goal setting

Unreal InstaLife

Following up on my last two blog posts regarding social and electronic media, My Better Half shared this video with me:

The way this video represents a range of social media behaviors feels raw and real by focusing on the actions and nonverbal forms of communication in the physical presence of each person. I thought this was worth sharing in so far as it's evocative and can help facilitate a discussion. 

I have a few guidelines I've implemented in my daily life - and recommended to clients - that I think could be helpful to incorporate into everyone's daily routines:

Zero tolerance for technology during meals.

This can be delimited and brief (even 5 to 10 minutes) with no one looking at their phone. The ritual of breaking bread with others is so valuable for a variety of reasons, and I think that is a routine worth establishing as often and as early as possible with children and families.

Now, what I would encourage people to do is to have a fairly elastic definition of meal times. I get to meet with a number of children and adolescent clients who are working on skills like sitting during meals or eating a variety of food. It's not cheating if you change the definition. A meal could be a snack your kid likes to eat after school. Or meal planning time when you pick out what you're going to eat for breakfast or pack lunches for the next day together.

Keep the phone out of the bed. Literally.

Don't bring your phone in bed when reading stories to your children, talking with your partner, or transitioning to sleep. Even if you're a medical provider who needs to be on call at night, the psychological distance of putting it on a night stand that is a few feet away can be very real.

Be intentional about how & when you use your phone.

Rather than mindlessly and passively scrolling into the oblivion of your Facebook feed, go on a mission to find something or connect with someone through direct messaging. Messaging with intent is very different than just liking the buh-Jesus out of every witty or contrarian thought.

Reward yourself and your children for setting and sticking to technology limits.

If your 7-year-old child can go from 5 to 7 PM with a focus on playing outdoors or building something with their hands or their imagination, praise them like they're walking on the water. It's a big damn deal in this day and age to occupy ones self without the aid of technology. Pay attention to what you want to see more of and bring on the parade when you see the good behavior in action.

Take your teen's access to technology seriously.

A paper I read yesterday highlights the complexity of adolescents' access to social media and how it impacts their well-being. The catalytic effect of one post or accidental share can alter the trajectory of a child's academic year or self-concept without caregivers' even knowing.

This line in particular rung most true for me and ties in nicely with the video above:

...the social exclusion and comparison resulting from vast amounts of time reading large social media feeds and seeing friends doing things without you and comparing your inner emotional experience to everyone else’s highly groomed depictions of their seemingly marvelous lives.

While this run-on sentence may seem a far cry from the reality of parent- or adult-hood, I'd bet the farm that the so-called average adolescent could speak to the truth of this point of view. The world is both bigger and more constrained than it's ever been, making the boundaries harder to find and more difficult to delineate during times like these...

Do Less, Well

I've been thinking about how to say this for the last few weeks, and nothing I've thought has sat well enough that I felt fully comfortable writing and sharing it widely. I'm trying to avoid devolving into a know-it-all advice column, so I've been perseverating on how to say this.

But I'm going to say this because it's something I'm trying to live myself and help others to do. And I think it's a perspective worth sharing with you.

Everybody is doing too much, almost all of the time.

You probably already know this, but my hope is that reading what I have to say here will help you see the value of doing less, well.

I recently read an article in the September 19-October 2, 2016 edition of New York Magazine, which prompted me to get over the perfectionist parts in myself that hesitated to write this.

This piece is not the first to speak to the digital hijacking of free time and empty space, but I think it underscores the frequency, intensity, and duration of the electronic undertow many of us are caught in. I will acknowledge here the subtle irony of my writing adding to this current.

I see so many people - adults, children, adolescents, parents - racing to DO, TO GET DONE and so few folks feeling comfortable or even permitted by themselves to simply BE PRESENT. Not only present with others, but with themselves, their thoughts, their feelings, their bodies.

Now, I freely confess (to those that don't already know) that I am no Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree. I am a born, reinforced, dyed in the wool diehard DO-er of the first order. I come by it honest through my parents, gathered a lot of my worth as child by racking up accolades, and married a woman who gets stuff done all day long. I believe there is value in the dignity of work and accomplishing things daily either in the service of others, to further yourself, and ideally, both. 

However, I feel like we DO too much by trying to always fix things rather than trying to find some time to BE in order to understand and appreciate things as they are. I know there are so many, many things we want to change or be different in our lives:

How can I get my child to talk [about their feelings in general or when they are upset or AT ALL or EVER]?

How can I help them express their feelings [differently or safely or in an acceptable manner]?

These questions seem to demand a DO approach. How else could a caregiver respond to these two questions than by taking as much action as possible in order to help their child today?

But how do we know WHAT to DO until we first examine HOW we ARE right now? I'm not talking about some existential examination of consciousness or a philosophical debate on the value of neurodiversity. What I'm talking about is taking stock of ourselves, our behavior, our goals, and our dreams before we start to act on the world hoping that it will change.

There's never enough time in the day, the week, or the year to think and feel our way through things without also doing something to make those things happen. Every impulse in my rational being pushes me to get stuff done, too. I am easily seduced by the allure of getting stuff done.

What I want to sell you on is DOING LESS, WELL in order to have more time to SIMPLY BE.

Some examples:

  • Sit in a room by yourself and think for 5 minutes about your day (the one you're in)
  • Eat a snack outside or near a window and think about your dreams (any of them)
  • Read a book that you once loved as a child (it doesn't matter how young you were)
  • Turn off the radio and listen to the hum in the car (or the sounds of the road)

Now, I believe that everyone can do one of these every single day. I know I can, and I often forget or contradict myself by multitasking my way through many aspects of my daily routine.

I think part of what keeps many of us from simply being with ourselves for brief periods of time is an overwhelming sense of anxiety or guilt that we're not DOING all we can in that moment.

A continual pattern of DOING can quickly cause a cacophony of activity with no end in sight.

These are some ways I've tried to set limits on my over-DOING and increasing my BEING:

  • Set Do Not Disturb function (with professional exceptions) on my phone during dinner
  • Play video games for 15 minutes during lunch (yep, Zelda is my favorite)
  • Read the lyrics to the songs I sing to my children every night (I'm old, I know
  • Walking down our wooded driveway with my son (just trying to listen to him)

In my work with families, I try to encourage and foster this concept of BEING over DOING by inviting them to focus on 1 or 2 (tops!) things each week as part of our work together. I also try to constrain folks to focus on these 1 or 2 things really well during specific periods of time. So rather than say, "Change the way you respond to this behavior ALL DAY," I try to help families identify a time during the day when they are most likely to be successful with this strategy.

My tacit hope, which I have not until now fully articulated, is that by focusing on 1 or 2 things to DO, I can help free up more time for families to BE with their children and with themselves. Now I think this is somewhat wishful thinking on my part knowing that many families cannot rest too easily unless they feel or even know they have done all they can for their children. 

But here it is: I think most of us would be much happier and behaviorally better of if we DID LESS, WELL.

Picking through Dinner

Last week I posted on how to make change incrementally. After I wrote this, I got thinking about a concrete way to demonstrate these principles. An example we can all relate to and even start practicing in our own lives. I had to think no further than dinnertime. Every. Evening.

My 3-year-old adorable son has a way of eating at a pace that is uniquely his (and not the rest of his family's). God bless him for marching to the beat of his own drum, but sometimes, child, I just wish he could take an ounce of our Type A and get the eating done on Harrison time.

Needless to say, it can be a struggle to get him to eat a decent amount. Setting a goal of "finishing your plate" has rarely, if ever, ended well. Then, predictably, right before bed we hear the plaintiff plea, "I'm hungry." Here are the steps our household is taking to deal with it: 

  • Control portion size. We dish out much less than we want him to eat. It makes the goal of finishing more attainable, and we can praise the heck out of him for it like he's just "walked on the water."  We reinforce asking for healthy food if he wants more dinner.
  • Adjust expectations. We're all done eating, and he still has half of his mini-portion left. Instead of telling him to eat or threatening to remove a reward, we'll pull out 2 bites that I really want him to eat, usually a meat or veggie piece. I clear the rest of his plate. Once he finishes those two bites, he is finished at the table (sans treat if we had to negotiate).
  • Offer a reward & make it contingent. If he finishes his plate, he gets something he wants to eat right then and there. One he can pick for himself. We have a perpetual candy bowl in the house that started with Halloween and will transfer like miscellaneous sugar tumbleweeds into an Easter basket soon enough. All of the candy is individual bite-sized servings so they're not inhaling a ton of it. ALSO: He only gets to pick out a piece of candy after he has eaten his meal to our general satisfaction; there is no foraging later or earlier in the day for candy until he has eaten the meal we reasonably provided.
  • Offer alternatives. But only if it's already an option (side dish) associated with the dinner you prepared. This is hard for my Better Half. She seriously thinks he will starve to death if he doesn't eat one meal. If he cries at the sight of chili and short-cons us into offering chicken fingers, we're effectively reinforcing crying to get the food you want. I fully recognize that this example is not that simple in a lot of situations, but I do think there's a lot of value in making sure whatever options you intend to offer are already available.

One way to re-route this process is to have your "what they ingest" priorities straight out of the gate and have your "check-downs" at the ready before you engage them. If the meal is chili with crackers and cheese, have it all laid out on the table and lead with a small portion of chili, reminder of eating this portion, then incrementally dole out the crackers with cheese once you have some positive momentum on the chili side of the dinner. Then, only the candy bowl after the small-sized serving of chili and the crackers and cheese are finished. Yes, I really do put this much thought into this, but I only do it because, more often than not, it works well for us.

Here's a simple dinner contingency map for those visual learners out there.

Here's a simple dinner contingency map for those visual learners out there.

Great Guidance

I really like this post from The Baby Center on teaching responsibility: 

The responsible child: How to teach responsibility (ages 3 to 4)

I subscribed to this blog/email list back when our oldest child was a year old, and I've really enjoyed the updates and anticipatory guidance this website provides. It's something I can hold onto, think about, and then incorporate into my style of parenting both of our children.

The title of this post from the Baby Center is "How to teach responsibility," and I really, really like how it breaks down the broad/abstract concept of responsibility into steps/principles. From my point of view, responsibility is something that is demonstrated and learned over time; I believe it reflects a concerted effort to demonstrate, label, and praise specific actions daily.

While this particular post references preschoolers, I think the bold face points can apply quite well to individuals throughout childhood and into adolescence. I also feel like there's a lot of value in reframing child-centric recommendations like these in terms of life principles for caregivers. For example, establishing routines, providing praise, and allowing for space and ups-and-downs is a critical skill for parents to practice and hone as they support their children through development. The principles, rather than the specific application of them, work well for most children regardless of their current language and motor abilities. The challenge then is in translating these principles into action items for both caregivers and their children, and this is something I try to work with families on addressing in a clear, concise, and concrete manner.

What I have often found is that families feel stuck about where to start with teaching a specific skill, and I try to encourage them to break down the steps associated with a task. I then ask them what their child can do without help, with some help, and with lots of help. This gives us a reference point from where we are most likely to be successful and then find the place in that chain where we want to start teaching one aspect of this new behavior chain.

Picking the right place to start can be a matter of finding the "sweet spot" for raising the bar for a child so that they can almost walk over the bar rather than having to jump over it. When trying a new approach, I perseverate on how to set people up for success out the gate so that it feels attainable initially and rewarding once achieved. This incremental, focused approach can work well for a range of social skills and adaptive behaviors across childhood.

Stay tuned for next week's post where I walk through how we try to implement this principle in our house on a daily basis as part of our mealtime routine with our cherubic youngest child.

With the Help of Thy Grace


On the 4th floor of The Cardinal Gibbons School, our teacher always asked us to stand at the start of each 10th grade English class.  We had a lot of characters for teachers, and Mr. Foy was definitely one of them. Equal parts Bilbo Baggins and Robin Williams as played in Dead Poets Society, Mr. Foy began each English class by asking us to stand and say in unison the following 4 prayers: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and traditional Act of Contrition.

Each line in this last prayer always resonated with me, and through the passage of time and the taking up of my profession as a psychologist, the one that rings most clearly still is:

I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace

As we have just started a New Year, I imagine many of us (myself included) have acts and thoughts we want to resolve. The origin of the word resolve comes from the Latin and has come to take on a few different meanings: to loosen; to find a solution; solve; to put right.

Many of us will make resolutions to eat better, sleep more, work out, read books, and be nicer. After the newness of the year wears off, the resolve many of us felt at the threshold weakens. This then is when I believe that grace, either from within or above, comes in awfully handy. By grace then I mean being able to maintain your poise in reaching and striving for these goals.

I think there are things we can do to maintain our resolve toward establishing these habits:

  1. Set Goals you can readily achieve and make them Observable and Measurable. Vague goals are unlikely to be met even for those with the firmest resolve.
  2. Create an Accountability Mechanism for tracking the goal. This can be an Excel spreadsheet, daily posting of your runs to Facebook, automating reminder to report your progress to your best friend.
  3. Find a Cue that for you signals the new routine. Maybe it's a song, a sound, an image -- whatever it takes, try to find something you cannot tune out and make it something that reminds you of something you are working toward.
  4. Make Space and Time for the new routine. If you want to start running tomorrow, go to bed in your running outfit and put your running shoes by the door. Have the coffee set to go off 15 minutes after you come home so that it's ready to drink after you shower. If you haven't run in 2 years, focus on walking three days a week or even stretching for a few minutes each morning as your coffee brews. Start today.
  5. Establish a clear Reward for following the new routine. In order to drink the coffee, you have to (stretch, walk, run). In order to watch football on Sunday, resolve to (attend church, mow the lawn, volunteer, reach out to family). Making things at least somewhat contingent will help move the habit forward, at least initially. It will be important, though, to establish an internal reward or reason for the goal you have set. Reminding yourself of the "why" you're trying to do something different is also important.
  6. Find a Buddy or Build a Team to share the new routine. This could range from finding a friend to run with, joining a running team or an on-line support community that can offer encouragement and accountability while working toward the goal.

One of my absolute favorite on-line communities that I stumbled across a few years ago is Nerd Fitness. I like how it incorporates an interest in gaming with social connectedness.

Good luck with your New Year's Goals in 2017!