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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Living a Life of Purpose: Gary Marino and the Million Calorie March

I firmly believe that every human being on this earth has the power to make the world a better place. We all have talents, abilities, strengths, values, and experiences that we can leverage to help others…if, that is, we choose to live with purpose.

I can tell you from experience that it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of routine; to let others’ expectations determine your choices; to play it safe instead of risking failure or ridicule. That’s largely how I lived my life until I had my happiness breakthrough. But I can also tell you from experience that when you take the risk and proactively design a life that is infused with meaning, you can accomplish more than you ever dreamed possible.

I’m fortunate to know many people who have tapped into their purpose and courageously decided to share their gifts with the world. I’d like to profile two of them on my blog: my good friends Gary Marino (whose story I’ll share today) and John Dowd (who I’ll tell you about in the next post).

I hope that Gary’s and John’s stories will inspire you to take a look at how you too can take your life to a higher level by living more consciously and by paying attention to what fulfills you—and to what the world needs! (As you’ll see, Gary and John are both living purposefully in a BIG way—but be aware that you can have a positive impact on the world whether you touch one life or one million!)

I first met Gary Marino in a professional capacity around 10 years ago, but it didn’t take long for us to become friends. At that time, Gary was a big guy—as he describes it, “one Super Bowl party away from 400 pounds.” Because of his weight, Gary suffered from some serious medical issues. He wanted to regain his health and his life, so he began exercising and eating better. Before long, Gary began shedding pounds (eventually, 150 of them). And somewhere along the way, Gary also found his purpose.

I’ll never forget the day when a much-healthier Gary came to me and told me that he wanted to help others achieve what he had just experienced. He was concerned by the epidemic of obesity in America—especially childhood obesity—and he believed that he could tap into his own experiences to teach others how to navigate health here in the “Land of Plenty.”

To make a long story short, Gary developed the concept of walking from Jacksonville, Florida, to his home city of Boston, Massachusetts (about 1,200 miles), raising awareness and money for childhood obesity along the way. I was incredibly honored to help fund this one-of-a-kind project and was excited to be there in 2004 when the Million Calorie March kicked off live on ABC’s Live! with Regis and Kelly.

Over the next few months, the walk was also featured in USA Today and People magazine and was mentioned by hundreds of other media outlets. In total, it is estimated that the Million Calorie March reached over 70 million people! (Even well-known personalities like Bill Clinton and Steven Tyler are fans!)

But that’s not all. Gary’s original walk ended up being only the “warm-up lap.” His non-profit partnered with Blue Cross and went on to produce three more breathtaking campaigns in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, as well as over 200 events across the country.

Now Gary’s fight against childhood obesity is a digital campaign, too. Gary continues to educate through our award-winning film: Million Calorie March: The Movie. It chronicles his eventful, humorous, and inspiring walk up the East Coast, and is now available for digital download here. I encourage you to take a look—you’ll see me in the film, and my son, Josh, is the pitcher against the McDonald’s Little League team!

MillionCalorieMarch

Gary, me, and our friend Howard Rankin (who was featured in the film as a wellness expert) at the 2008 Freddie Awards, where Million Calorie March: The Movie won an award in the area of Diet and Nutrition. This was a huge honor—the Freddies are the medical community’s Oscars!

I’d like to end this blog post with Gary’s own words as he reflects on the journey of living his purpose:

“But the lesson here…and this has nothing to do with health or weight loss…is that none of this happened the way we thought it would. None of it. There were more challenges, obstacles, money issues, and learning curves for this aggressive plan than we ever anticipated. Nothing was easy, and none of these opportunities exactly fell into our laps. We MADE them happen. In the end we learned to expect obstacles, deal with them, and just ‘keep on marching.’ …There’s a lesson there about life in general, don’t you think? Expect obstacles. If it’s worth it, you’ll get around them.”

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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“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!

 

Put Fear in Its Place

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Susan Jeffers, who was a pioneer in the self-help movement. Her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was first published in 1987, and has since become a classic. Over the past few days I’ve found myself thinking a lot about fear, and how it has played a role in my own life.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Fear is an incredibly important survival mechanism. Fear is often what saves us from harming ourselves and helps us to keep our loved ones safe. However, fear becomes a problem when you allow it to take over your life. Being overly fearful of something (or being fearful of nearly everything) can be indicative of a bigger issue, and is something that needs to be addressed.

As someone who suffered from depression and anxiety, I spent a large part of my life consumed by fear in various forms. I was afraid of being away from home as a child. (I drank paint at summer camp, remember?!) I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of not being liked.

As I look back, I realize now that I created most of those fears myself, and I can see that they had a crippling effect on my life. In hindsight, I’m also struck by the fact that I wasn’t all that afraid of any of the “big things” like death or disease or tragedy. Instead, the majority of my fears were self-created, and that, I think, is the problem that most of us are facing today.

I’ve said it a million times, but it bears repeating—we are our own worst critics. We focus on our mistakes rather than relishing in our accomplishments. We cut ourselves down and beat ourselves up. And when you feel small and weak, it’s much easier for fear to creep in and take over.

So how can you make sure that your fears aren’t holding you back from the life you are supposed to be living? Try a few of these tips to keep your fear in check.

Build yourself up. The most important thing for you to do is to make sure you aren’t your own worst enemy when it comes to living a life of fear. If you aren’t actively building yourself up and focusing on your positive attributes, then you won’t be confident and strong in the face of your fears. Start TODAY by making a list of the things you are good at. Also, try to stop yourself from focusing on the one thing that went wrong. Instead, allow yourself to feel great about the many things you did right, and about the wonderful person you are.

Put it in writing. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. So sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this fear come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Think about possible solutions for each fear. Are you in a position to neutralize or lessen any of them? You’ll probably find that putting your fears in writing can make many of them seem less overwhelming and more manageable. (Plus, many people find that there’s something very therapeutic about putting pen to paper in general!)

Think about the worst-case scenario. For most of us, the fears that are the most consuming are the ones that are based in the unknown. When a situation has an unknown outcome, fear of what might happen can stop us from moving forward. But in many of these “what if” scenarios, our fears are mostly unfounded, and there is a good chance that the outcome will actually be good.

For example, you might be afraid to change careers, or to ask your boss for a raise, because you don’t know what the outcome may be. Allowing yourself to think through all the possible scenarios can help you to alleviate the “unknown” part of your fear. Ask yourself, What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Then think through what the ramifications of that worst-case scenario would be. Mentally preparing in this way (instead of focusing in on the “what if”) will alleviate a lot of your fear and enable you to move forward.

Create an action plan. You can tackle and conquer many of your fears by thinking about them on a real-world level. Once you have identified the worst-case scenario for each one (as described above), ask yourself how you might feasibly handle each situation. Often, developing an action plan to deal with potential negative consequences will help you to feel more empowered and confident. Write out what you would do in each case, but also think through what steps you might be able to take now to prevent the worst-case scenarios from happening.

Talk to someone. The longer you internalize your fears, the more they will grow, fester, and drag you down. Whether it’s your spouse, a trusted friend, or even a qualified professional (like a therapist), talking to someone about your fears can be an important step in moving forward. Not only will it be a relief to have your fear off your chest and out in the open, having a sounding board to talk through your fears can also give you ideas as to how you might work through them. That outside perspective can give you invaluable advice, comfort, and support.

Don’t let fear keep you from living the life you were intended to live. The world is full of excitement and opportunity, and it can be yours for the taking if you’ll allow yourself to go for it. Let the legacy you’ll leave behind motivate you to move forward today.

 

 

Portrait of a Great Coach

Everyone who knows me personally is aware that I am a huge sports fan. I love to support all of my local Boston professional teams. But without a doubt, my favorite sports events of all are those in which my son, Josh, is a player. (This may be a father’s pride talking, but he is a whiz on the basketball court!)

I know I’m not the only parent who wants his or her child to succeed athletically. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as fall sports start up, about what a huge difference coaches can make in young people’s lives—for good or ill. While my own son has always been fortunate enough to work with supportive, uplifting coaches, sadly that’s not the case for all young players. In fact, it is amazing to me how often I am asked by “struggling” parents how they should handle their son’s or daughter’s upsetting coach.

With that in mind, I think it’s very important for parents to first understand that most coaches are doing their best, are not paid, and are giving of their time and energy very unselfishly. But you should also protect your kids by staying aware of how coaches interact with your children and what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable. While I don’t advocate becoming a so-called “helicopter parent,” I do think that as a parent you should always be vigilant when your child’s well-being is at stake. Don’t hesitate to step in if you feel that a coach’s attitude or actions are harmful to your child. If possible, discuss the situation with your child before approaching the coach so that your child doesn’t feel blindsided or betrayed by your involvement. And yes, the older your child is—especially if he or she is in high school—you might want to think twice about taking on a coach unless actual harm is being inflicted. Ultimately, though, always remember that no sport or tournament or trophy is worth sacrificing your child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.

So, as this athletic season gets underway, take some time to think about how your child’s coach interacts with athletes. Here are some things to consider when evaluating a coach, as well as some qualities I think great coaches possess:

*Realize that harsh coaching methods do cause damage. There’s no question that harsh coaching methods, such as calling players out, getting in their faces, and “motivating” them through fear, do more harm than good. In the short term, these tactics cause anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Over time, a bullied athlete’s weakened confidence and sense of self-worth can eradicate motivation and love for the game. And worst of all, it can transfer to other areas of the young person’s life, making him or her less confident socially and academically. After all, it’s a short step from believing I’m not good enough on the field to I don’t have what it takes to succeed at all.

*Think about what a coach’s job really is. Your child does not play on a professional team. His coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide young people who are in the midst of their mental, emotional, and physical development. Ideally, what a coach teaches during practice will also help kids develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in many other areas for the rest of their lives. When you look at it that way, coaching is as much about growing children through positive motivation and attitude as it is about imparting the mechanics of swinging a bat or kicking a ball. So in addition to making sure that your child is learning the rules of the game, make sure he also feels special, valued, and encouraged.

*Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, make sure that your child’s coach does not use her position primarily to brag about her successful seasons and coaching record. Also, to some extent, a coach’s goals should match the level of athletics in which your child is engaged. For instance, if he is doing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, his coach’s main motivation should definitely be centered around having fun and helping kids. But if your son is a high school baseball player and his team has a legitimate chance to go all the way to the state championship, it’s okay for the coach to put more of an emphasis on winning vs. losing…as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.

*Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups? If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional intelligence is a quality that enables you to be empathetic, an effective communicator, to navigate conflict, etc. If you’re emotionally intelligent, you’re better able to manage your own emotions, pick up on what others are feeling, and react constructively to setbacks—all of which are qualities that coaches should strive to have. Remember, everyone, but especially the young, can be made or broken by others’ words. A coach has the responsibility to make sure that he or she is setting kids up for present and future success, not filling them with self-doubt and hurting their self-esteem. So if you’re watching a practice or cheering at a game, try to gauge what the coach’s emotional intelligence quotient might be, based on his behavior. If you come to believe that it is really hurting the players, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.

*Does the coach score points through caring? People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And in sports, it’s crucial that coaches care about athletes as people, not just as players. Watch to see if your child’s coach gets to know her on an individual basis and incorporates that knowledge into their regular interactions. It’s always a good sign if, for instance, a coach keeps tabs on your daughter’s academic achievements and compliments her for doing well on a test, or asks her, “I know your family was going to go hiking over the weekend. Did you enjoy it?” Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know of because people, kids included, will do anything to keep getting those things. And when players know that they mean more to their coaches than the numbers on their jerseys, they’ll naturally have a greater desire to excel.

*Does the coach strike out through criticism? Many famous coaches in sports history are known for berating players and shaming them in front of the team. Unfortunately, these approaches tend to only alienate players and make coaches an object of fear rather than respect. In my opinion, a good coach should criticize only in private, not in public, by pulling a player aside for a one-on-one discussion rather than yelling at him in front of the whole team. Also, a good coach should make sure the player knows he cares about more than just the mistake. Ideally, he’ll try to accompany each criticism with a few compliments. Remember, we all tend to be our own worst critics—even kids. Many young athletes will tend to focus on what they’ve done wrong, not the many things they’ve done well. The ratio of compliments to criticism they receive from their coaches can shape their self-perception for a long time to come.

*Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars? On the sports field, compliments act as confidence—and thus performance—boosters, and they also improve motivation, team spirit, determination, and more. With that in mind, a good coach will always start each practice with the intention of catching as many players as possible doing well, then praise them in public and in private whenever the opportunity arises. If she wants to go the extra mile, a great coach might even send out a team newsletter that includes short write-ups of players who improve, who are team players, who give their all in practice, etc. Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good.

*Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her paraphernalia? With few exceptions, players will develop their attitudes, outlooks, and expectations based on what they see from their leaders. Coaches should be proactive about getting their teams in a winning mindset by saying things like, “We’re going to have a great practice today,” or, “I know everyone will do their best during the game,” etc. Here’s a great saying I’ve found to be true: People generally perform at the level that is expected of them. So without putting negative pressure on the athletes, your child’s coach should let them know that she believes in their ability to accomplish great things. I can’t help but think of Lou Holtz, the legendary college football coach whose philosophy of positive thinking was instrumental in inspiring his teams to achieve many amazing successes, often against the odds.

In conclusion, I hope everyone has fun and stays positive during this fall sports season. I know I’m looking forward to cheering for all of my son’s teams!

 

How Parents Can Dial Down the Pressure This School Year

In my last post, I talked about how our competitive, achievement-oriented culture is causing many young people to be overstressed, overscheduled, and burned out. This week, I want to discuss several ways in which parents can help make sure that the heat on the pressure cooker isn’t turned up damagingly high.

*First, realize you are doing damage. Even though it’s not what we parents intend, our high expectations put the most pressure of all on our children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat herself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with her performance. Teens might act like they couldn’t care less about their parents, but the truth is that they do want to please us. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home. So if, for instance, your daughter comes home with four As and one B, don’t ask, “What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?” Instead, focus on how great the As are. You’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking.

*Accept that not all kids are the same. Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children. Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our world needs variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are.

*Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important. For example, come to terms with the fact that your teen may never quite get up on time or make her bed before school. And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Instead of getting caught up in making sure that every box is checked all of the time, try to keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be much less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage each and every task. So instead of fixating on little things that weren’t completed perfectly, focus on your children’s successes!

*Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. Specifically, try to direct his attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings. The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. I think that everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love. The bottom line is we’re all human—and thus fallible. So instead of demanding perfection from ourselves in every situation, we need to learn to cut ourselves a lot more slack.

*Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected. Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy. In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.

*Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. A tutor is certainly a good idea if you can find one who is affordable and qualified. You might also ask your child’s teacher if she can spend a little extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help. Getting your child the help she needs can make a world of difference in her performance and boost her confidence. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.

*Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys. As I have written in previous blogs, exercise is the single most important thing your child, you, or anyone else can do to become less stressed and happier right now. It’s a fantastic energizer, and it actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. You might even consider making physical activity a family event! Go for a hike in the mountains, for a swim at the YMCA, or just go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll all benefit from the quality time together as well.

Whenever I’m faced with the difficult parental task of setting guidelines and expectations, a question I now ask myself is, What kind of future am I encouraging my son, Josh, to build for himself? It’s helpful for me to remember that even if my son does succeed at the highest level, go to a top college, earn all As, and make millions of dollars, he might not be happy. Instead, he might be overwhelmed by stress and experience a breakdown, as I did. That’s certainly not a future I want for Josh, and I’m sure you feel the same way about your children.

So throughout this school year and into the future, always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success. Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.

Back to School; Back to Stress

It’s that time of year again: Back-to-school time (even though your kids may be in denial!). And as school systems across the country open their doors for The First Day, concerned parents are already in the throes of planning ahead for their children’s success.

I need to start looking into hiring an algebra tutor for my son, because last year’s math grade didn’t cut it. Is it too early to sign my daughter up for SAT-prep classes? Will the soccer team’s practice schedule interfere with piano lessons? Should I try to meet with my children’s teachers before school starts? And so it goes.

Yes, of course any loving parent wants the best for his or her kids. The reason why we’re asking so much from our kids and from ourselves is that we want them to stand out, to succeed, and to achieve as much as they can. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that subjecting children to relentless academic and extracurricular pressure may be doing more harm than good. We may not only be pushing our children to excel—in many cases, we’re pushing them over the edge too.

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at this topic right now, as our kids are at the beginning of a new school year. In this week’s post I want to examine “the childhood pressure cooker” a bit more closely, and next week, I’ll share some strategies to help you turn down the heat in your own home.

Kids—especially teens—are under a lot of pressure. Consider this: Hours spent on homework and extracurricular activities are on the rise among all age groups. Increasingly, every block of time is scheduled and structured. And for many high schoolers especially, every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other “necessary” activities ranging from sports to service work—to the exclusion of free time and fun. These teens—and their parents—are grappling with a very real fear that they won’t have what it takes to be at the top of the class, to get into a “good school,” and ultimately, to be “successful in the real world.”

Often, that pressure is too much for them to handle. Across America, teens are burning out and making self-destructive decisions. There’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure, even if only for one night. Most worrying, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. Sixty percent say they’ve thought about it, and 9 percent of high schoolers admit they’ve attempted it at least once.

Is this extreme pressure cooker environment worth it? Absolutely not! Even if all of the pushing and over-scheduling and stress get your child into a top college, there is still no guarantee that he or she will be on the fast track to professional success. And is the payoff really worth the sacrifice, which some kids later describe in terms of “being deprived of a childhood”? If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness.

The change needs to start at home. In my opinion, it’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one. Yes, they can share the results of their studies and offer informed advice. But ultimately, it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes to help our kids grow up into healthy, well-adjusted, and fulfilled young men and women. We as parents must be the ones to make sure that the push for success isn’t eclipsing happiness. We must be the ones who teach our children that being human means not being perfect at everything, all the time.

As I said earlier, in my next post I will offer some suggestions to help you make sure that living in this high-pressure achievement culture doesn’t have lasting negative effects on your children. Until then, think about where your family’s priorities lie, what your kids’ school-life balance looks like, and what might need to change.

It’s Time for Summer Camp…and Separation Anxiety

For generations, sending kids to summer camp has been an American tradition. For a lot of youngsters, camp is what their parents hope it will be: namely, a blast! But for other children, camp is something to be unsure of…or downright terrified by.

The fact is, many children experience some degree of separation anxiety when they are away from their home and parents. Many eventually learn to deal with the absence of Mom and Dad without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make. Trust me, I know from firsthand experience!

I dealt with separation anxiety throughout my childhood, and one instance in particular was nearly disastrous. When I was ten, my parents sent me to a sleepaway sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions! The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick.

Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home…so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.

While my story may seem “extreme,” my point is that to kids, anxiety and apprehension are real. Homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. So if your child is anxious about a separation, please take his or her concerns seriously. Here are a few facts and pieces of advice that you might find helpful if camp is in your child’s summer plans:

*First, gauge your child’s level of anxiety before making summer plans. According to my friend Dr. Howard J. Rankin (a licensed clinical psychologist), about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. It goes beyond “normal” homesickness and can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s development. Specifically, kids whose separation anxiety is severe may:

  • Worry that something might happen to you or other loved ones while you are separated
  • Suffer from nightmares
  • Manifest physical symptoms, such as a stomachache or a panic attack
  • Cling to you, especially in an “age-inappropriate” way
  • Refuse to go to a particular destination, such as school…or camp

If you suspect that your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please seek the advice of a medical professional! As my story proves, sending a child who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder away may end up doing more harm than good.

Now, what about children who are nervous or apprehensive about leaving for camp, but who are not severely anxious? Here are a few things you can do to alleviate their worries and ease the transition:

*Talk it over with your child. Before signing up for any camp or away-from-home activity, talk to your child about it. Ask him how he’s feeling and what he thinks about these plans. Above all, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings as legitimate. Even if you don’t believe there’s any real reason for him to be upset, remember that his feelings and fears are very real in his own mind. It’s a good idea to let your child have some say in decision making—if he flat-out doesn’t want to go to camp, don’t force him! I repeat, do not force him!! You might also consider giving him a choice—day camp as opposed to sleepaway, for example.

*Stay calm and positive. If your prospective camper voices worries, acknowledge them, but don’t feed into them by adding your own apprehensions to the pile. (And certainly don’t bring up worrisome what-ifs yourself—for example, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it a whole week without you here, Junior!”) Instead, focus on camp’s positive aspects. Remind your child of how much fun she’ll have and what she’ll learn. And don’t make a big deal out of the drop-off—if you get emotional, your child is more likely to lose control too. Lastly, if you do receive an upset phone call, email, or letter, don’t make a fuss that your child can feed off of. Instead, try to talk to a counselor or camp administrator about your child’s homesickness before making a decision regarding how to proceed.

*Feed your child’s interests. Sometimes homesickness can be sparked by boredom and unhappiness—so don’t assume that just because you enjoyed science camp in your youth, for example, your child will too. It’s always a good idea to make sure that any camp you’re considering for your child is a good fit for him. After all, if he’s happy and engaged, his attention is more likely to be focused on what’s right in front of him, and not on what he’s missing.

*Let your child take “home” with her. Your child may be traveling miles away, but there’s no reason why she needs to leave home behind altogether. Send familiar objects with her, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a small picture of you, a handwritten note, and/or phone numbers. She’ll feel less cut off from everything that’s familiar and will therefore be less likely to experience severe homesickness. It’s even better if she can go to camp with a friend from home.

Ultimately, I believe that there are very few children who won’t at least feel a twinge of homesickness when overnight camp—or any significant separation—rolls around. But if you approach the situation positively and rationally and encourage your child to do the same, you’ll both be better prepared for the separation—and you will be better equipped to determine if your child’s anxiety levels aren’t normal or healthy.