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.