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Why My Husband Infuriates Me

The other night, I did something that I am not proud of.

We have four teenagers, so dinnertime is never dull, but this particular evening it was full chaos. One of our kids had not eaten much. My husband, Mark, really wanted one of our kids to eat more, and so he offered a bribe/threat: You can’t go hang out with your friends until you finish everything on your plate.

A power struggle unfolded, complete with sibling cheering sections. I tried to shut it all down using dramatic non-verbal cues. This was not what we agreed to do when a kid doesn’t eat well, I screamed silently with my supercharged glares.

I was not successful. The picky eater ate what was required in order to go hang out in the neighborhood.

Although I was obviously right (chuckle) in my frustration–because bribing kids can work in the short run, but research clearly demonstrates that it backfires in the long run–this post is not about how right I was. It’s about how I mishandled this situation because I didn’t see what it was really about.

The next night, I intended to calmly raise the issue so that we could prevent similar dinnertime spectacles in the future. I knew that I couldn’t make accusations or do anything that might make Mark defensive, because people don’t learn well when they are being criticized.

Let the record show that I was not even remotely uncritical.

I opened with something like “How could you have been so stupid?”

And then I started to rant.

“Haven’t we talked about that situation a million times? We have a freaking PLAN for this!! We’ve AGREED what we will do about picky eating!! Why can’t you follow through with the plan? Why can’t you understand how important it is to be consistent?” He responded calmly. I rolled my eyes with contempt and superiority.

I was such. an. ass.

I do not know of any parent, myself included, who has not at some point threatened, bribed, or otherwise manipulated a child into doing what they wanted the kid to do. I actually do possess a huge capacity to empathize with my husband’s intentions and behavior, but it was a capacity I failed entirely to draw on.

Why? Why was this so emotional for me? Why was I so critical and punishing?

Because I was projecting.

We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people.

See, the thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make big elaborate behavioral plans for myself and then I don’t follow through on them. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating (again) after making a plan to meditate more. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing Mark down for not following through on our picky eater protocol.

We humans have blind spots. It is often hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. The people around us, particularly our spouses, are like mirrors. We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards.

It’s not them, it’s us.

Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”

Psychological projection (in its many forms) is a defense mechanism first conceptualized by Sigmund Freud. His daughter, Anna Freud, later developed the theory. The Freuds posited that we often deal with the thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that are hard for us to accept in ourselves by attributing them to someone else.

Although many Freudian theories have not stood the test of time, projection is still considered a textbook human behavior.[i] I see projection at work all around me, in myself, in my friends and children, and in my clients.

That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.

Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress.

The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or stop doing).

Projection is pretty wonderful because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Click To Tweet

In other words, when we notice that we are projecting, we have the opportunity to take our own advice.

For example, I wanted Mark to stop asking me to make parenting plans that he couldn’t follow through on. Instead, I wanted him to accept easier, good-enough, plans. So the opportunity for me (to take my own advice) was to accept an easier, good-enough plan for meditation.

In this instance, the solution was not to try to be more perfect.  The follow-my-own-advice solution that emerged from my projection was to stop making plans that weren’t realistic given the lovely, messy world—life with my four teenagers and a career that has me traversing time zones—that I live in. My fight with Mark showed me that I don’t always have to model the very best practices; it’s good enough to be strategic, realistic, and skillful.

What are your projections telling you? What advice for others would you do well to take yourself?

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[i] Wade, Tavris “Psychology,” Sixth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2000.

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Murder, Mystery, & Magic

I am a big fan of mystery and magic. I want our children to grow up unafraid of the unknown, even relishing it. When my daughter asked me to write a murder mystery birthday party for 12 of her closest friends, I responded too quickly, “Of course!” Here is a brave over perfect opportunity!

I’ve never written a murder mystery. I’ve never been to a murder mystery party. And the last time I watched “Murder She Wrote,” I had feathered hair and wore blue eyeliner, which is to say, a long time ago. Then I thought, this is not brave. This is stupid. 

“How hard can it be?” Those words are my equivalent of the ill-fated phrase, “Hold my beer. Watch this.” They should send off alarm bells and flashing lights in my head. But not this time. Our daughter was turning 12 on 12/12. It felt big enough to do something special. I went online to see if I could buy my way out of this promise. But she caught me.

“Mom! Don’t buy a kit. You’re a writer!”

“But I don’t know anything about murder mysteries!” I protested.

“You’ve got this,” she said, and patted me on the shoulder. She deliberately used the same words I say to her before every test and dance performance. And she knew that I prefer to fight boredom with “stuff to do with stuff there is” rather than to buy entertainment. She had me. I had to lead by example.

How’s this for leading by example? The night before her birthday, I went to my husband’s work holiday party and drank too much. We stumbled home and I couldn’t imagine working on the murder mystery. So what did I do? Instead of going to bed, I stayed up and watched Guardians of the Galaxy II, a long movie, starting at 11pm. With the kids. So everyone went to bed after 1 in the morning, a brilliant set-up for hosting a complex party the next day.

I woke up at 5 in the morning to finish the script. What came out was a mix of an escape room and a murder mystery play. The premise was this: The Duchess of Cantabarre dies a mysterious death and the guests are invited to her manor for the reading of her will. The guests were told ahead of time about their characters and encouraged to arrive in costume. They had to work together to figure out who killed the Duchess, why, and with what weapon. No one knew who the murderer was, not even the person who did it. To “unlock” the clues, they had to overcome challenges. Some challenges were easy: a hidden word search, and others were hard: a web of symbols and string to open a mysterious lock box.

The night of the party, I could have used earplugs. There was a lot of shrieking. At one point, we brought out a rope to play a team-building challenge called “All Aboard.” The girls screamed the minute we brought out the rope.

“Are you going to strangle us?” They shrieked.

“Maybe,” I answered.

The kids had a great time. I was exhausted. If I were to do it again, I’d make it looser, and leave more space for the guests’ creative, imaginative ideas. I was too concerned that it wouldn’t work, that something would go wrong. I forgot the first principle of mystery: trust. Instead of thinking of what could go wrong, why not imagine what could go wildly right? The kids didn’t solve the mystery, but they loved the challenges and the surprise ending.

I can’t help but make a connection between the mystery party and this crazy experience called life. It’s easy to get scared facing big uncertainties. We worry that that there isn’t a next clue, or if there is one, we’ll miss it. But I’m here to tell you what I told my daughter when she was nervous during the party: There will always be a next clue, and you will always find it.

I believe that if you live with bravery and deep trust, then life becomes an adventurous game that is our privilege to play. All we can do is move bravely from clue to clue and love the surprises and mystery.

I forgot the second principle of mystery, too: slow down. It’s so easy to get caught up in the busyness of making magic happen. But magic occurs when you take the time to soak it all in. After the party, Hazel and I lay on the couch eating cookies. I breathed in and out, and finally relaxed. I noticed how big she was, next to me. And I thought about how tiny she used to be. She has grown so much, and yet she still wants to lie next to me on the couch. That’s worth celebrating. Only, I think I’ll keep things simple next time.

**You can share the Murder Mystery by sharing this link: FREE Murder Mystery Party Script & Resources



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Teaching Teens to 'Just Say No'

Teaching Teens to ‘Just Say No’

Today’s teens are busy.

Last week, one of my teens was sitting in the kitchen replying to her emails while I prepped dinner. “Help me write a really good excuse,” she asked. A teacher had asked her to speak at a school function that she didn’t want to be involved in.

“Just write, ‘I’m honored to be asked, but I can’t help you this time,’” I suggested. This turned out not to be so helpful.

“MOM. Please. That will not work. I need to say why I can’t do it.” I walked around the island to look at her email. She had typed not one but two paragraphs detailing why should couldn’t go. Nothing she had written was exactly true.

Even though she wasn’t interested in attending, she hadn’t really said no; it was as though she was trying to paint a picture of a life so disastrously busy that her teacher would have no choice but to retract his invitation.

It can be really hard to say no. Teenagers, especially, want to be liked. They don’t want to disappoint us or their friends or their teachers. But they often don’t know how to say no, and so they find themselves hemming and hawing – and often saying yes instead.

The ability to say no is a critical life skill, and one that our kids probably won’t learn without explicit instruction and practice. We adults tend to emphasize that kids should “just say no” to the big things – sex and drugs and anything that might kill them. But if they can’t confidently decline an invitation or choose not to do someone a favor, how will they say no when it matters more?

Here are some ideas for teaching kids to say no that have worked for me:

1. Teach them to be clear about their priorities and truthful in their refusal.

Saying no is easier when we’re clear about our priorities; it’s even harder to decline a request when our reasons for doing so seem unimportant. My daughter has a lot going on this semester that’s more important than her teacher’s event. She needs to be careful about what she commits to on school nights. Saying, “I’m not that interested” seemed selfish to her. But it was also true for her to say, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m already committed to something else that evening.” What was she committed to? It didn’t need to be anything more than completing her homework and getting to bed at a decent hour.

Even though this response was vague, it was the truth. Untrue excuses and white lies lead to further entanglements and greater stress.

Telling the truth is not the same as sharing more details than are necessary, even if someone asks why you can’t help them out or come to their party. Detailed explanations imply that the other person can’t handle a simple no – or that the kids need help working out their conflicts.

2. Rehearse a handful of simple and vague go-to ways to say no.

When teens make a specific plan before they are confronted with a request, they’re far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with their original intentions.

Something simple – like saying, “That doesn’t work for me this time” – is almost always sufficient. But kids will need to come up with something they would feel comfortable saying. Help them pick a default way to say no, and then help them practice saying it before they need it. Here are some ideas:

  • “Thank you so much for thinking of me! I’m sorry I’m not able to help you at this time.”
  • “I can’t be there, but I will tell my friends about it and post it on social media.”
  • “I wish I could, but it’s not going to work out for me this time.”

3. Help kids think about the future rather than the present.

Research shows we often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will make us happiest in the future – and pleasing others by saying yes can be far more pleasant in the present than saying no.

We can help kids make better decisions by encouraging them to picture themselves moments before the event in question (or in the aftermath of, say, not having enough time for homework or sleep). Would they be relieved if it were canceled? If so, encourage them to say no now so they don’t find themselves trying to weasel out of it later.

4. Encourage persistence.

If their “no” isn’t accepted with grace, help them practice repeating their refusal calmly, using the same words. This will help the other person see that they are sticking to their “no,” and that their pestering isn’t changing their answer. If that doesn’t work and they need something else to say, encourage them to express empathy. For example, they could say, “I understand that you are in a tough spot here,” or, “I know this is hard for you to accept.”

If the other person still won’t back down, teens can share how they are feeling. For example: “I feel uncomfortable and a little angry when you continue to ask me even though I’ve declined.” Have them focus on their emotions – how the other person’s refusal to accept their honest decline is making them feel – and not the logistical details or logic for their refusal. (This takes a good deal of courage, to be sure. Even thinking about this is a step in the right direction.)

5. Say no for them.

My kids have permission to use my husband and I as an excuse when they are having a hard time saying no. We can always easily tell when they’re asking for permission to do something they don’t want to do. When this happens, we’ll often clarify how they feel. (“Do you think it’s a good idea to go to that concert?” Or, “How badly do you want to help out with that?”) Then when the response comes back lukewarm, we’ll put the hammer down. Very occasionally, the kids will indicate to us that they need us to say no firmly and within earshot of their friends or in a text that they can show their friends. We’re happy to provide this service; they don’t always have to do the hard work of saying no on their own.

Finally, if kids are still feeling nervous about saying no, have them take a moment to call to mind the respect they have for themselves and how they’d like others to respect them as well. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of others. But it’s worth it. In the long run, the ability to say no is a little-known key to our kids’ happiness.

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15 Questions to Ask Kids at Dinner

Dinnertime conversation, I’ve found, goes really well when it’s structured. I’ve posed planned questions for my kids at dinnertime since they were in preschool, starting with “What are you grateful for”? and “What’s one good thing that happened today?” They are all teenagers now, and much better at conversation, but I’ve still found that they talk more openly when we start with a single question that everyone answers.

Conversations like the ones that ensue from the questions below help kids experience themselves as a part of something larger than themselves. This, in turn, is likely to make them more resilient, better adjusted, and more successful in school (as I wrote about here). So here’s an extra challenge: See if you can weave your own answers to the questions below into a narrative demonstrating that your family members have been through both good and bad times together, but through it all, you’ve stuck together.

A printable copy of this list is here.

  1. What are you especially grateful for right now?
  2. What is one kind thing that you did for someone else today?
  3. What is one kind thing that someone else did for you today?
  4. What are your favorite stories that grandpa/grandma told (or still tells)?
  5. For an adult: What did you have as a child that kids today don’t have? How was your life better? How was it worse?
  6. For a kid: What do you have that previous generations didn’t have? How would your life be better without it? How would it be worse?
  7. Who has taught you something important about life? What did they teach you?
  8. For adult: What was your favorite movie or book when you were my age?
  9. For kid: What was your favorite movie or book last year, and what is your favorite now?
  10. What was the hardest thing you went through/have gone through as a child? How did you overcome it?
  11. If you could know anything about our family history or about a relative who has passed away, what would you want to know?
  12. What is the most embarrassing thing your mother or father ever did to you?
  13. What three adjectives would your grandparents use to describe you?
  14. What is the best thing that your grandparents ever cooked? What about your parents?
  15. How are you most different from your parents and grandparents? How are you the same?

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Some of these questions were adapted from the
“Family Gathering” edition of Table Topics

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Mama and me

The mother I wanted; the mother I got

When I was younger, I wanted a mother who was sweet and nurturing, who baked cookies, and who welcomed my friends with cheerful holiday decorations. What I got was a mother who raised us well, but without softness, and who baked so rarely that she kept a heavy chair in front of our oven door. On Halloween, she turned off the lights and left a bowl of toothbrushes on the front step. At Christmas, she hung a tangled strand of lights on a house plant and called it a day.

My favorite picture book was “Are You My Mother?” It’s about a bird who falls out of the nest and goes looking for its mother, asking the cow, the hen, even a bulldozer if they are her mother. Growing up, the book was an inside joke between my mom and me, because I always felt so different from her, and she knew it. I was a little hippie girl and she was more like a Spice Girl. I lay on the floor and listened to Bob Dylan while she moonwalked to Michael Jackson. She was messy and I organized everything. She seemed to be care free. I worried constantly. She had clear boundaries, I ran ragged trying to keep everyone happy. When I read that the legendary folk singer, Joni Mitchell, had given up a daughter about my age for adoption, I fantasized that she was my real mother. I imagined the warm embrace when we finally met, and the cover story in the newspaper. There would be a picture; Joni with her guitar, Susie with her ukulele, and we’d be sitting under a tree, smiling. The headline, “Mother and Child Reunion.” Basically, I just wanted my mother to be different than she was. Doesn’t everybody?

Now that I am a wife and a mother myself, I appreciate that my mother was never conventional and always 100% herself. One of my mom’s best friend’s described her as, “often wrong, never in doubt.” And my mom laughed. That is the thing about my mother: she can laugh at herself easily, joyfully. Just last week we were trying to carry a suitcase down a flight of stairs and when we realized that we only had 1 good arm and 3 good legs between us, she started to laugh, and then I laughed, until the two of us were laughing so hard that I peed—just a little—right there on Boston’s South Station steps.

The first time she came to see me post-surgery in Boston, I wanted her to help me prepare meals, do laundry, clean up. When she arrived, she set down her hot pink bag and declared, “I don’t cook. I don’t do dishes. Never have. Never will.” Instead, she made me swallow monster gummy multivitamins, get my hair styled, and do exercises that she had seen the Olympic rugby teams do on TV. I was frustrated; I kept wanting her to be better at this nurse stuff, and know exactly what to say and do. I wanted her to be different.

It was the same as when I was a teenager in the house. While I raged at her shouting, “Why can’t you be more like other moms?” I missed what she was demonstrating to me every single day: how to be authentic and real. Be yourself! Her actions screamed. And I missed and missed and missed the memo. When my parents divorced, I was just a baby. I never knew what it was like to have two parents under one roof. Somehow, I blamed my mother for the divorce. If she had only been a little more like the other moms, I reasoned, he would still be around. I vowed to be different when I grew up. And by different, I meant the same as others. I reasoned that if I acted a little less myself and more like other women, my prince wouldn’t leave. But the consequence was that I gave up my uniqueness in order to fit in and not rock the boat. Even when I realized that I was holding my mom to impossible standards, I didn’t realize it enough to stop holding myself to those same impossible standards. I worked to maintain my status as the good daughter, the good wife, the good spouse, the good mother. I managed others’ needs and feelings to the detriment of my own to the point where when my husband asked me what I needed one day, I had nothing to say. I had no idea.

When my mom came to visit me last week during my radiation treatments, we had wonderful days together. This time, instead of just wishing she were different, I spoke up and asked her directly for what I needed. She listened and responded. When I wanted privacy, she took my phone and guarded my door. When I wanted to go for a walk, she strapped on her squeaky running shoes and led the way. When I was hungry for breakfast, but too tired to get out of bed, she made me porridge. And this time, she only destroyed my host’s stovetop once. All week, I was relaxed and able to appreciate my mother for who she is, bold and brave. I was also able to appreciate myself for who I am, curious and courageous. We are more similar than I thought. This helped me to finally accept that Joni Mitchell is taken; the tabloids say she is reunited with her daughter in a California suburb. That’s OK. I hate suburbs. Plus, I think I am the lucky one. My mom may never be a great nurse or maid, but she can lift me out of my negative cycle of thoughts with her undying sense of adventure. And she can always make me laugh.




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A Family Guide for Surviving the Summer

While not all of summer is destined to feel like a day at the beach, setting routines and expectations for the season can make it more manageable and enjoyable for the whole family.

I am a creature of routine. I like my daily habits. Which makes the summer rather problematic for me; three of our four kids have been out of school only a week, and my comforting routines are already shot to hell.

I don’t know about you, but I fantasize all year about the leisure that summer will bring. And then summer arrives, and instead of cocktails at sunset and naps at noon, I find that the potential for chaos has skyrocketed.

So over the years, as I’ve sought to make my summers less chaotic and more joyful, I’ve developed a three-step guide for setting my family up for success. I hope you will find it helpful!

1. Create new routines for summer. The familiar routines of the school year will not survive even the first day of summer, like it or not, even if our adult work schedules don’t change in the least. But we human beings need routines and habits, or we get stressed. Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals and habits are a primary way to manage stress. The fast-paced world we live in can feel quite unpredictable, but our daily rituals can help us feel more in control, often without us ever realizing it.

Before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. Click To Tweet

So before the summer gets away from us, we need to spell out the new structure of the season. For starters, this means redefining bedtimes and mealtimes, which all get moved later in our household. I change my exercise routine to maximize the time I spend outside and my morning routine, because I have more time to meditate.

The summer is prime time for more digital detox. We don’t relax tech rules for our kids over the summer, we step them up. If we don’t designate device- and social media-free time for all family members, I’ve found my kids walk around in a screen-stoned stupor. Even a few minutes on social media and they suddenly find it impossible to do anything productive, creative or truly restful. And we parents also easily get sucked into compulsively checking our devices while we are trying to “work” from the beach, playground or camp pick up.

To counter the siren song of our phones, we designate specific times and places we’ll spend without devices each day (always dinnertime, and, for the kids, throughout most of the day as well); each week (we try to have technology-free Sundays); and each month (we do a full digital detox when we are on vacation together).

The key, I’ve found, is to actually spell out the new routines and expectations for kids.

2. Create a family calendar. Maybe this is utterly obvious, but everything is calmer if things feel predictable. We have four kids with four different camp and summer schedules, so it’s helpful for everyone to be able to track everyone else’s whereabouts. Instead of relying on our complicated online calendar – which I love and couldn’t live without, but I am the only one in our family who looks at it consistently – one of my teenage daughters created an adorable top-level calendar in a Google spreadsheet that we print out and tape to the refrigerator. We also have the summer chore rotation on this printout. This calendar has all family events, such as birthdays and vacations, everyone’s camp schedules, major events like tournaments and my work travel schedule.

3. Raise expectations regarding chores and responsibilities. Kids have more time on their hands over the summer, which means that they have more time to help out around the house.

We don’t tie their allowance to their regular household responsibilities or weekly chores, and we don’t pay them extra over the summer when they are doing more to help out. We know this is controversial; most parents want kids to understand that in the real world, they only get paid when they work. But in households, this just isn’t true: Parents don’t get paid for the household chores they do.

We’ve had to spell this out for our kids, repeatedly. The lawn needs mowing more often in the summer, and Dad doesn’t get paid a dime to do it. This week, in addition to my paid work, I’ll take all the kids to their annual exams at the doctor’s office; I’ll help them label all their clothes for camp; I’ll purchase and wrap a lot of graduation gifts. I’m not getting paid to do any of these things, even if I don’t feel like doing them. And that’s OK. We don’t need to love every single thing we do every single minute of every day, so long as we can see the bigger picture – the bigger reward. Being in a big, stable, high functioning family is awesome. And it requires a lot of work. Families are built on mutual obligations – the ways that we help and nurture each other – not paid work.

Kids are happier and more confident when they feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. Giving them real responsibilities around the house fuels an intrinsic sense of place and belonging. Research shows that kids who do unpaid chores are happier and have a higher sense of self-worth. But when we pay kids to play a role in the family, we unwittingly kill their intrinsic motivation by providing a flashy external motivator: money. They often start to see themselves more like household employees – and quit their “jobs” when their allowance is no longer enough to motivate them.

Our summer routines, calendars peppered with vacation days, and the increased help around the house (for those of us with kids older than 8 or 9) can mean that there actually is more time for leisure and rest this summer. Perhaps tonight I’ll meet my husband for a sunset cocktail while one kid preps dinner and another mows the lawn. Cheers to making this the best summer yet!

Originally posted on US News & World Report, June 2017

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What Makes Teens ‘Most Likely to Succeed?’

As a sociologist who’s done much research on elite performance and productivity, I’ve given a lot of thought to the skills that lead to success in the modern economy.

What I’ve found applies not only to adults, but to kids, including teens graduating from high school this spring. Parents, too, take note: As many graduates look ahead to the future, here are seven learned qualities or characteristics that make teens, as the yearbook might put it, “most likely to succeed”:

They know who they are and what they want. A key component of grit is intrinsic interest. This is distinct from knowing what we – their parents and teachers and the adult culture – want for them, who we think they are or who we think they should be. For teens to succeed, they must do the work that is most important to them. Understanding the positive impact they can have on the world and other people will provide them with a tremendous source of energy and motivation.

They’re able to command their own attention. Teens can’t persist in pursuing their long-term goals if they can’t remember what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. In a world where corporations pay per view to rule teens’ concentration and interest, and where social media and gaming empires depend on their ability to command kids’ attention, successful teens are somehow still able to stay focused on their objectives. They study when they need to study, sleep when they need to sleep, exercise and are fully present for their friends and family. Against all odds, they cope effectively with the digital temptations that surround them. They use computers and smartphones strategically – rather than compulsively – as tools that make them more efficient, effective, connected and creative, instead of just being distracted and drained by electronics.

One thing I don’t think teens need to succeed is more ambition. Click To Tweet

They turn away from instant and shallow pursuits to think deeply. Business writer Eric Barker calls this “the superpower of the 21st century.” Georgetown University professor Cal Newport writes in his treatise on focus, “Deep Work,” that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

They effortlessly generate creative insights. The key word here is “effortlessly;” we don’t find innovative solutions to real world, unpredictable problems through relentless hard work. The most successful teens will be those who still value activities that lead to creativity. In a world which disparages unstructured play, free time and noncompetitive artistic expression – in lieu of highly structured sports, elite performing arts and AP classes – these teens have the courage to nap, play and stare into space while everyone else skips breakfast in order to cram for the next exam.

They’re authentic and emotionally courageous. They are willing to feel what they feel, and that gives them access to the wisdom of their hearts. Because they are willing to experience tough emotions, such as disappointment, embarrassment and frustration, these teens are gritty. Being willing to risk feeling difficult emotions enables them to persist toward their long-term goals. They are able to take risks, have difficult conversations and stay true to what they know is right.

They’re happy. It’s easy in adolescence to succumb to the coolness of cynicism. Successful teens, however, understand that cynicism is a marker of fear, not intelligence. Kids who consciously cultivate gratitude, love, happiness, peace, awe, inspiration, optimism and faith broaden their perception in the moment and build resources over time. Their ability to foster positive emotions allows them to access their most high-functioning, creative and intelligent selves. Because of this, they are more engaged at school and with their friends, families and communities than their less positive peers.

They are connected. These teens innately understand the transcendent importance of their peer relationships. They smile at people they don’t yet know and invest deeply in and rely on relationships with friends and family. Because of these bonds, they will be statistically less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping than those who keep others at a distance.

This isn’t all kids need to succeed, of course. To develop their talents, for example, they also need growth mindsets, good coaches and the ability and desire to hone their skills by engaging in deliberate practice, or consistently practicing to reach specific objectives.

But one thing I don’t think they need is more ambition.

Usually we think of the most ambitious kids as the ones who are also most likely to succeed. But more often than not, such striving leads to the kind of stress and anxiety that seems to be hamstringing our kids today. Too much ambition causes kids to focus on themselves even more than they’re already prone to, and as Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s research has shown, this won’t lead to success at work.

Nor will extreme ambition lead to happiness in life. My daughter Fiona has a ceramic sign on her wall that says, “The measure of my success is my happiness.” It’s when success is defined that way that I think she – and all of our kids – are most likely to succeed.


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How to Help Your Teen Deal With Stress

“Are your kids totally happy and squared away?” a reporter recently asked me earnestly during an interview. Gah. I really hate that question.

My kids are awesome. Easy to raise. Fun to be around. But they aren’t perfect, and, ironically, I worry that they will be as anxious as I was for the first 40 years of my life.

I come from a long line of anxious women, on both sides of my family. My grandmother, whom I’m supposedly the spitting image of, was reportedly prone to “nervous breakdowns,” which seems like a genetic heritage worth worrying about. And now, two of my kids would probably tell you that they’re pretty anxious (especially the one who looks just like me).

Fortunately, even at their most anxious, my children seem positively laid back compared to how I was as a teenager. And, over the last decade, I’ve really come a long way toward dialing down the stress in my own life.

But, generally speaking, Americans’ stress levels only seem to be increasing. The American Psychological Association recently released its 2017 Stress in America survey, and for the first time in the decade since the annual survey began, the average stress level of Americans has risen significantly. More Americans say they’re experiencing physical and emotional symptoms related to stress than ever before.

What’s more, another annual survey – this one from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors – suggests that our kids are not growing up to be more chill than we were. Colleges and universities continue to add mental health services staff to meet the needs of students, and on campuses nationwide increasing focus is being placed on helping students manage stress. It’s no surprise that anxiety continues to be the most predominant concern among college students, with 51 percent of the students who seek counseling doing so for anxiety.

This calls for action, folks. So here are three things we can do to raise kids who aren’t so anxious:

1. Stop doing things that stress you out. This goes even for those stressful tasks you take on because you think you’re doing what’s best for your kids. Psychology researchers Robert Epstein and Shannon Fox compared the effectiveness of 10 important parenting practices, including how well parents support their children’s education and to what extent they provide educational opportunities for them. Not surprisingly, they found the most important thing for a kid’s health and happiness is to be loving and affectionate – to support and accept the child, be physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.

But the next most important “parenting competency” – as reported by Epstein in the magazine Scientific American Mind – in terms of its influence on kids’ health, happiness, school success, and the quality of the parent’s relationship with their children, did surprise me. It’s how well parents manage their own stress. Parents who take steps to reduce stress for themselves, practice relaxation techniques and promote a positive interpretation of events have happier, healthier and more successful kids.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Skip the stressful parenting stuff you’re doing just because you think you should. Really. For example, I skip morning PTA meetings because they make me feel too pressed for time. I’ve backed down on my rigid health food rules at dinner so that I can enjoy a little conflict-free time with my kids. And I let myself go to bed before my older teens usually do, even though part of me feels like I should stay up and make sure that they are in bed on time. Why? Because these things are not as key for my children’s health, happiness or school success as for my own ability to cope.

[shareable text=”If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it.”]If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it.[/shareable]

2. Curb the family’s technology use. The latest Stress in America report makes the relationship between technology and stress clear. A stunning 86 percent of Americans constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts, and these “constant checkers” are far more stressed than those who do not engage with technology as frequently. Millennials and younger Americans report the highest stress levels related to technology.

Reduce kids’ stress by creating structural solutions that curb constant device checking for your entire family. After all, technology is designed to be addictive. Here are a few suggestions of places where you should put technology aside:

  • In the car: Put phones in the trunk. Seriously.
  • At mealtimes: No devices allowed in the dining room, ever. Even silenced ones.
  • Bathrooms: Nothing good comes from derailed morning and bedtime routines or emails sent from the toilet.
  • Homework time: Have kids work from a family computer that doesn’t have social media or email apps loaded on it.

Don’t make exceptions once you create these parameters, either. Otherwise, you may find yourself becoming a (possibly ineffective) technology nag, which is no fun.

3. Let kids be uncomfortable. Odds are, if you take your kids’ phones away in certain times and places – especially the car – they will be bored. They will want you to think that this boredom is a form of pain.

As parents, we naturally want to protect our kids from pain. This means that we step in and try to shield them from it, even in its minor forms, such as discomfort, disappointment and boredom.

But there is an enormous difference between discomfort – which is fine – and a full-blown stress response, which can actually damage our health.

The truth is that life can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable. At other times, we experience outright pain. Our kids need to know how to deal with both. More than that, it’s critical that they learn not to let discomfort become stress.

When parents shield kids from discomfort, it can lead to a downward spiral where smaller and smaller stressors cause a greater and greater stress response. This hypersensitivity to stress does not make kids stronger; it makes them fragile and reactive basket cases. It also makes them more likely to avoid the challenges that will help them grow intellectually and emotionally.

The way to prevent this downward spiral is to allow kids to be uncomfortable, rather than letting them numb discomfort with distractions, such as video games or social media. This means we let them deal with their boredom when faced with a long wait and nothing to do. We let them feel the deep disappointment that comes with not getting a part in the play or not making a team, instead of taking them out for ice cream “to cheer them up.” We acknowledge that their mistake was pretty embarrassing, instead of blaming someone else or denying that there is anything wrong.

As in all things parenting, we’ll best help our kids by helping ourselves, first. Feeling a little stressed? Please take this as permission to turn off your phone and leave your family to make their own dinner tonight, while you go to yoga and exhale.

Originally posted on US News & World Report, May 2017

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10 Conversation Starters for Talking to Teens About Sex

Personally, I would love it if we could just have one “sex talk” with our kids and be done with it. Or, it would be great if they could just learn what they need to know about sex from their school’s puberty unit in science class.

But no such luck. Experts recommend that we talk to our teens regularly about uncomfortable topics such as masturbation, pornography and the dangers – and, perhaps even more awkwardly, the pleasures – of sex.

The stakes are high. We parents understand that there are risks related to rape, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and that we need to make sure our kids have information about how to avoid these risks. But we also want more for them than to just avoid the bad stuff. When the timing is right for sex, we want it to be a positive part of their lives – one that brings more love, connection and pleasure than regret, pain and embarrassment.

So I’m mustering the courage to talk with my four teens more often about sex and sexuality. Here are the 10 topics I’m covering, along with some approaches I’m using:

1. Pornography: Research catalogued in the book “Your Brain on Porn” finds that in the last 15 years the rate of sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction, has increased nearly 1000 percent in young men under the age of 25, and that this is related to pornography usage. Ask your kids how prevalent they think porn viewing is among their friends, and if they understand that although it can be very hard to look away from, it can really hurt them.

2. The upside of sexual activity: Kids often learn about the risks related to early or unprotected sexual activity at school, but they don’t tend to learn much about the joys of human sexuality. They know that there is something awesome about sex. So we lose credibility when we make it seem like it is nothing but dangerous. When we talk to them about the upside of sexual activity, we prompt a process of weighing the benefits with the risks. We want kids to think critically about sex, rather than just acting emotionally and impulsively. Ask your son or daughter, “What do you think the benefits are to being sexually active as a teenager?” Similarly, you might ask what they think the benefits of being sexually active are for college students as well as for adults.

3. Not everyone is doing it. In fact, more teens aren’t than are. Teenagers need to feel like they are with the majority, that they aren’t being left out. So it’s important for them to understand that, surprisingly, “hook-up culture” isn’t as big a thing as they think.

Here’s a conversation starter: According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of high schoolers have never dated, “hooked up” or had a romantic relationships with someone. Other research shows that 59 to 84 percent of teens ages of 15 to 17 have never had sex. At age 20, one-quarter of young adults are still virgins.

4. What you want your child to learn from your own experiences: This one is personal. My kids have listened with rapt attention when I’ve spilled the beans on myself. For example, I was date raped on a graduation trip after I’d been drinking. This happened to so many of my friends we wrote a book about it.

5. What do they desire sexually and romantically? Ask your teen, “Have you ever articulated for yourself or a partner what you want to feel or do when you become sexually active?”

Personally, I’ve found this conversation to be easier in the hypothetical, and my advice is to start having this conversation before your kids have boyfriends or girlfriends, if possible. The point is not to get teens to tell you their sexual desires (um, yuck), it’s to get them to think about it on their own, and to define it for themselves, and later, for their partner.

6. Consent is the wrong criteria. Although it is, of course, very important to understand that consent is mandatory, I’m with psychologist Lisa Damour in thinking that consent is an exceptionally low bar.

Here are some starter questions if your teen is potentially sexually active: “Have you asked what your partner wants sexually?” “How do your partner’s desires line up with your own?” Ask also if they’ve talked about only pursuing those activities where you have common desire, or “enthusiastic agreement,” as Damour calls it.

7. Rules of thumb: Help your teen establish these. You might start by asserting that if a person is too embarrassed to ask their partner intimate questions, about what they want out of a relationship or about their sexual desires, they aren’t ready for the intimacy of sexual activity. Then ask your teen if he or she disagrees and what your teen thinks are other good rules of thumb to keep in mind regarding sexual activity.

8. Good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active: Research finds that one-quarter of young women regret losing their virginity to the “wrong” partner, and that one-fifth have significant regrets about having unprotected sex or progressing too quickly sexually in a relationship. Ask your teen, “What do you think about that?” “What do you think are some good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active?”

9. Drugs and sex don’t mix. Sex is obviously much riskier – and also less pleasurable – while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and hopefully our kids know that we don’t approve of underage drinking or drug use, ever. But most kids need this spelled out for them repeatedly.

Ask your teen in the hypothetical about peers who engage in sexual activity while under the influence. What do they think about using “liquid courage” to do something they’d be too anxious or uncomfortable to do sober? Show them their inconsistencies – gently. For example, your teen may say it’s normal for college kids to have sex while under the influence. But asking if you could share your perspective, you might say, “You’ve decided that you only want to be with someone who is really into you. It seems like that would be hard to really know if there is drinking involved.”

10. Subtle – and not so subtle – sexual references: If someone tells a joke or you hear a song on the radio that refers to something sexual, ask your kids if they know what it refers to. If they say yes, ask them to tell you “what kids think that means these days,” as though the meaning might be different for their generation. If they don’t really know, explain what the reference means using plain language. In my experience, this has the nice side effect of making my kids not want to listen to sexually explicit music in the car or kitchen with me.

With all this, we need to try our best to ask lots of open-ended questions. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt them to elaborate. These conversations about sex are difficult – at least for me – and they require courage. But it’s better to suffer through the discomfort than to regret later not having had a handful of awkward conversations.

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If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

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The New Sex Talk: 3 Tips to Get You Started

The summer before I started high school, unbeknownst to me, my mother tasked my father with giving me the “sex talk” on a six-hour road trip.

I had never kissed a boy, or seen an R-rated movie. We didn’t have the Internet yet. I didn’t know that people have sex for pleasure; that would be weird and gross. I honestly thought that sex was something adults did only a couple of times in their lives in order to have children.

About 20 minutes before we arrived at our destination, my dad said something like this: “Now that you are going to high school, boys are going to try to get you on the rack. Especially the older boys. Just say no.”

I gazed out at Highway 33, near Ojai, California, where ugly oil derricks were dunking their heads below the earth. Our old white Wagoneer was making a weird noise. I had no idea what my dad was talking about. Drugs, maybe?

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll say no,” I replied, still looking out the window.

One Thanksgiving dinner 22 years later, my dad used the phrase “he’s going to try to get her on the rack” again. The memory of that road trip when I was 14 years old came flooding back, and I finally realized what my dad was talking about all those years ago. I threw my head back and guffawed. My stoic German mother, usually highly composed, came undone when I told her why I was laughing. Two decades later, she was furious that no one had ever really talked to me about sex.

Needless to say, I’ve tried to be a bit clearer in discussing the birds and the bees with my own children, all teenagers now. Experts say kids do better when parents start talking to kids about the basic biology of sex when they are very young – as toddlers.

This post is for parents of kids who are starting to be exposed to the more complicated aspects of sexuality: pleasure and romance, unplanned pregnancy, “hooking up”, heartbreak – even prostitution and pornography. Most kids will learn about puberty, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases from their school’s sex ed program. But any kid who has ever seen even a fairly chaste romance movie knows that there’s a lot more to adult – and adolescent – sexuality than is taught formally at school. Part of the trick as a parent these days, I think, is in knowing what our kids are being exposed to at any given age. Here’s how to get started:

1. Ask questions and listen rather than simply sharing information. Here are some starter questions, which you’ll obviously have to modify based on the age and experience of your child:

  • “Do you know anyone who has watched porn? Where did they see it? How do you think it affected them?”
  • “What does it mean to ‘hook up’ among your friends?”
  • “How many of your friends are sexually active?” Or: “Do you think any of your friends are sexually active yet?” You could also ask if any of your child’s friends have kissed a boy or girl.

Brace yourself, and keep your best poker face on. Instead of instructing, just keep asking follow-up questions, such as “What do you think of that?” and “How does that make you feel?” If they tell you something concerning about a friend, inquire further. “Are you worried about her?” Or: “Do you think he needs help?”

Deal with discomfort by breathing deeply and slowly – not by preaching or avoiding the conversation. If we don’t stay relaxed, our kids will only remember that we nearly choked every time we tried to talk to them about sex. This will not make them likely to come to us when they have a pressing question or – heaven forbid – a serious problem in the sex department.

[shareable text=”Times have changed, and so has how we talk to our kids about sex.” width=”100%”]This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters.[/shareable]

2. Foster closeness with your teen. Research shows that adolescents who have better relationships with their parents tend to have a lower likelihood of “early sexual intercourse initiation.” On the other hand, the same study showed that lower relationship quality and less parental monitoring increased the odds that a teen would initiate sex.

I try to spend a little bit of time every day alone with each of my kids, so that they always have a time when they know they can talk to me about their lives. We also have same gender “date nights” when I’ll take one of our daughters out to dinner and my husband will take our son out separately.

3. Don’t preach abstinence-only and forgo sharing other relevant information. Refrain from keeping kids in the dark about birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even if you believe abstinence is the best thing for your children.

Many parents fear sending a “mixed-message,” so the only message they send is that sex before marriage is not OK. But research clearly shows that teens in abstinence-only education programs are no more likely than those not in an abstinence-only program to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, or abstain entirely from sex.

In other words, telling our children to remain abstinent doesn’t increase the odds that they will delay becoming sexually active, but it does deprive them of our guidance about sex. Instead of “Just say no,” give your kids guidelines for their sexual behavior while still giving them the information they need.

What do you most want your teen to know about sex? What are your expectations for them? You can give them information and still send a very clear message about what you think is best for them. Here is what I said to my kids once they got into high school: “I feel strongly that having sex while you are still a teenager is not likely to be in your best interest. That said, I want you to have information about birth control and STD protection, so that someday, when you are ready to have sex, you will be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease.”

This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters. Kids need our wisdom about how to know when they are ready for sex, and our advice on birth control. They need to talk to us about what they are seeing in the media, and how they experience their own sexuality. We need to talk to them about the pornography they’ve been exposed to. And they can benefit from hearing about our own experiences, both good and bad.

Just as we need to teach kids how to take care of their physical and emotional health, we parents need to teach our teens how to be healthy sexually. It’s hard to talk about sex with kids. It’s also the right thing to do. If you feel like you’re going to chicken out, simply take a deep breath. Feel your feet on the floor. You can do it.

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If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

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