Archive for Empathy – Page 2

How to Survive Teen Drama with Grace

Teenagers.  I am living proof it is possible to actually enjoy those annoying, hormonal, child/adult hybrids who have taken your phone, tv., computer and fridge hostage.

One of my sons, in his early teens, had just announced he could not stand living under our roof another minute,

“I’m out of here!,” he bellowed, “and don’t expect me to come back!”

The door slammed and he tore off on his ten-speed bike. Of course, my father was visiting and witnessed this dramatic episode. After a few minutes, Dad turned to my husband Michael and wondered, “Aren’t you going to go after him?”

Michael calmly kept reading, then looked up and explained, “Oh, I’m not worried. The only place near enough to bike to is one of his buddy’s and they don’t feed kids over there. He’ll be back when he is hungry enough.”

melanie photoSure enough, hunger brought my son home late that night. We did not need to pronounce any ultimatums because the recognition he still needed to live at home and attempt to get along with our rules and his family was humbling enough. No need to rub his face in the facts.

Teenagers are often humiliated by their mistakes in judgment so they relish the opportunity to catch us in the wrong.  For example, Michael’s usual response to swearing, disrespect or a poor attitude was, “Leave that sort of stuff at school!”

One evening at the dinner table on a Sunday, Michael yelled in anger at the dog.

David had just filled his plate and was coming back to the table. He leaned over, looked at his dad and with a twinkle in his eye and a huge grin on his face said, “Leave that sort of stuff at church, eh Dad!”

Michael snapped out of his bad mood and had to smile. The kid was right. David’s humour diffused the situation and Michael was the one who had to apologize this time.

Teenagers have a deep inner compulsion to rile their parents and flaunt rules in a blind attempt to figure out who they are in and of themselves. If I remember this fact, I don’t overreact to obnoxious behaviour. I like to compare teenagers to two-year-olds because the very same dynamic is unfolding, only this time it is a stressful transition from childhood to adulthood which requires many years to complete. I read somewhere that young adults finally get an adult brain when they’re 25! In our family, we actually celebrate this birthday and welcome our offspring into full adulthood.

Sometimes teenagers, boys especially, like to prove their new-found strength. David loved to come behind me in the kitchen and with a huge grin on his face pick me up and swing me around or even turn me upside down!

“Oh well,” I’d think to myself, “This too will pass, this too will pass.”

Helping Kids Cope Better with Stress through Strength-Based Parenting

Here’s a good one.

Intentional Catholic parents may be interested in a recent study (published in Psychology) about the benefits of “strength-based parenting”:

strong child“Children are more likely to use their strengths to effectively cope with minor stress in their life if they have parents who adopt a strength-based approach to parenting.  Strength-based parenting is an approach where parents deliberately identify and cultivate positive states, processes and qualities in their children. . . This style of parenting adds a ‘positive filter’ to the way a child reacts to stress. It also limits the likelihood of children using avoidance or aggressive coping responses.” 

What is meant by a positive filter? I believe it’s a parent’s loving verbal intervention when a child is in the early stages of distress or confronted with a demand on their time, abilities, or emotions — a demand that stretches them in some way.  If the child is upset or worried, we can coach our child in responding in a healthy way to their concern, in a manner that draws on their strengths.

This approach contrasts with a parent’s inclination to “fix” their child as if he’s broken or defective, and sending that message to our child even if we don’t intend to do so.

If you’re interested in identifying your child’s strengths more clearly, perhaps you’d enjoy this book by Jenifer Fox: Your Child’s Strengths.  I don’t usually recommend books that I have not read myself, but this seems to be a useful and engaging book about how to think about our children’s strengths.

Image courtesy of photostock at

When Words Hurt: Why Parents Should Avoid Labeling Their Kids

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  So NOT true, right?  I’m sure we can all recall the mean names applied to us when we were kids and they hurt a lot.  Most parents know they should not call their child names and they avoid it, but many of us label our children without realizing it.  What’s labeling and how does it harm children?  I talked about this topic yesterday with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life.

Harsh Labeling Affects Our Child’s Self-Esteem

stupid labelA child’s self-perception is shaped by her early interactions in close relationships.  If parents use harsh or negative labels to describe their child (“lazy,” “mean,” “airhead”), the child’s vision of herself may be affected.  Over time, she may come to believe that those labels define who she is. Kids have to deal with enough name calling from their peers, so parents shouldn’t add to their woes.

Even the most loving parent can find herself using a negative label in the heat of the moment.  If this happens, apologies and amends are absolutely necessary:  we may know we didn’t really mean anything by our words, but our child’s doesn’t know. Our child’s self-esteem is impacted by what she believes we think about her, not by what we actually believe.  We should remind our child of the many times she has acted exactly opposite the label we used to describe her.  “Obviously you are not lazy.  Yesterday you put away all those crayons for your little sister without being asked.  You showed great maturity and industry!”

I think it’s important to remember that using labels to describe our child to other adults — family members, teachers, other parents — can influence that adult’s expectations about our child.  If we tell a teacher that our child is lazy or sloppy at home, the teacher will expect to see it in the classroom. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Labeling Leads to Division and Distance

When parents use labels  with older children, the child will naturally tend to shut down, put up a wall, or even call the parent a name back.  At this point, healthy communication is over.  One critical mistake parents make when dealing with their child’s poor choices is to focus on their child’s personhood rather than the problem behavior. “Mr. Sourpuss is in the house.” “You are lazy.”  I find myself doing this with my kids when I’m frustrated and I’m dealing with them as a group.  “Why are you guys such slobs?”  At this point, our children are only thinking about the negative way we described them or when we’ll stop talking so they can get away from us!

It’s far more effective to focus on the problem behavior, our expectations about the behavior, and how our child can meet those expectations.  I try to understand why my children did what they did, too, even if it makes no sense to me.   So, if my children have made a mess, instead of calling them slobs, I can explain that they’ve taken out all the puzzles before putting away the Lego and the costumes.  I can explain that in general I expect one activity to be cleared away before a new activity is started.  I can help them meet that expectation by helping them focus on one part of the clean up at a time. “Put all the Lego in these two boxes first, then we’ll put away the costumes.”  This trains them in handling an overwhelming job by breaking it down into stages.  I can also try to see things from my child’s perspective: “If you want to do the puzzles in your costume that’s fine. That sounds like fun!”

Labeling Limits Our Children

Lisa pointed out during our segment that there’s a staircase of name calling with verbal abuse on the top steps and more innocuous labeling on the bottom steps.  I think I am often on the lower stairs of name calling without realizing it.  With one of my children in particular, I’ve noticed recently that I label her in ways that may limit her self-perception.  Her room is very messy – cluttered and full of things she can’t seem to part with — so I call her a clutter bug or a pack rat. But, when I think about it, this really isn’t true.  The truth is, I’ve seen this child organize her craft supplies and our shoe closet like a pro.  So really she can be organized. She just lacks motivation in keeping her room organized or perhaps she needs help in how to tackle the problem. As described above, instead of labeling her, I know it would be more helpful to talk about the problem and how we can solve it together.

I’m concerned that even the positive labels I use with this same child may be limiting.  She is very creative and artistic, and I see that her gifts in this area are a clue to God’s plan for her and I want to encourage her artistic talent.  But sometimes my vision of her is limited to the arts, and at these times I can find myself on the lower steps of the labeling staircase.  I’m constantly describing her as “my artist” or “the creative one.”  While it’s important to give our children positive feedback on their talents, I think the problem is with my perceptions — they seem too narrow and, well, not very creative!  If I only see my daughter as artistic and creative, I may not provide opportunities for her to explore other talents she has or to use her artistic gifts in other areas.  If my vision of her is so limited, then her vision of herself may become limited.  She may avoid the sciences or math because she doesn’t envision herself as a scientist or mathematician.  But, of course, the greatest scientists and mathematicians are very creative.

Lately I’ve been looking for opportunities to point out my daughter’s abilities in non-artistic areas.  I’ve even created these opportunities for her without letting her know about it. For example, I asked my husband to invite her to help him on a household repair. I want her to see herself as talented and capable in many areas.

If you’d like to listen to my segment on More2Life, here’s the audio.  I come in about 20 minutes into the show.  But the entire show is great. Dr. Popcak lets listeners in on signs that they are being verbally abused or perhaps abusing somebody else without realizing it.


Giving Your Baby a Language Boost

reading to babyGwen Dewar over at the Urban Child Institute has a terrific article on “6 Tips for Boosting Your Baby’s Language Skills.”  Read her whole article here.

Here’s a summary of  her tips with my own thoughts:

1.  Take a cue from your baby’s curiosity.

When babies reach for or gaze at objects they are interested in, we can view these as our cues to engage them in conversation.  We can name the objects or just talk to them about what they’re looking at.  When we’re playing with or reading to our child, we can pause and allow them to lead us in conversation in this way.  When their curiosity drives our time with them, they not only develop increased language skills, but she becomes more comfortable exploring the unfamiliar.

2.  Tune into your baby. 

Think about how you interact with adults, the way you affirm their presence in often subtle ways.  We respond to their questions, acknowledge their entry into the room, etc.  Dewar says, “Babies – even babies who can’t speak yet – look for the same message from us. They want to know that we will respond contingently to their signals, and when they perceive us doing it, their brains seem to flip a switch. Studies indicate that babies learn language faster when we talk with them, not at them.”  I think this is related to her first tip.  Being attuned to our child includes noticing the things she cares about, even when she’s a little baby.  This early attunement creates a strong foundation for great communication throughout the toddler and preschool years when our kids are gaining skills in communicating their needs, feelings, and interests.

3.  Be flexible and spontaneous.

Dewar says, “It’s easy to get bogged down with routines, but when it comes to family communication, we need to be ready to improvise. For instance, if your toddler interrupts your bedtime story because he wants to talk about the chair that Goldilocks smashed, go with it. Insisting that you stick to the narrative isn’t going to help your child build better verbal skills. On the contrary, it’s likely that kids learn more when the conversation veers off-text. Besides, forced bedtime reading is neither fun nor soothing. Your child might end up having more trouble falling asleep!”

This is a great tip! We grown-ups get fixated on doing things the right way, but following our child’s lead on occasion not only provides opportunities for communication, but allows our child to feel respected and affirmed.

4.  Supplement verbal messages with expressive emotions, gestures, and movements.

There’s a reason adults tend to act a little goofier when they are interacting with a baby!  Babies actually learn better when we couple our words with exaggerated gestures and a heightened tone of voice.  When we show our baby a stuffed monkey, we can name the object “monkey”, but we can also make funny monkey sounds and animate the stuffed object for our baby.  Dewar explains,  “When babies are learning to talk, they don’t just listen to our words. They also notice our tone of voice, and pay particular attention when we speak with exaggerated emotion: It helps them figure out our meaning.”

5.  Don’t worry about being perfect.

You don’t have to be a seasoned public speaker or possess perfect grammar to pass on strong language skills to your baby.  Dewar suggests that when parents stumble to find the right word, it actually engages the child even more — they pay even more attention to what we are saying.

6.  Shake things up.

Dewar encourages us to speak to our babies and young children like we would with anybody else.  She cautions that if we dumb down our conversations with our babies too much, they will have access to a more limited vocabulary.  It’s okay to simplify things when you are actually naming objects for your baby, but otherwise feel free to speak to them with words far more sophisticated than you imagine they can comprehend.  One great tip Dewar offers is to repeat back what our child says, but expand upon it with more words.  So if your child says, “FIRE TRUCK!,” you can talk about how loud it is or what it looks like.

I can’t help but notice that all these tips are easier to implement when we are using the parenting tools associated with attachment parenting — particularly babywearing, breastfeeding, and sleeping near your baby.  These tools help us keep our baby calm and close by, and they help us tune into our babies more easily.   Attached, responsive parents also enhance their child’s language development by giving her confidence that she will actually be heard.  I think a baby’s cries are really her first words.  When she is ignored or made to cry increasingly fretfully in order to get a response, then she’s not spending that time listening to and learning about other sounds in her world.


Effective Mothers

Last year, one of my daughters, who was finishing up an Honours Degree in Religion and applying to Teacher’s College, asked me what I thought were the attributes of an effective teacher for her application. When I considered effective teachers, I immediately thought about effective mothers.

One of the best ways to learn how to mother and teach is to remember both the good and poor examples from our own days as children. I remember cringing in fear in the presence of one angry, yelling mum who always seemed at her wits end with the antics of neighbourhood “brats.” However, the mum who actually liked her children’s playmates and listened to them was the mum who did not have problems with the neighbourhood kids. Mothers must remember what it is like to be small.  A mother is most effective when she lives as a child of God herself, because kids learn not by angry, condescending lectures, but by watching mums live and work, love, forgive and ask for forgiveness. Do you want teachable kids? You yourself must be humble and teachable.

GettyImages_450746627The most important trait for an effective mother is patience, because children can be exasperating, annoying and irritating.  Countless experiences with my children reinforced this basic fact: the best way to handle poor behaviour is by modeling good, patient behaviour myself because actions and emotions do speak even louder than the correct words. When I remained calm and patient, the kids settled right down.

Equally crucial is the quality of compassion. Kids intuitively know if an adult likes them, understands them and empathizes with them. Once again, if an adult is cold and cannot relate to a child emotionally, a child will act up in their presence. In my experience,  mothers who were the most compassionate, who could truly empathize, were the most respected. Kids want to please adults who they like and respect. It is the compassionate parent who can maintain good behaviour because they treat their children with mutual respect and compassion.

A good mother must be innovative and adaptable because kids need variety. Children do not learn well when they are bored and one style of mothering does not fit every child.

Most importantly, an effective mother is passionate about teaching and loving her kids. It is passion, an inner drive, that is not dependant on seeing results right away. It is passion from the Holy Spirit that prevents discouragement or burnout because it is an inner fire that motivates and energizes mums. We must learn to connect spirit to spirit, heart to heart with little people in and through God if we want to teach and form them into children of God.

Image credit: Getty Images

When “Me Time” Becomes “You and Me Time”

Last week, I was given a rare opportunity to drive alone. Yes, alone. I could hardly wait. I only had to pick up dinner and stop by the post office, but it would be a half hour to treasure.

But as I opened the car door, I heard the front door to the house open, too. “Mommy, where are you going?” my five year old asked.

“Just to pick up dinner,” I called back.

“Oh, is it quick?”

“Yes,” I reassured him, assuming he just wanted to make certain I wouldn’t be gone long.

“Oh, good,” he answered. “Can I come, too, then?”

Mother and Child, Picasso (1922)

Mother and Child, Picasso (1922)

Oops. Question misunderstood. So, he’d been hoping to come, and was merely ensuring I wouldn’t be dragging him on an endless run of errands. I hesitated. This was the only “me time” I’d had in the past week. My quiet-in-the-car, no-kids, “me time”. As with most moms, I sorely needed it. I only have two children, but one of those is a ten-month old who’s still pretty much glued to my body. Though I love her immensely, I looked forward to just a few stolen moments alone. Just a little quiet time to recharge. After all, during His ministry, even Jesus sought a little time apart from the crowds (Mt 14:13).

But, how could I look at my son and tell him no, that I didn’t want him to come along? He looked so hopeful on the front step, cradling his shoes in his little hands. And, though seeking a little alone time, wasn’t Jesus still interrupted in order to care for others? And didn’t He oblige? (Mt 14:14)

“Sure,” I answered, “Go tell Daddy you’re coming with me.”

“Goody!” he yelled gleefully.

I was happy for him, but what had I just done? Why can’t I ever just allow myself some time alone? As a stay-at-home mom, I parent 24-7. With a husband who’s at work from before the sun rises until about an hour before the kids’ bedtime, I parent alone for much of the day. I should have suffered no guilt for giving myself a half hour of silence.

Instead, here I was, no longer alone but with a little boy in tow. And that little boy was anything but quiet. He was in a questioning mood. A talking mood. And without his little sister babbling, squealing or crying away in the seat next to him, I understood why he was so giddy and chatty.

Because, for him, this wasn’t “me time”, it was “you and me time”. For him, it was a quiet car ride where the only noise was of a conversation between himself and the mom who is always so busy with another, needier child. For him, these were moments when he had no one to be second to, no one to talk over, no one to compete with for Mom’s attention.

And he soaked up these moments. He chatted about things we’d never talked about before. Nothing substantial, just little talks about why it’s good to get a low score in golf (a question that arose as we passed a golf course), or what type of swing set Daddy should build in the backyard (a thought that occurred as we passed a yard with a really great swing set), or musings on what exactly God does in heaven all day (prompted by my remark on the beauty of the sun rays streaming through the clouds).

Seconds into the drive, I was glad I wasn’t alone. Because though I hadn’t realized it, I needed this time, too. I needed to reconnect with my son who’s always such a great helper with his baby sister, but who doesn’t get much time alone with me anymore. I needed to return, even for a few moments, to the days when it was just the two of us for much of the day. Because he’s getting older and slipping a little further away from me every day, and these uninterrupted minutes together are growing rarer.

Because motherhood, I’ve learned this past year, is such a delicate balancing act. We juggle everything from time with our husband, to time with each child, to time tending to friends and relatives. We balance schedules and checkbooks and appointments and meals. And in this daily juggling act, we risk making our loved ones feel less set apart as someone truly special to us and more like an item to be taken care of on our checklist.

Or, worse, a hindrance to our “me time”.

My son and I needed our simple half hour together. Though it was nothing exciting, we had fun buying stamps, mailing letters, and waiting for our order to come up at the pizza place. In these moments, we were blessed with something we both desperately needed. Not “me time”. It was something better. It was “you and me” time.

Which Is More Important: Quantity or Quality Time with Kids? BOTH are equally important

boy and motherLast week the media happily seized on a study released in the Journal of Marriage and Family in which three sociologists presented their findings of a long-term study that examined the affect of mother’s time spent with children on the emotional and educational outcomes of the children.  They found no relation between how much time mothers (study mostly focused on mothers) spend with their kids (aged 3 to 11) and the child’s well-being, until high school.  In high school, teenagers benefit from increased time spent with both mother and father.

Here are some problems with this study:

1. The study only looked at time spent with children on two days, then looked at how well the kids were doing years later.

I would be very concerned if somebody tried to draw conclusions (years from now) about my family based on how much time we spent together over the next few days, but that is exactly what this study does:  it infers something meaningful from something meaningless.  There are so many variables not considered by this methodology that a finding of no connection between time spent and child outcomes is, well, not terribly interesting.  Dr. Justin Wolfe, professor of economics and social policy, put it like this:  “The study measured only the amount of time that parents spent with their children on two specific days, and a brief snapshot like this is an unreliable measure of how much time a parent might typically spend with children. This measure contains a little signal and a lot of noise, which probably explains why the study failed to find a reliable correlation with children’s outcomes.”  You can read his criticism of the study here.

2. The study did not examine the quality of the emotional relationship between the children and the parents, either before or during the study.

The authors admit that they did not evaluate the “tone” of the relationship between the mother and her children when they were spending time together. “[N]either did we assess the quality of tone of mothers’ interactions with children, such as warmth, sensitivity, or focus.” But this tone is critical to child outcomes.

In particular, the authors failed to assess the quality of a child’s attachment to the mother at age 3 (the age the authors begin their measurements) and younger (which is odd because of some of the children in their original sample were younger than 3, so this marker could have been observed).  Attachment scientists have identified in copious studies the critical importance of a child’s secure attachment to her parents. A child’s strong attachment to Mommy initially and other significant caregivers later is among the most important predictors of that child’s positive psychological outcome later in life.

Compared to insecurely attached children, children with a secure attachment tend to mature with the following patterns:

  • They are more resilient in the face of adversity.
  • They possess a more positive attitude about the future.
  • They possess greater self-esteem.
  • They take greater initiative in mastering difficult tasks.
  • In middle childhood, they are warm and open, and they are capable of forming close friendships.
  • As they mature, they tend to form friendships with people who also possess qualities of secure attachment.

Securely-attached children do better in childhood and adulthood than insecurely attached children, and secure attachment requires BOTH quality time and quantity time.  Here’s why: Secure attachment occurs when a child’s parents and caregivers respond to her needs and fears with warmth and respect, when the child receives generous amounts of affection – and when all of this happens consistently and reliably. This requires high-quality quantity time.   How much actual time a child needs to thrive varies depending on 1) her age, 2) her temperament, and 3) the day or hour!  Kids needs change and transform over time, but responsive, empathic parenting is worth it in the long run.

I am not suggesting that our children need us 24 hours a day or that other trusted caregivers are not an important part of the unfolding of childhood.  I am saying that mothers and fathers bring unique gifts to parenting, and when either mom or dad are not around enough, it matters.  I am saying that nobody loves our children like we do, and that without enough time together we can’t develop that quiet sense of security and connection that comes from building memories together.

3. The study did not evaluate quality time at all.

The authors state clearly in the study state they did not look at (measure or evaluate) quality time at all,   “[W]e did not focus on quality time — the amount of time in particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them.”  Yet the media attempts to assuage parental guilt by asserting that quality time is more important than quantity.  My fear is that parents will somehow think it’s okay to stay at work for 12 hours, then tell themselves because of this study that how much time they spend with their children doesn’t matter as long as they get in a little quality time just before bedtime or on the weekends.  Kids can’t be scheduled like an oil change.

I have many more criticisms that I won’t hammer out here.  In brief, I am not a statistician or a scientist, but I know something about history and about cultural anthropology.  The authors of this study lack any nuanced understanding of the history of childrearing and they mistake scientific studies for culture.  The predominant belief in American culture about childrearing is NOT that children require ample time for full flourishing — science proves that, but our culture is a very weak bonding culture.  We can observe a serious division within the American landscape between what science tells us that children need to thrive and what our culture tells us that we as parents need to do to attain “success” — the two are often at odds.

When in doubt, follow Mother Teresa’s advice: “What can you do to promote world peace?  Go home and love your families.”

Nursing a Two-Year-Old: It’s Normal for Us

I could see the idea forming in her mind by the way she looked at me. She fidgeted. She fussed. She wriggled her entire 31 pounds of two-year-old chub around in my lap until she had assumed the familiar position, head in the crook of my arm and eyes looking up at me longingly. Not ready to give in quite yet, I attempted to distract her. Cheese crackers–refused with disdain. Water bottle–given “the hand”. Fuzzy bunny book–an audible “Uh-uh!” and a decisive head shake. I had to act fast, before the situation (and her vocalizing) escalated. I had choices, and it was time to choose. So right there in the pew, somewhere between the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel, I lifted my shirt.

I’ve implemented the concept of child-led weaning with every one of my five children. This means that I follow their lead in the weaning process. I allow them to help me determine when we are both ready to stop nursing. I’ve only had one particularly independent child self-wean before the age of two (he’s still a big-time Daddy’s boy), and my longest nurser required some gentle convincing from his weary mommy at the age of four.

madonna nursingI’ve nursed through four healthy pregnancies. My children’s identities have been nurtured by the intimacy and security of an extended nursing relationship. And I’ve become quite adept at nursing discreetly in public. So I never minded when people caught me feeding my baby in a grocery store or restaurant. Nursing an infant in public never seems too surprising to the average observer. I’ve often received looks of affirmation and smiles of awe as I sat feeding my adorably dependent infant.

But those looks change when I suddenly find myself nursing a two-year-old. Fortunately, I haven’t been faced with very much blatant animosity toward my parenting choices, but I do see looks of surprise, doubt, and questioning. Nursing no longer feels like the “normal” thing to be doing.

But it’s normal for me and my child. This is where she finds comfort, stress relief, and nourishment. This is what makes her body strong and her mind sharp. This is a huge yes that I can still give her in a world filled with so many no’s.

The frequency of nursing does lessen as a child grows in size and independence. Most of the time, I am able to nurse my older baby in the privacy of our own home. But there are still times when that same child poses the question and insists on an answer, regardless of where we are.

And there’s really only one answer I can give when she takes my hand and pulls me toward a chair saying “Mama, Mama.” There’s only one answer I can give when a scraped knee or complete exhaustion leaves her in a puddle of inconsolable tears. And there’s only one answer I can give when my child needs me under the shadow of the crucifix during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That answer is myself, freely and completely, until we are both ready to move forward into a new phase of independence.

Raising Children Who Love (or Don’t Hate) Confession

My guest essay on Dr. Greg Popcak’s blog Faith on the Couch:

I’ve heard that some people love going to Confession.  I personally don’t know any of them.  Maybe it’s an urban legend.  I think avoiding the confessional is our human default,

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi

because we are uncomfortable exposing our weakness to others.  The Church wants us to know that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a gift.  It’s more an opportunity than a duty.

Confession brings our human failings to the Light where we can find healing, courage, and support.  The devil hates that!  He thrives in the dark, like a fungus.  He wants us to keep our sins and moral struggles to ourselves, because full freedom from them requires community – it requires family, friends, and counselors, especially our priest when he acts as Christ in the confessional.  In particular, as embodied creatures we need the physical experience of the confessional:  when we feel and hear ourselves speaking aloud the truth of our failings, when the priest with his body and his voice acts as Christ extending his mercy to us, we can understand better the power of repentance and the reality of God’s forgiveness.

How can we raise children who understand this deeper truth about Confession, who welcome it as an opportunity?  Here are a few lifestyle tips that may help.  These aren’t lessons our children learn from a book, but rather from the way we relate to them:

Read the rest on Dr. Greg’s website!  Leave a comment, too!

Babies Are People, Too

Newborns are complex little people who see, hear, touch, communicate, receive information and, above all, remember.

Many adults are tempted to treat babies like cute little things. They forget to communicate with them as people. They forget that those cute little bodies house hearts and souls. I discovered early in my mothering career that it is important to treat infants with respect by listening to infantthe sounds they make and watching and interpreting their body language.

Most people have noticed that loud, sharp, or deep voices cause a newborn to jump, but a newborn will also respond to a voice he remembers hearing in the womb. It was amazing to watch my first granddaughter turn towards her mom’s and dad’s voices when she was only hours old.  When her parents held her, she calmed down right away because she had been constantly reassured of their love and devotion while she was still in the womb.  Out in the world, she knew she was safe and protected in the arms that were connected to the familiar voices.

Conversely, all babies are sensitive to the approach of a stranger.

I was once holding my six-month-old daughter, Mary, when a tall, slender, older priest, dressed all in black, gently reached out to hold her. He smiled and patiently waited while Mary tensed her little body, drew back and looked him up and down very suspiciously. She drew back a second time, even further, and once again glanced from his head to his feet and slowly looked back at his face again. A third time, Mary repeated the process and then suddenly she relaxed, broke out into a wonderful smile and reached her own arms out to lean forward so Father could pick her up.

My baby was receiving unspoken messages from Father’s facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and emotional and spiritual ‘vibes’ which radiated from his inner spirit.  Even though Mary was not talking yet, she was still a person with intuition and wisdom because she processed the information she received and made a decision to trust this priest.

Babies are people too, and when we treat them as such, they reward us with connection and trust.

Isaiah 49:1

Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.

3 Benefits of Family Movie Night

movie night


On more than one occasion our Holy Father has urged parents to “waste time with your children.” I think we need his wise guidance.  Some of us may be sacrificing family time because we worry or assume that if our kids aren’t busy with extra-curricular activities or our own calendars aren’t filled every hour of the day, we’ll all be left behind. We need to give ourselves permission to leave whole days open for “doin’ nothin’” with our kids.

In the Cameron-Smith home, one of our favorite ways to waste time together is with a family movie night!  I talked about this recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life.  Their show was about ways to connect meaningfully with our children and movie night was my 2 cents.  Nothing signals my brain that it’s time to relax than when my 8-year-old grabs the popcorn maker and the other kids start dragging out their pillows and blankets so they can get cozy in front of the television. Aside from movie night being just good ol’ fun, here are three practical benefits:

1.  Fosters communication between kids and parents

Laughing and joking around together during and after a movie builds rapport and a sense of solidarity. Movies also provide opportunities to communicate with our kids about morality and the consequences of our choices. Every story, including the story in a movie, has a basic conflict that the main character must face or resolve. After the movie, ask your kids what they think the main problem was in the story. How did the protagonist try to solve their problem? Was she/he successful? Ask your child how she might have done things differently.  We ask these questions in a non-judgmental, casual way so that everyone feels comfortable joining in the conversation.

2.  Provides an opportunity for us to train our children in compassion and empathy

Human beings are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity: children need particular experiences in childhood in order for that capacity to unfold.  One of these experiences is gentle mentoring from parents about what other people are thinking and feeling. Movies provide an easy, fun way to do this mentoring. When a person in the movie is frightened, sad, or angry we can talk to our kids about that character’s perspective and experience.  We can ask questions like, “What do you think John was feeling when he couldn’t find his dog?”, “I wonder if Jane was sad or frustrated when her friend called her a name?”  This gives kids an opportunity to exercise their empathy muscles in a non-threatening way.

3.  Requires us to define our family values (if we want to use media intentionally)

Did you know that the Church has actually affirmed that movies are “a gift from God springing from human intelligence and industry” (Miranda Prorsus)?  Like any gift, movie making is a talent that can be used for good or for destruction. Some movies are clearly inappropriate for family viewing, but beyond the clear stinkers, we have to practice prudence to discern which movies are right for our particular family.

If we can define clearly what our family values are – even write them out formally in a mission statement – we will be way ahead of the game when trying to pick out good movies.  When you know “what you are about” it helps guide discussions about which movies to watch.   Are the movies we want to watch strengthening or weakening our shared values? Every movie has a “bad guy” or some struggle: what is the underlying message in the movie about the dignity of human beings, how we should treat one another in conflict, how we respond to those who are weaker than ourselves?   After you watch a particular movie, talk with your kids about which Christian virtues were present or lacking in particular characters and their choices.

Don’t feel limited to watching only Christian movies. Some movies we might have dismissed on the surface have proven to be very meaningful and surprisingly edifying for my family. For us, old classic movies often have timeless stories about the struggle between good and evil, the little guy struggling to rise above bad circumstances, or an outsider proving his value to his new community. Ty Burr’s book Best Old Movies for Families is absolutely essential for every movie-loving family.

Because we have a wide age-range of kids in our home, we try to pick things that appeal to everyone, which is a challenge. In addition to classic movies, we’ve enjoyed all the Wallace and Grommit movies by Nick Park, Benji, and the original Herbie the Love Bug movies. If you’re looking for good movie suggestions, check out – it’s hosted by a Catholic film critic.

Let us know some of your favorite family-friendly films!

If you’d like to listen to my segment with Dr. Greg and Lisa, here is the audio file for “Family Connections Jan 30, 2015”.  My bit is about 25 minutes into the show, but the whole show was great!


Raising Children Who Care

How quickly do you pick up on the emotional cues of those around you?  Are you capable of understanding the perspective of another person — their feelings, thoughts, and experiences — even if they are different from you in their appearance, beliefs, and social status?  If you answered yes to these questions, then you possess empathy, the God-given gift we humans use to empathyreally know another person.

For psychologists, empathy has become one of the most important measuring sticks of human mental health, because empathy is a precondition to all successful interpersonal relationships, without which human beings (and indeed society) will never fully thrive.

We are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity.  How deeply it takes root and how much it matures depends on many factors, including our childhood experiences.  Scientists are fascinated by empathy because of the stark difference in children who either experience or are deprived of specific formative experiences in childhood which they believe are necessary if empathy is to unfold.  As I discussed recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life, these experiences can be boiled down to three categories:

 1.  Responsive Parenting

Responsive parenting is the most powerful factor in determining whether a child will become empathic or narcissistic.  We are responsive parents when we nurture and nourish the parent-child bond from birth through the teen years.  When parents respond lovingly to their infants and young children when they are distressed, when they spend lots of time cuddling, hugging, and laughing with their children, when they treat them with dignity, and respect their feelings and fears, their children learn over time that the world is a safe place, that people can be trusted, and that even when things don’t go as they wanted or expected, they will be okay.

These children are securely attached, and it turns out emotionally secure children are more empathic than less secure children. Why? One explanation is that children who are parented in this way have better-functioning corpus callosums — the band of nerve tissue running down the middle of the brain which helps the two sides of the brain “communicate” back and forth. Because the left and right hemispheres of the brain are linked up better in emotionally secure children, they can pick up on emotional cues in others (right-brain strength) and find the words for understanding those feelings (left-brain strength) far more easily than insecurely-attached children. Their “caring brain” just gets more exercise; these kids literally build more gray matter in the caring parts of the brain.

2.  Mirroring

When you mirror your child’s emotions, you name and recognize your child’s emotions without judging them.  When your child is angry, distressed, frightened, or joyful you can give a name to what your child is experiencing on an emotional level:  “I can see you feel sad about your doll breaking” or “You are angry that your sister gets to stay up later than you”.  Sad, angry, happy, worried, excited.  All names for the emotions our children experience, but which they seldom understand rationally.

At first it might seem corny or wooden to mirror you child’s feelings in this way, but by doing so you take the first step in helping her understand and manage them better.  You also help her feel recognized and understood, which is absolutely critical in developing a capacity to care for and understand others.  When you respect her feelings, even if she seems a little crazy and irrational to you, you are affirming her dignity, and in the long run she internalizes your respect for her and she actually lives in her own skin instead of always wondering what others are thinking about her.  Because she possesses greater self-awareness and emotional health, she will be able to tune into the emotional world of somebody else quite effortlessly.

3.  Mentoring

Children can learn to understand the perspective of others through guidance & practice!  No big planning necessary:  these lessons can come in the course of every day family life.

Stories or movies: When you read a book together (yes, you can read to big kids – they love it!) or watch a movie, use the experiences of the characters to teach your child perspective taking. What did the character want? How did she feel when X happened or didn’t happen? What was she probably thinking?

Games: Some games are especially effective in building perspective-taking in kids (“Charades,”for example), but really any game can provide an opportunity to talk about what others are thinking and feeling. While playing board games or sports, teach her to be a good sport – to understand how it feels to lose and win, and how they can respect the feelings of other players.

Conflicts with other children: When our kids have a conflict with another child, this is a great opportunity to point out the perspectives and experiences of the child, even if in the long-run she doesn’t agree with the child’s choices or even her viewpoint.  Empathy doesn’t require that we agree with everyone, only that we get out of own heads and get behind the eyes of another person to get a better idea of where they’re coming from.

So, by raising empathic children, we are building more emotionally secure children, families, and indeed communities.  And let’s not forget:  empathy is the gift we use not only to know each other, but also to know God on a deep, personal level.   When they possess empathy, hopefully their faith eventually becomes embodied; it becomes more about an encounter with the Person of Christ than a set of rules.

If you’d like to listen to the entire More2Life program, here’s the audio!  My bit comes in after 20 minutes or so.