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Part One: Don’t Worry: There’s Hidden Treasure in Sibling Battles

My oldest went off to college in the Fall, leaving his two younger siblings behind.

I wondered how his leaving would impact our family dynamic. And now, seven months in, I have an idea (hint: it’s not pretty).

What’s emerged is a fierceness between the remaining two. It’s like a cushion has been removed and now there’s the raw friction of two hard stones, one sharp (older one needing to be boss) and one holding firm (younger showing resolve to hold her own).

Side note: when I spoke to the kids about how I’d be depicting them for this article, they argued that they were each the one standing firm while the other was the nudger and antagonizer — confirming that there’s never “one true story” of what’s going on….

It reminds me of what Ken Kesey wrote in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “It’s the truth even if it never happened.”

Because I’ve parented for a while now, I know this dynamic, whatever it is, will change. It always does. But sometimes a simple dinner with the two of them is akin to nails running down the chalkboard. I’d love to run screaming from room and it makes me wonder, HOW IN THE WORLD DID I CREATE THESE MONSTERS?!

The other night at dinner we talked about what we could do to help improve the situation. My daughter (the younger one) decided that she’d make signs reminding us all of important relationship behavior.

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IMG_0978I love how her drawings show different perspectives.

Once she’d created them she didn’t care to hash it out any further….

This is often the case with kids — it’s the DOING that’s important — not the processing.

Since she made these reminders, I’ve actually noticed more harmony – crazy magic.

The good the bad and the ugly news is that sibling issues, while highly irritating and button pressing, are normal and to be expected.

If you had brothers and sisters, think back to your own childhood… what did you learn from them?

Here’s a list from parents in my Parenting with Positive Discipline series:

  • how to tease
  • how to manipulate
  • how to negotiate
  • how to take turns/share
  • how to stand up for someone
  • how to keep company
  • how to eat fast
  • how to hate intensely
  • how to love intensely
  • how to be loyal
  • how to fight
  • how to defend
  • how to ask for what you want or need

Sound familiar?

My sister recently shared Jeffery Kluger’s Ted talk, “The sibling bond,” with me and my brother. Mr. Kluger tells stories illustrating the powerful influence siblings have on each other.

Here’s what stood out for me:.

There may be no relationship that affects us more profoundly than that of our siblings– none closer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with woe than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters. The sibling bond can be a thing of abiding love, our parents leave us too early, our spouses come along too late, our siblings are the only ones who are with us for the entire ride – over the arch of decades – there may be nothing that defines us and forms us more powerfully than our relationship with our brothers and sisters.

Siblings learn when to stand up for themselves, when to stand down – love, loyalty, honesty, sharing, caring, compromise, the disclosure of secrets and the keeping of confidences.

Siblings may be among the richest harvests of the time we have here.

And finally (I’ve paraphrased),

Will it impact how we respond to sibling fighting if view it through this lens? I think so. Relationships are messy — we’re all learning all of the time.

When nails scratch their way down the chalkboard, take heart. Know you’re in good company. Breath, remove yourself if you can, and remember that tremendous learning is happening.

This week view sibling battles as opportunities to learn life lessons. Notice what’s being learned in your house? Notice what lessons you’d like to see more and less of and share in the comments below.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Your Surprising Role in Sibling Fights (and How to Change it)

Here’s the index for the Sibling Series.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? It’s easy to schedule a time here.

2

Q & A: Where Do You Draw the Line Between Empathy and Helicopter Parenting?

Empathy v. Enmeshment ImageQ: As the mother of a middle school girl, I struggle to be empathetic without jumping on the roller coaster of her ever-changing moods, emotions and dramas. And, as a woman in her late 40s, my emotions are often a 6 Flags of hormonally-induced thrills, so staying detached feels nearly impossible at times

Recently my seventh grader tried out for the school musical. After a series of micro disappointments this Fall (not making the “A” soccer team, getting put into an advisory group without any good friends, being just slightly outside of the ‘cool’ group, etc.), she was serious about getting a good part for the show. She practiced her song with a singing teacher several times and felt good about it.

Several days went by while she waited for the cast list to be posted. I worked on shifting her language away from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts in the show, to some limited success. I wanted to support her enthusiasm but it was draining to stay positive given my fear of the potential bad news ahead.  

This daughter can be fairly stoic, but when she saw the cast list, she ran up to her room and sobbed so loudly I was afraid she would choke.

After a few minutes of trying to let her release her disappointment on her own, I went in to check on her. With your thoughts of empathy fresh in my mind, I resisted the temptation to tell her the emotions would pass or it didn’t matter or that the part was probably better than she thought, blah, blah, blah.

Instead, I let her cry, supporting the wildly strong feelings raging through her. Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before I was crying too, and then we were both sobbing at the injustice of the world (did I mention I am a pre-menopausal woman with raging emotions?)

I managed to get myself together and put her to sleep, but then I could not stop crying. I just felt so sad for her and could not put it away. It took all the strength I had not to email the drama teacher and ask her if there was any way to revisit the cast list. Which is just a simply INSANE thing to even think, let alone seriously consider!  

So here’s my question: how can we support our children with their dreams, projects, efforts and goals (especially our daughters) without getting enmeshed in the outcome? How can we let our older children navigate the disappointments and challenges of life without getting sucked into the emotional turmoil that goes along with the journey? Where do you draw the line between empathy and over involvement/attachment?

A: First, Michelle, congratulations on your success in avoiding many of the common barriers to empathy. What you did was no small feat — staying out of judgement, taking her perspective and touching a place in yourself (maybe a bit too deeply) that understood her feelings.

Simply defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy is nuanced. While you were able share your daughter’s feelings, it proved difficult to pull yourself out.

To answer your question, here are my ideas to strengthen your empathetic response even more while simultaneously moving you out of the helicopter parenting zone altogether.

From Helicopter Parenting to Empathy

  • Validate her feelings. In your story Michelle, you give nice examples of how you did this — letting her cry and stay in her feelings, etc.
  • Resist the urge to fix. You write, I resisted the temptation Shift fromDisappointment =-3to tell her the emotions would pass or it didn’t matter or that the part was probably better than she thought, blah, blah, blah. This is cause for celebration! When you’re done partying let’s look at what you describe your fear of the potential bad news that she didn’t get a “good” part. Your feeling of fear fuels your underlying belief that something needs to be fixed. You can do one of two things here, keep your fear AND bite your tongue, which
    you did, or, with the help of a friend, coach or therapist, internally shift your perspective from disappointment = bad to disappointment = opportunity for growth. (I’ll go into this more in my next post). What I’m suggesting is more than a surface shift — that’s why it requires support.
  • Share your own story of disappointment. By sharing a simple one sentence story of a time you didn’t make the team or you weren’t invited to the party, you let your daughter know that she’s not alone and most importantly, that she belongs. (A sense of belonging in family is profoundly impactful to a child’s sense of well-being.) For example, I remember when I longed to be chosen to play the role of Mary in the church nativity, yet I wasn’t picked and I felt terribly sad. One sentence that’s it. I can hear parents ask “Isn’t there more to say than that?!” No — children are self focused, your goal here is to simply let them know you’ve been there — voila.
  • Be present. It’s not what you say that will make a difference, but simply your presence, your ability to be with your child. Ground yourself in what’s most important to you, tuck your phone and other distractions away and like the Beatles so beautifully sang, let it be.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to have boundaries which according to Brené Brown’s research is key to empathy. If we get stuck in the other’s emotion, we don’t actually support that person – boundaries are key to empathy.

One of the many gifts in your story is how fully engaged you are in your daughter’s life.

Thank you Michelle for sharing your story and question, deepening our understanding of empathy. I appreciate and honor your willingness to be vulnerable — it can feel scary to divulge our struggles when we’re “supposed to be” the all-knowing parent!

Are you wanting someone to walk you through a parenting challenge like the one that Michelle shared? If so, visit my schedule to find a time for us to meet via phone or Skype.

I know that parenting is important to you — it’s worth taking time for yourself, so that you can be the parent you want to be, even in your most challenging circumstances.

Take a moment to share in the comment section below how you relate to Michelle’s story and what you want to remember from today’s post.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

0

How to Bite Your Tongue all the Way to True Empathy

In my last post, I shared how I missed an opportunity to practice empathy. Today’s story is the unexpected follow-up:

Songbird, my eight year old daughter, was at her cousin’s house.  I texted my mom who was in charge, “When’s a good time for pick up?”

Mom texted back, “one hour.”

Five minutes later I receive another text, “Make that 30 minutes.”  Then another message shot back “NOW.”

I head over to find Songbird curled up on the couch weeping – big sad boo hoo tears rolling down her cheeks.  Mom starts to explain that cousin doesn’t want to share her new modeling clay – I hear a well-known refrain from across the room –

“It’s too special.”

Meanwhile, steady crying from Songbird.

Now comes the tongue biting as I work to keep these thoughts from tumbling out my mouth:

  •      It’s okay, you can put that on your Christmas list.
  •      I’m sure she’ll let you play with it, once she’s had it for a while.
  •      You’re really tired – it’s not a big deal.  Now stop crying.
  •      Now don’t be that way Songbird, you know you can’t get everything you want.

Instead, having recently steeped myself in what empathy is and is not  I wait, refrain from the above garden variety of knee jerk reactions.

Screen Shot Animated Empathy1Then, consciously I say, you look sad.

Songbird:  Yes, I’m really sad!

Me:  It seems like your heart hurts.

Songbird:  Yes, (boo hooo) it hurts a lot.

Me:  I’m sorry sweetie.  Let’s say goodbye and go home.

Songbird:  (Weep weep)  Okay.

Wailing and sobbing continue as we head out to the car – they continue as we drive.

When we arrive home, 10 minutes later, Songbird gets out of the car, singing (makes sense), she skips her way to the door.

All of the usual responses we might use (those I listed above) diminish trust. When we use empathy — in this case, simply acknowledging and naming Songbird’s sadness — we build trust.

Expressing empathy in this situation was simple but not necessarily natural or easy – my bloody tongue is proof!  

Simple, how? – all I did was genuinely acknowledge her emotion – naming it and finding a soft place in myself that has known that feeling too.

Not easy, how?  I’ll put myself out there and say that although I’ve been teaching Positive Discipline classes for 10 years, empathy is a conscious practice, one that I only feel I’ve recently come to more fully understand.

So, today I’ve made a commitment to myself to practice deliberate empathy – and to expect I’ll make mistakes along the way. I’ll comeback around when I’ve missed the mark and attempt connection through empathy again and again.

According to the work of Theresa Wiseman and Kristin Neff, these five attributes of empathy are key.  (You can see the animated video depicting these attributes, narrated by Brené Brown, by clicking the photo above.)

In this list, I’ve included examples of:

1.  How I practiced this attribute in my story and

2.  Common responses that act as barriers to empathy.

  • Staying out of judgment:

    1. Keeping my mouth closed about any internal evaluation I’m making as opposed to saying,
    2. “I don’t know why your cousin hasn’t learned how to share yet – at least you’re a good girl.”
  •   Taking the other person’s perspective.  What’s that experience like for you?

    1.   “You look like your heart hurts.” instead of…
    2.    “Why are you making it such a big deal?  Buck up and move on!”
  •    Understanding the emotion you’re hearing.  How can I touch within myself something that feels like what my child may be feeling? Check in for clarity by asking questions.

    1.    “You seem really sad.” as opposed to…
    2.    “You really shouldn’t feel that way – you can put modeling clay on your Christmas list.”
  • Communicating our understanding about the emotion. (This seems like overkill for this example, but you might say…

    1. “Oh I know I feel sad when I don’t get to explore something I’m really curious about” as opposed to…
    2. Not understanding that emotion… “It’s really aggravating when people don’t share.”
  •    Practicing mindfulness.:  Rather than pushing away an emotion because it’s uncomfortable, feel it and move through it.  If we get stuck in the emotion we don’t actually support the other person– boundaries are key to empathy.

    1.    “Your heart really hurts.”
    2.    “It’s very upsetting that your cousin won’t share with you.  I’m pissed about it and will talk to her mom as soon as I can.”

Can you feel how the #2 responses edge out the space needed for empathy?  Kids need a safe space to have their feelings so they can move through them and eventually let them go.

Thank you for joining me in exploring the complex nature of empathy.

The two big takeaways:

  1. Empathy takes conscious awareness – it isn’t natural, especially with your loved one.

  2. Empathy is not about perfection but rather a practice that you can come back to again and again – it takes being open to being vulnerable to do it.

Take a moment to share your empathy hit or miss in the comments below.

Wanna dig deep into empathy and other powerful tools?  Contact me for one on one coaching!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

 

 

2

When Empathy Goes Out The Window

IMG_0312Until recently I thought I was really good at empathy. This was something I didn’t need to work at – heck, it came naturally! If someone was feeling pain, I was right there with them. My challenge as a young woman working in social work was to turn down my empathy so that I could be of use and make it through the day.

What I’ve become aware of through understanding and playing around with Brené Browns explanation of empathy, is that for me to be genuinely empathetic, particularly with those I’m closest to, I need to be conscious and act against my “natural” reaction to their pain.

Here’s a story from last week to illustrate. My daughter – singing bird – has been through a rough patch this fall which began with her breaking her arm. She got a cast and after two days of the weepies, was up and running. Then a week or so later I got a call from her school informing me she’d taken a bad fall, her body colliding with the concrete playground. Singing bird doesn’t cry easily so when I arrived at the school office to find her in a wimpering ball, I knew it was bad.

What I’d advise a client or friend to do in this situation:  When you get your daughter home, ice pack in hand, find a quiet comfortable place where you can simply be together. Create a nest of coziness. Give your child a chance to feel all that she’s been holding in at school, her fear, her pain, her embarrassment…. Without expectations simply spend time with her. By giving her a chance to experience her emotions you’re allowing an important opportunity for her to heal, emotionally and physically. What you’ll be providing is a gift because so often we aren’t permitted our feelings. We’re told, through words and/or actions, to act appropriately. Translation:  don’t express feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, jealousy and even pain.

What I did: When we got home, I helped her out of the car and made her comfy on the couch. I got an ice pack for her head, band aides for her hip, some pain medication and a tasty melt in your mouth homeopathic remedy too. To make sure all of her senses were “soothed”, I found a television show for her to watch to further distract her from her feelings – I mean to make her feel better – heck isn’t it the same thing?

Even as I write this I’m cringing. I missed a rich opportunity to connect with her and more importantly to simply be with her – keep her company through a hard and healing time. Empathy. I avoided it. No doubt, it felt instinctual to go into fix it mode – to make her all better – to put the pain behind her.

Later that afternoon it dawned on me what I’d done. I called my sister and described the incident and how I’d missed a real opportunity for empathy. She thanked me because she was taking her daughter to the dentist for multiple tooth extraction the next day and was encouraged by the reminder.

We don’t have to fix pain or make it go away and it’s actually better if we can find a place within ourselves that allows us to be present.

(If you haven’t seen it, this short animated piece, narrated by Brené Brown is worth watching!)

What does it take for YOU to BE WITH your child when they’re in discomfort – physical or emotional? Please share in the comment section below!

For me, I know that sharing my story with you will help raise my awareness so that when my next empathy opportunity comes, and I know it will, I’ll BE there.  Thanks for reading!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

4

Your Child Doesn’t Need a Standing Ovation: How to use encouragement to instill true confidence in your child

Encouragement SucculentMy neighbor planted identical shrubs on either side of the walk up to her front door.

The one on the left looked perky while the one on the right was drooping and beginning to wither, turning from deep purple to brown.

I’m not a green thumb but when she told me her watering strategy, I had some idea of what was going on.

Here’s what had just gone down at our house. My 8 year old Sweet Pea and I planted lettuce, carrots and parsley seeds in our kitchen window box. With the water on very low, we moistened the soil consistently for 5 minutes everyday for 3 weeks. Then we stopped.

Although we continued to admire our now growing seedlings, we didn’t water them for almost two weeks.

Once we started watering again the liquid pooled on top of the now crusty soil. It collected and ran down the sides of the box, away from the target to the ground below. Water wasn’t moistening our precious seedlings.

What I learned from this experience is that water absorbs into moist soil MUCH more readily then in does in dry.

If you’re a gardener you’re probably saying duh!

Rudolf Dreikurs, one of the founders of Positive Discipline wrote, “Each child needs continuous encouragement just as a plant needs water.”

The quality of effective encouragement is like effective watering – the regular trickle seeps in with steady nourishment. In contrast, the blast of a fire hose makes everything look and feel wet in a burst, but doesn’t penetrate the soil to reach the roots.

Like the freshly planted withering shrub, children who are given the standing ovation, bask in momentary glory, but don’t get the benefit of the deep root watering.

On the other hand, the child who’s given small doses of water on a consistent basis, may not feel the big swells of pride, or show the glistening drops on their leaves. The encouragement they receive may be quiet and not even perceived by anyone other than the child.

Living in moist soil, the child continually feels it’s steady condition as part of her foundation. No run-off effect.

Here are some real life parenting examples:

Phrases that spray the surface (Praise)

  • You are SO smart – I’m so proud that you got an A!
  • You’re teacher just doesn’t get how smart you are – you really need a more challenging environment.
  • Wow – you played so much better than all the other kids out there on the field – way to go!
  • Everything you make is so beautiful – you are a true artist!

Results of Praise:

  1. A child may look for continual praise and approval as their source of motivation. The approval junkie syndrome – “What do you think of my picture?”
  2. A child may be quick to give up if they don’t think they’ll succeed easily.
  3. Sibling relationships are difficult because praise breeds better than/worse than feelings.

Phrases that offer a slow trickle (Encouragement)

  • You studied long and hard for that test. You must feel proud of yourself. (Effort is acknowledged and seen as positive).*
  • I have a strong feeling that you’ll be able to figure this out for yourself. (Having faith in)
  • You spent so much time on your painting. What do you like best about it? (Asking a question looking for self reflection and acknowledging effort)
  • I can see you’re disappointed that your team lost. (Energetic encouragement – keeping company through hard feelings)

Results of Encouragement:

  1. A child is more likely to focus on internally driven tasks.
  2. A child is more likely to persist at difficult tasks because the risk of failure is not an issue.
  3. Sibling relationships potentially more harmonious.

To get a visceral sense of the distinction between these lists put yourself on the receiving end of the statements below.

You’re amazingly smart – I’m so proud that you got an A!

Margie, you’re teacher just doesn’t get how smart you are – you really need a more challenging environment.

Wow John, you played so much better than all the other kids out there on the field – way to go!

Everything you make is so beautiful Stacy – you are a true artist!

What’s it feel like for you? For me it feels good – really good. And when I sit for a minute, I feel a bit uneasy, nervous even.

Now do the same for the encouragement.

You studied long and hard for that test Victoria. You must feel proud of yourself. (Effort is acknowledged and seen as positive).

I have a strong feeling that you’ll be able to figure this out for yourself. (Having faith in)

You spent so much time on your painting. What do you like best about it Justin? (Asking a question encouraging self reflection)

Kerry, I can see you’re disappointed that your team lost. (Energetic encouragement – keeping company through hard feelings)

How do you feel now?

If you’re like me, there’s no jolt this time around but you feel deep down good. Solid. Connected.

Here are 4 steps to help you change from praise to encouragement:

  1. Notice what words you commonly use to acknowledge your child
  2. Place sticky notes in key places (bathroom mirror, car dash) with encouragement phrases you like (Questions beginning with what and how, “I notice…”, “I have faith…,” eye contact, etc.
  3. Be gentle with yourself as you integrate new language, know that it will take time and will make a difference.
  4. Explore your own water source. Where is it and how do you tap into it? Do you need to find more sources? Email me with what you discover and let me know if you would like more support from me.

Sure, I slip back into praise sometimes but I keep in mind Jane Nelsen’s wise words – Praise is like junk food, too much of it will make you sick so dole is out sparingly.

To see more examples, check out this article in the New York Times Magazine.

Much of this post is based on research by Carol Dweck and published in Mindset.

My neighbors’ shrub is doing much better. Is there an area in your garden that needs a steady trickle?

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

1

Why Susan Sarandon has a Hold on Me

Years ago I read an interview with Susan Sarandon.

When asked if she missed the thrill of working in between jobs she said no, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend time with my childrenThey’re the most fascinating people I know.

Smile

Photo credit: Incase

Can’t you just hear her saying that?

Although I read them years ago, her words (how I remember them) continue to cycle through my memory and with them comes more than a pang of inadequacy. She’s clearly an attentive, interested mother who’s produced spellbinding people to boot!

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t love my children more than I do – they are kind, cool, quirky, creative… downright good people.

Nonetheless, the image of the hip, engaged Sarandon mama has stuck with me. I don’t measure up. I’m not good enough.

When my second son was six, a friend he affectionately called his “God Brother,” invited him to camp on the beach in Hawaii for 10 days!

Sure we hesitated, it seemed dicey to have our child a stones’ throw from the ocean and so far away from us. But we trusted the parents, he was eager to go and we wanted to encourage his openness.

I was thrilled.

When we spoke with him on the phone he enthusiastically cheered that he was having the time of his life (his exact words).

Am I a good mother? How is it that I enjoy my little one being so far away – for so long?

Susan Sarandon has become a symbol for me – beyond Bull Durham and Thelma and Louise – she’s the uber interested mama who prefers the company of her children over her friends and her cool tribe of actor homies.

My fantasy continues… when Susan goes out to dinner with her kids, there’s no scuffle over devices because each family member is wrapped in titillating conversation or simply basking in each other’s company. Her kids prefer the company of their mom to friends (okay, Lisa now you’re just being silly).

Who’s your version of Susan Sarandon?

Is there someone you measure yourself against? Someone you use to judge yourself?

Maybe it’s your neighbor Jane whose kids always say thank you, their pearly whites shining through their gorgeous smiles.

Maybe it’s your cousin, the preschool teacher whose children abhor television and sugar and spend their days tending animals and making toys from scraps they find in the woods.

If you’re like me, you hold tightly to an idealized version of someone else as evidence to support an underlying angst that you’re not a good enough parent.

That sense of not enough pulls you away from the present moment.

I’ve no doubt that the mere act of becoming aware of your version of Susan Sarandon will go a long way to tame it. But what else can you do?

Remember my New Year’s invitation back in January? Some of you took me up on it and MANY of you wrote to say you thought it was a good idea.

Good ideas need action.

What’s one thing you LOVE about yourself as a parent?

What’s your specialty – reading bedtime stories? Being there for the neighborhood kids? Lightening up a tense moment with a perfectly timed joke?

Imagine if you spent a fraction of the time you do berating yourself for not living up to your Susan Sarandon, in taking stock of your positive qualities.

How would you feel? What might change?

Share right here and now: One thing, big or tiny that you do well as a parent. You deserve to take a moment to celebrate what works.

For kicks, share what it is about your ideal that “gets” you. That should provide some fun reading in the comments!

(If the website is getting in your way – send me an email – it can be one sentence or even one word!)

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

4

Mom survives serious teen slob years and lives to tell the tale!

Amy Walker's messy teenDoes your pushing, coaxing and forcing your teen to clean up after herself fall on deaf ears?

When my son leaves a slue messes in his wake it can be downright maddening!

When you spill milk, wipe up after yourself, who do you thinks going to do it? What’s the dirty laundry doing on the floor? It’s no wonder you can’t find any clean socks, your dirty ones are scattered throughout the house!

Unfortunately these “helpful reminders” do little to change his behavior.

My nagging is driven by two fears…

  1. the fear that this kid will grow into an unemployed, slovenly 40 year old,
  2. the fear that I’m raising an entitled kid who thinks, “why should I look for my socks when magically another pair will appear in my drawer?

In today’s story, Tammy, school principal, parenting educator, and parent, shares what she learned as a result of her battles with her perennially messy daughter.

MessyTeenRoomTammy’s story:

My daughter Natasha has no issue with living in a messy room.

However, I do, so we made an agreement, years ago, that Sunday would be her cleanup day.

I found myself getting upset and refusing to enter her untidy room to say goodnight or even hangout with her.

She’d say, Mom, I’m internally organized so it doesn’t bother me to be a mess externally.

I told her it bothers me, and the rest of the family, so we need a plan to address the group’s desire for organization.

For the past four years, I’d go into Natasha’s room on Sunday mornings and ask her, what’s your plan for cleaning your room today?

Her response was usually, I’ll get to it eventually, or I’m on it. But there’d be no signs of movement.

On a good day I’d say something like, would you like me to help you get started? or I have faith in you to get it done.

She’d respond, I like doing it myself, or thanks for believing in me Mom. Five hours later she’d still be cleaning her room – looking pretty miserable.

On these so called “good” days while I wasn’t effective at motivating her, I wasn’t pushing her away.

On other days – let’s call them the bad days – I’d go into my mommy tirade and say things like, “how can you live in this pigsty?” “It’s disgusting in here!”

Here’s why her messy room was painful for our entire family.

My negative energy put the entire family on edge – they’d slink away into their own worlds for fear of crossing paths with my anger.

The unspoken truth was that my tornado of frustration and anger was far worse then her the physical mess.

One day it struck me that I was the one who needed to change.  I couldn’t MAKE her do anything so I backed off as best I could.

Then it happened – one Sunday morning was different. She woke up, had breakfast, cleaned and organized her room in an hour and had the rest of the day to read, play, do homework, paint pumpkins, go with me to the market, etc. I hadn’t said a word to her because by the time I peeked into her room, she was already in motion.

It dawned on me that this is how growth happens – for me it was a slow process – for her it seemed to happen overnight!

First what changed was me and what followed was a chance for Natasha to grow, at her own pace. I would like to think that our positive communication, over the years, those good days, helped to motivate her to finally clean her room on her own but I’ll never know for sure.

Whatever clicked for Natasha wasn’t as important as what clicked for me: I can’t “make her” do anything, but I can certainly encourage her and maintain a respectful way of communicating while she learns. It’s the process in which she learned how to care for her own things that mattered not the urgency for her to learn on my time line.

Back on that day when I saw her room was clean, I was shocked to say the least but tried to play it cool. I looked at her with a knowing, loving smile and said, “I notice you got your room clean today…how’s it feel?”

She looked so proud of herself and said simply, “If feels great!”


When you find yourself freaking out that your teen is a slob and fear they’ll still be one at 64, remember Tammy’s story. Being human, Tammy reacted in anger sometimes AND sometimes she was able, through self-awareness, to step back.

To me, it’s a testament to having faith in our kids.

There’s no magic fairy dust to MAKE them adopt your priorities. Your most powerful tool is CONNECTION.

Recommendations to foster and maintain your connection with your teen:

  1. Treat her with respect and when you don’t feel respected – as calmly as you can let her know you will speak with her at another time when she can be respectful – leave the room to give yourself breathing room.
  2. Apologize when you’re off your game, modeling that even you make mistakes so she can more readily admit and take responsibility for her mistakes.
  3. Take opportunities to connect – even when it feels inconvenient.
  4. Use light humor to keep power struggles at bay.

Recommendations to survive teen slob years:

  1. Create boundaries so that the mess is confined to your teens room.
  2. Allow nature to take it’s course – don’t rescue her when items are lost, dirty, etc.
  3. Take time to train your adolescent to do her own laundry – this way her entire clothing cycle is her responsibility and even better, you can have empathy when her favorite shirt is dirty.
  4. Remember that your child has different priorities than you do and that that is a good thing!

When you do your best to model what you value; respect, connection, and in this case, tidiness and communication – you’ll more likely see these qualities bloom, in their own way and time, in your developing adolescent.

What power struggle are you currently having? Share in the comment section below what you learned here that will support you.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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This is not my beautiful house

Today’s guest post is written by my cousin Will Porter.
IMG_4180I’m standing in a men’s restroom stall at a rest stop somewhere along the New Jersey turnpike, something that I’ve done many times before. This time, however, I’m crowding into it with my two daughters, imploring them not to touch anything. How did I get here? What am I doing so far away from the comfort, convenience, and cleanliness of my own bathroom?

A few hours later, I’m pulled off the windy Saw Mill Parkway just north of New York City to clean throw up out of my daughter’s (let’s call her Bixie) car seat with the shirt I am wearing. I’ve used up my glove box stash of napkins and wet naps on two previous bouts of carsickness in the last few hours and, like any Dad worth his salt, am improvising. As the Talking Heads song goes, “This is not my beautiful house . . . where does this highway go to? . . . My God, what have I done?”

These and many other adventures I’ve had over the years taking my children on vacation are the result of a kind of delusional, selective memory from which all parents suffer.

Many of the memories are drawn from my own childhood and have been edited by time. What remains is a fuzzy slideshow of idyllic summers: cheering as we crossed from New Hampshire into Maine, doing the honk honk gesture to truckers, and eating fast food.

Our trip then as now was to my parents’ house in Maine, where we spent our days playing in the sand, exploring in the woods, and generally being sweet, good natured children. In my mind I am sure we never fought, threw up, or retrieved toilet paper from the floor of a men’s room along the NJ turnpike.

An additional aspect of my delusion is that for some reason, I thought that I could make this eleven-hour car trip alone, my wife has a new job and no vacation time.

I’m a high school English teacher during the year, so at this point, the summer stretched out before me like, well, an open road. What could I do but take to it? I was determined to make this a summer to remember and was off to a good start for all the wrong reasons.

When I arrive safely at my parents’ house with my road weary children, my fantasy of filling them up with Grandma’s mac and cheese and whisking them off to bed evaporates.

I see immediately that, unlike their beleaguered shirtless chauffeur, they are neither hungry nor tired. And then there’s the question of accommodations.

Like most parents I know, each night my wife and I transform our children’s bedroom into a climate controlled sensory deprivation sleep chamber.

Thus, my children are trained to reject any non-womb-like bedrooms. Unless you have had the foresight to practice putting your children to bed on squeaky mattresses in total darkness and 100 % humidity, ‘bedtime’ is just another thing you didn’t bring with you on the trip. In short, my day is not over, not by a longshot.

My journey into the discrepancy between memory and reality continues for the duration of my visit.

Dinnertime with two small children is a lot earlier, louder, and messier than my parents had remembered. The same, of course, can be said for breakfast.

And babyproofing, it turns out, is a relatively new concept.

In my first sweep, I move out of reach or hide out of sight a box cutter, a set of binoculars, a camera, several cactuses, and various other sharp, poisonous, or fragile objects.

Generally speaking, there are three adults around at all times, but my children are adept at exploiting holes in our zone defense. Further, the level of concentration it takes to keep track of a three-year-old is apparently a skill that one can lose.

The challenges do not stop at protecting the house from the kids and vice versa.

21st century parenting, it turns out, is as new and bewildering to grandparents as the need to communicate in just 140 characters.

Talking through the emotions behind a tantrum and using timeout as a discipline system are met with a lot of raised eyebrows and knowing looks from my parents. The extinction of a cocktail hour in which children were seen but not heard is also met with incredulity.

Some things, on the trip, however, are just as I remembered them from my own childhood thirty years ago.

My 6 year old daughter, Dee Dee, catches and holds an eel with her bare hands. My 3 year old, Bixie, reels in her first mackerel. We share homemade blueberry pancakes with three generations of my family.

Dee Dee takes the tiller for the first time in the same sailboat in which I learned to sail. We all collect crabs from among the seaweed on the beach. Bixie finds her first piece of seaglass. They romp around the Maine woods and swim in the icy water with their cousins. Dee Dee learns to skip rocks. We all go to Bucks Harbor to get Chocolate Ice Cream just like Sal!

We’ve been home now for just over a week, and already my memory of the trip is getting fuzzy around the edges. Had I not kept some notes on what the visit was like, I would not have been able to write this.

For my children, it took even less time for their memory of their three weeks in Maine to turn into a seamless highlight reel. But it’s a good highlight reel, and I can’t wait to do it all over again next summer.

Thus is parenting a sisyphean trap, or more comically, the optimism of the coyote chasing the roadrunner of his memory off the edge of the cliff. We can’t help but be the joyful patsies of our memory, but why would we want it any other way?

Will’s cousin Lisa Fuller has a new Parenting with Positive Discipline series starting in September. Strategies for parenting in public restrooms offered upon request 🙂 

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Stop pretending to listen to your kids… they know you’re not.

I have a confession.

When my daughter asks me if I like Elsa or Anna better, my eyes glaze over. (In case you don’t live in my universe, they’re characters from Disney’s latest blockbuster, Frozen.)

Seriously, I don’t care, much less have an opinion.

I must’ve nodded off at a pivotal moment of character development. I wasn’t paying attention.

Yes, I admit it. Tuning into to my child’s frequency is sometimes a real challenge.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.

IMG_0309A mom in my last parenting series described a similar scene: Denise and her 5 year-old daughter, Tanya, were in the car. Tanya loves to weave a tale – especially when she’s got a captive audience! So, she started in on one of her detailed stories and after a minute, Denise tuned out and started with an auto pilot response of a ha, a ha, aha, in an unconscious attempt to convey listening to Tanya.

Tanya stopped, mid sentence.

You’re using your pretend voice mommy.

It’s humbling how kids NAIL IT. Count on your kid to expose, with raw precision, whatever it is you feel you’re “hiding”.

Have you been caught using your “pretend voice?”

Has your child let you know, in so many words, when you’re out to lunch?

Note: as they grow and become accustomed to your shenanigans, they’ll stop talking if they don’t feel listened to.

Denise told Tanya she was sorry and that indeed she wasn’t listening – [validating Tanya’s feelings] please start again at the beginning because I want to really pay attention to what you’re saying.

Here’re 3 tips for listening… even when the topic may not enthrall you.

  1. Contain the conversation so you have a fighting chance to earnestly listen.

Your kids will get the message you’re listening when you put distractions away. Phone in a drawer, laptop out of sight and T.V. off (so passé).

Make eye contact. Remember the term undivided attention? That’s what we’re after here. And yes, it’s no wonder we struggle with the ADHD epidemic when there’s a host of devices beeping to grab your attention.

  1. Clear the clutter from your mind. Sure, sounds good but what does mind clutter look like and how do you clear it?

I’m referring to those great ideas that pop up when someone’s telling you a story and you’re just waiting for a space to open so you can share your brilliant thought.

We’ve all been there.

Set your brilliant ideas (aka clutter) aside and imagine your mind is a clear blue sky, or whatever vast image inspires you. Mindfulness anyone?

  1. Curiosity creates a bridge. Although I might not be interested in Elsa and Anna, when I muster the curiosity about her question and it’s answer, I’m building a bridge between us. Of course it’s not about the characters but the qualities that she most admires and why.

Another option for Denise would have been to acknowledge that the container wasn’t ideal …“Honey Pie, you’re right, I wasn’t paying close attention. I’m sorry. Could you save that story for me when we get home because it’s hard for me to concentrate on two things at once and I’m focused on safe driving right now.”

When we truly L*I*S*T*E*N we get the juicy goods. We learn so much about what makes our children tick.

Sure, there’s plenty of tedious stuff too, but the juicy stuff is there. Just waiting for you to hear it :).

And in case you’re curious, my daughter likes Elsa better because she’s “not clumsy” and she’s got magic freezing powers! I hear that….

When do you find it difficult to listen to your child? Do you notice other times when it’s easy? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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Kids and Chores: Why Giving Up (and Giving In) Hurts Everyone

Let’s face it. Most kids today  s–l—i—-d—–e  when it comes to contributing.

You go through the motions of assigning chores, but most of us find that it’s just easier to do them ourselves. Especially if the alternative is to beg, cajole and demand that they take out the recycling, take out the recyclingtake out the recycling!

Who can blame you? Why bother? It’s painful all the way around.

Here’s what I learned during supper with my Granny. From my vantage point, she’s not your average centenarian.

Sure, it’s the middle of summer and she’s wearing her blue wool sweater. But she’s got ALL her wits. — Only her hearing and sight are diminished.

granny photo with Sonja

Granny reading with my daughter

At 103, she’s a beauty with a blunt white bob, light blue eyes and a genuine interest in others that permeates every conversation.

She loves to ask about details. And she’s interested in mine.

On this occasion I made a conscious effort to ask her the questions… at least one.

Dinner with Granny

Due to her hearing loss, a snippet of our conversation (in a dining room full of people) went like this…

GRANNY, I’M STILL TEACHING PARENTING CLASSES.

Won-der-ful! (her pronunciation deliberate and bright)

I’M CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A MOM. AFTER 78 YEARS OF PARENTING, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON? 

I really don’t recall (she waves her hand and shakes her head as if that’s too far back to remember)… but mother and father (she’s referring to her parents) did a marvelous job.

WHAT DID THEY DO THAT WAS SO MARVELOUS? 

(She pauses for a few moments to consider before answering) I was allowed to help with a lot of things. We didn’t have any help so we were the help.

She grew up in a modest, hard working immigrant family in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Her mother from Denmark, her father from Norway and she the youngest, by far, of 3 and the only girl to boot. She said her brothers always teased her saying she was favored.

So when she says she was allowed to help, she means it – she felt special sitting beside her mother making and mending clothes, weaving rugs, cooking meals, planting vegetables in the garden, etc.

Granny is a practical woman. Learning useful skills that enabled her to contribute to the wellbeing of her family was deeply satisfying.

Our conversation went on, she acknowledged how proud I must be of my growing children – my voice echoing throughout the dining room.

It’s that simple.

I’m struck by the power of a sense of usefulness to withstand the test of time. With love and caring as a cornerstone, Granny’s sense of being a useful member of the family is paramount in her childhood memories.

I know I struggle to get my kids involved in day to day housework. You and I both know, it’s so much easier to just do it ourselves!

Over dinner last summer Granny reminded me of just how worthwhile that effort is.

My story

Yesterday I had laundry that needed to be unloaded, carried, sorted and put away. Seven year-old S. was in a bit of a snit after-school and I knew asking her to help with this relatively light task could easily back fire and become an unpleasant battle.

Here’s what happened:

Me: I’m going to get the laundry – you can come give me a hand or meet me to fold it in my room.

She didn’t say anything but scurried along beside me (things are looking good!)

I took towels out of the drier.

Me: How many can you carry?

She got silly.

S: Mommy, put them all on my head, I CAN DO IT!

I played along for a bit and then just grabbed a few towels so that she could see as she walked, covered in towels, to our room.

In my bedroom she watched as I began folding clothes and towels and stacking them on my bed.

Me: How about you take alike things and put them away in your drawers – like this stack of pants?

S: Okay. (Miraculously she purposefully takes a few trips, arms fully loaded, and then decides it would be interesting to switch with me and be the folder)

We went on like this until the task was complete – all clothes and towels folded and put away. This is a minor miracle – usually things get put away over the course of a day or two – often clothes take the most direct route – basket to body).

Here are four fundamentals to keep in mind to increase your odds of success when encouraging kids to pitch in:

  1. Do house work WITH your kids – side by side if they are 7 and under. When they’re young they still love doing most every task with you so use that to your advantage while you still can!
  2. Shift your focus from getting the job done perfectly to seeing it as an opportunity to be together teaching your child life lessons/skills.
  3. Take time for training. With younger kids this means methodically doing a task together, with older children it means using a specific list of ”to do’s”, rather than a vague “clean up the playroom.”
  4. Hold the jobs lightly. While follow through is extremely important, you’ll win more cooperation by saying “I notice the dog looks hungry,” rather than demanding, “Rachel, feed the dog right now!”

Let’s brainstorm specific jobs kids can help with around the house. I hope this list encourages you in this challenging and wildly worthwhile parenting responsibility.

Here’s a list by age:

My daughter cleaning up a spill

My daughter cleaning up a spill

2 to 3

  • put toys away
  • feed pets
  • wipe up spills
  • put dirty clothes in hamper

4 to 6
the list from above plus

  • unload clean flatware from dishwasher
  • weed
  • water plants
  • set house alarm
  • bring in mail 
  • help prepare meals
  • scramble eggs

    My niece preparing apples for crisp

    My niece preparing apples for crisp

7 to 10

the lists from about plus

  • vacuum
  • help make and pack lunch
  • help do laundry
  • help load/unload dishwasher
  • help grocery shop
  • help make dinner (apple pie)
  • take pet for walk
  • make toast

10 to 13

the lists from above plus

  • fold and put away laundry
  • wash car
  • wash windows
  • babysit younger siblings
  • take out garbage & recycling
  • garden tasks
  • run walkable/bikeable errands

14 and up

I’m helping Granny make her famous apple pie crust!

the list from above plus

  • grocery shopping
  • cooking full meals for family
  • extended sibling sitting
  • transporting siblings and running errands in car

Being allowed to contribute has an impact that lasts a life-time.

I’ve only scratched the surface with these ideas. Please share yours in the comment section below and help grow these lists…and in doing so – help us all have more satisfied families!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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