Yes, parents, the kids really are okay.

Have you ever noticed that as parents one of our most deeply embedded instincts seems to be criticizing our kids? We harp about their lack of work ethic, bemoan their obsession with technology, fret about what they don’t know how to do, and constantly correct their behavior. We wish they’d be more focused, more self-directed, more constructive; less easily distracted, less selfish, less needy…and so on.

Of course, all of this negativity comes from the best of places. We love our children, and we care even more about their well-being than we do our own. In our heart of hearts, we fear that they won’t have the right skill set to be successful adults. (Of course, this fear isn’t helped by the ever-growing legion of news stories that label the current generation “helpless,” “entitled,” “too reliant on technology,” “unable to communicate,” etc.)

Believe me. I understand. As a modern parent myself, I’ve experienced these thoughts and fears. But over the years, after watching my son grow up and after meeting many more young people around the country, I’ve come to the realization that despite what our instincts are telling us, we don’t need to hammer our kids into what we think they need to be. That way leads to misery for us (as we spend every second worrying that our kids won’t be “okay”) and for them (as they constantly struggle to be viewed as “good enough”). What we do need is a shift in perception.

We need to realize that (here’s the aha! moment) we view the world through a different lens than our kids do—because the world has changed since we were their age and is continuing to change every day. Our perception comes from the things our generation valued, which are not necessarily valued today.

To be clear, I’m not talking about character traits like integrity, honesty, dedication, and so on. Core values like these have been prized for millennia, and I don’t see that changing. I’m talking about the skill sets our kids will need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. For instance, to compete in the global marketplace, they’ll need to communicate and collaborate in ways we’ve never had to. They’ll need to be highly technologically literate. The traditional “Three Rs” of education will still be important, but they will need to be supplemented by a host of “soft” skills that weren’t widely emphasized when we were entering the workforce.

Here’s my point: To stop worrying and criticizing our kids so much, we need to shift the way we think about them, their development, and their generation’s eventual place in the world. Here is a great article from Slate that will help you make this mental shift. It gives you a new way to think about all the things your kids are doing RIGHT and how they fit into this new 21st-century world. And it frees you up to find happiness with your kids instead of agonizing over them and crushing their self-esteem.

After reading this highly entertaining, eye-opening, and timely article, I hope you’ll agree with me that, much more than you may have supposed, the kids really are okay.

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10 Things Your Employees Are Dying to Hear from You

Business leaders and owners: What were your last 10 or 15 employee conversations like? Chances are, they included phrases like, “I need you to finish that projection by the end of the day,” or, “I’m putting you on the Brown account,” or, “How much longer do you think it’ll take to finish that PowerPoint the client requested?”

As I know from personal experience, you can’t run a business without addressing these types of issues. (And chances are, unless they’re delivered in a, shall we say, forceful tone of voice, your employees don’t mind hearing pertinent instructions and questions.) But as I learned early on in my career, if your conversations with employees don’t include other types of phrases, too, your team’s morale will probably suffer. Let me explain.

In the midst of the everyday chaos of running a business, leaders often don’t think about what they could or should say to motivate their employees. Often, those leaders assume that their employees know how they feel—about each person’s individual performance and about the company’s health in general. Usually, though, that’s not the case.

They’d never bring it up themselves, but your employees really want to receive affirmation, encouragement, reassurance, respect, and gratitude from you. When you verbalize these things—which takes only a few seconds of your time!—you will notice a big change in your employees’ motivation, commitment, and productivity.

Here are ten phrases that got great results for me at Autopart International. If you start incorporating them into your at-work vocabulary, your employees’ engagement will “blossom” this spring:

*“I need your help.” Yes, your employees will be looking to you to steer your company in the right direction, but I promise, they know you’re human, and they don’t expect you to have all the answers. So the next time you’re facing a difficult decision or brainstorming options, ask your team for help. Rather than losing respect for you as a leader, they’ll appreciate that you treated them as valued partners—and they’ll feel more invested in your company’s future because they had more of a hand in creating it.

*“What do you need from me?” Often, employees are anxious about asking the boss for what they need, whether it’s updated office equipment, more time to complete a project, advice, etc. By explicitly asking what you can give them, you extend permission for your people to make those requests. Be sure to treat any requests you receive seriously. If you can’t give an employee what she asks for, explain why and work with her to find another solution. Either way, this question, and the conversations it sparks, can give you valuable insight regarding how to improve your company’s operations, facilities, and culture. It can also show you how to best develop and support individual team members.

*“I noticed what you did.” Every day, your employees do a lot of “little” things that keep your company running smoothly and customers coming back: Refilling the copier with paper when it’s empty. Smiling at customers after each transaction. Double-checking reports for errors before sending them on. And so forth. Unfortunately, in many organizations, these everyday actions are taken for granted, which (understandably) has a negative effect on employee morale. Let your employees know that you notice and value the mundane parts of their jobs by “catching” as many of them as possible in a good act, and pointing out exactly what it is about their behavior that you appreciate.

*“Thank you.” Yes, your employees may crave recognition for doing the mundane parts of their jobs, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t also appreciate a heartfelt “thank you” for bigger accomplishments. Whether it’s “Thanks for staying late last night,” “Thanks for being so patient with Mrs. Smith—I know she can be a difficult customer,” “Thank you for making our first-quarter marketing campaign a success,” or something else, your people will treasure your appreciation more than you realize. And don’t just praise your employees in private—recognize them in public, too. Talk about their accomplishments in front of the whole team, recognize them in company newsletters, and even call their families to brag on them!

*“What would you like to do here?” Sure, you originally hired each of your employees to do specific jobs. But over time, your company has grown and changed—and so have your people. Periodically (perhaps at annual performance reviews) ask what they’d like to be doing. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that your administrative assistant would like to be included in the next marketing campaign design team. You might be even more (pleasantly!) surprised to find that her social media engagement ideas yield impressive results. No, you won’t always be able to accommodate every employee’s preferences. But whenever possible, keep job descriptions within your company fluid and allow your people to have a say in matching their skills to the company’s needs. This is one of the best ways I know to build loyalty and encourage your employees to really take ownership of their jobs.

*“I have bad news.” Your instinct might be to play down negative developments, or even keep them to yourself entirely. Nobody wants to be the person who says, “We’re going to have to eliminate some positions over the next six months,” for instance. Nevertheless, your employees deserve to hear the truth from you as soon as possible. They aren’t stupid and will be able to tell when something is “up” even if you don’t acknowledge it. By refusing to share bad news, you’ll only increase paranoia and anxiousness—neither of which are good for engagement or productivity. But when you treat your people like responsible adults by being honest and open, they will appreciate your transparency…and often, you’ll find that they’re willing to voluntarily double their efforts to help you turn the tide.

*“Here’s how our company works and where we stand.” When you make a point of showing everyone how your business “works” and how their specific job descriptions fit into the overall “machinery,” you’ll find that us-versus-them thinking tends to decline, and that profit-minded solutions begin to proliferate. At Autopart International, one of the best management decisions I ever made was showing my employees “the numbers” on a regular basis. I made sure that everyone understood the relationship between their performance and the bottom line—and thus their own pay. Several employees told me that my transparency prompted them to think more carefully about how their own everyday choices and efforts affected the bigger picture.

*“You deserve a reward.” Simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy than, say, big salaries and corner offices. However, I won’t deny that more tangible rewards like bonuses, vacation time, prime parking spaces, benefits, and more have their place in raising employee engagement. When resources allow, look for ways to reward your employees for their hard work. Remember, nobody wants to work for a Scrooge! At Autopart International, I thanked employees with everything from sports tickets to door prize drawings to lavish company parties to vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. I found that when I treated my employees like royalty, they worked extra-hard to be the recipients of these perks…and they were much more resistant to moving when offers to work for “the other guys” occasionally came their way.

*“I know you can do it.” Of course you should try to hire employees who are confident and self-directed. But even the most self-assured individuals appreciate an explicit vote of confidence from their leaders! Constantly challenge your people and push them to improve while reassuring them that you believe in them. At Autopart International, I told my employees that I believed in their ability to help our company grow—so much so that I wanted to introduce the concept of performance-based pay with no cap. I found that when a leader is willing to bet large amounts of money on employees’ potential achievements, those employees will work harder for you—and for themselves!—than you ever thought possible. With this strategy, everyone wins.

*“This task is in your hands—I’m stepping back.” Most micromanaging leaders don’t set out to annoy or smother their employees. The problem is, they care—a lot!—and want to make sure everything is done just so. But excessive hovering can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them—a belief that actively undermines engagement. So once you’ve delegated a task, step back and let your employees do what you’ve asked of them. Yes, I know that can be easier said than done. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go refill your coffee cup to keep yourself from hovering! It may also help to remind yourself that you hired each of your employees for a reason, that you have faith in their potential, and that if they do need help, they know where to find you.

Remember, business is always personal. Specifically, it’s about reaching and motivating each of your employees on a personal level so that they care about contributing to your organization’s ultimate success. This spring, which phrases will you be adding to your at-work vocabulary?

 

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How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 2

Unless you’ve been living under a cultural rock, you’ve seen the popular 1999 film Office Space. And if you’re like millions of Americans, you know all too well what the film’s characters mean when they refer to “a case of The Mondays”: low-grade dread, sluggishness, a lack of motivation, and an overall sense of disengagement when it comes to your job. These feelings inspire workers to do only the bare minimum necessary to avoid being fired, and they can easily bleed beyond the first day of the workweek.

As a leader, you don’t need to be told just what a negative effect this “ailment” can have on your company’s culture, bottom line, and employee turnover. What you do need are real-world tactics to help banish The Mondays from your organization.

In my last blog post, I shared my belief that the “cure” for The Mondays is actually pretty simple: To create more workplace happiness, motivation, and productivity, you need to show your people more gratitude, individual recognition, and (yes!) love. Believe it or not, these things make employees happier in their day-to-day work lives than huge salaries and corner offices!

I’ve already shared three tactics to help you cultivate happy, engaged employees:

  • Catch people doing things right.
  • Praise employees publicly as often as possible.
  • Handle mistakes with care.

Here are five more tactics to add to that list:

Don’t be the sole decision maker. Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. However, this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.

You see, employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And here’s some good news that may surprise you: Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestion doesn’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.

Help your employees grow. As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis: Meeting quotas. Making sure procedures are followed. Keeping up with advances in your field. Learning and disseminating company policy. The list goes on. But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate is, don’t forget that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work, so place a strong emphasis on developing them. Give each member of your team progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And whatever you do, avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t have faith in them. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk to keep yourself from hovering!

Remember that business is personal. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that John in Accounting has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures.

Actually, showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. When you dare to “get personal,” your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading Autopart International, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And guess what? Not only did I boost employee engagement…I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.

Make it a family affair. Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure that your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus (really!). Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.

For example, if an employee at Autopart International did something really tremendous, I would call his home, generally trying to get the answering machine and not a person. Then I’d leave a voicemail like this one:

Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Todd Patkin from Autopart International where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that he is incredible! He just broke our Nashua, New Hampshire, store’s all-time sales record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he’s doing for our company. Thanks, guys.

Years later, many employees whose families received these phone calls told me that although they didn’t remember how much their bonus checks were for that year, that extra-special homecoming was still clearly etched in their memories. And you know what? Leaving that message cost me next to nothing.

Re-recruit your best people. Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. If I can help Ted and Tina boost their numbers, the thinking goes, this entire department will be better off. Plus, I just don’t want to explain their dismal performance to my boss. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, your efforts are actually best spent with your top people. Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition.

You should go as all-out in “re-recruiting” your top people as you would in attracting new talent. At Autopart International, I regularly thanked my top performers and gave them tickets to concerts and sporting events, gift certificates to restaurants, etc. in order to show the depth of my appreciation. And considering what it would have cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, well, I never considered those expenses to be anything other than money well spent.

If there is one thing I would like to tell all leaders at all levels and in all industries, it’s that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including an improved bottom line—by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible. While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.

Masks: The Other Side of the Coin

Two weeks ago I wrote about the “masks” we so often wear in our daily lives—an appropriate topic to post about on the day before Halloween, I thought! Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth…

…As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

As far as they go, I did—and still do—stand by those words. Living an inauthentic, out-of-balance life in which you deny yourself self-love (and perhaps don’t live by your values) is a mistake.

However, after that post went live I received an email from a friend that caused me to think about masks in a different, more positive light. Essentially, this friend reminded me that sometimes masks can help us become happier, healthier, less dysfunctional people. And you know what? She is exactly right!

Have you ever been in this situation? You’ve identified something that isn’t working in your life (perhaps it’s a negative mask that you’ve been wearing), but you aren’t sure what to do next. You may not think you have the tools or the ability to move forward and make a change.

For example, maybe you’d like to be more assertive at work, but you consistently lose your nerve when it’s time to speak up in meetings. Maybe you’ve ended a relationship and want to move on, but can’t seem to find the motivation to add events to your empty social calendar. Or this year, you’d like to be more welcoming and engaging at your extended family’s holiday party…but how, exactly, do you stop dwelling on your bitter, judgmental feelings about half the people in the room?

In any of these situations, you can—as my friend suggested—put on a positive mask. You can “try on” positive new habits and attitudes. They may not feel natural at first, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly they become habit. Here’s what I mean:

  • As a young leader in my family’s company, I often felt through-the-roof stress and tended to handle my anxiety poorly when a crisis cropped up. Sometimes, I even felt physically sick. (In fact, my father told me that if I couldn’t learn to manage my anxiety in a healthier way, he might have to transition me to a different role.) So I put on a mask. Even though I didn’t feel calm when a manager quit with no notice, for instance, I reminded myself that handling instances like this was part of my job description and challenged myself to act with competence. Before long, I learned that I could handle what my job threw at me, and my “mask” of capability soon became reality.
  • Later in my career, I worked with a lot of salespeople. Many of them were naturally outgoing individuals, but some weren’t. I challenged these more reserved salespeople to think of and imitate their favorite comedians while talking to potential customers. When these salespeople put on their “comedian” masks, their sales numbers usually shot up!
  • After going through a difficult time, a friend was stuck in a rut. Tired of feeling like a victim, she decided to “copy” a vivacious acquaintance. In time, my friend found that acting more open and friendly made her feel much happier—and brought a lot of exciting opportunities into her life! Now, she says, what was once a mask has become second nature.

So, friends: Continue to be vigilant about recognizing and moving away from masks that are holding you back and keeping you from living an authentic life. But don’t be afraid to try on new masks that have the potential to make you a happier, healthier, more vibrant individual.

Remember, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you think and react. Making a conscious choice to change those things—even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural at first—is the best way I know to become more resilient, capable, and happy.

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How Bullying Starts at Home

If you’re like most self-respecting parents, your response to the title of this blog was probably, Not in my home, it doesn’t! I am 100 percent against bullying. I would never condone anything that encourages my children to develop those behaviors.

Until fairly recently, I would have been right there with you in voicing a similar protest. However, since bullying is a topic that is very close to my heart (as you know already if you’re a longtime follower of my blog!), I regularly think about what causes it and how we can prevent it from happening. I have come to the conclusion that kids learn bullying behaviors not only from each other, but also from us, their parents! That’s right. I’m not innocent on this count, and you probably aren’t either. Let me explain.

You might not think of yourself or anyone in your family as a bully (or as someone who is being bullied). But consider this: Bullying doesn’t just happen when someone steals your lunch money or calls you names. In my opinion, it happens anytime another person repeatedly and purposefully lowers your self-confidence, maliciously hurts your credibility, intimidates you, ridicules you, puts you down, and more. Do any of these things hit uncomfortably close to home?

In today’s post, I’d like to share with you some of the ways in which I believe our kids are learning bullying behaviors at home. You may object to my analysis or think that I’m overreacting, but I promise you, children are very observant and impressionable. They pick up on our attitudes and behaviors with uncanny ease, and we often see those attitudes and behaviors magnified in their young lives. With back-to-school season upon us, it’s very important to take an honest look at what goes on in your home to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently modeling or condoning bullying behaviors.

*We bully in our marriages. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but in most marriages there’s a dominant spouse—and that partner isn’t always gentle about getting his or her way. Think about the married couples you know. Chances are, with many of them it’s very obvious who “wears the pants,” as the saying goes. On one end of the spectrum is the stereotypical henpecked husband, whose most commonly uttered phrase is “Yes, dear.” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the timid wife who is intimidated by her husband and who allows him to make all of the decisions.

Most couples fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the point is, in our marriages we often use our anger and displeasure to influence our spouses. Unfortunately, even uglier things like name calling, threats (e.g., “I’ll leave you if you don’t do this!”), and abuse sometimes happen as well. Even if you and your spouse make a point of having disagreements and fights when your children aren’t around, don’t fool yourselves: The youngest members of your household see the dynamics between you and your husband or wife. And if bullying behaviors are a part of those dynamics, your children are absorbing them.

*We bully our kids. When a parent tells a child, “Just do what I told you. Why? Because I said so! If you don’t, I’ll take your allowance away,” it’s accepted and considered normal. But now, imagine those words coming out of a child’s mouth as he or she is talking to a classmate. Suddenly, they’re much more shocking, and even menacing.

Can you see how kids take our more authoritarian parenting methods and twist them into bullying behaviors? Yes, of course there are times when, for one reason or another, we must issue commands instead of taking the time to explain to our kids what we want them to do and why it’s important. But I would caution all of my fellow parents to be very careful in how and when you give “orders” to your children. Too many commands along the lines of “Go to bed!”; “Don’t argue!”; “Be quiet!”; and “Never do that again!” and your children will assume that that’s how they should relate to their peers.

*Our kids bully each other. Admit it: In most families, siblings can get away with a level of name calling, put-downs, and conflict that would never be allowed on a sports team or in a school. And often, I’ve noticed, we treat our siblings the same way at age 40 as we did when we were 14. Do your kids see you being put down at family gatherings, for example, or hear you talking about how stupid your younger sister is? Whether you allow your kids to strong-arm each other too much or permit them to see nasty behaviors happening between their adult parents, aunts, and uncles, the fact is, poor relationships between siblings often encourage bullying tendencies in our young people.

*Our kids bully us. Kids bullying their parents? It goes against nature…or so we’d like to believe. But in reality, we let our kids bully us all the time. For example, your teenage son comes home in a bad mood, snaps at you when you ask how his day was, and slams the door to his bedroom when you request that he help you set the table for dinner. You know what you should do: Your son’s behavior was unacceptable, and there ought to be consequences. But you just don’t have the energy for that struggle, so you let him stay in his room and set the table yourself. Essentially, he has just used his surliness to bully you into doing what he didn’t want to do himself.

I could give you more examples of how kids use bad behavior, tears, tantrums, and more to bully their parents, but if you’ve been a mother or father for more than a day, you don’t need me to extrapolate. You know that often, it’s just so much easier to “give in to the terrorist” than it is to confront your child and correct her behavior. But if we allow our kids to manipulate us in this way on a regular basis, we’re teaching them that this is how to get what they want with everyone else in their lives, too.

*Our kids are being entertained by bullying. Throughout childhood, but especially as they reach the teenage years, kids watch popular television shows and movies that are full of examples of kids bullying each other, as well as their parents. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes flicking through the channels on your television.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to point fingers or accuse anyone of terrible parenting practices. I’m a dad myself, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that being a parent is the most challenging job in the world. We will all make many mistakes, despite our best intentions, as we try to raise empathetic, values-centered kids.

Here’s the point I want to make: Since you may not be able to influence what your child is exposed to at school, you must be as vigilant as possible regarding what happens in your own house. Make every effort to ensure that aggressive, mean-spirited, controlling, and dominating behaviors aren’t present in your home, even when you’re frustrated or upset. Remember, your kids will adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and habitual responses that they see you and your spouse exhibiting, regardless of what you tell them is right or wrong. Let’s all commit to being more aware of what we do, say, and allow at home as we continue the fight against bullying!

 

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Summer Goal: Happy Kids (and How to Instill the Happy Habit)

One of the best things about summer is the fact that most of us get to spend more time with our kids. They’re home from school for a few months, and while our time off doesn’t generally mirror theirs, we adults still tend to take more vacation time during these lazy, hazy, crazy days than we do at other times throughout the year.

That being the case, this is the perfect time to teach your children some important life lessons. Specifically, I’m referring to lessons about happiness. If you’re familiar with my message, you already know that I believe happiness and success are not the same thing, and that our society tends to prioritize achievement over things like contentment, balance, and well-being. All too often, this state of affairs causes us to become overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed—a lifestyle that doesn’t really leave very much room for “happy.”

The good news is, semi-constant stress and dissatisfaction aren’t inevitable. In fact, the root of much of our unhappiness can be traced back to our childhoods—which means that as a parent, you’re faced with a very important responsibility. More than sending your kids to a deluxe sleepaway camp or supervising their summer reading, the absolute best thing you can do for your children this season is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.

Now, don’t panic. I’m not saying that you need to forgo pool trips and ice cream runs for lectures on the power of positive thinking—far from it! I’m simply suggesting that you take advantage of summer’s slower pace (and the increased amount of family time that goes with it) to help your kids develop healthy habits that will contribute to their happiness now and throughout the year. Here are eight suggestions to help you get started:

*Show your kids what happiness looks like. Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do. If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, that your coping mechanisms are unhealthy, or that your outlook could use improving, do what you need to do in order to make the necessary adjustments. (Viewing my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program at www.toddpatkin.com or reading some of my previous blog posts will give you some good tactics to begin with!) Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.

*Teach your kids to love themselves. Despite what you may tell yourself as you tuck your children in at night, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves as well. The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression. Overall, always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong. And always, always let them know they are loved unconditionally. So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.

*Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is failure. Always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you—it won’t happen on its own. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what. It’s important to realize that when young people go to college at age 18 (often their first extended time away from home), an unattainable compulsion to be perfect is extremely dangerous, and can lead to serious anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Again, do everything you can now to make sure your children enter the adult world with a healthy perspective on success and achievements.

*Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. As a parent, don’t support this notion. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great. Summer, with its increased amount of free time, is a great time to do this!

*Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today at day camp!) And as you know from experience, the problems you encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones you encounter in high school…which don’t even begin to compare to the ones you face as an adult. That’s why one of the best things you can do to instill the happiness habit in your kids is to help them to develop perspective. From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future! Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.

*Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults. So sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important and discuss all the ways to do it. Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Again, because of the relatively large amount of free time your kids have, summer is a perfect time for these activities. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.

*Give your kids the gift of gratitude. An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world. When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults! There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids. Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one, and making thank-you card writing a “rule” after birthdays and holidays is another. Another more subtle method is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course I’m not advocating compromising their well-being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for or ice cream for dessert every night. Not getting what they want, when they want it, every time, will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.

*Make happiness a priority for your family. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities are in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood. So sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy. Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, “Does playing softball make you feel good?” or, “What were you doing today when you felt the best?” If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis throughout the year to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.

In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill. It’s not too late to make summer 2013 the season your family took a positive turn toward happiness. I promise, you won’t regret it!

 

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Defining Close Relationships

It’s pretty common to hear advice along the lines of, Work on your close relationships if you want to be happier. Heck, I’ve given that advice myself numerous times, and I’ve even written about it on this blog! And yes, I still stand behind it. But I’ve been thinking, What, exactly, defines a “close relationship”? What if many of us are missing out on fulfilling connections with others because we have a skewed view of what they should look like?

The fact is, at various points throughout our lives, all of us (myself definitely included) have maintained close ties with people who just weren’t good for our self-esteem, well-being, and happiness. Or maybe you fall on the other end of the spectrum and tend to back away from any relationship that isn’t comfortable, reasoning that fulfilling relationships should be effortless.

I know it might not be easy, but it’s important to come to grips with the fact that if you want to be happy, your close relationships might not end up being the ones you think they should be. I encourage you to take a little time to think about which relationships are best for your happiness and for your emotional and mental well-being. Here are some things to consider when making your list:

*Are you expecting it to be too easy? I think a lot of us buy into the myth that our close relationships should be easy. If they take a lot of work or become uncomfortable, we tell ourselves that they’re just not right for our lives. He’s my father, you might say. It shouldn’t be hard. I’m going to stop calling him so often. You may question if there’s something wrong with you or the other party, and soon you’re caught up in feelings of blame and resentment. Sadly, this frustration can make us write off relationships too soon. But the truth is, no two people are ever going to be on exactly the same page on a constant basis. All relationships—even healthy ones—take constant work.

*Is reciprocity present? Depending on your personality type, you might dedicate yourself to pleasing your loved ones. But do they put forth the same effort on your behalf? For a relationship to be worthy of being “close,” both parties need to genuinely value the other’s well-being. For instance, if you’re constantly giving and your brother is constantly taking, you’re not close in a meaningful sense. And to be clear, when I refer to reciprocity, I’m not talking about keeping a scorecard. An “I did that favor for him recently, so he owes me this favor right now” mentality will primarily cause frustration and resentment. Reciprocity “works” long-term only when unconditional love is present. And remember, you, as well as all other human beings, are valuable, important, and worthy of respect from the people in your life.

*Does the relationship make you happy right now? Often, we maintain close ties with other people out of habit—especially when it comes to friendships. But it’s important to realize that human beings evolve and change over time. So every once in awhile, take the temperature of your relationships. For instance, Sally and Samantha may have been inseparable in high school, but that doesn’t mean they will have as much in common 20 years down the road. It’s okay to allow some relationships to move to the background of your life. If you hang onto them too tightly, you won’t be able to make room for new, more fulfilling people to enter your life.

*Is this a tie that’s important to you? Maybe your relationship with your spouse or teenager isn’t bringing you much joy right now. But giving up on that person just doesn’t feel right to you. Pay attention to that instinct. Depending on your circumstances, there will be certain relationships in your life that are inherently worth greater amounts of stress, anxiety, and hard work. For many people, spouses, children, and parents will fall into these categories. In-laws, friends, and maybe even certain coworkers might (or might not) be included as well. Make sure you have consciously indentified the people you want to stay in your life and for whom you’re willing to go the extra mile.

Remember, the quality of your relationships—particularly those into which you pour your heart—can make or break the quality of your life. Loving, supportive relationships will majorly enhance your happiness levels. But fractious, unstable, or even distant relationships with your family members and historically close friends can leave you feeling unappreciated, angry, alone, and anxious.

What’s more, the stress and unhappiness that stem from less-than-healthy close relationships don’t stop with you. You’ve probably heard me say (or write) that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. If you’re putting a lot of time into relationships that zap your mood and drain your energy, not only will your own happiness levels suffer; you’ll pass that negative vibe onto other family members, friends, etc. (This is especially important to pay attention to if you have children, because they’ll grow up with the attitudes and outlooks—good or bad—they see you displaying.)

So, to review, make sure you aren’t forcing yourself to stay close to people who just aren’t good for you any longer. It’s a mistake to channel a lot of your energy, time, and emotions toward a particular person out of a sense of obligation, just as it’s unwise to throw all less-than-easy relationships out the window. Consciously distancing yourself from some people while making others a more prominent part of your life doesn’t make you a bad person—it means that you value your emotional health, your quality of life, and your happiness.

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“Thank-Yous” Every Father Should Hear

On Sunday, June 16th—otherwise known as Father’s Day—dads across America will receive ties, tools, and other “toys” from their children. Sure, those gifts (as well as cards, visits, and family meals) are a great way to let Pops know that you love him and that you’re glad he’s part of your life. Like many of you, I am hoping to spend the day with my father and with my son, probably at the beach with Josh and maybe a nice meal later with my dad.

But this year, in addition to the “traditional” Father’s Day activities, I thought about what I could do to really honor my dad in a way he’ll remember and cherish. It didn’t take me very long to think of an answer: Tell Dad thank you and mean it.

I know that stereotypically speaking men aren’t supposed to be very “touchy-feely.” But I promise you—speaking as a father myself—when it comes to your kids, all of those rules go out the window. I cherish every “I love you,” “thanks,” and genuine smile I’ve ever gotten from my son, Josh. It’s incredibly heartwarming and fulfilling to hear directly from your child that he or she thinks you’ve done a good job as a parent.

Unfortunately, because our parents tend to be such constant presences in our lives, we often take them—and everything they’ve done for us—for granted. No, your dad probably wasn’t perfect (no parent is!), but chances are, he helped you become a capable, responsible, and fulfilled adult, and he always wanted the best for you. Father’s Day is the perfect time to think about all of the specific ways in which your dad has impacted your life. As I plan to do, I hope you’ll also spend some time reflecting on your relationship with your father and give him the gift of heartfelt thanks.

To help you get started, here are eleven “thank-yous” that might just make your dad’s Father’s Day perfect:

  • Thank you for almost always making time to come to my games, concerts, and awards ceremonies. I know you were under pressure and busy a lot of the time, so your priorities taught me that family and relationships are always more important than work and outside achievements.
  • Thank you for supporting me when I decided I’d rather be in the school band than play basketball. The fact that you clapped loudest at our concert let me know unequivocally that you love me for who I am—especially since you were the star point guard during your own high school days!
  • Thank you for making me help with yard work and home improvement projects on the weekends. I may not have enjoyed it at the time, but you taught me the value of hard work. Because of you, I take pride in a job well done, no matter how large or small!
  • Thank you for teaching me to ride a bike, and especially for encouraging me to get back up and try again when I fell. I learned that persistence and practice pay off, and that the results can be fantastic!
  • Thank you for coaching my YMCA sports teams. You showed me what good sportsmanship looks like and taught me why it’s important to shake hands after every game, even if we lost! In all aspects of my adult life, I know how to lose (and win!) with grace because of you, Dad. And even though I’ve aged out of Little League, I also exercise on a regular basis and try to stay physically fit.
  • Thank you for disciplining me and telling me why you were disappointed. I certainly didn’t enjoy being punished, but now I have a strong set of core values and a firm sense of right and wrong.
  • Thank you for teaching me how to drive and for remaining patient throughout the process—I know I wasn’t always the nicest student. Now I can merge, parallel park, and back like a pro. (But I’m still trying to beat your least-number-of-stops-on-the-way-to-the-beach record!)
  • Thank you for showing me that there’s a difference between being aggressively confrontational and being politely firm. Because of you I stick to my convictions and don’t let others take advantage of me while remaining respectful.
  • Thank you for making executive decisions on everything from where to eat dinner to when to leave the neighbors’ holiday party to which movie to watch on family night. These examples may seem insignificant, but over the years you taught me the value of knowing your mind and acting decisively. You saved me a lot of waffling, hemming, and hawing!
  • Thank you for always treating Mom with respect, patience, love, and sometimes a little mischievousness. You taught me how to treat someone you love and what a strong marriage looks like. Now I have a great relationship—and a lot of fun—with my own partner.

And for men specifically, I also suggest some version of this acknowledgment:

  • Thank you for teaching me the “essentials” like how to tie a tie, iron a crease into slacks, shine my shoes, and shave. While I might not put all of those skills to use every day, I always take pride in my appearance…and I think I do “clean up” nicely!

Whether you write your own personalized thank-yous in a card or share them with your dad in person, you can rest assured that this will be a Father’s Day he’ll remember forever. Here’s to you, Dad!

 

Making Mother’s Day Meaningful

In case you haven’t checked your calendar recently, Mother’s Day is coming up: Sunday, May 12th, to be exact. What are your plans? Are you going to send some flowers or a card, chat with your mom on the phone, and congratulate yourself on doing your duty as a child? Assuming you live close enough, will you stop by for a special visit?

If so, you’re in good company. Thousands of other Americans will be doing the same thing. And no, of course there’s nothing wrong with flowers, greeting cards, calls, or visits. They’ll all let your mother know that you appreciate her enough to put prior thought and energy into making her feel special.

But this year, I encourage you to go beyond a canned card. As you probably know if you’re familiar with my message, I believe that it is incredibly important to put sincere and consistent work into improving your closest relationships. Hopefully, your mother falls into that category! If, like me, you are blessed to still have your mom, don’t take her for granted. The fact is, the future isn’t guaranteed to us—we can count on only the present moment. So don’t lose any time—accompany that bouquet of flowers with something your mom will remember and cherish long after the blooms have faded.

Especially if you’re a parent yourself, think about the things you’d like to hear most from your own kids, now and in the future. Perhaps they might include: I have always known that I’m loved. You have given me the tools I need to build a fulfilling life. I know that you always did your best to be a good parent. Allow me to share some of the most important life lessons I have learned from you. And so on! Then, share these important truths with your mother—maybe even consider writing them down in that greeting card. Often, they’re the types of things we deeply feel but rarely verbalize.

Another meaningful way to spend Mother’s Day is to look through old photo albums with your mom (and with your dad too, if he’s still around), reliving good memories, telling funny stories, and explaining how your mother’s influence earlier in your life has shaped who you are today (and maybe even how you have decided to raise your own family). It’s not universally true, of course, but mothers often act as the glue that holds families together—they dry tears, they mediate when quarrels happen, they make sure that homework is done and that baths are taken, they motivate, encourage, advise, and so much more. What a blessing it would be for your mother to hear that you remember these things and that you see them as invaluable gifts she gave you growing up!

On the other hand, what if your relationship with your mother isn’t that smooth? What if the two of you aren’t very close? If you’re on speaking terms, I encourage you to take a step toward mending any rifts that may exist. No, you might not want to spend Mother’s Day rehashing old arguments or disagreements, but you can tell your mom that you’d like to work on these problems in the future because you love her and value your relationship.

And what if you don’t plan on talking to your mom on May 12th? Or any other day, for that matter? Sadly, I know that this is the case for too many people. Well, at Oneness University, which I recently attended in India, I learned that the most important relationships we have are with our parents. In fact, Oneness teaches that if you have a bad relationship with your mother in your heart, your life will always be filled with troubles. Thus, the best step you can take is to try to forgive her in your own mind, for your own well-being. Do your best to take a step forward and understand what your estranged mother might have been dealing with in her life when she treated you in a negative way—what might have caused her to behave the way she did.

At the end of the day, think about what you want to feel on Mother’s Day and determine how you can achieve that desired outcome. You may find yourself rejoicing in having the world’s greatest mother, or you may be at peace knowing that a potentially volatile situation is being handled in a way that honors your physical health and mental well-being. Remember, celebrating your mother is important—but the most important thing of all is being authentic and showing love to yourself first.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part One

In my last post, I talked about a problem that plagues a whole lot of us: constantly expecting the worst. Instead of feeling hopeful, optimistic, or even neutral about the future, we assume that bad things are going to happen.

  • Your husband has been coming home late from work all week? He’s having an affair with a coworker!
  • Your family is preparing for a move? You just know that half of your dishes are going to get broken…and the movers will probably scratch up your antique pie safe, too.
  • Your boss is putting together a “dream team” to woo a big client? She’ll pick your showboating coworker, even though you’re better qualified.

Enough examples—you know what I’m talking about. And if you read my last post, you also know that expecting the worst is detrimental to your emotional, mental, and even physical health. Here are six ways to help yourself break this bad habit:

*Acknowledge how busy people are. When you don’t see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, it’s easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesn’t want to work with me. She isn’t interested in going out on another date. I didn’t get the job. And so on and so forth. But wait a second. Maybe the current radio silence doesn’t mean “no”—it might simply mean that the other person is busy.

The next time you’re waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasn’t had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they haven’t read your email yet. No news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news—it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!

*Stay busy yourself. You can’t always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. As I see it, you can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities…or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things. Preferably, occupy yourself with tasks that use your strengths and that will bolster your positive attitude and self-esteem. Whatever you do, don’t torture yourself by sitting by the phone or computer while you fret! Watching the metaphorical pot won’t make it boil any faster. All you’re accomplishing is worsening your own mood and mental state.

*Take a dose of muscle medicine…or meditate! Have you ever heard of “a runner’s high”? It’s a real feeling—and it can help you to stop expecting the worst. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormones—like cortisol—in your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications…without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.

If you’re familiar with my message, you know that I’m a longtime proponent of exercise because it makes you feel more powerful, relaxes you, and enables you to sleep better, all of which can help you to worry less. I always head to the gym whenever I can’t shake a particular worry. After my workout, I feel much more at peace, and sometimes, my unconscious mind even “solves” my problem by coming up with a new idea or a more balanced perspective while my body has been occupied with vigorous activity. If you don’t have an hour or so to devote to concentrated exercise, simply get outside and walk around the block a few times—it can still effectively change your mood.

I also recommend meditating when you’re fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. I used to think exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this! I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present moment…all of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.

*Take steps toward a solution. When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, you’ll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, you’ll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.

To use a work analogy, imagine that you’ve heard rumors that your company will be downsizing. Your worst expectation is that you’ll be laid off. Instead of fretting every day about losing your job, take steps to make yourself more valuable. Ask for feedback from your boss and incorporate her suggestions into your work. Always go the extra mile. Help your colleagues to succeed and improve. Take continuing education classes, if possible. All of these actions will distract you from worrying, and hopefully, they’ll highlight to your supervisors just how essential you are. And if you are laid off, you’ll have made yourself into a more valuable candidate for another organization to hire.

*Phone a friend. This “lifeline” can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust: your spouse or a friend, for example. Specifically, ask this person to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, can’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.

When you expect the worst, you’re essentially discounting thousands of other possibilities that could occur. In other words, you’re mentally thinking in black and white. But the truth is, life is made up of many shades of color. Asking a friend to help you see more of those shades will talk you down from the emotional ledge you’re standing on and will help to break you out of your mental rut.

*Retrain yourself to look for the positive. Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, you’ll be calling more of them into your life. How? You’re engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, you’ll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.

Some people call this the law of attraction. But whatever you want to call it, I know from experience that if you train yourself to look for the positive, you’ll attract more positive things into your life. You’ll be happier, friendlier, kinder, and more optimistic…and that will bring better people and better opportunities into your orbit.

One of the best ways I’ve found to help myself focus more on the positive is by developing an attitude of gratitude. (Again, if you’re familiar with me, this advice won’t come as a surprise!) When you’re actively being thankful for things in your life, it’s harder to let yourself spiral downward into negativity and have a doomsday mindset about what’s to come. Every evening, I look back on my day and identify several things I am thankful for. If something bad or disappointing happened that day—or if I’m worried about something in the future—I challenge myself to find the silver lining. For example, if I didn’t get a speaking engagement I was hoping for, I remind myself that I won’t have to spend that evening or weekend away from my family.

Without a doubt, these six tools have helped me to retrain my brain to look for the positive when I consider the future. This week, if you find yourself dwelling on a doomsday scenario—no matter how large or small it may be—try to employ one of these tactics to help yourself let go of your bad expectations and refocus yourself on the here and now. And stay tuned—to close out this topic, I’m going to share my last six how-not-to-expect-the-worst tips in my next post!