Category: Building Kids’ EQ

let them see you cry

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 12.41.51 PMI am a sentimental crier. I was crying off and on while watching A Dolphin Tale with my kids. And, um, also during We Bought A Zoo. I well up almost every time I see a parent struggling to do their best by their kids, when I bear witness to someone going through a tough time with grace, or at pretty much any moment that highlights acts of true humanity. There are a couple of children’s books that, no matter how many times I read them, I hear my voice choked with emotion at certain points as I struggle to get to the bottom of the page. (For me these stories include The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson, Lobstering with My Papa, by Billie Hancock and Joan Walsh, and Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney.) These are all stories of aging, kids growing up, the passage of time–themes that resonate deeply with me as a parent. My kids’ reactions have been varied, sometimes they’ve just looked over and said nothing, other times they asked, “Mom, why are you crying?”  This has given me a chance to share what I find moving. I am glad for these opportunities with them. They get to see me cry not because I’m hurt or experiencing loss: just because I’m moved. It gives us all a chance to think about the emotions and how we experience and express feelings…good for everyone. –n

noticing along the way–a favorite outing activity

The sun is shining today after a long, long cold gray winter in New England. We get a little manic around these times, disproportionately thrilled at our sudden good fortune. It makes me think about getting out again into the world!

I live in the Boston suburbs, and one of my favorite family outings when the kids were younger was to take the T into the city, stroll through the Public Garden, and grab something tasty at a bakery or corner shop. Totally easy, and pretty low-budget.

For several of these outings I created simple scavenger hunts that kept the kids engaged along our low-key adventure. Not yet readers, I sketched out things that they could spot on the journey: the T logo, a Red Sox hat, a squirrel, a vendor cart…the kids loved it, a spark of magic each time something was spotted. There was no keeping score or tracking what was found, just noticing. Looking and noticing details.

I am a big fan of noticing details–really taking the time and explicitly noticing–which requires a certain kind of attention and focus. For children, nurturing that skill helps to develop increased ability to be aware of one’s surroundings (safety! beauty!), as well as tuning into others’ emotions and expressions (friendship! empathy!).

While every encounter with our kids needn’t be a “learning moment,” this activity tied to our downtown adventure was fun for all and educational, too. While I know it’s sometimes desirable to plug a child into any available technology–for even just 30 freakin’ minutes!!!–for everyone’s sanity (I have done it myself plenty of times), hooray for the moments when kids can look around and really take it all in.–t

P.S. This kind of general “find it” checklist can work for any adventure and for all ages. On a more recent day we set out with a list that included an afternoon coffee in an independent café; the wackiest candy we could find in a convenient store; and a photo in front of a random monument…so fun!

best friends

Screen shot 2014-03-04 at 2.16.53 PMI got shut out of my medical benefits login the other day because 1) I couldn’t remember my password, and 2) when I tried to reset it, I was unable to answer the three security questions correctly: my mother’s maiden name. My favorite vacation spot. My best friend’s last name. Hmmm… I’m pretty sure I got the first one right, but I simply don’t know where I went wrong with the others. It could have easily been the one that asked something about “my best friend.”

A lot in our culture suggests that we all should have a best friend, that we should find our soulmate, that we should settle for nothing less. For children and adults alike, this can be a difficult and damaging message, particularly for kids who may not feel like they have a best friend, or who cling desperately to a friend for fear of losing that relationship to be be cast adrift.

When kids struggle with the “best friend” question, one thing to do is help them think about the contextual nature of friendship. Start with your own—I, myself, have friends who I enjoy talking about my family with. I have other friends who I will call to go running, share art, or who love to have a drink and listen to live music. I have friends who make me laugh all the time and some who will always have good advice. There are some great people who I really like spending time with, but with whom I probably would never share a deep secret. These are not one person. Sure, there is a lot of overlap, and a very special few who are many kinds of “friends” to me. But they each have their place, and my life is richer because of every single one of them. Does your child have someone special they like to play with on the playground, and another who they like to do crafts with? Is someone particularly fun at imaginative play, and another good at building?  Is there one friend who is fun to meet for lunch and another who is a great homework buddy?

Feeling like we have to find everything in one person is unrealistic. It puts pressure on relationships and makes us look too critically at what someone isn’t giving us. Better to focus on and value what each person brings to a friendship and what parts of ourselves we enjoy when we are with them. –t

questions vs. answers

bears fishingIn our book we talk about the value of asking good questions of kids in order to get better information and to help them think about different perspectives. Many times over the last week – as my kids have encountered bumps in homework and relationships with friends, teachers, or coaches – I’ve offered them answers and advice. Offering solutions and sharing my thinking is one of my roles as a mother, and I do so gladly and I hope, for the most part, with balance and insight.

But I’ve also been working on balancing suggesting solutions with asking questions.  And here is why: questions help kids explore options and become better problem solvers. Even when the solution might be clear to you, there is great value in your child being able to consider a problem and possible solutions with you as a guide.

“What else have you tried?” “What might happen if you make that choice?” “What other information would be useful here?” Compare these types of questions with what a child learns when you offer “Just go play with someone else” right out of the gate.

With questions, you also communicate your confidence in your kid’s ability to problem solve, and give him responsibility in finding a solution. You help him anticipate outcomes and evaluate choices. Your role isn’t one of rescuer, but facilitator.

Yes, facilitating is harder work. Every parent wants to stop the hurt, frustration, or complaining as quickly as possible, and engaging a child in wading through it all, in the short term, prolongs it. “Just ignore him when he’s being that way” can feel a lot more expedient than “How would you like him to treat you?” and following the conversation where it might lead. “That’s not the kind of friendship you need” takes much less time than the discussion that might ensue from “That’s a complicated relationship. What are the good things that you’re getting out of it? What is challenging?”

Of course there are many times that I so clearly and passionately want to take my kids’ side, and my instinct is to get right up there with them when they are indignant or hurt and be the Mama Bear, growling and gnashing at whatever offends. While that retaliatory roar is really gratifying (and maybe sometimes the right response), grinding through the occasional messy problem solving doesn’t mean that you’re not taking their side. In the long run, it fortifies and deepens their own problem solving skills, enhances self-knowledge, and promotes self-advocacy. You’re standing next to them in the stream and teaching them how to fish.  -t

when bad things happen

IMG_4072Our kids are back at school after a vacation week that began with the Boston Marathon bombing and ended with a day spent in lockdown. We live in Watertown about 4 blocks away from where the 2nd suspect was apprehended, close enough to see and hear a lot of the police action that day, but far enough that I didn’t truly fear for our physical safety. Nonetheless, the incessant helicopter noise, the flashing lights of the blockades, and the police in full military body armor checking the houses up and down our street created mounting tension throughout the day.

There’s a lot of wisdom about how we as parents make our kids feel safe during such times: focusing on the helpers, maintaining routines, staying close, cuddling more. I feel like most people I know are doing a pretty good job in those respects. But what happens when children ask “why?” Why would someone do that?

The truth is that we don’t really know. “They were bad guys” doesn’t cut it for me. I don’t feel like that truly helps kids understand the complexity of human behavior and choices, nor does it make them feel safer. Can a bad guy be captain of the wrestling team? Can a bad guy go to prom with his friends? Can a good guy do bad things?

On the first morning back at our Watertown school, psychologist Larry Cohen was on-site talking with parents. In addition to giving people a forum for sharing stories and connecting in community with one another, he punctuated the discussion with great advice about helping kids work through confusing and traumatic experiences. One idea he talked about that I love is how a parent can respond when a child asks “why?” and we don’t have a good answer. What can we do when we don’t know?

We can empathize.

When kids ask “why?” they’re trying to make sense of something that is unsettling and confusing, something that makes them feel frightened or unsure. If it’s impossible to offer a real reason why, we are ALWAYS able to validate their feelings, to say “it’s really confusing to think someone would want to hurt people.” Validating a child’s feelings will help them to be less confused or frightened. It gives them the message that they are not alone, that their feelings are understood, and that their confusion is not unreasonable.

This approach has never failed to work in a positive way for me. While some might wonder if a child will feel less secure when an adult admits not knowing something, I’ve found the truth in an honest and genuine response – one that allows a different kind of connection – to be a very powerful thing. –t

hi neighbor

fred rogersWhen I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the early 70s I watched a lot of Mr. Rogers. He was a local celebrity and lived just a few blocks away.  One weekend when I was in kindergarten, my dad and I were walking through a parking lot behind some stores in a busy shopping area.  I remember my dad, who was holding my hand, squeezed it and said, “Nina, do you see who that is?”  As I looked up, we were 3 feet from Mr. Rogers. I froze. And with no pause, in his exact TV voice, he said, “It’s funny sometimes, isn’t it, when we see people that we usually see on TV someplace where we don’t expect to see them?”

I’m sure he had many occasions to say just that to many different children. Even so, the simple thoughtfulness of his approach to me in that moment is something that has stayed with me into adulthood and illustrates fundamental ideas in nurturing the emotional intelligence of children: empathy and naming feelings.

First, Mr. Rogers spoke to me (not my dad), and in a slightly indirect manner so it wasn’t so confrontational or frightening. I didn’t feel put on the spot as his comment didn’t require a response. Second, he acknowledged my surprise, didn’t make me feel childish, embarrassed or small, and furthermore, with a simple “we” helped me to realize that it wasn’t only me – or children – who might feel awkward in such a situation. A memorable and instructive interaction to be sure… –n


stacking the deck

helping your children build empathyWhen I was in high school, a group of us were trying to get 2 of our friends together. A great guy and a great girl we all thought would make a great couple. So what did we do? Each of us at various times reported, very casually, things we had noticed about or heard from, one to the other: “Elizabeth was talking about the piece you submitted for the art show and how much she liked it.” “Adam came down to watch track practice — did you notice him over there?” “He totally lit up when you said that in class.” “She asked me if I’d come to your game with her.” All of it true, the meaning of each comment and gesture enhanced by having been noticed and reported to the other, and all of it in the spirit of helping encourage the relationship between these friends.

As a parent, I’ve used this same tactic to enhance the relationships in our family. In the family context, these casual, side-held “stacking the deck” comments help kids practice noticing each other’s efforts to care and support one another, and appreciate their intent. “Your sister got up early because she knew you were excited and wanted to be early for your field trip.” “I heard your brother telling his friend how much you helped him the other day.”

Stack further by suggesting a follow up: “Your brother was really careful with your markers you let him use and put them back right where he knows you keep them. I know he’d be happy if you mentioned it to him.” If someone took the time to return a borrowed item to the right place, helped by getting ready on their own, put someone else’s lunchbox or jacket near the door, asked for an extra piece of candy at the bank for their sib, or took care of someone else’s dirty dish, you can “stack the deck” and enhance the value of the gesture by helping the recipient of that kindness both see it and acknowledge it.

…And yes, Elizabeth and Adam did get together, thanks, in part, to their friends. -t

empathy at work

Our family dinner plates are white. One of them has two small round chips on the edge, not much bigger than a nickel, at what could be the 5:30 and 6:30 positions. I always found it odd that of the 2 times the plates got chipped, it happened to be the same one.
One day, years ago, when we were setting the table for dinner, Olivia offhandedly mentioned, “oh, Bump’s got the hippo plate!” It turned out that the children always noticed who at the table had this particular plate, the chipped one, the one with nostrils. It became a favored item, but not as in “I want that plate!” but rather “let’s give Per the hippo. His LEGO thing fell apart.” Or “Daddy had that big presentation today. Let’s give him the hippo.” And, occasionally, someone will set the hippo at their own place at the table, and the rest of us know we might just want to check in. At the back end of a hard day when I’ve felt overwhelmed and unappreciated, finding the hippo at my place has, I kid you not, turned the whole dang thing around.
There’s really not some huge hippo drama every night at our table. Caring and love comes in all shapes and sizes, and the hippo can accommodate them all. What we’ve found in a simple chipped dish is a quiet shorthand of our connection to one another, a way to recognize one among us – for whatever it is – as we come together for a meal. -t

dealing with feelings

“Let them finish!” …I saw Larry Cohen, who I love (author of Playful Parenting, speak the other day. We hate to see our kids upset, and are often eager to have them get over the hurt or stop crying. Larry talked about the notion of “unfelt feelings” or unfinished feelings. When we let kids “finish” being sad or expressing their frustration, they are much more likely to actually “get over” the hurt. Does it take longer? Hmmmm… you do the math! –t