God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants.” Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well full of water. She quickly filled her water container and gave the boy a drink. ─ Genesis 21:17-19 NLT
Encouragement for Single Parents
It’s been called the hardest job on the planet—being a single
parent. Well it can be overwhelming, but being a single parent is more than
just a job. If you’re a single parent
today, you need to know that you have more strength than you realize. You are
going to make it. God is going to supply your need just as He provided for
Hagar and Ishmael in the desert in our scripture for today.
Here are five things successful single parents
Forgiveness – it’s imperative for you to reach the point of
forgiveness. We are to forgive one another just as Christ forgave us.
Unforgiveness hurts you, and often harms your kids.
Goals – start working toward new goals. Consider and pray about
God’s intention for you as a single parent to raise your children His
Friendships – make sure the friends you bring into your life are
healthy relationships. You need people who are going to take you to another
level of growth in different areas of your life.
Boundaries – establish healthy boundaries and enforce them.
Expectations – set realistic expectations and dream new dreams
if the dreams you had before you became a single parent are gone. Be open to
new ideas and a new direction for your life.
As a single mom or dad, you are not stuck. It’s tough, but just
as God opened Hagar’s eyes to see His provision, He will also show you His way.
How do you respond to your strong-willed child? Can you do
So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. ─ Galatians 6:9 NLT
Today’s One Thing
Review the list above of the five things single parents think about and choose one area to focus on for this week. Spend time in prayer about it, and then take necessary action steps to move forward in that area.
1 MORE WAY TO QUIET THE NEGATIVE VOICES INSIDE YOU
It’s Sunday, and I want to remind you of another effective
method for quieting that negative inner voice of yours. But first, let’s
examine a super-common mistake negative people make…
Negative people are often proud to describe themselves as
“realists.” Of course, anyone who holds a strong belief thinks they
are being “realistic” by holding it, whether it involves UFO
encounters or perfectly truthful politicians.
The “being more realistic” declaration is a
favorite of cynics everywhere. And in a way they are correct. But only because
negative thinking causes us not to try – or if we do try, to do it
half-heartedly and give up sooner – so the negativity itself influences our
outcomes. Self-fulfilling predictions like this really do happen. Research has
even found that in some cases what we believe about our health can have more
bearing on how long we live than our actual health.
What makes all of this so scary is the fact that it means
negative thoughts can plague us even when things seem to be going relatively
well. For instance, the thought “It’s too good to last!” quickly wrecks havoc
on a positive situation. Thus, my tip today has to do with how negative
thinking can distort your perception…
Stop yourself from over-generalizing the negative (and
minimizing the positive).
Ask yourself: “If something negative unexpectedly happens, do
I over-generalize it? Do I view it as applying to everything and being
permanent rather than compartmentalizing it to one place and time?”
For example, if someone turns you down for a date, do you
spread the negativity beyond that person, time, and place by telling yourself:
“Relationships never work out for me, ever”? If you fail an exam do you say to
yourself, “Well, I failed that exam; I’m not happy about it, but I’ll study
harder next time”? Or do you over-generalize it by telling yourself you’re “not
smart enough” or “incapable of learning”?
Remember, negative thinking stops us from seeing and
experiencing positive outcomes, even when they happen often. It’s as if there’s
a special mental block filtering out all the positives and only letting in data
that confirms the ‘negative bias.’ So, do your best to catch yourself today.
Being able to distinguish between the negativity you imagine
and what is actually happening in your life is an important step towards living
a happier life.
And of course, if you’re struggling with any of this, know
that you are not alone. Many of us are right there with you, working hard to
feel better, think more clearly, and get our lives back on track.
It’s a dull, subdued sensation when your heart is breaking,
like the muffled sound of a distant gunshot. It doesn’t physically pierce your
skin or tear you to pieces, but the sensation is physically present – the
paralyzing discomfort of realizing that something you took for granted is
leaving for good.
Although it’s hard to accept at first, this is actually a
good sign, having a broken heart. It means you have loved something, you have
tried for something, and you have let life teach you.
Life will attempt to break you down sometimes; nothing and no
one can completely protect you from this reality. Remaining alone and hiding
from the world won’t either, for endless, stagnant solitude will also break you
with unhealthy nostalgia and yearning.
You have to stand back up and put yourself out there again.
Your heart is stronger than you realize. I’ve been there and I’ve seen
heartbreak through to the other side. It takes time, effort and patience.
Deep heartbreak is kind of like being lost in the woods –
every direction leads to nowhere at first. When you are standing in a forest of
darkness, you cannot see any light that could ever lead you home. But if you
wait for the sun to rise again, and listen when someone assures you that they
themselves have stood in that same dark place, and have since moved forward
with their life, oftentimes this will bring the hope that’s needed.
It’s so hard to give you advice when you’ve got a broken
heart, but some words can heal, and this is my attempt to give you hope. You
are stronger than you know!
1. The person you liked or loved in the past, who treated you
like dirt repeatedly, has nothing intellectually or spiritually to offer you in
the present moment, but more headaches and heartache.
2. When you don’t get what you want, sometimes it’s necessary
preparation, and other times it’s necessary protection. But the time is never
wasted. It’s a step on your journey. Someday you’re going look back on this
time in your life as such an important time of grieving and growing. You will
see that you were in mourning and your heart was breaking, but your life was
3. Some chapters in our lives have to close without closure.
There’s no point in losing yourself by trying to hold on to what’s not meant to
stay. Remember this, and always keep two simple questions in mind: What
opportunities do I have right now? What’s one small, positive step forward I
can take today?
4. One of the hardest lessons to learn: You cannot change
other people. Every interaction, rejection and heartbreaking lesson is an
opportunity to change yourself only. And there is great freedom and piece of
mind to be found in this awareness.
5. It’s always better to be alone than to be in bad company.
And when you do decide to give someone a chance, do so because you’re truly
better off with this person. Don’t do it just for the sake of not being alone.
6. Be determined to be positive. Understand that the greater
part of your misery or unhappiness from this point forward is determined not by
your circumstances, but by your attitude.
And of course, if you’re struggling with any of this, know
that you are not alone. Many of us
are right there with you, working hard to feel better, think more clearly, and
get our lives back on track.
When things aren’t adding up in your life, begin subtracting.
Busyness is an illness.
Think about your own life and the lives of those close to you. Most of us have a tendency to do as much as we possibly can—cramming every waking minute with events, extravagances, tasks and obligations.
We think doing more will get us more satisfaction, success, etc. When oftentimes the exact opposite is true.
Less can be far more rewarding in the long run. But we’re so set in our ways that we can’t see this.
When we work, we shift from one task to the next quickly and continuously, or we multi-task—juggling five things at once until the end of the day… and yet we still feel like we haven’t done enough of the right stuff.
When we finally break away for some healthy exercise, we tend to push ourselves as hard as we possibly can… until we’re exhausted and sore, and less likely to want to exercise tomorrow.
When we go to a nice restaurant, we want to try all the appetizers, drinks and entrees, indulging in as much deliciousness as we possibly can… and we leave feeling bloated, sometimes uncomfortably so, and then our waistlines stretch.
When we travel to a new city, we want to see it all—every landmark and every photo op—so we do as much as physically possible… and we return home from our trip utterly exhausted.
How can we tame our urge to do too much?
Simply focus more on doing less every step of the way.
Be mindful of the urge to over-do it.
It’s taken me awhile to get the hang of it, but I’m getting there…
When I’m working, I do just one thing at a time with full focus. And when I catch myself multi-tasking or feeling overwhelmed, I’ll clear everything off my plate and make a list of just one to three key tasks I absolutely need to complete by the end of the day. And yes, sometimes this list is just one thing long, because it helps me focus on what’s truly important and not feel overwhelmed.
When I went to the gym two days ago, I had the urge to push myself to my max. I noticed this and instead decided to let that urge go. I did a solid 45-minute workout, but left some fuel in my tank. Yesterday, I went back to the gym and I put in another 45 minutes at a similar pace. This morning, I would have been happy to do the same, but I decided to take a light jog instead. My exercise regimen is sustainable, and that’s why I rarely injure myself or miss a day.
When I sit down at a nice restaurant, I don’t try to taste and eat as much as possible. Instead, I leave the table satisfied, but not bloated. I eat less than I used to. This is something I still struggle with at times, because it isn’t easy. It takes practice. The result, however, is that I feel significantly better after each meal and my waistline thanks me.
When I travel to a new city, I don’t try to do it all. I choose a few things to do, and I take my time. I then leave the city knowing that there’s plenty to see on my next visit—I leave myself wanting more of a wonderful thing.
Anyway, I hope you will join me on this journey.
Let’s do a little less… and make the less we do count for even more.
Here are five signs now is the right time to do just that:
You feel overwhelmed by all there is to do. – Remember, overcommitting is the single biggest mistake most people make that makes life stressful and overwhelming. It’s tempting to fill in every waking moment of the day with to-do list tasks, events, obligations and distractions. Don’t do this to yourself. You CANNOT do it all. You have to let some things GO!
You’re actually trying (consciously or subconsciously) to do it all. – Another major issue that keeps so many of us stuck in a debilitating cycle of busyness is the fantasy in our minds that we can be everything to everyone, everywhere at once, and a hero on all fronts. But, of course, that’s not reality. The reality is we’re not Superman or Wonder Woman—we’re human, and we have limits. We have to let go of this idea of doing everything and pleasing everyone and being everywhere at once. You’re either going to do a few things well, or do everything poorly. That’s the truth.
You have no time to appreciate the space in your day. – Your life isn’t just about the things you do—it’s also about the open space between the things. That means the space itself is something to be appreciated as well. So, for example, if you spend your morning meditating and reading, the morning isn’t just valuable because of the meditation and reading—the space around those two activities is also incredible. The time spent walking over to your meditation mat, or finding your book, or turning the pages, or pouring a cup of tea, or sitting and watching the sunrise… these little open spaces are just as important as anything else. Pace yourself so you’re not hurrying from one thing to the next, but instead noticing and appreciating the spaces in between, too.
You have lost track of your priorities. – Priorities don’t get done automatically. You have to make time for what’s important to you—time with your significant other, time with your kids, time for creating, time for learning, time for exercise, etc. Push everything else aside to make time. By saying no to more things that sound really exciting, you get to say yes to more of what’s truly important.
Your physical space is a cluttered mess. – If you don’t have enough time to keep your physical space organized, you’re doing too many of the wrong things. Period. And there’s a good chance you’re buying too many of the wrong things too. Decluttering your physical space can lead to a less cluttered mental space—needless clutter pulls on us and distracts us in more ways than we often realize. So remember, the question of what you want present in your physical space with you is essentially the question of how you want to live your life.
I want to leave you with two quotes from our friend Joshua Becker’s book, The More of Less, because I just re-read it and absolutely love how his sentiment coincidentally compliments this blog post:
“Our excessive possessions (and obligations) are not making us happy. Even worse, they are taking us away from the things that do. Once we let go of the things that don’t matter, we are free to pursue all the things that really do matter.”
“Sometimes, minimizing possessions (and obligations) means a dream must die. But this is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it takes giving up the person we wanted to be in order to fully appreciate the person we can actually become.”
Cheers to making life simple again! 🙂
In what way do you need to start doing less? Leave a comment and share your thoughts and stories with us.
Because thinking negatively, expecting “the worst,” seeing the downside of
positive situations, and even downright expecting failure, all convey a kind of
backwards-thinking, emotional insurance policy. It goes something like, “If I
expect a tragedy, then I won’t be disappointed when it takes place.”
Of course, this is NOT what we truly want or need in our lives. So how can we
stop talking ourselves into these thinking traps? Let’s take a look at two
powerful ways to quiet the negative inner voice that leads us astray:
1. Start focusing on the grey area between the extremes.
Life simply isn’t black or white – 100% of this or 100% of that – all or
nothing. Thinking in extremes like this is a fast way to misery, because
negative thinking tends to view any situation that’s less than perfect as being
extremely bad. For example:
Rather than the rainstorm slowing down my
commute home from work, instead “it wasted my whole evening and ruined my
Rather than just accepting the nervousness of
meeting a new group of people, “I know these people are not going to like me.”
99.9% of all situations in life are less than perfect, black and white thinking
tends to make us focus on the negative – the drama, the failures, and the worst
case scenarios. Sure catastrophes occur on occasion, but contrary to what you
may see on the evening news, most of life occurs in a grey area between the
extremes of bliss and devastation.
2. Stop looking for negative signs from others.
Too often we jump to conclusions, only to cause ourselves and others
unnecessary worry, hurt, and anger. If someone says one thing, don’t assume
they mean something else. If they say nothing at all, don’t assume their
silence has some hidden, negative connotation.
Thinking negatively will inevitably lead you to interpret everything another
person does as being negative, especially when you are uncertain about what the
other person is thinking. For instance, “He hasn’t called, so he must not want
to talk to me,” or, “She only said that to be nice, but she doesn’t really mean
Assigning meaning to a situation before you have the whole story makes you more
likely to believe that the uncertainty you feel (based on lack of knowing) is a
negative sign. On the flip-side, holding off on assigning meaning to an
incomplete story is a primary key to overcoming negative thinking. When you
think more positively, or simply more clearly about the facts, you’ll be able
to evaluate all possible reasons you can think of, not just the negative ones.
In other words, you’ll be doing more of: “I don’t know why he hasn’t called
yet, but maybe… he’s actually extremely busy at work today.”
able to distinguish between what you imagine and what is actually happening in
your life is an important step towards living a happier life.
And of course, if you’re struggling with any of this, know that you are
not alone. Many of us are right there with you, working hard to feel
better, think more clearly, and get our lives back on track.
While on a business trip in
Chicago last month, I accidentally slept for 12 hours. I fell asleep at 9:30
p.m. local time and didn’t set an alarm, because I figured there was no way I
would sleep past 7:30 a.m. Cue me waking with a jolt at 9:30 a.m., and only
because housekeeping knocked on the door. I probably could have gone a solid 14
if left uninterrupted.
This sleep binge was unexpected,
because I thought I had been getting good rest lately. My kids haven’t been
sauntering into our bedroom at 3 a.m. for nonsense reasons, and though I don’t
track it, I probably get between seven and eight hours of sleep most nights.
And yet, when given the chance, my body told me I needed to sleep indefinitely.
The last time I covered why parents are so freaking tired, I talked about fragmented sleep being a big culprit of parental
exhaustion — interrupted sleep can make you feel as tired as not getting enough
sleep. But what if, like me, you’re getting uninterrupted sleep and your kids
are not babies and you still feel like a fistful of crushed-up
car seat Cheerios?
Anecdotally, I’m not the only one
who feels this way. Being tired when you have kids is so expected it’s a
cliché, and the subject of an estimated 40 percent of dad jokes. That’s why I
was surprised to look at numbers culled from the American Time Use Survey — a Bureau of Labor Statistics
data set that measures the way we spend our days — and see that moms and dads
with young children are sleeping, on average, more than eight hours (480 minutes) a night, whether they are
single or coupled. (Mothers tend to sleep longer, but their sleep is also
If interrupted sleep is not the
only reason for exhaustion, what else is going on for parents? Leah Ruppanner,
an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne, said part
of the issue might be that during the day, parents feel more “time pressure” — which she describes as “not enough time, too
much going on.”
Time pressure means that even
though some parents are technically getting adequate sleep at night, they still
feel exhausted. “Kids bring an intensity of demands that makes people feel time
poor,” she said, and she has described the time pressure that mothers, in
particular, feel as “a chronic stress that slowly deteriorates their health.”
Another reason parents might be
feeling tired after eight hours of sleep is if they have wildly different
wake-up times on different days. “If your schedule is shifting back and forth,
you’re unlikely to feel refreshed or have good quality sleep,” said Dr.
Christine Won, medical director of the Yale Centers for Sleep Medicine.
Here’s the bad news for those of
us who like to sleep in on the weekends and let our children zombie out in
front of the television: If you’re waking up early during the week because of
your kids, you “have to settle for that as a permanent wake-up time,” Dr. Won
said. If a never-ending 6 a.m. wake-up call makes you want to die, Dr. Won
recommended 30-60 minutes of bright light therapy right after you wake up,
either from a light box (Wirecutter has recommendations for good ones) or from
Dr. Won said strategic caffeine
use is fine if you have trouble waking up, but keep it to the mornings, and no
more than two cups a day — otherwise you’ll have difficulty falling asleep, or
suffer from sleep fragmentation.
For parents whose children are
still having frequent night wakings that cause sleep fragmentation, Dr. Won
said a power nap can do wonders. Limit your cap nap to 20-40 minutes, and you
should not nap less than six hours before going to sleep — so if bedtime is at
10 p.m., the power nap should happen before 4 p.m. This seems more realistic
for me than waking up every day at 6. If you are getting solid, regular sleep
at consistent hours and you still feel worn out, it’s worth
getting a checkup, Dr. Won said, to rule out other health problems.
Finally, Ruppanner has a theory
she has not yet studied, but that makes a lot of intuitive sense to me: Parents
may feel exhausted because the quality, not just the quantity, of their leisure
time has diminished. There is research showing that parents take less leisure time than non-parents, and that mothers
take less leisure time and have more fragmented leisure time than fathers do. But
Ruppanner theorized that even time parents are reporting as leisure is actually
used productively. For example, parents aren’t just watching TV, they’re also
folding laundry and filling out school forms and thinking about the grocery
list (that good ol’ mental load).
Though weekday power naps may be
in my future, I have no regrets about the half-day sleep marathon I took in
that hotel room. I felt like a superhero afterward.
Actor Misha Collins remembers a nomadic childhood grounded only by his mother’s cooking.
If you’d met me at a party 10 years ago, I would have told you that my childhood had just been one great adventure after another. When my family lived in a tent in the woods, we used an old galvanized tub filled with cool water as our refrigerator. We fashioned pantry shelves from corrugated sheet metal lashed to two young maple trees, and my mother developed a method for making her signature mushroom frittata in the coals of our campfire.
Times were often lean, but one luxury we always had in abundance was food — even if it came by way of a five-finger discount. My mother taught me how to steal peaches from the Stop & Shop grocery store when I was 4. (The secret, in case you’re wondering, is to look relaxed, not guilty.) Our backpacks heavy with purloined groceries, we’d distract the cashier by casually buying a few inexpensive items with food stamps — a loaf of bread and maybe a carton of milk. We were stealing from “the man”; it was a justified rebellion against an unjust system.
We’d make our escape in a battered black Chevy Nova. When reverse stopped working, my mother started parking on hills so gravity could pull us out again. Then we lost third gear, then first, and finally we abandoned the car in a ditch on the side of a rutted dirt road. After that we hiked through the forest to the school bus and rode our bikes down to the river with a bar of soap to take our baths. When we needed to go the distance, we’d hitch a ride.
Mom took me, my brother and our dog hitchhiking from Boston to Seattle the summer I turned 6. We rode high up in the cabs of 18-wheelers and slept in a sun-bleached canvas tent in Midwestern wheat fields. We saw black bear and bighorn sheep and Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Instead of passing the time with Play-Doh and papier-mâché crafting like other families, we made cardboard signs that read “No Nukes” and carried them proudly at marches all along the East Coast from Washington, D.C., to Seabrook, N.H.; along the way, we learned about the Cold War and civil rights and chanted, “Power to the people!”
We hopped into slow-moving, empty boxcars on freight trains and scored hot meals at soup kitchens. Occasionally, on our journeys, the kindness of strangers would bring unexpected bounty. I remember being awestruck at our good fortune once when a lady in a pickup stopped at our tent on the side of a road to give us a $14 gift certificate to Abdow’s Big Boy. We feasted.
“We’re gypsies,” my mom would whisper — as if our constant migration was part of a long heritage, full of mystique and magic. I went to a different school every year, sometimes two schools in a year, but class was always optional, and I skipped school often for “mama-and-Misha days” to play pirates or make pickles or pick Concord grapes for jam. When we didn’t have a home, we called it “camping out” — we didn’t think of ourselves as homeless.
My upbringing taught me that you didn’t need money to be happy, that you didn’t have to play by the rules and that the whole world was just begging to be explored. But now, from the hindsight of fatherhood (and from the comfort of a therapist’s couch), I see that while my childhood had been rife with adventure, it had also been lonely and frightening and wanting.
When I became a parent myself, I started to recognize the hidden costs of the adventures in my early years: I had grown up surrounded by danger. At 9 and 7, my kids still find most Pixar movies too scary, but when I was 10, I was getting sunburnt working on a cucumber farm and was haunted with recurring nightmares about nuclear holocaust after watching apocalyptic movies at the art-house theater with my mom. A trucker once propositioned my mother for sex — and left us standing in the rain on the shoulder of the highway when she refused. I notice I’m reluctant to tell these pieces of the story that might tarnish the rosy picture of the past that my mother has painted.
Mom didn’t have money for babysitters, and sometimes when I was as young as 6, I was left alone to watch my little brother. We survived, but in truth, 6-year-olds make pretty terrible babysitters. I once sent my own 6-year-old downstairs alone so I could get another half-hour of sleep, but I was soon awoken by a high-pitched scream. My daughter, set on making me breakfast in bed, had coated the kitchen floor with olive oil so that she could rollerblade more swiftly while making waffles. It did not end well.
My kids are living a distinctly different childhood from my own. They’ve had the same friends since preschool, a posse that moves together sure-footedly through lost teeth and first crushes and learning how to read and ride their bikes. My family had moved 15 times by the time I was in high school. We changed towns so often that I more or less stopped making friends for fear of losing them, and I never really grew to know any place to be a home. I was too ashamed to bring schoolmates home — at 10, I would never have considered letting the other fifth graders into the strange-smelling, windowless, shower-less room that we sheltered in that winter.
But, even when we were squatting in an office space or hitching across the country, my mother managed to create a sense of home around meals. Whether she was cooking chicken soup on an electric hot plate or we were sitting on a log eating eggplant parmesan prepared on a campfire, Mom fed us with thoughtful attention. She showed her love daily through the food she cooked. Dinner was our anchor — consistent and soothing, it knit the three of us together, it made our little world feel safe.
I recently found an old journal in a box in the back of my closet. And on the page from a decade ago where I had taken inventory of the good and bad of my upbringing, the word “cooking” is circled and underlined with urgency in the “+” column as if I was thinking that food had been the cornerstone of happiness in my youth.
My children came at a time when my acting career took center stage. I was traveling almost weekly, working almost constantly. Swept up in the whirlwind of just-discovered celebrity, I was often gone, and when I was home I was sometimes only there in body, with my mind elsewhere. Needless to say, family meals took fourth fiddle, and my wife and I fell into a pattern of convenience. We fed the kids what we thought they’d eat (the greatest hits of bland and beige) and then fed ourselves after they finally went to sleep.
One morning, just home from 10 days of publicity travel in Europe, I was up at 4 a.m., jet-lagged, and a cold kept my daughter, Maison, awake, too. We were downstairs together when she stopped sorting her rock collection to interrupt my iPhone-addled trance. “Dad, you’re away so much that sometimes it feels like I just have one parent,” she said. Hearing her say that, I felt like I was failing at fatherhood — I wondered if I had become an incarnation of my own often-absent dad.
I wanted to tell my youngest child that there was no place I’d rather be than with her, that I was here and that I always would be. But instead of saying those words, I set down my phone and I told her I loved her in the clearest way that I know how. “Maison,” I said, “if you could have any breakfast this morning, what would it be?” And before sunrise we had finished a feast of cheese and spinach omelets and raspberry waffles with whipped cream and peppermint tea.
You might want to nag or scold, but positive
reinforcement is more effective.
As a child psychiatrist, I have spent eons in school studying
developmental psychology and human behavior. Learning this, you might assume
that I would know all the research on effective parenting techniques and be a
perfect parent myself. You would be wrong on both counts.
There was a
question that I wanted to answer, for me as a father as well as for the parents
whom I counsel in my private practice: “If your child is doing something that
is not harmful, but is also not especially adaptive or appropriate, when and
how often should you correct her behavior?”
your 5-year-old is eating peas with her fingers; she’s not hurting anyone, but
the grandparents are coming over in two weeks and you’d like to show them that
you’ve instilled some basic table manners. Or, when my 9-year-old greets an
adult while staring at his shoes, when and how often should I remind him about
the importance of eye contact to increase the chances that he’ll actually start
attempting it? In my field, the consensus on certain parenting techniques is
clear: Repeated studies have shown that spanking is damaging and ineffective, for
example. The harmful effects of yelling and shaming, too, have been widely
publicized. But what does the research have to say about the mild, low-level
scolding and nagging that so many parents engage in?
After many hours
spent reading studies on this topic and interviewing experts, I concluded that
I was asking the wrong question. When I asked Alan Kazdin, the director of the
Yale Parenting Center and the author of over 700 articles and books on child-rearing,
when you should correct behavior you’d like your child to change, his answer
was straightforward: “Never!” According to Dr. Kazdin, it is never helpful or
effective to scold or nag a child about behavior that’s not harming anyone.
“Don’t attend to the eating of peas with fingers,” Dr. Kazdin said. “If you
give attention to something, the behavior you don’t want could actually
Hearing this, I
was surprised and a little embarrassed. I can think of dozens of times that I
have reprimanded my son (usually gently) for behaviors that were socially
inappropriate or merely annoying. When I dug into the research on this topic,
though, I learned that Dr. Kazdin was right: Not only is scolding ineffective
for long-term behavior change, it can actually make certain behaviors worse.
studies suggest that certain approaches — standing close to the child,
maintaining eye contact and speaking softly — may increase the effectiveness of a scolding.
But if you want permanent change in the behavior, the evidence is lacking for
scolding as an effective technique.
So, if we are
looking to decrease behaviors that are socially inappropriate, instead of
asking when you should correct your child’s behavior, the better question is
probably “How should
you modify a child’s behavior to be more appropriate?” Daniel Bagner, a
professor of psychology and the director of the Early Childhood Behavior Lab at
Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families, told me
that after identifying the behavior they want to change (a child looking down
at her shoes when greeting an adult, for example), parents should “identify the
positive opposite of the behavior, such as making eye contact, and consistently
provide positive consequences, such as praise, when the child displays the
it is important for parents to implement the positive consequence immediately after
the child’s behavior.”
This idea is
also sometimes referred to as “catch them being good.” There is ample evidence
that positive reinforcement — providing something positive right after a
behavior — is very effective in increasing how often that behavior occurs. What
Dr. Bagner is saying is that instead of focusing on the behavior you don’t want,
find times when your child is exhibiting the behavior you do want
and give that behavior lots of attention.
Dr. Kazdin gave
me a very similar message, but I asked him, “What if your child never does the
positive opposite behavior, such as making eye contact when greeting people?”
Dr. Kazdin said that the secret in that case was to use something called “differential reinforcement.” This is where you
find a behavior that is close to the behavior you are trying to get and
positively reinforce that behavior. For example, Dr. Kazdin said, “In the
example of your child avoiding eye contact, when you go in a room together, ask
them to look up. Or say ‘I bet you can’t look up.’ Then, when they do look up,
say something like ‘Nice job looking up, that was great’ and smile and give
them a pat on the shoulder.” If you keep doing this every time your child looks
up, Dr. Kazdin said, he will start to do so more often. And any time you
“catch” him making eye contact, positively reinforce that, too. Eventually, you
will have more eye contact and less looking at shoes.
technique that experts agree on is that, since children tend to enjoy games, it
is possible to use games to improve behavior in a fun way that still gets
results. In the example of a child eating peas with her fingers, Dr. Kazdin
proposed turning it into a contest. “Tell them ‘we’re going to have a game. The
winner is the person who can put one pea on their fork and put it up to their
lips the slowest. I’ll show you.’
model slowly lifting a pea to your lips on the fork. As soon as your child does
it, praise them to reinforce the behavior. Then after the game is over, don’t
mention it the rest of dinner.”
I reached out to
Jane McGonigal, a best-selling author, game designer, and the director of games
research and development at the Institute for the Future. “As a parent, when
I’m trying to influence my child’s behavior, I would leverage one of the
phenomena we see in gaming, which is that kids love being better at their
favorite video games than their parents,” she said.
“So, I would
create a game where I would ask my kid to help me do the thing I want them to
do. I would ask them to try to spot me not using my fork and eating with my
fingers, or to notice if I’m not looking someone in the eye,” she added, “and I
would enlist their cooperation in this way and turn it into a multiplayer game
where they know more than me and they are helping me. This would give me the
chance to model for them why the behavior matters, by thanking them and
explaining why I want help remembering.
instead of trying to directly change the behavior and telling them what to do,
let them experience the fun of ‘owning’ the behavior and being in charge of
telling me what to do.”
more about the science of behavior change, I have been hesitant to give up
scolding because it’s easy for me and automatic. But I have been trying
positive reinforcement more with my own children and have been thrilled with
Kazdin’s advice, I made a game out of eye contact for my 9-year-old son. I said
“I bet you can’t look me in the eye for 10 seconds straight.” He proudly proved
me wrong. Now, each time he makes even two seconds of eye contact with me, I
smile and touch his shoulder and say something like “Great job making eye
takes a little more attention and self-discipline on my part, but my son’s
ability to make eye contact has been steadily improving, with no more scolding
or nagging from me.
THE ONE DAILY TALK THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP
When Steven gets home from work, his partner Katie asks him, “How was your day, dear?” Their conversation goes like this.
Steven: At my weekly meeting my manager challenged my knowledge of our products and told the CEO that I am incompetent. She’s such a jerk.
Katie: There you go again. Overacting and blaming your manager. When I met her she seemed very logical and reasonable. You’re probably being insensitive to her worries about your department. (siding with the enemy)
Steven: The woman has it out for me.
Katie: And there’s your paranoia. You really need to get a handle on that. (criticism)
Steven: Forget I ever said anything.
Do you think Steven feels love by Katie in this moment?
Learning to cope with external pressures and tensions outside your relationship is crucial to a relationship’s long-term health, according to research by Neil Jacobson.
A simple, effective way for couples to earn deposits in their emotional bank account is to reunite at the end of the day and talk about how it went. This is called the “How was your day, dear?” conversation, or more formally, the Stress-Reducing Conversation.
Like Steven and Katie, many couples have the “How was your day, dear?” conversation but the talk does not help either partner relax. Instead it escalates the stress and tension between them because they end up not feeling heard.
If this sounds like you and your partner, changing your approach to these end-of-the-day talks can ensure that they help both of you unwind.
The 4 Agreements of Love Talk
Before you start your end-of-the-day discussion, I’d recommend making some agreements. Agreements are what I use with my clients to bring their unspoken expectations into view.
Agreement #1: Agree on Timing Some individuals want to connect the moment they walk into the door. Others need to decompress on their own before they’re ready to interact. When this expectation goes unspoken it can create tension and leave both partners feeling missed by each other. Agree on a time that will meet both of your needs. This can be at 7 pm every night or it can be 10 minutes after both of you get home.
Agreement #2: Dedicate Your Presence for 20-30 Minutes Some couples struggle because they don’t spend enough time in the presence of each other to allow love to be cultivated. Take time to truly connect during this conversation.
Agreement #3: Don’t Discuss Your Marriage This talk gives you and your partner the space to discuss about whatever is on your mind outside your marriage. It is not the time to bring up conflicts between you. Instead, it’s a chance to truly support each other in other areas of your life.
This conversation is a form of active listening in which you respond to each other’s venting with empathy and without judgement. Since the issues have nothing to do with the marriage, it’s much easier to express support and understanding of your partner’s worries and stresses.
Agreement #4: All Emotions are Welcome This conversation is an opportunity to unload about irritants or issues, both big and small. If your partner shares sadness, fear, or anger and it feels uncomfortable, it may be time to explore why. Often this discomfort is rooted in childhood restrictions against expressing negative emotions. If this is the case, check out “Coping with Your Partner’s Sadness, Fear, and Anger” on page 103 in The Seven Principles That Make Marriage Work.
Allow this space to be a place of celebration too. If you have a victory at work or as a parent, mention that. Beyond sharing frustrations, a relationship is about sharing and relishing in the victories of life together. That’s what makes it meaningful.
7 Steps to an Effective End-of-Day Conversation
Below are detailed instructions for using active listening during the stress-reducing and intimacy building conversation.
1. Take turns. Let each partner be the complainer for fifteen minutes.
2. Show Compassion. It’s very easy to let your mind wander, but losing yourself will make your partner feel like you’ve lost touch with them. Stay focused on them. Ask questions to understand. Make eye contact.
3. Don’t provide unsolicited solutions. It’s natural to want to fix problems or make our lover feel better when they express pain. Often partners just want an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Unless your partner has asked for help, don’t try to fix the problem, change how they feel, or rescue them. Just be present with them.
Men get caught up in this trap more frequently than women, but it is not the man’s responsibility to rescue his partner. Often trying to “save her” backfires. In the Love Lab, Dr. John Gottman noticed that when a wife shares her troubles, she reacts negatively to her husband offering advice right away. What she wants is to be heard and understood.
It’s not that problem-solving doesn’t have it’s place. It is important, but as psychologist Haim Ginott says, “Understanding must precede advice.” It’s only when your partner feels fully understood that they will be receptive to suggestions.
4. Express your understanding and validate emotions. Let your spouse know that you understand what they are saying. Here’s a list of phrases I have my clients use.
“Hearing that makes perfect sense why you’re upset.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“I totally agree with how you see it.”
“I’d be stressed too.”
“That would have hurt my feelings too.”
5. Take your partner’s side. Express support of your partner’s view even if you feel their perspective is unreasonable. If you back the opposition, your lover will be resentful. When your partner reaches out for emotional support (rather than advice), your role is not to cast judgement or to tell them what to do. It’s your job to express empathy.
6. Adopt a “We Against Others” attitude. If your partner is feeling alone while facing difficulty, express that you are there with them and you two are in this together.
7. Be Affectionate. Touch is one of the most expressive ways we can love our partners. As your partner talks, hold them or put an arm on their shoulder. Hold that space for them and love them through thick and thin.
Here is how the conversation changed after these instructions were given to Steven and Katie.
Katie: How was your day, dear?
Steven: At my weekly meeting my manager challenged my knowledge of our products and told the CEO that I am incompetent. She’s such a jerk.
Katie: What a jerk! She is so rude. (us against others) What did you say to her? (expressing genuine interest)
Steven: I told her I feel like she is out to get me and it’s not fair. I am the number one salesman on the floor.
Katie: I completely understand why you feel like that. I’m sorry she’s doing this to you. (expressing affection) She needs to get taken care of. (us against others)
Steven: I agree, but I think she’s doing it to herself. The CEO doesn’t appreciate her telling him everyone is incompetent but her. It’s probably best to leave it alone.
Katie: I’m glad he’s is aware of that. It’s not good and will backfire sooner or later.
Steven: I hope so. I feel like pizza, cuddles, and a movie tonight. You in?
Katie: Of course, love.
If you have this conversation everyday, it can’t help but benefit your relationship. You’ll come away with the feeling that your partner is on your side, and that’s one of the foundations of a long-lasting friendship.
THE 3 KEY NON-CONFLICT INGREDIENTS FOR CONSTRUCTIVE CONFLICT
My partner took me out to celebrate my birthday over dinner and surprised me with axe throwing.
As my partner hit the bulls-eye and smiled at me, I thought to myself how she was, without a doubt, my best friend.
I’m sure you’re aware of the cliche, “Marry your best friend.”
Just like other cliches, there’s a reason it’s around.
Hint: because it’s TRUE.
There are three parts of a strong friendship based on longitudinal research of emotionally connected couples:1
One: Up To Date Love Maps
A love map is when a partner asks open-ended questions to get to know their partner better, creating a map of their partner’s inner world.
During dating, partners do this frequently. They ask questions about work, family, and each other’s likes and dislikes. Successful couples continue to ask these seemingly “basic” questions throughout life, especially around life transitions such as a new job, moving, having a kid, etc.
For example, before surprising me with axe throwing, my partner began teasing me that she bought us tickets to a concert knowing fully well that I do not find concerts pleasurable.
I felt very unseen in that moment . I started thinking, If she actually bought us concert tickets, then she doesn’t really know me. I feared that she had a bad love map of my inner world.
But when she surprised me with axe throwing, something I do enjoy, I felt known. I remember thinking, What a great surprise and a fun way for us to spend time together.
When couples do not continue to update their intimate knowledge throughout time, it’s easy to feel emotionally distant and for each partner’s satisfaction to decline over time.
So go update your love map of your partner by asking an open-ended question. For ideas, click here.
Two: Frequent Expressions of Affection, Appreciation, and Admiration
When observing 3,000 couples interact during an “events of the day” conversation and a conflict conversation, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues noticed that emotionally connected couples had a habit of looking for what their partner does right and pointing it out.
Even as simple as, “I really appreciate you cooking dinner tonight. It was delicious!”
Couples with high levels of admiration speak positively about their partners to others. These emotionally connected couples are also verbally and physically affectionate with each other.
Couples who struggle with this area of the relationship tend to have a habit of noticing and pointing out the negatives in their partner’s behavior or character. Oftentimes, this leads to escalating conflict or avoidance of one another.
Have you developed the habit of being affectionate, appreciative, and admiring in your relationship? This is often one area that all the couples I work with benefit from by adding it back into their relationship.
Three: Respond to Bids For Connection by Turning Towards Your Partner
Every day, partners make hundreds of bids for connection. Even unhappy couples. These bids can be as indirect and as small as a sigh or as big and direct as “I need a hug right now.”
Whenever a bid is expressed, partners have the choice to connect with their partner’s bid.
Attachment theory indicates that how available, responsive, and engaged partners are, influence how secure the attachment bond between partners is.
At its basic level, when we make bids for connection we are asking the question “A.R.E. you there for me?”
When that answer is yes, we relax and focus on other things or being playful.
When that answer is no, we struggle. We wonder if we can trust our partner. Insecurity seeps in.
Ironically, after watching 900 clips of couples having conflict conversations, Drs. John and Julie Gottman came to the conclusion that most often couples fight about “nothing.”
Often it is less about the topic and more about “Can I trust you to be there for me?” “Will you seek to understand me?” “Can I count on you?” “Will you work with me to build a better relationship?”
Trust is built moment to moment when we connect with our partners. We know they can count on us and we can count on them.
These three ingredients mix together like concrete and are the foundation by which a relationship succeeds or breaks apart.
Couples who continue to build these three aspects of friendship within their relationship have been proven in observational studies to have a better time navigating conflict. After all, if you are close friends, it’s easier to feel like intimate allies in life and come together when things are difficult.
These traits of friendship provide partners with the ability to see their relationship for all of the great things it is – their shared humor, their affection, and the presence of positive aspects necessary to have healthy and constructive conflict.
This in turn enables them to transform their problems into material for constructing a stronger relationship, brick by brick.
Not only do these aspects assist with conflict, but they’re also shown to be the basis on which romance, passion, and good sex happen.
Getting to continuously know your partner, expressing all of the things you admire and appreciate, and consistently responding to their bids for attention strengthen the foundation of your romantic relationship.