Tag Archives: Parenting

Tips and advice on positive parenting

Kindness Matters

Historically, we have been much more interested in learning why people do bad things than why they do good. There are countless studies on what makes us feel bad or behave badly, what causes various psychological disorders, even what causes evil….but there has been very little interest in studying the science of happiness.

Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging. Scientists are now turning their attention to the brighter side of life. Goodness, happiness, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, altruism, mindfulness, meditation, prayer…formerly the territory of churches, synagogues, and kitchen tables, are now becoming the subjects of scientific research. And there are no surprises in the findings. Intuitively we already know the answers. Of course altruism is good for us. It makes us feel good. It improves our emotional well-being and we are now learning that it improves our physical well-being as well.

Research indicates that happy people are more generous (generous of spirit, time and money). But also, generosity makes us happier. It is a positive feedback loop that can only lead to better things. It reminds me of a song we used to sing when I was a child:

Love is something if you give it away,

give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away

You end up having more.

It’s just like a magic penny.

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many,

they’ll roll all over the floor.

For, love is something if you give it away,

give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away

You end up having more.

So don’t forget that this is something in your toolkit. I know you are busy. I know you are overwhelmed. I know you can’t possibly add anything else to your plate. But if you practice compassion (genuinely wanting to relieve the suffering of others) and altruism (an act that benefits another person) on a regular basis it will positively impact your well-being. It will help decrease your stress, improve your health and make you feel better. Include your children in the process and it will teach them kindness as well.

You don’t have to devote a lot of time and energy to make a difference to others. A little help can go a long way and you will be modeling positive behavior for your children. Engaging in regular acts of kindness will help your children respond to their own natural instinct to be kind. Here are a few ideas:

  • Let your child pick out a couple of canned goods at the grocery store and drop them in the bins out front for the food bank.
  • Help your child pick out gently used clothes, books or toys from their things and donate them. Talk about the fact that not all children are as lucky as they are.
  • Donate books to the public or school library.
  • Make a pot of soup for a sick friend or relative.
  • Deliver cookies to the fire station or to your school staff.
  • Be kind and friendly to clerks, check-out staff, wait-staff, customer service people.
  • Don’t shield your children from all suffering. When we don’t let them see any suffering in the world we don’t give them the opportunity to develop their empathy and compassion (keep it at a developmentally appropriate level).
  • Help someone load their groceries into their car.
  • Offer to run errands for an elderly neighbor or family member.
  • Offer to spend an afternoon doing house chores for an elderly neighbor or family member.
  • If your child receives allowance help them donate a portion of it to a charity or cause of their choice. See http://www1.networkforgood.org/for-donors/tips-and-tools/kids-guide for a guide to help kids choose a charity.
  • Include a charitable donation as part of a Christmas or birthday gift. At https://www.justgive.org/ you can buy gift cards that can be donated to any non-profit organization. Your recipient can choose the charity. I have included these cards in Christmas stockings.
  • Practice gratitude. Talk about what you are thankful for. Help your children identify what good things happened to them throughout the day. The acts of giving and gracious receiving are closely linked. Help your children participate in both sides of the equation.

So here’s to raising a generation of kind-hearted people!

First Published 2013

15 Nov 2013

Pause to Ponder

Children Learn What They Live

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
~Dorothy Law Nolte
I think this poem has some great lessons in it and I would like to use it and the accompanying book as a framework to talk about values. But before I go any further you must promise me one thing. You must promise me that you will not read this as a checklist and use it to beat yourself up. None of us can be all these things all the time. WE ARE NOT PERFECT. I work with a lot of moms who heap a whole lot of guilt on themselves for making mistakes. I am not giving you more ammunition to use against yourself. But I do think we can work towards these things. We all want to raise confident, kind, patient, generous children. Here are some tips here to help us do that. Over the next few weeks lets look at them together and find ways to incorporate them into our daily lives.

15 Nov 2013

Don’t Let Perfectionism Ruin the Holidays

MC900439764[1]How is your “to do” list looking? I’ve been crossing things off mine – not because they’re completed, but because I’ve decided some things just won’t get done this year. My excuse is that we will be leaving town in a week, so our holiday season at home is truncated. We have a Christmas tree, holiday music, and some greenery. But no exterior lights on our house this year. No holiday hand towels in the bathroom or tea towels in the kitchen. I have not sent Christmas cards yet, but I still hope to complete those. However if I don’t, it’s ok. I can let people know I appreciate them in other ways, all year long.

So, how are you doing? Do you need to cross some things off your list too? We all want Christmas to be special for our families. But sometimes we lose sight of what is important.

Perfectionism can ruin the holidays. Trying to have the perfect holiday dinner, the perfect Christmas tree, the perfect family picture, the perfect gift for everyone on your list….only leads to stress, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Stressed-out Mom does not make for happy holiday memories. So stop trying for perfect and settle instead for “good enough.”

A “good enough” Christmas is one where you do what you can and let go of the rest. A few decorations and some holiday music provide a wonderful backdrop for a family gathering. Make one batch of cookies with your kids, not twenty. Send a few Christmas cards, not a hundred. Your children will not remember how beautiful your perfectly roasted turkey was. They may not even remember the gifts they got this particular year. But they will remember the feeling of joy that comes from happy times with their family.

Here are just a few of the things I remember from my childhood holidays:
  • The smell of hot apple cider
  • The feel of buttered hands and hot caramel while making popcorn balls
  • Skating with my dad
  • Cold toes and nose after sledding
  • Being allowed to stay up way past my bedtime in order to go to the candle light Christmas Eve service
  • Putting red and green garnishes on my Moms Christmas wreath shortbread cookies
  • Singing Christmas carols around the piano
  • Making special gifts (the kind only a mother – or a best friend could love)

What are your best memories of the holidays? What memories are you creating with your kids this year? I hope your season is filled with good smells, happy sounds and plenty of love and light!


First Published 2009


07 Nov 2013

A Good Enough Christmas

MC900439764[1]Well, it’s the second week of December and the holidays are officially upon us. I’ve been meaning to write a short piece on managing holiday stress, but I’ve been too busy shopping for presents, digging out the Christmas cards that I bought on sale last year (haven’t written any yet), removing the Thanksgiving masterpieces from the fridge to make way for the painted snowmen and cut-out snowflakes, putting the fall pumpkins in the compost, making 15 pairs of elf shoes for the kindergarten show, getting decorations out of storage…

Amazing isn’t it? The holidays have a momentum of their own. When kept in balance, we can bounce along on the excitement, anticipation and good cheer of the season, but too often our expectations and commitments run out of control like the snowball rolling down the mountain. The crash at the bottom is never a pretty sight and the best we can hope for is getting through Christmas dinner without any bloodshed.

So, what’s the secret to having a perfect Christmas (or any other major holiday)? The answer is to stop trying to have a perfect Christmas. Instead, aim for having a “good-enough” Christmas. Practice saying these phrases until they roll off your tongue: “It’s just fine the way it is.” “That’s good enough.” “Not this year.” “That’s enough for now.”

Perfectionism, as always, can hijack your holidays and turn Christmas cheer into a nightmare. We try to do too much. We try to do it perfectly. We want our homes and families to look like the ones on the greeting cards and magazine covers. The job of decorating (or baking, or writing the Christmas cards and family letters, or shopping for perfect presents…) seems overwhelming because of our huge expectations. Then, we procrastinate and leave things until the last minute. Then we turn into raving lunatics. Then, if they know what’s best for them, our families avoid us because “Mom’s in one of those moods.” Lots of fun and Christmas cheer, huh?

So, downsize the expectations. Don’t sit and think about the witty Christmas letter you’re going to write complete with a photo journal of the year. Instead, get up and spend 15 minutes addressing Christmas cards. Then say “that’s enough for now.” Spend 15 minutes putting up some Christmas decorations, then say “That looks great. It’s just fine the way it is.” Make paper snowflakes with your children for 15 minutes and then say “that was fun. Maybe we can do some more tomorrow.” Don’t let the tasks become big and overwhelming. Just do a little and then let it go. You are much more likely to enjoy the holiday preparations this way. Put on the Christmas music and have fun.

Next on the list is to take a minute to reflect on your family traditions. Do you enjoy them? Do you feel enslaved buy a particular ritual? A few years ago a friend of mine told me about a family tradition that has since gone by the wayside. In her home, Santa was the one who put the lights on the Christmas tree. This meant that after spending Christmas Eve with the in-laws, driving an hour and a half home, getting two excited, over-tired children off to bed, and filling stockings, then they had to put the lights on the Christmas tree. They never got more than a few hours of sleep before having to get up and be festive and cheery. Re-evaluate which traditions are meaningful, enjoyable and worthy of your time and energy. If they bring more stress than joy, let them go.

Thirdly, notice how much of your attention is focused on the final product of your activity and how much is focused on the activity itself. Are you worried about how the gingerbread house looks? Does each cookie have to be perfectly shaped? Each present a work of art? (Note the subtext here: are you a control freak?) When possible, try to shift your attention to the process. What your children will remember is a feeling of happiness. Joy in the home. Good smells. Good times. They will remember the fun of decorating the tree, not how perfectly balanced the color scheme is.

Now, I’m not telling you that you need to let the kids be in charge of everything. If there are some things that are important to you, be clear about it. If you want to have grown-up, color-coordinated decorations in the dining room, that’s fine. Just let your kids know that these decorations are for mommy to do and provide a place of honor elsewhere for the paper chains and handprint Santas.

Finally, I want to say a little word about the stress of extended family. There are many people for whom holiday cheer is mixed with varying amounts of dread regarding the family gatherings. Family events can stir up painful memories, highlight differences of opinion and provide a stage for bad behavior. In order to minimize the effect of this stress on your holiday experience, spend some time preparing. Decide ahead of time how long to stay at a family function. Give yourself permission to “step outside for some fresh air” if you need a break. Talk with your partner about your concerns and plan a graceful exit strategy.

One common mistake is to go into the situation hoping, wishing, begging for things to be different. This is a set-up for disappointment. It is unlikely that any huge transformations or enlightenment has happened since the last family gathering. The flip side of the same coin is to enter the event already angry about how it’s going to turn out. You look for and anticipate the problems before they occur. You are ready for a battle at the drop of a hat.

In both scenarios, you are contributing to the dynamic of conflict. The best thing to do (though not easy, I know) is to accept the situation for what it is. Your resentment and your “wishing things were different” only contribute to your stress. They don’t change the situation. Don’t expect anyone to behave any differently than they always have – if they do, consider it your Christmas bonus. Instead, just come prepared with some coping skills and a healthy dose of light-heartedness.

I read a brief article on Oprah’s website (all good clinical research begins with Oprah, doesn’t it?) about strategies for coping with difficult family gatherings. There were a couple of fun ways to avoid being sucked into the same old family arguments and destructive patterns of behavior. Maintaining a sense of humor and playfulness is hard to do around people who drive you crazy, but it will help you tremendously if you can do it.

Martha Beck suggests comparing stories with a good friend before and after the holidays. Make an agreement to see who can come back with the best tale of family dysfunction. Whoever returns with the best story gets a free lunch. Then, during the family gathering you can be viewing the shenanigans as good comedy material. Plan how you will tell the story. You could be a winner!

Alternatively, Beck suggests making yourself a bingo card of the words and phrases you expect (or dread) to hear your family say. When you get a “bingo” you must sneak off and call your friend. Whoever gets “bingo” first gets a free lunch.

Activities like this can help you shift your perspective. They are not meant to be mean-spirited and should never be shared with the family at large. It is a way for you to protect yourself from your own anger and resentment. If you can maintain a sense of humor, perhaps your family dinner can be salvaged.

Regardless of your particular challenges this holiday season, I wish you heaps of love and happiness, laughter, excitement, good smells, joyous sounds, moments of peace, and warm feelings. All the best to you and your loved ones!


First Published 2008

06 Nov 2013

Praise and Confidence

owlIn the 90’s the culture turned a great deal of attention toward the issue of self-esteem. It became commonly understood that people who do not feel good about themselves, never reach their full potential. Of course, we all wanted our children to be the best they could be so we began praising children for everything they did in hopes that they would not doubt their abilities. We tried to create confident, self-reliant responsible human beings through our emphatic approval of every small achievement. But, it turns out that self-esteem does not work this way. And in all our attempts to make our children feel good about who they are, we actually may be undermining their confidence.

There is a fascinating study with children that has been repeated with the same results again and again. They took a bunch of kids and gave them some problems or puzzles to solve. The kids were each given one line of praise. They were told something to the effect of “Wow. You did a really great job. You must be really smart.” Or they were told “Wow. You did a really great job. You must have worked really hard.” Then the kids were offered the opportunity to either do the same puzzles again or to do a different set of problems that would be more difficult. Repeatedly, the kids who were told they were smart chose to work on the same problems. The kids who were told that they worked hard chose to do the more challenging puzzles. Over time, the kids who were praised for their intelligence began to perform poorly and they lost confidence in their task. The kids who were praised for their effort continued to improve in their abilities and appeared to enjoy the tasks more.

Isn’t this fascinating? I think this is really important information. Our attempts to make our children more confident may actually make them more fragile. If we tell our kids they are smart, they do not want to lose that status. You can imagine that they are thinking: “What if I try the harder problems and I do not score as well? Then I won’t be smart any more. I think I’ll just keep doing what I know how to do. Then everyone will think I’m smart.” When this experience is repeated daily it hinders the development of creativity and flexibility. Children do not pursue their curiosity, they are reluctant to try new things, and they grow to be fearful of making mistakes.

Once you start paying attention to these two different kinds of praise, you will be amazed at how often you and others praise your children for a “fixed trait” – that is one that does not grow over time. “Oh. What a good artist you are.” “You are an awesome soccer player.” “You’re a natural.” “You are so smart.” The list goes on and on. Instead, try praise like “I can see you have been really practicing.” “You worked really hard on that puzzle.” “I liked the way you tried something new in this drawing.” “You stuck with that until you figured it out – how wonderful!” This kind of praise encourages continued growth and development. It reinforces the need for perseverance and practice in achievement and it is more likely to instill a drive to learn and grow continually. Even if the results of a child’s labor are not what he was hoping for, continue to encourage the effort: “I really like the way you are challenging yourself to do harder things.”

One last note: make sure your praise is authentic. If you do not believe what you are saying your words will have an empty ring to them. Kids have a fantastic nose for sniffing out insincerity and will learn to disregard your remarks. Be trustworthy.


If you want to read more about “fixed mindset” and the development of children’s intelligence you can visit these websites:



Carol Dweck who pioneered this research, wrote a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Check it out if you really want to dive into the subject.


First Published 2008

01 Nov 2013

Are You Teaching Your Children How To Be Happy?

After the birth of my son (oops!  I mean our son), my partner kept telling me I’d changedstork and baby; that I was a whole new person and he didn’t know me anymore.  I vehemently disagreed:  “I’m the same person I’ve always been!  I’m more myself now than I’ve ever been!  I’m being  a mom!  This is what mothers do.  You just don’t know how to make the sacrifices of a parent!”  Never mind that he was a single parent to his six year old son before I met him.  Never mind that he knew me before I had a baby.  Never mind that we used to have intelligent conversations about adult things.  Clearly, he was wrong and he just didn’t understand me.  He just didn’t understand how important and special my (our) baby was.  He didn’t get how important it was to eat the right food, choose the right toys, provide the right experiences, censor out the inappropriate influences… He didn’t understand my need to be the perfect mom.

Now, in my defense, I was probably a little (or a lot) “postpartum-ish.”  I had hormones racing through my body.  I was sleep-deprived.  I was in the throes of that genetically programmed survival-of-the-species, must-protect-baby-at-all-costs thing (I learned a lot of clinical language in graduate school) that happens to new mothers.  Add that to my own I-can-do-everything-by-myself, I-don’t-need-anyone attitude and I’m sure I was a nightmare to live with.  It would have been fine if he didn’t insist on having opinions about things.  If he could have just understood my inherent “rightness” and his obvious “wrongness” we would have had a blissful time in our relationship.  Unfortunately, he could not get on board with that program.  So, we hit a lot of bumps along the way.  But, here we are.

Looking back, I can see that maybe, he was a teeny bit right (don’t tell him I said that).  I had changed.  Not in my attitudes toward motherhood.  I was exactly the kind of mother I thought I’d be.  I was not particularly surprised by the amount of work, the lack of sleep, the shift in all my priorities, the sacrifices I needed to make.  Many women are caught off guard by the demands placed on them by motherhood, but I felt (somewhat) prepared for this (though I believe that there is no way to fully understand the experience of motherhood without being a mother).  I still had my basic personality – with heightened emotional reactivity.  But what happened to all the parts of me that were active before motherhood?  Who was I before I was a mom?  Before every waking breath was about meeting the needs of my family?  Before my name became “Blake’s mom” or “Von’s step-mom?”

Quite simply, and perhaps selfishly, before I had a family my life was about me.  Before family, I was on a quest to deepen my knowledge of myself and others.  I sought experiences that stretched my comfort level, challenged my intellect, inspired my creativity and deepened my understanding of human nature.  I took classes, read books, watched people, traveled when I could.  I sang, danced, meditated, hiked, created art and spent time in nature.  I enjoyed philosophical debates.  I went to the theatre.  I lived a juicy life.

So what happened?  Where did all of that go?  Is it not important anymore?  I spent over 10 years in academia because I love learning.  Now my mental workout consists of keeping schedules straight, helping with homework, and trying to figure out how many ways I can camouflage broccoli.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I love being a mom.  I find it immensely rewarding and I truly believe it is the most important job on the planet.  My children never cease to amuse and amaze me.  And in many regards, my life is fuller than it has ever been.  But I still wonder if I’m not missing something.  I wonder if I have achieved the proper (and ever elusive) “balance.”
There are two things I know (well, I’d like to think I know more than that – but two things of relevance to this particular conversation):

  1. Children learn first and foremost by example.
  2. It is easier for me to be generous of time, energy and spirit when I feel happy.

These are the two biggest arguments I can think of to support the need for a mom to take care of herself – I mean, beyond the basics.  It is not enough to be fed and sheltered.  Mothers need to tend to their hearts.  They need to nurture their happiness with as much care and attention as they give the scraped knees and hurt feelings of their children.  Tending to my own well-being is supremely important to the well-being of my children.

Ok, so now what?  How do we take this from theory into action?  First of all, let me start by saying that I do not have this all figured out.  Plenty of days I can be found disheveled and disoriented dragging my kids through the grocery store and screaming at them to stop touching everything in sight and to give me a moment’s peace so I can figure out what to cook for dinner because we are all starving.  So, I have not yet achieved maternal enlightenment. But I do have a vision of something better.

I know it has to start with the basics and expand from there.  If I am hungry for nourishing food (note “nourishing” – that means protein, vitamins and all that other good stuff), thirsty (our bodies need water – diet coke does not count!) or tired (ok, I know this is a tough one, but we really need to try) I am not a fun mom.  Without taking care of those basic things, I am short-tempered, easily annoyed, have no energy and definitely do not want to go for a walk or play a game of Uno.  So, first we need to take care of our bodies.  But we can’t stop there.  We must also tend to our hearts.

It is true that mothers must sacrifice much of themselves for their families.  But we can’t give it all away.  It is imperative to find ways to replenish ourselves.  Now, a day at the spa or a weekend retreat might do wonders for our sense of well-being.  But it is not always practical and is next to impossible for most new mothers and mothers of young children.  I am talking about a need to integrate self-care into our daily routines.

A few years ago I was at one of those home parties with a sales rep selling skin care products.  As I was sniffing lip balms and trying creams I commented on the futility of me spending a bunch of money on anti-aging skin care because I would never take the time to use all the products.  The sales person looked at me said “if you can’t take six minutes for yourself every night, you have a much bigger problem than skin care.”  Now, I know she was trying to make a sale, but she spoke volumes of truth.  I may not be able to spend a weekend getting pampered, but surely I can find 10 minutes a day to do something nice for myself.

In You Are Your Child’s First Teacher (1989), Rahima Baldwin Dancy suggests a few important ways to increase our vital energy:  sleep (I know I already said that, but it is worth saying twice), creative activity, contact with nature, meditation and/or time alone.  My challenge to you (and me) is to take 10 minutes for yourself today (I will challenge you again tomorrow – but start with today).  First, make sure the kids are safe and occupied.  Get yourself a drink of water.  Find a (relatively) quiet place to be alone (lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to).  If you really want to splurge and feel special, light a candle and put on some tranquil music.  Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths.  Exhale as slowly as you can.  Relax.  That’s it.  Just 10 minutes of quiet time.  If you find yourself making lists in your head of all the things you have to do, that’s ok.  Just gently remind yourself that you can tend to your list in 10 minutes.  Then bring your attention back to your breathing.

Now, I know this is not a magic pill.  This will not end world hunger, fix broken marriages or solve child-rearing dilemmas.  But do this, or something similar, every day and I’ll bet something changes inside you.  You will be one step closer to living the life you imagined for yourself back when you had time to think and daydream.  You will be one step closer to showing your children how to live a fulfilling life.  Isn’t that what you want for them?

I know what I want for my children.  I want them to be actively engaged with the world.  I do not want them to live passively while watching other people have experiences on television.  I want them to live enthusiastically with curiosity and gratitude; to feel deeply, to love fully, to search for truth and to savor every moment.  The best way to ensure that happens is to show them, by example, how to do it.

So, I ask you:  “what is important to you?  What do you want for your children?  What do you want them to value in this world?  What experiences do you want them to have?“  And most importantly, “Are you teaching them, through your example,  how to be happy?”☺

First Published 2007

31 Oct 2013