Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Parent Like a Rock Star

At one time in my life I had a dream of performing on Broadway playing the role of Fantine in Les Miserables.  That dream died quickly when the reality of adulthood set in and I envisioned an ambitious and naive young actress huddling over a radiator in a shoebox sized apartment wondering if the bundle of coins in her pocket was enough for the next meal.  Instead I opted for a more predictable life, choosing family over fame, but I must tell you that the performer in me never died.

This morning, like most mornings, I awoke early to the sound of my alarm, hoping to steal at least fifteen minutes of silence before my children crept in the room.  I made my way to the bathroom to get into the shower.  I had barely slid the shower curtain over its rod, when the bathroom door opened, and standing in front of me were two sleep-eyed youngsters waiting for their morning kisses.  I stepped into the shower, listened to their conversation and threw in a word or two to let them know I was interested in their morning dialogue.  From the shower I traveled to the bedroom and then to the kitchen to get breakfast, all the while with two children in my shadow.   Since I had an early morning meeting, I knew this would have to be a multi-tasking breakfast.  I grabbed the mirror and my makeup from the bathroom and sat down at the dining room table to put my face on.  I started with foundation and both girls scooted close to me.  I reached into my case to grab the eye shadow and they moved even closer.  As I was adding the last few brushes of mascara, my oldest daughter Scarlett said "Mommy, you look really beautiful." 

At that moment I realized that my dream of performing on the big stage is a dream realized every day as a parent. No production of Les Miserables can ever compete with the Rock star role I have now.  I am the lead in my own production and I have two of the most adoring fans in the world.  They sit outside of my shower, waiting until I emerge and offer a smile, a kiss, or a kind word.  They watch my every move, whether I am putting on makeup, reading a book, doing dishes or talking on the phone. Like a good fan, they follow me from room to room, encouraging me to perform with my words and actions and trying to steal every moment of time and attention. Their plea for an autograph is concealed in the words "Can you play with me?" or "Do you want to throw the ball?" Their fan club is like no other.

The great psychologist Alfred Adler and the educational philosophy of Reggio Emilia remind us that children are keen observers. They learn and acquire skills by watching the world around them. They adopt behavioral roles based on what they see. If big sister is the "golden child" who can do anything, maybe little sister will learn that the quickest way to get mom and dad's attention is to misbehave and be the "unruly child". This is even more of a reason to be aware that at every moment of the day, you are on stage. The spotlight is shining on you, sometimes so hot that it is unbearable, but nonetheless, you are center stage. Your children are the adoring fans right in front of you studying your moves, your cues, your actions and your words. Perform with precision, always remembering that no one becomes a Rock star without years of practice. Sometimes you will be off key, miss a cue, stumble and fall on stage. Fine tuning only makes the next performance better. Learn from your mistakes and approach the next performance with understanding and forgiveness. And don't only step into your role as a Rock star parent, but celebrate and party like a Rock star too. You have the hardest and MOST IMPORTANT job in the world.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pony Tales on Mindful Parenting

This past weekend I attended a reception at the home of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in celebration of the First Annual New Orleans Book Festival. I mingled with various event partners and sponsors and reveled in the excitement and anticipation of the festival the following day. One of the most enjoyable conversations I had was with Kaye Harris, owner of Molly the Pony and founder of Molly's Foundation. Molly is a three-legged pony with a prosthetic fourth leg. Kaye's retelling of the events surrounding Molly's injury is what I want to highlight in today's blog.

Kaye lives in St. Rose Parish, a rural community outside of New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit, she and her husband Glenn evacuated nearly twenty horses and ponies from their farm. Post –Katrina, Kaye rescued Molly and several other animals, including a pit bull. In the months after Katrina, Molly was attacked by the traumatized pit bull and Kaye risked her own life by pulling the dog off of Molly. Kaye stayed with her pony, holding her leg that was now torn to shreds and Molly's leg came off in Kaye's hands while she was laying and consoling her mare. Kaye took one look in Molly's eyes and asked her "What do you want to do?" Then she grew quiet and listened to Molly's response. She quickly googled equine prosthetics found a company and started raising money for Molly's leg. Despite the advice Kaye received from veterinarians, she knew that there was "something about that mare". It was Molly's wish to live and share her spirit of resilience. Now Kaye and Molly the Pony travel around Louisiana telling their story and sharing the importance of listening to nonverbal and physiological responses.

Molly the Pony's story connects beautifully to the principles of mindful parenting. In the book Parenting from the Inside Out, the authors elucidate the importance of taking what is on the inside and putting it on the outside, or making the implicit more explicit. I could regal you with an overview of brain function, memory and mental patterns, but instead, I will just put this in simple terms. When parenting your child, have you ever had a moment when you felt a sensation or a reaction in your body that felt strange, out of place, or inappropriate for the situation? Have you ever reacted in a certain way to your child and thought, "that didn't feel good" or "that's what my parents used to say to me and I don't want to repeat that with my kids." I will give you a personal example. Whenever my daughter and I are shopping in Target, checking things off on our shopping list, she catches a glimpse of the toy aisle. She runs over, enamored with all the things to see and touch and she starts making her own shopping list and asking for one toy after another. I feel a marked physiological change in my body. I start to get irritated and impatient, hustling her along and telling her that we are not at Target to buy toys. Somewhere in my litany of responses is the phrase, "you should be grateful for the toys you have at home already." Now, it is perfectly normal for a young child to want toys, to be fascinated by the toy aisle, and to share the excitement of everything that beeps and talks. However, telling my child to be grateful for what she has is an undesirable response and I want it to change! If I explore a little more and dig a little deeper, I know that the change in my sensations is about implicit memories of not having much as a child, rarely being able to buy anything at the story, and hearing the same words repeated to me, "you should be grateful for what you have". Mindful parenting is about listening to your ticker tape or inner dialogue. Unless I listen, take the time to get in touch with that implicit memory and find its source, my explicit response, or reaction, will always be the same. The tricky thing about implicit memory is that it is activated unconsciously and therefore, affects your reactions even when you don't know why you are feeling a certain way. If you find yourself responding or reacting to your child in an undesirable way, take time to pause, tune into your ticker tape and journal about some possible deeper causes for your undesired response. Most importantly, listen to your inner dialogue and pay attention to your mind-body connection. Listening alters mental patterns and creates a new script for you as a parent. You can hobble around on three legs, longing for a change in your parenting patterns, or you can listen to your inner dialogue, pay attention to sensations, make connections with earlier experiences and ultimately change the way you walk through life as a parent.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Draw Four: Pause, Model, Reflect, Refract

The other day I sat down with my oldest daughter Scarlett and watched as she played a game of UNO with three other children at camp. She had never played the game before (we like to play Old Maid and Go Fish), so she was unaware of the rules. I took a passive role allowing the others to teach Scarlett firsthand. They played a couple of rounds and Scarlett caught on. It was Lily's turn, the little girl to Scarlett's left, the color was yellow, the number two. Lily got very quiet. She muttered under her breath, "I don't have anything", her words laced with dishonesty. I said "Are you sure, Lily?" She leaned over to me and whispered, "Well, I have this card but it means Scarlett would have to draw four and I don't want to do that to her." I said, "That's very considerate of you Lily. It's a fair card. Use it." Lily reluctantly played the card and Scarlett willingly drew four cards from the deck.

As I observed the interactions between these children playing a favorite childhood game, I was initially struck by Lily's care and concern for Scarlett. What made her hesitate and think about how her actions would make someone feel? Where did she learn to consider making a different choice based on how it impacted another's feelings? Lily could have very easily revealed her card and laughed mockingly to show that she had forced Scarlett to draw more cards. Instead, she was compassionate and empathic. She chose compassion over aggression.

On another level, Lily was not only modeling empathy, but she was also teaching Scarlett the rules of the game. Social norms and rules are formed by society at large, but they are also constructed by the people who raise us into adulthood, our parents. So I ask, when you are holding up the choices you make as a parent like a deck of cards in your hand, how do you play the game and what are the rules that you teach your child?

My thoughts immediately shifted to a news story I heard earlier in the week about another teen suicide caused by bullying. Despite the media attention, I have yet to see a story about the parents of the bullies. As I watch news footage describing how some of these bullies have been arrested for their behavior, I naturally ask the question about the adults in their lives. What about them? At what point should parents be held responsible for their child's destructive, hurtful and sometimes fatal choices? Is there even a connection between bullying behavior and parenting? Yes. A researcher from the University of Cincinnati, Elizabeth Sweeney, has studied the family connections in the origins of young bullies. Sweeney reviewed research from England, Germany, Norway, Japan, South Africa and the United States. In children ages nine to sixteen, she discovered that children raised by authoritarian parents, parents who attempt to shape, control their children and those who are demanding, directive and value obedience as a virtue, are most prone to act out bullying behavior.

Sweeney's research is validated in studies conducted by Diana Baumrind, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. After studying one hundred preschool-age children, Baumrind concluded that authoritarian parenting styles lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence and self-esteem. In all, Baumrind researched three parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian and authoritative. The style with the greatest positive effect on child development was authoritative, where children are typically happy, capable and successful. The authoritative parent establishes rules and guidelines for her child to follow, while also being democratic. These parents are responsive, attentive and willing to listen to their children. Instead of punishing children for not meeting expectations, the authoritative parent is nurturing and forgiving. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. I equate the authoritative parent to a good coach who sets standards and expectations for his/her athletes. A coach doesn't ask his team whether or not they want to run five miles or do practice drills. The expectation is clear. The coach is there to support them in meeting the standards.

Aside from parenting styles, our brains are hardwired to imitate and mirror behavior we see. The same brain region that controls action also supports perception. Observing a behavior occurs in the same region as acting upon it, therefore, our modeling as parents has a dramatic effect on our children's social competence. Children's attitudes and beliefs toward others are shaped by the adults that care for them from birth. Ruby Bridges, the civil rights icon who is now a personal friend, states that in order to rid the world of racism and discrimination, adults must model tolerance for children. Following this advice, one way to circumvent the onslaught of bullying and aggressive behavior in and between children may be to reflect compassionate, tolerant behavior in our adult world.

UNO may seem like a simple game between children, but when looked at through the lens of parenting, there are many lessons to learn. The Draw Four Card of parenting directs us to
1. Pause

2. Model the behavior you want your children to demonstrate

3. Reflect that behavior in your adult relationships

4. Let it refract into the world.

Next time you hold the decks of cards in your hand and it comes time to throw down a draw four, think about your child.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Emotional Paddle: Bidding for Connection

My husband likes silly Youtube videos. You’ve probably seen them; double rainbow, Argentinian Dancing with the Stars, cats bickering. Might I add that he likes to show me these videos at the most imperfect time; while giving the children a bath, getting them out the door in the morning, or while I am running around the house trying to finish up chores. He walks up to me like a kid in the candy store, brimming with excitement. Humor is one of his top strengths and one of the many reasons we fell in love. I have noticed lately that his gesture of humor, to share a video that he finds playful and interesting, is usually met with a sigh, a turning away, or sometimes a snide remark from me like “I don’t have time for this.”

When a couple welcomes a child into their lives, the relationship between husband and wife shifts dramatically. The treasured moments of snuggling on the couch, conversing over dinner, holding hands and embracing each other after a long days work can get buried, like dirty socks, at the bottom of the laundry pile. The everyday moments of connection between spouses are absorbed by moments of feeding, bathing, bed readying and storybook reading. John Gottmann, founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute in Seattle, Washington, has been studying couples in his Love Lab for the last forty years. He has authored various books on marriage and relationships, such as “Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work”. The Sound Relationship House is a theory born out of Gottman’s work with couples and “Turning Toward”, is a foundational step to building a strong marriage, keeping the emotional connection alive between you and your partner. During a recent seminar at the MAPP Summit at the University of Pennsylvania, Julie Gottman, John’s wife, related the concept of turning towards to that of a sea anemone, which opens and closes in reaction to outward stimuli. The more you turn towards your partner, the more you are depositing in the emotional bank account of your relationship, which leads to a relationship house built on solid foundation, not a deck of cards.

When your partner shares an interesting story, remark, or points out something in nature that she finds beautiful, how do you respond? On the other hand, when you share with your partner, how does she respond? And, how likely are you to open up to your partner if she closes up or turns away when you share tidbits or ahem…videos.

Example: You are sitting at the breakfast table with the family and your husband is reading the paper. He comes across an interesting topic and tells you about the article in one sentence or phrase. How do you respond? Turning toward would mean offering a gesture like a nod, simply saying “Wow!” or " I’d like to hear some more about that." Turning away would be ignoring, shifting your focus, or saying “That is really ridiculous.” There are many parallels between the turning toward/turning away principle and the research conducted by Shelly Gable on Active Constructive Responding. How you respond or how you listen to your partner, even when interactions seem trivial, are, little bids for emotional connection.

So, earlier this week, when my husband asked me to watch a YouTube video at the most imperfect time, I acknowledged my interest with a short phrase “Great, I’ll watch it in a minute.” Granted, that minute turned into the next day, when I could give it my full viewing attention. But regardless, I responded, watched the video and the conversation came full circle, prompting a discussion about authenticity and the nature of sexuality in America.

Love is a superordinate heart strength. Cultivate it in your relationships by holding up your emotional paddle, bidding on an emotional connection with your partner, and maybe throwing in a kiss or two for good measure.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

That's Great! Now Let's Get in the Car.

Traffic stopped momentarily on the hilly road in suburban Maryland when my phone warned me of a new voicemail message. I stared at the numbers from the missed call, noticing the area code 215. Being a Philadelphian, I can quickly recognize and assign numbers to people with this three digit code, but I knew right away that this was the call I had been anticipating. I quickly tapped the keys to retrieve the message and I instantly heard the voices of two strangers. In fact, I didn't even hear their names because my heart was beating so rapidly with excitement. All that I heard was "We are calling to congratulate you on being accepted into the MAPP (Masters of Applied Positive Psychology) program at the University of Pennsylvania this year. We are so excited to meet you." Tears were running down my face and I had the overwhelming urge to pull over on the side of the road and shout my news to the whole world. Instead, I feverishly dialed everyone in my immediate family, starting with my husband, to share my good news. I remember my husband's reaction being one of similar elation and joy. I will never forget that moment and the accompanying joy as I told one person after another of my accomplishment.

Sharing good news is easy for some people and more difficult for others. Non-sharers may feel as if they are bragging, boasting or being selfish by sharing the good, while sharers may see good news as a way to relish in an accomplishment or spread a good feeling. Regardless, the way you respond to another's good news may predict the overall well-being of a relationship. According to researcher
Shelly Gable, supporting partners when good things happen is as important in building relationships as supporting them when bad things happen. Gable's research supports the need for Active Constructive Responding (ACR), or capitalization, in relationships and defines this as the ability to respond with enthusiasm, support and interest. Think of this in the context of sharing news with a friend. Scenario: You call a close friend to tell her news of your engagement, promotion, pregnancy, or financial windfall. How does she react? Your friend may retort "That is incredible news! You must be so happy! Tell me about what happened when you got the call?" This friend asks questions that enable you to relive the moment and she genuinly shares in your joy. Other typical responses Gable highlights include:

Passive Constructive: Shifting to another topic. Great news! Did you see Oprah today?"
Active Destructive: Deflating. "Are you really ready to have a baby?"
Passive Destructive: Ignoring. "Let me tell you about my day."

When you think about this scenario, I bet you can pinpoint those friends who are better ACRers than others. Aren't those the friends you want to share news with the next time? Read more here about ACR:

Now think about ACR in relation to your child(ren). As parents, we often go through the day reacting and responding to problems; spilled juice, dirty diapers, laundry piles, or arguments between siblings. I wonder if the same findings from Gable's research applies to parent-child relationships. The more constructive we are in responding to the good news in our children's lives, the more supportive the relationship will be in bad times. This morning for instance, my daughter caught me as we were walking out the door, asking if I had seen the little blue card that was in her backpack. I had, in fact, seen it, and inconspicuously placed it on the kitchen counter the night before. I stopped for a minute and walked over with her to retrieve the card. It was a certificate of achievement from the kindergarten teacher for her successful completion of writing uppercase letters. I stole a minute from my hectic morning to show my interest in her certificate, what she did to earn it, and hear her enthusiasm for being part of the "capital letter club". Aside from the ACR response above , other typical reactions could have included "Great job!", "Well, what about your lower case letters?" or "That's great. Now let's get in the car." Generally, an ACR response to good news is riddled with open-ended questions like "Tell me more!", "What was it like?", "What was going through your mind?" You relive the experience with the person sharing the news.

When I picked up the phone to dial family and friends during the morning of my momentous drive to work, I called those who enhanced my experience and feelings of positivity through their enthusiasm, support and interest. Share a moment of ACR with your children, spouse or close friend and answer the yes to the question "will you be there for me when things go right?"

Monday, September 27, 2010

Formula for Parental Happiness

Recently I attended a training in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on the Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) developed by Dr. Matt Sanders and colleagues at the University of Queensland, Australia. The overarching goal of Triple P is to "reduce the prevalence of behavioral and emotional problems in children by enhancing the competence and confidence of parents at a population level". This asset-based program incorporates five principles of positive parenting: Safe and engaging environments, Responsive Learning Environments, Assertive Discipline, Reasonable Expectations, and Parental Self Care. Because I now look at life through the lens of Positive Psychology, I couldn't help but see several tie-ins to self efficacy, self-determination, the ABC model, explanatory styles, self regulation, thinking traps and icebergs. For those not well-versed in the Positive Psychology lexicon, in the coming weeks I will be taking each of the aforementioned topics and writing a separate blog to explain each concept or theory. Stay tuned...

For me, the most obvious connection between Triple P and Positive Psychology is the notion of a formula for happiness. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman outlines his theory that 50% of an individual's level of happiness is attributed to heritable or genetic programming (pessimistic or optimistic explanatory styles), 40% to life circumstances and 10% to intentional activities. This formula is promising for those of us who feel that happiness is a choice. By changing one's circumstances or engaging in intentional activities, one can alter his/her overall level of happiness. Despite variations in levels of happiness, there is a set point to which all people return, which is largely due to a tendency to adapt to life's highs and lows. But focusing on getting more pleasure out of life, becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful will alter your set range of happiness. Read More (,9171,1015832-3,00.html#ixzz10kEhR0Fm)

The same happiness formula applies to parenting and is explicitly demonstrated in the Triple P curriculum. A parent's genetic programming, such as temperament or explanatory style, heavily influences parenting skills. For instance, a parent with a pessimistic explanatory style, may think that the temper tantrum his/her child is displaying happens "all the time", "it will never end", or "my child is bad" , thinking in terms of a behavior being permanent and universal or "not me, always and everything". An optimistic parent may view the same episode as temporary and specific "it was only this one time", "she was tired", "it will be over soon." And what role do life circumstances play into parenting? Think about a parent undergoing unemployment, depression, marital conflict, poverty or other situations. Life circumstances affect the home environment and are major factors that contribute to behavior in children. When parental circumstances are less than ideal, the environment can be constructed in a negative way for a child. Alternatively, stable life circumstances can produce environments rich in time, attention, conversation, and parental engagement.

The last piece of the parenting happiness formula involved intentional activities. By taking time to get down on the floor to play with your child, talking to them at the dinner table, snuggling with them in bed at night, and stopping chores to see a drawing they have created, you will not only be giving yourself a boost, but your child will reap the rewards tenfold. There are several other activities available to parents to contribute to that 10% part of the happiness equation. Sonya Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson are two researchers who provides readers with practical and intentional activities to use everyday with your children and you! That fifth principle of Triple P is parental self-care, which in my mind, is the cornerstone of parental well being. When you are on an airplane, the safety demonstration tells you to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting your child. If you are not nourished as a parent, you will have little to nothing to give to your children. As you go through your day today, whether or not you are a parent, remember the formula: Happiness = Genetics + Circumstances + Intentional Activities. You always have a choice.