Archive for Dr. Gregory Popcak

A Book To Help You Get Your Kids To Heaven!

discovering-god-together

 

Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s new book, Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids will make you feel like it’s possible to guide your kids to heaven.

The Popcaks begin their book with the question, “How do we share our faith in a way that will make sense to our kids and stick with them for a lifetime?” The rest of the book is spent breaking down this overwhelming question into easy to follow spiritual steps. Practical tips for creating faith-based rituals and routines within our homes, ideas for inspiring “discipleship hearts” in our children, and simple strategies for strengthening the prayer lives of our families — both as a whole and as individuals — are just a few examples of the Popcaks’ proactive approach to family spirituality. I especially liked the Popcaks’ clear, step-by-step explanation of how to instruct children of all ages in the development of their personal prayer lives.

Henry and Faith with book2The Popcaks’ experience as Catholic counselors is evident in the convincing teaching techniques they present throughout the book, but especially in the chapter entitled “For Families with Particular Struggles: Faith Development in Divorced and Single-Parent Households.” Yes, it is possible to raise faithful children even in families that are struggling!

The final section of the book highlights several of the sacraments and shows families how to get the most of God’s grace out of each one.

Compelling statistics and research sprinkled throughout the book support the need for a resource like this in every Catholic home. Let the Popcaks show you how to make disciples of your children, and enjoy a depth of faith and family closeness like you’ve never experienced before!

You can pick up Discovering God Together at your local Catholic bookstore or on-line here.

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.

 

Bringing Up Bèbè: A Critical Review by Jana Thomas Coffman

bringing up bebeAccording to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bèbè, the French not only have us beat in the world of fashion, fine dining, wine, and culture, but they’re better parents as well. Druckerman claims French babies generally sleep through the night by 4 weeks, toddlers in restaurants sit patiently through 4-course meals, and parents set firm boundaries so they can enjoy a café and adult conversation while children amuse themselves quietly in the background. Her essay, “Why French Parents Are Superior,” echoes these same themes. How does Druckerman’s advice relate to AP? Is French parenting really superior?

For me, the answer is no. Let me start by saying that I adore France and the French people. I lived in France for a year as an English teacher, and as I write this I am in France again for a language study program. The French gave us Voltaire, Monet, Renoir, and a rich literary history such as Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Candide, The Phantom of the Opera, The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I find their language beautiful and nuanced. Their cuisine and their wine are superb.

However, as an AP parent and an avid people-watcher, I have come to disagree with Druckerman on many levels. French parents aren’t better. The French parenting I’ve observed is just as varied as American. Some parents are strict; some are not. Some parents have well-behaved children; some do not. While I’m sure we can learn some things from our fellow parents across the Atlantic, Druckerman’s overall view of French parenting does not fit well with AP. Let’s explore why.

Le pause. First, many French babies are sleep trained. Druckerman doesn’t call it sleep training; she calls it le pause. French parents don’t rush immediately to pick up their babies at the first hint of a nighttime squawk. Rather, they let them fuss to see if the baby will go back to sleep on his own, and only pick him up if he wakes up and really begins to wail. While I can agree a few minutes of fussing between sleep cycles is normal, Druckerman never really defines le pause. Is it one minute? Two? Ten? According to this review, it’s five to ten minutes. Ten minutes of a crying baby is not a “pause” to ascertain if baby will go back to sleep. It’s the beginning of sleep training. More alarmingly, according to Druckerman, if French babies don’t faire ses nuits (“do their nights”) by about 4 months, sleep training begins in earnest.

Dr. Sears and Dr. Popcak, gurus of the AP community, both strongly advise against sleep training. Here, Dr. Narcia Navraez, professor of psychology at Notre Dame, discusses how cry-it-out and other sleep-training methods negatively impact babies’ mental and emotional health. Babies whose parents respond quickly to their cries learn that they are in a safe place and that their needs will be met, leading to greater confidence and independence later in life. On the other hand, babies who are left to cry learn the opposite, leading to insecurity, fear, and mistrust. These children often become withdrawn, anxious, and depressed. While I can certainly emphasize with French parents’ desire to get a full night’s sleep, I prefer to prioritize my child’s desire for nighttime comfort and connection over my own convenience. Sleep training at a young age can lead to lack of trust and connection with caregivers, which leads me directly to my next point .

Lack of Connection. In my observations, in general French children are less connected to their parents than children in an AP home. This is not to say that French parents don’t play with, laugh with, cuddle with, and care for their children; they do. Yet I see some troubling signs. I’m currently living with a single French mother with a daughter exactly the same age as mine (3.5 years). This mother co-sleeps, but she only breastfed for 6 months. She expressed amazement and dismay that I breastfed for 18 months, so I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d actually let my daughter breastfeed for much longer than that. According to a 2014 study, French women breastfeed considerably less time than their Western counterparts. Only 10% of French babies are exclusively breastfed by 3 months, and only 39% are breastfed at all by that age. By six months, only 23% of French babies receive any breastmilk, and at a year the number drops to 9%. While the original article is in French, an English summary can be found here.

From these numbers, it’s safe to say a high number of French children are sleep trained and formula fed. While I don’t have numbers to back this claim, I’ve observed a lack of connection. French children often have les doudous. Le doudou is a toy or blanket the child sleeps with and carries for security. The daughter in my home cannot leave the house without her doudou, which is a scrap of blanket. She takes it to preschool, she takes it to spend the night at her uncle’s, she takes it to bed. We can’t even go out to dine at a neighborhood restaurant without the doudou. While many American children grow very attached to toys, my daughter never did. Sure, she had a favorite bear, but we never went through a phase where she could not leave the house without it. My daughter nursed for both nutrition and comfort on demand, and so she felt confident enough and connected enough to me that she did not need a plush toy or blanket for security. Of course, children with differing temperaments may naturally gravitate more toward a comfort toy, and some well-attached children may have security toys or blankets while others do not. The important thing is for security toys to augment, rather than replace, parental comfort. I wonder if so many French children, allowed to breastfeed and snuggle until they feel secure enough to self-wean and grown in independent on their own time, would need a security toy to sleep or leave the house.

Differing Social Expectations. The social expectations in France are different than in the United States. Druckerman expresses amazement at the well-behaved French children sitting patiently through (she claims) nutritious, 4-course meals. I haven’t observed that. I’ve observed French children screaming and standing on chairs in restaurants. I’ve heard parents admonish them 5, 10, 15, 20 times in the same patient, quiet tone without any change in behavior. The difference is, the people around the baby (both restaurant patrons and waiters) smile indulgently, as though to say, kids will be kids. At dinner one night, the 3-year-old stood on the bench and waved and shouted to people. The elderly couple behind us laughed and smiled, and the waiters laughed it off. We breezed out without leaving a tip, nor was one expected. In the U.S., parents are not given this much grace. Other patrons expect children to act like adults, and if they are going to act like children, the parents should keep them home. It’s unfortunate, but the pressure on parents in public dining is immense. No one would smile indulgently if my daughter behaved like that in public, nor would the waiters smile and wave away my apologies.

Likewise, French parents I’ve observed are fairly lax with expectations. Yes, the preschools do serve nutritious, vegetable-rich, varied meals, but I’ve also watched the daughter in my home eat nothing but a plate of fries for dinner. Her cousin, a bouncy 2-year-old, was told 6 times by his parents and older sister to stop touching a public plant. Each time he ignored the request and each time he was gently and calmly reminded again. Clearly, he was in charge and he knew it. These children interrupt, scream at their parents, yell commands to adults (I’ve been yelled at to “Stop talking!” and the mother just chuckled about it and stopped our conversation), and cry the moment they don’t get their way. The parents rush in, apologizing for choosing the vanilla instead of chocolate ice-cream cone or for letting the building blocks accidentally touch. When they announce it’s bedtime, tantrums and wails of “Non!” are regular occurrences.

Clearly, in the U.S. most adults would not consider these behaviors acceptable. Normal, perhaps, but certainly not to be encouraged. For us, it’s a behavior to correct, not to ignore. While I appreciate that our French counterparts accept that their children are not adults and should not be expected to act like adults, setting clear boundaries for behavior and gently guiding them to better choices is always preferable to passive parenting without guidance or consequences. So yes, French mamans do enjoy their café au lait or espresso while chatting, ignoring or tolerating the frequent screams, interruptions, and demands. Yet this is not to say French children are better-behaved, only that their bad behavior is treated differently. As an AP parent, I prefer to spend the time necessary to teach my child the correct behaviors than ignore them so I can chat with my friends.

Secular vs. Christian Values. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, France is largely a secular nation. Once strongly Catholic, France is now one of the most irreligious countries in the world, with about 50% identifying as atheists or agnostics and only 10% identifying as regularly practicing Catholics. In Druckerman’s book, French parents have several stated goals: teaching patience and delayed self-gratification, encouraging autonomy, protecting adult time in the evening, and children “finding their path in the world.”

Clearly, these things are not enough for a Christian parent. I don’t want my daughter to just find her own path in the world, I want her to find the path to Jesus. Like all parents, I want my child to be polite, bright, happy, and engaged, but I also want her to serve others, honor God, study the Bible, attend Church, and live a holy, Christ-filled life. While I’m online researching community service projects to take my daughter to this summer and fun Bible lessons to familiarize her with the Word, French parents seem to be more concerned with training their babies to give them an uninterrupted night’s sleep and letting their toddlers amuse themselves so they can enjoy a coffee in peace.

In the end, Druckerman’s book is not for me. Nor, I think, is it for any AP family. Druckerman has some interesting observations on French culture and ideas about parenting, but in the end, let’s take the book for what it is: a sociocultural memoir, rather than a guide to attached, secure, loving, Godly parenting.

ABOUT JANA  

Jana and KaylieJana Thomas Coffman lives in Alabama with her husband, Chris, and their daughter, Kaylie. Jana and Chris are an NFP (Natural Family Planning) teaching couple through the Couple to Couple League. Jana is currently working on her Ph.D. with an emphasis in Spanish and Linguistics and a minor emphasis in French.

 

Developmental Attachment v. Spiritual Detachment: raising children who are capable of letting go of the wrong things and embracing the right things

pope francis prayingAn acquaintance and I were recently chatting when the subject of parenting came up. I explained that I am an “attachment-minded parent”. He chuckled and said, “But we’re Christians. Aren’t we supposed to be detached from created things?” He was only joking (I think . . .), but he does raise an interesting question about the difference between the term “attachment” in developmental psychology and the term “detachment” in spiritual development.  I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak recently on their Catholic radio program More2Life.

So, if Christians value spiritual detachment, can our children become too attached to us? Can their attachment to us prevent them from maturing spiritually? I think the contrary is true: a secure attachment in childhood makes it easier for our children to experience spiritual detachment in adulthood.

1. Attachment in Developmental Psychology = GOOD

The term “attachment” in developmental psychology refers to a process by children form (or fail to form) strong bonds and a sense of security with their parents. A child’s attachment style develops in response to repeated interactions with his parents. It’s like a dance between a child’s needs and the parent’s response that creates an internal working model for all of the child’s relationships; it shapes his expectations about other people and how they will treat him when he is vulnerable emotionally or physically.

Secure attachment unfolds when parents respond consistently and warmly to a child’s need for comfort and guidance. This attachment gives children a secure base from which to explore the larger world, and helps them learn to regulate their emotions in response to stress and disappointment.

Insecure attachment might occur because the parents are cold and distant or too harsh (this leads to avoidant attachment). Or the parents may meet the child’s need warmly one day, then disappear the next (this leads to anxious attachment). Children adjust their behaviors to deal with the pain or unpredictability of their relationship with the parent. The outcome is unfortunate. These kids don’t trust others, they struggle in friendships with other kids, they have poor self-esteem, they may be aggressive, or lack empathy.

As they move into adulthood, insecurely attached individuals are frequently crippled in their ability to sustain healthy relationships. Their unresolved emotional pain prevents them from experiencing or forming authentic, loving relationships in which both people are comfortable giving and receiving love. Some adults cope by shutting out people and convincing themselves they don’t need anybody (this behavior is termed “dismissive”). Others become preoccupied by their relationships because they are anxious about the other person’s love for them – they are clingy and needy (this behavior is termed “pre-occupied”). These attachment stances affect their relationships with their co-workers, spouses, children, and even God.

2. Detachment in Spiritual Development = GOOD

Christians strive for spiritual detachment from any inclinations, choices, or relationships that hinder their spiritual growth. We detach ourselves from any obstacle to human flourishing, so that we can in turn re-attach to healthy human relationships and the love of God.

Think of addictions, obsessions, or a tendency to particular sins – these are unhealthy attachments. Sometimes our attitudes toward material goods or status become the problem. More is never enough and before we know it we are imprisoned by our stuff or our “success.” We find it increasingly difficult to connect with the people we most love; our prayer becomes distant and dry. Sometimes detaching may mean getting a new job or purging our house of the objects that are weighing us down, but frequently we just need an adjustment in our attitude and priorities.

Dr. Greg made an interesting point about the difference between Buddhist and Christian views of detachment. For the Buddhist, detachment is about escaping the ego, letting go of the prison of our personalities, so that we can fall into the void of the universe.  This escape is the goal; it is an end in itself.  For the Christian, detachment is about weaning ourselves from unhealthy approaches to relationship so that God can teach us his plan for relationships.  The end goal for us is loving communion with God and each other.  Detachment for the Christian is a means to that end.

Maturing Christians even detach themselves from preferring one thing to another. Should my son go to this school or that one? Should I attend a baseball game or my brother’s piano recital? Should I take this new job or stay at my current one? Detachment leads us to a place where we don’t prefer one choice to another; we just want to do what God wants because we love him so much. Most of us struggle with this kind of detachment, but it’s a possible for us all!

3. Moral of the Story

Cooperating with God to form in our child a secure attachment and capacity for self-giving love will actually make it easier for her to experience spiritual detachment later. Because spiritual detachment requires a kind of inner balance in our hearts toward things and relationships. People with adult attachment disorders often claw at things or people out of a desperate unmet need. This desperation keeps them imprisoned in pain. If our children are emotionally whole, they will be more free to get about the business God has for them to do.

If you’d like to listen to my interview with the Popcaks, it starts about 20 minutes into the show.  Better yet, enjoy the whole show!  The Popcaks addressed problems with connection in our relationships:

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 www.decentfilms.com – 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!

 

Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood

then comes babyI have a new favorite book to recommend to the parents of infants and toddlers:  Dr. Greg & Lisa Popcak’s Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood.

This is the most balanced book I have read about parenting little children:  Dr. Greg and Lisa recognize the importance of laying a strong foundation for the parent-child relationship in these early years when a child’s sense of safety and well-being is forming.  Without this strong foundation, children struggle emotionally as they face new developmental challenges.  Yet, the Popcaks also consider the needs of the parents in presenting their advice, in particular the importance of nurturing our marriage, so that theirs is truly a family-centered vision of parenting.

What I also love: The Popcaks coach both parents, not just mom.  Dad is seen as absolutely essential to the flourishing of the whole family.

The book is divided into sections:  Birth to Six Months, Six to Twelve Months, Twelve to Twenty-Four Months, and Twenty-Four to Thirty-Six Months.  We learn to understand the developmental goals alongside the potential challenges at each stage, and how to address these challenges while protecting the parent-child bond.  The blossoming spirituality of young children is addressed, in addition to discipline issues and work-family balance questions.

Check it out and buy a copy for new parents!

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.

 

Summer Fun: Family Volunteerism

With summer upon us, perhaps our families are looking for meaningful ways to spend our time together. Why not commit some time to volunteering as a family? I addressed this topic recently on Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life, which is produced by Ave Maria Radio.  You can listen to the program here:

My segment begins twenty minutes into the show, but the whole show was terrific.  The topic of the show was “The Joyful Heart”; the Popcaks emphasized the true nature of joy and how we can become more joyful.  Let me review what the Popcaks and I talked about:  why I think family volunteerism is so important, how to decide on a service project, and what you can do to serve when you have small kids.

News Flash: Need Exists Year-Round

As a Catholic mom, I have focused with my kids on charity work during Advent and Lent, but the fact is, there are people and communities which need our mercy all year round.  Duh, right?  But I think many of us forget to make giving and serving others beyond our own doors a family habit — part of who we are as a family.  I wonder what it says about giving when I emphasize giving and serving the needy only at times of the year when the Church requires it.

The intentional Catholic parent holds close to her heart God’s purpose for her children: we are raising our children for the glory of his Kingdom; we are raising Christ’s disciples.  Christ’s disciples minister to the suffering, the hungry, the lonely, and the lost wherever they are, whenever they are encountered, whether it’s convenient or not, whether it’s emphasized in our Church bulletin or not.

We Want Mercy to Form Our Child’s Core Identity

As our children grow and mature, they are driven to define themselves apart from us, to discover their personal mission and unique way of serving the Church. Well that path begins at home, with us in the lead. Mercy is a duty to all Christians, but I don’t want it remain a mere duty to my children; I want mercy and kindness to form their core identity so that they act not out of a sense of duty, but because it’s just who they are.

I find it quite alarming that today’s teenagers often only encounter the topic of volunteerism when a career counselor informs them that in order to get into x-college they should rack up x-number of hours in service or volunteer activities. These teenagers usually serve out of a sense of fear (of not getting what they want), not out of sense of care or love. Dr. Greg mentioned during our segment that today’s teenagers are more narcissistic and more depressed than at any time since measures of well-being have been studied. This tragic epidemic is clearly the result of a loss of connection to family and community, which is every person’s birthright.  Human beings are made for love and communionI think without opportunities to show care for others, our kids never experience true joy.

I think early lessons in caring and concern help our kids exercise their empathy muscles: they learn to recognize the experience and suffering of others, and that their efforts can really make difference in relieving that suffering. Imagine if every child entered adulthood with that mindset. Revolutionary!

Finding Family Volunteer Opportunities

The first step in discerning how you can volunteer your family’s time is to consider the resources you already bring to the table. What are you interests, skills, and talents? Does your family sing? Do you love to cook or hike together? Do your children spend hours doing crafts? Consider what your family likes to do, and how these interests might translate into volunteering.  Talk as a family about what causes or issues concern you most, and how you can work as a family on those issues.

But don’t expect a “perfect fit” for volunteering – sometimes we have to just have a willing heart. My friend Stephanie Schwarz, who is very passionate about family volunteerism, urges families just to “raise their hand” when an opportunity arises.  When God places the opportunity in your paths, just say YES and worry about details later.  Just pay attention to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.

Lady, Are You Kidding?

Does family volunteerism seem like a completely ridiculous proposition, because you have a whole bunch of little children or you’re raising your kids in a two-earner home? I get it, seriously. When you have young children, your primary service “project” is raising compassionate, empathic children.  You do this by living with them in a loving, responsive relationship. When you live in this compassionate way with these little ones, you are doing the Big Work, which makes later works in family volunteerism so much more natural and worthwhile.

Many volunteer organizations have age requirements that would preclude young kids, and often our littles would be miserable or disruptive anyway, and that’s not what we want.  It would be hard to work in a soup kitchen with a two year old.  Even when you have small kids, though, you can find ways to give that fit right into your lifestyle and the lessons can be very powerful. When a new neighbor moves in, you can bake cookies for them with your children and talk about why it’s important to make them feel welcome. Then take the children with your to welcome your neighbor. Let your child make a card or drawing to include in any packages you are putting together for a new mom or a sick relative. Having conversations about the experiences of others – their struggles, feelings, hopes, and fears – helps your child become more empathic and caring as she matures.

If you want to learn more family volunteer opportunities, check out the wonderful website Big Hearted Families and the book The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering.  You’ll find tons of inspiration and ideas for volunteering together as a family, no matter your budget or interests.  Have a fun summer!

5 Signs of a Successful Family

Last week my husband and I attended a workshop led by a couple who had once been on the brink of divorce.  They had everything the world told them a successful family should have:  two children, a giant house, a vacation house on the beach, and nice cars.  Yet they success.jpgwere miserable.  Their message: the world’s definition of success is a lie.  For them, saving their family required them to leave their stressful jobs and focus on raising their children.  We can all benefit from reflecting on the true nature of a successful family.  So, what is a successful family?  How do we achieve that vision?  I explored this issue with Greg and Lisa Popcak on Thursday, March 27, on their radio program More2Life.  If you missed the show (“Parenting Success”), you can access it in the Ava Maria Radio archives here.

Anyone interested in our website probably knows already that success has nothing to do with the size of your bank account or the square footage of your house.  A successful family is one that lives out God’s plan for the family, which is to build a community of life and love.  The successful family nourishes the well-being of the family as a whole and each individual member as unique, unrepeatable persons.   Our culture tells us that certain things will make us happy or nourish our families when they don’t.  Having a vacation house isn’t wrong, but it cannot bring the kind of meaning and joy to our families that God’s plan for our family will.

Anyone interested in reading this probably also knows already that successful families should pray together, attend holy days of obligation, and fulfill their sacramental promises.  But here are five signs of a successful family many of us forget on occasion.  They form the acronym GRAILGenerosity, Resilience, Acceptance, a clear Identity, and Laughter.

Generosity

The parents and children in successful families think in terms of WE instead of ME.  The couple we heard speak admitted they had both been entirely focused on their own need for external approval – to be the best, the richest, the most admired in their circle of friends.  They decided instead to prioritize the needs of the other spouse and their children.  They began asking each other, “What do you need from me today” instead of “What have you done for me lately?”.   They also opened their hearts and arms to five more babies!  The most radical choice we can make as Christian families is to live for each other instead of ourselves, to practice self-donative, generous love.  Children learn this kind of self-donative love through the modeling of their parents – how parents treat their children and one another.

Resilience

Every family will face hardship and setbacks.  Oftentimes, this is where the rubber hits the road, when we find out how strong our family connection really is.  How do we treat one another during those times?  How do we get through them?  Successful families know they are not alone:  they have a strong enough rapport to come together during crises to face the road ahead together with the assistance of God.  Rather than coming apart at the seams, successful families are actually strengthened in adversity through a shared sense of determination and unity when faced with setbacks.  Studies show that families who already have strong communication skills and a respect for one another develop resilience.

Acceptance

We all makes mistakes; we are all sinners.  Successful families learn to forgive, to embrace one another even in our ‘not-finished-yet’ state.  When our children make a mistake, we don’t have to pretend like it didn’t happen, but we can lovingly and gently show them a better way to handle big feelings or frustrations in the future.  Instead of hurting or scaring our child with a harsh punishment, we can empathize with her experience while at the same time giving her the skills she needs to succeed in the future.  When we foster this kind of loving acceptance in the home, families serve as a sign to the Church and to unbelievers of the mercy of God.

A Clear Identity

Successful families make it clear up front what they’re about – which virtues and values are most important to them.  Then they can see more clearly how they want to spend their time and money.  Coming up with a family mission statement is a fun and effective way to concretize your family vision.

Laughter

We too often forget how important laughter is for creating a joyful, vibrant home.  In our achievement-oriented culture it’s easy to get caught up in pushing our kids to work night and day to become successful academically or in sports.  Good grades and sports are fine, but not at the expense of our child’s heart or our family’s sense of mirth.  Jesus surely laughed with his disciples when he gathered with them around a table for a meal.  Becoming a family that laughs together doesn’t take any extra time:  it’s an attitude, a way of making ordinary moments of connection light-hearted and fun.

So there we have it:  GRAIL.  Hopefully we can all remember to foster the GRAIL in our families this week!

Childhood Friends

m2l

 

Tomorrow I’ll be joining Greg and Lisa Popcak on their wonderful radio program More2Life!  We’ll be talking about childhood friendships:  How do peer relationships figure in our child’s development and should we ever be worried that a child’s friendship is actually harmful to her? 

Tune into More2Life at 12-1 EST on Thursdays:  www.avemariaradio.net.  Don’t get M2L on your Catholic radio station?

More2Life is on 12-1 EST, produced by Ave Maria Radio. You can listen live on your local Catholic radio station. If you don’t get More2Life in your area, you can listen live online by going to AveMariaRadio.net or by downloading the FREE AveMariaRadio IPhone or Android App. Or you can download the podcast for later listening at AveMariaRadio.net as well.

When Kids Won’t Cooperate

What should we do when our children won’t cooperate?  This is an issue all parents deal with, including me.  I spoke about this topic on Thursday on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program, More2Life, which is produced by Ave Maria Radio.  The topic of the show was “Family Habits” — lots of great tips on what makes for a happy, healthy Catholic family.  You can listen to the whole show here (Jan 30 show).

86500791So, here’s the skinny on kids & cooperation.  I realized at one point that when I complain that one of my children isn’t cooperating, what I usually mean is “my child won’t listen to me” or “my child won’t do what I tell him”.  I can become frustrated and angry when my kids won’t “get with the program” especially if I’m in a rush or distracted.  I’ve learned that I need to keep the big picture in mind:  what I want for my child is for her to experience life as a gift, and this means I protect her dignity at all costs.  I could threaten, scream, or bribe my way to cooperation — eventually these tactics will work and our child will do what we want, but the cost is high.  The cost is our child’s sense of security and her sense of connection to us.

Here are a few things I’ve realized about the true nature of a cooperative child:

1.  Cooperate Means Co-Operate

This is the most important tip on raising cooperative children.  Kids cooperate when they feel a sense of connection to us before we make a request.   If I continue to define “cooperating” as my child just obeying my every command, I am missing the opportunity to live in a discipleship relationship with him.  A cooperative relationship is one of respect and mutual giving.  To foster this kind of relationship, we can create a family atmosphere in which it’s natural for everyone to work together and to respect each other’s boundaries.  Having clear routines and expectations, giving your kids a heads up before a transition, and including them in discussions about household chores will go a long way toward fostering a cooperative family atmosphere.  This is giving our kids a “we’re in this together” message rather than “do this now or this punishment will result” message.

2.  Our Child’s Will Is a Gift

We should never sacrifice our child’s dignity in order to enforce our request or expectations.  Especially with toddlers and preschoolers, they are gaining an awareness of their own power and they are also frequently frustrated by their inability to do exactly what they want.  This leads to a clash of wills.  We want to guide our child in expressing herself politely, but our child’s will isn’t bad; it isn’t something to fear or quash.  The Popcaks in fact explain rightly in their book Parenting with Grace that our child’s “No” and “I don’t want to” now when we’re asking her to put away her toys may be the “NO!” she gives later when somebody offers her drugs.  We can help her understand and handle her big emotions when she doesn’t want to do something that we expect of her:  Help her rephrase her feelings more respectfully; let her tell you what’s on her mind without fear of punishment.

3.  Listen

This leads to my last tip.  Find out why your child doesn’t want to comply with your request.  Really listen.  Is she tired, scared, nervous, annoyed?  Give her a chance to express her feelings, affirm her feelings, then explain your feelings and needs.  After you’ve heard her out, let her know that you get it: repeat back what she’s told you. (“I know you hate to do the laundry.  I feel the same way about it, and I know you’re enjoying relaxing on this wonderful Saturday morning listening to the radio.”)   Then explain to her that, while it may not be her favorite thing right now, you all need to do X, and Y will result if you don’t.  (“We all need to work together to do the laundry or we won’t have anything to wear tomorrow morning.”)  I know this sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it’s just about building respect and preserving connection.  It’s amazing the difference in a child’s attitude if she just feels heard.  So, listen, respond with empathy, and come up with a solution together. (“Would you like to finish listening to your son first?  Great.  See you in ten minutes.”)

Raising cooperative children happens before we make a request.  It happens in the way we choose to live with them; it happens in those small exchanges of love and respect, in the way we respond to their feelings and frustrations, and how we handle our own frustration.  If we focus on the larger picture of how we want to exist in relationship to our children, we can find gentle, effective ways to foster a cooperation.

Image Credit:  Jupiter Images (photos.com)

Super Catholics Say “No Spank”

Corrective disciplineDid you know there are some great saints who advised parents not to spank their kids?  How about the likes of

St. John Chrysostum

St. John Baptiste de la Salle

St. John Bosco

Here’s Dr. Greg’s awesome post on the subject with quotes from these great saints!

And here’s one of my own articles on why intentional parents should consider carefully whether they want to use spanking as a form of discipline.