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A Family Guide for Surviving the Summer

While not all of summer is destined to feel like a day at the beach, setting routines and expectations for the season can make it more manageable and enjoyable for the whole family.

I don’t know about you, but I fantasize all year about the leisure that summer will bring. And then summer arrives, and instead of cocktails at sunset and naps at noon, I find that the potential for chaos has skyrocketed.

So over the years, as I’ve sought to make my summers less chaotic and more joyful, I’ve developed a three-step guide for setting my family up for success. I hope you will find it helpful!

1. Create new routines for summer.

The familiar routines of the school year will not survive even the first day of summer, like it or not, even if our adult work schedules don’t change in the least. But we human beings need routines and habits, or we get stressed. Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals and habits are a primary way to manage stress. The fast-paced world we live in can feel quite unpredictable, but our daily rituals can help us feel more in control, often without us ever realizing it.

Before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. Click To Tweet

So before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. For starters, this means redefining bedtimes and mealtimes, which all get moved later in our household. I change my exercise routine to maximize the time I spend outside and my morning routine, because I have more time to meditate.

The summer is prime time for more digital detox. We don’t relax tech rules for our kids over the summer, we step them up. If we don’t designate device- and social media-free time for all family members, I’ve found my kids walk around in a screen-stoned stupor. Even a few minutes on social media and they suddenly find it impossible to do anything productive, creative or truly restful. And we parents also easily get sucked into compulsively checking our devices while we are trying to “work” from the beach, playground or camp pick up.

To counter the siren song of our phones, we designate specific times and places we’ll spend without devices each day (always dinnertime, and, for the kids, throughout most of the day as well); each week (we try to have technology-free Sundays); and each month (we do a full digital detox when we are on vacation together).

The key, I’ve found, is to actually spell out the new routines and expectations for kids.

2. Create a family calendar.

Maybe this is utterly obvious, but everything is calmer if things feel predictable. We have four kids with four different camp and summer schedules, so it’s helpful for everyone to be able to track everyone else’s whereabouts. Instead of relying on our complicated online calendar – which I love and couldn’t live without, but I am the only one in our family who looks at it consistently – one of my teenage daughters created an adorable top-level calendar in a Google spreadsheet that we print out and tape to the refrigerator. We also have the summer chore rotation on this printout. This calendar has all family events, such as birthdays and vacations, everyone’s camp schedules, major events like tournaments and my work travel schedule.

3. Raise expectations regarding chores and responsibilities.

Kids have more time on their hands over the summer, which means that they have more time to help out around the house.

We don’t tie their allowance to their regular household responsibilities or weekly chores, and we don’t pay them extra over the summer when they are doing more to help out. We know this is controversial; most parents want kids to understand that in the real world, they only get paid when they work. But in households, this just isn’t true: Parents don’t get paid for the household chores they do.

We’ve had to spell this out for our kids, repeatedly. The lawn needs mowing more often in the summer, and Dad doesn’t get paid a dime to do it. This week, in addition to my paid work, I’ll take all the kids to their annual exams at the doctor’s office; I’ll help them label all their clothes for camp; I’ll purchase and wrap a lot of graduation gifts. I’m not getting paid to do any of these things, even if I don’t feel like doing them. And that’s OK. We don’t need to love every single thing we do every single minute of every day, so long as we can see the bigger picture – the bigger reward. Being in a big, stable, high functioning family is awesome. And it requires a lot of work. Families are built on mutual obligations – the ways that we help and nurture each other – not paid work.

Kids are happier and more confident when they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. Giving them real responsibilities around the house fuels an intrinsic sense of place and belonging. Research shows that kids who do unpaid chores are happier and have a higher sense of self-worth. But when we pay kids to play a role in the family, we unwittingly kill their intrinsic motivation by providing a flashy external motivator: money. They often start to see themselves more like household employees – and quit their “jobs” when their allowance is no longer enough to motivate them.

Our summer routines, calendars peppered with vacation days, and the increased help around the house (for those of us with kids older than 8 or 9) can mean that there actually is more time for leisure and rest this summer. Perhaps tonight I’ll meet my husband for a sunset cocktail while one kid preps dinner and another mows the lawn. Cheers to making this the best summer yet!

Originally posted on US News & World Report, June 2017

This is What I Hope I’ve Taught You

This week, my sweet Fiona graduates from high school.

As longtime readers of my blog know, Fiona went to a boarding high school. Having her leave home four years early was very hard for me at first; truly, there were a few weeks there when I thought I would never stop crying. Anyhoo, before Fiona left, I attempted to write down everything I’d hoped I’d taught her during her childhood. (I did start by thinking it would be a 5 or maybe 7 item listicle; clearly, I had issues letting go because the list stretched on and on.) In honor of her graduation, here is the original list. Fiona, CONGRATULATIONS! Thank you for letting me blog about you: You are a joy and an inspiration.

1. Make kindness the central theme of your life. Look for opportunities to show compassion and generosity. Don’t be tricked into thinking that happiness will come from getting what you want; happiness comes from giving, not getting. When you’re feeling down, help someone else.

2. Tolerate discomfort. Have the difficult conversations. Let yourself truly notice when other people are suffering. Do the right thing even when the right thing is hard. You are strong enough.

3. Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

4. Let go of what other people think of you. Another person’s opinion of you is their business, not yours. Great leaders are often criticized. Especially ignore critics who seem delighted when you stumble.

5. Invite constructive criticism from the people who want the best for you. Other people offer us a different view; we need their broader perspective to grow and improve.

6. Accept that well-meaning and loving people will sometimes give you bad advice. You’ll know when something isn’t right for you because you’ll feel it in your body. Our unconscious mind is our best source of intelligence, communicating through intuition and bodily sensations, not words. Learn how to read your “body compass.”

7. Know the difference between legitimate and not-helpful fear. Legitimate fear, like terror in the presence of a dangerous person, makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. When you feel legitimate fear, run like the wind. Not-helpful fear, on the other hand, makes us hesitate rather than bolt. (Like when we are afraid of looking stupid and so don’t ask an important question.) Ignore your hesitation. As Maria Shriver wrote in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring … Whatever you’re afraid of–that is the very thing you should try to do.”

Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly. Click To Tweet

8. Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly.

9. When you hurt someone, apologize. Even if you didn’t intend to hurt that person, or you think they are over-reacting.

10. Look people in the eye. Chat with people in elevators and in line at the store. Look up. Smile.

11. Develop a strong handshake. Try to connect with people in your first interaction. Let them feel your delight in them (even if you are scared to death).

12. Hug people liberally. Even people you’ve just met. People are stressed. They need more love. Don’t withhold it.

13. Don’t compare yourself to others. When we get caught in a web of thinking that we are better or worse than others, we usually end up depressed, anxious, and insecure. If you notice that you are comparing yourself to others, try asking yourself these questions: What do I appreciate about those people? How can I connect with or learn from them? How can I add value to their lives?

14. Develop good habits; you won’t need so much willpower that way.

15. Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes, even if everyone else is doing it. High heels are like cigarettes; they are bad for your health. More than that, they get you in the habit of ignoring pain in order to look good to others, which is never a good idea.

16. Let yourself feel what you feel. When we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed), we live in a world that offers many ways to numb those negative feelings—to not really feel them. But to honestly feel the positive things in life—to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude—we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. Practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

17. Train your brain to see the positive in your life by keeping a gratitude journal.

18. Don’t believe everything you think. If a thought is stressing you out, it is probably untrue.

19. If you feel overwhelmed, unplug. Create times and places in your life every single day where you are free from technology.

20. Make your bed, and keep your room clean. The state of your bed is the state of your head. The outside tends to match the inside.

21. Know when and how to say “no.” That way, you’ll feel more joy when you say “yes.”

22. Chase meaning, not happiness. What purpose or value does your work and your passion have for other people? If you don’t know, find out.

23. Focus on the journey, not the achievement. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, or saving your happiness for when you get where you are going, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

24. Remember that talents are actually skills. Talent” comes from hard work, passion, and great coaching or teaching.

25. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone does something hurtful or annoying, consider that it isn’t about you. Practice compassion and empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of others.

26. Make mistakes. In the classroom, in your relationships, on the athletic field, at parties, at home. We learn stuff from our mistakes that we couldn’t learn any other way.

27. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Self-criticism makes us depressed, and much more likely to make the same mistake again. Instead, remind yourself that mistakes make us human. Feel compassion for your suffering. It can feel really awful to make a mistake. It’s okay to feel awful—to feel frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, disappointed, etc. You can handle these feelings.

28. Repair your mistakes. Use them to become a better person.

29. Love what is. Wishing to be older or younger, wanting other people to be different than they are, wanting it to be sunny when it is raining—this is fighting with reality, and it is a futile and frustrating pastime.

30. If you are tired, rest. Working 24/7 will get you nowhere fast. (Trust me, I’ve tried this.)

31. Remind yourself that more is not necessarily better. Do this especially if you are worried that you won’t have enough of something, if you feel like you don’t have as much as others, or if you are feeling ungenerous with your belongings or your time. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more likes on Instagram, more clothes, more popular or important friends, more prestigious schools. But as they accumulate more, odds are, they’ll just want more! True abundance is not a quantity of something; it is a quality of life, a feeling of sufficiency. When we step back from the idea that more might be better, often we see that we have enough to share.

32. Surround yourself with people and situations that make you laugh uncontrollably. Laughter is heaven on earth.

My children and stepchildren

How Being a Stepmom Makes Me a Better Parent

Imagine, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, what it must be like to be one of my children. As a  professional advice giver, I’m — let’s just be honest — bossy. I have an opinion (albeit science-based) about everything. When people (not my children) seek out my coaching, wanting guidance for improving their happiness, their effectiveness at work, or their parenting, I’m more than happy to tell them not just what I think but what, specifically, to do.

So it hasn’t been easy to be Molly or Fiona, the guinea pigs on which I’ve tested all of my science-based parenting advice since not long after I gave birth to them. I’ve done my best to arm them with instructions for every possible situation. Once, dropping my kids off at sleepaway camp for the first time, I found myself suggesting to a very nervous Fiona a specific way to breathe and specific things she might think about to distract her from her anxiety. I had become so controlling that I was telling her how to breathe and exactly what to think.

The irony, of course, is that trying to control your children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive.

That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents — those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it — don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents, like me, tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

Enter my awesome stepchildren. They’ve been in my life for a decade. I’ve loved and supported them, but at first from a distance — we didn’t really live together until about five years ago. It isn’t that I haven’t disciplined them, or asked them to help out around the house, or offered an unpopular opinion. I have. I’ve taken away devices, made and enforced rules, helped them address thank-you notes, just like I do with Molly and Fiona.

But there is a major difference between the way that I parent my stepchildren and the way that I parent Molly and Fiona. Mainly, I’m just not as bossy. I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue when they do something that I find irritating.

I can more easily be supportive of them without being attached to the outcome; I can make a suggestion without caring whether or not it is taken. Instead of bossing my stepchildren around, expecting them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it, I choose my requests carefully and try to voice them respectfully.

Take the time that I had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who was at the time in 9th grade, and Molly, then in 6th grade, some new study skills. Unconsciously, I approached the kids differently. I was very directive with Molly, basically telling her what she had to do and then sitting next to her while she tried out my suggestions, correcting her every move. The following day, she was supposed to study on her own (using the new technique I’d given her). She tried, for a little while. And then, just like the kids in Grolnick’s studies, she got frustrated and gave up.

I didn’t realize my error with Molly until a few days later when Macie needed help studying for a test. I offered to teach her some study skills but was clear that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t want my help. I was delighted when she took me up on my offer. But I wasn’t as intent on having her put my tips to use.

I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue. Click To Tweet

My emotional stance in these two situations was completely different. With Molly, I was an anxious mom, worried about her school performance. With Macie, I was just there, loving the opportunity to teach her something that might be useful.

It dawned on me that I have been much more respectful of my stepchildren’s autonomy. I can support them without mistakenly thinking that their competence is my competence. I don’t worry (or even think) about how their successes or failures might reflect on me.

It is totally normal for parents to feel like they have more skin in the game with their biological children than stepchildren; psychologists call this tendency “ego-involvement.” In her wonderful book Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids, Grolnick writes,

Ego-involvement occurs when our protective and loving hardwiring collides with the competition in our children’s lives, prompting us wrap our own self-esteem around our children’s achievement. That gives us our own stake in how well our child performs.

However normal it may be, my “ego-involvement” wasn’t helping anyone; it may have actually been making Molly and Fiona less successful in their endeavors. Noticing how differently I was behaving with my stepchildren was a giant wake-up call. I needed to be more supportive of Molly and Fiona without being intrusive, to make requests without being so bossy.

After the study skills incident, I resolved to coach my children more like I coach my clients: gently, and without ego-attachment. Instead of dictating what I want when I want it (“Put that freaking device down! You should be helping me with dinner! Start peeling the carrots NOW!”), I’ve returned to the “ERN” approach I devised in Raising Happiness:

  1. Empathize. “I know you’d rather be looking at Snapchat than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
  2. Provide Rationale. “I do need some help with dinner, because we don’t have much time before we need to leave for your performance.”
  3. Use Non-controlling language — don’t dictate or boss kids around. This one is hard for me. Asking questions helps, as in: “Would you rather peel carrots or set the table? Either would be super helpful right now.” I don’t let myself say “should,” “have to,” or “I want you to,” which is what Grolnick sees as the epitome of controlling language.

None of this is about lowering my standards or relaxing rules; my children will still tell you that I’m the strictest parent on the block. But providing kids with high expectations and lots of structure is very different than being bossy and dictatorial.

As I’ve made an effort to be less controlling, my connections with my children have instantly deepened. Why? Jess Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”

So on this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful for my connections to my four children, all of whom I love with all my heart. And right now I’m especially grateful for my beautiful stepchildren. They have given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to love without the sticky attachment of my ego, and that is truly the sweet spot of motherhood.

Why Parents Aren’t Happy

We say [‘I’m SO BUSY’] to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.”–Wayne Muller

This video is the 3rd in a series about being happier as a parent from the Raising Happiness Homestudy. Watch the rest of the videos here.


Video Notes:

We can’t do our best raising our children without being happy, and we can’t be happy if we are too busy to enjoy life. So this week our practice is to focus on cutting back and saying no.

(1) First, take notice:

  • What types of activities routinely make you feel “crazybusy”?
  • What types of things are you doing out of obligation or routine, that you feel you should do, but that don’t bring you (or your kids) joy?
  • What do you do because you are afraid of missing out?
  • What “extras” do you have in your life that you wouldn’t miss if you took them out?

(2) Get out your axe. Start systematically pulling things off your calendar.

(3) Plan for the future.

  • Make rules for yourself so you don’t end up back where you started, e.g., no email after 9:00 pm.
  • Get support from your friends, your own parents, or your spouse.
  • Script and practice saying no.
  • Clear roadblocks. Is there someone in your life whose expectations might make your life more difficult? Who is imposing “should dos”? Talk with them directly about your happiness and the happiness of your children. Then listen to yourself, not them.

audio_icon-100x100If you would like to download the audio version of this video to listen to in your car or on the go, click the link below.
DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO VERSION HERE.


This post is taken from “The Raising Happiness Homestudy,” an online course I created as a companion to my book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. I’m sharing one “class” from this online course per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this Raising Happiness Homestudy tag. Enjoy!

Want to Feel Appreciated on Mother’s Day?

Here’s an icky confession: I used to dread Mother’s Day.

When I first became a mother, the holiday somehow left me feeling unappreciated. I tended to get in a funk, and not out of grief or some sort of well-defined pain — I can only imagine how hard Mother’s Day must be for someone who has lost their mother. I felt bad in a bratty way, like a toddler who is pissed that she’s not getting what she wants. The worst version of myself has typically made her appearance, ironically, on the day that we were supposed to be celebrating my best, most beloved, self.

What is it that left me so resentful on Mother’s Day? What did I want so much that I wasn’t getting?

Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was about gratitude. I wanted to be appreciated on Mother’s Day in the way that we used to show appreciation to my mother. Research shows that when we express gratitude in our relationships, we become more attuned to our family member’s efforts on our behalf. I was hoping for a little more attunement to all the work I do as a mom — mostly from my husband, but also the kids.

Until last year, I always dreaded — no, hated — Mother’s Day. Click To Tweet

At least the way I remember it (I’m a little afraid to ask my mom for verification; it just now occurred to me that my memory is probably a little rosy), we’d bring my mom breakfast in bed, showering her with homemade cards and gifts. My dad would give my mom a funny card and a gift that he’d bought. We’d take a family bike ride on the path around St. Mary’s College, with a picnic that my dad and I packed with help from the deli at Black’s Market. Norman Rockwell could’ve painted us.

None of that actually seems hard to recreate, but for the love of God my family has never even come close. The worst Mother’s Day I ever had was the year that I lowered my expectations and then laid them out clearly for my husband. “I’m fine with no gifts,” I explained, “So long as there are cards and a family activity.” This did not happen. 

For the record, three of the four children made me BEAUTIFUL, heartfelt Mother’s Day cards. They were practically set to music they were so thoughtful and moving.

But that was not enough for me.

Expectations, even low ones, are a tricky thing. Unfulfilled, they set us up to ruin what is actually happening by ruminating over what we think ought to be happening. Painful thoughts — How could he not do this for me given all I do for this family??! Does he not appreciate me at all? — start to loop endlessly, triggering waves of disappointment.

So how could I, once and for all, make Mother’s Day different? I had already lowered my expectations to no material gifts, and that didn’t help me much; I’m not sure I can lower them to nothing. In past years, I’ve made a massive effort to focus on myself less by helping others, but ultimately, even that didn’t really prevent me from feeling unappreciated myself. I felt entitled to a little gratitude, dammit.

(Let’s not miss the irony here: Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. Rarely do we attract the opposite of what we feel. Just as we don’t foster other people’s love by lashing out at them, my unbridled sense of entitlement wasn’t exactly generating a mountain of appreciation.)

Emotional traps like this — obsessing over my feelings of unmet expectations — are usually triggered by a mistaken belief. So where was the error in my thinking?

I really was feeling unappreciated by my husband, Mark. I felt like I sacrificed more for our family and children, and that he should recognize and feel grateful for that. I held a deep seated conviction that I gave more. I spent more time doing the hardest parenting work, creating and enforcing structure and discipline, managing the near-constant drama of life with three teenage girls and an active adolescent boy.

Now, I should mention that, according to research, I am not alone in believing that I do more for our family than Mark — but I might not be correct. When researchers add up the percent of work each person in a couple says he or she does, they consistently find that the total ends up being more than 100 percent. So if a mom says she does 65 percent of the household work, and her husband says he contributes a solid 50 percent . . . there is a 15 percent error in there somewhere. Perhaps this was the heart of my mistaken belief?

My Mother’s Day funk did grow out of my belief that I do and sacrifice more for our family than my husband does. And weirdly, I somehow thought that this seemingly massive imbalance could be righted through a Mother’s Day display of profound appreciation.

This is funny to me now, because clearly even the most magical Mother’s Day outing would not dissolve my resentment. We needed to deal with the source of my bitterness.

“We need counseling,” I announced to Mark. I sat down to work through what I wanted help resolving. What did I want Mark to do differently?

What I found, when I really thought hard about it, was that my assumptions about our division of labor were blatantly untrue. Believe me, I was shocked by this revelation. But it turned out that I had loads of evidence suggesting I don’t do more for our family than Mark.

True, I do the bulk of the emotional labor. But he does nearly all the house and garden maintenance. We spend about the same amount of time in the car driving kids around. I plan our meals and cook; he shops and cleans up. We’ve got a division of labor where he does the things he likes to do best (like mowing the lawn) while I get to do the things that I love to do (like talking to the kids about their feelings). I am lucky to have a truly equal partnership.

I was harboring resentment out of habit rather than reality.

At times, being a mother can feel so overwhelming; when the kids were little, I sometimes felt a little victimized by it all, a little trapped by the sheer magnitude of the way they’d taken over my life. My husband simply couldn’t do many of the things that I was doing. Pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding bred loads of occasions when only mama would do. My family could never repay me for the sacrifices I’d made for them — but they could, and should, show me a little gratitude for it. Hence my feelings of entitlement to a little Mother’s Day appreciation.

Billy Collin’s wrote a poem about this. In it, Collins recounts the thousands of meals his mom made him, and the good education she provided, and all the other zillions of things she did for him. In return he gave her . . . a lanyard he made at camp. Collins concludes:

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

Now, this is what I wish to tell my children and husband both: We are even, with or without lanyards and family outings on Mother’s Day.

Because I am not trapped. I have not been victimized. There is no need for reparation. You don’t owe me a darn thing, even gratitude. I don’t have to do any of the many things I do for you or our family. I choose to do them. I do them because I love each of you so very much. Moreover, this love that I feel for you is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. It is a great joy to be a mother in this family, your family. I’m deeply, profoundly grateful for all we are and all we have — together.

You Spot It, You Got It

The other night, I did something that I am not proud of.

We have four teenagers, so dinnertime is never dull, but this particular evening it was full chaos. One of our kids had not eaten much. My husband, Mark, really wanted one of our kids to eat more, and so he offered a bribe/threat: You can’t go hang out with your friends until you finish everything on your plate.

A power struggle unfolded, complete with sibling cheering sections. I tried to shut it all down using dramatic non-verbal cues. This was not what we agreed to do when a kid doesn’t eat well, I screamed silently with my supercharged glares.

I was not successful. The picky eater ate what was required in order to go hang out in the neighborhood.

Although I was obviously right (chuckle) in my frustration–because bribing kids can work in the short run, but research clearly demonstrates that it backfires in the long run–this post is not about how right I was. It’s about how I mishandled this situation because I didn’t see what it was really about.

The next night, I intended to calmly raise the issue so that we could prevent similar dinnertime spectacles in the future. I knew that I couldn’t make accusations or do anything that might make Mark defensive, because people don’t learn well when they are being criticized.

Let the record show that I was not even remotely uncritical.

I opened with something like “How could you have been so stupid?”

And then I started to rant.

“Haven’t we talked about that situation a million times? We have a freaking PLAN for this!! We’ve AGREED what we will do about picky eating!! Why can’t you follow through with the plan? Why can’t you understand how important it is to be consistent?” He responded calmly. I rolled my eyes with contempt and superiority.

I was such. an. ass.

I do not know of any parent, myself included, who has not at some point threatened, bribed, or otherwise manipulated a child into doing what they wanted the kid to do. I actually do possess a huge capacity to empathize with my husband’s intentions and behavior, but it was a capacity I failed entirely to draw on.

Why? Why was this so emotional for me? Why was I so critical and punishing?

Because I was projecting.

Projection is pretty wonderful because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Click To Tweet

We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people.

See, the thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make big elaborate behavioral plans for myself and then I don’t follow through on them. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating (again) after making a plan to meditate more. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing Mark down for not following through on our picky eater protocol.

We humans have blind spots. It is often hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. The people around us, particularly our spouses, are like mirrors. We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards.

It’s not them, it’s us.

Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”

Psychological projection (in its many forms) is a defense mechanism first conceptualized by Sigmund Freud. His daughter, Anna Freud, later developed the theory. The Freuds posited that we often deal with the thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that are hard for us to accept in ourselves by attributing them to someone else.

Although many Freudian theories have not stood the test of time, projection is still considered a textbook human behavior.[i] I see projection at work all around me, in myself, in my friends and children, and in my clients.

That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.

Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress.

The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or stop doing).

In other words, when we notice that we are projecting, we have the opportunity to take our own advice.

For example, I wanted Mark to stop asking me to make parenting plans that he couldn’t follow through on. Instead, I wanted him to accept easier, good-enough, plans. So the opportunity for me (to take my own advice) was to accept an easier, good-enough plan for meditation.

In this instance, the solution was not to try to be more perfect.  The follow-my-own-advice solution that emerged from my projection was to stop making plans that weren’t realistic given the lovely, messy world—life with my four teenagers and a career that has me traversing time zones—that I live in. My fight with Mark showed me that I don’t always have to model the very best practices; it’s good enough to be strategic, realistic, and skillful.

What are your projections telling you? What advice for others would you do well to take yourself?

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[i] Wade, Tavris “Psychology,” Sixth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2000.

Teaching Teens to 'Just Say No'

Teaching Teens to ‘Just Say No’

Today’s teens are busy.

Last week, one of my teens was sitting in the kitchen replying to her emails while I prepped dinner. “Help me write a really good excuse,” she asked. A teacher had asked her to speak at a school function that she didn’t want to be involved in.

“Just write, ‘I’m honored to be asked, but I can’t help you this time,’” I suggested. This turned out not to be so helpful.

“MOM. Please. That will not work. I need to say why I can’t do it.” I walked around the island to look at her email. She had typed not one but two paragraphs detailing why should couldn’t go. Nothing she had written was exactly true.

Even though she wasn’t interested in attending, she hadn’t really said no; it was as though she was trying to paint a picture of a life so disastrously busy that her teacher would have no choice but to retract his invitation.

It can be really hard to say no. Teenagers, especially, want to be liked. They don’t want to disappoint us or their friends or their teachers. But they often don’t know how to say no, and so they find themselves hemming and hawing – and often saying yes instead.

The ability to say no is a critical life skill, and one that our kids probably won’t learn without explicit instruction and practice. We adults tend to emphasize that kids should “just say no” to the big things – sex and drugs and anything that might kill them. But if they can’t confidently decline an invitation or choose not to do someone a favor, how will they say no when it matters more?

Here are some ideas for teaching kids to say no that have worked for me:

1. Teach them to be clear about their priorities and truthful in their refusal.

Saying no is easier when we’re clear about our priorities; it’s even harder to decline a request when our reasons for doing so seem unimportant. My daughter has a lot going on this semester that’s more important than her teacher’s event. She needs to be careful about what she commits to on school nights. Saying, “I’m not that interested” seemed selfish to her. But it was also true for her to say, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m already committed to something else that evening.” What was she committed to? It didn’t need to be anything more than completing her homework and getting to bed at a decent hour.

Even though this response was vague, it was the truth. Untrue excuses and white lies lead to further entanglements and greater stress.

Telling the truth is not the same as sharing more details than are necessary, even if someone asks why you can’t help them out or come to their party. Detailed explanations imply that the other person can’t handle a simple no – or that the kids need help working out their conflicts.

2. Rehearse a handful of simple and vague go-to ways to say no.

When teens make a specific plan before they are confronted with a request, they’re far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with their original intentions.

Something simple – like saying, “That doesn’t work for me this time” – is almost always sufficient. But kids will need to come up with something they would feel comfortable saying. Help them pick a default way to say no, and then help them practice saying it before they need it. Here are some ideas:

  • “Thank you so much for thinking of me! I’m sorry I’m not able to help you at this time.”
  • “I can’t be there, but I will tell my friends about it and post it on social media.”
  • “I wish I could, but it’s not going to work out for me this time.”

3. Help kids think about the future rather than the present.

Research shows we often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will make us happiest in the future – and pleasing others by saying yes can be far more pleasant in the present than saying no.

We can help kids make better decisions by encouraging them to picture themselves moments before the event in question (or in the aftermath of, say, not having enough time for homework or sleep). Would they be relieved if it were canceled? If so, encourage them to say no now so they don’t find themselves trying to weasel out of it later.

4. Encourage persistence.

If their “no” isn’t accepted with grace, help them practice repeating their refusal calmly, using the same words. This will help the other person see that they are sticking to their “no,” and that their pestering isn’t changing their answer. If that doesn’t work and they need something else to say, encourage them to express empathy. For example, they could say, “I understand that you are in a tough spot here,” or, “I know this is hard for you to accept.”

If the other person still won’t back down, teens can share how they are feeling. For example: “I feel uncomfortable and a little angry when you continue to ask me even though I’ve declined.” Have them focus on their emotions – how the other person’s refusal to accept their honest decline is making them feel – and not the logistical details or logic for their refusal. (This takes a good deal of courage, to be sure. Even thinking about this is a step in the right direction.)

5. Say no for them.

My kids have permission to use my husband and I as an excuse when they are having a hard time saying no. We can always easily tell when they’re asking for permission to do something they don’t want to do. When this happens, we’ll often clarify how they feel. (“Do you think it’s a good idea to go to that concert?” Or, “How badly do you want to help out with that?”) Then when the response comes back lukewarm, we’ll put the hammer down. Very occasionally, the kids will indicate to us that they need us to say no firmly and within earshot of their friends or in a text that they can show their friends. We’re happy to provide this service; they don’t always have to do the hard work of saying no on their own.

Finally, if kids are still feeling nervous about saying no, have them take a moment to call to mind the respect they have for themselves and how they’d like others to respect them as well. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of others. But it’s worth it. In the long run, the ability to say no is a little-known key to our kids’ happiness.

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.

A printable copy of this list is here.

  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?

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

What Makes Teens ‘Most Likely to Succeed?’

As a sociologist who’s done much research on elite performance and productivity, I’ve given a lot of thought to the skills that lead to success in the modern economy.

What I’ve found applies not only to adults, but to kids, including teens graduating from high school this spring. Parents, too, take note: As many graduates look ahead to the future, here are seven learned qualities or characteristics that make teens, as the yearbook might put it, “most likely to succeed”:

They know who they are and what they want. A key component of grit is intrinsic interest. This is distinct from knowing what we – their parents and teachers and the adult culture – want for them, who we think they are or who we think they should be. For teens to succeed, they must do the work that is most important to them. Understanding the positive impact they can have on the world and other people will provide them with a tremendous source of energy and motivation.

They’re able to command their own attention. Teens can’t persist in pursuing their long-term goals if they can’t remember what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. In a world where corporations pay per view to rule teens’ concentration and interest, and where social media and gaming empires depend on their ability to command kids’ attention, successful teens are somehow still able to stay focused on their objectives. They study when they need to study, sleep when they need to sleep, exercise and are fully present for their friends and family. Against all odds, they cope effectively with the digital temptations that surround them. They use computers and smartphones strategically – rather than compulsively – as tools that make them more efficient, effective, connected and creative, instead of just being distracted and drained by electronics.

One thing I don’t think teens need to succeed is more ambition. Click To Tweet

They turn away from instant and shallow pursuits to think deeply. Business writer Eric Barker calls this “the superpower of the 21st century.” Georgetown University professor Cal Newport writes in his treatise on focus, “Deep Work,” that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

They effortlessly generate creative insights. The key word here is “effortlessly;” we don’t find innovative solutions to real world, unpredictable problems through relentless hard work. The most successful teens will be those who still value activities that lead to creativity. In a world which disparages unstructured play, free time and noncompetitive artistic expression – in lieu of highly structured sports, elite performing arts and AP classes – these teens have the courage to nap, play and stare into space while everyone else skips breakfast in order to cram for the next exam.

They’re authentic and emotionally courageous. They are willing to feel what they feel, and that gives them access to the wisdom of their hearts. Because they are willing to experience tough emotions, such as disappointment, embarrassment and frustration, these teens are gritty. Being willing to risk feeling difficult emotions enables them to persist toward their long-term goals. They are able to take risks, have difficult conversations and stay true to what they know is right.

They’re happy. It’s easy in adolescence to succumb to the coolness of cynicism. Successful teens, however, understand that cynicism is a marker of fear, not intelligence. Kids who consciously cultivate gratitude, love, happiness, peace, awe, inspiration, optimism and faith broaden their perception in the moment and build resources over time. Their ability to foster positive emotions allows them to access their most high-functioning, creative and intelligent selves. Because of this, they are more engaged at school and with their friends, families and communities than their less positive peers.

They are connected. These teens innately understand the transcendent importance of their peer relationships. They smile at people they don’t yet know and invest deeply in and rely on relationships with friends and family. Because of these bonds, they will be statistically less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping than those who keep others at a distance.

This isn’t all kids need to succeed, of course. To develop their talents, for example, they also need growth mindsets, good coaches and the ability and desire to hone their skills by engaging in deliberate practice, or consistently practicing to reach specific objectives.

But one thing I don’t think they need is more ambition.

Usually we think of the most ambitious kids as the ones who are also most likely to succeed. But more often than not, such striving leads to the kind of stress and anxiety that seems to be hamstringing our kids today. Too much ambition causes kids to focus on themselves even more than they’re already prone to, and as Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s research has shown, this won’t lead to success at work.

Nor will extreme ambition lead to happiness in life. My daughter Fiona has a ceramic sign on her wall that says, “The measure of my success is my happiness.” It’s when success is defined that way that I think she – and all of our kids – are most likely to succeed.

 

How to Help Your Teen Deal With Stress

“Are your kids totally happy and squared away?” a reporter recently asked me earnestly during an interview. Gah. I really hate that question.

My kids are awesome. Easy to raise. Fun to be around. But they aren’t perfect, and, ironically, I worry that they will be as anxious as I was for the first 40 years of my life.

I come from a long line of anxious women, on both sides of my family. My grandmother, whom I’m supposedly the spitting image of, was reportedly prone to “nervous breakdowns,” which seems like a genetic heritage worth worrying about. And now, two of my kids would probably tell you that they’re pretty anxious (especially the one who looks just like me).

Fortunately, even at their most anxious, my children seem positively laid back compared to how I was as a teenager. And, over the last decade, I’ve really come a long way toward dialing down the stress in my own life.

But, generally speaking, Americans’ stress levels only seem to be increasing. The American Psychological Association recently released its 2017 Stress in America survey, and for the first time in the decade since the annual survey began, the average stress level of Americans has risen significantly. More Americans say they’re experiencing physical and emotional symptoms related to stress than ever before.

What’s more, another annual survey – this one from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors – suggests that our kids are not growing up to be more chill than we were. Colleges and universities continue to add mental health services staff to meet the needs of students, and on campuses nationwide increasing focus is being placed on helping students manage stress. It’s no surprise that anxiety continues to be the most predominant concern among college students, with 51 percent of the students who seek counseling doing so for anxiety.

This calls for action, folks. So here are three things we can do to raise kids who aren’t so anxious:

1. Stop doing things that stress you out. This goes even for those stressful tasks you take on because you think you’re doing what’s best for your kids. Psychology researchers Robert Epstein and Shannon Fox compared the effectiveness of 10 important parenting practices, including how well parents support their children’s education and to what extent they provide educational opportunities for them. Not surprisingly, they found the most important thing for a kid’s health and happiness is to be loving and affectionate – to support and accept the child, be physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.

But the next most important “parenting competency” – as reported by Epstein in the magazine Scientific American Mind – in terms of its influence on kids’ health, happiness, school success, and the quality of the parent’s relationship with their children, did surprise me. It’s how well parents manage their own stress. Parents who take steps to reduce stress for themselves, practice relaxation techniques and promote a positive interpretation of events have happier, healthier and more successful kids.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Skip the stressful parenting stuff you’re doing just because you think you should. Really. For example, I skip morning PTA meetings because they make me feel too pressed for time. I’ve backed down on my rigid health food rules at dinner so that I can enjoy a little conflict-free time with my kids. And I let myself go to bed before my older teens usually do, even though part of me feels like I should stay up and make sure that they are in bed on time. Why? Because these things are not as key for my children’s health, happiness or school success as for my own ability to cope.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Click To Tweet

2. Curb the family’s technology use. The latest Stress in America report makes the relationship between technology and stress clear. A stunning 86 percent of Americans constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts, and these “constant checkers” are far more stressed than those who do not engage with technology as frequently. Millennials and younger Americans report the highest stress levels related to technology.

Reduce kids’ stress by creating structural solutions that curb constant device checking for your entire family. After all, technology is designed to be addictive. Here are a few suggestions of places where you should put technology aside:

  • In the car: Put phones in the trunk. Seriously.
  • At mealtimes: No devices allowed in the dining room, ever. Even silenced ones.
  • Bathrooms: Nothing good comes from derailed morning and bedtime routines or emails sent from the toilet.
  • Homework time: Have kids work from a family computer that doesn’t have social media or email apps loaded on it.

Don’t make exceptions once you create these parameters, either. Otherwise, you may find yourself becoming a (possibly ineffective) technology nag, which is no fun.

3. Let kids be uncomfortable. Odds are, if you take your kids’ phones away in certain times and places – especially the car – they will be bored. They will want you to think that this boredom is a form of pain.

As parents, we naturally want to protect our kids from pain. This means that we step in and try to shield them from it, even in its minor forms, such as discomfort, disappointment and boredom.

But there is an enormous difference between discomfort – which is fine – and a full-blown stress response, which can actually damage our health.

The truth is that life can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable. At other times, we experience outright pain. Our kids need to know how to deal with both. More than that, it’s critical that they learn not to let discomfort become stress.

When parents shield kids from discomfort, it can lead to a downward spiral where smaller and smaller stressors cause a greater and greater stress response. This hypersensitivity to stress does not make kids stronger; it makes them fragile and reactive basket cases. It also makes them more likely to avoid the challenges that will help them grow intellectually and emotionally.

The way to prevent this downward spiral is to allow kids to be uncomfortable, rather than letting them numb discomfort with distractions, such as video games or social media. This means we let them deal with their boredom when faced with a long wait and nothing to do. We let them feel the deep disappointment that comes with not getting a part in the play or not making a team, instead of taking them out for ice cream “to cheer them up.” We acknowledge that their mistake was pretty embarrassing, instead of blaming someone else or denying that there is anything wrong.

As in all things parenting, we’ll best help our kids by helping ourselves, first. Feeling a little stressed? Please take this as permission to turn off your phone and leave your family to make their own dinner tonight, while you go to yoga and exhale.

Originally posted on US News & World Report, May 2017