Empathy, Conflict Resolution And More: A Review Of The Friendship Show

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
~ Anaïs Nin

Around about the same time I began this blog, I came across a site called The Mother Company. Because my focus here is connected parenting, I was immediately intrigued by their aim to encourage social and emotional learning for parents of young children through articles, books, music and more.

Because I am also a parent who closely monitors and limits what my children view, I was so happy to find their show “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show”. My children loved Ruby and all the beautiful video segments that helped give them words to express and understand their emotions. I was hooked!

I am thrilled to say that The Mother Company has done it again with their new show “Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show”. As one’s children grow older, their blossoming struggles with friendships take center stage both for parents and for the children themselves. Ruby beautifully helps children explore topics such as empathy, bullying, conflict resolution and the golden rule.

“Join lovable host, Ruby, as she welcomes kids into her magical art studio for a day of creativity, fun and friendship. With the help of adorable animated segments, art projects and inspired original music, Ruby guides children through an adventure of learning about empathy, conflict resolution, The Golden Rule, and other ways to make and nurture lasting friendships.” ~ The Mother Company

friendship-launch-invite-4I watched a preview of this episode with my children this weekend and they were both enthralled. My daughter, who rarely gushes about movies or TV, kept whispering to herself as we watched “Oh! I love this!” and at the end wanted to watch it all over again.

Both of my kids seemed particularly intrigued by the episode “One For All” which is about bullying and the golden rule. My daughter’s personal favorite was Garden Theater – Casey Caterpillar Feels Left Out where the Garden Theater bugs learn important ways to become compassionate, considerate, and caring friends. And me? I really enjoyed it all, but I especially loved the simple art project Ruby does with the children where they create friendship trees which helped the children develop a deeper consideration of the friends in their lives.

Both of The Mother Company’s Ruby’s Studio episodes are beautifully shot and art directed. They’re a joy to watch. I am especially grateful that they produced this second episode because now that my children have moved out of the protective bubble of preschool, I see how developing the skill of making and maintaining friendships is needed.

I highly recommend Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show even for children younger than mine. It’s colorful, slow paced, and very, very charming. The show can be downloaded on to your computer or tablet now. And you can pre-order your DVD, available December 14th!

If you happen to be in Santa Monica, CA, The Mother Company will be holding a FREE premiere of their new show on Sunday December 16th at The Aero Theater where your children can get a chance to get their pictures taken with Ruby herself! Click on the flyer just above for all the details.

Full disclosure: I occasionally write for The Mother Company and was given a copy of Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show for possible review. I was, however, under no obligation to do so and all opinions expressed are solely my own.

Feeling Gratitude. Really, Truly, Deeply

“I don’t want to teach my kids to say ‘thank you’ to someone just because it’s polite and kind. I want them to say it because they feel gratitude. From a place deep inside. A place they are very aware of.”
~ Annie Burnside

I read this quote in a great post today by Jim Higley on The Good Men Project. In it, he spoke about wanting to help his children feel really and truly grateful.

I think we all want our children to have gratitude for what we provide for them, for what we do for them, for the things they have. We remind our children a hundred times a day, “say thank you”. But do we ever stop to think that there is so much more to giving thanks than just saying the words?

I’ve written before about trying to instill a sense of gratitude in my children, but after reading Jim’s post I began to wonder if I was focusing merely on my children’s sense of entitlement. In reading his list of things he wanted his children to be grateful for, I realized there was so much more and that I was missing a big part of what helps children really feel grateful.

with grandpaIt’s very simple and with all my focus on emotional intelligence I can’t believe I didn’t think about it before: we need to help them connect to how they feel in the moment.

In a way, it’s fairly easy to do when receiving something like a gift or a home cooked meal. For example, to start the process ask, “how did it make you feel when your friend got you that toy you’ve been wanting for so long? It must make you feel good that someone knows you so well that they knew exactly what you wanted for your birthday!” Or, if they received something which isn’t quite so exciting, one can say “Mom spent a lot of time making that meal for you, how do you feel when she does something like that?” Continue down that road and ask them how saying “thank you” to that person might make them feel and contemplate on how making others feel good in turn makes us feel good, ourselves. Using the word “grateful” often with your children will help connect the feelings and the acts in a more concrete way.

But how to help them understand gratitude in the larger sense? How do I teach them that there are things to be thankful for that have nothing to do with receiving something tangible? How do I help them understand these things in a deep, internal way?

I realize that there is so much each day that I am grateful for that I don’t express out loud to them. Perhaps I don’t even take the time to acknowledge it to myself and just let those moments flicker past without fully being aware. If I don’t do it, how can I expect my kids to know how to do it? I may point out a beautiful flower to them, but do I express how it makes me feel peaceful, happy and connected to nature when I am in a garden? Do I tell them how the smell of fresh berries reminds me of happy days at my grandmother’s house watching her make mulberry jam? Do I connect that happy memory to a feeling of gratitude that I had my grandparents in my life for so many years? No, not consciously. But what if I did? Wouldn’t I feel more alive, more happy, more grateful? And wouldn’t this trickle down in so many ways to my children?

bougainvilleaAnd what if I were to point out all the marvelous, but ordinary, things that I am so grateful for each day? My son’s giggle as he listens to something silly on the radio, my daughter’s excited whisper as she describes her latest drawing, the way my husband’s foot always touches mine when he sleeps, the explosion of pink and orange bougainvillea in our backyard…why let all of that loveliness just happen without acknowledgement?

I’m going to try this idea and see what happens. I’m going to express my own gratitude for the little things, connect it to the way I feel, share it with my kids and see if they can begin to do it, too. Why not? It can’t hurt! What about you? Do you feel like your kids are grateful for what’s around them? Do you acknowledge your own gratitude? I’d love to know how you handle gratitude in your family.

8 Books That Teach Your Kids Emotional Intelligence

The term “Emotional Intelligence” has always resonated with me. It just makes sense to me that teaching my children to recognize, assess and control their own emotions and those of others, would help them grow up to be confident, resilient, self-assured people. There are many methods that help children develop this skill, one way is to share books that teach about understanding your feelings.

I’ve been wanting to write a post for some time about this idea for a number of reasons. The main one being that nothing helps cement an idea better for my children than hearing it read aloud from a picture book. As I began to think about which titles to include, I realized that I had put together a bookshelf of books that taught not just about emotional intelligence, but also other life skills and values that we think are important in our family.

Updated: February 01, 2018

Our Top Eight


ahns angerAnh’s Anger

It is about a boy who gets furious when his grandfather interrupts his play time, comes face to face with his own anger and eventually learns how to express and control his feelings. I love this book because it gives kids concrete ideas of what to do when they “meet” their anger (mindful breathing, moving their bodies to dispel the energy etc.), allows you to have conversations with your children about what they think their anger might look like or what they would do when their anger shows up, and provides a great model for parents on how to be calm and compassionate when children are experiencing such strong emotions.

today i feel sillyToday I Feel Silly

And Other Moods That Make My Day. I think the best thing about this book is that it covers a wide range of emotions. Reading it gives you a chance to point out that moods change from day to day (or moment to moment) and gives your child an increased vocabulary because we all know that we feel more than just mad and sad. Sometimes we also feel discouraged, grumpy, lonely and more. Laura Cornell’s watercolor illustrations are also very evocative and a great accompaniment to Jamie Lee Curtis’ rhyming verse.

my mouth is a volcanoMy Mouth Is A Volcano

While not technically about understanding one’s emotions, this is a great book to help your kids pay attention to their thoughts. The boy with the volcanic mouth is Louis and when he thinks of something he wants to say, the words wiggle and jiggle their way out and he ends up interrupting everyone around him. His mother finally teaches a fun method that helps him respect others and wait his turn. I can’t say my kids have perfected this technique, but the book has given them the language to discuss being interrupted, what it means to be patient and how it feels when you are desperate to say what you want to say. Plus, now my daughter says “you’re erupting me!” at least once a day, which is just too cute to correct. I don’t like that time outs are used in this book as a way to correct Louis’ behavior at first, but when we read it together I use that as a way to talk with our children about how we don’t do that in our family and why!

no matter whatNo Matter What

This is a sweet book that explores a child’s anxiety about whether his parent would still love him “no matter what”. The little fox (“small”) is very grumpy at bedtime and questions the parent (“large”): “If I were a grumpy grizzly bear,/would you still love me?/Would you still care?” or “…if I turned into a squishy bug,/would you still love me and give me a hug?” While similar to books like “Mama Do You Love Me” and “Guess How Much I Love You”, this one is still a lovely bedtime addition, especially for little ones, and it gives parents a chance to soothe this common childhood anxiety.

have you filled a bucket todayHave You Filled A Bucket Today?

This is another of my favorites and it has really helped give my kids language to discuss how being kind to someone else makes them feel. The concept of the book is simple: everyone has an invisible bucket that is filled up or emptied depending on how they interact with others. Being kind to someone fills up not only their bucket, but yours as well. After reading this book my children now often ask if they have filled their buckets when I compliment them for being kind and we can then talk about the emotions it brings up to have an empty bucket or a full one.

angry octopusAngry Octopus: A Relaxation Story

This funny story about an octopus that doesn’t know how to control his anger until a “sea child” teaches him to calm his mind and body using progressive muscle relaxation has been a hit with my kids since I bought it a few weeks ago. They love to pretend that they are the octopus and practice tightening and releasing all the muscles in their bodies. I haven’t tried it yet when my kids are angry, but it has worked wonders at bed time when they are over-stimulated and need help relaxing. I include it in the emotional intelligence list because it does such a good job of helping kids tune in and quiet their minds and bodies. With that skill mastered, they would surely learn how to recognize and control their emotions. If you like this book, be sure to check out the author’s site Stress Free Kids she’s got some terrific ideas to help with all aspects of parenting.

the grouchiesThe Grouchies

I downloaded this as a free iPad app, but it is also available as a paperback book. A 5-year old boy wakes up with grey, grouchy clouds which follow him all day through a fight with his sister, being mean to friends at the playground and an emotional meltdown at the end of the day. His parents are calm and understanding throughout and eventually give him the advice: “the grouchies could be strong and make their way sound good. But rude and grumpy actions are never understood.” Mom and Dad give him a handful of suggestions about how to ward off the bad mood next time. In the morning, he wakes again with the grouchies tempting him, but manages to head off with happy smiles using a plan to be kind to everyone. My children both were very interested in everything the boy was experiencing as it was all very relatable. The drawings are crisp, colorful and pleasant to look at. Best of all, for parents, is a terrific couple of pages at the end of the book with tips and advice on how to help our kids through grouchy moods.

feelings showRuby’s Studio: The Feelings Show

Although not a book, I would be remiss to not mention The Mother Company’s terrific DVD, Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show. This is a very cool show that helps young children understand, appropriately express, and move through their feelings. The show’s host, Ruby, guides children to learn about their emotions through art projects, music, animations and a puppet show. My kids absolutely adore this video and even had a chance to meet Ruby recently and make a “feelings book” with her which was a highlight for my daughter, especially. There are segments in the show that focus on anger, frustration, sadness and more. This is the first episode of what will hopefully be many more to come.

This is just a short list of some of the books we really like that have helped our kids explore their emotions. I’m always on the lookout for more. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think about these or suggest some others your family likes!

Keeping Calm When You Want To Explode

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person
and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose,
and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
~ Aristotle

This Aristotle quote is a favorite of mine, and I have often kept it in the back of my head when trying to teach my children the concepts of emotional intelligence. Like so many things about parenting (or life, in general), words are easy, but action is so much harder.

I don’t think of myself as an angry person. Generally, I feel as though I am accommodating and understanding and very empathetic. I also have noticed that I can have a hairpin trigger; on occasion my anger has surprised and, frankly, disturbed me.

I was saying to one of my sisters-in-law the other day that the aspect of parenting that most surprised me was how exposed your triggers become. Once I became a mother I began to see that there were aspects of my own childhood that I never considered to be painful or upsetting but which are suddenly scratched raw by something seemingly inconsequential that my children or husband does.

My kids were out of school for a few days the other week. By day three I found myself physically and emotionally exhausted; my patience was worn thin and I was so angry so often that both my children and I had our share of crying by the end of the day. After the kids finally went to bed, I managed to have an argument with my husband where I had such intense anger that I shocked myself (and perhaps, him as well).

Where was all of this anger coming from? Why would I get so unreasonably mad at a 4-year old over something that was completely normal for a 4-year old to do? Yes, raising twins can be exceptionally difficult at times and yes, I am aware of my low tolerance for chaos and noise, and yes, my daughter is in an exceptionally difficult “testing” phase, but the fact that she wouldn’t stop needling me while I tried for the 10th time to explain the rules of a game to her whining brother shouldn’t cause me to explode. It really shouldn’t. But it did. And I know that there is more to it than just my being tired or overwhelmed. I know this because the amount of anger I felt was disproportionate to the act committed.

So, I lay in bed this morning and I thought about my pent up anger. What am I angry about? It’s certainly not that my daughter kept interrupting me. What exactly was happening? I decided to dissect it.

  1. I asked her a few times to please wait until I was done, but I wasn’t being listened to (HUGE trigger for me from childhood).
  2. I was being pulled in two directions at once as I was trying to talk to our son, and was being distracted by our daughter who also wanted my attention. Thus, I wasn’t able to pay attention to either of them properly (being needed in two places, not able to give either my full attention for me equals not being able to do something well. This is a HUGE childhood issue for me. Interestingly, I was also triggered because by not being able to pay attention to either of them fully in that moment, I felt I wasn’t listening to them which brings up my own issues! I know….crazy).
  3. Having effective methods for handling my children’s behaviors has become a protective method I developed. The sense of satisfaction and reassurance I feel when I say or do something and they respond favorably calms me and makes me feel in control. When they don’t respond to my bag of tricks I feel lost and as if I am free falling (loss of control, HUGE childhood issue).
  4. I am sensing a pattern here.
  5. The combination of these three things increases my stress level greatly and I become flooded. When I’m flooded, I can’t think clearly and I am primarily thinking with my primitive brain. I simply react to make the stress stop. I act like an angry child. I threaten, I raise my voice, I slam a door, I throw something. Then I collapse in tears because I know this is not how I want to be. I apologize, I attempt to explain without blaming them, I ask for forgiveness and always, always receive it.
  6. I start again to try and do things better.
  7. The process starts all over.

The process starts all over again because I still have those triggers. Usually I do handle myself better, but even one time of losing it is one time too many. How do I stop the triggers from controlling me? How do I keep my patience and my calm?

When Mommy Needs A Time Out

I actually don’t believe in time outs; but I do think everyone, grownups included, needs to cool down on occasion. Here are some of the things I use to keep my sense of calm. It takes a lot of practice and I believe calming methods need to become part of an every day ritual, like meditation – especially if you are as tightly wound as I am. Many of these ideas I am teaching to my own children as the reality is, we have the exact same emotions our children do – we just have had more years of practice regulating them.

Know Your Triggers.

Dissecting your anger as I did in this instance is so helpful in understanding where your triggers are. Once you know your triggers, you can help yourself by either not putting yourself in those situations or asking for help if you can’t avoid them. If you can’t figure your triggers out yourself, ask someone you trust or a therapist for help.

Express Your Emotions.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to narrate your feelings. Way before you lose control, check in with yourself. Notice if you are getting agitated, anxious, short tempered. Verbalize this – even with your children. “Mommy is getting really frustrated right now. I feel it in my stomach, it’s getting tight. I am feeling hot, that means that I am feeling mad”. This isn’t a warning to your kids, you are simply offering this information in a descriptive tone. Just giving voice to your feelings begins to relieve some of the tension. It also helps your children begin to be able to notice where anger resides in their bodies and to then be able to express their anger in a more acceptable way.

Deep breathing.

This is an especially effective method if you get overly anxious (as I do), but it works any time your brain is flooded. Any type of deep breathing is good medicine. However, if you can learn the 6 second method it can be exponentially more helpful. Putting one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, fill your belly in the first 3 seconds (letting your stomach expand), then your chest in the last 3 seconds. When you exhale, do it through your mouth and use the 6 second rule again: release the air first from your upper chest in the first 3 seconds, and then the air from your belly in the next 3 seconds. It’s actually the out breath that regulates your brain when you are flooded and you can sense your body calming itself as you breathe out. Begin teaching your children deep breathing as a way to calm down as early on as possible. My kids use it regularly.

Know Your Limits.

My tolerance level is pretty high. Both for pain and for stress. I can take a lot. This is a good thing in many ways, but it also works against me because if I am not paying attention I don’t notice that I am getting overloaded until it is just too late. I keep trying to handle the situation on my own, getting more and more stressed, and then I explode. However, when I am centered and paying attention to me (and not just to everyone else) I will notice that I am getting anxious or that a situation is going to go badly soon and I can call in the reinforcements or I can simply remove myself for a moment to collect my thoughts. Being a mom of twins means needing to keep 50 plates spinning at once, but don’t pride yourself on being able to do it all – ask for help before you become a weeping, frustrated mess.

Recharge Your Batteries.

I know I am way more patient and way better at keeping my triggers in check when I have had enough sleep and have eaten well that day and have had a little time to myself. I know, you are thinking, “Yeah, I remember those days. That was before I had children!” So if you can’t get all of those things in (I know I can’t) then find at least one thing that helps keep your batteries charged up. I make sure to get a little down time during the day where I am alone and no one needs anything from me. It’s a priority that I’ve set and I make sacrifices in other areas to get that. I would happily trade it for 10 hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep; alas, I think it may be years before I get that. Find your daily thing. Maybe it’s catching up on the phone with a friend, a therapy appointment, exercise, a quick cat nap…whatever it is that makes you feel like your best self that day, DO IT. Your family will thank you.

We will all lose our tempers and have moments when we are far from our best selves. For me, the key is to own those transgressions. I always talk to my children afterwards and explain that grownups make mistakes sometimes and that it’s not ok for anyone to yell at them or to make them feel sad. If it happens, I tell them, the person needs to apologize. I know that when our son says to me “calm down, mommy” that he feels safe expressing himself and entitled to ask me to act in a better manner. I am not a perfect parent, but every day my children teach me how to be a better one.

What about you? Do you ever lose it? What works best for you when you feel like your emotions are getting the best of you? I’d love to know your advice!

Parenting Seminar: Emotional Intelligence, Compassion And Resiliency

Last year I attended a lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center here in Los Angeles on Attachment Parenting. While this isn’t a parenting philosophy I adhere to, or at the time knew a lot about, the lectures given by Sir Richard Bowlby and Mary Hartzell, plus an additional workshop by Betsy Brown Braun on the special type of attachment twins develop both with each other and their primary caregiver, were fascinating and I learned a lot (you can read my summary here).

Next month there is a new lecture at The Skirball entitled Using Emotional Intelligence To Raise Compassionate And Resilient Children. Now that is totally up my alley and I’m excited to be attending. For those of you in the Los Angeles area, I thought you might be interested as well. Here are some of the details:

“In this seminar, participants learn to help their children become emotionally intelligent and find ways to express their feelings authentically and appropriately.

Dr. Daniel Siegel is the creator of Mindsight, a powerful and creative way to train the mind to see itself. In doing so, practitioners develop a transformative level of self-awareness, understand their inner lives with more clarity, and re-wire the brain to create more compassion and understanding in their relationships.

Through a keynote presentation and multiple workshops, participants will learn how to use Mindsight with their children to help them discover their feelings as a source of strength. Techniques for cultivating resilience and well-being will be explored. The seminar will also enable parents and caregivers to strengthen bonds with children, leading to stronger families and communities.

Designed for parents, expectant parents, mental health care practitioners, and teachers, the program includes the keynote lecture and two ninety-minute workshops.”

Dr. Dan Siegel, for those of you not familiar with him, wrote (along with Mary Hartzell) an amazing book called “Parenting From The Inside Out” and also founded the Mindsight Institute which is an educational center with “a scientific emphasis on the mind and well-being, [which focuses] on the growth of healthy people who can nurture a more compassionate society”.

In addition to Dr. Siegel as the keynote speaker, there are also a dozen amazing workshops offered out of which you get to pick two to attend! Among the topics being offered are:

  • Sibling Rivalry: Teaching Children Empathy For Their Brothers And Sisters (taught by the terrific Dr. Pamela Varady)
  • Raising Emotionally Healthy Twins (taught by the great Dr. Joan Friedman)
  • The Father’s Unique Role In Family Life
  • Learning To Set Limits And Create Healthy Boundaries For Life
  • The Healing Power Of Imagination: How To Transform Stress And Anxiety Into Joy And Success

All this for $50 ($40 for Skirball members)! For details on all of the workshops and how to register, please click here. I’ve already registered, I hope if any of you plan to attend you’ll let me know!

Competition, Jealousy And Sibling Rivalry

My 4-year old twins compete about almost everything. It does not make a difference whether you try to level the playing field so that “everyone is a winner”; they will still find something to compete about.

“I am going to the bathroom first”
“I got to the top of the stairs first”
“I have more candy than you”
“I have a higher fever than you”

Yes, it’s that ridiculous. And it’s not just winning or having more than the other, competition for mommy’s affection and attention is paramount in their world. Getting to sit next to me, having me sit on their bed (as opposed to their sibling’s) at bed time, getting buckled into the car seat by me instead of having their nanny do it, all of this and more is argued over day in and day out. All of this leads to a lot of whining, yelling, poking, name calling and crying. And that was just today.

Siblings will fight, what can you do?

I’m an only child, so the concept of “typical sibling behavior” is a bit foreign to me. And I find the chaos and noise that accompanies it quite stressful. You can’t expect your children to be best friends all the time, or even expect them not to fight, but I do think we can teach them to be civil, kind and respectful of each other. These are some of the things I use in our house to handle the issue of sibling battles:

Make ground rules

Hitting/kicking/hurting each other’s bodies is not allowed in our house. This seems like a no-brainer, but children need to be reminded constantly that this is not the way to express yourself. Be consistent about what you will do if a child forgets to follow the rule and does hit etc. We do not do time outs but we do not allow anyone to hurt someone else’s body in our family. If someone needs to be removed it is always done with that explanation followed by the offer to stay close to help with the big feelings. Knowing how you will handle a situation ahead of time makes it a bit easier to follow through rather than having to come up with a solution in the heat of the moment.

Teach Emotional Literacy

Siblings often end up name calling and hitting each other because they don’t know how else to express what they’re feeling. Use reflective (or active) listening to give them the vocabulary they need: “It must be so frustrating when your sister isn’t letting you play with her”, “You must feel really disappointed that Jason didn’t share his toys with you”, “You seem really furious that your brother threw sand at you” etc. Once your children can accurately talk about their feelings this instantly begins to help diffuse the situations.

becoming the parent you want to beCreate Problem Solvers

Teach your children to solve their own problems. It’s hard not to always step in and be the referee, but you are doing your children a disservice in the long run. One of my favorite parenting books, Becoming The Parent You Want To Be has a great breakdown of how conflict resolution should be taught. I’ve been using this method since my son and daughter were, perhaps, 2 years old and it works remarkably well. They’re now old enough that they can often do it on their own with just a little prompting from me. It involves active listening, reframing children’s name-calling, validating feelings, encouraging each child to state their point of view etc. The very basics of it go something like this: when children are fighting I might say “It looks like there is one (toy, seat, cookie etc.) and two children who want it (or two children who have a different idea of how to play this game etc.). What do you think we should do?” If necessary, I remove the object causing the conflict until a resolution is reached. I then prompt each child with “Jamie, can you come up with a idea that will make both Jamie and Eli happy?” When Jamie gives her answer I ask Eli if that idea is OK with him. He can say “I like that idea” or “I don’t like that idea”. If he doesn’t like it, then he’s encouraged to offer an idea. And we go back and forth. If they get stuck, I may offer an idea of my own. It took a lot of practice, but this method has never failed to work for me and often, by the time they go back and forth a few times, one has simply lost interest in whatever they were fighting about. My goal is to get to a point where they can use this method without my involvement.

So, when they’re not fighting how can we help our children like each other better?

my twinsMy kids can actually play together really well, but they also fight. A lot. I know that because they’re twins they spend an inordinate amount of time together. This would be enough to make anyone crazy. Although people tend to think that multiples are automatically each other’s best friends and love to be joined at the hip, it is my experience that as a parent of twins, I have to work harder to cement that friendship. Having children of different ages presents its own challenges and I think these tips can help either scenario.

Encourage Their Bond

I’ve written about this more extensively in a post called Best Friends, Or Just Brother And Sister? Finding ways to increase your children’s bond with each other is vital to building an underlying love for each other. You cannot force friendship, but you can show your children how special is it to have a brother or sister and how important that relationship is. Children who are diametrical opposites may never be close, but they can learn to appreciate the other and to even enjoy the company of their siblings.

One On One Time

Fill up your child’s cup with as much time possible spent doing “special” things without their sibling. This is particularly important if you have twins, but it helps with any sibling pairing. It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, any time they get to do something where they don’t have to share with their siblings is a bonus. They not only are getting your undivided attention, but they are also able to share more of themselves because they are not caught up in battling for top dog status. Doing something with each child that is special to them will help your children know that they are valued for who they are as individuals. Siblings of different ages will often have after school activities that are different, just because of their ages; give your twins the same gift. So, even if both love art, try to send them to a class on different days. There is something to be said for that old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Giving your kids some time to miss each other is a good thing.

Dont Compare, Don’t Label

It is human nature to do these two things. We naturally look at two similar things, compare and contrast them and then label them: “this child is listening to his mother while the other one is throwing a tantrum; he must be the difficult one”. There is nothing worse than being compared unfavorably to someone one else. Strangely enough, it is equally bad to be labeled with what we would consider a positive attribute. It’s just as hard to live up to being “the smart one” as it is to live down being “the moody one”. Resist comparing your siblings. Avoid labeling them. There is nothing that will create bad blood faster than these two acts. If you need to comment on what one child is doing, do it without bringing up the other child. There is no need to say, “Wow! You finished your homework so quickly. Your brother hasn’t even gotten half of it done!”

These are just a few ideas that can help create some sibling harmony at home. Do your kids fight? What do you do to keep the peace? I know I can always use new ideas. Did you fight with your siblings? Do you do the same things your parents did to try and put an end to it? I’d love to hear your stories.

Cultivating Connectedness And Empathy For Your Child

Last week I had the chance to attend a lecture at Larchmont Charter School West Hollywood, with the director of The Echo Center which is located in Echo Park, CA. I had heard of this center for a long time (formerly called Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting – or CNVEP), but had not had the chance to look into it deeply.

To begin with, the director, Ruth Beaglehole, is a fascinating woman. Her efforts to heal the emotional pain of her own childhood led to her to develop a remarkable understanding of children and parenting which she has shared with the world for more than 50 years.

The most important intelligence is Emotional Intelligence

Ruth-BeagleholeRuth began with her sense that the language used by parents, for the most part, is one of dominance. That is, parents always want to know how to discipline children and how to get children to respect adults. When we are having difficulty with our children there is often the desire to have immediate compliance which tends to lead to a sense of “I have power over you” or fear based dominance. We all may be familiar with the “I am going to count to three and if you don’t do x, y or z, there is going to be a consequence!” which usually comes from a parental feeling of frustration and exasperation.

Ruth suggests not looking at behavior as either “good” or “bad”. Instead, tune in to your sense of empathy and put yourself in your child’s shoes. Ask yourself, what was your child’s goal and what was she trying to do to achieve it? If you want to get to the real story, your child must “feel felt”, which is one of the major building blocks for emotional literacy. Remember, connecting with your child is not just done when a child is behaving the way you want them to.

Every experience is wired into the brain

In the early 1990’s it was discovered that the brain has something called mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an person (or animal) acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

Children must see, feel and hear empathy in order for these empathy neurons to begin to work. When a child lives in an “empathy drought”, as Ruth termed it, these mirror neurons never come on line. She continued to talk about how the brain forms new pathways until we die. Thus, even if one did not experience empathy from day one, it is still possible to re-wire the brain and create new pathways of trust and healing. This made me think of the wonderful farm out here in California called The Gentle Barn where severely abused and mistreated animals are rehabilitated and taught to once again trust and love. In turn, these animals are used to help children who also have been abused to begin to heal. Surely there are mirror neurons at work! More to the point, mirror neurons would be a lead factor in why modeling behavior works so well.

What level of compassionate health do you bring to your parenting?

Without mindfulness, we will simply parent the way we were parented. “Our ability to be in relationship to our children is not based solely on whether we had a good childhood” said Ruth, “It is our ability to have a coherent narrative about our life”. Thus, if you are the child of alcoholics or had a parent who was abusive in some ways, it does not mean you cannot be a wonderful, empathetic, caring parent. If you felt no empathy as a child, it doesn’t mean you can’t raise your own children to be empathetic, connected adults.

The ability to reflect on our own life experiences is the most critical factor in breaking the cycle. Without that, we respond to triggers and can have moments of shockingly intense anger towards our children. I wrote about my own triggers in a previous post called Motherhood: Otherwise Known As Therapy. If you find yourself reacting to something with a disproportionate amount of anger, you are almost certainly being triggered by something from your past. So what do we do when we’ve been caught up in that triggered moment?

Stop and reflect.

Ask yourself: how old am I right now? Why am I not able to be calm or feel connected?

Take ownership of your behavior and apologize.

“Mommy really lost it. I wasn’t able to hear what you needed and I can imagine how hurtful that might have been”.

Stop blaming.

For example, instead of saying “my child lied to me!”, reframe it as “my child used a really poor strategy to get what he wanted. Through empathy I want to connect to what lead him to do that.” You are not accepting the lying; rather, you are trying to find out what is beneath it. Again, once your child feels felt, the negative behavior is diminished.

Create a reflective, mindful practice.

This allows you to repair your childhood. When we are flooded, we are in our mid-lower brain and can’t access the higher brain which is where thought process happens.

Find a parenting support group.

The Echo Center offers support groups and I have a number of additional ones listed on my Classes and Clubs page. You simply cannot parent well in isolation.

Read the book Parenting From The Inside Out.

Dan Siegal, the author, will be speaking at The Skirball Cultural Center in June. I will let you know when I have more details on that.

How to cultivate connectedness

There were numerous questions at the end of the evening. For me, the most pertinent ones had to do with connection. There is so much going on in each day and we are all so rushed and busy and overloaded. How do we make the time we do have with our children really count? I found Ruth’s answers to be more like pearls of wisdom, as opposed to sound bites. Here’s what spoke to me the most:

  • Help your child recognize and tune into their feelings. Remember that behavior modification is ALWAYS a matter of regulation, not discipline.
  • Start your day with 5 minutes of connection. Instead of starting the day arguing with your children about getting dressed or making beds in order to rush out the door to make it to school on time, consider taking 5 minutes out of that day to sit and read a book or chat with your kids. Just 5 minutes of connecting makes an enormous improvement in a child’s mood and behavior.
  • Talk about the plan. Helping your child think through the day helps predictability get wired into the brain. This sense of security, coupled with emotional connection, helps an otherwise anxious or frazzled child move through transitions more smoothly.
  • Bedtime. Fill your child up with attachment at this very special time of day. Try not to rush through it with frustration and anger. Start early enough that there is time to unwind and time to spend together, connecting. Use bedtime as a time to hear about their day, what they were grateful for, what things happened and so forth. When a child is filled with connection, they are less likely to be needy.
  • When you just don’t have time. There are definitely times when you are just too busy to give your child all of the attention he or she needs in that moment. If possible, have a special notebook (or even just a Post-it) in which you write down all of their requests when they can’t be honored in the moment. As I discussed in my post last week about early literacy, writing things down gives your child a sense of how important something is. They know their needs mean something to you, even though you can’t get to them just that minute.

“Attachment and Connection is your insurance for the future. Much more so than compliance will ever be” said Ruth at the end of the evening and I do believe that to be so essential. From The Echo Center’s website: “In 2010, CNVEP underwent a branding change, and the same transformational work that Ruth had practiced for half a century now goes by the name The Echo Center. ‘Echo’ because of the geographical roots in Echo Park, but also as a metaphor: when we are kind, that kindness echoes long after we are gone. In other words, when we raise children with care, we raise children to care“. I love that metaphor…it does make me feel that all of the hard parenting work we do is carried on generation after generation, and there is so much of an opportunity to raise this generation of children to feel deeply loved, respected and honored. It gives me hope.

Boys Don’t Cry. But Maybe They Should

I don’t care about football. I know nothing about any of the teams or players. So, it wasn’t statistics that caught my eye and made me read this story about Chicago Bears’ QB, Jay Cutler. It was the headline, “Cutler cried when told about player’s criticism of his toughness”. Yes, the fact that a man had shown some emotional vulnerability when he was told that other players around the league had questioned his effort and toughness when he pulled out of a game due to injury made headlines. The author of the article had this to say:

Though some have already used Cutler’s tears to prove their point that he’s a wimp, shouldn’t the opposite hold true? (This isn’t elementary school. We should know by now that crying isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness.) If I was someone who doubted Cutler’s injury (and I’m not), the fact that he cried about it would indicate to me that he cared more than I thought. An apathetic man doesn’t tend to cry. A quitter would probably feel the need to defend himself. Those tears suggest he’s neither of those things.

Before you get worried, I’m not headed into a discussion about whether or not Cutler was really injured or whether he should have played in this all-important game (really, I don’t get why people care so much about this stuff), but what intrigued me was twofold. First, that such a big deal was made about this athlete showing some emotion other than what one might expect from macho football types and second that teammates and football enthusiasts felt this guy should have “toughed it out” and played regardless of any injury. After all, isn’t that the “manly” thing to do?

strong boyI don’t know. All this pressure to “man up” or “be a man” seems pretty ridiculous to me. If those of us with boys take a look at our little ones and really look at their sweet, sensitive natures and pay attention to their fears and their questions we might realize that little boys aren’t born macho. If we stop to know our boys for who they are, rather than what society says they should be, would it be easier to imagine that when they grow older that the boy who cried over a squirrel squashed by a car or who delighted in a rainbow after a storm, is actually inside that surly teenager or that tough football player?

Boys develop that part of their brain that controls language later than girls do which may, in part, explain why girls generally tend to be more at ease with expressing their feelings and emotions. In the terrific book, “Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life of Boys”, the authors discuss this in the early chapters, saying:

“We know that ease with verbal expression improves impulse control. So does emotional understanding, or being able to be conscious of your emotions and the reasons you feel a certain way. When this literacy is absent, the emotions tend to be expressed through movement or action”

Hence, the typical male “action” response of needing to do something when presented with a problem. Understanding the development of our children does help understand their actions. For books about understanding the boys and men in our lives, I highly recommend both “Raising Cain” and “The Wonder of Boys” which has the excellent subtitle: “What Parents, Mentors And Educators Can Do To Shape Boys Into Exceptional Men”.

And this is what drew me to that story about the football player in the first place. Don’t we want a world of boys (and men) who know what they are feeling, who express themselves, who can ask for what they need, who freely give love and are able to receive it? Aren’t those exceptional men who can do that? Why do we still revere the strong, silent type? Perhaps Quarterback Jay Cutler was just overcome with frustration when tears welled up, or perhaps he was genuinely hurt at being mocked. Whatever the case, it seems to me that a culture in which someone who is demeaned first for not acting “manly” enough when injured, and then for showing emotion about the ridicule he receives, has truly missed the mark.

I hope I am raising my son in such a way that he is learning to recognize and label the complex emotions he experiences. I want him to know that expressing those feelings makes him healthier, happier and yes, stronger. And I am working to raise my daughter to know that a boy (or a man) who shows his feelings is someone to admire and someone who she should want to be around. I don’t want my daughter marrying someone who doesn’t know how to communicate with her! Our job as parents is to raise emotionally intelligent boys; if we fail to do that, we are also failing our daughters. Think about it.

What I Am Is…

I think this might be my new theme song. I know it was written for Sesame Street, but I can’t stop listening to it. It’s catchy, just puts a smile on my face and I love the sentiments expressed: “I will always be the best me I can be…there’s nothing I can’t achieve because in myself I believe”.

I think that, as parents, we all have the goal of giving our children a sense of self-worth and confidence. How this is accomplished isn’t always clear to us though. It has recently been suggested that our natural instincts to praise our children’s every accomplishment may, in fact, have the opposite effect we intend. This excerpt from “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” is titled The Inverse Power of Praise and one of the main points the researchers make is that simply praising a young child for being “smart” can actually be crippling as he then becomes afraid to push himself for fear of no longer being thought of as smart; whereas praising effort in a child actually encourages them to do (and enjoy doing) things they might possibly fail at because they believe what matters is how hard they try.

“Dweck [the researcher] had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

As with any parenting research I think it’s important to use common sense; of course it’s OK to tell your kids they’re smart now and then (and frankly, as a proud mom, it’s hard not to); but I do believe strongly in the power of praising effort over intelligence, just as I believe it is more helpful to comment on a child’s painting with questions about and descriptions of what you see, as opposed to a simple “oh, that’s so beautiful”. The former expands their thinking, your child learns nothing from the latter except that, perhaps, their next picture might not be “beautiful”.

Author and lecturer, Alfie Kohn, takes aim at a phrase parents (me included) seem to use with our children at every turn; “Good Job!” is exclaimed for every accomplishment from taking those first steps to pooping in the toilet. His article, “Five Reasons To Stop Saying Good Job”, brings up some very interesting research and concepts for those who look at this comment as simply a way to encourage our children.

“The more we say, “I like the way you….” or “Good ______ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval…Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.”

And so how do we bring up children who “in [themselves] believe” as Elmo and friends sing? Recent research points towards raising a child’s “emotional intelligence”. Emotional Intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions (both in oneself and in others). The thinking goes that the more one is able to recognize and understand their own emotions, the better able they are to deal with things like frustration, sadness, anger; and the more one can do this, the happier one is in their own skin. To me, this makes sense and I love the idea that our children would grow up more resilient because they are not simply flooded with feelings they don’t understand. Additionally, the more they are able to read the emotions of others the better able they are to connect, form relationships, succeed in the workplace and so forth. Yes, emotional intelligence sounds like something worth increasing! So….how do we do it?

  • I am a big believer in labeling and describing things for our children. I really try to pay attention to what is going on for them, guess what they may be feeling in a particular instance and then label the emotions for them.
  • I also try to label my own emotions as they’re happening (mommy is feeling really frustrated, mommy is nervous, mommy is excited etc.); this gives them the language to express themselves and to begin to understand what they’re experiencing. It also helps them understand that grownups have big feelings too. Children have the same emotions we do, the only difference is that we have more practice at regulating them.
  • Be sure to give them a rich vocabulary of words, not just “good” and “bad”, and do this from very early on; baby talk isn’t helping anyone.
  • Additionally, helping them to connect the consequences of their actions to how it makes others feel has been quite helpful (“Do you see her face? How do you think she feels when you do that?”).
  • Help them see that talking about feelings is a good thing by expanding on their questions when they ask a question like “why is that boy crying”; ask them what they think might have happened, what are reasons that people cry, what feelings do you have when you cry and so on.
  • When you discipline, focus on teaching coping skills as opposed to extinguishing the behavior; as therapist and parent educator Dr. Pamela Varady says, by teaching your children empathy, conflict resolution, delayed gratification and responsibility for choices you “get to say goodbye to the unappealing jobs parents unwittingly assume: cop, judge and jury, and say hello to the pleasurable and rewarding job of [becoming] our children’s emotional coach”.
  • Really try to tune in to your children; feeling “felt” is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone else. It also is a sure-fire way to calm a tantrum or a meltdown.
  • I love the new website The Mother Company and their concept for teaching children about feelings. They have a delightful group of videos, a new DVD coming out and even a “happy song” recorded by the wonderful Elizabeth Mitchell. Check The Mother Company out, they’re really on to something!

Aristotle understood the idea of emotional intelligence when he was famously quoted: “Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy”. And he was right, it’s not easy; but it can be within everybody’s power, with some effort it can be learned. And what about that video at the top of this page? It makes me chuckle to think that someone named Will.i.am wrote a song called “What I Am”; there’s a certain level of emotional intelligence at work there.