Monday, November 28, 2016

Swatting Down Drones: Protecting Our Kids Emotions

My 19 month daughter spotted a drone in the park today, and she was quite interested.  We maneuvered her tricycle towards it and got up close.  The man flying the thing brought it over to show it to her, hovering close to the ground.  He and I talked a bit, and then he took it up a bit into the air, but still not too far away.  The more power he gave it, the louder it got.  

A couple moments later, my daughter turned around in her tricycle seat, visibly upset. "Daddy hold you!  Daddy hold you!"  By the times I got her into my arms, her face was quivering with fear.

There are two well-intended ways I could have handled this situation.

(1) "You don't have to worry about this drone.  It isn't going to hurt you.  Look, the man has it and it won't come any closer.  I know it's loud but the loudness can't hurt you.  It's just loud."

(2) "I gotcha.  Let me pick you up.  I want you right here safe in my arms.  I am so sorry that you got scared.  That loud noise is scary isn't it?  Well, you know what, I'm going to keep holding you and we're going to walk away from it.  You can keep watching it but we are going to get away.  I gotcha.  That drone was scary wasn't it?  It was exciting too but very loud and scary.  But, don't worry, I gotcha.  I'm not going to put you down.  Let's keep walking and look at it from far away."

The first reply was a very well intended one that has been issued by many parents, especially fathers.  We want to try to help dissipate the fear by rationally explaining to our son or daughter about why they don't need to be afraid of something.  However, the reality is that our child at the age of 19 months hasn't even grown most of their cognitive brain by this point, so it's almost like it's going in one ear and out the other.

The second reply is meeting our child right where they're at.  By first creating a sense of safety with them, we help them to calm down right away.  In this case, I took my daughter into my arms and right out of the situation.  That already began to help calm her.  The second thing I did was to help her identify her feeling with a word.  I know it might seem hard to believe, but a 19 month old can probably identify "scary" even if they can't produce the word.  In any case, they know you are giving them a word to name their feeling, and moreover, they feel like you are connecting with them intimately.  

Thus, the child of the second parent knows they have been made safe, feel emotionally connected, and have been given a word to name the feeling they are experiencing.  John Gottman's research, among others, shows that this is one of the best ways to help a child learn how to regulate their own emotions in the future, in addition to the moment ("How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child" p. 93).

It might sound counter-intutitive, but the child who receives safety, comfort, and emotional connection will ultimately grow up to a higher level of emotional stability and self-soothing.  They will fear less in general, or at minimum, they will learn how to sooth themselves via self or others when they do feel fear.  Also, in a counter-intuitive way, the child of the parent who tries to explain away their fears will wallow in their fears much longer and more frequently over time, unable to learn how to calm down in future situations.  The parent in scenario is well meaning, but will not be successful in helping their child grow emotionally or learn how to problem solve very well.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons with permission from Richard Unten at

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Same Sex Partnerships

In general, heterosexual dads struggle to find meaningful, emotionally close relationships with other dads, or other men for that matter.  Although a lot has changed over the past fifty to a hundred years, it is still a norm that men struggle to find emotionally close relationships with other men.  As dads, the stakes are even more crucial because the research is clear that dads who are emotionally connected to others will, in turn, become more emotionally available to their kids and/or their spouses and partners (Gottman, Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child).  Our kids, partners, and families reap the benefits in their own lives.

For dads who are emotionally connected to themselves and others, we have an opportunity to form same sex partnerships with other dads in order to influence and support one another in raising our children.  In my particular situation, my wife is my closest ally, but I and others need emotional connection with other dads in our various communities.  Many men who fought in World War II reported that their relationships with the other men in their units were lifetime friends.  This is the sort of thing that we need to be going for in forming same sex partnerships with other men and groups of men in our lives. 

I recently started up a book club for dads, and we are reading Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D.  This is an opportunity I have to fight for the emotional well being of myself and other dads in my community.  In addition, it benefits my daughter and my wife.  My desire is to continue to be in the business of forming same sex partnerships with other dads as we fight for the emotional well-being of our families.

Two things you can do: Look for dads' groups on Facebook or, or maybe you are part of a faith community that has such a dads' or men's group.  If you are an entrepreneur of sorts, then start one up in your area.  It is these sorts of same sex partnerships that we need in order to influence one another and influence our children and families for the better.  The research is very clear that an emotionally connected life on our part and the part of our children leads to more fulfilled lives for them and for us.

If you would like to start a Dads' Book Club or any other type of dads' group in one of your communities or networks, then please feel free to contact me for support.

(photo taken with permission from flickr creative commons by Mike Maguire at

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Community Benefits Our Kids

The research* is very clear that when we focus on healthy, vibrant adult relationships with our spouses, partners, or other adult friends in our communities that our kids feel safe and secure.  When our kids feel safe and secure, they are able to develop more deeply in the ways of emotions and cognitive skills.  Once a kids feels emotionally safe and secure, they are able to relax, thus freeing their hearts and minds.  

Why would our kids feel more safe and secure when we focus on having close relationships with other adults?  The reason is because our kids aren't meant to be our primary sources of emotional support.  If we make our kids out to be our whole world, then they feel the pressure to be adult sources of emotional support for us.  In this way they feel unsafe and thus become less able to grow emotionally and cognitively.

The best way to bring strength to our children in this area is by developing close relationships with other adults in our family or our communities.  When our kids see us intentionally relating to other adults to meet our emotional needs, then they feel less pressure to try to do so with us.  Ultimately, this allows them to focus on their own play, growth, and emotional and cognitive development.  

As parents, this can be extremely difficult.  We live in a demanding world with high expectations on our time and resources.  Sometimes, we get home from work and just don't have time for anything else except our kids.  Believe me, I totally get that.  

The other difficulty is that many of us as parents are single, divorced, or our spouses and partners aren't emotionally available for us to get deeper relationships with.  On that note, John Gottman's* research points out that even if we try to have good relationships with our ex-spouses or ex-partners that it helps our kids to feel safer.  And, doesn't that make sense?  Regardless of divorced or ex-status, our kids feel safer when their parents are trying to have a good relationship.

Getting back to the business of our lives, the reality is that we have to seek out adult relationships where we can build community.  The smallest community is a group of two, of course.  That could be working on our relationship with our spouses and partners or our ex's, or it could be that none of that is available, in which case, we need to take it out a step further.  Finding adult connection at play date groups at the local library, school parents, soccer parents, groups of any variety, faith group communities, or even our neighbors can be places to find these people.  Sometimes, finding a good therapist is a good start.  

All of this unfortunately, takes work.  We've got to stick our hand out and say, "Hi, nice to meet you."  It takes effort.  It certainly is for me.  However, what I know is that not only is it good for me, but it is good for my wife and kids.

My wife is really good at doing this.  She's on all these Facebook groups and ends up going on walks and play dates.  I think she has at least half-a-dozen women that she connects with in this way.  In fact, "Buy Nothing" has even been a source of connection.

Parks are another source of connection.  I've been promoting my Dads' Book Club recently, and to be honest, it takes a lot of work to promote something like this.  About every other day, I'm at the park on the top of my hill with my daughter and if I see a dad or a mom, I'm talking up the book club with them, handing out fliers.  Recently, I met a mom and told her about Dads' Book Club.  She gave the flier to her husband and he's planning to attend!  Moreover, I set her up for a play date with my wife and they met up at the park.  The other night, the six of us (dads, moms, and two kids) went trick-or-treating together.  It was a great first date, so to speak.  

We have no idea how the relationship will continue, but one thing our kids know is that we are pursuing adult support systems in front of them.  The more they know that they don't have to provide the primary source of emotional support to us, the safer they feel, and the more free they feel to play, growing emotionally and cognitively.

Do you have an adult in your life who is a primary source of emotional support for you?  If not, then looking for one, two, or three in your life could be one of the best things you could do for your child's emotional and cognitive development.

Finally, if you are a dad in the Seattle area, consider joining Dads' Book Club.  If you are interested in participating, then like the webpage so that you can keep updated on our meetings.  
*John Gottman, Ph.D. & Kenneth Adams, Ph.D. are good sources among many.

(Photo taken from flickr creative commons with permission from Scott Robinson at

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


A couple years ago, a mom shared in a parenting class about how one time, she knew something was bothering her ten year old son, but he wouldn't share it with her.  Instead of nagging at him, she decided to wait.  

"Is there something bothering you?"  

No response.  

She waited for 45 minutes.

Finally, her son started talking about his day at school and what had happened that was bothering him.

Waiting for our children to complete a task can be extremely frustrating, but there's a point to waiting it out.

A couple years ago, I learned something from my wife, Sara.  She used to be a child-development home-visitation social worker.  One thing she mentioned to me one time was that infants and toddlers have a much lower processing speed than adolescents and adults.  

When reading a book, we might say, "Where is the car?"  For a toddler, it might take up to ten seconds to point to the car.  It is pointless to keep asking the question because the child needs the time to process the question in their brain, and then more processing time for the brain to figure out how to move the hand to point to the car in the book.  

To muddy the waters a bit, let's talk about obedience, disobedience, and waiting.  A couple months ago, my daughter was really having a hard time laying down for me to change her diaper.  I found myself fighting with her, trying to get her to lay down.  I decided to wait and see if it would simply take her more time to lay down.  

"Can you lay down so I can put your diaper on?"

I waited.

She stood up.  She wanted to touch pictures on the wall and then to hold me and get off the changing station.

All of this took about ten to twenty seconds.

"Can you lay down so I can put your diaper on?"

Then she laid down and I changed her diaper.

This has been working reasonably well for the past month or two.  It seems she needs time to process completing the action, especially when it isn't something she wants to do in the first place.

But, it took waiting on my part.

I take my daughter often to the park.  Sometimes, I decide immediately that I want to leave and that we're done.  My daughter is getting old enough that she often decides she doesn't want to leave right away.  If I try to force her to leave and call it disobedience, then I'm missing out on her processing speed.

Instead, when I remember, I tell her we are leaving in 5 minutes.  Then, we are leaving in 4 minutes.  Then 3.  Then 2.  Then 1.

"Okay, time to leave now.  Let's get on your bike."

Almost always, she is much more peaceful about leaving if she gets this countdown.  Her toddler brain is processing what is going to happen over a 5 minute time span.  

It requires waiting on my part.

By the way, I don't think this countdown is just for toddlers.  I bet it is effective for a number of age categories all the way up through teenagers.  

"Hey guys, we're gonna leave in ten minutes.  Make sure you finish doing whatever you are doing with your friends, okay?"

So often, we chalk up refusal from our kids as disobedience, but maybe it really isn't about that.  Maybe our kids simply need time to process something over a period of twenty seconds, 2 minutes, or 45 minutes that our adult brains process instantaneously.  When we wait, we give them the opportunity to complete the tasks that we are asking them to do.  I'm not saying it always works like this, but I believe that if we try waiting instead of nagging or punishing that we might get more out of our kids than we think is actually possible.

(Photo taken by permission of Nils Endrikat at flickr creative commons

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Put Away the Smart Phone

Kids really need our undivided attention.  I know that we need to cook, clean, and even do things that are for us and not just our child.  I get that.

But, here's the thing.  Put the phone away.  Our kids really need to know that they matter more than our phones.  I'm not saying that we need to do this 100% of the time, but what I do mean is that there are many times when our undivided attention is crucial.  Our kids need lots of time when technology isn't dividing us from them.

Try taking your kid to the park and leaving the phone at home.  Spend an hour at the park with them.  Play with them, swing with them, get on the slide with them.  Do it without a phone.

At home, try putting the phone away for hours at a time.  Turn the ringer off.  Turn off the TV and computer.  Just try it for an hour.  Then, work up to two hours or more.

Turning off technology means we have to get creative and enter our kids' worlds.  I'm not saying we need to ditch technology all together, but we need to set up specified amounts of time when our attention to our kids is undivided.  There is nothing more heart breaking for me than when I see a parent surfing the internet on their phone when their kid is begging them to watch them swing on the monkey bars.  Is it really that hard to pay attention to them?

I don't want people to feel ashamed of themselves for being on their phone in front of their kids all the time.  That isn't my goal.  I know it takes a lot of effort to put our attention into our kids for long periods of time.  Nevertheless, this is a real issue of emotional attachment with our kids that needs to be addressed by each of us as parents.  The goal isn't to feel ashamed.  The goal is to try to do what we can for our kids over time.  Just try to do good to them and see what happens.

On a spiritual note, I think we need to know that we are forgiven.  If we know that we are forgiven for neglecting our children then we can finally start to do good to them.  We don't have to try to make up for lost time.  We can simply try to do good as much as we can to them in any given moment in the present.

(photo by Joris Louwes taken with permission from flickr creative commons

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Stealing from Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers used to tell his TV audience, "I like doing this with you," or "I like doing that with you."  He was always telling us what he liked to do with us.  Ever since I was a child, I remembered this about him, and as a father, I have brought it into my own regular use of expressions.  "I like riding bikes with you," or "I like going to the park with you."  Our kids, whether 12 months old, 12 years old, or 25 years old want to know the things we like to do with them.

Another thing I think kids want to know is what they do well too.  "Hey, you're really good at tying your shoes," or "The way you helped that kid today was really thoughtful and a smart way to do it."  Things like these.  They might want to know we like the clothes they are wearing as well.  "That dress is really cute with the flowers on it.  You always pick out nice dresses." Or, "That army jacket is really cool.  That was a good pick on your part at the store last week."

But, don't take my word for it.  Try it out.  Get on YouTube, PBS, or Amazon Prime and watch some of the old Mr. Roger's shows.  Steal his stuff.  You don't have to use his well-developed style of voice - I certainly don't.  I use my authentic voice and always tell my child the truth as I see it, not exactly the same way as Mr. Roger's might have seen it.  Nevertheless, I do steal from Mr. Rogers, and quite liberally.  Oh, and don't forget, you can steal the songs too.

I am certain that Mr. Rogers would endorse our crimes against him by stealing from him.

*photo taken with permission from flickr creative commons by mike baker @

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Extending Boundaries

When it comes to boundaries with our kids, I'm all in.  Let's get that straight.  I love consistency, and I love the safety that our kids feel through consistent boundaries.  However, when it comes to extending boundaries, I am also "all in".

By extending boundaries, I mean being very selective in the boundaries that we as parents choose to enforce.  A mentor of mine from several years ago likens this to an ice skating rink.  The boundaries are wide enough to allow our kids the freedom to play and express themselves within the confines of the skating rink.  The boundaries are firm, yet wide.  For this mentor and his wife, the main boundary was kindness.  Inside of kindness, all sorts of things were allowed in family and public life.

As an example from my own life, when I take my toddler on a walk, the main boundary is staying out of the street.  She knows "no street", and abides about 90% of the time.  (Of course, that means I am right by her always for the other 10%!)  Outside of "no street" she is provided with all sorts of space to do as much or as little as she pleases.  For example, very often, she wants to explore the yards of our neighbors as we walk to the park.  I have decided that this is okay.  The worst thing that happens is I get yelled at.  In the meantime, she gets to skate around the ice rink with all sorts of freedom.  By the way, sometimes, we never even make it to the park, and that's okay too.  Why would I be so determined to get her to the park if she has enjoyed herself in the yards of others?

There is another benefit to extending boundaries, which is that the boundaries I choose to enforce are much more heard by her, or any other kid for that matter.  This is sort of like the "boy who cried wolf" applied to another situation.  If we set all sorts of boundaries and restrict the freedom of our children, then it seems less likely that they will hear our boundaries when we do enforce them.  "No street" is much stronger in isolation than in the midst of a bombardment of "no's" which become background noise to many children.

By the way, this isn't just for toddlers.  When our elementary, middle school, and teenage kids have consistent, extended boundaries, which allow playfulness and self-expression, then our more crucial boundaries become much louder to their ears and hearts.  The real question to ask ourselves is, "Is the boundary I'm establishing here really necessary?"  

Photo taken with permission from flickr creative commons by Laura Bittner @

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Share Their Day With Them

Toddlers are not capable of sharing their day with us as parents; however, they are capable of understanding their day if we share it with them.  Helping a toddler to fall asleep with books, milk, and storytelling about their day helps them connect to us as parents.  Toddlers are accumulating new nouns every day and they are capable of understanding the basics of what happened to them earlier.  A parent can tell them specific names of people they saw, specific names of places they went to, or specific verbs to describe what they did at the park for example.  Most importantly, by recounting their day with them, they feel connected to us emotionally.  

ABOVE PHOTO is taken from flickr creative commons by Rowan Gillette-Fussell at

Monday, August 22, 2016

Act Your Age!

"Act your age!"

The girl is two years old and this is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.  Of course she's acting her age.  Not only that, but as parents we need to get down to the God-given treasure of individuation.  Children are continually in a process of becoming individuals.  What we often perceive as stubbornness, being difficult, or even evidence of original sin in conservative religious communities is actually none of it.  God or nature has simply wired our children to slowly turn into adults, and that means as parents, we bear the responsibility for caring for them in the midst of their transformation.

Don't get me wrong.  I get angry.  When my daughter won't stop climbing up on the couch even though she fell on her head two hours earlier, I get angry.  In my head, I've got two attitudes that are in conflict with each other.  The first one is, "Figure it out! and Stop opposing me!"  The other one, and the one that is true to my daughter's design is, "I am so stressed and frustrated, but I have so much joy watching you fighting to become your own individual.  I love it!"  

We need to maintain our boundaries with our children as much as possible because they love consistency and our care for them; yet, our children will continue to test our boundaries as they continue to fight for their personhood and individuation.  This behavior is obstinance, resolution, and determination, not disobedience.  In one hand we must hold our feelings of apprehension as they enter the risk involved with pushing the limits and opposing us, but on the other hand we must hold our feelings of joy in the other hand because they are acting from their God-given nature to fight for individuation.  Our children are resolute to become their own persons, and they can become their own individuals if we bless them in doing so.

In the end, we might feel like our children are trying to harm us through their individuation process, but this is absolutely not the case and far from it.  Instead of placing a burden on our children by telling them to "act their age" or to "figure it out", we need to be moving towards them with fear and joy, telling them with and without words that we are so scared about the risks they are taking, and frustrated over their obstinance, but that we are so elated and full of joy over their fight to become their own individuals in this world. 

Theirs are stories worth telling.

Photo taken from flickr creative commons with permission by mina ngiew win min @

Friday, August 5, 2016

Individuation and Conflict

In this world, some partners look wildly different from one another, as in the photo above, but what I'm really talking about here is relational conflict.  A marriage or partnership is about two very different people with two very different upbringings trying to live together, often finding themselves entering conflict in two very different ways.  

John Gottman, Ph.D. explains in a number of his research based books that approximately 70% of all conflict is unresolvable.   His research often goes back to couples four years after original interviews to find that most of these couples are still arguing about the same issues year-in and year-out.  Four- year old marriages and forty-year old marriages both fall into this 70% unsolvable conflict category.  95 year old couples are still arguing over most of the same issues.  

Gottman explains that the difference between successful and satisfied marriages has to do with how couples deal with all of the unsolvable conflict.  Some couples use humor, some couples listen to each other seriously, and others simply recognize the fact that their spouse is different and chose to accept that part of the spouse's personality.

For me, my method of dealing with unresolvable conflict in my relationship with my wife has to do with what is called individuation.  I have chosen to respect and even cherish the fact that my wife is 100% her own individual.  She sees the world somewhat in the same way I do, but in so many things, she sees things SO differently.  We simply see reality quite differently from one another in certain respects.  

Here's a perfect example.  I am always thinking about what could go wrong in the future and I try to anticipate how to deal with those potential problems.  If I'm not careful this can produce a lot of anxiety.  Thus, it has an upside and a downside.  I can be prepared, but I can also be anxious.  My wife, on the other hand, doesn't worry as much about the future, but she is much more connected to the present.  Ultimately, what this means is that I worry more about the future, but get less stressed about the present.  She worries less about the future, but she gets more downtrodden over problems that are currently happening.  For me, once the problem has already occurred, then I can finally deal with it, so my anxiety fades because I can actually deal with it.  So, you can see that we approach planning and problem solving in two completely different ways.

Many couples spend years trying to convince their partners to "think more like them".  How many times have I heard people say, "If people would just think like me, then the world would be okay."  The reality is that this will never happen, so we have to do something else about it.  In reality, the sooner we are able not only to respect but cherish our partner's individuality, the sooner the world can be a better place.  

I have a hard time doing dishes.  My wife leaves her shoes all over the place.  We problem solve from completely opposite paradigms.  We don't just agree to disagree because that's giving up.  We still engage each other in conversation over unsolvable conflict, but we learn to love and appreciate one another, and recognize each other's complete and utter "separateness" from ourselves.  Once we begin to move towards our partners as completely separate individuals, the deep closeness and intimacy follow.  It is sort of a paradox.

And, final note, on a bit of a spiritual side.  This is not something I believe we can really conjure up on our own.  I often find myself throwing up a prayer to help me desire the separateness of my wife.  It is not something that comes naturally, but it can become more and more natural over time.

Above photo taken from flickr creative commons with permission by Matthew G at

Monday, August 1, 2016

Stroking Her Hair

Every night, my wife and I read books to our daughter, give her milk, and help her into her crib to sleep.  Last night, I realized while we were reading books to her, that I had the opportunity to bless my wife by moving towards her at the same time we were moving towards our daughter through book reading.

While she was reading to our daughter, I stroked her hair.  

After about 10 seconds, my wife looked towards me and let me know without words that she felt emotionally connected to me.  It was a small, but important moment.  I was supporting her emotionally at the same time we were supporting our daughter.

It is so easy to put all of our energy into our children because they have legitimate physical and emotional needs that go beyond our needs as adults.  It is easy to forget to move towards each other in the midst of our children.  Small moments like these, when we stroke our partner's hair in the midst of reading or feeding our children can go a long way over time.

Our wives need our strength and tenderness in the form of emotional connection with them during our time with our children. Small things like these go a long way over time.

Feel free to share this blog with the men in your life.

The above photo was taken with permission from flickr creative commons by Amy Loves Ya.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Intermission Sunset

At about 5pm this evening, Sara and I started looking at our calendar for the week and realized how stressful it was going to be.  Discussion was tense, awkward, and rough around the edges.  At 7pm, we started working on our new flatscreen, trying to figure out the screen ratio.  Again, conversations were bumpy and didn't flow well at best.  By 9pm, we got into more conflict as we both entered our work on computers across from one another over the dinner table, Sara her master's degree work, and grading final exams for me. 

During the summer, Seattle sunsets come around 9:30pm, and when the sunset came, I noticed it out of the corner of my eye through the back window.  I had a feeling it was a good one, so I drew the curtains of the side-window wide open in front of Sara.  

"Wow, what a beautiful sunset," she said.

"Let's get out there," I replied.

I knew we needed the intermission, to engage with each other and that sunset, to connect and become whole again.  We crossed our residential street, found a good spot to watch, hold, and talk to one another.  Each of us took deep breaths.  We knew how important this moment was for our evening together. 

After coming in, Sara said, "I feel so much more connected to you now."

So true.

In the end, we have to take advantages of opportunities like these.  Little moments like this might be little, but built up over a lifetime, they add up to a huge foundation that can weather many storms.  

(note to men: I know doing something like this can feel awkward because it is gushy emotional stuff.  However, remember that even if you don't know what to say, the fact that you initiate with your wife or partner is the act of leading, and your spouse will feel your strength and leadership.)

photo called "Sunset" taken from flickr creative commons by photographer David Marsh

Play Date

Sara and I struggle with date nights.  We've got work, school, and daughter.  Trying to plan a date night requires baby swapping or finding and paying a baby sitter.  Plus, in thinking about a date night, we often get into this mindset which says it has to be a little more extravagant because it doesn't happen that often.  

Recently, an idea came to me about getting "little" play dates in for me and Sara.  Our housemate is often here during the evenings, so we asked her if she'd be willing to keep an eye on the monitor while we went for a walk.  If our daughter woke up, we'd be just around the corner and could come right home.  She agreed, so we went for a 30 minute walk.  It was nice.

A couple nights later, we asked if we could do it again, but this time we'd pay her a small amount to keep an eye on the monitor.   She agreed again, so this time, we brought a frisbee and a soccer ball up to the park and played, again for 30 minutes.  Not only did we get some time together, but we got some play in as well.  One of our friends, who is a nutritionist, explains that longevity isn't necessarily based upon prolonged amounts of time exercising; rather, it is more based upon a mixture of play, intimacy, and exercise.  In fact, she mentions that about 30 minutes a day is all that's needed.  Thus, whether it is walking or playing frisbee, we invest into our relationships and our health through small times like these.  And, like our nutritionist friend, researcher Dr. John Gottman explains that other researchers have determined we increase our longevity by an average of four years if we are in a satisfying committed relationship.  These are the benefits of 30 minute play dates with our spouses.

Not all of us have housemates or nearby parks, but the reality is that these little 30 minute intimate, playful, even verbal rendezvous with our partners must be fought for with our intentionality in the midst of bumbling through the whole thing.  Gottman's research is also clear in that moving towards one another in these ways ranks in the top seven factors for marriages that go the distance.

photo taken from flickr creative commons by "_dbr"

Mother's Day Pressure for Fathers

Approaching Mother's Day, I felt the pressure of coming up with something big.  "Gotta please my wife," was the thought going through my head.  I knew this was messed up thinking.  The angel on my right shoulder kept saying, "Don't listen to that crap, just try to do good to her without thinking about the "why" of everything."  The other thought going through my mind was "I haven't been doing as much for Sara lately, so I feel like I'd just be trying to do something for Mother's Day because I'm supposed to".  Again, the good angel said, "It's never too late to do good for your wife. Don't worry about whether or not you are 'just doing it for Mother's Day'."

Throughout our marriage I am a combination of intentionality and bumbling through things.  Although it might look like I get it right every time, that isn't the case because I've had my fair share of missing out on opportunities to do good.  Although I must give myself grace, I often find myself lacking desire to move towards my wife, especially since having our daughter.  We are living life, doing work, both in graduate school, cleaning up the house, tending the garden, and most of all - putting a tremendous amount of energy into our daughter.  At the end of the day, or even the in-between times, I can find myself lacking desire to put energy into my wife.

This is when I have to step back and think as clearly as possible.  "What do I really believe?  Do I want to move towards Sara?  Of course I do."  That's when I throw up the simple prayer that comes to mind in moments like these, "God, help me to move towards my wife."

In the end, I created a "You-Tube-video-Mother's-Day-card" for Sara several days ago, and of course, she loved it.  I know you might think that I sure went overboard after struggling with moving towards her for Mother's Day, but this isn't the truth.  I love to do little videos, and I loved doing this video with my daughter.  It wasn't hard for me to muster up the motivation to make a creative video for her.  Nevertheless, it took me finding the desire to move towards her, and a little prayer to muster up the desire to get the energy to do it.  Then, once I did it, I found myself having loved moving towards Sara after all of my mental agony and gymnastics.

In the end, it wasn't too late to move towards Sara, and it is never too late to move towards her, no matter how long it has been.  Never forget that it is never too late to move towards your spouse.  Our hearts are designed for and long for such movement.

Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash

Relationship Preparation, Maintenance, and Messiness

Check out this yahoo in the back right corner with the sports jacket.  Who let him into this race?  He'll be throwing that thing off about two or three minutes. Hopefully, it didn't cost him much.  Or, what about the gal in the elf outfit in front?  Where did she find that get-up?  And, if you take a look at the photo below, I'm sure you'll get the idea that these women are probably all thinking, what in the heck am I doing here in this winter race without my clothes on?  Sounded like a lot more fun than it's going to be after all.  Hopefully, they'll warm up in the next ten to fifteen minutes of the race, but the Grinch in center is probably going to eighty-six the mask due to heat exhaustion sooner than the yahoo with the sports jacket, so long as the Grinch doesn't crash, due to lack of visibility!

Do you ever feel like you're out of place in life like the characters in these photos?  You're at the starting line but everyone seems more prepared?

Back in 2010, I started attending this adult Sunday school class at my church that was supposed to be for twenty and thirty somethings, but in reality almost everyone was married and many of them had kids.

I was single.

The class wasn't supposed to be just for married couples or those with kids, but pretty much every topic centered on marriage and children.  Every Sunday, I came to class feeling like I was wearing a Grinch outfit, a sports jacket, or had simply forgotten to put my clothes on for the race!  Nevertheless, I wanted to be part of a community my age, and most people my age were married and many of them had kids.

So, I kept going.

For the first six months, there was a point during each class that I almost literally had to brace my chair with both hands to keep me from walking out because I felt so out of place.  It isn't that the people in the class were doing anything wrong.  They were simply being themselves, and talking about married stuff and kids stuff.  Nevertheless, I kept pressing on, and finally, after about six months, I began to feel more comfortable, with only an occasional desire to run.

The story doesn't stop there.

My marriage class is but one example of feeling out of place at the starting line.  Every single one of us is tempted to look around at the others and feel pretty out-of-place.

I'm married, but the one next to me has a new born.  We've got a newborn, but the couple next to us has four middle schooler's.  We're having our first children but our peers are having grandchildren!  Why the heck are we so far behind?  Yeah, but you don't understand my situation as a grandparent.  I wish I could go back and start over.

I'm single.  I'm divorced.  I'm remarried.  I'm a single parent.  Those around me don't seem to be.  Or, I'm remarried, but her remarriage certainly seems to be going a lot better than mine!  Oh, and you think you have it bad?  I know you're single, but you're only twenty-five.  I'm single, going on thirty-six, plus I don't even have a job that could help support a family if I did get married!

Do you get the idea?  We're all wearing sports jackets, Grinch outfits, and many of us aren't even wearing clothes at all, but we're at this starting line every day and we're wondering what in the heck happened!

The reality is that we have to figure out how to believe that it is okay to toe-up at that starting line and enter the race every day.  Once we realize that pretty much everyone is in the same boat as us, we can begin to forgive ourselves for not living up to the expectations that we and our cultures have placed upon us.  We have to get out there and take a chance and see what we can do every day.

I do think marriage is a wonderful and beautiful thing, and I'll continue to write about it, but our stories are so complex and often messed up, so we just have to do the best with what we've got.  The hope is that we can keep entering the story every day, and maybe over time, the story will be a little more beautiful and powerful than we thought it had been while we were measuring it against crazy notions of perfection.

(photos taken from flickr creative commons by Roxanne King)

Boundaries are Compassion to Self and Partner

Airlines understand the value of self-care that is outwardly focused.

If there is a sudden decrease in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy.  Put the mask on you first, and then place the mask on your child sitting next to you.  In order to save our child, we must save ourselves first.

Likewise, boundaries are about having compassion upon ourselves first so that we have the energy and love to give compassion to our spouses and those around us as well.  We have to put on the oxygen mask so that we can put the mask on our spouses as well.

Of course, life is much messier than that, and there isn't a formula.  Sometimes, we give up our needs for the sake of our spouse or children or even others, but this is a general norm here.  In order to have energy to give to others, we have to set boundaries.

Second, boundaries are not just about self-care.  There are boundaries that we can set as couples that are "couple-care" as opposed to "self-care".  I remember listening to a married couple speak one time about how they decided to spend 15 hours a week together outside their time with children.  Wow!  How in the world do you do that?  Basically, they decided to arrange their schedule so it would work, and they accomplished it somehow, even without severely limiting their time with their children.  It was more about organizing and setting boundaries than about taking time away from children significantly.  They had to give up a number of things in order to accomplish this.  Interestingly enough, they shared how their children seemed to be more content, and more at peace around the house once they made this 15 hour plan work.  Now, I'm not saying that you need to figure out how to do 15 hours a week with your spouse, but what we are really talking about here is setting boundaries intentionally so that couples can connect with each other as allies.

Another example, you'll see below in the Brene Brown video, where she explains that she and her husband discovered that their goals and their desires weren't adding up.  When they listed their goals, it required more work, more accomplishments, and so forth.  When they listed their desires of what they loved to do in life, it meant decreasing goals, making less money, and having more time.  Over time, they decided to set boundaries to make sure that they were doing the things they loved, not doing the things that helped them achieve their occupational goals so much.  In the end, they began spending more time with each other and more time with children.  The result was more play, more fun, and in the end, they didn't suffer occupationally that much anyway.

Don't forget - boundaries aren't just about self-care.  Our self-care, and our couple-care, is always about using our compassion within us to move outwardly in compassion to others around us.

(photo at top taken from flickr creative commons by Jon Gos)

The Role of Boundaries

When we love our spouse, we establish boundaries.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but boundaries are integral to love.  It's about saying "yes" when we mean "yes" and saying "no" when we mean "no".  It would be nice if people actually used authentic yes's and no's because then we'd actually know who they truly are.  

Thus, in loving my spouse, I allow him or her to truly know my likes, dislikes, tastes, desires, and in the extreme, what I will not say yes to.  My boundaries invite my spouse to see who I truly am, and this is one of the greatest aspects of love, which is to know and be known.

The other week, I asked Sara if she'd consider doing something for me.  I can't even remember what it was, but what I do know is that she was very clear that her answer was "no".  I'm a lover of boundaries, but even for me, it was very difficult.  In the end, I have to deal with her yes's and no's, and her boundaries help me to know her heart, mind, and being.  This is one of the greatest aspects of loving our spouses despite the discomfort.  Knowing my partner's boundaries establishes trust through a baseline of predictability and connection.

Notice in the photo that I've chosen a gate to represent our boundaries.  Boundaries are not walls, rather they are like a gate which you can come in and out of with permission (Cloud & Townsend in Boundaries).  If you don't have permission, then the gate stays closed, but if you do have permission, then the gate is open and you can come on in.  Our gates are weaker or stronger depending upon the level of trust we have with the other person.

In the end, boundaries are about inviting others into relationship with who we truly are, which is a very loving act.  That isn't selfish. That's being outward focused.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons by authentic eccentric)

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Not only is this old adage incorrect because experience tells us the opposite, but it is incorrect because it assumes that words are not physical in nature.

When we bless or curse our spouses with our words, we physically move our diaphragms, puff out breaths of air, and move our mouths to produce sound waves.  These sound waves travel to our partner, which then hit their eardrums, causing vibrations.  These vibrations are then interpreted by their brain, and these messages we transmit day after day, have a physical effect on our partner's brain.  We literally change each other's brains as we interaction with our bodies and our words.  Thus, when we affirm one another with our words, we physically bless them, and when we hurt one another with our words, we also hurt them physically.

Sometimes, we hurt one another legitimately, such as when we establish a healthy boundary.  The other spouse might recognize the value in the boundary, but he or she is still hurt and disappointed.  It still hurts, but it is the kind of hurt that, when taken correctly, can actually benefit the intimacy of a relationship.  Nevertheless, the hurt is physical.  It occurred in a physical way, by way of words, sound-waves, eardrums, and changing our partner's brain.

The more violent aspect come from words that are meant to denigrate, tear down, hurl contempt, or comparison.  These words physically harm our partner's brains, and in this sense, it should be noted that all violence is physical.  So, if you've been thinking all your life that you aren't a very violent person, but you also tend to criticize your partner, compare him or her to others, belittle them, or simply attack them, then you are a physically violent person.

In this way, we are all physically violent people because we have all hurled insults at others to one degree or another.  Our words strike each other's brains just in the same way that sticks and stones strike each other's bodies.  Oh, and so many of us think we are off the hook because we don't insult one another.  In fact, we keep our mouths shut and refuse to do such things.  However, let me tell you about how I harm my wife - it is with my silence.  Thus, this adage is true - "The silence was deafening."

When I get angry with my wife, I get silent.  It might not be for very long, but it is long enough to hurt her with my language.  Yes, not all forms of language are verbal.  In fact, as a second language teacher, I know that one of the most important forms of emotional language is body language.  Silence is a form of body language that tells our partner we are very angry and yet we refuse to talk.  We refuse to engage.  You aren't worth me working past the discomfort to communicate with you at this time.  To clarify, it is definitely true that we might need to be silent for a time, in order to be able to sooth ourselves, but it is only for a time.  Once we are able to calm down, then it is time to enter verbal communication with our spouses.  It is at this point that we begin to truly harm our spouses if we refuse to talk.  When we give someone "the silent treatment" we are using our body language to do violence to them.  Our spouse sees our body language.  The light waves hit their retinas, get interpreted by their brain, and over time, our silent treatments begin to reconfigure their brains physically.  In short, our silent treatments, just like our verbal assaults are all physical forms of harm, which if done over time, constitute physical abuse as well.

Add to all of this that studies seems to suggest that our emotional status and physical health are connected in many ways, and you can see that emotional abuse over time will affect us physically.  Thus, even more reason to remember that our words and body language are physical in nature.

On the side of hope, the more we choose to bless one another, the more we physically restore one another's brains, bodies, and emotional hearts.  I believe there is only one way we can begin to turn around and begin to bless one another.  We have to believe we are forgiven so that we can have the freedom to try to do good to one another.  This is where individuation from our spouse must come.  Even if our spouse has a hard time forgiving us for all that we have done, we must decide that we are forgiven, decide to forgive ourselves, and believe we have the freedom to try to do good in the midst of all the uncertainty.

All of us are in different places in the spectrum of blessing and harming one another, but we are capable of doing great physical goodness or harm to one another through our words, our actions, our body language, and our physical comfort.  The hope is that we can begin to make repair, whichever part of the spectrum we fall on.  That is something that should uplift us!

Giving and Receiving

The humble spouse gives and receives affection, comfort, chores, conversation, and lovemaking without demand.  To give or receive without an agenda means our focus is simply to do good to us and our spouse.  In this sense, giving is not just about doing good to our spouse, but also doing good to ourselves.  At the same time, receiving is also about doing good both to our spouse and to our self.  Sometimes, receiving can be one of the most outwardly focused acts we can bestow upon another person.  Thus, the old adage is wrong - giving isn't better than receiving.  Instead, the adage should read - giving and receiving is better than taking.

The difference lies in our agendas.  If I have an agenda, in that I want the other person to do something for me, before I will give or receive, then I am capable of neither - I'm only capable of taking.  Thus, when an agenda is present, there is only taking, never any giving or receiving.  

We can take it even further to the idea of asking, or stating our desires.  This is truly vulnerable, but when we ask our spouses to meet a desire, without a demand on our part, we might truly be giving to them in a way they have never received before.  

Thus, the final adage might read - To ask, give, and receive are better than taking.  Thankfulness and joy are possible with all three.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons by Ray)

Soft Start Ups

"This isn't a criticism," were the first words out of my mouth.

Sara had left our daughter's fingernail clippers on the end-table in the living room, well within our daughter's reach, a perfect opportunity for her to "poke-her-eye-out".

My words and the short pause that followed were not meant to try to keep Sara happy, which would have been for my benefit instead of hers; rather they conveyed to her that my next words were not intended to be adversarial, which was to her benefit.

"The nail clippers were on the end table within our daughter's reach," were my next words.  Even these words were directed towards the situation, rather than what Sara had done, further helping to prevent escalating the situation.

Sara's response was something like, "Oh no, you're right! Thank you for getting them."  

Dr. John Gottman's research* time and time again reveals the presence of soft start-up's in good relationships that go the distance.  Soft start-up's aren't indirect, wishy-washy, or manipulative.  Quite the contrary, soft start-ups are very direct and to-the-point, yet they also tell the other party that our desire isn't to be adversarial.  Moreover, a soft start-up indicates that we want to connect with our partner instead of dividing.

When I initiate a soft start-up, I always have this mental picture in the back of my mind that I'm laying out an issue on the table, instead of hurling my words at her.  I even picture us side-by-side, looking the issue, instead of on opposite sides of the table.  This is a mental picture of partnership instead of confrontation.

By placing my words and the issue on the table, it gives Sara an opportunity (within reason) to enter conversation over the issue instead of having to deal with the extraordinarily complex act of juggling issues and insults at the same time.  

It also places me in a vulnerable position because it also allows her to talk about the issue in a way that I might not like.  She might not agree with my assessment of the situation.  Nevertheless, even if she disagrees with me, more often than not, she will also respond with me in a way that is equally non-adversarial.  

Soft start-up's, not always, but often beget soft-start up's in a cyclical pattern.  I think that soft start-up's fall under Gottman's category of the "Neutral Box" as well, which I discussed, two blog-entries ago.

*What Makes Love Last? and The Science of Trust by Gottman are good sources for more on soft start-ups and the "Neutral Box".  For a more practical and helpful tool for your marriage, read and work through the exercises in The Seven Principles of Marriage by Gottman.

Midday Visits


I believe that life is 33% intentionality, 33% bumbling around, and 33% out-of-our-control - at least something along these lines.  Nevertheless, we've got 33% intentionality and we can do something with that.  

When Sara and I moved to Seattle, we happened to move half-a-mile from a community college.  I seized the opportunity to apply for lots of positions at the college in order to work close to home.  I walk to school everyday and we're able to keep to a one-car family.  

Nevertheless, between my work day, graduate school for both Sara and I, along with raising a daughter, finding ways to connect with each other as a family can get put on the back-burner if we don't focus on the intentionality of the matter.

A beautiful thing recently has been Sara and my daughter coming to visit me around lunch time at work.  It's only 30 minutes of hangout time, but it goes a long way.  And by the way, Seattle rains a lot, so working through these rituals isn't always easy.  It's much easier to stay at home when it's raining, but it is more fulfilling in the long run to press on towards rituals that over time are the little big things in life.

As another example, I know a couple who about five or six years ago made a decision to spend 15 hours a week as a married couple without their kids.  Holy smokes!  How in the world do you do that?  Well, they made some decisions about the school they had their kids in, baby sitters, and bed-time.  They also limited their children's clubs and sports.  (Maybe their kids had to choose only one per year instead of three or four.)  Ultimately, they figured out how to do it without sacrificing their time with their kids.  I distinctly remember this couple saying that the level of tension in the family had decreased not only with them but with their kids.  I know that life is difficult and maybe you can't do what they did, but maybe you can find ten hours or five hours a week for each other.  In the end, part of this whole thing is the intentionality of it.  When our spouses see that we are being intentional about connecting, then this intentionality provides huge amounts of safety and gratitude.  The endorphins start to fire in relation to one another.

As a final example, I know a married couple who have a lot of money, but for a while, they only had one car, on purpose.  The wife drove the husband to work every day with their daughter.  It was a 20 minute drive, and it gave them the opportunity to talk to and from work.  Plus, the ritual of connecting every day builds upon our sense of trust and desire.  When they had their second child and his work moved further away, they finally decided to get a second car, but that couple years of driving to and from work together went a long way.  Even though they don't do this ritual any more, I'm sure they are finding other ways to initiate other rituals that help them to connect apart from driving to work together.  Intentionality is an upwards spiral if we keep focused on it.

So, what are you going to do with your 33% intentionality?  What are the small ways that you can move things around in life to make sure to connect with family in the midst of a busy life?  It doesn't have to be big.  Start with something small.  See what happens.

*Photo taken from Jeff Turner at flickr creative commons