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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.

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.

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.

have-a-family-game-night-christine-carter

Happiness Tip: Have a Family Game Night

Want to boost your mood this week? Challenge your family members to an old-fashioned board game.

A whopping 91% of families who play games report that playing games together improves their mood — even for 13-17 year olds — according to a recent survey (commissioned by Hasbro but conducted by an independent research company). Additionally, the survey found that the more a family plays games together, the more satisfied parents tend to be with their family time.

Here are four tips for making a family game night count:Twister night

1.) Don’t keep score or automatically let kids win.
Although rivalries can be really fun (47 percent of those polled said the fiercest rivalries were between parents and kids during family game play) they can obscure the benefits of family game night. Once everyone is enjoying the process and fun of playing games together — without obsessing over who is winning or losing — then go back to keeping score, to teach the important skill of winning and losing gracefully.

2.) Don’t feel compelled to play games that bore you. Make sure you have a selection of games that work for everyone in your family, no matter their age. Family game night can be fun for everyone.

3.) Be the fun family in your neighborhood. As kids get older, time with their peers becomes more important to them than time with their family. Don’t let these priorities conflict! Instead, encourage kids to invite a friend or two to come to your family game night. Let the teens choose the food and the music (but check their smartphones and devices at the door!). On weekends, plan for game night extensions, allowing teens to continue play without parents and younger siblings.

4.) Have a board game date-night. My husband and I used to love to play dominoes after the kids would go to bed. Even if you don’t have kids at home, or if they are too young for a family game night, turning off the TV and tuning into your partner for a fun game can lift your mood.

Take Action:
Decide which day of the week will be your weekly game night, and then be consistent so that it becomes a ritual anticipated by everyone.

Join the Discussion: What games do you love to play? Inspire others by leaving a comment, and be sure to mention the ages of your children if you’ve got them.

How to Raise a High-Achiever

Now that the kids are back in school, I’m thinking about what really leads to success—as well as happiness. Part one in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 2.

When we look at people who are at the top of their field, what do we know about how they got there?

We used to think that people were successful thanks to their genetic make-up—their inborn talents and innate passions. We called these people “gifted,” and assumed their success came from God-given talents more than their efforts.

The belief that success comes from God-given talent is not only discouraging—what if you don’t feel “gifted”?—but profoundly incorrect. Because researchers love to study super-high achievers, we know that the vast majority of achievements don’t spring from innate talent as much as they emerge from hard work and passion.

Angela Duckworth, the celebrated psychologist who first defined “grit” as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has a theory about success. Instead of seeing achievement as simply a byproduct of IQ or intelligence or innate talent, Duckworth sees achievement as the product of skill and effort (Achievement = Skill x Effort) in the same way that we understand that Distance = Speed x Time. She explains:

Distance [is] an apt metaphor for achievement. What is achievement, after all, but an advance from a starting point to a goal? The farther the goal from the starting point, the greater the achievement. Just as distance is the multiplicative product of speed and time, it seems plausible that, holding opportunity constant, achievement is the multiplicative product of skill and effort…

Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.  Researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably consistent findings that back up Duckworth’s theory. They find that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great.

This is hard for most of us to believe, but K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort (which I describe below). Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent. Hard to believe, but entirely true.

It isn’t just putting in any old effort that will build the right skills and lead to elite performance. People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success. These three things together are the very essence of “grit.” In the rest of this post, I’m going to zero in on the importance of deliberate and persistent practice; my next two posts will cover other facets of grit.

Deliberate practice

Elite performers practice a lot, in a really specific way. Accomplished people spend hours upon hours in “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives—say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond their reach. In the beginning, they may practice a new phrase or even a single measure again and again and again.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t always pleasurable—far from it. In fact, it is the elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.

There are a few ways to learn how to spell words for a Spelling Bee, for example. One way is to simply pay attention to words when you read for pleasure. Another way is to have your friends and family quiz you. But how exciting must it be to study long lists alone?

Yet it turns out that the most effective way to become a National Spelling Bee champion is the third option, solitary study. (This explains why I’d be lost without spell-check.) The highest performers in the National Spelling Bee spend the most time in this type of deliberate practice—the most effective, but probably the least fun, way to learn to spell obscure words.

What typically predicts how much effective-but-boring deliberate practice a champion engages in? In the Spelling Bee study, it was grit. The champions’ perseverance and passion for their long-term goals enabled them to persist with a preparation technique (solitary study) that was intrinsically less rewarding but far more effective than other techniques. Grit gives us the ability to practice the right thing, rather than to just practice what is fun.

Persistence over time

High-achievers also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time. Ericsson says that “elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.” Spending a half hour jogging over the weekend isn’t going to make you a great runner, but training every day might. Dabbling with your paints every once in awhile isn’t going to make you a great artist, but practicing your drawing every day for a decade might.

True masters gain experience over the long haul—specifically, for 10 years of dedicated work, or 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers, made the “10-year-rule” famous by colorfully illustrating Ericsson’s research. Most successful people average 10 years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished. Even child-prodigies generally work at it for a decade or more. Bobby Fischer became a chess grandmaster at 16 years old, but he’d been studying since he was 7. Tiger Woods had been working on his golf game for 15 years when he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship.

And there is something else: People who go to the top of their fields don’t just practice deliberately and persistently, they also rest strategically. This is a key component of success, and one that we often overlook in our 24/7 go go go culture.

Stay tuned for more about the science of rest and how it contributes to performance in my next post!