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.
I’VE NEVER GIVEN BIRTH – BUT I’VE DONE MY SHARE OF ‘PARENTING’
In communities like the one I grew up in, nannies are a rarity, but a ‘village’ of neighbors and relatives can be counted on to pitch in with child care.
At 27, I’ve never given birth and I’ve never been pregnant. But I like to joke that I have “children.” I didn’t intend to spend my preteen and teenage years helping to raise several of my neighbors’ children. But somehow, children always found me.
My first baby was J, whose mother moved into the apartment next to ours when I was in elementary school in Ridgewood, Queens. I helped her clean her apartment some Saturdays, and she’d help me bake brownies. We watched ’90s telenovelas together – it was J’s mother, and not my own, who explained the plotline of “La Usurpadora” to me.
When I was 11 she told my family that she was pregnant. My mom explained that the situation behind our neighbor’s pregnancy was complicated, and that she would need our support. So I looked at sonograms, helped her carry heavy bags, and painted the baby’s room. My siblings and I pitched in to organize and set up the baby shower. And right after J was born, I slept on my neighbor’s couch, getting up at 2 a.m. to help fix his bottle and feed him. I almost fell asleep at school that first week, but I liked helping out. J was tiny and warm and he smelled like milk, and I loved sitting in my neighbor’s living room, rocking him to sleep. I used to wonder what kind of job he’d want in the future, if he’d look like his mom, or if he’d be tall.
My neighbor fainted when she went into labor and broke her leg, so she was put on bed rest to help her recover. During this period, she struggled with severe mood swings. I didn’t know what postpartum depression was at the time; all I knew was that after someone had a baby, they became sad and tired and would sometimes wear the same house dress for over a week.
I couldn’t comfort my neighbor like her relatives or my mom could, and I certainly couldn’t understand why having a baby seemed to have made her so stressed out and unhappy. But I could help her care for her son. I was excited to finally meet J. I talked to him while I changed his diapers, I marveled at how tiny his toes were, and I practically cried when he started trying to gurgle responses to my questions.
I was there when J started learning how to walk and talk, and I was there when he started drawing recognizable pictures of things like airplanes and cars. I pushed J in his stroller while I followed his mom around grocery shopping, at doctors’ appointments, and on beach trips. My house name, Anga, was one of the first names J learned to pronounce. When he learned to read, J and I would help each other pick picture books. J liked anything to do with airplanes and animals so I always made sure to help him find those in the piles of books his mom had in her bedroom closet. I’d walk him to activities when his mom couldn’t and, as my parents often babysat J too, he was around pretty often.
But his early grade-school years were hard. J had trouble behaving, and I often had to mediate between him and his mother. I was still just a high schooler myself, but J and his mom had always felt like family. I wanted to do anything I could to make sure they would be O.K., even though I was really frustrated with his behavior, too.
“I don’t want to do laundry,” I remember him yelling at his mom. “I’m not going to the laundromat.”
I handed him his sneakers and walked with him to the laundromat. He complained and cried the whole time but I just kept handing him clothing to sort. Some days he’d refuse to get ready for school, or to leave the front steps of our building. My parents and I would help get J to school, convince him to do some chores, and talk to him about listening to his mom.
When I was in college, I’d drop J off at summer camp before heading to my summer class or summer job. On days when I was too busy to drop J off, a family friend whose daughters attended the same camp would take him. But his mom would tell me that he’d cry whenever I wasn’t there.
“The other girls are nice too, walking with them isn’t so bad,” I told him.
“Yeah, but I want to walk with you, not them,” he said.
J eventually started getting help for some of his behavioral issues, which made hanging out with him and his mom easier. As he transitioned into middle school, I didn’t have to watch him as often, but we’d go for walks sometimes and we’d hang out on my old block and talk about comic books and fan fiction.
I think of J as my “first baby,” but he wasn’t the only one. After I started high school, my nephews were born, and I graduated from one kid to a set of three. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I’d remember what I did with J and it helped me through my auntie shifts with diaper explosions, middle-of-the-night bottles of milk, and the terrible twos. I’d take my nephews to the park, help watch them when my brother and sister-in-law ran errands, and I’d get them to finally go to sleep by telling bedtime story after bedtime story.
As I started meeting more people outside my community, I learned that affluent people didn’t always rely on neighbors and relatives and would hire nannies or babysitters. Most people from working-class communities don’t have nannies. But they have people like me.
Around that time, I learned that my mom had also helped care for her nieces and nephews, and the children of close friends, before having her own kids. My dad, who grew up as the middle child of 13 on a mountainside in Puerto Rico, practically raised his last two siblings. His older sister was taken out of school to help raise him. My maternal grandmother helped raise a lot of my mom’s younger cousins. She also helped raise me, and I helped take care of her for a while after she had a stroke when I was in high school. I’ve just carried on the tradition of “adopting” kids and and keeping them safe.
When I finally moved out of my parents’ home, I made sure to find an apartment in the same neighborhood so that I could still visit my nephews and still stop by to visit J and his mom. My nephews are in middle school now and tell me about their crushes and the teachers they like. They come over to my apartment and we sing Bad Bunny lyrics, make snacks, or go hang out on their front steps.
J is a teen now. He’s taller than me, really tan, and has a headful of beautiful curly hair. He likes video games and anime T-shirts.
“Were you my main babysitter?” he asked me a few months ago. “I remember seeing you around all the time.”
We were both sitting on my bed hanging out and catching up.
“I was always there,” I reminded him. I had missed seeing him around thanks to my crazy schedule when I was freelancing and working two jobs.
J watched the Fourth of July fireworks from our rooftop with me and my family this year. We talked about anime series that we both liked, and he told me about school and asked me about freelancing. We compared classic series and he nagged me about not finishing season three of “Attack on Titan.” We walked around after the fireworks and looked at stupid memes on his phone. It felt like hanging around a much younger brother again.
“How’s high school?” I asked him.
He rolled his eyes and then laughed.
“It’s not so bad actually.”
“At least it doesn’t suck as much as middle school,” I told him.
He asked to hang out again, and I told him I’d shoot him a text and that we’d go get lunch soon. We’ve messaged a few times, and if I go for too long without hearing from him, I reach out again or stop by to visit J and his mom. I’m proud that J is growing up and learning how to be comfortable with himself. And I like to think that hearing him out and doing my best to be patient helped him grow up to be the teenager he is today.
I’m still part of J’s village. And he’s part of mine.
said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” – Revelation 3:19, NIV
Nine-year-old Al had disobeyed his father who, as a strict disciplinarian, sent
him with a note to a police station in London. When Al came in late after
curfew, his father met him at the door and handed him a note and said,
“Take it to the jailhouse.”
Al was terrified.
“The officer, a friend of his father, opens the note, reads it, and nods,.
‘Follow me.’ He leads the wide-eyed youngster to a jail cell, opens the door,
and tells him to enter. The officer clangs the door shut. ‘This is what we do
to naughty boys,’ he explains and walks away…. The jail sentence lasts only
five minutes. But those five minutes felt like five months. Al never forgot
that day. The sound of the clanging door, he often told people, stayed with him
the rest of his life.
“The fear of losing a father’s love exacts a high toll. Al spent the rest
of his life hearing the clanging door. That early taste of terror contributed
to his lifelong devotion to creating the same in others. For Al—Alfred
Hitchcock—made a career out of scaring people.” (From UpWords from
Max Lucado, www.maxlucado.com)
True, discipline is important, but it always needs to fit the crime. Some
children are impaired for life because of severe punishment as a child. Others
are left terrified if they were beaten severely or abused. It is imperative
that parents never discipline out of anger because that is punishment, not
discipline. Discipline always needs to be in love.
Those whom God loves, he disciplines in love—not punishes in anger. We need to
do the same with our children.
God, thank You that when You discipline me it is always out of Your love for me
and for my good. Help me to do the same when disciplining my children. May it
always be in love and never out of anger. Thank You for hearing and answering
my prayer. Gratefully in Jesus’ name, amen.”
Do your children feel led or pushed? Or asked another way, are you as a
parent dominated by love or frustration? The two questions are inexorably tied
together. Leading is born out of love and pushing is born out of frustration.
Too often as parents we tell our children that we demand obedience and speak
sharply because we love them and only want the best for them. Most likely our
children are not buying this explanation. It feels to them as if they are being
pushed into doing what mum and dad want.
In contrast, notice the sequence of thought and actions in Deuteronomy
6:5-7: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and
with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be
upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit
at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get
First, you are to love God with every fiber of your being, with all that
you have to offer as a human living and being sustained by the grace of God.
Second, the commands of God are to dominate your inner being because of
your profound love for God.
Third, these commands are to be deeply implanted into the lives of your
children during every event and opportunity that God brings to you each day.
So, you as a parent are to deeply love God with all that you are as a
person. This love is expressed by drinking deeply of his commands so that your
heart is permeated with them. Then, this love for God and his commands is to
overflow from your heart into the everyday situations of life that you and your
It is this combination of loving God and living out His commands that
will allow you to impress the love you have for God into the lives of your
children. In this sense no pushing is required. This is what it means to lead.
Even as you embrace this deep love for God that Deuteronomy requires you to
have, your children will be still the same sinful creatures that desperately
need the grace of God. The difference will be that you will not be pushing them
to grasp what remains elusive to you. Rather you will be leading them to the
same place that you long to go – to the cross.
film produced for the UnLonely Film Festival and Conference last month
featured a young woman who, as a college freshman, felt painfully alone.
She desperately missed her familiar haunts and high school buddies who seemed,
on Facebook at least, to be having the time of their lives.
It reminded me of a distressing time I had as an 18-year-old
college sophomore — feeling friendless, unhappy and desperate to get out of
I visited the university health clinic where an astute psychologist examined my
high school records, including a long list of extracurricular activities, and
noted that I had done only schoolwork during my first year in college.
nothing the matter with you that wouldn’t be fixed by your becoming more
integrated into the college community,” she said. She urged me to get involved
with something that would connect me to students with similar interests.
I protested that as a biochemistry major with classes six
mornings a week and four afternoon labs, I had no time for extracurricular
activities. And she countered: “You have to find time. It’s essential to your
health and a successful college experience.”
better option, I joined a monthly student-run magazine that fit into my
demanding academic schedule. I soon fell in love with interviewing researchers
and writing up their work. I also befriended a faculty adviser to the magazine,
a grandfatherly professor who encouraged me to expand my horizons and follow my
Two years later as a college senior and the magazine’s editor, I
traded courses in physical chemistry and advanced biochemistry for news
reporting and magazine writing.
rest is history. Armed with a master’s degree in science writing and two years
as a general assignment reporter, at 24 I was hired by The New York Times as a
science writer, a job I have loved for 53 years. In making rewarding social
connections in college, I not only conquered loneliness, I found a path to a
connections, in a very real way, are keys to happiness and health,” noted Dr.
Jeremy Nobel, founder of the UnLonely Project and faculty member in primary
care at Harvard Medical School. In an opinion piece in The Boston Globe written with
Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, these
experts stated that loneliness and social isolation play “an outsized role” in
preventable deaths by suicide.
They urged that social relationships be considered a national
public health priority “to roll back those heartbreaking, preventable deaths of
But it’s not just young people who are lonely. “More than a
third of adults are chronically lonely, and 65 percent of people are seriously
lonely some of the time,” Dr. Nobel said in an interview. Among the groups with
especially high rates of loneliness are veterans, 20 of whom take their own
lives each day on average. Even half of chief executives experience loneliness (it
can be lonely at the top), a state that can adversely affect job performance.
The rate of persistent loneliness is also high among older
adults, who, in addition to limitations imposed by chronic illness, may suffer
the isolating effects of mobility issues, lack of transportation and untreated
However, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at
Brigham Young University, told the UnLonely conference that no one is immune to
the toxic effects of social isolation. “It’s so distressing, it’s been used as
a form of punishment and torture,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said.
“Loneliness saps vitality, impairs productivity and diminishes
enjoyment of life,” Drs. Nobel and Williams wrote. Its effects on health match
that of obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing the
risk of an early death by 30 percent.
The aim of the UnLonely Project, Dr. Nobel said, is to raise
awareness of its increasing incidence and harmful effects and reduce the stigma
— the feelings of embarrassment — related to it.
“We want people
to know that loneliness is not their fault and to encourage them to become
engaged in programs that can diminish it,” he said. One program featured in the
film festival depicts a group of older women in the Harlem neighborhood in New
York who participate in synchronized swimming. One of the women
said she didn’t even know how to swim when she joined the group but now
wouldn’t miss a session.
In Augusta, Ga., in partnership with AARP, a program of painting
together, as well as music and dance, was created for caregivers who often have
little opportunity to connect with others and reap the benefits of mutual
support and friendship.
Doing something creative and nurturing helps both caregivers and
people struggling with serious chronic illness get outside themselves and feel
more connected, Dr. Ruth Oratz, medical oncologist at New York University
Langone Medical Center, told the conference, convened by the Foundation for Art
The foundation’s goal, Dr. Nobel said, is to promote the use of
creative arts to bring people together and foster health and healing through
activities like writing, music, visual arts, gardening, textile arts like
knitting, crocheting and needlework, and even culinary arts.
“Loneliness won’t just make you miserable — it will kill you,”
Dr. Nobel said. “Creative arts expression has the power to connect you to
yourself and others. How about a monthly potluck supper? It’s so simple, such a
great way to be connected as well as eat good food.”
Much of modern life, though seeming to promote connectivity, has
had the opposite effect of fostering social isolation and loneliness, experts
say. According to the foundation, “Internet and social media engagement
exacerbates feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.”
rarely relate intimate tales of misery and isolation on Facebook. Rather,
social media postings typically feature fun and friendship, and people who lack
them are likely to feel left out and bereft. Electronic communications often
replace personal, face-to-face interactions and the subtle signals of distress
and messages of warmth and caring such interactions can convey.
So consider making a date this week to meet a
friend for coffee, dinner, a visit to a museum or simply a walk. Online
communities like Meetup.com can be a good source for finding others with common
interests. If nothing else, pick up the phone and have a conversation with
someone. Chances are, you will both be better off for it.
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.
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.