August 12, 2019
This weekend I was so bored. No, seriously, I planned a trip with my family for the express purpose of removing distractions, de-stressing, and getting back to basics.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We went glamping in Mount Hood National Forest, away from the city lights and our daily demands. The highlight of our trip came when my daughter and I, bored out of our minds after spending a few hours in a boat catching no fish, decided to go on a hike around the large lake where we were staying.
The first half of our hike was awesome. She pretended to be a horse for the entire first mile, neighing
My body ached but I realized, as we sang our way along the path and I felt the sweat drip down my back, that we were having one of those memorable moments you look back on once your child is grown, those special times you can’t plan, they just happen.
My daughter started asking me questions about how to be a better friend, we had this deep discussion about why her sister annoys her to get her attention, we even talked about some fears she’d been thinking about as she prepares to start the school year again. I carried her some of the way and she skipped, ran, and walked a long portion, too. As we made it to the finish line, 3.2 miles later, I wasn’t thinking about my shoulders or my back, I was thinking about how lucky I was to be the one there to listen when my daughter started talking about the things that really mattered to her.
I was thinking about how, even though I believe staunchly in moms taking time to care for themselves, I also want moms to know how intentionally our kids need us to make room in our schedules for them, too. Our kids may not need us to spend our every waking hour with them but they do us to spend a substantial amount of time with them. A few moments here and there are just not going to cut it. They don’t deserve our leftovers. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg gets real on this subject in his book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens:
“In our harried, over-scheduled lives, we often talk of making quality time for our children. I agree—a few moments, when parents are truly present and undistracted, can be most meaningful. At the expense of saying something unpopular, though, quantity matters too. All parents are stretched to make ends meet and fulfill their multiple obligations, but we need to make available as much time as possible for our children. To some extent, the quality of our time with them is influenced by the quantity of that time. I’m not suggesting that you quit your day job. I am saying that there will be more opportunities to listen if we spend more time with our children. We won’t always be there for the crises, triumphs, or heart-to-heart moments, but the more time we spend with them, the more likely we will be available to listen during a significant moment. Enrichment activities are important, but never forget that time with us is the best way to enrich their lives.”
When we do prioritize moments to intentionally focus on our relationships with our children, practicing Special Time is one of the best ways we can make the most of it. Special Time can mean setting aside twenty minutes per day to remove distractions, get on the floor or sit at the table with our kids, and play. We let our kids lead us, refrain from using any judgement statements (good or bad), and spend time doing what they want to do. [As opposed to
This doesn’t have to be complicated. When your child is a baby, this may be as simple as you getting on your hands and knees next to his activity mat. When he’s a toddler, it can literally mean playing with toys on the floor. Set a timer, turn your phone off—make this time only about you and your child. As your children get older, floor time can morph into mommy-son dates to the coffee shop or mommy-daughter dates to the pool. When we remove the distractions of the outside world and focus just on our children for discrete periods of time they can count on, we build a foundation of memories and mindfulness, ultimately building resilience and connection.
It’s tempting to phone it in with our families when we get home from work or make it to the weekends. Have you ever driven up to your house after a long day at the office, parked in the driveway, and then let out a heavy sigh as you thought about rejoining your kids? Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, it’s easier to show up emotionally at work than it is to show up emotionally at home, especially when we’re tired or if our kids are going through an especially rough developmental phase.
Consider taking a few minutes before you walk inside your home to reset, letting the hours that came before you fade into the background as you prepare to greet your kids and spend time with them. Maybe that hesitation to leave your car is there for a reason. It’s a reminder you need to take a beat before you move on to your next commitment. When we arrive home even a little more rested and ready to parent, we’re better at the task.
When the weekend arrives, commit to simplicity. Don’t overschedule yourself or your kids. Leave opportunity and time for spontaneity. Choose family activities that encourage play, adventure or discovery when possible. Avoid stacking games, errands, and appointments when you can. While it’s true that you can’t always choose when your daughter’s soccer games occur, you can choose to only sign her up for soccer, versus soccer and chess and piano and gymnastics, all in the same season. Resist the urge to squeeze in so many activities over the weekend that you and your kids are run ragged by the time Sunday night rolls around. Remember, the best parts of life usually happen in the in-between moments and down beats, when we’re taking it slow.
I’m all for finding contentment wherever life finds us, in using mindfulness to appreciate the beauty of right where we are instead of wistfully wasting our lives away on what we’d rather be doing or need to be doing but, sometimes, having a family happy place can get us through some pretty rough patches. I have two magical family happy places seared in my mind that my brain flips to on the regular.
In one, I’m lying in a hammock on the beach in Hawaii. It’s me and my baby daughter. We’re giggling and softly swaying as we look up at the blue sky and the palm trees. The sound of ukulele music wafts through the air from our condo, where my husband blends homemade Pina Coladas and plates fish tacos from the local food truck.
In the second, I’m snuggled in my bed with my husband and my two kids. We took a day off work. School’s out. We’re playing Stevie Wonder on our Bluetooth speaker. The sheets and the covers feel so soft and snuggly. It’s raining outside and peaceful inside. We’ll probably make waffles at some point. We have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. We’re just here, with our people, in our home.
Snuggling up in my bed is completely realistic. I could have a “four peas in a pod” moment most weekends with my two girls and my husband if I made it a priority. It just probably won’t be as prolonged or as peaceful as I’d like. Inevitably, one of my kids will complain that the other one is taking up too much room, the other one will steal half the covers, my husband will realize the waffle maker is broken and World War Three will break out between my kids as we decide over alternatives like pancakes or French toast.
Swinging on a hammock with my kids on a tropical island takes more effort to achieve but is worth pursuing. Sometimes we need to physically remove ourselves from our day to day lives. Sometimes we need a real vacation.
Plus, getting away—not necessarily to a foreign country or to an island, but to just about anywhere that promotes relaxation, communication, and maybe a little boredom, matters for families, too. Vacations not only allow us to take a step back from the drone of life
Family vacations are an amazing way to model self-care and to get out of our day-to-day grind. This doesn’t have to drain your bank account. Camping and cheap motel beach trips are often just as good, if not better, than high-stress, multi-plane adventures.
Boredom, space, time. Think about how, as you round out this summer, you can take a few more moments than usual for yourself and for your kids to get bored. It’s where all the magic of being a mom happens.
Grab the book! Out March 17, 2020.
July 12, 2019
“Doesn’t it feel amazing to have an hour every once in a while to move and to breath and to just be however you want to be?” That’s what the yoga instructor asked our class this week as I stood, almost shoulder to shoulder, in a crowded room with the heat turned up for an hour-long class. Sweat was dripping off my face as I dove forward, planted my hands on the mat, and scooped my chest up, then back again to downward dog. “In this hour, you get to play. You get to do whatever you want to do,” she continued on above the music and the sounds of coordinated breathing. As I huffed and puffed, it didn’t feel much like playing but I realized as I drove home to my real life and the real stresses that come with it, she was speaking wisdom.
I’ve thought a lot about the power of play lately. It’s a silly word, one that evokes an image of preschoolers mindlessly sifting through sand at the park.
Defining play for hard-working moms is easy. It simply means they take a break from their obligations and their stressors. They think about the activities that make them happiest and they do those things, guilt-free. They sign up for a massage. They go out for a long dinner with their friends. They go to an excruciatingly hot yoga class (I’m not sure why that’s my version of play, but it is). They flop on the couch and binge watch Netflix all night long in a pair of sweatpants. They take a nap. They forget about all the things they have to do and they do what they want to do for a little while.
Sometimes, it means they spend time doing something loud and sweaty and memorable with their partners, like I did last weekend. I know what you’re thinking but I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about rocking out to our favorite band at an outdoor music festival, singing along to the lyrics at the top of our lungs as the lights blared down from the stage. Sometimes it means they lose themselves for a second in a shared sunset or a good conversation, washing away their exhaustion momentarily.
I remember being especially exhausted when we made some major changes in our finances a while back. It’s tiring to spend your nights and weekends preparing to get your family moved and settled for a year-long family adventure. Once we fully-transitioned to our new home, there were all kinds of new issues to navigate, both for our kids and for ourselves. Emotions were running high and it was hard to adjust. There were all sorts of moments when we all had to be especially brave as we dealt with a new living environment and a new routine. Playing was not at the top of our to-do list.
No mom I know weaves what makes her happy into an already full life without a major amount of effort. Nevertheless, the most successful moms I know make time to do it. They prioritize play because they know this: if we want to live our lives with intention (including parenting with intention), if we want to approach those hard mommy moments with courage (moments like sleepless newborn nights, toddler tantrums, or moments when our kids’ true selves go hiding), we have to build in opportunities to rest.
Almost every mom I know is tired but ninety-nine percent of new parents I meet — both male and female — are really tired. New parents are earning their bravery stripes day by day by day. They’re learning how to take care of a human being for a first time and, if that doesn’t take guts, I’m not sure what does. If you’re a new mama, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s even easier for those moms to be brave, though, when they get the rest they need. When they’re less physically and mentally tired, they have the energy to handle the challenges that come their way with more perspective and resolve.
Seasoned moms may get the physical rest they need on a more consistent basis but mental rest is quite another story. Just like burnout is real in the workplace,
You cannot and you should not do it all. So what if your house isn’t perfectly kept and your life is not perfectly organized? Choose to concentrate on the things that really matter to you, then let the rest go. The most peaceful parents learn to prioritize early on and they prioritize play.
You are not the only person who is capable of taking care of your kids. If you have a partner, share your parenting responsibilities with that partner. Work toward parenting as a team. Give your partner the space to take care of him or herself and be committed to taking care of yourself.
Resting is not selfish. Playing is not selfish. Yes, our kids need our focused attention at regular intervals but they don’t need us to be with them all the time. Caring for the people we love most is about setting aside moments to be together, looking for our kids’ deeper needs, and approaching motherhood as less of a perfect balancing act and more of an intentional practice. It’s not about martyring ourselves.
What does it mean to play when we’re busy, burdened modern moms? It means setting down our heavy loads (and handing them off to someone else for a while if necessary). It means paying attention to what we really need. It means taking a break, tipping the scales away from exhaustion and toward bravery, away from burnout and toward joy.
Grab the book! Out March 17, 2020.
April 29, 2019
Something terrifying happened in my kitchen last week. My daughter hoisted herself halfway onto the counter and reached for a pen against the wall. On her way down, she bumped her elbow, hitting right on her funny bone. She burst into tears.
That wasn’t the scary part.
Here’s what really shook me up. As she let out her first wail and rounded into a ball in the floor, the first words out of her mouth were, “Mama, can I watch a show?”
Seriously, like mid-scream, the absolute first thing that came into her mind was not physical comfort or emotional support, or even some verbal proclamation of pain. It was TELEVISION.
She’s never had that kind of Pavlov’s dog reaction before to an injury (thank goodness) and, at first, I kind of brushed it off, but then I started thinking more and more about her relationship with screens and about our current culture of quick-fix distractions and
It would have been tempting to blame the TV—the device itself—for my daughter’s behavior. I can’t count the number of times I’ve rattled off recommendations in my pediatrics clinic about limiting the total amount of time per day parents let their kids use their screens or made suggestions about caring equally about content versus total screen time. Families seem to get that too much and the wrong kind of screen use is bad for their kids.
I practice what I preach, too, most of the time—more science shows, less Sophia The First, a heavy emphasis on learning and positive social skill building à la Daniel Tiger.
This, though, was a different part of the technology revolution I’d never even stopped to consider: not only was I letting my child be entertained by screens, I was letting my child be comforted by screens, too. The screen was a proxy for a bigger, societal problem.
See, we live in a world where it has become incredibly difficult to say “no” to our children because we have so many ways we can say “yes.” Over the first post-millenial decade, the cultural norms around how we navigate our daily tasks have so dramatically changed. There’s increasing pressure on parents to have 1,000 convenient-but unhelpful-ways to keep our kids happy. The Tech Culture of Convenience has rewoven the task of raising children.
“Our culture, in large part, has been influenced by the technological revolution—a series of amazing advancements that have modernized everything from shopping to scheduling doctors’ appointments. But has it all been for the better? It turns out kids who grew up with the technological coming of age (typically born in the early 2000s—the iGen Kids (or GenY Kids)—are struggling as a result of it,” says Dr. Kristin Valerius, a child psychologist and director of Sundstrom Clinical Services.
The research backs her up.
First of all, it shows heavy childhood screen use is ubiquitous:
“…Members of this generation are growing up with a smartphone, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time without the internet. The Millenials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.” said Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist and researcher, in her 2017 The Atlantic article.
Twenge has been analyzing adolescents’ levels of happiness and wellbeing across generations for over 25 years using the Monitoring the Future Survey. The survey, conducted since the mid-seventies, asks 8th, 10th, and 12th graders about their self-esteem, life satisfaction, and daily activities like tech use. Kids, of course, have always had fluctuations in happiness from year to year but in 2012 something astonishing happened: well-being dropped off dramatically. Not just a little drop off. Like, drop off a cliff drop off and it stayed that way. After 20 years of relative stability in overall happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem, it went downhill fast…and never recovered. It didn’t matter the kids’ financial situations, they—across the board—seemed to be having a harder time.
“In all my analysis or generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it,” Twenge said in that same 2017 article inThe Atlantic.
Of course, no single event, including the advent of pervasive, individualized technology defines a generation. But the dual increase in mental health concerns and media use seem to be strongly connected. We know that factors like heavy social media use, texting, computer games, and accessing the internet are not the keys to a teen’s happiness. In fact, studies show heavy screen use is actually associated with decreased happiness, whereas things like sports and in-person social interactions are associated with improved life satisfaction.
So, what happened in 2012? Technology with its apps, and devices, and new ways of doing everything became fully infiltrated, that’s what happened. In 2012, the year of the huge drop-off, the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of iGen Youth with smartphones went up from 37 to 73 percent. By 2016, 89% had devices. The changes Twenge saw were not based on ethnicity or on social-economic status, nor suburban or rural location. Across the board, no matter what their demographics, suddenly teens were living on their smartphones.
“I don’t think (we have a problem) because 89% of kids are on their devices,” says Dr. Valerius. “If that were the case then just taking the phone would solve it—but that doesn’t. I believe device usage is a proxy measure for how ubiquitous the individualized convenient way of doing things had become. And in reweaving the task, our parenting job became harder, our kids missed out on important developmental tasks, so that by the time these iGen were teenagers circa 2012 they were showing the stress-fractures of growing up in this Brave New Tech World.”
Everyone talks about how screentime is bad, that devices are bad, but Dr. Valerius thinks that misses the point. By focusing on device-use, we keep parents focused (and yelling at their kids) for how often they are on that device instead of focusing them on how many ways they need to help their kids navigate life…and it keeps parents focus away from themselves and why they are feeling so much pressure to just satisfy their kids at every moment.)
It seems we all use our smartphones 24-7, our heads bent down over a small screen, our fingers moving in a perpetual scrolling motion. Deep down, I think we’re aware it’s probably not the best thing for us, no matter what our age. But is there something specifically bad about personal device use for our young kids or for our parenting? YES.
When we allow technology (and any other knee-jerk easy solutions) to soothe and entertain our kids, we replace patience with immediacy, we limit our kids’ abilities to deal with negative emotions on their own, and we give quick-fix, personalized solutions to boredom, reducing our children’s abilities to handle less stimulating environments. We take away the opportunity to develop grit.
As a working mom, my family time is limited throughout the week. In the evenings, I’m tired. On the weekends, I’m always hoping for reduced stress, but with two little ones in tow, that’s hardly ever the case. Nothing is worse than coming home from an exhausting day at work only to be inundated with tears and squabbling and strife. It’s extremely hard for modern, stressed-out families to “just say no” to letting screens parent our kids in the name of peace and harmony, but I firmly believe that we have to be fully aware of our choices if we want our children to be resilient and our parenting to be successful.
Dr. Valerius gives some powerful suggestions:
In this modern world, we have to create space to more deeply connect with our kids. It’s not going to happen on its own. We have to be intentional about it. Mealtimes, bedtimes, outings, vacations, holiday rituals—when we focus on using these moments as ways to build community and connection, we glean their true value. Connectedness helps with emotional regulation, self-soothing, and other skills that are lacking from your child’s digital experience.
“True relationship and intimacy come from vulnerably failing and then reconciling, not from being fake or perfect all the time,” says Dr. Valerius. When you let your kids experience that kind of transparent connection with others, they learn that they have value no matter what, that they don’t have to be perfect to be loved.
Dr. Valerius says, “You and your child can have different emotions. Your job isn’t to keep your kids happy or to make them mind perfectly. Your job IS to help them trust they will be okay when happiness comes and goes.”
How do we do that? We let our kids be bored and uncertain about how to fill their free time. The creativity and problem solving that happens in that “bored” space is crucial for the sort of coping that they will have to do throughout their adolescence when they want to fill their empty places with 1,000 poor or risky choices. We let our kids be upset occasionally, we let them work through disappointments, we allow them to experience things not going their way early on so that, years down the road, they can handle life’s curve balls with more grace and perspective.
“Anger can build intimacy. Stress can build grit. Belonging and love are built on being forgiven (which requires failing and making it right afterward),” says Dr. Valerius.
Of course, letting our kids be bored—given that we could instantly take it away—means that their whining and pestering also fills that space. Constantly. And any good modern mommy has times that they cave just to have a moment of peace. So that’s were Dr. Valerius’ next recommendation comes in…
Feeling defeated already as you read this? Don’t be.
First, realize that the way modern moms are often tempted to deal with their kids’ incessant begging to have whatever they need is not some type of character flaw—it’s a product of our kids’ environments: a world where personalization, convenience, and entitlement surrounds them.
“I truly believe it is harder to withstand than our mothers because they couldn’t say yes and we can,” says Dr. Valerius. “Standing firm seems to be an impossible task sometimes for the parents of patients I see—and for myself at times. If we don’t get connected with the task and the emotions it stirs up in us it doesn’t matter what tech limits we know we SHOULD have…we will take a path of lesser resistance.”
My family’s screentime dilemmas are not going away anytime soon. Devices are here to stay—for me and for my kids—but I don’t have to let them break into our home every other second, invading our lives. With my eye on the future, I’m making a commitment to using screens (as much as possible) as tools instead of trespassers.
Grab the book! Out March 17, 2020.
March 18, 2019
March 3, 2019
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