Saturday, December 29, 2018

From the Inside to the Outside

For a lifetime, my heart has desired goodness and transformation for me and the world.  However, until my early thirties, my pursuit of these things had been unfulfilling and ineffective, looking something like this:

From the Outside to the Inside (unfulfilling and ineffective)
1. Change the world
2. Change my community
3. Change my family
4. Change myself

Bringing transformation and goodness in this way is filled with many good intentions but often unfulfilling and ineffective.

In my mid-thirties, for a variety of reasons, I discovered a much more fulfilling and effective way to bring about transformation and goodness:

From the Inside to the Outside (fulfilling and effective)
1. Self-Care
2. Family-Care
3. Community-Care
4. World-Care

This second model is slower but stronger over time.  As I care for myself, I can care for my family.  As I care for my family, I can care for my community.  And, as I care for my community, I can care for the world.

This might seem selfish, but it is the opposite.  Embarking upon self-care, and working from the inside to the outside, could be the most outwardly focused course of action we have ever embarked upon.

Photo by Laurent Naville on Unsplash

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Preschool Arts & Crafts

Creative art projects await us on Buy Nothing, whose geographically-based, Facebook groups offer a platform to give, receive, and request almost anything for free. 

I found this Keirug cup holder on my local Buy Nothing group, intending it for a creative art project with my 3.5 year old daughter.  

My daughter is learning to cut, tape, and perform other fine motor skills, so I figured we could cut up construction paper and hang strips from each circle.  My wife, daughter, and I cut them out together, adding important family time together.

We taped the pieces onto the K-cup holder.  My wife and I had ideas for the perfect design, but my daughter wanted her own pattern.  Time spent cutting and taping her five or six pieces contributed to growing motor skills.  

The whole thing was a cost-free mixture of family attachment, arts and crafts, and fine motor skills, the result being a fun, goofy type of Dr. Seuss concoction.  As you can see, the base of this K-cup holder rotates!

Buy Nothing and thrift stores provide numerous preschool arts and crafts projects for our developing minds and families.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Importance of Family Member Sleep Rhythms

In families, different members have different sleep rhythms, and these sleep rhythms can change over time.

"Early risers" sometimes receive false credit for hard work, while "night owls" might be called lazy or undisciplined.  However, sleep science is discovering these sleep rhythms have biological causes instead of perceived character traits.

For example, teenagers can receive a bad rap for laziness; however, a shift in sleep rhythm is more responsible.  Studies show that teenage sleep cycles generally shift bedtime to later in the evening and later in the morning.  Our high school systems have not responded very well, and I favor later classes for teenagers.

While life schedules are complex and intertwining, my hope for families is to accommodate the sleep patterns of its members as best as possible.

Work cited
"Secrets of Sleep Science: From Dreams to Disorders"
The Great Courses
Professor H. Craig Heller, Ph.D.
Stanford University

Photo above by Mpho Mojapelo on Unsplash

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The Importance of Sleep for Children (and Us)

Monday, October 8, 2018

Practice Trick or Treat Before Halloween

In our home, Halloween starts much sooner than October 31st because of our daughter's 3.5 year old imagination.  She has been practicing trick-or-treating since September 30th.

Almost daily, she puts on last year's butterfly costume, grabs our plastic jack-o-lantern, and knocks "trick-or-treat" on doors throughout the hallway.  My wife and I open with a "Happy Halloween" and drop small toys into her pretend collection of gummy dinosaurs, chocolate oxen, and licorice snakes.  

"Let's pretend trick-or-treating again!" She smiles.

Mom and Dad switch places, knocking on her doors, and receiving her pretend candy, extending Halloween from a one night event to weeks of playtime.  

Add Peppa Pig and Fancy Nancy Halloween books into the equation, and Halloween becomes a month-long tradition that builds family-emotional connections for a lifetime.  

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Importance of Sleep for Children (and Us)

Emotion coaching, healthy boundaries, and sleep are the most important factors in my parenting tool kit.  I bring up these three factors because one time a parent asked me how my daughter is so verbally advanced.  "Is it because you are a teacher?"  Truth be told, this is part of the equation, yet in my mind, emotions, boundaries, and sleep are far more important.  To sleep I turn.

Researchers are not entirely sure why we sleep, but they have found that brains seem to organize and reorganize emotions, memories, and learning.  Thus, sleep is not just about resting the body.  The brain is doing wildly amazing things at night.  When we shortchange our brains or our children's brains, mental and physical health can deteriorate over time.  Learning also becomes compromised, so that is why when I think of my own daughter's verbal acceleration, sleep is one of the key ingredients.

The average child needs 11-13 hours of sleep, the average adolescent (ages 10-19) needs 9-10 hours of sleep, and the average adult needs 7-8 hours of sleep.  The easiest way to figure out how much a child needs to sleep is to let them "sleep in" on the weekend.  How long do they sleep on average?  There you go.  After you figure that out, then think about when they need to wake up on the weekday.  Now calculate what time to wake up.

In my 3.5 year-old daughter's case, we figured that she needs about 12 hours of sleep a night.  This is from when she actually falls asleep until she wakes up on her own.  She usually talks to herself for about half-and-hour, and we want her to wake up on her own by 7:30am in the morning.  This means we need her to fall asleep by 7:30pm.  Backtrack 30 minutes for her to fall asleep, and that means turning the lights off by 7pm.  Backtrack 30 minutes for books, story time, teeth brushing, and turning the lights off, and this puts us at 6:30pm.  There it is - we must start working towards bed by 6:30pm.  The planning gets even more tricky for schedules because that means we need to make sure we have dinner by 5pm, because we want to have family time after dinner, instead of rushing her off to bed.

Many parents have schedules that work against such planning, and with today's working couples, working single parents, and working divorced parents, scheduling can be quite daunting.  The goal is to try to do what we can with our schedules to make sure they get as close to the amount of sleep their bodies need.  

The question is what can we cancel, move, or rearrange to make it happen?  Our children's emotional, mental, and physical health depends upon it.  By the way, how is your sleep as a parent?  It is also part of the equation.  Longer sleep can lead to better parenting.

Science of sleep videos you might be interested in:

Photo at top by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Songs at the Dinner Table

For those who do not follow religious traditions, the notion of prayer before dinner feels a bit strange.  However, dinner table traditions seem to be important for some reason, so we try to implement them.  Sometimes, we pray.  Sometimes, we don't.  Often, we share good and bad things that have happened during the day, offering empathy for one another.  Even our three-year-old daughter participates in this part.

This evening, we sang a song in lieu of a prayer.  Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was known for her signature spiritual song, "This Little Light of Mine".  I had the urge to sing the first verse of the song, probably due to my recent research of her life.  I have a terrible singing voice, but I started us off, and my wife helped me out shortly thereafter.

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Not every song needs to be tied to civil rights activism, but this one was.  There are so many short song verses that can be sung at the dinner table, ones that fit your background.  Feelings of connection and empathy can go hand-in-hand with a song.

Two minutes into dinner, my daughter quietly sang one line.

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine...

May you always, beautiful daughter.

Photo at top by Daiga Ellaby on

If you'd like to listen to Fannie Lou Hamer leading others in "This Little Light of Mine", then here it is:

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Mindfulness Playground Parenting

The playground is a good place to practice mindfulness or contemplative prayer, whatever the tradition.  Turn off the cell phone, watch the kids, and interact with them.  Try to be aware of the kids, their movements, and their voices.  Try to be aware of the sounds of the air, the birds, the cars, and the voices of other kids in the playground. 

When thoughts of the past or future come to the mind, just notice the thoughts, and be observant of them, but then look back to the kids, the environment, and the sounds within earshot.  Try to get back into observing the physical world with all senses.  If contemplative prayer is the practice, then refocus on that phrase or verse that brings the heart, mind, and senses back to the present, in order to focus on the kids and the environment.  Even focusing on attentive conversation with the kids, while they do their playing, can be a type of mindfulness.  Heck, playing with them can be a type of mindfulness.  Anything to keep focused on the present.  

If the kids play for thirty to sixty minutes, then that equals thirty to sixty minutes of mindfulness or contemplative prayer.  No doubt the temptation will be to turn the phone back on, cutting mindfulness or contemplative prayer short.  Be observant of that and see if you can get back into the present and let go of the phone.  Try to be okay with the discomfort of not looking at it.  

Connection with the kids, the environment, and maybe even the divine are physically felt through oxytocin and other types of reaffirming chemicals in our bodies.  It is like feeling a sense of peace, which is positive for both parents and children.  Self-condemnation is not needed.  Just keep trying.  

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Don't Tell Them "What Do You Say?"

Very often, I hear parents tell their toddlers or young children, "What do you say?" after receiving a gift or help from someone.  I have one  thing to say, "Don't do it."

Most often, toddlers and children don't respond to this well-intended command for one simple reason - they aren't ready yet.  One thing I know from both teaching and parenting is that an obsessive amount of modeling and mimicking leads to developmental and learned changes, whereas a well-intended command often leads to a blank face.

The better thing to do with our toddlers and young children is to use, "Say thank you," with a slightly high pitched tone at the end to note an invitation, rather than a demand to perform.  Instead of a blank face, I believe toddlers and young kids respond differently to this type of modeling and mimicking.  The truth is that toddlers' and young kids' cognitive brains are still developing, and though we might think my child knows what to say, the reality is that they might NOT actually know what to say in the moment without copying and repeating you.  

Over time, with enough modeling and mimicking, they will begin to say "Thank you" on their own, without being asked to do so.  This is not just a good way to teach them how to say "Thank you", but a way to help them do lots of things in their developmental growth and learning.  

*Photo used with permission by Alexander Lyubavin at

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Profound Art and Children's Books

When we read books to our toddlers and young children, the stories are not the only things to focus on.  I didn't realize this until I had my own kid, of course.  The artwork is often amazing, and slowing down to point out the artwork to our kids can be extremely life-giving and emotionally connective.

Take the above paintings.  First of all, the faces are so important.  I can say, "He has a happy face.  Oh, and look, his cheeks are red and he's holding his arms out.  He's having a fun time! And, in the train, they are both waving and the boy is smiling.  How do you think they feel?"

For me, focusing on the feelings in artwork for a child is super important.  In fact, this might be number one over anything else because it is so helpful for their emotional development.

Beyond identifying feelings in the pictures, the artwork itself can be pointed out as well.  "Look at that wave.  It's moving and curvy and blue and white.  It looks like that fish is all wrapped up in it.  In the back there's a stork and way in the back, in the sky, there are a lot of birds flying around.  Do you see those birds?"

"Look how fast that train is moving.  Do you see these lines on each side of the train?  That means it is moving fast.  And, look at these trees.  They are bending away from the train!  Have you ever seen trees bending away from a train before?  I don't think a train can really bend trees, but you know what can bend trees like that?  The wind.  Yes, the wind can bend the trees and then they are swaying in the wind." 

Colors and shapes can also be pointed out.  "That sail is really cool looking.  It's yellow with an orange stripe going right through the middle of it.  Do you like orange and yellow?

The whole idea in what I'm talking about is to slow things down.  We can burn through ten books at once, or we can work through one or two books by paying attention to the artwork in addition to the stories themselves.  I think that helping our children to pay attention to artwork can also help them learn to be more mindful, as in focusing in on the present.  It's almost like a form of meditation.  It is a way to emotionally attune with our young ones.

Oh, and of course, if they get bored with slowing down, they'll let us know when it's time to turn the page and get on with the story!

*Mark A. Hicks