By: Ann Brown
Sadly, once again, we have been faced with terrible and frightening incidents in the news. The bombings in Boston came has a huge shock to all of us and many parents learned about it, or had to process it, in front of their children.
It can be difficult and confusing to navigate how, when and if to tell our children about the scary things that can happen around them. There is no one formula for this, of course, but there are some foundational and philosophical guidelines that can help.
Young children need to know, first and foremost, that the world is a good and safe place. They need to have that bottom layer be built of trust, security and predictability. When our kids are babies, that’s pretty easy. When they are preschoolers and older, it gets trickier because they are exposed – inadvertently, at times – to the realities of life. We can find ourselves in the position of having to explain the inexplicable to our children: that bad things happen.
It’s my opinion that we do not need to discuss terrible current events with children. This, of course, is different from how to respond when personal tragedies happen in a child’s life – for example, if a child says to me, “my dog died” or, “my grandma is very sick and is going to die soon,” I express compassion and validate how that might feel. If other children want to participate in the conversation, I carefully allow a conversation that focuses on validation and appropriate emotional literacy.
If your child had heard about what happened in Boston, there are ways to help him/her process it.
Endeavor to answer only the question asked. When a child asks us a question for which we were not prepared, we can fall into the habit of giving them the entire story. This is rarely what the child is asking, or what s/he needs to hear. For example, if you child asks, “what happened in Boston?” You can say, “there was an accident” (to a young child) or “people got hurt during the Marathon” (to an older child). Then wait. Sometimes that is all the answer your child needs because s/he had heard buzz words about it and wanted to know what it was all about.
Stress the idea that people were there to help. If your child has heard enough about it to ask specific questions, be sure that you include in every statement something about the fact that this is why we have police officers and fire fighters – to help us when there is trouble. You can also add that many people came to help who were not necessarily official first responders. It is comforting to children to know that when there is a problem, there are people who know what to do about it. In the same way we tell them that if they get sick, doctors know what to do or if there is a fire, firefighters will come, we need to reassure them that they are not on their own in a disaster.
Do something constructive with the fear. If your child has heard about the bombings (or the fire in Texas, or any of the many tragedies…) suggest doing something that helps the victims, like sending care packages or drawing pictures to send them. It is amazing how therapeutic it can be to take our own fear and sadness and help someone else.
And finally, be vigilant about keeping media away from your young children. Having the news on TV or the radio while your children are playing nearby can affect them. Kids pick up on ambient sounds, on seemingly mindless noise, and definitely on our reactions to something we see or hear on the news. They don’t always come to us for explanations so we often have no idea they are grappling with something unfathomable to them.
As children grow older, they will be exposed to more scary and difficult realities in life. With a strong foundation that the world is good and safe, they will more easily be able to handle the unfortunate exceptions.
By Ann Brown, Parenting Consultant
The topic this month in parenting group was crime. Lying, cheating, stealing, taking bribes, racketeering – you know, stuff your little kids do that make you wonder if instead of contributing to their college funds you really should just toughen them up for prison. Switch out “The Little Mermaid” for “Oz”. The HBO one.
I bet no one told you about this when you first had your baby. Oh, everyone is lining up eager to describe how much labor contractions hurt and how to use a breast pump and what the consistency of healthy infant poop looks like, right? Well-intentioned parents can talk forever about their children’s poops, to the point where you – newly pregnant with your first baby – are backing away as fast as you can to get to your car so you can barf, but do people ever tell you about the really scary stuff? That a four-year-old will smile at you with chocolate-covered teeth and swear he did not eat the candy bar? That your preschooler will steal, and not for noble Robin Hood-give-to-the-poor reasons? That your first grader will tell her teacher that the reason she forgot her homework is that her mother went into the hospital and is in an iron lung due to polio?
Oh wait, that was me.
Yeah, that was one of my best lies. And I think I really had my first grade teacher going for a while. I mean, how can you not believe a little girl who can describe in detail the pain of polio and the sound of the iron lung in which her mother is caged?
Well, unless you take into account that the teacher had seen my mother – healthy and energetic. And mobile – only the day before at a PTA luncheon. Oh, and also if you take into account that polio was eradicated, like, fifteen years before I told the lie.
My point is, kids lie. And if it is 1960 and the kids watched the movie, “The Five Pennies” enough times, they can even lie very well with amazing detail and pathos about polio. Especially if the star of the movie, Danny Kaye, looked so much like their own dad that they worried that they would get polio just like Danny Kaye’s daughter in the movie.
But enough about me.
There are a lot of reasons little kids lie. Most of them are benign and temporary. Still, it’s not enough to just sit back, hit the Cabernet and hope it will pass. Although generally, that is my advice about pretty much everything else in life.
The hardest thing to do is to not put your little liar on the hot seat. Picture this: You have just told your preschooler for the gajillionth time that the candy is going up into the very high cupboard because he is having a hard time remembering not to eat it when it is on the kitchen counter. You say this without rancor or threat. Because, you know, you are awesome.
You go to the bathroom.
You come out of the bathroom.
You sense something is wrong. You can’t exactly put your finger on it but the universe has shifted an inch.
You walk by your preschooler’s room. He is very quiet. Too quiet. He jumps up when he sees you. He smiles. Three-quarters of his teeth are covered in chocolate. As are his Leggos. And everything else he has touched in his room.
You say, “Did you eat that candy? The candy I told you not to eat?”
He looks at you as if you have just accused him of murdering kittens.
“NO!” He yells indignantly. “I didn’t eat any candy!”
Okay. Let’s pause here. There are two ways this deal can go down.
You: What do you mean, you didn’t eat the candy? I see it on your teeth. And your toys. Tell me the truth: did you eat that candy?
Perp: I said NO!
You: You are not telling the truth.
Perp: Yes I am.
You: No you aren’t.
Perp: Yes I am!
You: No you aren’t!
Perp: YES I AM!
You: (You can’t say anything more because your head has exploded.)
Now, granted, that scenario allows you the temporary satisfaction of interrogation when you know you are right. But the problem is, you cannot force a confession out of someone who is not gonna give it up. Plus, even if your kid does finally confess, what was the learning moment there? Other than never to let yourself run out of wine again.
So. Scenario Two
You (in a neutral voice, as if reporting a crime scene on local TV news): I see chocolate all over your teeth. And all over your toys.
Perp: I did’t eat it. I didn’t do it.
You: Uh-oh. Those Leggos are going to be ruined. And ants can come into your room. Hold on (and you exit the room).
Perp: I SAID I DIDN’T DO IT!
You return to his room with a towel. Or sponge. Or bowl for the Leggos.
You: I’ll start wiping these Leggos and you collect the dirty trains. Before the ants come (or substitute whatever reasonable thing might happen).
Perp: But I didn’t do it.
You: Mmm….(as you silently wipe down the toys)
Sounds weird, huh? But let me tell you, this way you are OPENING the pathway to communication. In a slightly devious, manipulative way – true – but it’s still better than putting your child on a hard chair, shoving a bright light over his face and demanding a forced confession.
Yes it is better. I see you shaking your head at me.
So, while you and your child are silently collecting the chocolate-covered toys and you are saying casually to him, “Wait, there’s some chocolate near your eye. Let me get it before it gets into your eye”, you do this:
You wait. You let the silence do its work. But silence can only do its work if it is silence without fear or threat in it. So be cool. Be patient. Trust. Do 25 Kegels to pass the time.
Later – maybe five minutes later, maybe five days later – the subject will come up again. Usually it happens during a cuddly moment. Your kid’s in the bath that night, for instance, and he says, apropos of nothing, “I ate the chocolate today when you told me not to.”
And it will be the space you gave him that allowed for his own moment of truth. And that will make it genuine. And meaningful.
And then you can say, “I am so proud of you for realizing that telling the truth was the right thing to do.”
And then you can talk about how hard it is to keep ourselves from eating candy. And how tempting things can be in this world. And how we all struggle with stuff like that. Which will bond you with your child. And model that we need to make a choice in everything we do, that doing the right thing doesn’t always come easily.
And THAT is a lesson well-learned. Honest. I’m not lying.
Ann Brown is available for private parenting consultation. Please contact the office for her schedule and fees
By Ann Brown, Parenting Consultant
You knew this was coming. I mean, it’s November. Which is practically December. Which means you are gonna start buying all sorts of crap for people you love because that’s what we do in December. And then, in January and February, you wonder why your kids don’t clean up their toys and why you have to nag them and why they don’t appreciate what they have and why, when they break one of their toys, they just shrug and say, “We’ll buy a new one.”
You openly wonder how such entitled children came to live with you.
You – who works hard for every penny, who knows the value of a dollar, who uses a teabag three times before composting it. Oh, and yes – you compost. And reuse. And repurpose. And re-whatever else it is we are supposed to “re”.
And still, our kids beg us for a toy that they use only once. And they turn up their noses at our organic, shade-grown quinoa burgers (when children are starving all over the world). And they have no regard whatsoever for hard work. Where did we go wrong?
Well, I don’t want to answer that question because it’s too depressing. Plus, if you are in either my Two’s classes or parenting groups, you have already heard me pontificate on that topic more than you want to remember. So, instead, I am going to answer this question:
Where can we go right?
Happily, it’s a perfect time to have this conversation. What with the holidays approaching and all.
I am not going to regurgitate another one of those popular magazine lists about making the holidays meaningful because you can get on your union-made bicycle and pedal down to the co-op and buy the magazine yourself. Instead, I am going to offer an in-depth article on just ONE area of change: stuff.
A mom in my Two’s class hit the nail on the head when – in telling us that she takes her child’s beloved toy away when the child misbehaves – she said, “I have a feeling it doesn’t even matter. She has a million other toys to play with.”
True. We all have too much stuff.
And yes, it’s the same old annual blah blah blah about having too much stuff. Really, who among us would disagree with that? Yet, we don’t really do anything radical about it. Oh, we gather a bagful of things to donate, but within months, new things are in the house.
And here’s the deal: kids cannot possibly learn to appreciate what they have when what they have is a giant load of stuff. One cannot savor a treasure when a million other treasures are in front us, just waiting to be savored.
I think of it as food (big surprise, no?). If the refrigerator is always filled with every single food I love, each item loses value.
Oh wait. No it doesn’t. I will appreciate every bite of every item I eat. And I will eat it all every day.
Um, okay, so it’s not like food.
But it is like stuff.
I like to talk about that show on PBS many years back, called PIONEER HOUSE. Or maybe it was FRONTIER HOUSE. Hold on, I’m going to Google it.
FRONTIER HOUSE. Oh, and while I was on Google, I found that Zappo’s has the clogs I want. ON SALE. But I did not buy them because even I can see the hypocrisy in ordering new shoes while writing an article on getting rid of our stuff. Although my birthday is coming up in April. I’m just mentioning…
So, the premise of FRONTIER HOUSE is that modern families agreed to live in 1880’s frontier conditions for, I think, seven or eight months. I command you all to watch the entire series. Or to read this article all the way through and hear what I have to say about it.
When the kids were without all their stuff, when all they had for toys was a stick and piece of string that their parents fashioned into a sort of yo-yo, when it took all day to churn the butter for the bread, those kids really appreciated every single thing they had. And, many months later, when those kids were back in their track mansions, in their media rooms, in their stuff-filled lives, they admitted that they were bored. And kinda sad.
We need meaning in our lives. And it is very difficult to find meaning in something – even in a toy – when meaning is obscured by a mountain of somethings.
We do not want our kids to grow up to be mindless and desperate consumers. We want them to grow up to be grateful and resourceful and happy. We want them to know that when you have a jacket that is perfectly good, you don’t really need another one. Same with a dining room table. Or a car. Or a house.
The bad news is that whatever we hope our kids will someday do begins with what we do today. I know, right? It sucks to be a role model.
How much is enough? I am going to be asking that question this month in class and in my groups.
Or maybe I will ask it after I get the clogs.
By Joe Newman, Behavior Consultant
What do you say to a parent who asks, “How involved should I get in school?”
Before talking about this question I first want to talk about a more important underlying issue. Relations between parents and teachers are at an all-time low. Parents blame teachers for their child’s poor academic performance and teachers blame parents for raising badly behaved children. And while there are certainly parents and teachers who are not like this, it is the unfortunate trend.
So before a parent can know how involved they should get in their child’s school, or what kind of involvement will be optimal, they must first build a positive and productive relationship with their child’s teacher.
First, what to do.
Assume the teacher wants the very best for your child, even if you don’t see it. Remember the saying; first seek to understand, then to be understood. Find out what the teacher is doing, what they see happening with your child in the classroom, what their concerns are, what their struggles in the classroom are, and how you might be able to mitigate any of these.
Ask them directly, “What can I do to support your work with my child?” Then do your best to do it.
Stay informed about what your child is doing in class and what they have for homework. Make sure they’re doing their homework and confirm that they’re turning it in. Set up an effective homework routine -you can find help on Homework Tips.
If you offer suggestions, offer them in the form of questions like, “Is it possible for Rachael to use manipulatives when she does her Math work? This seemed really helpful for her last year.” Or, “Are there opportunities for Dylan to have chores in the classroom? He seems to get into less mischief when he’s given responsibilities.”
Catch them being good. We love to use this with our child but it’s an equally effective tool to build a relationship with our child’s teacher. Find something, or several things, that you like about what’s happening in your child’s classroom and let them know you see it and appreciate it.
Second, what not to do.
Don’t attempt to correct or criticize a teacher until you have established a positive relationship with them. Even well intentioned advice can fall on deaf ears if you don’t understand what’s happening in the classroom.
When parents attempt to correct or criticize a teacher’s approach or method with their child it almost always goes badly. A teacher may listen politely during the conference and say they will consider, or even try, the suggestion. But when the conference is over, the chance that the teacher will actually implement the suggested change is slim. And worse the parent/teacher relationship will be worse for the experience. Why? Because in most cases the teacher has either tried this suggestion before, knows it can’t be realistically implemented, or disagrees with the approach altogether. In other words, the parent didn’t understand before they sought to be understood.
Eight years ago, when I finished my Master’s degree, the agency I worked for immediately made me a supervisor. After twelve years being the child whisperer who could turn around the most difficult children, I now had the opportunity to oversee and train twenty behavior specialists and teachers and pass on all that I knew. To my great surprise very few of these people seemed interested. After six exhausting months with only a little progress I finally realized that I needed to build relationships first, then teach. I had to appreciate the efforts and the insights of the people I wanted to teach before they would hear anything I had to say. I needed to understand before trying to be understood.
Once I began focusing on recognizing, appreciating, and articulating the efforts and insights of those around me all my cases started to quickly improve. When what people think and feel when you walk into the room shifts from, “There’s the guy who always tells me what I’m doing wrong” to “There’s the guy who really understands how hard I’m trying” amazing things start to happen.
It didn’t matter that I knew the right thing to do to turn these kids around (I did), what mattered was actually getting it done. And to actually do it required appreciating and developing positive relationships with the people who would be doing most of the work.
Studies consistently show that children whose parents are involved with their schoolwork do much better than children whose parents aren’t. Just remember that how you get involved is just as important as how much. Assume your child’s teacher wants the best for your child. Make efforts to support them. Ask questions about what’s happening and how best to support. Recognize the efforts of teachers and appreciate them. Then, get involved in school as much as you are able and in the ways that are in unity with the needs of your child’s teachers.
By Ann Brown
I could not remember my age the other day. I was in the middle of a sentence and I wanted to reference how old I am but I just blanked. Later, in the car, I tried to calculate it mathematically (“okay, I was born in 1954, so I was one year old in 1955, and I was two years old in 1956…”) and failed, but that’s a story for a different time.
This story is about the fact that I want to get some things down on paper because my memory is slipping. You know, now that I am, um, er, 57 years old. Or 58. Or 56. Or 73. I have no idea.
I also want to get things down on paper because I have this kickass idea for a parenting flip-book. You know, those books that have each page divided in three sections and you can mix and match, say (in this case), “my child threw a shoe at the kindly old lady when we were at church” or, say, “my child barfed up Count Chocula at the saleslady when we were at Bridgeport Village” and then you can read the other side of the page to find out what to do about it.
I have many other clever ideas. I come up with them during faculty meetings when the topic isn’t ME. I get a lot of time to think. Next time you see me, ask me about my drive-through salad bar idea.
Anyway, so, here are the top, oh, five things I want to immortalize in this article:
- “Everybody has the right to be angry when they don’t get what they want”. I think I have said this in my parenting classes about a bajillion times. I say it in reference to the penchant we parents have for laying down the law to our kids and then, when they understandably react with anger, we then continue to make them “get over it”. Let’s face it, spending the afternoon with a three-year-old who wanted a popsicle and didn’t get one is no day at the beach, but trying to get your kid to be happy about it is like swimming into a rip tide. (I think. I really have no idea about riptides but it seemed a clever analogy.) That said, this does not mean your kid can express his/her unhappiness with your decision by exercising emotional terrorism. Following you around all day long, poking you with an action figure, or disrupting dinner with nonstop whining needs to be addressed, but it’s the behavior that needs to be addressed; this is not the time to yet again tell your kid why s/he should be delighted to not get a popsicle. Personally, if a child wants to hold on to her beef about the stupid popsicle and show me how she feels by, say, quiet, long-suffering sighs every time I walk by her, so be it. Frankly, I’ve held on to more stupid issues with Robin and I’m 57. Or 58. Or 24. I really have no idea. And, let’s face it; you are never going to convince your kid that she should not be upset about it. You might be able to shut her down about it, you might get in some wise words of perspective, but in the end, we all come to closure when we get there. You can say with detached compassion, “I get it that you are angry. I said ‘no popsicles’ and you wanted one.” But it is what you do after you say it that fosters perspective. Which is, go about your business and don’t juice it.
Well, as it turns out, I have already written 661 words (no, wait. 665. No, 666. YIKES. Wait. 670. Whew) and I’ve only made it to point #1. Guess I will tackle another point next time.
One point per piece. That gives me, um, er, three more points to make. Or four. I really have no idea.
By Ann Brown
Liar, liar, pants on fire. That was a big topic on the parenting couches this month. According to a random sampling of dozens of you, it appears as though there is an epidemic of crime among the four-year-olds of the nation. This is particularly troublesome to parents, as four- and five-year-olds appear to be, well, capable of knowing better. They also tend to not buckle under interrogation, resorting to such alibis as crossing their arms over their chests and calling us stupid pooper monkey butts. Your old powers are no good in the land of Fours and Fives.
It takes some new thinking.
When a child lies about doing something, we often fixate on busting them, interrogating them, forcing a confession, and then exacting a promise from them to never, ever, ever do it again. Unfortunately, that strategy – however tempting and well intentioned – does not allow for the teachable moments that really get to the heart.
Most kids will confess their crimes if the spotlight isn’t on them. Days, weeks, later, he might mention, “I took a toy from school and put it in my pocket.” Then comes the inevitable silence in which all things are possible.
Try not to blow it at this point. Like I always did. And like most of us do.
Instead of jumping on the moment, letting loose a tirade of “how could you?”s and “you know better than that”s and “WHY???”s (all of which usually just send a child into dummying up and calling for an attorney), take a breath and say, “I am really glad you told me about it.”
Then…..say nothing. At least for a few seconds. Allow your child to fill the silence with whatever else she wants to say. Practice your neutral face. (Go on. Go to the mirror and practice it. I’ll wait here). Remember that the more you fill your child up with YOUR thoughts and words on the subject, the less you are allowing safe communication to happen, and the less your child will want to come to you to talk about things like this. So, breathe. Listen. Count your teeth with your tongue. If you are a woman, do 25 Kegels. If you are a man, quietly squeeze whatever it is you’ve got going on down there.
Then, say to your child again, “I am really glad you told me.” Ask her if she feels better now that she isn’t holding that secret anymore. Talk about how holding a secret like that can feel heavy, like a big rock, and how the way to not have to hold the rock is to talk about it.
The more you can begin by validating that it feels better to unload your secrets, the more your child will talk to you.
Most times, if we can stay neutral and allow the child to continue talking, he will begin to cry. This is also a teachable moment. You can say, “you know, crying means you know you made a very wrong choice when you stole that toy. It’s good that you understand it was wrong, because that will help you make better choices next time.”
You can also brainstorm with your child about what to do when you see something that you really, really, really want, but can’t have. We all feel that way – we can be a blueprint for our kids for dealing with the draw of “I want it”, which can lead to “therefore, I am gonna take it.”
I know it’s a kinda inside-out way to approach a confession. However, validating the physical feeling of holding a secret and then feeling better when you confess can go a long way in helping your kid get to his moral compass. And in the end, it is your child – not you – who is going to have to read that compass and choose the path.
And that’s the truth.
By Ann Brown
It’s another rainy afternoon. Perfect for making soup, reading, avoiding work, and napping. You’d think I’d be perfectly happy. But no.
I am not snugly in my comfort zone. One of my toes is hanging out.
Kids start off with a very small comfort zone. It’s pretty much Baby + Parents. In preschool, the circle widens to include Teacher and Friends and, often, Mommy’s Favorite Barrista. As we grow older and evolve, we expect that our comfort zone will stretch and grow, as well. We expect we’ll re-evaluate the original blueprint, move walls, increase space, put on a second story, and bump out windows to accommodate our larger life. Getting comfortable in a bigger comfort zone is one way we know our therapy is working and worth the hundreds and the thousands of dollars we have poured into it for all these years, relegating ourselves to living in debt, driving old cars, running up our Master Cards, and eating government cheese.
Raising kids is a daily practice in venturing out of our comfort zones. Well, at least it is for alarmist, hand-wringing, nervous-stomach, neurotic mothers like me. I am ancestrally programmed to circle the wagons and hunker down. I would totally NOT have left Egypt, choosing instead to bring Pharaoh a nice spinach lasagna and offer him parenting advice in exchange for scoring my sons an easy gig working on the nearby pyramids. It is not easy for me to stretch and grow. And, subsequently, it is not easy for me to push my kids to stretch and grow.
Happily, however, they learned to do it despite my hanging to their ankles, crying, “please don’t go!” I tried telling my youngest, when he applied to Georgetown for college, that there were actually no colleges east of Idaho. That all those names – Harvard, Georgetown, Yale – were made up. Like “Brigadoon”. Unfortunately, West Linn High School did a better job at educating him than I had hoped and he called my bluff. Well, not so much called my bluff as patently ignored me and went off to DC for four years.
This reassures me about parenting. It tells me that even when we mess up – and we are going to mess up a lot, and often – all is not lost. Even when we cannot personally provide everything our kids need, we can share with them the experiences of our own inabilities, insecurities, weaknesses, and failures. And sharing those things does indeed provide a rich and meaningful lesson for our kids.
My kids know that I am an overprotective parent. So I try to make the most out of self-deprecation, to take the stinger out of my fretting, to not make them responsible for it. I like to text them with messages like, “just worried for a moment that you are dead and life has no meaning. Please text back within 24 hours.” Or, “please call me every five minutes while you are on the road. Or at least, please call me when you arrive.”
Because my tiny, cramped, overcrowded comfort zone is not their problem.
I first wrote about this topic in 2000 when my oldest left for college. And then again, about six years ago. And, if I am lucky enough to still be writing parenting articles in ten more years (Yikes -I will be almost SEVENTY years old then -let us pause for a moment to consider that -YIKES), I am certain nothing will have changed by then, either. Because the point is not that I need to change myself. (Well, my therapist might disagree. But let her write her own column.) The point is that I cannot allow my overprotective issues to become my children’s issues.
So, I am making soup this rainy afternoon. And reading. And avoiding work. And even though none of my kids lives near me – one lives in New York even though I told him that New York does not exist –and I wish wish wish we were all together safe under one roof, I am comforted to know that I raised them to live their own lives and follow their own destinies. Despite my offer of a zajllion dollars to stay here. Because, and this is worth repeating from the paragraph above, I do not want my issues to become their issues. Well, I kinda secretly do, but at least I know it’s wrong.
Easier said than done, I know. But we can all get there. Walk this way. And if you are in NY, can you make sure my son is dressing warmly? Much obliged.
By Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
I attended a Bat Mitzvah recently where the Cantor spoke about peace.
“Peace,” he proclaimed, “is desired by all people, in all nations. Problems arise not because we don’t want peace, but because we each define it according to personal, cultural, religious, or other differences.” Same word. Contrasting meanings.
Instead of subjective notions of peace, Cantor Maseng offered a universal concept: “True peace,” he said, “is about wholeness, and wholeness is only possible when we bring all our diversity, all our differences together.”
In other words, it’s easy to be at peace with those who agree with us; true peace is about connecting with those who don’t.
What does world peace have to do with our relationships and co-parenting? When I work with couples, I always mention the importance of mutual understanding up front:
Mutual understanding is a major ingredient in relationship satisfaction and successful co-parenting. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing; instead, it’s about getting curious about our differences, accepting them and working with, not against, them.
In other words, relationship happiness depends on world peace at a micro-level. Understanding others’ differences can be difficult. Many, if not most, of us grew up in a family, community, country and/or world where differences are grounds for intolerance and conflict, not compassion and cooperation.
Meaning, while we might say we want relationship peace, we often define it as sameness. Then, we waste precious time failing to get others to be like us.
Despite the now-commonplace acceptance of the gender differences* claimed by John Gray almost 20 years ago—you know, Men are from Mars and women are from Venus—most lesbians and gay men either don’t buy into (or fall into) those assumptions. Truth is, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, we’re all from different planets.
Understanding our partners is, then, less about embracing gender differences and more about getting curious about their unique differences from us. Doing so truly allows us to “keep the peace” in our relationships, and honor the sense of wholeness noted earlier:
Our relationships can be truly whole—i.e., peaceful, fulfilling and satisfying—not because we’re the same as our spouses, or always agree, but because, together, we embrace, respect, and work productively with and through our differences.
There’s no simple way to understand our spouses, but there are steps we can take to begin to do so. Marita Fridjhon and Faith Fuller, founders of the Center for Right Relationship, have developed a great technique to increase mutual understanding, which is called: Lands Work.
Lands Work starts from the assumption that every individual is like a nation unto him or herself, with its own cultural practices, cuisine, communication style, justice system, import and export policies, etc. While Lands Work doesn’t translate well to the written page, the starting point for the exercise does:
Imagine you’re an ideal tourist, guided by curiosity, openness, exploration and a suspension of judgment. Now, imagine you’re visiting your spouse’s land as this ideal tourist, eager to learn more about their reality, their priorities, and what’s important to them about what they believe, how they act, parent, etc.
If we can truly stay curious with and about our spouses, if we can suspend judgment, we can also ramp up our understanding and compassion for them. In turn, we can work with our differences, even if we don’t agree with those differences. Genuine and sustainable compromises emerge out of mutual understanding, not agreement.
One of relationship expert Harville Hendrix’s tools for increasing mutual understanding is what he calls “The Imago Dialogue”, which includes 3 steps:
(1) Mirroring: When you have something important to say to your spouse always use “I” to express it. Then, ask your spouse to paraphrase what you’ve said and then ask you: “Did I get that right?” Repeat these steps until s/he does get it right. To ground this, Hendrix suggests adding: Is there more? Or: Tell me more. I’d include: Tell me what’s important to you about this?
(2) Validation: Once you’ve got mirroring down, add comments that indicate that what your spouse has expressed makes sense to you, given their logic or priorities or concerns. As Hendrix notes, the idea is to “affirm the internal logic of each other’s remarks.” Here, it’s important to distinguish agreeing from understanding someone else’s logic; you can understand without agreeing.
(3) Empathy: Hendrix’s final step involves acknowledging the feelings we know, or imagine, are behind our spouses’ remarks. This goes something like: “Given that you think I’ve done such-and-such (or that such-and-such has happened), I’d imagine you’re feeling x,y,z. Is that true?” If you’re wrong, ask: “Then what are you feeling?” And offer empathy for those feelings.
It isn’t easy to retrain ourselves to dialogue in the way Hendrix suggests and, in truth, even if we can learn to master the first step, Mirroring, we’ll be ahead of the curve in our communication tools and our ability to begin to understand our differences.
If we feel committed to our relationships and to co-parenting effectively, we’d benefit from grabbing our passports (or mirrors) and traveling into our spouses’ experiences. Doing so doesn’t guarantee we’ll always end up feeling peaceful or with 50-50 compromises, but it does mean that whatever decisions or actions we make together include both our experiences and respect our differences.
* If you’re interested in how gender myths impact our relationships and families, read Same Difference, which teases apart research on which these myths are based.
By Ann Brown, Parenting Coach
Those of you in my classes and parenting groups have heard me start many sentences with, “after the revolution, when I am in charge of the world and we all live on communes in peace and harmony….” But today, I am going to write about what we can do while waiting for the revolution.
It’s getting out of hand, all the “stuff” we all have. Even those of us who endeavor to buy mindfully wind up with too much stuff. And not only is there too much of it, so much of it is…well, you know what I am thinking.
What do kids need? Other than the basics, of course: love, acceptance, security, a home, clothing, food, and family. And other than the next round of basics, of course: friends, community, appropriate exposure to the beauty of the world (art, music…), laughter, and a sense of being necessary to others.
Hmm….actually, that list looks pretty complete to me. I’d add a few more things: a spiritual grounding (not necessarily religious, but mindful), ritual, milestones, and stories.
Yup, that looks complete now.
But we also live in the modern Hallmark world and gift giving exists. So, I ask you this question – how much is enough? And how courageous are you willing to be in defending your personal definition of “enough”?
Let me repeat myself (yet again), albeit abridged this time. For generations, parents knew that their goal was to make a better life for their children. And those children, in turn, tried to make a better life for their children. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe, fleeing oppression and genocide – it was clear that what they wanted for their children, who would be born here, was safety and religious freedom and a chance out of poverty. My parents, living a better life than their parents, still strived to make a better life for my sister and me. We had a nice home, college educations, summer camp, family vacations, and Barbie dolls. It was a little more difficult for my sister and me to figure out how to make OUR children’s lives better than our own.
Those of you who have enough, who have more than enough, have a huge responsibility as well. What will your children strive for, if all children strive to improve their lives over their parents’ lives? What can they achieve to surpass you, other than an even bigger house, a nicer car, and newer technology?
My father used to tell us that each generation must leave the world in better shape than we received it. This comes from traditional Jewish teachings, but it’s not an instruction only for Jews.
If you are fortunate enough to have enough, then you must teach your children that what they must strive for is helping those who do not have enough. Allow me one more Jewish teaching: “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Beginning to use the word “enough” with your kids is a big first step. It’s a hard word to use with kids because they will fight you on it; after all, “enough” is so utterly subjective. But you must be strong, courageous, and committed to not raising kids who cannot even count how many toys they have in their bedrooms.
I forgot to get her permission to use her name, so I will just say that there is a woman in one of my classes (we will call her, “Mom”) who can afford to get her kids lots of gifts, but has chosen to give them each only three gifts at Christmas. This is a radical, revolutionary act. If every family who could afford to buy a lot, simply chose to give their children three gifts at Christmas, I bet it would make a small dent somewhere. And children would know that being fortunate enough to have money means that we need to be responsible with it. And those three gifts would be really exciting to the kids. And they wouldn’t get lost in the hail of wrapping paper and more gifts and endless crap that turns it all into mindless acquisition. And there’d be some money left over to share with others who are not so fortunate. All because of one pebble being dropped in the water when a family with money chose to give their kids only three gifts at the holidays.
I hear the drums beating. Next step, we buy land for the commune. Now, who’s with me?
By Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
Whether we argue consistently with our partners, or only lock horns on rare occasions, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*
While finding the answer might seem important in the moment, given how precious our time and energy is, it’s wise to shift our emphasis from “why” to: How do we fight?
I’ve coached a few couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. What they don’t realize is that conflict-avoidance is how they fight, despite their insistence otherwise.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, not only is it a normal part of relationship, it’s a necessary one.
In fact, research-psychologists Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman maintain that our satisfaction with our partners is tied to how well we resolve conflicts with them and how effectively we manage the negative fallout of disagreements on our relationships and on us individually.
The problem with arguments, then, isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring that their impact on our relationship and our family is productive instead of destructive.
Importantly, learning how to better navigate conflict is crucial to parenting. Why? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction, but also include how capably we model conflict-resolution for our kids and with our kids.
Developing the ability to “fight well” with our spouses enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and also influences how they manage relationship conflict in their own lives.
I’m a big fan of John Gottman’s work on this topic and appreciate his simple, yet compelling, list of four primary negative attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls: “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness. This list is pretty much a blueprint for how most of us handle or instigate conflict:
1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive, according to Gottman)
To be clear, we’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., disrespect can be rolling our eyes or a sarcastic comment; stonewalling can be walking out of a room or announcing we’re done talking.
Whatever our personal predilection, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important step in improving our conflict-styles. In truth, when we’re being disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility, or refusing to interact with each other, we get so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.
When I start to coach a couple, I ask the following question pretty quickly:
What’s your favorite conflict-style?
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer. (Although some of us, myself included, find it hard to choose just one!) Once you’ve picked the style you default to most, share it with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.
By the way, don’t be surprised if you have matching styles. Embarrassed as I am to admit, given that it’s so toxic, I’m quite adept at disrespect and no slouch at criticism. My wife, on the other hand, excels at defensiveness and stonewalling. In other words, if left unattended, our conflict styles feed off each other and accelerate arguments.
That’s why copping to our styles is important, followed by spending a few minutes talking about how we, together, can shift the emphasis from our current preferred conflict-styles to conflict-resolution.
Here’s what some couples, my wife and I included, have tried: Give your Horsemen names (preferably, ones not associated with friends or family) and agree that if either of you notices, say, Defensive Dave or Critical Clarissa make an appearance in your conversation, call them out and ask them to leave.
Whether or not we agree with our partner’s belief that we’re being defensive or critical isn’t important in that moment. What matters most is our willingness to pause, assume that she or he notices something that we might not be aware of, and try to shift how we’re approaching the topic at hand.
A great way to make that shift is to invert Gottman’s list. Doing so gives us four powerful ways to fan the flames of relationship satisfaction via:
If you’re adept at disrespect, ask yourself: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?
If criticism is your forte, consider: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?
If you’re prone to defensiveness, think about: What’s my part in this?
And if stonewalling is your thing, consider: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?
Asking these questions, like owning our Horsemen, doesn’t magically resolve our conflicts or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we approach conflict, the more we can infuse disagreements with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility, and engagement. That’s bound to enhance our relationship satisfaction and expand the scope of our parenting skills.
* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question about conflicts, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen, Magnetic Partners.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a Relationship Coach and Founder of Parent Alliance® , a relationship resource for expecting couples and parents. She helps couples coparent successfully and maintain relationship satisfaction. In other words, she helps us stay sane and stay together.