Time Over Money: A New Year’s Resolution Worth $2,200

What if you could make a New Year’s resolution this year that was equivalent to the happiness bump you’d get from a $2,200 raise—without changing any behaviors at all? Read on, my friend.

One opportunity the coronavirus pandemic has offered is a new lens through which to view our lives. Living through periods of lockdown has stripped away the majority of our activities, offering a unique chance to notice which ones we truly miss and which we can live without.

The pandemic has removed many of our noisy daily distractions and deposited us in a less-rushed space where we can’t help but look inward. Being surrounded by sickness and death—or experiencing the virus ourselves as our whole family did—forces us to consider our life priorities. What if the virus takes me or a relative? Is there anything I need to do with or say to a loved-one now rather than later?

The reminders of our mortality can also shine a light on how we choose to live our daily lives—leading many of us to switch our mindsets from the money we make to the time we have.

Time Poverty

In Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, Ashley Whillans defines the term “time poverty” as the feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time in the day to do them. Eighty percent of working Americans report feeling time-poor. A large portion of children and teens do as well—kids who are so busy with structured activities that they have no downtime to simply daydream, or fiddle with a guitar or legos.

Whillans’ research suggests that the emotional impact of being time-poor can be greater than the emotional impact of being unemployed.

Focus on Time Over Money

Years ago I came across the term “time wealth” in Plenitude by Juliet Schor and latched strongly on to this concept. To achieve time wealth, we must notice the ways we experience our choices.

We must ask ourselves such questions as:

  • When I began my job I didn’t mind the commute, but this past year I notice it’s really drained me. Now that I work from home, I’m not sure I can go back to it. What are my options?
  • I love that my daughter is so involved in music. But now she is asking to play a new instrument after already playing one, as well as taking voice lessons. Is this too much for her? For me?

Memory Dividends

Bill Perkins describes another aspect of time wealth in Die with Zero. In general, the book helps people become more deliberate in their financial choices over their lifetimes. But one premise of Die with Zero is the importance of the memories we create during our lives. Perkins’ view is that in later years we “retire on our memories.” When it becomes harder for us to be active and create new memories, we “look back on the memories we have with pride, joy, and the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia.” Since Perkins writes with a financial focus, he calls this the “memory dividend” highlighting the fact that our memories give something back each time we revisit them.

This memory dividend isn’t merely generated from great vacations or athletic feats; it’s also built on time with one’s children or older parents. Perkins emphasizes that these are connections we make at times we won’t have access to again. Having spent time with a young child, or an older relative, is something that years later we can’t repeat. Even completing certain physical challenges during our younger years is often something we can no longer achieve and enjoy in an older person’s body.

One of the few gifts the pandemic has brought us, if we choose to use it, is clarity. How do we want to spend our time going forward? What can we live without? What is enough?

“Time Over Money” Concepts for Children

Talk to your kids and teens about how time factors into their decisions. If your teen wants to take a part-time job located 30 minutes across town, discuss whether the one hour commute will be worth it. How much weekly time will the commute eat up? What else could your teen be doing during those hours? Is the job worth this trade-off?

In my book Sweet Spots: Helping Your Kids Find ENOUGH in Their Lives, there’s a section with five points to consider when your child is deciding whether it’s time to quit an activity or pursuit.

Here’s a quick summary:

  • Duration: Has your child followed the full arc of the experience?
  • Mood: Does you child consistently have more bad days than good in this activity?
  • Change: Has a requirement for the activity recently changed?
  • Time Crunch: Is there something else your child has been wanting to start for quite a while?
  • Burnout: Is your child dragging, bored, fatigued, and/or angry when it comes to the activity?

There are infinite ways to convey to our children that their time is valuable. One of the most successful actions for parents is explaining to their kids the decisions they are making to value their own time.

Back to the New Year’s Resolution

Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans says “just shifting your mindset from valuing money to valuing time—in the absence of changing your behavior at all—is worth the income equivalent (in terms of happiness) of making $2,200 more personal income a year.

Sounds like a pretty good New Year’s resolution to me!

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Three Questions, Then Calm

Online School at Our House


“My Spanish teacher insists on teaching class from her back deck! She thinks it’s so relaxing out there. Maybe for her it is. Yesterday her neighbor’s kids got in a fight in their yard in camera range—interesting in a way, but not much help for learning Spanish.”

“During class today she was out back again when her other neighbor began mowing his lawn. Every time the guy got close to her, we couldn’t hear a word she was saying, though she didn’t notice. Let’s say my Spanish lip reading skills were not up to the task.”


“At least you could see your teacher! Mine kept getting dropped from the session. After a while, the students just began going over the articles with each other since the teacher never made it back to class.”

And this is nearly 6 months into the pandemic! Not the expected schooling difficulties that occurred after most of the U.S. abruptly moved online in March. Annie and Stephen are in high school and college, not elementary school. I can only imagine how it looks for younger kids and their exhausted parents. Life in this pandemic can be so challenging—and that’s on a good day.

I try to remember that this pandemic-induced stress brings out everyone’s worst selves—or in psychology-speak, our less functional selves. I just didn’t think my worst self would be quite this bad. I’ve realized that when the going gets tough, I have the frustration tolerance of a 7 year-old. It’s not pretty.

And my husband and kids aren’t too far ahead of me. For the time being it’s as if we live in a house of 2nd graders with no teacher. More Lord of the Flies than Lord of the Rings.

Send Help

In the few moments a day that I can access my “psychologist brain” I’ve thought, you’ve worked with a lot of 7 year-olds. How would you treat a 7 year-old with low frustration tolerance, poor self-control and discipline, high distractibility, difficulty standing in others’ shoes, and trouble completing tasks?

I warned you my 7-year-old self is kind of a wreck these days. But perhaps you can relate.

In other words, how does one help a child lacking in executive functioning skills? These are the cognitive control functions needed when you have to concentrate and plan—and the skills slipping most at my house during this pandemic.

I did a little research. I’ve long been interested in executive functioning—it’s partly that the term itself sounds so smart and well-heeled. I’ve written before about teaching kids to delay gratification via the findings of the Marshmallow Study, and the many techniques the Tools of the Mind program can teach young children. But tough times call for increased measures, so I dug deeper into the research.

An article on executive functioning in 4-12 year-olds by Adele Diamond and Katherine Lee caught my eye. I figured it could also aid middle-aged parents who have regressed to the level of 4-12 year-old children during a once-in-a-lifetime coronavirus pandemic.

The Pandemic Calls for Beefing Up Our Executive Functioning Skills

The “the three questions” intervention from the article jumped out at me. These questions were part of a study on executive functioning of elementary-age children in a Tae-Kwon-Do class, and were asked of the children as the martial arts session was beginning.

The three questions are:

Where am I?  (bringing focus to the present moment)

What am I doing?  (noticing what’s going inside or outside oneself at the moment)

What should I be doing?  (refocusing on, or re-prioritizing the short-term goal if need be)

Simply reading those mindful questions had a grounding and quieting effect on me.

How to Use the Three Questions

Consider asking these questions to your children at the beginning of an activity. If you are working with older kids doing virtual schooling, you might write these questions on post-its near the computer. For younger children, you could ask the questions at the beginning of the session and again if (when) they get distracted, off-track, or just plain antsy, to help them refocus.

We adults could also use these questions throughout our chaotic, multitasking days. And finally—and rather sadly for those of us who love quick solutions—the article authors emphasized that any executive functioning skill practice only leads to improvements if repeated over time. Still, as executive functioning help goes, this simple suggestion felt worth a try.

I have already started using the three questions with my frustrated inner-child and she is tolerating them fairly well.

My new book, available in paperback or kindle. Let me know what you think!
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Motivating Tweens and Teens

Child playing violin

My daughter Annie’s orchestra class was a middle school highlight. Anyone with a middle schooler (or who’s been one), probably knows that highlights are hard to come by in that phase of life.

Annie had only learned to play the violin the year before and suddenly in orchestra class she was working on complex pieces of “real music.” I’ll admit that attending Annie’s orchestra concerts was more pleasant than experiencing her brothers’ ear-piercing band concerts during those years—which even our boys didn’t enjoy much.

Teacher Magic

Annie was lucky to land in the class of an amazing music teacher. This teacher was rather strict, and a little moody—who wouldn’t be in her shoes? However, she also walked the fine line of nudging kids out of their comfort zones—just far enough. She additionally possessed that “teacher magic” which made the kids want to push themselves to show her what they could do.

Annie went from being a kid who rarely practiced violin to one who played at home for an hour at a time. Twice weekly her teacher offered before-school practice sessions. When later in her 6th grade year Annie requested private lessons, Todd and I found ourselves quite willing to support an interest she was already actively pursuing. But still, private lessons are pricey. We needed to get creative.

After some thinking, we asked Annie’s older brothers if they knew violin students who might give lessons. Using this strategy, we found two high school girls whom Annie took lessons from. Both were cool, violin-playing role models for Annie—and their lesson fees didn’t break the bank at our house.

But all of this started with Annie being taught by an inspirational orchestra teacher. When her teacher suggested something, Annie was willing to try it. Because of this she got better and better at violin. I thanked Annie’s teacher at the time, but I really should send another note of appreciation. There weren’t many high points in my kids’ middle school experiences, but this was definitely one.

Soft Skills

As I look back on that experience, I can see that, as well as teaching music, Annie’s teacher was also teaching her students many “soft skill” life lessons. I recently read a book emphasizing the importance of these soft skills.

In You are Awesome: Find Your Confidence, and Dare to Be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything, Matthew Syed writes in an easy-to-take-in style for teens and tweens. Syed, who was a British table tennis champion and was even on the British Olympic team, offers various useful ways to motivate kids.

As a parent reading Syed’s book, I’m not sure who was more motivated, me or his teen readers!

After telling his story about being an average kid who became good at something by practicing over time in a variety of ways, Syed says,

So let’s forget those types of stories that we hear about people being “born gifted” or “naturally talented” when it comes to explaining how someone got really good at something. I’m here to reveal the truth, and the fact that it’s possible for anyone to get really good at (almost) anything—and that includes YOU.

Syed reminds kids, “No one wants to admit how hard they practice, so don’t believe anyone who tells you they are effortlessly brilliant or clever. They are probably lying.” 

He then describes a “growth mindset”—which I have also written about previously. I’m obviously a fan.

People With Growth Mindsets Believe:

  • Ability can be changed with practice.
  • Putting in effort is the only way to get better at a skill.
  • Mistakes happen. They are nothing to be ashamed of, and they show us our areas of struggle so we can work on improving our skills in these places.
  • Feedback is essential. It shows you where and how you need to improve.
  • Challenges are vital. Trying new things is the only way to learn.
  • One can learn from others’ successes. Study the other person’s strategy, and consider how to add pieces of their technique to your practice.

Brain Plasticity

Syed even describes brain plasticity to kids in easy-to-understand terms:

If you walk the same route through a forest, day in and day out, then eventually you will create a path making it easier to walk though the forest the next time. Neural connections are the same. So, the more you practice math questions (or skateboarding tricks, or level 53 of Minecraft), the stronger the connections become, making it easier the next time you try.

He ends by reminding kids that not all practicing is equally helpful.

Not all practice is as useful at growing your brain and creating neural connections…The screw-your-face-up, grit-your-teeth kind of practice that makes you feel good about yourself afterward because you know you’ve achieved something is what your aiming for.

Getting Kids Off the Couch

These days when it’s so easy for kids to opt out of an activity or new class in exchange for an afternoon playing video games or time on social media, we parents need all the help we can get motivating our kids to try new things. Something about the upbeat nature of this quick-read book gave me hope. And for me hope is often the first step to changing something that’s not going well.

For most of us parents (myself definitely included) it’s hard to be a constant cheerleader. Syed’s book, and thinking back to Annie’s amazing orchestra teacher, gave my tired inner cheerleader the energy boost she needed.

My new book, available in paperback or kindle. Let me know what you think!
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Benefits of Saying “No” to Adolescents

“He’s wearing me down. Maybe he’ll go to law school someday and use those debating skills to make a living!” My mental musings after hearing our 12 year-old’s impassioned appeal for an iPad of his own.

We’d just returned from visiting friends with three kids. Each had their own iPad, and as we said goodbye all sat quietly on the sofa engaged in video games or youtube videos. None of the jostling for screen time which so often happened at our house.

However, the answer to the plea would still be no.

We all know saying no to a toddler is hard because it so often leads to a messy, difficult tantrum. The good news is that after years of facing a range of tantrums, parents slowly get better at dealing with—or at least recovering from—them. 

Then most parents get a bit of a break during the elementary school years. And just when we’re thinking that we aren’t so bad at this parenting gig, the kids enter the middle and high school years. At our house, daily requests seemed to triple at this time. With so many asks coming at you, it’s easy to lean on ready rationalizations for saying yes to all of it.

“She’s in middle school now after all.”

“Other parents seem to be letting their teens do this.”

“I’m too tired to think this one through.”

“He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’ll be fine.”

“We can afford it, so we might as well let him have one.” 

It feels good to say yes to teens—and of course we should do so when it makes sense. Constantly saying no makes us feel like the strict parent on the block who never has any fun. And our teens support this premise by presenting examples to prove that our parenting decisions fall on the far end of the bell curve.

Yet being parents of three teens, Todd and I have been saying no a lot for the past few years. 

“Are you having fun yet?” I whisper to Todd when we’re mired in a parenting dilemma. “Was this what you were picturing way back when?” 

But I recently came across a book that reminded me of the benefits our teens receive from not hearing yes to every request. Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, by Scott Sonenshein. 

Sonenshein studies organizations—and the workers within their doors—and tells readers that when people have fewer resources, they have greater access to their creativity. When a business has limited means, workers are more likely to use a material on hand to solve a problem, rather than buy something new.

People “stretch” to arrive at innovative solutions when resources are limited. It turns out my teens are benefiting from this scenario. Not giving adolescents endless resources forces them to stretch as well. I began to feel hopeful. Still tired, but also hopeful. 


Requiring Teens to Share a Car

Sonenshein’s research suggested that when Todd and I said no to becoming a three-car family once Stephen—then recently Daniel—learned to drive, we were requiring our sons to stretch by sharing a car with us.

So far, the stretching the boys have done has looked like this:

They are motivated to communicate about upcoming plans in our weekly family meetings. After a few times when both Stephen and Daniel needed the car (our other car is a stick shift that they aren’t yet proficient at driving), the boys became more communicative with each other. More communicative, not fully communicative. I am learning it’s a long road to full communication. 

When one of the kids needs to get somewhere and doesn’t have access to the car, they have been more willing to take the local bus or ride a bike, or even ask if the event (a band practice with friends, for example) can be rescheduled. 

Creative solutions have been generated. Sometimes Stephen will drive Daniel to one event and then continue on to his own.

I’ve stretched at times as well because Stephen and Daniel share the car I usually drive. 


Sharing a Computer

At one point or another, each of our three kids has asked for their own computer. Todd and I have also said no to this request—until each gets their own laptop for college. For the past few years, our family of five has shared two computers and an iPad. Todd has a computer at work as well. At times this situation has required more planning ahead than sharing a car. But even with high school course loads growing, we’ve managed.

Sharing the computer has required the kids to think ahead about when they will do certain homework projects. When the computers are in use, our kids come up with off-line homework they can do. Sharing computers means the screens are located outside of bedrooms, and more easily seen by parents. Additionally, sharing computers has meant less overall screen time. When others are using the computers, the kids generate non-screen activities to keep them busy. This too stretches their adolescent brains. 

The stretching Stephen, Daniel, and Annie have done as a result of parental “no’s” has helped them practice skills they will use in the work world. Having fewer resources in our home has required the kids to negotiate more often than they otherwise would have.

When more than one person wants the car or computer, teens must stand in the shoes of others and think through whose situation is a higher priority. Since teens’ brains are wired to make them more self-focused than the average person, regularly working with others and thinking about everyone’s priorities has truly been a stretch. 

It’s still challenging to say no regularly to teens, but remembering some of the lasting benefits a no brings—even if the teens themselves can’t see these benefits yet—makes saying no now and again worth it. 



Take a look at my new book, Sweet Spots: Helping Your Kids Find ENOUGH in Their Lives–in paperback or kindle! Parents of young kids might be excited to read this around the holidays.



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When Your Child Won’t Practice


When my friend Jessica’s son Alex was in elementary school, he loved soccer. Alex would spend hours in their backyard “shooting on goal,” only coming in when it was dark and he was spent. I envisioned his tired soul easily finishing homework and succumbing to sleep. I’m not sure if this last part was true or simply what I imagined would happen with such a child. Because of his natural soccer talent, as well as the many extra hours of backyard practice, Alex was soon a skilled soccer player. 

My son Daniel liked soccer nearly as much as Alex from elementary school on. We bought one of those kick-back nets for a birthday gift fairly early, and I figured that, like Alex, Daniel would spend hours in our backyard practicing. He did practice some at first, but it never really took off. Not even sort of. Daniel played on a soccer team during those years and loved it, but rarely practiced on his own beyond that.

Daniel has also enjoyed playing the saxophone for many years and has been in the school jazz band since sixth grade. Since his jazz band experiences have happened in middle and high school classes, Daniel played his instrument at school each day. But at home—nada. Given how much Daniel loves soccer and sax, his lack of practicing never made sense to me.

Then I read The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin, and suddenly things became much clearer. Rubin’s book is about what motivates us to “get things done” in our lives. She breaks people into four types based on how they respond to expectations—those that are inner (from the self), and those that are outer (from others).

The Four Tendencies

Upholders respond readily and easily to both outer and inner expectations.

Questioners ask and wonder about all expectations. They meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified. So in effect questioners respond only to inner expectations—those that come from themselves rather than the outside world.

Obligers respond readily to outer expectations (those put on them by other people or groups), but struggle to meet inner expectations.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Turns out Daniel is an Obliger (as well as an extrovert). Thus, he regularly showed up for team soccer practices, knowing his teammates were counting on him to be there. And being an extrovert, practicing with a group refueled him. However, Daniel was much less likely to practice soccer skills on his own with no buddies around, as this just didn’t motivate him. The same went for saxophone. Daniel loved playing his sax in jazz band practices and performances. Alone in his room, not so much.

Seeing my son’s behavior through this Four Tendencies lens reduced my frustration about his lack of extra practicing. Rubin notes that when Obligers want to meet an inner expectation—to exercise, to take an online course, to start their own company—they will almost inevitably fail unless they use a work-around. For Obligers, the vital work-around for motivating themselves to get something done is to create outer accountability. Obligers need to build in a structure bigger than themselves which expects them to show up or complete something.

What To Do

In Daniel’s case, bringing a friend over specifically to play soccer at the park with him would be one way to create outer accountability. Signing Daniel up for some sort of one-on-one soccer skills coaching would be another way to build in outer accountability, as would regular sax lessons with a teacher he admired. Group lessons might work even better than individual ones. When it comes to school work, a respected teacher’s expectations, or working in a small group where everyone is pulling their weight, often serve as mechanisms of outer accountability.

These solutions to the Obliger “stuck points” take some creativity, but it’s better than continuing to nag Daniel to practice the sax or his soccer skills when he’s at home.

Not the Only One

As I read Rubin’s book, it became obvious to me that I am also an Obliger. The way I finished my Ph.D. dissertation was by scheduling meetings with my advisors every Friday. My advisors became my outer accountability. Knowing a Friday meeting was looming motivated me to get the work done. Strange that I didn’t pick up on the fact that Daniel and I are both Obligers. Though maybe it’s not so surprising since sometimes what bothers us most in our kids is something with which we ourselves struggle. 


Don’t forget to check out my new book, Sweet Spots: Helping Your Kids Find ENOUGH in Their Lives, available at Amazon in paperback or kindleIf you like it, I’d be so grateful if you’d write a review on Amazon, and/or tell someone else about it. Thank you! 





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Happy to Announce My New Book!


As many of you are aware, I’ve been working on a book project for the last few years based on this blog and much additional research. For those of you who’ve offered feedback and suggestions to my blog posts over the years, I’ve integrated many of your comments into my book.

I am delighted to announce at last that the book has been published! It’s called Sweet Spots: Helping Your Kids Find ENOUGH in Their Lives and is available on Amazon in both paperback and kindle formats.


What the Book’s About

Sweet Spots injects relief and insight into the busy lives of weary parents. I approached this book with the humble honesty of Brené Brown and tried to capture the perceptive storytelling of Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee. The book integrates simple living, current psychology research, and a mother’s humility.

Sweet Spots uses many of my own and my clients’ parenting experiences to highlight the scarcity thinking that has gripped our culture—the Hurry, you’re already behind! attitude. The Bigger! Better! More! attitude. If I can’t get my daughter into that particular preschool, she’ll never get into a good college!

Sweet Spots is chock full of tools to help readers tamp down those anxious impulses and instead cultivate an “attitude of enough” in their children and themselves. Parent readers and their kids will learn to formulate a new, optimistic worldview:  There is enough to go around.  Another chance always comes along.  I am resourceful.  I can make a difference in the world.  I am enough.   


Thank You

Thanks so much to those of you who’ve followed my blog over the years! I would love to hear your opinions of Sweet Spots. So if you read it and like it, please leave a review on Amazon. One final request: if you buy a copy, please consider passing it along when done to someone you think it would benefit.


Early Reviews

I’m so grateful that several authors whom I admire offered to read drafts of Sweet Spots and shared reviews:

“Cochran’s timely and informative book comes from her professional and personal experiences. Her kind and wise reflections offer modern parents both practical help and long-term perspective as they navigate the challenging work and joy of raising children. I heartily recommend it.”

Mary Pipher, Ph.D., bestselling author of Reviving Ophelia and Women Rowing North

“I love the premise of this book. Psychologists rarely challenge our consumer culture from a mental health standpoint, but in Sweet Spots Suzita Cochran helps parents prioritize what is important for a child’s healthy development…Highly recommended!”

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., author of What Great Parents Do

It’s a got-to-have-it-all, got-to-stay-ahead parenting jungle out there. Suzita Cochran provides myriad battle-tested tips to assist parents in guiding their kids to ENOUGH—perhaps the most important life skill of our modern consumerist age. Following Cochran’s advice will help you and your children achieve more sane, more satisfied and happier lives.”

Marie Sherlock, author of Living Simply with Children

“There are literally thousands of titles to help moms and dads navigate the rough waters of parenting in our modern age. Each offers a unique point of view, from so-called Tiger parenting to French mothering, attachment parenting to gender-neutral parenting to feminist parenting. Into this overcrowded field of fad advice comes Suzita Cochran, whose simple yet compelling premise is, know what is enough. Cochran offers a thoughtful primer on learning to establish your family’s boundaries and then applying this principle to all facets of family life. Her focus on the principle of “enough” will give parents permission to set limits, redefine their values, and rear their children in a family environment marked by common sense, clarity and conscience. If you choose only one parenting book to guide your thinking on this most important role, Sweet Spots will be enough.”

Marybeth Hicks, columnist, speaker, and author of Bringing Up GEEKS: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World

“This book will help parents move away from the vague but disturbing feeling of scarcity—the sense many have that there’s not enough to go around, and we must fight to get ahead and provide…Sweet Spots not only left me with the settled feeling that there will be sufficient resources for my family and children, but also with an appreciation that there is an abundance of care, love, and time in which my family can thrive.”

Kim John Payne M.ED., author of Simplicity Parenting




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Escape Outdoors

I remember the day the I hit the wall. It was in the middle of a long summer of what we referred to as “Mom camp,” and at the peak of our two-playgrounds-a-day phase—one in the morning, another in the afternoon. And I just couldn’t do it anymore.

That summer the kids were 10, 8, and 5, and Todd, who was working hard to finish his first book before his teaching semester began, needed quiet time to write. 

I’m not sure how inspiration struck—it was likely due to the desperation I felt. But out of the blue, I recalled a small slice of land on the edge of a pond, on the far side of a park, on the other end of town. I piled the kids in the car with some notebooks, pencils, bags for collecting, and snacks—and drove off.

We walked for half a mile to get to the spot. The children were somewhat cranky when we arrived, but it was fairly secluded so no one heard their fussing.

A Deserted Island

I informed the kids I was dropping them off on a deserted island. It was about 100 yards across with a big hill in the middle, and the pond on one side. On the other side was a creek-sized body of water separating it from the “mainland.”  The first job was to create a bridge. 

I sat on a bench on the mainland while they built and explored. It was one of those wonderful parenting experiences that worked—which is probably why I remember it. As Angela Hanscom says in Balanced and Barefoot, the first thing that happens when kids lose themselves in nature is quiet. The loud, whiny voices come to an almost instant halt. A sense of focus takes hold.

Once the kids made their way onto the island via their soggy bridge of sticks and logs, five-year-old Annie picked her way to the water’s edge and began searching for rocks and water bugs. Stephen, age ten, started surveying the landmass and later drew a map of it in his notebook—which I thought might happen as he was deep into his map-making phase. Eight-year-old Daniel got right down to building some sort of structure with plants and sticks, while keeping an eye out for natural treasures—he was in a pirate/detective phase.

When it was time to leave, the kids told me they’d christened the place “Moon Island” because it was somewhat crescent-shaped. Stephen pulled out his map, Daniel showed me various treasures he’d found, and Annie chattered about the bug species she’d discovered. All three begged me to return to their island soon.

Vitamin N

I love Richard Louv’s term ”Vitamin N” to describe children’s biological need for nature in their lives. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, reminds us that children involved in active free play outdoors are stimulating each of their senses and igniting their imaginations—their neurons firing on all cylinders. This type of play increases kids’ creativity, helps them regulate their emotions, and enhances their social development.

Play in the natural world reduces children’s anxiety, allows them to slow down and focus, and is less stimulating than much of the indoor world with its bright colors and loud sounds.

Nature Supports Sensory Integration

Hanscom says that the heavy lifting children naturally do outdoors—picking up boulders or tree branches—supports their proprioception, giving them a sense of body position and motion. This type of play helps kids discover and regulate how much force they need for completing varied tasks in life. She mentions that spinning and rolling, also common in outdoor play, stimulate the vestibular sense, telling children where their bodies are in space.

Free play in nature activates each sense, not simply proprioception and vestibular. It then helps kids weave the feedback from their senses into an integrated whole that clearly communicates signals from the outside world. Hanscom describes sensory integration as taking all the puzzle pieces and pulling them together into a bigger picture. She suggests imagining a child climbing a tree barefoot, experiencing the sensation through her eyes, feet, hands, nose, and even muscles and joints. Think of the information this child is taking in from all her senses.

What About in Winter?

Wintertime can be challenging when it comes to spending time in nature with children. When my kids were young, I had many “misses” on cold-day outdoor experiences, but a few did hit the mark, such as:

  • Walking along an iced-over creek, and letting the kids play beside it. They broke the ice by throwing big rocks and pounding it with sticks, and saw how far small rocks slid on the icy surface. As long as Mama stayed warm, this play could go on for hours.
  • Building snow forts in the backyard after big storms. We found kid-sized snow shovels for small, mittened hands, and let them loose.
  • Walking the neighborhood finding icy spots between the sidewalk and street. The kids then broke, crunched, and jumped on the ice while declaring themselves “The Icebreakers.”
  • Building winter dams. When it was a bit sunny and the snow began to melt into little streams along the sidewalks, the kids built small dams and other architectural creations in the flowing water.      

Final Thoughts

Being in nature calms a fussy toddler and soothes a disgruntled teen. And don’t forget that it makes the parents of these children feel more sane and grounded too. When we immerse ourselves in nature, even if just in bits at a time, we are reminded there are many things bigger than we are. Our problems aren’t so large when seen from this perspective. 


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Do You Have a Sensitive Child? You May Be Luckier Than You Realize

My friend Katherine and her husband adopted two foster siblings at ages 1 and 2.  It was a big change—going from a 2- to a 4-person family overnight.  They had so much to learn about parenting and about these particular children.  Like many previously in foster care, these kids had experienced early traumas.  I tried to be a sounding board for Katherine when she had so many decisions to make in short order.  But I also watched her getting to know her new children, and laying down the foundation from which they’d learn to trust her—doing many of the things that new biological parents do.  Only Katherine didn’t have the luxury to move slowly with one child who she’d been with since birth.    

Young Childhood

I remember Katherine would try to make things as predictable and understandable as possible for her toddlers—sometimes cutting out photos of things which she was explaining.  But over the years, I saw that Katherine’s biggest strength was her patience.

When the kids were in elementary school, it became clear that each had a learning disability, as well as attentional difficulties.  However, their learning challenges weren’t as straightforward as they are for some kids—those with dyslexia, for example.  It took Katherine years to decipher the cause of the learning problems in each child.  During those years Katherine was patient—frustrated at times and tired a lot—but persevering as she consulted various experts to help her understand her children’s struggles. 


Now these siblings are adolescents—rarely an easy phase for kids or parents.  But I can see how far they have come.  It’s probably harder for Katherine and her husband to see this since they’re so close to it all—and the kids are middle-schoolers so some of their positive attributes are buried for now—but they’ve clearly flourished.  The kids are interested in the world around them, able to talk comfortably with adults, playful, funny, and kind—and this description is from my kids who babysit them.   

Sensitive Children

Recently when my teens were talking about Katherine’s kids, I was reminded of some reading I’d done on sensitive children—kids who are extremely aware of, and affected by their environments.  Katherine has at least one and likely two “sensitive children.” 

Personally, I describe these kids as the ones parents worry about the most.  Researchers who study both children and primates—where some of the work on sensitive kids originated—describe sensitive children as having a genetic make-up that makes them more: anxious, fearful, fussy, whiny, prone to social anxiety, and unfocused. 

These are clearly not your mellow babies or exuberant and upbeat toddlers.  These are the kids you babysat as a teen, and left their home exhausted because they’d been crabby and fussy, and never settled on any activity for long.  They are the kids who don’t transition easily due to  overstimulation from their environments.  These are the children who are exceedingly sensitive to sounds, or as they get older, offhand comments from other children.  And don’t get me started about seeing movies they find scary.  Heck, my son Daniel would have nightmares after seeing the “scary book cover at the school book fair.”  Yes, I myself am somewhat familiar with sensitive children.  I have at least two of them, and possibly three. 

In The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman mention that certain kids have a genetic predisposition to environmental sensitivity.  They interviewed primate researcher, Steve Suomi, who stated that though “some traits are inherited, it doesn’t mean they can’t be altered.”  His work has shown that if you put a naturally anxious and fearful baby rhesus monkey with a supportive foster mother monkey, that baby grows up to be highly social, able to turn to others for help, and often a social group leader. 

Orchid Children

This and other research has led scientists to dub these sensitive kids “orchid children.” 

According to researchers Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyle, many children are “genetically like dandelions: hardy and able to thrive in various environments.”  For years we assumed that non-dandelion children—high-maintenance children—were the weak ones.  However, the “orchid theory” suggests that while sensitive “orchid” children may be more challenging to raise, if nurtured well they can excel even beyond their counterparts. 

A German study explored this concept in young children. It followed thousands of toddlers considered at risk, due to behaviors such as routine screaming, whining, and difficulty focusing. Researchers then taught their parents how to best work with these challenging kids.  All the children were also tested for a dopamine gene which causes high sensitivity to the environment and is linked to ADHD.  They found that although the entire group received positive parenting, the children with the sensitivity gene improved twice as much as those without the gene. 

Studies now suggest that strong, positive parenting can help sensitive kids throughout childhood.  The orchid theory posits that “genetically challenged” children raised with good parents “don’t just turn out fine, they actually excel. They thrive. They become stronger, healthier, and more confident than their peers.”  The natural sensitivity in these children makes them sponges in their environments.  While they have the potential to soak up “the worst” if they are in bad environments, they also have the potential to absorb “the best” if that’s what they are offered.   

As I’ve watched Katherine and her husband parent their kids over the past decade, I now see that I have been observing the orchid theory in action. 


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People Are the Priority

It was clear early on that my friend Christina’s daughter Ava was a bright girl.  She was one of those toddlers who spoke in eloquent sentences when my same-age son was struggling to put two words together.  Her parents were understandably impressed with her abilities.  Unlike other children who develop in fits and starts during their elementary years, Ava was a child to whom all things academic came naturally.

On the other hand, Ava never seemed particularly interested in other children.  As soon as she could read, she was usually more focused on our bookshelves than on running around with our kids.  Still, the adults in the room took notice of Ava’s ability to read at barely age four.  However, I also remember observing that unlike the other kids we saw regularly, Ava never learned my name.  She knew me only as Stephen and Daniel’s mother.  For such a smart child, this was a bit odd.  Ava seemed to see me as a vehicle for getting what she needed.  “Hey, can you get me that book?” or “I need some juice.” 

I wondered if having a kid like Ava, who was so impressive in her intellectual pursuits, allowed her parents to focus only on what was going well and forget to remind their daughter that other people in her life were a vital source of knowledge and connection for her. 

A Problem Arises

Ava’s family moved to Seattle when she was in fifth grade, and since then we have only been in touch sporadically.  Christina called me recently, though, to ask my advice on a few things that concerned her.  She mentioned that Ava had recently been rude when her grandparents visited.  Ava later told Christina that all her grandparents did was ask annoying questions about her life.  When I asked how school was, Christina said Ava continues to be a very academic kid, but she no longer enjoys school like she once did.  Ava’s a sophomore now and attends one of the best public high schools in her area, but tells her parents that school is boring.  She still gets good enough grades, but says most of her teachers are “stupid” and her classes seem pointless.

Wisdom Found

I found some advice for Ava’s parents in an unexpected place.  When Christina phoned, I happened to be reading 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, by Karl Pillemer.  Pillemer and his team interviewed 1000 elders with the average age of 78, though some were over 100.  He asked them to share what they had learned over their long lives regarding marriage, work, parenting, aging, and day-to-day living.  He then synthesized their interviews into 30 life lessons. 

Ava popped into my head when reading the section on work life—even though to my knowledge 15 year-old Ava has never worked for money.  Pillemer referred to the elders he interviewed as “experts” and noted that regarding work life the experts repeatedly emphasized: 

“No matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant—you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.  Many young people today are so focused on gaining technical expertise that they lose sight of this key to job success: traits like empathy, consideration, listening skills, and the ability to resolve conflict are fundamentals in the workplace.”

This piece of wisdom seemed to be one component of Ava’s problem.  She had always been overly focused on her own interests.  Her parents had set up a world where for the most part Ava didn’t need to interact with other people much to get what she wanted.  Again, with a child like Ava who hadn’t required much parental guidance, I wondered if her parents neglected to notice the areas Ava wasn’t so good at, such as working with others.  Over time Ava had built up such confidence in her intellectual abilities that it didn’t occur to her that other kids and adults had much to offer.  If her parents had spent more time helping Ava see what skills and lessons other people could teach her, they might have instilled an attitude of respect for the adults in her life such as her teachers.  Every child will have a few not-so-great teachers, but it’s hard to believe that Ava’s teachers are all bad and the majority of her classes useless.  

Another life lesson from the experts in Pillemer’s book was:  Make the most of a bad job.  This wisdom might be useful to Ava.  An 81 year-old man named Sam Winston summarized this lesson saying,

“I’ve had many different experiences throughout my life where I really didn’t like what I had to do and I would feel what I was doing was inconsequential.  But the lessons I learned doing those things played an important part in my life.  For example, I had to work my way through college, in many what you may consider meaningless jobs.  Later on they were very valuable for me as an employer, to help me understand my people.”

Sam Winston later explained lessons he learned from various people: 

“People are very important.  I have a saying that ‘There is some good in everyone.’  But there is an important corollary to that.  If nothing else, you can always say, ‘There’s a [person I will use as] a bad example.’…You can learn from everyone, no matter who it is.  No matter what their status, you can learn from them.”

Challenge This Worldview

Maybe the message Ava’s mom really needed to give her daughter was “you have unique gifts, but so does everyone else.”  Perhaps Ava’s parents should remind her that there are many types of intelligence—musical, visual-spatial, verbal, logical, kinesthetic-physical, interpersonal, intrapersonal—to help her understand and respect the variety of strengths those around her may possess.  Unfortunately societies which don’t value the wisdom of elders may be more likely to raise children with attitudes like Ava’s.  On the other hand, parents can always challenge this attitude in their kids when they see it.  I think “the experts” would agree.

Leave a comment below!


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What Getting a Puppy Taught My Tween and Teens about Parenthood

IMG_2187As a family we fall on the late-adopter end of the spectrum.  This is challenging for our kids when it comes to owning the newest technology which I’m pretty sure we have none of in our home.  It’s been similar with pets.  After becoming a parent, I remember the sense of awe I had watching other parents simultaneously following their toddler, pushing a baby stroller, and walking a dog.  I knew I’d never pull that off.

When our sons were in elementary school and began asking for a dog or cat, my first response was to say we already had a pet and point to their toddler sister, Annie.  “When Annie becomes less of a pet, we can think about getting an actual pet.”  Eventually, it was Annie herself begging for a pet.  Thus, four years ago we got a kitten, a good first pet for us.  But as it so happened, we adopted a kitty who never turned into the lap cat about which our kids had dreamed.  Over time, our children more and more desperately wanted a dog with whom they could run around and wrestle. 

Last summer, after having our kids do extensive research into the pros and cons of different dog breeds, we brought home a 7 week-old puppy from a dog rescue organization.  Our reading led us to adopt a puppy rather than an older dog in order to have as much influence as possible over her adult personality. 

Looking back, I am glad we got a puppy because in the end raising a puppy taught my kids a lot about parenthood. 

Early Puppyhood Is Not Unlike Life with a Newborn Baby

In the first few days with our new puppy, while I was suffering flashbacks of bringing my newborn babies home, my then 17, 15, and 12 year-old kids were realizing that this puppy adventure was going to be more involved than they had envisioned.  “You mean someone has to get up at night and take her out?” 

It was a cruel awakening.  One week in, we were all fairly sleep-deprived and cranky.  But our children were definitely learning what taking care of a puppy 24/7 felt like.  They named her Scout, after the character in To Kill a Mocking Bird which our sons had read in middle school.  Like all parents, they loved watching her sleep, and couldn’t believe how much energy she woke up with after those relatively short naps. 

During those days Todd and I talked a lot with our teens about how similar this was to when they were little.  We reminded them that we would sometimes go to 3 parks or playgrounds a day when they were young and their energy was overflowing our small home. 

I recall one day in Scout’s early life when each of us had something we needed to do away from home.  We were looking at schedules to make sure someone would always be available to take Scout out.  Daniel said afterward, “So this was what it was like when we were little?  And it was like this every day?”  Of course I wanted to say, “It was at least 3 times worse since there were 3 of you, and this phase lasted even longer,” but I didn’t because just seeing that flash of understanding in our teenage son’s eyes was incredibly gratifying. 


You Don’t Have Full Control Over What Kind of Puppy or Child You Will Bring Home

It’s one of the most difficult aspects of parenthood—you must learn to love the child you are given.  Sometimes the hardest part is letting go of your previous hopes and expectations. 

All the puppy books said that the earlier you adopt a puppy (within reason), the more time you have to “shape” their personalities.  Now that we’ve had Scout for over a year, I shudder to think how she would have looked if we didn’t begin with her at 7 weeks.  Scout is like that extremely shy child at the playground.  She sort of wants to say hello to other kids, but when someone new comes up, she runs back behind her Mama’s legs. This has also been a valuable lesson for our children.  They have had to accept Scout’s basic personality.  Her complete adoration of our immediate family has at least helped with this. 

After our initial dog research, we had decided the breed we liked most was an Australian Shepherd.  A full-blooded Australian Shepherd wasn’t in the cards for us financially, but we were hoping for a half Aussie.  In the end we got what we refer to as a part Australian Shepherd, part Husky, part random white dog. 

Early on, we took Scout to a number of puppy play groups which the dog books said would help socialize her.  During these groups our kids often wondered aloud, “Why is our puppy the only one not playing?  The other dogs are having fun together, but our dog spends her time searching for food at the edges of the room.  You would think we weren’t feeding her!”  Or, “Is there something defective about Scout, why is she so shy?”  This led to conversations about the varied rates of development of different dogs (and children). 

I acknowledged to our kids how hard it had been for me at toddler play groups to see other kids who had mastered things my late-bloomers were still stumbling over.  Although it felt somewhat ironic that Scout seemed to have some of the same issues that all 3 of my kids had experienced as toddlers, I figured this was once again a great lesson for them.  They were learning that unlike a new bike which you can ride around the store ahead of time, and decide exactly what color you like, puppies and children develop and change in unexpected ways.  You need to work with and love them as they are.

Training a Puppy, Like Parenting, Is Not as Easy as the Experts Make it Sound

Remember those parenting book titles that gave us false hopes—Siblings Without Rivalry, for example? Soon after we adopted Scout we bought, The Perfect Puppy in Seven Days.  What puppy owner wouldn’t buy this book?  And honestly, aside from the title, it included some very helpful training tips.  Since we had older children when we got Scout, we strongly encouraged them to read this and a few other puppy training books which came highly recommended. 

Then we watched our kids learn the lesson that reading about how to teach a puppy a skill is one thing.  Doing it is another entirely.  The real life experience of training your dog to come, for instance, seems akin to potty training a child.  It takes time for the dog to learn the skill, and mistakes are of course made along the way.  Then after they’ve learned the skill you still must keep practicing it with them month after month.  And then inevitably some change will occur:  your child starts preschool, or your dog is no longer allowed off-leash at your usual play area.  Suddenly that wonderful skill you thought your puppy or child had mastered disappears.  This life lesson is simply not one you can “tell” a child about (at least our 3 kids), but experiencing it firsthand with their canine charge made an impression. 


Dog Days

Now that Scout is close to a year and 1/2, we are further away from the crazy puppy days, and have hopefully climbed the majority of our steep puppy-learning-curve.  Seeing how much Scout adores our kids no matter where they are on the roller coaster of the adolescent experience is worth those first challenging months.  I still get a little jealous when I see other young dogs who run up to anyone wagging their tails excitedly.  But I so appreciate the unexpected lessons that our sweet, hyper, unknown-mixed breed, on-the-anxious-barky-side Scout has taught our teens and reminded their parents of as well.   

How did getting a pet work at your house?  Leave a comment below!


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