Beth was my ex-stepmother, but “mother” was still a part of her title. Could I share a home with her?
Beth and I first lived under the same roof in 1982, when I was 13. My father, who was 47 at the time, invited Beth, then 23, to spend the summer in the Maine lake house he and I had fixed up the summer before. I refused to leave my room the night she arrived.
Without laying eyes on her, I knew she would be another of Dad’s interchangeable “little chickies” as he called them — the skinny, busty former students he liked to date.
The next morning, I was eating Honey Nut Cheerios when I heard her coming down the stairs. My father had already retreated to his desk upstairs, purportedly to work on a lecture on Puritan literature, but mostly to take hits from a hidden bottle of vodka.
I planned to freeze Beth out of existence with my thoughts — a superpower every gay boy needed in the 80s. But instead of making awkward chitchat, Beth just smiled, picked up her copy of “Crime and Punishment,” and ate her own Cheerios in silence.
When done, she asked if I liked the book I was reading — stories by John Cheever. Dad asked such questions only to hear his own opinion. Beth was actually curious to know mine. She was making me like her before I had the chance to hate her.
Soon on sunny afternoons, Beth and I lay on the dock together, tanning and lightening our hair with lemon juice, as one did in the 80s. Neither mentioned a shared lust for a neighbor — a combination seminarian and jock — who joined us for a swim from time to time.
Dad and Beth married the following September. By May, two semesters later, my father’s tantrums had driven her away. Amazingly, he never once had an ill word to say about Beth. And this was a man who in five minutes could convince you Gandhi was a narcissist and Jesus a sociopath.
He did have bad things to say about his first wife, my mother. And she gave him reasons. Beneath her charms lay inchoate storms of hurt and aggression. As Dad was leaving her for the last time — I was 12, a year before Dad met Beth — she told him she was going to take me to “Luna,” a recent Bertolucci film. A terrible look came over his face, not rage this time but horror.
After he left, I was too terrified to look at the art house flyer taped to the fridge. My mother never did take me to see the movie, but a few years later, “Luna” returned for a Bertolucci retrospective. This time I did read the flyer and wished I hadn’t. “Luna,” it turned out, was “the story of the incestuous relationship between a mother and her teenage son.”
To be clear, my mother had never acted on the themes of the film, but she craved an emotional closeness that was too much for a son to give.
At 17, I went as far away as I could, first to college in California and then on to a journalistic career I kept undercutting with debt-fueled geographic cures that never worked for long — not Los Angeles, not Paris, not even Rio de Janeiro.
At first, Beth and I stayed in touch, but like me, she kept moving. She married again, had a daughter, divorced and, as a social worker/actress, constantly chased cheap New York City rents. By around 1995, the handwritten phone numbers in our respective address books were no longer valid.
When Dad died in 2005, the vodka finally having wiped out his liver, my sister tracked down Beth’s email and cc’d me. I was living in Rio, where I thought I’d found both happiness and a mate for life. Right away, Beth and I were yakking the way we had on the dock. Soon, I was visiting her for weeks at a time, ostensibly to work on a screenplay but mostly just to be together.
In 2013, a Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage, enabling my Brazilian husband, 14 years my junior, to immigrate to the United States as my spouse. We moved to Upper Manhattan — two blocks from Beth. The Brazilian complained that she and I analyzed movies to death. We both thought, but we live to analyze movies to death.
One afternoon, I left him on the couch playing video games and texting bar plans that I no longer wanted to be part of. I walked to Beth’s, where she and I talked about substantive things — books, movies, joys, griefs. On the way back, I realized I wasn’t just bored at home. I was also lonely.
It was the Brazilian who left in the end. Beth comforted me as neither of my parents nor the Brazilian could have — she was patient, protective but never pitying, sure of my strength.
Suddenly, she and I were both single and struggling to pay Manhattan rents. Why shouldn’t she move into my extra bedroom? I hesitated, ostensibly because of her clutter problem. I once left some junk mail on her coffee table, only to find it in the same place when I returned six months later. When I threw it away, she was actually a little sad. I, by contrast, strove for the modernist austerity of the homes I wrote about for architecture magazines, and threw away not only clutter but even things I actually needed.
However, clutter was just cover for a deeper fear. By living with my father’s former wife, would the incestuous waves, at last, pull me under?
In 2010, Mom learned that her gut discomfort was stage-four colon cancer. “Forgive me …,” she said nine months later, from her hospice bed. Whether because of the pain, the morphine, or her own hesitation, she couldn’t name the thing to be forgiven. “For … for … well, you know,” she said.
I had found peace with my dying mother, but was still haunted by her earlier avatar — the Medea willing to psychically drown her son. Beth was my ex-stepmother, but “mother” was still a part of her title. Could I really share a home with her?
Then when I was 47, I lost my biggest freelance client. My finances were in free fall. Two months later, Beth, by then 57, moved in. I gave her the master bedroom and the two largest closets. In return, she ceded all aesthetic control of common spaces.
The clutter problem turned out to be only a minor annoyance. When her things piled up, I placed them on her bed while she was out.
The Mommy issues took longer. I would share details of my own peccadilloes, but plugged my ears and hummed when Beth did the same. “So you can talk about sex and I can’t?” she asked. “I guess that’s another one of your double standards, sweetie.”
Like aversion therapy, this controlled exposure has had marvelously curative effects. Now, Beth can get as graphic as she wants, and it is fine — at least tolerable. And gradually I have come to see my mother as a charming, cultured woman who, in 1980s Baltimore, kept up with Italian cinema.
Beth and I still analyze movies to death, but now from the comfort of the sectional couch I bought with the Brazilian. I am still regrouping for my next foray into love and marriage, but most days that question seems moot.
I’m still learning that a happy home is constructed not with Modernist furnishings but emotional safety — a language that, after nearly four decades, Beth is still teaching me to speak.
Many parents sending kids off to college worry that their time as a
family is over. But that isn’t always the case these days.
The Sugerman family’s
trip to Southern Utah this past May involved a treacherous drive. There were
hairpin turns; the three adult children needed to move boulders to clear a path
for the car. “We were on these roads which were barely roads, climbing up
canyon walls,” said Andy Sugerman, of Ann Arbor, Mich. “It was night. The sky
was beautiful. Everybody was fully engaged.” The value of shared adversity and
overcoming these obstacles together allowed for bonding unlike any other kind
of experience, he said.
Many parents sending kids off to college weep over their empty
nests, thinking their time as a family is over. And a generation ago, young
adults often wanted to get as far away from their parents as possible once they
entered adulthood. But that isn’t always the case these days. An increasing number of young adults move back home for summers or after college.
And even for those who launch quickly, family vacations present an opportunity
for parents to remain close to their adult children.
The trip to Utah was the latest annual family vacation for Mr.
Sugerman, his wife, Gayle Rosen, and their three sons, Eli, 25; Alex, 23; and
Sam, 19. The family’s first outdoor adventure — a road trip across the West in
2008 — was motivated by the recognition that “as the kids were getting older,
the opportunities for time together would be more limited,” Mr. Sugerman said.
Since then, the family has explored 28 national parks together.
Rosen presumed that as the boys grew into young adulthood, they’d lose interest
in being with their immediate family and that the trips would stop. But that
has not happened.
opportunity to go on a cool outdoor trip with my family continued to present
itself, and I’ve continued to take it,” said Eli, who lives about four hours
away from his parents, in Chicago. “I see no reason why an end would be in
Ms. Rosen feels fortunate that her children still want to go. “I
love being outdoors with them. We all unplug and I get to see the amazing human
beings they’ve become,” she said.
A variety of
factors are keeping young adults connected to their parents — both
geographically and emotionally. Research by Karen Fingerman, a professor of human
development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, found
that, compared to the mid-20th century, young adults today tend to be less
financially stable and are more likely to marry later — keeping them closer to
their families — while many more of them live with their parents. She also
discovered that technology and accessibility of transportation make it easier
to stay close. “The culture is shifting toward increased contact and increased
interdependency” between parents and their young adult children, Dr. Fingerman
Her work indicates that 30 years ago, only half of parents
reported weekly contact with a grown child, while currently nearly all parents
had contact with a grown child in the past week, and over half of parents had
contact with a grown child every day. She found affection and intimacy between
young adults and their parents rising as well. Dr. Fingerman said this is
generally a positive development that benefits both generations. As young
adults turn more to their parents than their peers for guidance, “they’re
getting better advice from people who care about them,” she said.
you can foster close relationships without spending money, taking a family
vacation with young adults is a growing trend, said Rainer Jenss, president and
founder of the Family Travel Association, a company that encourages family
travel. He points to Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company focused
on upscale active travel for families as an example. Next year, Backroads will
introduce a “20s & Beyond” segment dedicated to parents
traveling with their children in their 20s and 30s. Tom Hale, the company’s
founder and chief executive, said that last year, 6,500 parents and their adult
children went on the company’s trips, even though the trips weren’t specifically
aimed at this older age group.
a relationship psychologist based in St. Louis and author of “Stress Less, Live
Better: 5 Simple Steps to Ease Anxiety, Worry, and Self-Criticism,” suggests
these trips go better if parents manage their expectations, don’t overschedule
and allow everyone to have time to themselves.
Laura Sutherland, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and her
husband, Lance Linares, have taken their son, now 30, and daughter, now 32, on
10 trips since they graduated from college. The trips now include their
spouses. Ms. Sutherland recommends booking accommodations with private rooms if
possible. She assigns everyone responsibility for preparing or treating for a meal
— and pitching in with cleanup. “We have clear communication in the beginning
that parents shouldn’t be servants,” she said.
If budgets or timing don’t allow for travel, hiking close to home or going out for lunch and a visit to a local museum can work, too. As young adults strike out on their own, there’s a delicate balance that parents need to achieve. It starts with respecting kids’ growing independence in adolescence, said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They should feel comfortable coming to you for advice. By the time they are young adults, it’s no longer a one-way street.
“When you honor the fact that they can guide and support you,
you’re developing a relationship that can last for decades,” Dr. Ginsburg said.
Dr. Sanford says if a dispute arises, instead of reacting or
getting angry, “pause, take a breath and ask yourself whether it’s more
important to get your way or have the opportunity for a good relationship.”
Carl Pickhardt, a counseling psychologist based in Austin, Tex.,
and author of the blog “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” and the book Who Stole My Child? Parenting Through the
Four Stages of Adolescence,encourages
parents of adult children to repeat a few mantras to themselves: I will respect
the choices you make and how you face the consequences; I will not criticize or
censor your behavior in any way; and I will cheer you on as you engage in life.
He said to never provide unsolicited advice, but to request permission, saying
something like, “I have some advice I would like to give that would be helpful,
but only if that’s something you would like me to do.” Dr. Ginsburg suggests
determining if your child wants you to listen or to provide advice, using
language like: “I’m so glad that you always feel you can come and talk to me
about these things. How can I be the most supportive?”
Ginsburg emphasized that there are some situations that call for a parent to
become involved if the adult child’s safety is at risk, including dangerous
depression, significant and substantial drug use or domestic abuse.
As young adults
struggle with their identity and their life goals, parents should rest assured
that they continue to play a vital role, Dr. Ginsburg said. “You are the person
who is going to love them no matter what.”
you take a vacation or just spend time together at a movie or a restaurant, he
noted, “Your highest yield time is to just be with each other and enjoy each
We all want to be the best parents we can be for our children, but there is often conflicting advice on how to raise a kid who is confident, kind and successful. Throughout the circus act of parenting, it’s important to focus on balancing priorities, juggling responsibilities and quickly flipping between the needs of your children, other family members and yourself. Modern parents have the entire internet at their disposal and don’t follow any single authority. It’s hard to know whom or what to trust. Here, we’ll talk about how to help your child grow up to be a person you really like without losing yourself in the process.
Your Parenting Style
Good news: There is no one right way to raise a child.
Research tells us that to raise a self-reliant child with high self-esteem, it is than authoritarian. You want your child to listen, respect and trust you rather than fear you. You want to be supportive, but not a hovering, helicopter parent.
All of these things are easy to set as goals, but . How do you find the right balance?
As your child develops, the challenges will change, and your thinking may evolve, but your approach should be consistent, firm and loving. Help your child learn through experience that making an effort builds confidence and helps you learn to tackle challenges. Calibrate your expectations about what your child is capable of doing independently, whether you have an infant learning to sleep through the night, a toddler helping to put toys away, or an older child resolving conflicts.
Remember, there is no one right way to raise a child. Do your best, trust yourself and enjoy the company of the small person in your life.
Conquering the Basics
Your healthy attitude toward sleep, food and discipline will affect your children in the most important ways.
How to Put a Baby to Sleep
Right from the beginning, in their sleep patterns. And parents, too, vary in terms of how they cope with interrupted nights.
There are two general schools of thought around babies and sleep after those early months when they need nighttime feedings — soothe the baby to sleep or don’t — and many parents find themselves wavering back and forth. Those who believe in sleep training, including many sleep experts, would argue that in helping babies learn to fall asleep by themselves and soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake during the night, parents are helping them master vital skills for comfort and independence.
Two techniques for this are:
Graduated extinction, in which babies are allowed to cry for short, prescribed intervals over the course of several nights.
, in which parents delay bedtime in 15-minute increments so the child becomes more and more tired.
And many parents report that these strategies improve their children’s sleep patterns, as well as their own. But there are also parents who find the idea of letting a baby cry at night unduly harsh.
Whatever you try, remember, some babies, no matter what you do, are not reliably good sleepers. Parents need to be aware of what sleep deprivation may be doing to them, to their level of functioning, and to their relationships, and take their own sleep needs seriously as well. So, ask for help when you need it, from your pediatrician or a trusted friend or family member.
For older children, the rules around sleep are clearer: Turn off devices, read aloud at bedtime, and build rituals that help small children wind down and fall asleep. will be even more important as children grow older and are expected to be awake and alert during school hours; getting enough sleep on a regular basis and coming to school well-rested will help grade-school children’s academic performance and their social behavior as well. Keeping (and turned off during the hours before bed) becomes more and more important as children grow — and it’s not a bad habit for adults, either.
As your child hits adolescence, her body clock will shift so that she is “programmed” to stay up later and sleep later, often just as schools are demanding early starts. Again, good family “sleep hygiene,” especially around screens at bedtime, in the bedroom, and even in the bed, can help teenagers disconnect and get the sleep they need. By taking sleep seriously, as a vital component of health and happiness, parents are sending an important message to children at every age.
You can take steps to help your children manage both bullying and conflict – and you’re at your most useful when you know which of the two you’re trying to address. Children who are being bullied are on the receiving end of mistreatment, and are helpless to defend themselves, whereas children in conflict are having a hard time getting along. Fortunately, most of the friction that happens among children is in the realm of conflict —an inevitable, if unpleasant, consequence of being with others — not bullying.
If children are being bullied, it’s important to reassure them that they deserve support, and that they should alert an adult to what’s happening. Further, you can remind your children that they cannot passively stand by if another child is being bullied. Regardless of how your own child might feel about the one being targeted, you can set the expectation that he or she will do at least one of three things: confront the bully, keep company with the victim, alert an adult.
When the issue is conflict, you should aim to help young people handle it well by learning to stand up for themselves without stepping on anyone else. To do this, you can model assertion, not aggression, in the inevitable disagreements that arise in family life, and coach your children to do the same as they learn how to address garden-variety disputes with their peers.
For children, gender is an evolving concept, and not one that they always see through the same lens as adults. Three-year-olds are able to label themselves as boys or girls, yet most boys this age believe that they can grow up to be moms if they want to, and vice versa for little girls. By ages 4 or 5, children come to view gender as a fixed trait. This is often when they develop princess or superhero obsessions, perhaps dabbling in extreme femininity or masculinity to compensate for their sense of losing half of the gender pie.
Left to their own devices, most children move away from rigid gender views before adolescence. All the same, girls generally enjoy more leeway than boys when it comes to gender identity. Tomboys are cool, while boys often vigilantly police one another for behavior they perceive to be feminine.
As a parent, you want to help your child feel good about being a girl or a boy, and to define what that will mean for him or herself. This can involve helping them question highly stereotyped and heavily marketed media representations of gender. And we want to remember that gender identity operates independently of sexual orientation. Who our children feel themselves to be doesn’t tell us whom they will love.
All parents have in common the wish to raise children who are good people. You surely care about how your child will treat others, and how he or she will act in the world. In some households, regular participation in a religious institution sets aside time for the family to reflect on its values and lets parents convey to their children that those beliefs are held by members of a broad community that extends beyond their home.
Even in the absence of strong spiritual beliefs, the celebration of religious holidays can act as a key thread in the fabric of family life. Though it is universally true that children benefit when their parents provide both structure and warmth, even the most diligent parents can struggle to achieve both of these on a regular basis. The rituals and traditions that are part of many religious traditions can bring families together in reliable and memorable ways. Of course, there are everyday opportunities to instill your values in your child outside of organized religion, including helping an elderly neighbor or taking your children with you to volunteer for causes that are important to you.
Above all, however, children learn your values by watching how you live.
When it comes to school, parents walk a difficult line: You want your children to strive and succeed, but you don’t want to push them in ways that are unfair, or cause needless stress. At every age and skill level, children benefit when parents help them focus on improving their abilities, rather than on proving them. In other words, children should understand that their intellectual endowment only gets them started, and that their capabilities can be increased with effort.
Children who adopt this growth mindset – the psychological terminology for the belief that industry is the path to mastery – are less stressed than peers who believe their capacities are fixed, and outperform them academically. Students with a growth mindset welcome feedback, are motivated by difficult work, and are inspired by the achievements of their talented classmates.
To raise growth-mindset thinkers you can make a point of celebrating effort, not smarts, as children navigate school. When they succeed, say, “Your hard work and persistence really paid off. Well done!” And when they struggle, say, “That test grade reflects what you knew about the material being tested on the day you took the test. It does not tell us how far you can go in that subject. Stick with it and keep asking questions. It will come.”
Parents should step in when students face academic challenges that cause constant or undue stress. Some students hold themselves, or are held by adults, to unrealistic standards. Others missed a step along the way, study ineffectively or are grappling with an undiagnosed learning difference. Determining the nature of the problem will point the way to the most helpful solution.
Here’s how to raise a child with a healthy attitude toward shiny screens and flashing buttons.
You could try to raise a screen-free child, but let’s be honest, you’re reading this on a screen. As in everything else, the challenge is in balancing the ideal and the real in a way that’s right for your family. Start by thinking about positive screen-related experiences you want to help build into your children’s lives: watching a movie as a family, reading a book on an iPad, FaceTiming with out-of-town relatives. Technology plays such an important role in children’s lives now that when we talk about it, we’re talking about everything from sleep to study to social life.
“Technology is just a tool and it can be an extremely enriching part of kids’ lives,” said Scott Steinberg, co-author of “.” “A lot of what we’re teaching about parenting around technology is just basic parenting,” he said. “It comes down to the Golden Rule: Are they treating others in a respectful and empathetic manner?”
And then there’s the question of protecting family time. Mr. Steinberg advises setting household rules that govern when devices may be used, and have clear, age-appropriate policies so kids know what they can and can’t do.
Some of these policies will be appropriate for all ages, including parents, such as:
No phones at the dinner table.
No screens for an hour before bedtime.
It’s important to practice what you preach. And in addition to taking time for family meals and family conversations, parents should be taking the time to sit down with young children and look at what they’re doing online, rather than leaving them alone with their devices as babysitters.
Parents as Digital Role Models
When a parent wants to post on social media about something a child did that may embarrass the child, Ms. Homayoun said, it’s worth stepping back to consider why. Are you posting it to draw attention to yourself?
You should respect your child’s privacy as much as you respect the privacy of friends, family members and colleagues. As cute as it may seem to post pictures of a naked toddler, consider a “no butts” policy. That may not be the image that your child wants to portray 15 years from now.
“We need to, from a very early age, teach kids what consent looks like,” Ms. Homayoun said. “It doesn’t begin when a kid is 15, 16 or 17. It begins when a kid is 3 and he doesn’t want to go hug his uncle.” Or when he doesn’t want you to post that video of him crying over a lost toy.
Our children will create digital footprints as they grow, and it will be one of our jobs to help them, guide them and get them to think about how something might look a few years down the line — you can start by respecting their privacy and applying the same standards throughout their lives.
It’s easy to dismiss high-tech toys as just pricey bells and whistles, but if you choose more enriching options, you can find toys that help kids grow. For young children, though, there’s a great deal to be said for allowing them, as much as possible, to explore the nondigital versions of blocks, puzzles, fingerpaints and all the rest of the toys that offer tactile and fine motor experiences. As children get older, some high-tech games encourage thinking dynamically, problem solving and creative expression.
“These high tech games can be an opportunity to bond with your kids. Learn more about how they think and their interests,” Mr. Steinberg said. Some games encourage kids to be part of a team, or lead one. And others let them be wilder than they might be in real life – in ways that parents can appreciate: “You can’t always throw globs of paint around the house but you can in the digital world,” he said.
The Right Age for a Phone?
“Many experts would say it’s about 13, but the more practical answer is when they need one: when they’re outside your direct supervision,” Mr. Steinberg said. Ms. Homayoun recommends them for specific contexts, such as for a child who may be traveling between two houses and navigating late sports practices.
Consider giving tiered access to technology, such as starting with a flip phone, and remind children that privileges and responsibilities go hand in hand. A child’s expanding access to personal technology should depend on its appropriate use.
To put these ideas into practical form, the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for creating a personalized .
Balance both your schedule and your child’s with a reasonable approach to time.
We all know the cliché of the overscheduled child, rushing from athletic activity to music lessons to tutoring, and there will probably be moments when you will feel like that parent, with a carload of equipment and a schedule so complicated that you wake up in the middle of the night worrying you’re going to lose track. But it’s also a joy and a pleasure to watch children discover the activities they really enjoy, and it’s one of the privileges of parenthood to cheer your children on as their skills improve.
Some children really do thrive on what would be, for others, extreme overscheduling. Know your child, talk to your child, and when necessary, help your child negotiate the decisions that make it possible to keep doing the things that mean the most, even if that means letting go of some other activities.
Remember, children can get a tremendous amount of pleasure, and also great value, from learning music, from playing sports, and also from participating in the array of extracurricular activities that many schools offer. However, they also need a certain amount of unscheduled time. The exact mix varies from child to child, and even from year to year. On the one hand, we need to help our children understand the importance of keeping the commitments they make — you don’t get to give up playing your instrument because you’re struggling to learn a hard piece; you don’t quit the team because you’re not one of the starters — and on the other, we need to help them decide when it’s time to change direction or just plain let something go.
So how do you know how much is too much? Rethink the schedule if:
Your child isn’t getting enough sleep.
Your child doesn’t have enough time to get schoolwork done.
Your child can’t squeeze in silly time with friends, or even a little downtime to kick around with family.
And make sure that high school students get a positive message about choosing the activities that they love, rather than an anxiety-producing message about choosing some perfect mix to impress college admissions officers. The point of scheduling is to help us fit in the things we need to do and also the things we love to do; overscheduling means that we’re not in shape to do either.
Taking Care of Yourself
Being a parent is the job of your life, the job of your heart, and the job that transforms you forever. But as we do it, we need to keep hold of the passions and pastimes that make us who we are, and which helped bring us to the place in our lives where we were ready to have children. We owe our children attention — and nowadays it’s probably worth reminding ourselves that paying real attention to our children means limiting our own screentime and making sure that we’re talking and reading aloud and playing. But we owe ourselves attention as well.
Your children will absolutely remember the time that you spent with them — but you also want them to grow up noticing the way you maintain friendships of your own, the way you put time and energy into the things that matter most to you, from your work to your physical well-being to the special interests and passions that make you the person they know. Whether you’re taking time to paint or dance, or to knit with friends, or to try to save the world, you are acting and living your values and your loves, and those are messages that you owe to your children.
You may not be able to pursue any of your passions in quite the same way and to quite the same extent that you might have before you had a child. You may have to negotiate the time, hour by hour, acknowledging what is most important, and trading it, perhaps, for what is most important to your partner, if you have one. You’ll be, by definition, a different painter, as you would be a different runner, a different dancer, a different friend and a different world-saver. But you may well come to realize that the experience of taking care of a small child helps you concentrate in a stronger, almost fiercer way, when you get that precious hour to yourself.
How to Find Balance
Lots of parents worry that their children get an unreasonable amount of homework, and that homework can start unreasonably young. While it may be easy to advise that homework can help a child learn time management and study habits, and to let children try themselves and sometimes fail, the reality is that many of us find ourselves supervising at least a little. You should speak up if it seems that one particular teacher isn’t following the school’s guidelines for appropriate amounts of homework. And for many children, it’s helpful to talk through the stages of big projects and important assignments, so they can get some intermediate dates on the calendar. If the homework struggle dominates your home life, it may be a sign of another issue, like a learning disability.
For many families nowadays, the single biggest negotiation about time management is around screen time. This may be because screens serve so many purposes in children’s lives, so that screen time can be homework time (but is the chatting that goes on in a corner really part of the assignment?) or social time or pure entertainment time. Bottom line: As long as a child is doing decently in school, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about whether, by your standards, the homework looks like it is being done with too many distractions.
And remember, some family responsibilities can help anchor a child to the nonvirtual world: a dog to be walked or trash to be taken out. And when it comes to fun, let your child see that you value the non-homework part of the evening, or the weekend, that you understand that time with friends is important, and that you want to be kept up to date on what’s going on, and to talk about your own life. Ultimately, we have to practice what we preach, from putting down our own work to enjoy unstructured family time to putting down our phones at the dinner table to engage in a family discussion. Our children are listening to what we say, and watching what we do.
In the high-pressure, high-stakes game of school, it can be difficult to know which parenting strategies really promote learning. A successful experience in school is not only about report cards. Ideally your child will learn how to learn, retain information, think independently, ask questions and develop an increasing sense of competence. Here are some guidelines for making sure you start on the right foot and keep enthusiasm and momentum high throughout the school year.
There is so much to think about each school year, but above all else, these simple rules can help keep you stay focused on what’s most important for school success.
Focus on the process, not the product.
Encourage kids to self-advocate.
Keep a long-term perspective.
Maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
Love the child you have, not the child you wish you had.
Compare kids to one another.
Love kids based on their performance.
Value the Process Over the Product
Very young children are naturally driven to learn and explore. They are at the very beginning of their lifelong quest to understand and gain mastery of the world around them. As they reach out, fall and get back up again, they gain a heightened sense of mastery, competence and self-efficacy. Somewhere around kindergarten, however, parents and teachers begin to undermine this process by devaluing the process of learning and replacing it with a mad dash for the end products. Suddenly, the intrinsic motivators of natural curiosity, competence and self-efficacy are less valuable than extrinsic motivators such as stickers, points and grades. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators undermine kids’ desire to learn over the long term. Want your kid to lose interest in school? Pay them for their A’s and worship at the altar of grades. If you’d instead like your kids to remain curious and hungry for mastery, here are some tips for re-orienting kids’ priorities.
Keep report cards off social media and the refrigerator. We can tell our kids that we value learning all we want, but when we gush over grades and stick them to the refrigerator, we show them that what we value most are the grades. Of course, grades are what most parents are stuck with, even if they are flawed and incomplete indicator of learning as well as what’s known as an “extrinsic motivator,” which has been shown to reduce motivation over the long term, undermine creativity, and encourage cheating. Some schools have moved away letter-based grades and are using reports focused on mastery- or standards-based evaluations, which can help parents and kids focus on what’s being learned rather a grade. No matter what kind of report your child gets, humble-bragging about it on social media only feeds parental competition, raises the pressure for kids and teaches them that your love and approval is contingent on the content of their report card.
Focus on the process they used to get that grade. When we invest less energy and emotion in the number or letter at the top of the page, we can begin to ask our children questions such as, What did you do to get this grade? Which study techniques worked for you and which ones did not? What are you going to do differently next time?
Look forward, not back. The best question parents can ask when faced with a grade, whether high or low, is: How are you going to use this experience to be better next time? This technique works particularly well for anxious and overly perfectionist kids, because they can get stuck in a negative feedback loop, obsessing wholly on the numbers and grades. Helping them shift their focus back to the process can alleviate that anxiety, particularly when we help them prioritize the aspects of learning they can control.
Model: Talk about your own failures and successes with your kids, showing them that you, too, are invested in the process of learning. If you berate yourself over failures, so will they. If, however, they see you being brave and learning from your mistakes so you can be better next time, so will they.
Value Goals Over Grades
One easy way to invest in process is to set goals, both individually and as a family. Try to do this at the beginning of a new school year, the first of the month, or the beginning of a new season. Keep the discussion light and low-pressure. This process isn’t about getting better grades, it’s about supporting learning as a family.
Everyone (yes, that means parents, too) sets three short-term, achievable goals oriented around tasks and improvements under your control. For example, “I’m going to get all A’s this semester” is too broad and too difficult to control. Instead, try “I’m going to ask for help in math more often,” “I will plan one extra help session a week,” or “I will practice my multiplication three extra times this month.”
One of those three goals should be a challenge. We can’t hope to convince our children to be emotionally and intellectually brave unless they see us do the same, so set some goals that get you out of your comfort zone. Take guitar or dance or Spanish lessons, try an activity you have never tried before, or pick up a new hobby. This is, after all, how we expand our cognitive potential and make new connections in our brains that can help us become stronger, smarter and more efficient learners.
A few years ago, one of my sons’ goals was to make a few new friends, a goal that was both challenging and important to him.
Before you set new goals, take the time to assess how everyone did on past goals. Review these goals once a month or once a semester. If you fail to achieve your goals talk about why, and what you plan to do differently next time. If you succeed, celebrate that achievement!
Model: Watching a parent set a scary, ambitious goal and talk about the process of achieving it is the most direct way to teach children that learning and striving to be better are human goals, not just school goals.
Maintain a Long-Term Perspective
Education and parenting are both long-haul endeavors, and improvements don’t happen on a daily basis.
Don’t live in the daily emergency of this homework or this test. Instead, think about where you’d like your child to be in a year or five years in terms of competence and growth. Which is more important to you, that you deliver your child’s forgotten math homework today or that she develops a strategy for not forgetting her math homework tomorrow?
Model: When things go wrong in your own life, talk about them. Keep your focus on doing better next time and your long-term perspective. For example if you mess up at work, frame your discussion around improvement and long-term progress: “Well, this work project did not work out the way I wanted, but I still love what I do and want to be doing something related in five years. Here’s how I plan to learn from this so I can get there.”
Help Them Find Balance
Kids are overscheduled, families are in a constant rush, but a few, strategic pauses in your family’s day can make a huge difference.
Help Kids Create Effective Good Routines
Present mornings, chores and homework time to kids as a problem to be solved together. In a quiet, calm moment, say, “You know, mornings are really hectic around here and it’s hard for everyone to remember to get out the door with everything they need. How do you think we can make mornings easier and happier?”
Kids are more likely to stick with a plan they created themselves. Buy-in happens most often when kids have a hand in creating strategies, and sometimes it’s more important to be functional and efficient than to be right.
Try asking, “What would be your ideal morning routine look like?” or “What would a perfect homework day look like for you?” then help them come up with ways to make those visions real.
Help kids operationalize the systems they create. If it’s a planbook, talk about setting intermediary deadlines. If it’s alarms on a virtual calendar, try different sequences of alerts ahead of a due date. Think of your role in this process like that of the training wheels on your kid’s bike. As our children get more sure of their strategies and systems, we can raise the training wheels up until they are no longer needed at all.
Model: Talk about your own systems, when they fail, why they work for you. As I get older, I find I have to write more things down or I will forget them. When I do, I mention this to my kids, and they have even helped me brainstorm ways to get things down on paper before I lose them to the ether.
Encourage Good Study Habits
Ensure quiet time in your home. Multi-tasking is a myth, especially for kids. Shut off the TV, and if they like to play music, studies show that music with lyrics undermine concentration and productivity.
Ask your kids what their perfect homework routine might look like. Help them create that vision. Some kids might want a break after school to blow off pent-up energy, others may want to get the homework done first so they can get on to free play. Let them choose the space, too. Just because you envisioned a central study location in your home when you designed it does not mean it’s going to be their preferred spot.
Limit phones during homework time. Phones are a distraction when they are in the room, even when they are turned off, one study shows. If they are a distraction for adults, with their fully mature executive function skills, they are even more distracting for kids, whose frontal lobes (and the executive function skills that originate there) won’t be fully mature until their mid-20s.
Model: Let kids see you working distraction-free, in an environment that promotes focus. As ever, kids do what we do, not what we say. Work on your projects the way you’d like to see them doing their work.
Model: When I ask kids what they’d most like me to convey to their parents at my speaking events, one of comments I hear most often is something like: “If you want us to turn our phones off, or spend less time texting with our friends, then parents should do the same.” When we ask kids to make sacrifices we are not willing to make ourselves, they see us.
Communication Between School and Home
When students, parents and teachers communicate openly and honestly with each other about what’s happening at home and in the classroom, everyone can stay focused on the learning.
Keep School-Home Lines of Communication Open
The research is clear: Family involvement and positive home-school communication have been associated with improved grades, positive behavior and attitudes about learning, increased participation and increased attendance. Start by finding out how your child’s teacher would like to be contacted, and honor his or her preferences by sticking to that method.
When something comes up, go to the teacher first, and not to the principal. That is both unfair to both the principal and the teacher. Besides, the principal most likely was not present in your child’s classroom to witness the events in question, so it puts him or her in an awkward position.
Remember the good moments too. Thank teachers for their efforts on behalf of your child. Thanking teachers lets them know that you respect and appreciate what they do and how they do it. I have an envelope full of these notes accumulated over 20 years of teaching Latin, English and writing, and I often refer back to them when I’m having a bad day or feeling unappreciated. Gratitude matters.
Model: Don’t bash or undermine a teacher in front of the kids. Kids hear what you say about their teachers, and it’s essential to preserve the student-teacher relationship at all costs. It can be confusing for kids when parents say negative things about their teachers, just as it’s upsetting when one parent speaks ill of the other during a separation or divorce.
Starting as early as kindergarten, children need to be encouraged to speak up, tell adults what they need, and stand up to people who are not treating them the way they want to be treated. Self-advocacy is a key part of building a child’s sense of self- efficacy, or the understanding that they have the power to control and change their behavior, motivation and environment.
When your children come to you to complain about how another child or a teacher treated them, ask what they said or did (or what they plan to say or do) to make sure they are heard and understood. Simply asking this question can help children reframe the situation and consider what they can do to effect change themselves.
Expect children to be a part of home-school communication from the first day of elementary school and increase your expectations for their involvement each year until your child is the main conduit of information between home and school. You can provide support, of course, but somewhere around the beginning of middle school, your child should take the lead.
Get support for your efforts to boost their self-advocacy. Let teachers know you are making this shift so they can support your child’s efforts to be more effective in their communication.
Coach your children through talking with teachers about problems and talk through the approaches they can take. You can write scripts or role play if a child is anxious about the discussion. This can actually be a fun way to dispel anxiety and play-act the conversation until your child is comfortable.
If children are facing especially stressful challenges as a result of bullying, special education needs or mental health issues, school counselors can be parents’ greatest ally. Today’s school counselors are mental health professionals who are able to guide students in school and provide referrals as needed to other mental health and academic support professionals in the community. They can even direct parents to low-cost or sliding scale providers if needed, and ensure continuity between school-based services and outside providers.
Model: Talk how you ask for help and assert yourself even when it makes you nervous. Explain how you make sure your needs are heard and addressed. If you need to talk to your boss about a misunderstanding at work, make your kid a part of a dinnertime discussion about ways you could approach the conversation. We are, after all, our children’s first teachers when it comes to conflict resolution and self-advocacy.
Work With Their Bodies, Not Against Them
As the best learning happens in the context of healthy brains and bodies, here are some ways to ensure kids are ready and able to learn.
The Link Between Sleep and Learning
Sleep is integral to learning and memory consolidation, so prioritize sleep over other activities. If your child isn’t getting to homework until late, think about what else in the family schedule can move to make that a priority. Talk about scheduling before committing to a new extracurricular activity in the first place.
Less awareness of fatigue. Teens are also less likely to feel the effects of their sleep deprivation, which can lead to falling asleep in school or worse, behind the wheel of a car.
Remember, “catching up” on the weekend does not work because it can throw off children’s circadian rhythms further, compounding the problem.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adolescents try keeping a sleep diary to put the reality of their sleep habits in black and white. It’s hard to claim you are getting enough sleep when the numbers tell a different story.
If your child asks for “just one more hour” for homework or to prepare for a test you can tell them that all other things being equal, an extra hour of sleep will likely be more valuable for memory consolidation than an extra hour of study.
Model: Let kids see you value sleep. Allow the house to get quiet an hour before a reasonable bedtime, put your devices away, pull out a book and keep good sleep habits yourself.
How Kids’ Brains Work
Until fairly recently, scientists believed that because childrens’ brains are done growing by the age of 10, their brains are mature by 10 as well. This could not be further from the truth. Kids’ brains are still developing on a cellular level, in a process that won’t be completed until their mid-20s.
Children’s brains develop in fits and starts, with a first period of massive growth and development between the ages of 1 and 3, and a second during adolescence (between 11 and roughly 25). During these periods of heightened change, their brains are said to be highly “plastic,” meaning they adapt and grow rapidly in response to their environment.
Increased brain plasticity also means increased potential for learning because brain cells morph from their immature, inefficient “gray matter” state to their more mature and efficient “white matter” state, while building up to 100,000 new synapses per second. Brain cells talk to each other via synapses, and it’s a “use it or lose it” situation. The more brain cells talk to each other via these new connections, the greater the brain’s potential to process and learn.
The last part of the brain to mature is the frontal lobe, where organization, time management and all those other executive function skills happen, so be patient. Middle and high school kids can’t possibly manage all the challenges school and society throws at them, so support kids as they try, fail and try again.
Model: Brain power is built through challenge and so-called “desirable difficulties,” learning tasks that lie just a bit beyond our ability level or comfort zone. The more our kids see us take on challenges and learn from our mistakes, the more likely they will be to do the same.
A GOOD WIFE AND HER DIVINE ROLE IN LIBERATING HER HUSBAND
It was my wedding night. I was so tired all I needed was a bath and a rest. We had danced so much my back was aching.
My husband was beginning to have funny ideas. He was beaming like a new-born baby.
Well, I wouldn’t blame him; any man in his position would not joke with this night because I was a warrior during our courtship.
No… no hugging, no pecking, no holding, no touching, no tapping current, no weather for two. SEXUAL PURITY till my marriage was top on my list.
The knock came. I was thinking, half past eleven (11:30pm). “Is that room service,” I wondered. Then, with eyes popping, I heard my mother-in-law’s iron-like voice: “Tise, Michael, open the door!”
Michael jumped up from the bed, rushed to the door and opened it for his mum. My mother-in-law walked in, sat down majestically and asked us to sit down too.
“Tise, I don’t know if anyone ever told you? There is a curse on my husband’s family line. The men in their family don’t prosper. Their wives are the ones who work, and provide for their families.
“This is because, according to the story that I was told, one of their forefathers killed the only son of a great herbalist and the herbalist placed a curse on every son in their lineage, that their hands will never produce or bring forth anything good. Also, their sons must always lose a son amongst their children.”
I watched in amazement as my mother-in-law kept telling the story. Then, she concluded by saying: “In essence, I have just come to let you know that your marriage is not a land of fun but of war.”
Why? Why didn’t she tell me this before now?
Well, in order not to waste her time, I also gave her my history. I said, “Mum, I am sorry, I also did not tell you this before now. I come from a family that fights for those we love. My Father (Jesus Christ) actually died while trying to save His people. My family line does not operate under curses because we are operating under a covenant of blessings – John 1:12-13. Therefore, anyone who is fortunate to marry any one in my family becomes automatically BLESSED! So, Mum, for my sake, your son cannot operate under those curses again.”
My mother-in-law was shocked to say the least. I could tell what she was thinking.
Then it made sense to me. My sisters-in-law always had this gloomy look on their faces and the two of them actually lost their sons.
“Mum, you need to go and rest. My husband and I need to produce two sons this night because in my family line we conceive immediately our husbands meet us,” I concluded.
My mother-in-law stood up with caution and silently walked out. At that moment, all the tiredness vanished as I took Michael’s hands and looked him straight in the eye.
“Listen, I don’t care what you or your ancestors have done, but for my sake you will prosper with these hands,” I said.
“Listen, Paul and some criminals were on a ship and there was a shipwreck.
The soldiers wanted to kill all the criminals to prevent them from escaping, but the army officer stopped them just for the purpose of saving Apostle Paul.
“Michael, for Paul’s sake, the lives of other criminals were preserved. So, sweetheart, because you are married to me, because we are in the same ship, yes, this relationship called marriage, for my sake, you cannot be punished for your1 ancestors’ sins,” I assured him.
That became my prayer plea to God from that day. I kept praying to God to save my husband and our sons for my sake.🙏
To the Glory of God, I have four sons and none of them died. Now they have sons and daughters of their own.
For my sake, my husband’s destiny changed for the best.
You see, women are always great assets to change powers and covenants and destinies, not assets for sex only.
Listen, wife, it doesn’t matter what challenge that man of yours is facing at this point in time. With you on his side praying, ancestral curses will flee out of his life. Women are destined for that; good women are a great blessing to their men.
When a good woman comes into a man’s life, many doors of success, prosperity, joy, love, etc. open, and ancestral curses break down and disappear.
Good women diffuse ancestral curses like a diffused bomb.
Woman, always pray for your man (husband) as you would for a prized friend. Your prayer works for him. Your prayer can save his life from shame. Your prayer can set him free from bondage.🙏🙏 🙏
I GOT MARRIED IN JEANS BUT OUR MARRIAGE GOT SERIOUS
Luke Dani Blue
Editor’s Note: We’ve
been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so
much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real
Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to
the author, and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman
Institute. Submit your Real Relationship story here.
Last February, my
sister-in-law asked my partner, Migueltzinta, “Do you and Luke ever think of
getting married?” At the time, Tzinta and I had been married for four years.
It’s not so surprising
that she would have forgotten. Tzinta and I got married as we do all things: on
our own, impulsive terms and with a (dignified) F-you to social expectations.
In this case, at a courthouse under a papier-mache Valentine’s Day heart, with
a diner breakfast as a celebratory chaser. Migueltzinta wore a tie. I’m pretty
sure I was wearing jeans.
We’d been together for
three and a half years, and already agreed we wanted to be together for life,
when we ordered our fateful seafood molcajete on the balcony of a touristy
restaurant in southern Guadalajara. Octopus tentacles sizzled in the lava rock,
the green salsa bubbled, and the tortillas were soft as worn-in denim. Food
that good merited a dramatic gesture.
“Should we get married?”
I asked. “Okay,” he said. We exchanged a look—I dare you. No, I dare
you—and grinned at each other. Hetero couples and families strolled in the
courtyard below the balcony. We were invisible up there in the dark, savoring
the dish too large and messy for most people to bother ordering, suddenly
engaged. Although we were the only people to whom any of this was a shock, we
loved the feeling of our own outrageousness. How dare we betray expectations by
doing the one thing most expected of any couple, and yet with so little
apparent regard for what it was supposed to mean?
The thing was, we both
said “married” and “wedding” with fingers crooked into quotes. It’s not exactly
that we were too cool for marriage. We were too skeptical. We were trans people
who had spent our childhoods deconstructing girlhood and our adulthoods questioning
and violating the rules of manhood. Tzinta regularly posted nude pictures on
the internet, hashtagging them #ManPussy. I cringed involuntarily when anyone
referred to me with either male or female pronouns, but was going through a
long hair and skirts phase. Because of the vagaries of identification laws, my
revised birth certificate had an ‘M’ on it and butch Tzinta’s had an ‘F’,
meaning that legally, we were straight. This, especially, titillated us.
Marriage was a fancy house we hadn’t been invited into and we wanted to dance
on the sofa in muddy shoes.
We had no plans to be
monogamous, wear rings, change our names, or label either of ourselves husband
or wife or some cutesy genderqueered alternative (wifeband? Hufe?). We
also weren’t going to pretend that stamping our relationship with a “MARRIED”
sticker changed its fundamental makeup, gave it a fresh beginning, or made it
safer. Break-ups still happened to married people, as did jealousy, betrayal,
and loneliness. All marriage meant, really, was that we could visit each other
in the hospital and that no cop or court or interfering parent could split us
up. That felt like one big gay freedom.
This past November,
Tzinta fell in love with a trans guy who lives far away. Swiftly, the rest of
our relationship seemed to collapse too: trust, plans for the future, our
ability to laugh audaciously at the same jokes.
I binged on therapy
podcasts, stayed up all night doing online quizzes about attachment trauma, and
checked out piles of relationship books from the library. Even the best of them
(the ones by Harriet Lerner, the Gottmans, and Esther Perel) tended to describe
predictable behavior dynamics between a male and female partner. The men, it
seemed, were supposed to evade intimacy and seek independence. The women in the
case studies tended to get clingy, dread abandonment, and over-accommodate.
Hungry for any help at
all, I tried my best to apply the examples to our relationship. Which of us is
the man? I found myself wondering. Also, which of us is the woman? Tzinta is,
without question, very manly. He loves western wear, has a well-oiled beard and
when lost in thought, which is often, frowns with crossed arms, gazing into the
middle distance. Like the men in the books, Tzinta kept telling me he wanted
more space and more silence. He wanted to do a solo three-month road trip and
camp the whole way. He wanted lots of sex, with other guys. He wanted to run.
It seemed like lately all he wanted to do was run. Man, man, man.
All I wanted
lately was his approval and attention. I wanted him to walk in the door excited
to see me. I wanted to be enough for him. This qualified me for the woman role.
Maybe. Except that earlier in our relationship, I’d fallen for someone else too
and all I’d wanted then was to push Tzinta away. I’d fantasized about moving
into a studio apartment and single-mindedly pursuing my career with a few
lovers on the side for entertainment. Man?
The fact was, Tzinta fit
the “woman” role better than I did. Besides the stereotypical stuff—he loves
clothes, especially glittery or tight ones; he cries a lot; he’s extremely
empathetic—the reasons he was mad at me were “woman” reasons: I didn’t make him
feel pretty, I didn’t support him, I wasn’t a good listener, I shut down in the
face of his feelings, he was tired of sacrificing his personal desires for
Defeated, I pushed aside
the pile of books and closed the computer. It was late. Exhaustion beat hotly
against the insides of my eyelids. Tzinta was asleep downstairs but he felt a
million miles away. Any other time in our relationship, I could have savored
this joke, knowing I’d share it with him in the morning. “I realized,” I would
say, “that you just have more gender than I do.” It would have been hilarious
to think that Tzinta was both more of a man and more of a
woman than I was, if I hadn’t been terrified that I was about to lose him.
Tzinta was going away for
a long weekend. Our goodbye was chilly. He pushed me away, then cried and
wanted me to come close again. It was the same hot-cold stuff that had been
going on for months. I felt like a spaceship leaving earth’s orbit, Tzinta’s pain
and frustration winking far below before being swept into blackness. I thought,
how much more of this can I take? Tzinta kissed me and the dog, got in the car,
and drove away.
As soon as he was gone,
the blackness of outer space turned out to be a hurt larger than comprehension.
It kept sneaking up and pouncing. I’d thrash on the floor until the mauling
stopped, then get up and continue whatever I’d been doing. It took five hours
to do laundry.
We didn’t talk or text
that weekend. Instead, we contemplated life without one another. It turned out,
as it always seems to, that my life would go on without him. I didn’t like it,
but it was imaginable.
Do fights ever end or do
they just go to sleep? Does love? Maybe, I thought, getting older is knowing
that there is no exit. I could lose Tzinta or not but I would still be wedded
to myself. Still circling my own fears and wounds with whoever else was on
On Monday, Tzinta came
back. I let him in. We talked. For the first time in a long, long while, we
The darkest period in our
eight-year relationship has, I hope, passed. For reasons of their own, Tzinta
and his lover broke up. It didn’t make our problems go away. It didn’t make the
things I’ve done over the years that hurt Tzinta magically erase themselves and
it didn’t make the ways he’s hurt me this year not matter.
Recently, I’ve found
myself thinking about our courthouse wedding. Particularly, about this thing
that happened while we were responding to the courthouse-provided vows. “I do,”
said Tzinta, tears rolling down his cheeks. My hands stiffened in his. I felt
pure fear. Not over the commitment—I had committed to him in my heart months
before—but because of his tears. I had thought getting married didn’t mean
anything other than a beautiful dare, a crazy joyride through heteronormative
convention. But when Tzinta cried, it dawned on me that I missed something.
Some complexity, some reason it could make him weep.
At the time, I thought I
was just embarrassed about my jeans and lack of tears—the general discomfort of
not matching Tzinta’s intensity. Now, though, I wonder if I was, simply, sad.
After all, I had missed the opportunity to make the symbol of marriage my own.
I still don’t believe
that marriage is inherently meaningful or that the four years Tzinta and I have
been married can really be distinguished from the four years we weren’t. In my
mind, the clock of us begins on my birthday in 2011, when we were two near-strangers
shyly grinding in a sweaty queer bar in Mexico City. Each year since then has
added a layer of complexity.
Now, in this pit of
difficulty, love, and effort, is the most married we have ever been. By which I
mean, I think, we’ve done the most growing into and through our emotional bond.
That would be just as true without a piece of paper from Alameda County.
But I wish we had some
vows to fall back on, rather than a list of negatives, like “not monogamous,”
“not embracing false security,” and “not becoming our parents.” In the dark,
it’s good to have a light to circle back to. Something to remind you who the
two of you are together. Even a rule or two would be nice, so long as they were
good ones, like “remember to give compliments” or “go on dates.”
Recently, I said to
Tzinta, “Maybe we should have a real wedding.” He considered that but said it
would feel like we were trying to start over. He didn’t want to start over, he
said. It had been enough work to get to where we were. Hearing that, I again
felt the sadness of a missed opportunity. A weight began to resettle on my
“Let’s do a huge party
for our tenth anniversary instead,” he suggested. And because he is still him,
and I am still me, I said, impulsively, willingly, full of a sense of brightness,
“Okay.” And then, “What food are we going to serve?”
Intimacy is the glue that holds families together. It’s what connects us over the years and across the miles. It’s what gets us through the hard times, and what makes the good times even better. It’s the grease that smooths the rough interactions of everyday life, and the honey that makes it all worth it.
Intimacy is hard to define, but we all know when we’re feeling it. Whether it’s snuggling in the silence of companionship with your partner or crying on your best friend’s shoulder, intimacy is when we feel connected.
How humans build connections with each other, how we deepen them, and how we repair them when they fray is both as simple as a warm smile, yet also as mysterious and unsettling as the way the ground lurches when we see a picture of someone we have loved and lost.
The Gottman Institute has distilled the creation of intimate relationships down to their practical essence. It turns out that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. These are “bids,” as in “bids for attention.” We could also call them overtures, as in the opening movements of an opera, which relies on harmony to succeed.
How bids for attention work
In happy relationships, whether between romantic partners, parents and children, friends, or coworkers, bids are made and responded to in a positive, even if small, way. It almost doesn’t matter what the bid is about; the process of reaching out and receiving a response builds the relationship. It also increases the level of trust so that we are more likely to reach out to that person again, and the content of the bids deepens.
If someone begins a conversation with “I’m worried about my job” and receives an empathetic response, they’re likely to elaborate and maybe ask their partner for support. Their trust in reaching out is rewarded with caring. They both end the interaction feeling closer.
If, on the other hand, their comment is ignored, or greeted with anything that doesn’t feel empathetic, they’re unlikely to make themselves vulnerable, and the relationship loses a chance to deepen. In fact, they’re hurt, so a little wall gets built, and they may be less likely to make bids like that in the future.
Our relationship with our child is built on how we respond to their bids
The same process is enacted with our children in hundreds of daily interactions. If you ask your middle schooler about the upcoming school dance and receive an engaged response, you might venture further and ask whether she’s nervous to take the conversation to a deeper level. If, on the other hand, her response is surly, you might back off.
And, of course, children often test us by saying something negative to see if we’ll empathize. If we respond to their bids with understanding, even though they’re expressing negativity, they’ll trust that we can handle their authentic feelings, and they’ll open up more.
But if we ignore, deny their feelings, correct them or judge, they’ll shut down. If this interaction is repeated often, kids get in the habit of holding their feelings inside. Not only do they not reach out to us, but they more frequently reject our bids to connect with them.
How to use bids to nurture intimacy with your child
1. Notice your child’s bids to you.
The inconvenient thing about a bid from your child is that they initiate whenever they want to, and you can count on being busy doing something else. It takes real self-discipline to tear yourself away from your screen to answer a child’s question, but how you respond to their overture is crucial in building closeness. If you don’t give them your full attention, you’ll have not really responded, or worse, turned away from their bid.
Later, when you try to get your child to tell you about what happened at school today, that’s your bid, and by then, they’ve shut down because you didn’t respond to their initial bid. To support yourself in being more present and available, make it a practice to turn off your screens when you’re with your child.
2. Train yourself to respond with empathy, no matter what the comment is.
If your daughter climbs into the car after school and greets you with a negative comment like “Dad, you know I hate that music, can’t we listen to my music?” or “Mom, I had a terrible day and it’s all your fault because you…” that’s a setup for an argument. But it’s also a bid; she’s asking if you’ll commiserate with her, if you care about what matters to her, if you’ll listen to her problems so she can process her feelings, and if you’ll help her make things better.
You’re only human, so naturally, you feel like snapping at her. But if you can take a deep breath and respond with empathy, you’ll find you can turn the entire situation around. So you might say:
“Really, you don’t like the Rolling Stones? Okay, I’ll turn this off and we can talk while we drive about what music to play so we can find something we both like.”
“Wow, you sound like you had a really terrible day! Tell me about it.”
Later, of course, you can ask if she really thinks her terrible day was all your fault. She’ll almost certainly apologize, and you can tell her that you understand, that it’s okay. In the meantime, instead of a fight, you’ve deepened your relationship.
3. If you don’t get the response you want when you reach out, step back and watch how you initiate.
Are you inviting a positive response? Are you asking them to tell you more about how they feel, or what they’re going through? If what you want is connection, don’t start with correction. Always connect before you correct. Remember The Gottman Institute’s advice for couples: understanding must precede advice. Trying to understand your child’s feelings is trying to connect, and advice and problem-solving can come later.
4. If you make an overture and are greeted with something hurtful — disdain, sarcasm, or a blank stare — try not to respond with anger. Instead, show your vulnerability and hurt.
Let them know how you feel hurt, and turn away before you give in to the temptation to lash out. Your child (or partner!) will likely feel bad about having hurt you, especially since you haven’t escalated drama by attacking back.
Later, when you aren’t feeling hurt and angry, you can tell them how it made you feel to get that response. Try to talk only about your feelings, not about them being wrong, and invite them to share any resentments that were driving their hurtful response to you. Like this:
“Sweetheart, when you said I always take your brother’s side, I felt hurt because I try to hard to be fair, and your voice sounded so angry. But it sounds like you really think I’m being unfair. That must hurt you. Tell me more about why you feel that way.”
5. Make time for intimate interactions in your schedule.
Often, we go whole days or even weeks just moving our kids through their schedules, without taking time to really connect. And most parents can’t imagine where they would find more time to connect.
Try to look for opportunities for intimacy that are already in your schedule, where you can slow down and create an opportunity for closeness. Maybe that’s when you help your daughter with her hair in the morning, and make sure to give her a hug and kiss, or when you’re in the car with your son in the afternoon listening to music you both like, or at bedtime when you lie with your child for ten minutes.
Intimacy is a dance. It deepens or fades through every interaction we have. The good news? Every interaction you have is a chance to shift onto a positive track and deepen your connection to your loved ones. Just paying attention for a week to how you respond when your children reach out to you can shift the whole tone in your family in a positive, harmonious direction full of meaningful overtures and caring responses.
DATING A MAN 16 YEARS YOUNGER FORCED ME TO GROW UP
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute. Submit your Real Relationship story here.
I had given up on love. At 36, my decades-long dream of finding my person and having a family was replaced by a new dream of living a full and happy life as a single woman. I imagined traveling the world, hosting dinner parties for other singles, enjoying the unconditional love of shelter rescues, and pursuing my lifelong dream of writing. Behind me would be the endless disappointments, unmet needs, and invisible feeling that characterized my past relationships. True love, as it seemed, wasn’t going to find me. I surrendered and moved on.
Then one day, I found myself craving a sandwich. I stopped at a deli I liked on my way home from work. He made my veggie on wheat, hold the banana peppers. “Are you a vegetarian?” he asked. I told him I was. He told me about an interesting documentary he’d recently watched on campus about the health benefits of eating plant-based. I admired his tattoos and noticed his sexy voice. Surmising that he was 25 or 26, I considered it a shame that he was too young for me. I was 36. Up until then, I would have thought 35 was too young for me.
A few days later I got another hankering for a veggie sandwich, along with another glimpse of the handsome tattooed sandwich-maker. I was having a good hair day and I felt like flirting. That day I found out his name: Austin. For the next two weeks, I was eating veggie sandwiches like it was my job. Each time I saw him, the nervous energy grew. We were two fumbling idiots interacting with one another. His nervousness fed my nervousness. I could feel my face imitating a tomato whenever he looked at me. My heartbeat sped up. There was an obvious mutual attraction and it was a lot of fun. During that time he had Googled me, read my blog, and found me on social media. He wrote me a message to compliment my writing.
One day he was ringing up my order and asked me when he’d get to see me again. Taken by surprise, I said I was in there all the time and he’d see me in a couple of days. “You know what I mean,” he said, “not here.” I told him to message me. He did so two days later and I gave him my phone number. He called the following day while I was driving down Charlotte Street. I appreciated his approach—showing clear interest but not being overly eager. I‘d prepared to let him down easy. “I’m freshly out of a relationship,” I told him. “I’m not ready to jump into something new. Besides, I’m certain you are too young for me.”
“Souls don’t have an age,” he said.
“Ok, fine. How old is your current human incarnation?” I asked, teasingly. He laughed.
“I’m 21,” he said. I nearly drove off the road.
“Like I said,” I continued, “you’re too young and I’m not looking to date right now anyway.”
“Ok, how about we be friends then? I just want to know you.”
I was a bit reluctant but made plans to have a drink with him “just as friends” the following Sunday afternoon. We met at a restaurant called The King James. The conversation was seamless. He had such depth to him and a beautiful openness. After 20 minutes we had our first kiss and I knew I was in trouble. An hour later, I was in love.
I didn’t believe it could last. Yet, there was just something so alluring and captivating about him that I could not resist. The connection between us was so immense that I decided it’d be worth riding it out until it crashed and burned, which I was sure it would, and soon. And when it did, I’d collapse into a heap of ashes then put myself back together and I’d have no regrets. To feel this adored, to have this passion raging inside of me, to be this engulfed in pure ecstasy, even for a week or two, was worth having my heart shattered into millions of pieces. I loved who I was when I was with him—vulnerable, playful, generous, and care-free. I gave it two months tops.
Four years later, he is lying here beside me watching a documentary on his iPhone as I type this. We have plans to be married in 2020, a year from now. But before you begin to imagine that it’s been an ongoing state of bliss all this time, allow me to set things straight: this has been the most painful and challenging relationship of my life.
For several months we were obscenely obsessed with one another, spending long periods of time staring into each other’s eyes and expressing, with a great deal of emotion, how lucky we both felt to have found one another. “Who are you?” I’d ask him. “Where did you come from?” he’d ask me. We were mesmerized by and enamored with each other. It truly was a full-blown addiction. We were “that” couple—the one you love to hate.
Even so, I spent the first two years waiting for it all to fall apart. I was afraid to be all-in, daily scanning for signs that it was bound to fail. I believe it was Thoreau who said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Every time I saw in him a quality that drew me in, I searched for two that repelled me, and of course, I found them. Yes, he’s deep and heart-centered, but he takes too many naps and plays video games. Sure he’s willing to learn and grow in relationship, but he is forgetful and overly-sensitive. He’s wonderfully observant and tuned-in, but he is moody and doesn’t save any money. And on and on.
This behavior almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I risked losing it all and never really knowing what might have been. I came dangerously close to that. I was ruled by fear and woundedness rather than love and wholeness. I hadn’t yet learned how to love, only to feel love. And I hadn’t yet healed the wounds that produced maladaptive patterns in me, caused me to deeply hurt the person I love, and resist and push away the thing I wanted more than anything in the world—a raw and uninhibited love, a safe and trusting union, a beautiful and unbreakable bond—with him.
Realizing how much I wanted a life with him terrified me. It felt cruel that it was possible for me to want this man, THIS man, 16 years my junior and who I believed was sure to abandon and hurt me. And so I tried to destroy my desire by collecting any flaw, error, and inconsistency I could find and hurling them at him one by one. The deeper I fell, the more fearful I became, and the more I looked for imperfections to point out and criticize. I thought I might stop loving him if I realized just how deeply flawed and immature he was. Instead, I had given him good reason to leave me, and I was more fearful than ever that he would.
Before long, we were caught up in a destructive and painful pattern. We would send sweet texts during the day, call to check in, “Hi baby, how is your day going? I miss you so much. Can’t wait to see you. What can I do for you? I’m so grateful for you.” Then we’d be up all night fighting—“You only care about yourself! Nothing is good enough for you! You don’t listen to me! Leave me alone! I can’t do this anymore!”
In the morning he’d reach out from his side of the bed and gently touch my back. I’d turn around and we’d hug and apologize profusely to each other. We’d talk about how awful it is to fight like that and how we’re done doing it and we’re just gonna love each other and be kind and gentle. “I love you, you’re everything I’ve ever dreamed of and I’ll love you forever. I hate you, you’re my worst nightmare and I’m gone.” That became the bipolar tone of our relationship that tortured us both for over 2 years.
My main fear has been “can I really trust him or will he abandon me?” His has been “can I really trust her or will she keep doubting me and us?” From day one, he has believed that we are soulmates and that we are destined to find our way and be together. He claims he knew I was “the one” immediately. I came into the relationship somewhat more skeptical about ideas such as fate and destiny. Whatever differences between us have been revealed, he has been accepting. The only thing he’s ever criticized about me is the way I’ve judged and criticized him.
This is the first relationship I’ve ever been in that has forced me to heal myself and become more conscious. He is young, but also very solid. He knows who he is, what he needs, and what he wants. He is secure and maintains healthy boundaries. He has immense faith. He is romantic and melancholic, stubborn and emotional, artistic and wild. When he’s carrying any, he always gives cash to the homeless people he passes on the street. Sometimes he prays with them. The biggest surprise I’ve encountered is how much I have had to mature and grow in order to create something lasting with him. I can’t become complacent with him. I can’t take him for granted. He won’t have it.
Last year I went into counseling to address my unhealed pain and to learn how to love. Since doing so I have made the courageous choice to choose him and this relationship fully. I have learned to intentionally lift up and admire what makes him unlike anyone I have ever known and absolutely irresistible, and to accept him for everything that he is, including much younger. I’ve matured emotionally and psychologically. This process for me has been one of growing up enough to be able to surrender to what is true for me: I’m crazy in love with a much younger man and I’m scared to death. I’m so lucky to get to love and be loved like this, and I need to honor and cherish this man and what we share.
The fear that the age gap will eventually catch up to us never leaves me. Neither does the untamed love I feel for him. I get excited when he calls. I look forward to our time together. We dance together, goof around and laugh hysterically, cry together during sad scenes in movies, and baby talk to our two dogs, with whom we are both grossly obsessed. Being with him brings me an unrelenting joy on a daily basis. We fight about the typical things: laundry, cleaning, money, and the rest of it. We have a normal relationship in most ways. He’s young, but home most nights, not out at the bars night after night like many of his peers. He tells me that he’s not like most people his age.
There is some humor that comes with the age gap, like when I had to explain to him who The Cranberries were, or when I don’t understand some of the slang people his age use, which he finds adorable. He really likes it when I say something is “dope.” We allow ourselves to be influenced by each other. I think this really helps. We hang out with one another’s friends and listen to each other’s favorite music. I feel young and alive with him. He is very proud of being with an older woman.
Loving and planning a future with a much younger man is, for me, the happiest and most brutal thing I have ever experienced, as well as the most transformative. What I’ve always wanted is right here, and now I have so much to lose. We read together, listen to podcasts, and watch videos about how to build a healthy relationship. We have deep conversations about life, spirituality, and love. We both enjoy a wide range of music from various decades. He wants to take dance and cooking classes together. We praise each other. We make each other better. He also plays video games, likes to get high, listens to gangster rap, and had never done his own laundry or scrubbed a single toilet before we moved in together.
He reads Jesus while I read Jung. I drink coffee and he drinks sweet tea. I binge watch Gossip Girl and he binges dinosaur documentaries.
It’s all quite terrifying and fantastically elating.
There have been numerous times when I would wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and been overcome with the grief of when it would be over. I would look over at him and try with all my might to just fully appreciate that at that moment he was right there. He was with me. We were together. Right then I had the greatest love I could have ever hoped to know. This gangster rap loving, video-game playing, dinosaur-obsessed man makes me giddy as hell and I want him with me forever.
I don’t know what the future holds for us or where we’ll end up. I do know our love is real. It’s been tested. Things got really, really bad, and we’re both still here. And I know being with him is what I want. The love between us lives on and has even become stronger. We talk about how perplexing it is that our feelings for each other just seem to continue to grow and grow, unhindered by familiarity, immense hardship, or fear. We can’t explain it, but we’re so grateful for it.
He’s 25 now, and I’m 41. While I no longer fear people are going to look at us funny when they realize we are a couple, I still worry that one day, as we age, as I grow older, age won’t just be a number but a reason the relationship can no longer work. I’ll realize it was too much to hope to spend the rest of my life with him. Or maybe I’ll learn that love really does conquer all, even a 16-year age gap relationship in which the woman is the older partner.
“Love is trembling happiness,” wrote Kahlil Gibran. Those words resonate with me so deeply that they are now permanently inked on my back.
Relationships are about giving up control and surrendering, which is terrifying. And while doing that isn’t a guarantee it’ll work out, it gives us our best chance. No matter what, I’ll have no regrets. I’m all in ‘til the end.
A year ago, my toddler accidentally stabbed me
in the right eye with a Doc McStuffins otoscope. I can’t really blame her.
First of all, she was 2. Secondly, she had an ear infection, and I was trying
to give her medicine, and so got extremely close to her face. She was flailing
her arms in self-defense, and she just happened to have that purple plastic toy
in one of her hands.
I tried to shrug off the injury. I went to
work and suffered through several meetings. Then I went to buy an eye patch,
thinking if I just closed my eye for long enough it would feel better. It
didn’t help, and made me look like a pirate.
Later that day, I went to an ophthalmologist,
who told me that I had a corneal abrasion and gave me prescription eye drops. I
asked if this was a common injury for parents of young children, and he said
yes, but that usually he sees it in parents of infants, who scratch their
parents’ eyes with their talon-sharp nails. I was lucky that there was no
lasting damage to my poor peeper.
Anecdotally, we at NYT Parenting have heard
from many people who were accidentally injured by their small children. The
biggest offenders are stepped-on Legos and L.O.L. Surprise! doll detritus, but
head-butting is also an issue for parents of babies, who tend to have poor
motor skills. Teresa Bowen-Spinelli, M.D., an emergency room physician in New
York, said it’s typical to see twisted or broken ankles from tripping over toys
and broken noses from head-butting.
But also, for men, she’s seen “injury to
genitalia.” Maybe a kid throws a ball or swings a bat in unfortunately close
range of your nethers, or you’re roughhousing and get an errant foot to the
groin. Dr. Bowen-Spinelli said, however, that she’s never seen a really bad
case of injured genitals, “because kids don’t exert that much brute force.”
So, how do you prevent injury by your little
ones, who by definition can’t fully control their limbs yet, and who aren’t
great at recognizing their physical limitations? Aaron E. Carroll, M.D., an NYT Parenting contributor and a professor of
pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, said that the first thing
to do is to be aware of the unpredictability of their thrashing. Understand
that little kids “don’t have the guardrails of personal space,” and don’t
understand when they “need to be more careful about flailing around,” he said.
“They don’t have the same kind of differentiation between emotional and
physical actions. When they might be frustrated or upset,” they don’t know how
not to react physically.
With babies who are still getting their necks
in control, be careful about getting very close to their faces, Dr. Carroll
said. Both doctors recommended being mindful of your baby’s nails, and making
sure to trim them frequently, for your safety but also for the baby’s. (If
clipping your baby’s nails freaks you out, filing them is a good option, Dr.
Carroll said. Dr. Bowen-Spinelli recommended cutting babies’ nails while they
sleep, because they may struggle less.) If you’re giving your kid medicine she
doesn’t want, as I did, Dr. Carroll suggested making it a two-person job, where
one caretaker holds down the kid’s arms while the other squirts antibiotics
into her mouth.
If your kid does accidentally hurt you, Dr.
Carroll recommended keeping that string of expletives that you undoubtedly want
to shout under control. “If it is by accident, don’t overreact, don’t scream
and yell,” Dr. Carroll said. If your child is old enough (for many by age 2,
though you know your kid’s cognitive abilities best), try to give him positive
instruction about watching where he puts his body. And make sure you’re giving
what Dr. Carroll calls “anticipatory guidance.” Which is to say: If your
3-year-old is learning how to play tennis, keep a close eye on that racket,
because you can bet that a preschooler with a racket is capable of causing
accidental physical damage.
Overall, though, some of these injuries may
not be preventable — part of the fun of kids is their physical spontaneity and
excitable play, and we don’t want to take that away from them, or from us. But,
dudes, you may want to wear a cup.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.” – Psalm 139:23-24 NKJV
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to love open, honest, and authentic people—and how difficult it is to even like defensive, dishonest people who are living in denial?
A good definition of denial has been called Truth Decay. In the long run denial can be extremely destructive to one’s physical, mental and spiritual health—and also destructive to relationships, and to the emotional and spiritual health of families and societies.
True, as children many of us were forced to build defenses around our feelings in order to survive. However, as adults we need to rid ourselves of unhealthy defenses in order to fully live and fully love—that is, to live productive lives and develop healthy, lasting and loving relationships. As long as I live behind a mask—no matter how attractive that mask may appear—I can never feel loved because my mask is not me. Only real people can get close to others and experience intimacy and real love.
Furthermore, the more dishonest I am with my inner self (my true feelings and motives), the more I will distort all other truth—including God’s truth—to make it match my perception of reality, and use it to justify my behavior. Ultimately I end up unhappily believing my own lies.
So where do we begin to overcome the problem of denial, which may very well be the most destructive personal and societal problem we have?
First, let’s call denial what it is. It’s SIN—and a destructive sin at that. Remember, it’s just as big a sin to lie to myself as it is to lie to anyone else. We can call poison by any name we like, but poison is still poison. Same goes for sin. We can call it freedom of choice, misspeak, or by any other fancy name to give it a sugar coating and make it sound attractive, but that makes it all the more deceptive and dangerous.
Second, confession. Remember that we change the world one person at a time. The first person to start with is myself. I need to realize that I can be as guilty of the sin of denial as anyone else and come to God with a genuine and humble heart asking him to “search my heart” and reveal to me, no matter how painful it may be, any areas in my life where I may be in denial and to confront me with the truth about myself.
Third, realize that without access to the truth there is no healing or recovery of individuals or societies, and there is no freedom but self-deceptive bondage. As Jesus said, only the truth sets people free (see John 8:32). It is not without good reason that God “desires truth in our innermost being.”
Fourth, accept the fact that pain was the way into denial and pain is the way out of it. As they say in AA, “It’s not the truth that hurts us but letting go of the lies.” Indeed, facing one’s truth can be painful but incredibly freeing and ultimately fulfilling. I say painful because it usually takes painful experiences to break through our self-defeating defenses.
Finally, the pursuit of truth needs to be a life-long journey. It is a journey that leads to fully living and fully loving—and ultimately to life everlasting. Lies are of the devil and ultimately lead to hell here on earth and in the life to come.
“Dear God, in the
words of the psalmist, ‘Search me . . . and know my heart. Try me, and know my
anxieties. And see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way
everlasting.’ No matter what the cost, please deliver me from the sin of
denial. Thank You for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus’