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. 

 

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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. 

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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. 

Adolescence

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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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“I Got My First Paycheck!” The Value of Work in Kids’ Lives

 

At breakfast one morning last summer, Stephen, our 15 year-old suggested, “Let’s all go hiking this weekend.  I have a trail I want you to see.  It’s the one we’ve been working on all week.”

Stephen’s comment was notable for a couple of reasons. For one thing, 15 year-old boys don’t tend to enjoy spending more time than they must with their parents, and yet Stephen was requesting a family activity. Secondly, Stephen wanted to show us the work he’d done on that particular trail, a source of pride for him.

For the last two summers Stephen has worked with other teens doing trail maintenance in our county. Each morning the teens met up at 7:30, and after driving to their trail site, began digging, moving boulders, breaking up stumps, building steps, and creating water bars to reduce erosion until 3:30 each afternoon. Each day Stephen returned home tired but happy. This first “real job” has been a good fit for Stephen. Teens have such a surplus of energy, and it seems fitting for them to put that energy toward a good cause and get paid for it.

I have two teens now ages 14 and 16, and all the books I’ve read on adolescents say that kids in this phase want to be taken seriously. Adolescents want to do “real work” that contributes to their family and community. They feel respected when they are doing work that we parents might pay someone to do. Teens are proud when they are working beside adults doing a task that is truly needed.

Figuring Out How to Best Use Summer Vacation

Each spring, I find myself contemplating these factors when I plan for our upcoming summer. Which activities will my kids benefit most from? (This doesn’t mean I don’t ask them what their preferences are, but I like to consider the options beforehand, as well.) As my kids have gotten into the double digits, I appreciate their willingness to take on some kind of paid work each summer. And I often find myself comparing a sports or music camp to a work opportunity when it comes to summer activities.

Parents regularly hear how valuable sports, art, and music are for our children, and we usually have numerous options to choose from in these areas each summer. While I agree that these activities are wonderful for kids in many ways, I don’t think they give adolescents that feeling of doing “real work” which they crave.

In Dave Ramsey’s book written with his daughter Rachel Cruze, Smart Money, Smart Kids , they titled their second chapter, “Work: It’s Not a Four-Letter Word.” They say it’s vital for parents to teach kids “how” to work. And they add:

We teach [our children] to work not for our benefit, but because it gives them both dignity in a job well done today, and the tools and character to win in the future as adults.

Looking Back at My Teen Years

When I think back on what I was most proud of as a teen who played numerous sports but also worked at a job, it was that I made my own money working alongside adults. I worked in the warehouse of my stepfather’s camping equipment store when I was 15. (Yes, he started me out at the bottom.) Then for the next two years I worked in his store fitting hiking boots, and selling winter jackets and camping equipment. I remember how good it felt being taken seriously by customers who were twice my age. When I consider those work experiences, I realize I gained knowledge at work that I didn’t get in other areas of my life. I also learned that I never want to work in a warehouse again!

Tween and Teen Job Possibilities

Now as a mom, I’ve encouraged my kids ages 16, 14, and 11 to earn money working in these ways:

In The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler interviews Warren Buffet’s banker who grew up poor, working many odd jobs and starting a number of small businesses as a young person. He mentions that Warren Buffet believes running a business is an important way for kids to learn about all aspects of money and money-making.

Life Skills Kids Gain from Employment

Learning How to Work:

These are all the lessons that most adults forget they themselves had to learn way back when. Show up on time. Look ahead at your schedule and tell your boss if you are going to miss a day. Find someone to cover your shift. Stay focused at work. Ask questions when you don’t understand a new procedure. Don’t talk on the phone or text with your friends while working.

Be Honest When Something Goes Wrong:

Admitting you were at fault is one of life’s harder lessons, but one that working teaches pretty regularly. Kids often need support from parents in this area, however, to learn how to handle or make amends for a mistake they’ve made at work. Recently Daniel, 14, was pet sitting. His client left him a check for the job ahead of time. Daniel put the check in his back pocket and there it stayed until his pants came out of the clean wash later in the week. Daniel wanted his client to know that he hadn’t simply cashed the check and requested another, so he wrote her a note explaining what happened, and included the pulpy pieces of the check in an envelope.

Learning to Read People:

When my friend Sue, now in her 80s, looks back on her work at her family’s restaurant during her childhood, she says this was where she learned to understand people. To do a job well, you must stand in the shoes of other people, such as your boss or customers.  My kids have noticed that many of their clients, for example, prefer their lawns mowed or driveways snow shoveled in a specific way.  They have learned from experience that they’re more likely to be asked back if they follow their client’s preferences.

I Can Do Something I Didn’t Think I Could:

It’s been babysitting that has taught my kids this lesson most often. When you are babysitting and a child you’re watching vomits, you clean it up. You just do. At home you would run screaming from the room, trying not to throw up yourself. At work, it’s another story. Or when a kid in your charge has a diaper explosion, you don’t get to make someone else clean it up. The buck stops with you. When this happened to Stephen, he put the child fully clothed in the bath tub and turned on the water. Not necessarily what I would have done, but he cleaned the child up and learned that he could think on his feet when needed.

Life Isn’t Going to Be Fun Every Minute of the Day:

“That’s why they call it work and you are getting paid for it.” Working at a “boring” job can give today’s overstimulated kids who are used to being entertained the understanding that it’s okay to be a bit bored or understimulated. Some of life requires this and it doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Increased Executive Functioning Skills (Or Getting Those Frontal Lobes Firing):

Work requires many higher level brain functions such as staying organized, managing time, switching focus, planning ahead, remembering details, and learning from past mistakes. When kids have a job, they are being paid to practice these skills (the ones that drove us crazy when they were younger) which will help them at school and home, as well as on the job.

All of these life lessons tend to be learned and re-learned on the job. Because it’s paid work, the client or the boss is more likely to tell the adolescent when they have fallen short somewhere.

A Parent’s Role

Because nothing about this whole parenting phase is as simple as I expected, the above mentioned life skills haven’t come as easily to my kids as I thought they would.  I wish I could just sit back and watch as the life lessons sink in.  But as Dave Ramsey suggests, parents should put the time in to teaching kids how to be good employees. We may need to ask kids regularly at first how work went, and problem-solve tough situations. We also may need to role play certain work scenarios with our children to increase their confidence.

Employers and clients additionally might not always have our kids’ best interests in mind. We will probably need to help our kids advocate for themselves by saying no to parts of the job now and again – for example overtime hours. And staying on top of school work and sleep are areas teens who work may need some help with as well.

Overall, the fact that kids who work are basically being paid to learn valuable life lessons (even though it does take some parental support) seems like a win-win situation to me.

What was your first job and what lessons did it teach you?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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One Solution to the High Price of Big Kid Activities

Teen Interview - Sign HereA little over a year ago, Todd and I were having one of our monthly check-ins about family finances, and we came to the unfortunate realization that our family had more money going out than coming in. Ouch.

The previous month we’d targeted a number of areas in which to reduce spending (cable, some organic foods, some weekly driving), but evidently these cuts were not extensive enough. Because our financial squeeze coincided with our kids taking on and/or pleading to begin various new activities, we decided to look more closely at kid activities for potential cuts.

As we weighed these expenses, 2 activities rose to the surface, showing themselves like a child’s shaggy, summer head begging for a haircut. These were To-Shin Do and Children’s Theater. You know how, as a parent, you often have a love-hate relationship with certain kid activities? It usually has to do with how much driving you do for them, or perhaps how you feel about the coach or other participants, or maybe that particular event has always annoyed you. And although you’ve tried to hide this from your kid, it doesn’t necessarily protect it from rising to the top of family budget cuts. I personally, didn’t feel this way about To-Shin Do or Children’s Theater, but my dear partner may have. Therefore, to the financial spotlight they rose to be scrutinized.

First we decided to have a family meeting to find out how our kids currently felt about these activities. Since we’d already given this issue much thought, we sort of figured that upon offering our kids the option of taking time off, they’d concur. First we laid out the situation for our sons, Stephen, 15, and Daniel, 13, inquiring whether, after 2 and ½ years, it was time to take a break from To-Shin Do, a self-defense-oriented martial art. Emphatically they responded, “Absolutely not.”

We then told them that with the rather high price tag for 2 student memberships, we needed to make some kind of a change in our To-Shin Do regimen. For maybe 10 minutes, we began to work more like those higher-functioning families you read about in books. We put our 5 heads together and brainstormed ideas to bring the To-shin Do price down without taking time off.

A Possible Solution

Since our kids had run a “neighborhood services” business for the past 8 years, they considered offering to clean the dojo (the gym where To-Shin Do occurs) weekly in exchange for a partial scholarship. They also were doing a lot of babysitting, so they thought they could perhaps help teach the younger children’s classes. Additionally, they offered to work at the front desk of the dojo as a barter for a partial scholarship. After making sure that the boys felt comfortable with each of these options, we helped them compose an email to the To-Shin Do director.

It was hard for our sons to wait for the director’s response, but that also confirmed to us how much continuing to train in To-Shin Do meant to them. They each strongly wanted to reach the black belt level, and they were halfway there.

Not long after, we heard from the director. She generously suggested that both Stephen and Daniel could be trained to work at the front desk in exchange for partial scholarships.

Our Daughter’s Situation

Meanwhile our 10 year-old daughter, Annie, confronted a similar situation with her Children’s Theater group. Rather than take a break from theater, she dramatically (as any theater kid worth her salt) insisted that she desperately wanted to be a part of the upcoming musical. So, Annie emailed the theater director mentioning that she’d had experience working with young children since she’d begun her mother’s helper business the previous summer. Annie offered to be a teacher’s helper in the young children’s class in exchange for a partial scholarship.

In Annie’s case, the theater director was also willing to take a risk and agreed to Annie’s offer.

Relief!

Todd and I were so relieved that these somewhat unorthodox solutions to our financial concerns had been arranged! Additionally, it felt right that our kids were putting in extra time and energy toward something about which they were passionate.

Not Quite as Simple as We’d Expected

My relief lasted for about a week, until my kids began the “work” part of their deals. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very positive, just not as easy and parent-free as I’d initially envisioned.

Daniel, at age 13, was a bit more challenged by working at the front desk than his older brother. He wanted to do it, but there was much to learn – from the computer system, to how to greet people on the phone, to the process for collecting payments. It took longer than I expected to help Daniel learn the ropes of his new position. I was also reminded that teenage boys don’t necessarily come out and tell you what may have gone wrong at work. (At least mine don’t. Please don’t tell me if yours do.) You have to ask the right questions to glean this information.

“Why didn’t you mention that you’d had a hard time collecting a payment last week at work?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“Okay…”

The boys and I did quite a bit of role-playing of potential work scenarios (phone and in-person) over the first 4 months of this new work experience. If I had guessed how long I would have needed to work with my sons to help make this work-as-barter venture successful, I probably would have said 2 weeks. On the other hand, it kind of fits with my overall experience of parenting – envision how long you think something will take to teach, and multiply it by at least 5.

Children’s Theater Assistant

Annie’s work with the young kids at the Children’s Theater was only a 4 month commitment. As it turned out, her experience of bartering work for a scholarship was smoothest, likely because she wasn’t required to learn as many new skills.

Soon after Annie began her work, the director told me this was a true win-win situation since Annie, who was to be a lead role in the musical, could regularly practice the scenes she had with the young children in her class. Additionally, Annie already knew a number of the young girls in her group. And as you may be aware, little girls often semi-worship big girls. Annie was able to harness the big-girl effect to her advantage during this work experience.

A Year Later

It’s actually been over a year since we began these work-as-barter arrangements. Annie’s situation continued as smoothly as it began, with a little bit of do-I-have-to-go-in-again crabbiness on some work days. Her teacher’s assistant position ended once the performance was over. Overall, Annie was proud that she’d been able to help out in this way for herself and for our family.

Stephen and Daniel continue to work the front desk for three shifts a week, plus attend a weekly staff meeting. They are each more comfortable now with the work, though Todd and I continue to periodically check in about how it’s is going. When it’s dark or icy out, the boys can’t bike to work and it requires even more driving on our parts. On the other hand, this work has required the boys to learn a new level of responsibility, as well as some of the ins and outs of a small business.

“So we need to tell them ahead of time when we are going to be out of town?”

Additionally, Stephen and Daniel’s front desk work is definitely “work.” You’re not allowed to do your homework, or check your phone while at the desk (well, Daniel doesn’t have a phone yet, but that’s another blog post.) Basically, it’s not one of those “fun” jobs. Because of this, this experience has helped our sons better understand what work feels like, as well as make a deeper commitment to why they are doing this work in the first place – moving slowly but continually toward those To-Shin Do black belts.

Has anyone made a similar arrangement for their kids?  Leave a comment!Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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How Family Meetings Look at our House

Summer is definitely over.  Sometimes it feels like we have four seasons in our family – winter, spring, summer, and chaos – or back to school season.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my kids return to school, and for the most part they do as well.  But for the last 2 years we’ve had kids in 3 separate schools – elementary, middle, and high, and it’s been a lot to manage.

Back to school time is like a wave crashing down. It knocks you over, then swirls you around under water for long enough that you’re beginning to worry, until at last the water recedes.  You plant your feet on the sandy bottom and take a deep breath, thankful that you survived, smiling at the folks at the water’s edge – when the next wave crashes down on you.

These last couple of school-year beginnings have felt this way to me.  So I did what I often do.  Rather than reinvent the wheel (or the life jacket), I sought out ways others are coping.

My sister heard about a book she thought I might like (need), The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, by Bruce Feiler.  With that title, how could I not read it?

Feiler searches for new ideas in various fields, and applies these to families – something I enjoy doing myself.  As I read through his book, the sentence that caught my eye most was:

“Weekly family meetings quickly became the single most impactful idea we introduced into our lives since the birth of our children.”

I’ve been meaning to put some kind of family meeting in place at our house for maybe a decade now.  This was a sign the time had come!

How To Do It

Feiler models his weekly family meetings on the business world’s movement called “agile development,” a way of running an organization from the bottom up as well as top down.  This strategy uses regular check-ins with many small teams about what is working and not working in an organization.  Feiler’s agile-style family meetings are based on 3 simple questions.

1. What things went well in our family this week?

2.  What went wrong in our family this week?

3.  What will we work on this coming week?

It sounded so straight-forward, I had to give it a try.

How It’s Worked So Far

Family meetings have been slightly less life-altering for us than Feiler, but I’m still glad we started them.  My kids are currently 11, 14 and 16 (girl, boy, boy).  While these are clearly important ages to stress communication, these are also ages when communication, especially with teenage males, begins to decelerate.

Our family meets on Sunday evenings and uses Feiler’s 3 questions as our foundation.  We often start by recapping the previous week, because honestly there are times when things are so hectic that it’s hard to remember what we’ve just come through.  Lately we pat ourselves on the backs for simply making it through the last week.

After this, we’ve had some worthwhile conversations about what’s worked well in the prior week.  Other families profiled in The Secrets of Happy Families seem to regularly have deep and meaningful conversations in their family meetings.  At this point, I wouldn’t call our conversations deep.  I hope that doesn’t mean our family is more shallow than others.  Maybe that’s why our family isn’t profiled in Feiler’s book?   Anyway, our meetings remain a work in progress.  Hopefully they’ll gain depth with time.

Feiler emphasizes the importance of focusing on your family as a unit, not how well each individual has done in the previous week.  Along these lines, our conversations have been beneficial, helping us feel we are on the same team.

My kids have been less communicative about what has gone wrong in the previous week.  It’s tricky because if the kids don’t bring the “problem” issues up, it’s just Todd and me presenting the negatives.  Our family meeting could morph into a place where kids might get in trouble from the top down.  We have emphasized to our kids that these meetings are a time when anyone can say what they feel is working or not, and that perhaps they’ll find a way to fix what’s not working.  Perhaps we need to say or do more in this area, though.

As I write this, I realize we have additionally begun to drop the ball a bit with question 3 – What will we work on this coming week?  We seem to be skipping this subject.  Hmm.  This may be because we haven’t focused as much on what’s gone wrong.

What’s Worked Well

On the other hand, many things have been going well in our weekly meetings.  We never meet for much longer than 20 minutes.  Feiler suggests this, and I second it.  It’s a way of respecting people’s time, and if you have adolescents, it’s a way of acknowledging that they will often begin to shut down (even more than usual) if you talk too long with them.

I just read another great book that suggested if you are telling an adolescent something important, you have 60 seconds of their attention.  Get in and get out.  Interesting.  In the same vein, one of my parental ulterior motives for these meetings is to teach my kids what an efficient meeting looks like – useful information when they enter the labor force some day.

At the end of our meeting each Sunday we open the calendar to clarify what’s in store for the upcoming week.  We ask the kids to let us know if there is anything significant (perhaps an audition or exam) not listed, and mention that it’s important for each of us to know when someone is facing something challenging so that we can support each other.

Our most recent family meeting followed a week when 4 out of 5 of us had been sick.  Todd made the valuable point that when someone is sick, we expect the others to step up and offer extra help either to them directly or around the house.  (When our kids were younger, they wouldn’t have needed this reminder, but it seems that older kids often forget this message.)

Unexpected Experiences

Going through the calendar together each week has somewhat surprisingly become an easy method for considering each person’s priorities.  Todd and I attempt to embrace simple living in our family and these meetings have unexpectedly become a place to highlight some important aspects of simple living.

-How to politely decline an invitation or request.

-What our top priorities are currently at a given moment.

-Whether or not each of us feels over-scheduled and what to do about this.

I think what I’ve most appreciated about our family meetings is that they are a regular time to think together about some of these crucial life issues.  I see this as a process.  As we repeatedly discuss these essential topics, our kids will slowly improve at:  saying no to some of the myriad of opportunities flooding their in-boxes, knowing their priorities, and regularly scheduling down-time in their full lives. And hopefully their parents will too.

 

What elements have led to successful family meetings at your house? What hasn’t worked?  Leave a comment!

 

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