behaviors are often related to emotions or skills deficits. This doesn’t mean we accept all behaviors as ok, it means that we understand that there is a meaning to whatever behavior we are seeing.

Encourage behavior through praise and noticing

Children love receiving genuine praise and being noticed. If they feel you genuinely care about them rather than that you are trying to control their behavior, they are more motivated to work for you. Children are less receptive to praise that functions to control behavior such as “aren’t you a good boy for sitting up straight today?” A genuine “I can really see you are listening, and that makes me feel good” is more effective.

Promote values-based living

Show your child what matters through the way you live. If you want to raise a kind and responsible child, lead by modeling kind and responsible behavior. Notice when your child is kind and responsible and praise the behavior.

Be flexible where possible

Give your child opportunities to choose. Avoid controlling choices unless there is a good reason not to offer a choice such as safety or legality. Guides raise kids who choose to be responsible. Guards raise kids who conform to avoid a consequence.

Promote intrinsic goals over extrinsic goals

Encourage your child to do things for personal growth, for health, to create meaningful relationships and contribute to their community as opposed to doing things to achieve financial success, popularity, power or for their image. People with intrinsic goals are happier and engage in more pro-social behavior.
Next time you see your child doing something that you don’t like, whisper to yourself: “Be a guide, not a guard.”
Acknowledgement: Thanks and gratitude to Darin Cairns for introducing me to the helpful term “Be a guide, not a guard.”

What This Magic Ratio Says About Your Relationship

For every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.

Whether it’s about not having enough sex, the dirty laundry, or spending too much money, conflict is inevitable in every marriage.
To understand the difference between happy and unhappy couples, Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson began doing longitudinal studies of couples in the 1970s. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes, then sat back and watched. After carefully reviewing the tapes and following up with them nine years later, they were able to predict which couples would stay together and which would divorce with over 90 percent accuracy.
Their discovery was simple. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.
That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.
“When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”
On the other hand, unhappy couples tend to engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity. If the positive-to-negative ratio during conflict is 1-to-1 or less, that’s unhealthy, and indicates a couple teetering on the edge of divorce.
So what’s considered a negative interaction?

The one negative interaction

Examples of negative interactions include another predictor of divorce, The Four Horsemen, as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. While anger is certainly a negative interaction and a natural reaction during conflict, it isn’t necessarily damaging to a marriage. Dr. Gottman explains in “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” that “anger only has negative effects in marriage if it is expressed along with criticism or contempt, or if it is defensive.”
Negative interactions during conflict include being emotionally dismissive or critical, or becoming defensive. Body language such as eye-rolling can be a powerful negative interaction, and it is important to remember that negativity holds a great deal of emotional power, which is why it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction.
Negative interactions happen in healthy marriages, too, but they are quickly repaired and replaced with validation and empathy.

The five positive interactions

Couples who flourish engage in conflict differently than those who eventually break up. Not only do the masters of marriage start conflict more gently, but they also make repairs in both minor and major ways that highlight the positivity in their relationship. Below is a list of interactions that stable couples regularly use to maintain positivity and closeness.

Be interested

When your partner complains about something, do you listen? Are you curious about why he or she is so mad? Displaying interest includes asking open-ended questions, as well as more subtle signals such as nods, making eye contact, and timely “uh-huhs” that show how closely you are listening.

Express affection

Do you hold hands with your partner, offer a romantic kiss, or embrace your partner when greeting them at the end of the day? Expressions of affection can happen in small ways both within and outside of conflict.
Within conflict, displays of physical and verbal affection reduce stress. If you’re having a difficult conversation and your partner takes your hand and says, “Gosh, this is hard to talk about. I really love you and I know we can figure this out together,” you will likely feel better because their display of affection is bound to reduce tension and bring you closer together.

Demonstrate they matter

Our motto for making marriage last is “small things often.” The small acts that demonstrate you care are powerful ways to enhance the positivity in your marriage.
Bringing up something that is important to your partner, even when you disagree, demonstrates that you are putting their interests on par with yours and shows your partner that you care about them. How you treat each other outside of conflict influences how well you’ll handle your inevitable disagreements.
For example, if your partner has a bad day and you stop to pick up dinner on the way home, you’re showing him that he is on your mind. Those small gestures accumulate over time and will provide a buffer of positivity in your marriage so that when you do enter a conflict, it will be easier to engage in positive interactions that outweigh the negative.

Intentional appreciation

How you think about your partner influences how you treat them. By focusing on the positives of your marriage such as the good moments from your past and your partner’s admirable traits, you put positive energy into your relationship.
Negativity is bound to enter your thoughts, especially during conflict. Intentionally focusing on the positive will counterbalance any of the moments when you struggle to find something good about your partner.
Now turn your thoughts into action: every time you express your positive thinking and give your partner a verbal compliment, no matter how small, you are strengthening your marriage.

Find opportunities for agreement

When couples fight, they focus on the negative parts of the conflict and miss the opportunities for what they agree on. When you seek opportunities for agreement and express yourself accordingly, you are showing that you see your spouse’s viewpoint as valid and that you care about them. An alliance in conflict, even minor, can fundamentally shift how couples fight.

Empathize and apologize

Empathy is one of the deepest forms of human connection. When you empathize with your spouse, you show that you understand and feel what your partner is feeling, even if you express empathy nonverbally through a facial expression or a physical gesture.
Saying things like, “It makes sense to me that you feel…” will help your partner see that you are on their team. Empathy is a profound connecting skill that all romantic partners can and should improve, and there is no limit to the amount of empathy you can express.
If your partner is upset with something you said or did, simply apologize. If you can find a moment during conflict to say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. That makes me sad,” you will provide a positive and empathetic interaction that reinforces your bond.

Accept your partner’s perspective

An approach that drastically improves conflict is understanding that each of your perspectives are valid, even if they are opposed to each other.
While you may not agree with your partner’s perspective, letting them know that their perspective makes sense will show them that you respect them. One of the best ways to do this is to summarize your spouse’s experience during a conflict, even if you disagree. Remember that validation doesn’t mean agreement, but it does signal respect.

Make jokes

Playful teasing, silliness, and finding moments to laugh together can ease tension in a heated conflict. Most couples have inside jokes they only share with each other. This highlights the exclusivity a couple has.
However, a word of caution: remember to find a way to joke around that maintains respect and appreciation for your spouse and that serves to bring you both closer together.

Test your ratio

Is your relationship unbalanced? Observe how you and your partner interact. For every negative interaction that happens, are there more positive interactions? If not, take it upon yourself to create more positive interactions in your relationship, and also try to notice the small moments of positivity that currently exist there, and that you may have been missing.
Keep a journal for one week that notes the positive interactions, however small, in your marriage. As Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed, the more positive actions and feelings you can create in your marriage, the happier and more stable your marriage will be.
Remember to maintain the Magic Ratio in your marriage with our 5:1 Tumbler.
This post was originally published on The Gottman Institute blog.

The Most Important Grade on the Kindergarten Report Card

I was so proud of all of the check marks indicating that he met expectations. But one mark caught my eye.

During the first night in the hospital room after my son was born, my husband commented that our son was kind. I laughed at his word choice as I looked down at the screaming baby in my arms. I was sore, exhausted, and desperately trying to feed my son with little success.

“Kind? How can you tell he is kind? He’s a baby!”

My husband just nodded matter-of-factly. “Kind. I just know.”

I laughed and rolled my eyes as I returned to rocking and feeding while trying to keep my eyes open.

This conversation became a running joke between the two of us. When my son first started to sleep through the night, my husband declared, “See! He’s so kind!”

When my boy tried to “help” me by pouring an entire box of Cheerios onto the living room floor while attempting to refill his bowl: “He’s so helpful. So kind!”

When he piled every single toy from his room around his baby sister so she could not possibly move anywhere: “He even shares! So kind!”

Mostly, these comments made me smile or laugh, but sometimes it was hard to smile or laugh after a day of disciplining my wild three-year-old. At the playground, he threw mulch at the other kids. When it was time to leave, he threw himself on the ground and cried. At home, he still wasn’t speaking much and resorted to throwing or hitting. These actions seemed anything but kind.

But my husband was on to something.

After my son started speech therapy and began working with an occupational therapist and a special educator, he started to verbalize, understand, and interact in the world in a way that revealed his true personality and not just his frustrations.

As it turns out, my husband was right. Our son is kind.

When his sister throws a tantrum because she didn’t get the last piece of candy or she didn’t get to pick the movie, he inevitably gives her the candy or lets her pick the movie. He can’t stand to see others cry.

When he eats his favorite treat, an M&M yogurt, he picks out all of the green candies to save for his dad. Green is his dad’s favorite color.

When he sees a boy throw dirt on another kid on the soccer field, he becomes visibly upset and asks questions like, “But, why would he do that? Why would that boy make someone unhappy?”

Yes, these are small things on the scale of kindness, but they have the potential to grow.

Last year, during a conference with his kindergarten teacher, she told me how pleasant my son acted toward his classmates. I smiled but didn’t fully accept the idea. After all, I was at a conference discussing his academic struggles. Don’t all teachers have to throw in something nice?

Months later, I met with her again. We talked about his progress, and she reiterated the sentiment. She told me that when others weren’t kind, she told them to act more like my son. I walked out of the school with a pile of reading resources to use throughout the summer and a huge smile on my face.

When I received his report card at the end of the school year, I was so proud of all of the check marks indicating that he met expectations. But one mark caught my eye. In a sea of “Meets Expectations,” there was one lone plus sign indicating “Exceeds Expectations.” That one lone plus sign was next to the phrase: Demonstrates respect with words and actions.

There it was in black and white – my child is advanced in kindness. He treats others with respect. He does this even when I am not there to nudge his leg under the table as a reminder to say thank you. He does this even when I am not there to whisper in his ear to go play with the lonely child on the playground.

In a way, I want this to be my mic drop moment. Mama, out. My work here is done. However, I know that this simply marks the beginning of a long road of nurturing and prompting kindness, and I want to thank his kindergarten teacher for reminding me of this.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the small plus sign on his report card was meant for me. Not to give me a pat on the back for a job well done, but to give me a gentle nudge as if to say, Keep up the good work, Mama, your job here is not finished. Your small human is going to grow up to do big things in a big world, so please keep reminding him what is important.

My son will likely get some A’s on future report cards; he also will likely get some less-than-spectacular grades. However, this mark indicating that he is on a path to becoming a good person, a respectful person, a kind person – it just might be the most important one of all. Yes, the A’s in math, science, and language arts would be nice, but respect and kindness also have the ability to change the world.

I left the report card on the kitchen counter for a couple of weeks as a reminder to myself that this is what we should strive for every day – kindness. But I also left it on the counter so my husband would have ample opportunity to declare: “See! I told you he was kind!”

The Social Spookiness of Halloween

Lessons about crossing dark streets, waiting for others to catch up, and sharing goodies emerge from this strange and spooky holiday.

My dog is barking wildly at the large, misshapen pumpkin I just dragged from the car to the front porch. It’s a good thing my mom visited two weeks ago, or she would definitely be growling, at least internally, at the pagan gourd flanking the entryway to my home.
My mom really hates Halloween. When we were growing up, my siblings and I were permitted to hand out candy to neighborhood children, but we did not engage in the “coarse” act of trick-or-treating. I think I actually learned the definition of “extortion” from my mom’s interpretation of demanding candy from innocent people in return for the favor of not committing a “trick” to their homes or property.
Now I’m a mom, and I have accepted that Halloween, even with its ghosts and goblins, has developed into a beloved American tradition, with costumes, candy, and parties that dangle very far away from any morbid or devilish roots. I’ve made my peace with allowing my children to ask for junk food at neighbors’ and even strangers’ doors, as long as they are sure to respond with an audible thank you and not make a grab for more than one or two pieces of candy.
There’s a spirit of an autumn carnival in our neighborhood on Halloween night. Some families open their garage doors and provide adult-friendly “treats” to tired parents as kids excitedly make their rounds. My kids revel in the ritual of categorizing, classifying, and counting their stashes of candy even more than the actual trick-or-treating. Their hauls expertly spread on the living room carpet, they conduct barters and exchanges of brightly colored fruit flavored candies for chocolate delicacies.
Perhaps the most unanticipated lesson of Halloween lies in the run-up to the evening, when friend groups are tested and children realize their status in the social pecking order. Are they like Tootsie Rolls – accepted but not wildly popular? Will they walk around with their parents and siblings? Will they be invited to pre-Halloween pizza dinners with the most popular kids in the grade or dressed according to an agreed-upon theme of the year? Halloween can be a ghoulish night, as it casts a sharp light on who is in and who is out.
Some children are fortunate to have one best friend, a yin to their yang, a jelly to their peanut butter. Halloween is a blast for those fortunate dyads. Salt and pepper, Batman and Robin, angel and devil, they move through the darkening sidewalks with confidence and laughter. Other friend group formations abound as well: colors in a crayon box, a litter of kittens, a gaggle of superheroes.
What happens to children who want to be a part of a group but don’t know how to ask for entry? Even more prickly is the question of what happens to the child who boldly asserts him or herself by asking to join in a group costume and is then rebuffed?
Halloween is not for the faint of heart. There are modern lessons that can be derived from this ancient holiday. Historically, we dress ourselves up to honor our dead and to protect ourselves from goblins and dangerous spirits on the loose. Likewise, we find strength to encourage our children to rise above the sting of possible social rejection. We celebrate our children’s individual spirits and enjoy the process of finding costumes that reflect what they love and enjoy.
Instead of fretting over possible social exclusion, perhaps Halloween is a good time to remind our children that, even as adults, we don’t get invited to every party or fun activity. We will all still be okay. If your child is the popular one this year, perhaps a lesson in graciousness and generosity is helpful, too. Would it be so terrible to have one extra football hero in the group, especially if it means including the child who doesn’t have a million buddies in school?
When my daughter was very young, she went trick-or-treating with a large group of girls. The laces on her brand new shoes kept untying, so she was constantly stopping to retie them. As I watched from the sidewalk, I noticed her hunching over after each stop on the Halloween circuit while the other girls ran ahead to the next house to gather their goodies. One child remained by my daughter’s side and patiently waited for her to take care of her shoes so that she wouldn’t trip in the slippery grass.
When we returned home that evening, we spoke about the unusual kindness demonstrated by my daughter’s friend. This “shoelace test” became the litmus test for friendship in our house. This was the type of friend to aspire to be and to value.
Lessons about crossing dark streets, waiting for others to catch up, and sharing goodies emerge from this strange and spooky holiday. We can help make the holiday sweeter by listening to our kids when they share their concerns and reassuring them that morning will come again on November 1st.

Questions Not to Ask a Woman Who Has Passed Her Due Date

If you hope not to piss off a woman who has passed her due date, never ask the following

I’ve carried four babies to full-term and passed my due date twice. Those last few weeks with each were brutally long and miserable. Unfortunately, the constant checking-in by well-meaning family and friends didn’t really help my mood or my patience level.
But it wasn’t the well-wishes that drove me crazy after I’d passed my due date. It was the ridiculous questions people constantly asked.
While I know each family member and dear friend had good intentions, their constant prodding left me feeling more judged than loved and supported: Am I doing enough? Do they think I don’t want this baby to come?!
If you hope not to piss off a woman who has passed her due date, never ask the following:

Still no baby?

It seems like an innocent enough question, and you’ll probably get a polite smile and short, sweet response, but really, it’s a silly question with no good answer.
Unless you’re dealing with an unusually cheerful pregnant woman (which is a rare thing after 40+ weeks), she’ll probably be running through a lengthy list of snarky responses in her mind, such as “Are you blind?!” and “Would I be here or doing this if the baby was here already?!”

Weren’t you due…?

Seriously, people, stop with the “due date is a blood oath” idea. Less than five percent of babies are born on their due date. Medical professionals refer to an “EDD” (estimated due date) because babies can come any time.
Full-term is a range, generally accepted as between 39 and 42 weeks. Most first-time moms welcome their babies after their due date, so let’s stop assuming the baby will arrive on or before that “magic” day. It’s not a package delivery and there are no guarantees.

Have you tried…?

There are a thousand ways one can try to induce labor “naturally,” and chances are, the pregnant woman you’re talking to has tried one or all of them already.
From walking to eating pineapple to ripen the cervix to “what got the baby in there,” most pregnant women who have passed their due dates have already explored the options. Unless they specifically ask for your advice, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.

Are you going to be induced?

Induction is so common these days that it may seem like a harmless question. A third of births that reach 41 to 42 weeks result in induction.
Despite this frequency, however, induction is a pretty serious medical intervention that involves risks for both mother (increased risk of postpartum depression and up to six times higher chance of a c-section) and baby (oxygen desaturation and significantly more occurrences of non-reassuring fetal heart rates).
Induction is a decision that really only needs to be discussed between a woman and her healthcare provider, not every acquaintance she runs into at the grocery store.

Are you ready?

I’ll venture to guess that nearly all women are ready for their baby’s arrival by their due date, at the latest. By the time the due date has come and gone, most women have prepared, and re-prepared, and re-prepared again.
Constantly doing all the tasks that she wants done before baby arrives, like having the house clean or the laundry done, can make an expectant mother go crazy as she spends her days wondering how much more cleaning and laundry she will have to do before the baby actually gets here.

What are you doing here?

Clearly, every pregnant woman who is waiting for her baby to arrive should be at home doing…I’m not exactly sure what. Waiting? Driving herself crazy waiting? Wondering when it’s going to happen? Wondering if it’s happening and she doesn’t realize it? Wondering why the hell it isn’t happening?
Yeah, no. The best thing a pregnant woman can do while waiting is to keep busy. It not only keeps her mind off the waiting, but normal human activity can also get the baby to actually come.

Are you going to try to have the baby before the storm?

Three of my babies came during hurricane season in South Florida, so I’m no stranger to preparing for delivery and a major storm at the same time. While not being able to get to a hospital during labor because of a natural disaster is certainly a terrifying prospect, bringing it up to a hugely pregnant woman who has probably been thinking about it non-stop is less than helpful.
Plus, babies are much safer and easier to manage during a natural disaster when they’re still in utero than after they’re born. So no, I will not “try” to have the baby before the storm.
So what should you say? Instead of prodding too much or drawing attention to the obvious, it’s best to stick with a simple “How you feeling?” or “I’m thinking of you” or, most helpful of all, “Is there anything I can do?

The Things to Remember When Positive Parenting Fails

When it feels like you’re not getting different results despite doing the “right” thing over and over again, here are a few things to keep in mind.

I am a firm believer in the benefits of raising kids with compassion and empathy. I believe that treating kids as we would like to be treated makes them stronger people, not weaker. I believe that the relationships we build with kids in childhood matter more than anything. Yet being a positive parent is not always easy.

There are times it seems incredibly hard to use a positive parenting approach, and sometimes the approach seems to increase rather than decrease tension. There are times it feels that we’re failing because we just don’t seem to have the skills to make it work. When it feels like you’re not getting different results despite doing the “right” thing over and over again, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1 | Don’t question every decision you make

We all get tired, anxious, and stressed, and these states have an impact on how we parent. We’re bound to yell more, or more likely to view our kids’ actions as misbehavior when we’re tired. Who wouldn’t lose it having to repeat the same thing over and over again while running late or trying to balance everything that needs to be done? The bottom line is that we’re all human.

Being a positive parent is not about being perfect. It’s about being aware of our strengths but also being aware of our weaknesses. It means working on our weaknesses, for instance by making a conscious attempt to dial down the yelling. Being a positive parent also means knowing when to apologize and what to apologize for.

Understanding we are all human also means understanding that kids are human too and that they will do things kids are supposed to do.

2 | No discipline method works all of the time

While adopting a positive discipline approach may improve your relationship with your kid, nothing guarantees that this approach will work all of the time and for every discipline issue. Don’t do the same thing over and over if you’re not getting the results you want. While a self-quieting space can do wonders for your kid, by no means does it work in every situation or with every kid.

Trying a different approach when everything you’ve tried doesn’t seem to be working does not make you a bad parent. The thing to remember is that effective discipline has common elements. Discipline is most effective when it occurs in a warm and loving environment.

3 | Get rid of the “positive parenting” label

The thing with labels is that they can quickly become limiting. Positive parenting means, first and foremost, being intentional in your parenting. It is not about following set rules laid out by someone else. Being a positive parent means being conscious that how you interact with your kid affects him or her. It means aligning your parenting to your kid’s temperament, and parenting in ways that are in line with your values and both you and your kid’s strengths and weaknesses.

4 | Non-punitive doesn’t mean letting your kids get away with misbehavior

Punitive methods are never the solution to misbehavior. They teach kids “not to get caught,” and increasing evidence suggests that punitive methods harm kids. While these methods might get you immediate results, all they will do over the long term is teach kids to lie because they teach them to see truth as an inconvenience. Kids who live in fear of punishment become sneakier and they also avoid confiding in you even when they should.

Being an intentional parent means being conscious that your kid’s “misbehavior” is often driven by his inability to manage emotions. It means helping your kid learn to manage his emotions using an age-appropriate approach.

That said, non-punitive parenting is not synonymous with permissive parenting. Kids need to be aware that actions have consequences, and the consequences need to be appropriate and as closely linked to the behavior as possible. Recurrent misbehavior should not be ignored, nor should serious misbehavior that involves violent, aggressive, and dangerous behavior.

5 | A positive approach will always get you better results

Being an intentional parent means making a conscious attempt to promote your kid’s overall wellbeing. It means being sensitive to her needs, treating her emotions as valid, and treating her as an individual in her own right.

An intentional approach is not the approach set out in books or other parenting guides. It is an approach guided by your own values and your own specific context.

When you’re feeling discouraged about positive parenting, think of the long-term benefits to help get you back on track. When we’re warm and responsive to our kids’ needs and feelings, they feel better and act better!

How to Find the Sweet Spot in Discipline: Parenting Advice From a High School Teacher

There is a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.    

Imagine your least favorite teacher, the English teacher who thought everything you wrote was lame, the foreign language teacher who never let you say one word in English during class, or the chemistry teacher who wished the students weren’t there to get in the way of the science. Chances are, they ruled their classroom like a ship at sea. They were the captains and, if you wanted to get home alive, you did as they said.

They all had a look: the look that could freeze you to your chair, choke a whisper back down your throat, and make you want to duck and cover. It was a powerful piece of magic, that look.

As a teacher, I had a look of sorts, but because I preferred comradery to tyranny, it wasn’t quite as piercing. My look said, “I see you and I know what you’re doing. Things are going along swimmingly right now, so let’s not mess that up, yes?”

It usually worked. Without a word, they’d get back to the task at hand and the waters remained undisturbed. After a decade of this, I’d gotten my version of “the look” honed to perfection: respectful but assertive, friendly but uncompromising.

Then I had kids, and the second they became self-aware, “the look” got shot to bits. They didn’t care to keep the ship sailing. They’d rather torpedo our little outing to the park, our healthy dinner, or our calm bedtime routine. They were anarchists at heart. “The look,” I discovered, was too nuanced. Kids aren’t into subtlety.

However, I wasn’t ready to slap some corporal punishment on them or “lay down the law” – what would effectively be taking 10 paces back and turning for a duel. I wanted to discipline, but I also wanted to work on the respect thing together. Fear-mongering would get us nowhere.

I think modern parents fight this battle all the time, between what our parents and those before them considered necessary discipline and our own desires to be friends with our kids. Too many hard lines make you the enemy, and no lines make your authority as parent disappear.

There is a place in the middle, though, a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.    

Make the family rules together

By discussing as a family what’s valued, allowed, and respected and what’s not, you’re giving your kids ownership over themselves and how they want life at home to look. Let them make suggestions. Let them see you write it down. Put it on the fridge like the House Doctrine it is. If they can feel invested in it, they are much more likely to abide by it.

Give do-overs

One thing the older generations rarely did was the do-over. There were no second chances. That’s a hard line to walk. Perfectionism is impossible and humanity is all about what you do after you fail. What does the rebound look like? Giving your kids do-overs teaches them that there is a right and a wrong way to behave, but nothing is irreparable. Life is about practice. The do-over lets them practice better behavior and gives you a chance to offer cheers at the end instead of punishment.

Be a creeper

Yes, I mean that. Parents are clairvoyant in many ways. We sense approaching trouble. When you get that feeling, that the crayons are about to go from paper to wall or the sharing of the favorite costume or toy or food is nearing an end, creep on over and hover in their vicinity. Let them see you in their line of sight. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Like seeing the traffic cop half a mile ahead, it hits the brakes on potential rebellion. And you don’t even have to say a word.

Don’t take it personally

It’s so easy to get our feelings hurt when our kids disrespect us or ignore the Family Rules, as sacred as we made them out to be. In the end, they’re just kids. Chances are it’s not malicious. We have to keep moving forward, giving the do-over, and finding ways to buoy up our self-worth separate from our kids. We can’t build our identity and our days around how they feel about us. In the end, our job is to raise responsible, honest, big-hearted people who will keep the world running as best they can.

Parenting like this isn’t about extremes. It’s not stirring up fear or sitting back like a pal. It’s about creating a safe environment with mutually agreed-upon rules that encourages self-awareness. The aim is to give everybody the chance to get better at being themselves.

It's Not Just a Statistic When It Happens to You

The bone marrow biopsy confirmed the news we dreaded and a whole new chapter of our lives began, one in which we never imagined ourselves participating.

It was New Year’s Eve and my son had been sick for weeks. After seeing doctors and even being admitted to the hospital, we had no plausible answer. But that morning my nearly four-year-old son couldn’t stand up anymore.

I tried calling the doctors he’d been seeing, the ones who couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but the only help they gave was suggesting that we go to the emergency room if we couldn’t wait for the next available appointment 10 days later.

We decided we couldn’t wait.

I didn’t want to pack an overnight bag, but I was trying to hedge my bets. I hoped that by being over prepared I would somehow generate some positive juju that would result in the emergency room doctors finding some random, simple answer that had been overlooked by everyone else for the past several weeks, send us home with a prescription or two for good measure, and we would be free to start the new year off with our family. In my mom-gut I knew that was wishful thinking.

My son has several other health problems and we are no strangers to the emergency room. That morning started off status quo: a quick stop at the triage station and sent back through a maze into a room while making small talk with a medical assistant. It was fairly quiet in the ER that morning, and the doctor rolled into our room in short order. After a brief review of Ben’s symptoms and a cursory examination, labs, an IV, and x-rays of the bum leg were ordered and the wait began.

Normally, once labs are drawn a nurse pokes her head in about a half hour later with a follow-up saying that everything looks pretty normal, but this time a whole entourage arrived. And they were nice. Too nice. Everything else faded from existence as the lead doctor told us about something called blasts in Ben’s blood and threw around words like “oncologist” and “bone marrow biopsy.” The staff positively doted on us, and I recoiled at every kind word and effort to provide comfort. These were not normal for a routine emergency room visit and I so desperately wanted this to be just routine.

A Physician’s Assistant arrived in our ER room, and his tone and demeanor were entirely different from the rest of the staff. Whereas for the emergency room staff this was an unusual case, for this PA, it was just what he did. It couldn’t have been more comforting. He laid out the outline of the day’s plans and made arrangements for Ben to be admitted to the oncology floor.

Arriving on the floor revived the rage in me that railed against this reality. This was not happening to us, childhood cancer only happens to other people! Once we got there, though, we found that this staff, who daily work with childhood cancer, were true superheroes and more than up to the task of caring not only for my son’s body, but our whole devastated family.

The bone marrow biopsy confirmed the news we dreaded and a whole new chapter of our lives began, one in which we never imagined ourselves participating. One that included blood transfusions, head shaving, and for Ben, over three years of chemotherapy.

Ben is now cancer-free, as is the case in his type of Leukemia about 90 percent of the time. Now, instead of focusing on saving our child’s life, we focus on raising awareness of childhood cancer. We realize that we’re the lucky ones, but that there are 10 percent who still don’t survive. We realize this because we met them in the treatment clinic, we became friends, and we grieve the recurrence and loss of life with those who started this path with us, just as hopeful and frightened as we were.

I like to consider myself empathetic and compassionate, seeking to put myself into the shoes of others. I’ve always considered childhood cancer a travesty, a cause worthy of support. Then it happened to my child, still just a preschooler. The travesty had landed on my sweet baby, the cause I considered worthy encompassed our whole lives. Suddenly it wasn’t just a St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital tearjerking commercial, it was our reality. There are no words to adequately convey the devastation of that reality.

What It Really Means To Love Like A Mother

Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects. Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love.

She stands in the kitchen looking at me. Her hair is stringy and needs to be brushed. She’s shifting from side to side uncomfortably, unsure of what I’m doing there or what to say.
Her brother overdosed last night. Her mother is my good friend, and the swirling vortex of grief and community sucked me into her kitchen, stocking the refrigerator and tidying the counters because that feels like something when there’s nothing.
“I don’t know how to make lasagna,” she says, glancing at the pan I’m sliding into the freezer.
“That’s okay, sweetheart. I can show you.” I begin to walk her through how to preheat the oven.
She interrupts me. “I don’t know what to do next.”
I pause, and look at the shattered girl standing next to me. “No one does, love. Sometimes, when really terrible things happen, nothing comes next. Sometimes we just sit together in the awfulness.”
I haven’t seen this lanky 22-year-old in years. I knew her when she was in grade school. As the years passed, she breezed in and out of my girls’ nights with her mom, and was off to college faster than any of us expected. She’s a woman I don’t know.
But I know her today. Today she’s a girl standing in the kitchen in search of a mother, and she found me.
I stroke her hair and hold her hand and we stand together unmoving as the oven beeps.

I started loving like a mother sixteen years ago

Simon was born after a day-long labor, angry, red and screaming. The doctor held him up and, for a split second, I thought he’d pulled the baby out from under the table, like a medical magician. I expected to feel overwhelmed by love and gratitude and motherhood, but I felt none of those things. I just felt tired.
That disconnected feeling lasted through the next day. The nurses would bring him to me and we’d say all the right things and go through the motions of nursing and burping and changing, but it felt like an elaborate game of make-believe. This wasn’t my baby. This wasn’t real.
In the pre-dawn hours of our last day, I was walking the halls with my IV pole, following my doctor’s orders to move my body. I was alone in the corridor and heard a baby in the nursery start to cry.
“That’s Simon,” I thought, and then instantly laughed at myself. How would I know Simon’s cry? I’d only just met him, after all. I kept walking.
On my next lap, I met a nurse pushing a bassinet out of the nursery.
“Mrs. Chapman! You’re up! I was just bringing your little boy to you. Simon was crying and I didn’t want him to wake the others. He needs his mommy.”
So the mother in me was born.
Many years and many children later, I often fool myself into thinking that the business of mothering is carpooling and filling out forms and sitting in the bleachers. I confuse mothering with picking up shoes, clearing the table, and shouting up the stairs that it’s time to go for real. I diminish mothering with prefixes and qualifiers: single, divorced, foster, and step.
I’m wrong. That’s just the daily noise of it.

Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects

Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love. It happens when she needs a safe place to land. It happens when he needs a champion.
I’ve mothered a 13-year-old boy who’d just come out to his deeply religious parents. It hadn’t gone well. He was worried he’d broken his family and hurt his mother and might never fit in. Simon dragged him off the bus and brought him home for mothering. I fed him meatloaf and mashed potatoes and reminded him his mother and father loved him beyond reason.
Sometimes parents get a little lost in the details, but that doesn’t make the love any less real.
I’ve mothered a four-year-old girl who was so banged up and broken from the three foster homes she’d been through already. She was awful. She locked my baby Caden in a box and shoved him under the bed. She set fires. It was everything I could do to advocate for her, pushing for therapy and medication. Truthfully, it was hard to like her, but for that chapter in our lives, she was mine to mother, and I loved her fiercely.

Loving like a mother isn’t unique to me

My children’s group leaders, teachers, stepmother, grandmothers, and aunts have loved them like mothers. Their friends’ mothers have set places at their dinner tables and offered a shoulder when they needed one. I’m quite sure I don’t know the half of how my children have benefitted from the rich love of other mothers. It’s a strange feeling to walk around grateful for something you know is happening but haven’t witnessed directly.
Loving like a mother isn’t bound by blood, paperwork, or gender. It isn’t qualified by the word that comes before the title. It isn’t found in limited quantities. Its presence doesn’t diminish the love of other mothers.
Loving like a mother is simply defined by the object of that love. When you love someone unconditionally, in the way they need to be loved in that moment, you love like a mother. And the world is richer for it.
This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, This Life in Progress.

4 Ways to Encourage Happiness in our Kids

Let’s face it, we all strive to reach the elusive state of happiness, and from time to time wonder, how do we get there?

Let’s face it, we all strive to reach the elusive state of happiness, and from time to time wonder, how do we get there? We tell our children to be happy. But how do you become happier?
Much is written on the subject of happiness, with motivational websites offering all kinds of tips and secrets. How can you know what really works, and what you should do?
Research by neuroscientists has now confirmed there are four things you can do:

1 | Ask yourself an important question

There are times when worry and anxiety take over. Our brain insists on worrying about something or being anxious. According to neuroscience, when we worry or are anxious, the brain responds because we are actually doing something.
Dr. Alex Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral” says:
In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.
But worry and anxiety are ultimately unpleasant long-term solutions to our problem. So what do scientists suggest we do?
Ask “What am I grateful for?”
Apparently, gratitude is awesome on more than a purely language level. It seems that thinking about things one is grateful for increases dopamine levels (feel-good hormone).
Again, Alex Korb:
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…
It might seem like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Some days can be that awful. Rest assured, it is the searching for something to be grateful for that activates the response you are after, even if you cannot think of a single thing that inspires gratitude.
How about thinking of, not what, but who you are grateful for? The act of telling someone you are grateful is as good as searching for something to be grateful for.
Remember, children learn by example; start telling them you are grateful they are in your life, and they will soon reciprocate.

2 | Label negative feelings

Sometimes kids feel yuck, but they cannot say what is wrong (some adults have the same problem). Work on trying to get them to label their feelings. Explain the different feelings, including, sadness, anxiousness, and so on. Understanding and putting a label on their feelings will help make them feel better.
Sound silly? It isn’t.
Alex Korb:
…in one MRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words”, participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.
Being mindful is about being in touch with your feelings, which includes labeling them. Once children are able to label emotions, they will feel better. It might take a bit of work, particularly for younger children, but it will work. Start today.

3 | Make a decision

You might remember wrestling over a problem for hours and hours, and once you made a decision, you instantly felt better. Apparently, this is no coincidence. Making decisions reduces anxiety and worry.
Research supports this:
Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
But what kind of decision do you make? A good enough decision is all that we should aim for. If you aim for perfection, you will only stress and overwhelm your brain, which is not what you want. Settle for the best decision and you will instantly reap the benefits.
Further benefits on decision making include a feeling of empowerment. Once we feel empowered, we feel good and happy.

4 | Touch someone you care about

Physical contact is important. Make sure you give your kids a hug, pat them on the back, or wrap your arms around them. Interactions with peers can also be more personal. There’s nothing wrong with giving your friends a pat on the back or a hug.
When you touch someone, you increase levels of oxytocin, a feel good hormone. It does not have to be full-on hugging. Shaking another person’s hand or a light touch on the shoulder are enough to produce the effect.
Don’t underestimate the power of touch. It is not given enough credit. Obviously, children need to be wary of being touched by strangers or in inappropriate ways by any adults. However, teaching about the importance of touch can also be an effective tool in setting boundaries and explaining about inappropriate touching.
The brain thrives on relationships. Exclusion from relationships has a negative effect on the brain and our happiness levels. It pays to teach our children to try and be kind to others around them and include them in their play.
What are you waiting for? Hug someone today. Remember eight hugs a day keep the blues away.