Ruth Freeman

What is your most important job as a parent?

Parents focus a lot on good behavior. Many spend so much energy on compliance that it seems they believe they can measure their worth as parents by how well their kids behave. If my kids do what I want, when I want it, then I must be a good parent.

I see it differently. I have watched in amazement as my daughter, stepson , foster son and other significant friends and family members take on adult life. In almost all cases, there was plenty for us to worry about as we watched the teen years before their “launch.” The transition to autonomy for each these young people was unique and again, not without doubts on all our parts.

However, as I observed them conjuring up their life dreams or just falling without plans into adult roles, I realized that one characteristic was the key – how each young person thought and felt about him or herself. Self-worth is at the foundation of all of our decisions and actions. It guides our daily behavior and our long term dreams.

When you listen to young children, they all seem to come into the world with strong self-worth . “I am going to be an astronaut.” “I love to paint.” “I am a good friend.” They have the courage to try new things and do them imperfectly. Just the persistence to keep getting up and trying to walk involves a whole lot of belief in yourself! Not worrying about the number of times you fall and being willing to try again is evidence of good, solid self-worth.

Sadly, it seems that as children get older, the grownups’ efforts to shape and polish young ones results in diminished courage and confidence.

Self-worth has two parts:

Self-concept – your thoughts and ideas about yourself (I am smart, I am inferior, I’m helpful, I run fast, I am bad at math, I can’t spell)

Self-esteem – your feelings about yourself (I am proud of myself, I am worried about who I am, I feel bad about myself, I am excited to be who I am)

Caroline Graduation-65Children with strong self-worth have a good idea about who they are. Strong self-worth does not mean that children believe they are superior to others or good at everything they do. They have realistic ideas about their strengths, capacities, gifts, talents and challenges. Most importantly, children with strong self-worth feel enthusiastic about developing these abilities and creating goals that involve their strengths. They can admire the abilities of others and work with them because they don’t have to be perfect. They are happy with who they really are.

I sometimes wonder what would be my “elevator speech” about parenting. You know, if I had just one elevator ride with a parent I didn’t know, what would I tell them? After all these years, it is this:

Your most important job as a parent is to protect and strengthen your child’s self-worth. Every interaction with your child, your words, your tone of voice, and your body language are all either putting money in their self-worth piggy bank or taking it out. Threatening and punishing in order to achieve compliance can often negatively affect self-worth. Take time to think before you act, take a deep breath and keep that goal of strong self worth in mind.

Celebrate fathers and how they are different from mothers!

IMG_0888 Happy Father’s Day! Here are two of my favorite fathers – my husband Joe and his son, my stepson, Benjamin.

Joe is doing here what dads hopefully do well – taking delight in his son! What I love about Joe as a father is the way he shows his children respect and compassion. What I love about Ben as a father is his consistent  commitment to his children’s well-being and his willingness to share his passion for sports with all of his boys. Ben taught me how to be a stepmother and it took him a long time (but that’s a whole other blog topic!)

Fathers and mothers are different. That may seem self-evident, but in fact, I sometimes worry that mothers who love parenting class will go home and try to turn the fathers in their lives into mothers. While research only captures trends and there is little comparable data on same sex parents, I think you will appreciate this description from a well respected study on the difference between mothers and fathers:

Alert, fed, comfortable babies, when approached by their mothers, tended to relax, coo, and modulate their breathing and cardiovascular responses-as if to sort of say, “Ah, here’s Mom.” Then when the father approached, the babies’ eyes tended to open, the shoulders would go up and the heart and respiratory systems were activated rather than calmed, as if to say, “Here’s Dad, let’s party!” (Pruett, in Louv, 2002)

Consider these differences that research suggests you may want to celebrate: Mothers tend to nurture, dads tend to play. Before you dismiss the importance of play, think about its functions. That crazy “wrestling” on the floor actually helps strengthen brain synapses. Play teaches collaboration, negotiation and thinking skills. Play is how children learn and grow.

Mothers talk, fathers do. Mothers tend to ask questions, mothers tend to repeat themselves, mothers tend to discuss personal issues more than fathers. In contrast fathers focus more on physical play and activities and tend to do unconventional behaviors like joking around and slapstick humor. Mothers are inclined to protect and understand. Fathers often express high expectations and encourage children to deliver on those demands. Their words tend to be more direct and demanding than mothers’ inquiries and explanations.

Here’s what’s important – children benefit from both ways of seeing the world. When children have both mothers and fathers in their lives, they tend to be more confident and more competent. And keep in mind that fathers don’t have to be the biological kind – supporting relationships between children and their grandfathers, uncles, stepfathers and other significant male caregivers is important. So moms, on this Father’s Day be sure to tell dad, and remind the children to tell dad, all the things they love and appreciate about him – even if some of those things are so darn different from the way you see the world!

The fathers and mothers that you are or that you know may not fall into these categories – tell us about how you are similar or different from your child’s other parent.





Finding Happiness

Happiness is the meaning and purpose in life,

the whole aim and end of human existence.    – Aristotle

I used to think that happiness was overrated, kind of a superficial goal. As I get older, however, I realize that I most admire those around me who appear content, those people who seem to have achieved some kind of peaceful joy in their lives.

Researchers are actually developing a field called Positive Psychology, in which they study peoples’ sense of well-being rather than mental illness. This is good news.

When I ask parents about goals for their children, happiness is always one of the first things on their minds – I want my child to be happy. But happiness is elusive for many. You have probably already discovered that that buying them stuff, doing what children want and even giving in to them against your better judgement has not resulted in happiness. So where the heck does happiness reside?

You might be surprised.

Happiness is a skill that we can teach our children, according to Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University. She indicates that nearly half of the factors that determine children’s happiness can be attributed to the environments in which they are raised. Happiness isn’t just a good mood or cheerful disposition. Happiness is characterized by gratitude for and acceptance of our past and optimism and confidence in the future. Children learn to think about the world through their experiences and relationships with others. They learn different ways of thinking, feeling and acting from their interactions with us and others, from what they observe in us and others.

So how can you help your kids to be happy?

The first day of summer is drawing near. School is almost out.  The world around us is bursting with color and new growth. Most of us are feeling excited about summer’s possibilities. And yet, will this anticipated joy be realized? What does it take to have a happy summer? We do everything right, but may not feel that joy, that sweetness that we remember or long for. What’s the problem? I plan to kick off summer with a series of brief blogs about this delightful topic of happiness. While many of you know, I discourage “don’t” messages for kids, here are a few I think you may appreciate in your quest for happiness as the days get longer:

1. Don’t over-schedule yourself or your children. Some parents seem to believe that busy-ness leads to happiness. I am betting you’ve already noticed, it doesn’t work. But sometimes it is hard to slow down and allow the empty space. Go for it – you may be surprised. One of the things that was wonderful about the children’s show, “Mr Rogers,” was his pace. Watch some re-runs. You’ll remember how to breathe. Even if you feel anxious about down time, try it. Unstructured play time for children is beneficial in many ways, including teaching them self-discipline.

2. Don’t focus on your kids’ happiness instead of your own. Kids do what we do. Find your happiness and engage in it now. Start your own gratitude practices. Don’t think that putting your own well-being off until your kids grow up is a gift to your children. Take some time to think about what YOU love about summer and do some of that regularly!

3. Don’t neglect your romantic relationships. Yes, more about you – if you are in a relationship, focus on that connection. Children don’t need to come first to be happy. In fact, the research suggests that you take this one step further. Get your sex life back on track. Many parents find that focusing on children or conflicts about the division of labor in raising a family can negatively impact parents’ sexual connection. According to Carter, parents who are in happy, healthy relationships tend to be warmer and more responsive to their children, more consistent disciplinarians and model happiness for their children.

So make it a good summer for both you and your children. Slow down, connect and find some fun in your life. Remember, it is a gift to your kids.

My sons won’t listen to me

How do I get my 5 and 3 year olds to listen to me better? They are always telling me no, fighting with each other and having melt downs. I have a 13 year old daugher and she has always listens when I tell her to do something, or not to do something. I want healthier relationships with my sons.

Thanks for the question – it is one that parents often ask. Here are a few things to consider:

First, your daughter may have some traits of an only child. She is 8 years older than her siblings and at about five years older than sibs, children tend to operate like “onlies.” In this case it means she is more compliant and more focused on you.

There are clear steps you can take to decrease your sons’ conflict –

1. Make sure that none of the adults in your family are fighting with each other or with the children. Fighting consists of raising voices, criticizing, arguing, threatening or hitting. If any adults are modeling this behavior, you won’t be able to influence the children to change until the adults do so.

2. Ignore your sons’ arguing and fighting to the best of your ability unless it is dangerous. Since your sons are probably used to getting attention for this negative behavior, it may get worse when you start ignoring the fighting. Within a short time, however, most parents report that the fighting decreases and often dramatically. Keep in mind that ignoring is completely ignoring – that means avoid angry glances, sighing, hands on hips in frustrated gestures and any other actions. Ignoring also doesn’t mean ignore most of the time and then nag or yell once in