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The Sanctity of Opportunity

Like Lateefah Simon, I believe deeply in the sanctity of opportunity. I also believe in Tipping Point, and the opportunity that this amazing organization is creating. On this #GivingTuesday, I hope you will join me in fighting poverty by making a donation to Tipping Point Community.

Pre-ordering The New Adolescence is another way to give to Tipping Point. Order it for yourself, your friends, your adult children — anyone in your life that you know is interested in what is happening to adolescents today. I am donating 100% of my pre-order profits to Tipping Point Community. Learn more or pre-order here.

Located here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tipping Point is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in families. Tipping Point identifies and invests in the most effective anti-poverty solutions by funding a portfolio of poverty-fighting organizations. Tipping Point’s board covers 100% of operating costs, so every dollar donated goes where it’s needed most. 

 

Thursday Thought

Dinnertime conversation, I’ve found, goes really well when it’s structured. I’ve posed planned questions for my kids at dinnertime since they were in preschool, starting with “What are you grateful for”? and “What’s one good thing that happened today?” They are all teenagers now, and much better at conversation, but I’ve still found that they talk more openly when we start with a single question that everyone answers.
Conversations like the ones that ensue from the questions in this blog post help kids experience themselves as a part of something larger than themselves.

Celebrate “No”vember with 5 Research-Based Ways to Say No

“No”vember means it’s time to start saying no to the people, places, and things draining your energy.

‘Tis the season to practice saying no. Many of us frequently say “yes” to invitations, favors, and requests in order to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying “no,” according to the research of Columbia psychologists Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake.  But saying “yes” when we mean “no” is a recipe for overwhelm and exhaustion.

Fortunately, there are ways to make saying “no” feel less uncomfortable. Below are research-based strategies for saying “no” (without ruffling too many feathers) in five different situations.

#1: You’re asked to work late, but you had been planning to take some time for yourself, like by getting outside for a walk with your dog.

It’s hardest to decline a request when our reasons for doing so are vague, abstract, or seemingly unimportant—especially if we have to give our excuse face-to-face.

One helpful strategy can be to make our excuses more concrete. “I won’t get enough exercise today,” can feel like a weak explanation. But if you actually block off time for things like “hike with Buster” on your calendar, you’ll be able to clearly see when you do and don’t have time to work late. That way, you’ll be able to say with “no” with more conviction–for example by saying, “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”

As a bonus, when you have your most important priorities already blocked off on your calendar, you’ll be able to see when you actually do have time to help out. Offering those times to help out can make saying “no” even easier.

#2: A committee, team, or group asks you to take on more work because they are all “too busy.”

Saying “no” to a group can be especially hard, as we risk disappointing not just one person, but many.

However, we probably don’t need to worry as much as we do. Because of what psychologists sometimes call the “harshness bias,” we often believe that people may judge us more negatively than they actually do. The reality is that most people won’t think less of you if you say no. In fact, people tend to respect us more when we are able to set healthy limits.

How best to say no in this situation? Take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of the group, but in the long run it always feels better than being dumped on. Then be candid: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do more than my share this week.”

#3: You’ve been invited to a party and are really tempted to go, but you’re tired and suspect that you’re getting sick.

We human beings will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will be best for our future, especially when the present option is as pleasure-packed as a party.

We can make better decisions by visualizing the future as clearly as we can, rather than thinking about what we will miss out on now. Think about the last time you skipped sleep for a party. Visualize what happened in as much detail as possible. How did you feel the next day? Ask yourself: What will I look and feel like tomorrow morning if I don’t stay in and get some rest tonight?

Then in your response, summon your crystal ball: “Right now, in this moment, I want to go with you to that party more than you can imagine. But I know that I will regret it if I do. I can see my future if I go to that party, and I know I’ll be too tired to enjoy tomorrow if I go.”

#4: Your plate is already too full.

It’s counter-intuitive, but being short on time makes it even harder for us to manage the limited time we do have. That’s according to Harvard behavioral scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir. In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, they explain that the busier we get, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time saying “no” to the next request.

The solution? Practice your reason for saying no before you need it: “I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities this week.”

When we are stressed and tired, we tend to act habitually. Knowing this, we can train our brain to habitually say “no” rather than “yes” to requests by rehearsing a go-to response when people ask us for favors. Research shows that when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.

#5: Someone asks you to do them a little unethical favor, like cover for them while they skip work.

Americans tend to admire strong individuals who don’t cave in the face of peer pressure, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to reject an unethical request. In a series of studies published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists had participants ask strangers to perform unethical acts—such as to vandalize a library book by writing the word “pickle” in it.

Fully half of the people asked to do something unethical did it. To say no to a request like this is even more difficult when it comes from a friend. To do so, we need to put our values front and center, reminding ourselves—and our friends—what matters most.

In this situation, two things are important: 1) compassion for your friend’s troubles and 2) your own integrity. Express both of these. Say “no” clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words, if necessary: “I’m so sorry that you are struggling right now, and I wish I could help. But I can’t lie for you. Integrity is really important to me.”

“No” may be very difficult for your friend to hear—as difficult as it is for you to say. Stand your ground. Repeat your compassionate refusal as many times as you need to. By using the same words with each repetition, you indicate to your friend that you aren’t going to be influenced no matter how much pressure he or she lays on.

Gearing up for The New Adolescence

Hi friends,

I am gearing up for the February 2020 release of The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction. If you liked Raising Happiness, I think you’ll love this new book.

Bookselling is a word-of-mouth business, and The New Adolescence needs advocates to be successful. I am passionate about trying to get the word out about what we can do to help teenagers today, and I’m hoping you will help me. Here’s how:

Pre-order The New Adolescence

The most significant way you can help is to order the book now. Please order it for yourself, your friends, your adult children — anyone in your life that you know is interested in what is happening to adolescents today.

You’ve probably gotten these requests to pre-order from others before. We authors ask our readers to pre-order because your early vote for our work makes a huge difference. Your pre-order is a signal to booksellers that you believe in the importance of this book. And that is what will enable me to keep writing books that help make our world a better, happier place!

So I’m humbly asking you to pre-order The New Adolescence. I hope it will be enormously helpful, and interesting, for you to read. I believe in this work. I hope that together, we can get the word out.

Here’s another reason to order today

100% of my profits from The New Adolescence will fight poverty. I will donate everything I earn on these pre-orders to Tipping Point Community. Located here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tipping Point is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in families. Tipping Point identifies and invests in the most effective anti-poverty solutions by funding a portfolio of poverty-fighting organizations.

If you’ve already purchased The New Adolescenceclaim your pre-order bonuses here. I’ll send you bookplates, you can join a free coaching call, I might even speak at your kids’ school!

I can’t thank you enough for your support.

May you be happy,

Christine

15 Questions to Ask Kids at Dinner

Dinnertime conversation, I’ve found, goes really well when it’s structured. I’ve posed planned questions for my kids at dinnertime since they were in preschool, starting with “What are you grateful for”? and “What’s one good thing that happened today?” They are all teenagers now, and much better at conversation, but I’ve still found that they talk more openly when we start with a single question that everyone answers.

Conversations like the ones that ensue from the questions below help kids experience themselves as a part of something larger than themselves. This, in turn, is likely to make them more resilient, better adjusted, and more successful in school (as I wrote about here). So here’s an extra challenge: See if you can weave your own answers to the questions below into a narrative demonstrating that your family members have been through both good and bad times together, but through it all, you’ve stuck together.

  1. What are you especially grateful for right now?
  2. What is one kind thing that you did for someone else today?
  3. What is one kind thing that someone else did for you today?
  4. What are your favorite stories that grandpa/grandma told (or still tells)?
  5. For an adult: What did you have as a child that kids today don’t have? How was your life better? How was it worse?
  6. For a kid: What do you have that previous generations didn’t have? How would your life be better without it? How would it be worse?
  7. Who has taught you something important about life? What did they teach you?
  8. For adult: What was your favorite movie or book when you were my age?
  9. For kid: What was your favorite movie or book last year, and what is your favorite now?
  10. What was the hardest thing you went through/have gone through as a child? How did you overcome it?
  11. If you could know anything about our family history or about a relative who has passed away, what would you want to know?
  12. What is the most embarrassing thing your mother or father ever did to you?
  13. What three adjectives would your grandparents use to describe you?
  14. What is the best thing that your grandparents ever cooked? What about your parents?
  15. How are you most different from your parents and grandparents? How are you the same?

Some of these questions were adapted from the “Family Gathering” edition of Table Topics

If you like this post, I think you’ll love my book The New Adolescence. Kids today are growing up in an entirely new world, and this has huge implications for our parenting. I am passionate about getting the word out about how we can help teenagers today. Please help me spread the word!  Learn more here.

So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.

Thursday Thought

So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.

It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” — From Why I Aim to be a “Deeply Disciplined Half-Ass”

Why I Aim to be a “Deeply Disciplined Half-Ass”

Throughout my life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with hard work.

I credit both my past successes and my past anxiety problems to how hard I’ve worked, to the strive-y part of me that always wants to be right, always wants to be the best, that always wants to do everything correctly.

Ironically, I’ve worked hard to minimize this strive-y part of my personality. I’ve become quite wary of my past “blood, sweat, and tears” method for getting things done, in part because I tend to conflate perseverance with perfectionism. Fortunately, the two things are not the same! There’s nothing wrong with determination towards a worthy goal, especially when the mere pursuit of it— the process — is joyful. But perfectionism is the tendency to persevere well past the “good enough” stage, to persist even when an activity or project becomes joyless, painful, or counter-productive in some way.

There are a lot of problems with perfectionism. For starters, perfectionism is not a happiness habit. Perfectionists are prone to depression and severe anxiety, and they are more likely to commit suicide when things go wrong.

A lot of people incorrectly assume, as I used to, that perfectionism will propel them to the top of their field (or the top of their class or team). But perfectionism doesn’t contribute to success. On the contrary, perfectionism tends to detract from success. Here’s why:

  • Perfectionism creates a steady state of discontent fueled by a stream of negative emotions like fear, frustration, and disappointment. Negative emotions drain our energy and reduce our cognitive abilities.
  • Because failure is not an option for perfectionists, fear of failure becomes a driving force. All that fear diverts energy from more constructive things, making perfectionists less able to learn and be creative. Perfectionists expend a lot of energy on the things they are desperately trying to avoid: failure and the criticism they imagine it will create. Ironically, this preoccupation has been shown to undermine performance in sports, academics, and social situations.
  • Perfectionism — like all fixed-mindset thinking — keeps us from taking risks and embracing the challenge. Overcoming an obstacle is one of the best ways to go from being good at something to being great.
  • Perfectionism leads us to conceal our mistakes and avoid getting constructive feedback. In nearly every field — writing groups are the most obvious example here — group critique is a fast way to get better at something.

Perfectionism is NOT about setting high expectations or being successful in your endeavors. It is about being concerned about making mistakes and about worrying about what others think.

Perfectionism is not a happiness habit. Click To Tweet

About ten years ago, I was able to get my perfectionism under control, but the tendency (for me) is always there. Here’s the weirdest thing about me: At times, I’m a little anxious that I don’t feel guiltier for not continually striving to earn myself an A+ in every little realm of my life.

For this reason and many others, I am totally in love with Liz Gilbert’s book Big Magic. In it, she clarifies: Success and happiness aren’t just about not being perfectionistic. They come when we allow ourselves to be mediocre if that’s what it takes to complete a project or task. We don’t need to feel guilty about the areas in our lives where we’re half-assing it, she assures us when we prioritize completing tasks and projects over perfecting them. She explains:

The great American novelist Robert Stone once joked that he possessed the two worst qualities imaginable in a writer: He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want is to develop quite the opposite: You must learn how to become an intensely disciplined half-ass.

It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death.

“Become a deeply disciplined half-ass” is some of the best happiness advice I’ve ever heard. And in a world where people begin loads of projects but are too busy (or afraid of not being good enough) to complete much of anything, completion is a strategy that will put you ahead of the pack.

If you need more discipline, think about cultivating work rituals or developing some new habits. If you struggle with perfectionism, read Big Magic to become your most authentic, good-enough self.

Want more tips for conquering perfectionism, or developing discipline? You might like my free guide to saving time, How to Gain an Extra Day Each Week. This free eBook will leave you with practical results so that you can generate more time for the things that matter most to you.

Join Me this Weekend!

There’s still time to join us at a rejuvenating weekend retreat from November 1 to 3, 2019 at 1440 Multiversity, a beautiful 75-acre campus nestled in the California redwoods near Santa Cruz.

Are you longing for more meaningful work or more fulfilling relationships? Or just more time to focus on what matters most? (Or how about just more time in general?) I would love to help you find these things!

Why slow down and focus on yourself when you’re already so busy? Because we all need to carve out time not just to THINK about fulfilling our potential, but also to start CHANGING OUR LIVES.

We are going to keep this group small so that I can spend time coaching each of you individually. We’ll work with science-based practices that will help you identify hidden obstacles (we all have them) that are keeping you from leading your most joyful, productive, and meaningful life.

If you haven’t been to 1440 before, you are in for a treat. We’ll be able to take advantage of all that this beautiful new retreat center has to offer, including locally sourced, seasonal meals, daily meditation and yoga classes, and a well-appointed fitness center.

Space is limited; we anticipate that this retreat will fill up fast.

Register or learn more here.

Dear Christine: My Friend Has Cancer. What Should I Say?

Dear Christine,

One of my best friends was just diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. She has two little kids, a loving husband, and a full-time job. I’m not sure what to do or say or how I can help—my instinct is to jump in and start problem-solving. Does she have the best doctor? Can she really afford to take time off of work? I know she knows that this could be terminal. She is only 47 years old.

I know your close friend recently went through something similar. Please just tell me what to do.

—Scared and Sad

Dear Scared and Sad,

My friend, Susie Rinehart, would find it kind of funny that you are asking me what to do when a friend has a potentially terminal illness. Why? Because I initially handled her diagnosis so bizarrely.

Susie and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Before she found out that she had a big brainstem tumor, we’d been talking on the phone a lot about her desire to write a book. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the months before her diagnosis, we’d clocked a dozen or more hours gabbing like middle schoolers in the 1980s (that is to say, endlessly on the phone, she in Colorado and I in California). I was trying to help her work out the particulars of her novel. Or of her fictionalized memoir. Or maybe it was meant to be a series of letters to her daughter. Or self-help book for young women in their 20s.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t know what form the book was going to take. But we did know that Susie had an important book in her.

When she found out that she had a tumor wrapped around her brainstem—one that might not be operable and could possibly maim or kill her in as little as three months—she called me. When I didn’t pick up, she left me a message explaining that they’d finally figured out why she’d been having such severe headaches for the past couple of years: It was a massive, tentacled tumor. They were interviewing surgeons. A mutual friend, himself a neurosurgeon, was helping Susie find the best of the best. It was a long road ahead.

I was not as stunned or worried as you’d think I’d be upon learning that one of my dearest friends had a serious illness. In addition to talking about the book, we’d also been talking about her headaches a lot. Two mysteries had been solved!

So instead of thinking through how one might appropriately respond to such news, I immediately called her back and left a long message:

Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that you have a tumor in your neck, but I’m so happy they’ve figured out what’s been causing your headaches! That’s so great. And I’m glad you are taking the time to find the best surgeon ever. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help. And, also, not to be Pollyannaish about the ordeal that is surely ahead, but SUSIE! THIS IS YOUR BOOK!! You are going to write a memoir about this experience!!

My husband, Mark, overheard me leave that message back to her. After I told Mark what was going on, he said something like: “She just told you that she has brain cancer, and you told her ‘Congratulations! This is going to make for a great book!’ Call her back right now. Maybe you can stop her from listening to that message.”

In my next message, I said little more than, “I am such a dumbass.”

Coincidentally, a few months later, I was having lunch with a new friend, Kelsey Crowe, who was just launching her very helpful and very funny book, There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.

Kelsey confirmed that I had not responded at all appropriately to Susie’s diagnosis. She gave me a few pointers for the next time something awful happens to someone I love. So here are few things I’ve learned from both Susie and Kelsey:

1. Say something

While Kelsey admitted that what I chose to say to Susie was about the worst she’d ever heard, she was clear that saying something is always better than saying nothing. (But you might need to apologize for being a dumbass, if you are like me.)

A lot of people don’t know what to say when something awful befalls a friend or colleague, and so they don’t say anything at all. It’s terrible for people who are going through something difficult when they feel like people are avoiding them. Here are some things Kelsey suggests:

  • “I am sorry you are going through this.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you are going through. What’s that like for you?”
  • “I want you to know I am here for you if there is anything I can do.”
  • “You don’t look sick; how are you actually doing?”
  • “How are you feeling today?”
  • “I have seen you manage really tough things in the past and I know that you can get through this.”

2. Offer support

Your friend’s diagnosis is an opportunity for you to reach out in whatever way you can. It’s an opportunity to connect, to offer love, and to show compassion. Your relationship will naturally deepen when you offer support, especially if you don’t expect anything in return.

Doing something, even something small, is better than avoiding the situation or the person, which will only make them feel more alone. Delivering a casserole might seem a little retro, but keeping the kids fed and the family trains running is hard if you’re not feeling well (and nothing says I love you like lasagna).

If you don’t cook or can’t reliably deliver things like meals, don’t feel compelled to sign up for that type of support. Maybe send an inspirational poem if that’s more your thing. Or perhaps you can easily drive the carpool for your friend, or be there to hold her hand during chemotherapy or treatments. Consider doing the thing that will bring you personally the most joy, or create the most connection.

3. Hold space for the scary, awful, unfairness of it all

Your friend’s life may have just fallen apart. There’s probably zero chance that she’s not thinking about the fact that she might die, leaving her young children without a mother. Those are some really hard thoughts to be alone with all the time.

So even though our first impulse is often to cheer someone up, or to offer platitudes like, “God never gives us something we can’t handle,” or to find a silver lining, sometimes optimism can make a sick person feel more alone and afraid. We can be hopeful that treatments will work and that everything will be okay in the end—and at the same time we can acknowledge the scary, awful, unfair outcomes that are also a possibility. Specifically, we can hold a place for them to say the unimaginable:

  • “I might die.”
  • “My children might grow up without a mother.”
  • “Everything has fallen apart.”

Because Susie encouraged me to do this with another friend who had been diagnosed with possibly-fatal cancer, I started by telling him that I was there for him if he wanted to talk about all the dark things that were going through his head. I said, “I don’t believe you are going to jinx yourself if we talk about what you are most afraid of. Sometimes it can help to speak out loud about the worst-case scenarios.” Those conversations were brief—like a door we barely opened and barely peeked through—but they were among the most moving and heartfelt conversations I’ve ever had in my life, with anyone.

Your friend is lucky to have you, Scared and Sad. Not because you’re ready to jump in and start problem solving (please don’t do that), but because you can see how scary this situation is for her. You can see that her whole life has just been dumped upside down—that she’s lost a lot already, and she is likely sad about it, too. Your friend is not alone in her fear or her grief, thank goodness.

Fortunately, Susie forgave me for my initial response, because that’s the kind of friend she is. And, also, she did write a book about her experience. It’s called Fierce Joy, and I hope you’ll read it.

Warmly,
Christine

In “Dear Christine,” sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

How to Get Your Kid to Tell You Everything

Parents are always asking me how to get their kids to talk to them more (especially the parents of boys), how to get kids to say what really happened at school during the day. We parents want information! We feel that in exchange for our nurturance and worry and everything we did to get them ready for school, we should at least get to know what’s happening there, and in their lives!

So how can we get more than a “fine” out of our kids when we ask them “How was school?” Here are some ideas.

 1. Set aside 10 minutes a day to be utterly present.

What (or whether) kids choose to share with us has a lot to do with their personality, of course. But a factor that is more within our control is our connection with them. We can lay a foundation of trust and connection using what my kids called “special time” when they were little. Every day for at least 10 minutes, I try to do something with each of my kids that they choose. When they were younger, it often meant playing a game, reading together on the couch, or walking the dog.  Now that they are teenagers, it’s covert time. One of them might linger at the dinner table for a few minutes. Another might hint that they’d like help making breakfast. Or someone might consent to walking the dog with me. Last night my 17-year-old stepson wandered into our bedroom where my husband and I were reading and heaved himself onto our bed; he was procrastinating, of course, but he also was thrilled to have me tickle his back tickled like I used to do when he was little. While they might not consider any of these moments “special time,” like they used to, I do. I put down my phone or my reading or whatever else I was doing and I pay attention.

This may sound easy, but for me, it’s not; in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, 10 or 20 minutes per kid can be hard to find. That may seem ridiculous to you—I spend longer doing things that are much less important everyday—but between homework and dinnertime and bedtime giving kids our undivided attention every day can be hard.

Oh, and also there’s the fact that, at least when my kids were little, I often didn’t actually want to do what the kids wanted to do.

For example, one of my daughters used to read dystopian and romance novels voraciously, and a favorite activity is to “fan girl” the authors. When I had one-on-one time with her, she wanted to tell me in excruciating detail about what she was reading. It sounds like a fun book club, I know, but it really wasn’t. Too much blow-by-blow detail.

My instinct was to roll my eyes and not hang out with her while she wrote a letter to John Greene. But when I managed to be present with her in all her fan-girl glory, not judging the or rejecting her current passion, she felt more connected to me, and vice versa. She learned that she could trust me with her inner world.

Moreover, when I consistently gave her this “special time” — and when I set aside my phone or my work or my sleep for her now — she feels secure in the knowledge that she is one of my highest priorities, and that she can count on me to be there for her. It is during this special time that she is most likely to open up and tell me about her life at school, and in general.

2. Be honest about why you want to know about your kids’ day.

Why is it so important to you that you know what is happening at school? There are legitimate reasons to want to know, and reasons that push kids away.

Here’s the thing: Our kids’ lives are not our lives, and we are not entitled to emotional access to their inner or social worlds. No matter how beautiful or painful things might be for them, it is their journey, not ours. We are support along their journey, but we aren’t heroes in their stories. They are the heroes. We might be desperately curious about what is happening with them, but their lives are still their lives, which they can choose to share—or not.

A kid’s primary goal in life is to achieve belonging and significance. (Read more about this in Amy McCready’s fantastic book, The “Me Me Me” Epidemic.) Actually, it is a human being’s primary goal to achieve belonging and significance. This is one reason that we parents want all the gory details of our children’s lives at school. We want to know that we belong in our children’s lives, that our role is significant.

But when we use our children to generate our own sense of belonging and significance, kids can smell our neediness a million miles away. Parental insecurity and anxiety is a heavy burden for a child or a teen to bear, and most kids (people!) will avoid it like the plague. Our kids can only truly connect with us when we don’t depend on them for our own sense of self or significance. This bears repeating: Our kids can’t really connect with us when our own fulfillment, happiness, or identity depends on them or what they do.

We can, however, ask our kids about their day as a way to fulfill their need for connection, belonging, and significance. We can act as curious-but-neutral witnesses to the beautiful mess of their lives. Ultimately, as they grow to trust our motivations, we become a place where our children can share even their most vulnerable feelings without also fearing how we will react.

3. Ask them about the worst part of their day.

Watch for the time and place when your child feels safe and has the energy to reveal him or herself to you. Hint: It probably isn’t when they, or you, walk in the door after school or work. Most kids need time to rest and make the transition from school to home. And most kids don’t want an audience of siblings, or the carpool.

When everyone is ready (though I recommend not opening this can of worms at bedtime), ask them about the part of their day that was least satisfying. I might say something like, “What was the most stressful part of school today?” Or “Was there a time today when you felt nervous or anxious or afraid?” 

We ask kids this not because we want the dirt or the gossip or because we delight in playground or high school drama. Do not ask this question until you are ready and able to stay neutral and unemotional. Don’t ask this if you are inclined to jump in and solve all their problems for them.

Ask only when you are able to accept their uncomfortable emotions. Acceptance means that you hear what is going on without asking why they feel the way they do, without offering a judgement about anyone or anything they are describing to you.

Ask only when you are able to label and validate their emotions, when you are able to neutrally help them understand what exactly they are feeling, and where in their body that feeling lives.

Why ask about the negative rather than the positive? Because, as Dr. Shefali writes in Out of Control,

Inability to sit in the pain of life, whether that of our child or ourselves, shortchanges us, since only to the degree we can be with pain are we also able to experience the unbridled joy of life. In other words, it’s our ability to experience the burning sting of our pain, without assuaging it, that empowers us to receive joy in all its magnificence. 

We want kids to learn that all feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, are okay. Eventually, we can help kids understand how their emotions often drive their behavior—and that while all emotions are okay, all behavior is not equally effective in helping them reach their goals.

So why, in the end, do ask them how their day was?

Because we want to be an unconditionally loving place in our kids’ lives, where they will always be able to touch their own significance and feel their own belonging. We want to be the place where they can unburden themselves from life’s difficulties—so that, ultimately, they are able to receive life’s beauty, in all its magnificence.