Tag Archives: children

Why It’s a Bad Idea to “Interview for Pain.”

One of my favorite parenting books is Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill’s Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understand the Social Lives of Children.

Like most good parenting books, the advice turns out to be just as useful when dealing with adults as it is when dealing with children. (I think about Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s brilliant How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk more often in the context of adult than of child interactions.)

As I was reading Best Friends, Worst Enemies, I was particularly struck by Thompson’s warning against “interviewing for pain.”

He describes a situation where your child complains about another child’s behavior, and then every day, when your child returns from school, you ask, “So, honey, was Pat mean to you today?”

Thompson points out that children are quick to realize that bad stories about Pat will be a good way to get your attention, and that they may seek to satisfy you, and present the facts in the most attention-grabbing way. Also, Thompson writes,

“I believe that we live the story we tell ourselves–and others–about the life we’re leading…If you constantly interview your child for pain, your child may begin to hear a story of social suffering emerge from her own mouth. Soon she will begin to believe it and will see herself as a victim….

“Please understand that I am not advising you to disbelieve our children, nor am I saying that you should not be empathic…But…don’t interview for pain, don’t nurture resentments, and don’t hold on to ancient history. Kids don’t.”

And although Thompson doesn’t make this point, it also seems to me that by asking this question, we focus a child’s attention on that part of the day. Instead of thinking about the happy interactions that took place, the child tries to remember painful interactions.

Not “interviewing for pain” seems to me to be excellent advice for dealing with children–and also adults.

For instance, I can imagine a well-meaning friend or spouse or family member asking at every meeting, “So is your ex-wife still as awful as ever?” or “Is your boss still so difficult to work with?”

Now I remind myself not to interview for pain. Yes, stay open to a discussion, if someone close to me wants to talk about something painful. Not to be dismissive, not to be eager to avoid the subject — but also not to shine such a spotlight on a difficult situation that everything good fades out.

Have you ever interviewed for pain — or perceived that someone was interviewing you for pain?

How Laura Ingalls Wilder Got a Rebel To Learn His Lessons

I’m a huge fan of children’s literature (in fact, I’m in three reading groups where we read children’s and young-adult literature), and Laura Ingalls Wilder has always had a special place in my heart.

So I was thrilled when I found out that her book Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, was being published. I raced through the book last week; so fascinating. For instance, it turns out Nellie Olsen was an amalgam of three annoying girls.

I was particularly struck, however, when I read a scene that also appears in These Happy Golden Years. Which I know like the back of my hand, by the way.

Laura is fifteen years old, and teaching school, where one of her pupils is Clarence. He’s older than Laura, very smart; “he was quick in speaking and moving…[and] had a way of speaking that was almost saucy.” He misbehaves occasionally, but the bigger issue is that after the first few days, that he refuses to study, and tells her “It’s no use trying to learn such long lessons.”

Laura is frustrated, because she knows that he could learn the lessons if he tried, but he won’t.

When Laura asks her parents for advice, Ma says, “It’s attention he wants.” Now that I’ve figured out the Four Tendencies, I disagree. I think Ma was nearer the mark when she also observes, “Better not try to make him do anything, because you can’t.” (If you want to read about the Four Tendencies–Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel, or take the Quiz to determine your own Tendency, go here.)

From the description, I’d say that Clarence is a Rebel. He can’t stand for someone to tell him that he must do something; when he hears this, he resists, even though he’s a smart kid who wants to learn.

But when Laura changes her approach, he changes.

When Laura gives others their assignments, she tell him, “This doesn’t mean you, Clarence; it would make your lesson far too long…How much do you think you can learn? Would three [pages] be too much?”

In this way, she does two things. First, she leaves the choice to Clarence, and gives him freedom. Rebels want to act from choice and freedom.

Second, for Rebels, the impulse “I’ll show you!” is often very strong. They tend to respond to a challenge. When she suggests that he can’t master three pages, he thinks, “I’ll show her.”

The Pioneer Girl version shows this dynamic even more dramatically. There, Laura reports that she said, “‘Is that too long Clarance? Perhaps it is and better take only to here. I really don’t think you could learn so far as I first said,’ and he would exclaim, ‘Oh yes I can teacher.’ He had now gotten to the point where he would add a little more to my first suggestion and learn it too, to prove that he could.”

Within a week, Clarence has caught up to the other pupils.  He studied at night to master the material.

It’s very useful to understand the Four Tendencies, because Rebels — and Upholders, Questioners, and Obligers — really have very different perspectives on the world. If we want to be persuasive, if we want to work and live harmoniously with other people, it’s helpful to understand their ways of seeing things.

Ah, how I love Laura Ingalls Wilder! The end of my book Happier at Home is an homage to her and her brilliant work. Of everything I’ve ever written, I must say, the last few pages of Happier at Home are definitely among my favorites.

Have you ever found a way to communicate with someone — so that a point of conflict vanished? It’s not easy to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

“Replying Too Quickly to Emails Is a Rotten Habit of Mine.”

Habits interview: Jennifer Senior.

I’ve long been a big fan of Jennifer Senior’s writing in New York magazine — for instance, she recently published a fascinating piece, To the Office, With Love: What Do We Give Up When We All Become Freedom-Seeking, Self-Determining, Autonomous Entrepreneurs? A Lot, Actually.

Jennifer has also written a terrific, thought-provoking book (which by the way has an absolutely brilliant title): All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. So many books tackle the question of how parents affect their children — but this book examines how children affect their parents.  Which they do, dramatically.

All Joy and No Fun just came out in paperback, so that seemed like a good time to ask Jennifer some questions about her habits.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Jennifer: It can be really awkward to talk about this, but new parenthood, I’ve discovered, often derails our habits for a while. Even having young kids can do it. I hear this a lot from parents: I used to read/go to the gym every morning/cook Thai three nights a week before my kids came along. It feels vaguely heretical to discuss it, because if we admit as much, it sounds like we’re blaming our kids—My life was so swell before you came along! You’ve upended my life! But of course they’ve added something immeasurably huge to our lives. We’re psychotically, madly in love with them (and have never known this kind of love before); they give us a vectored sense of purpose. They’ve just left us a bit confused about how to reapportion our time. Three days ago, after giving a talk, I was chatting with this lovely woman who said, more or less: I haven’t read a single book since my kid was born. And I replied: And I haven’t gone swimming in over two months. (Her kid, at least, was two. Mine is seven.) I thought my evening swims were pretty well established in my life. But I swam at just the hour I now come home from work to make sure I see my son. My body just doesn’t seem to enjoy swimming at any other time of day. What I’ve discovered when talking to parents—at least of young kids—is that we all temporarily lose something. The trick is not to judge ourselves too harshly for it, and to have faith that it will come back, or at the very least to think imaginatively about ways to partially get it back. Partial may have to suffice for now. (You talk about this a lot in your work: Focus on making things *better,* not on total perfection.)

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I gained and lost a healthy habit, which stands out to me as both a sunshiny beacon of hope—I can do it!—and a grim little monument to my own failure (How on Earth did you let that slip away?) It was this: For one glorious year, I meditated. Every day, twice a day, twenty minutes each time. It was the. Greatest. Thing. Ever. My sleep improved in ways I’d dared not hope for, at least as an adult. I was less reactive around my kid. I had more perspective around adults. I had more energy. Less twingy-annoying aches and pains. I should also emphasize how weird it was that I meditated in the first place: If the human body is made up of quadrillions of molecules, about six of mine are prone to New Age solutions to everyday anxieties. You have to show me several thousand peer-reviewed Western medical journals before I start contemplating such a thing. The literature on meditation convinced me—meditation isn’t New Age anyway, but thousands of years old—but then I went and did something extremely counterproductive: I Googled my mantra. You are, needless to say, not supposed to do anything of the sort. It sounds like the kind of thing Larry David would do. No good can come of it, and no good did. Once I’d Googled, I’d crossed some invisible Rubicon, because I read just enough stuff about TM to make me feel queasy about it—even though it was helping me. Enormously. I mean, at that point, it truly shouldn’t have mattered. Yet it did.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ooooh, I have an answer for this, though I warn you now: It’s very trivial. But you did ask for something simple, so here goes: I love making healthy smoothies in the morning. They’re virtue in a cup! If I do nothing right all day long, I have at least started my day with the soothing ritual of peeling ginger and stripping kale away from its veins and throwing flax seeds into a blender, as if I were tossing rice at bride. And then I drink the whole mess, which means I’ve had at least one healthy meal.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Yes. I tend to classify too many things in my mind as “urgent”—work in particular—which gets in the way of my ability to regularize activities that are healthier and more fun. (Exercise being a particularly good example: I somehow think, I can always swim tomorrow, but I’m so behind on this thing I have to write/research/reply to that I’d better do it NOW.) I think lots of parents do this, working mothers in particular. It takes a lot of discipline to remember that minute-to-minute stuff is just that, STUFF, not a crisis. As a corollary to this problem: I’d say that replying too quickly to emails is a rotten habit of mine. So is checking them too frequently. All of us do this, but because I’m not much of a dopamine fiend—I’m not a big drinker or gambler or anything-elser—this must be how I get my fix. (It does not help, I should add, that my desk is in my bedroom. For this, I blame New York City real estate. Our place doesn’t have enough rooms for me to have a separate office at home.) Many parents talk to me about this too—again, with great guilt. They feel like they’re scanning their emails when they should be hanging out with their kids. I think all of us would benefit from better habits around this stuff, but we have to forgive ourselves too. As Sherry Turkle from MIT likes to say, “Just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up.” We haven’t yet developed a set of norms about when to reply to emails. They also come intermittently, which, as we know from B.F. Skinner’s work with rats, is the single most satisfying reward schedule to our brains. It’s hard to resist checking our inboxes, knowing that something marvelous could appear in there at any time.

This said, I went on an email sabbatical this summer — by which I mean I stopped checking my email in the evenings and on weekends — and it was a revelation. Perfect in every way. I’m going to try to institute the evening rule again.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

An Obliger, no question. For better and for worse. [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, the Quiz is here.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Interesting: I never thought of myself as a person with many habits. I don’t think I resist having them so much as fail to develop them in the first place, if you know what I mean. Some people are more reactive when it comes to life, particularly us Obligers—if something happens that we need to accommodate, we accommodate it. I’ve also never been a person who craved structure—I’m strikingly oblivious to pandemonium, and I’m perfectly delighted to keep things loose at all times (and this is probably good for parenting)—but I suspect habits would make me far happier, because I’m almost stupidly happy when someone supplies a routine for me. (And kids love routines. So that, too, is great for parenting.) It’s just not an Obliger’s instinct to actively seek one out, as you know.

“Do the Most Important Thing of the Day First Thing in the Morning.”

Happiness and habits interview: Debbie Stier.

I got to know Debbie when she was working in book publishing, because she was one of the first people to go deep into the question of how online tools could help authors connect with readers.

We became friends, and when she started The Perfect Score Project, I followed her progress with delight on her blog. I love a project, I love Debbie’s approach to the world, and I was fascinated by her undertaking — to try to connect better with her teenage children through the SAT, and in the process, figure out the SAT.

Her book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, just came out. It’s wonderful — a great read, even if you don’t care about the SAT, it’s just so much fun — and has been getting a crazy amount of buzz, from The New Yorker to the Today show.

Debbie thought a lot about habits during her work on The Perfect Score Project, so I was interested to hear what she’d learned.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Debbie: Making my bed (hehe). Seriously, I read about “making the bed” in The Happiness Project, and I’ve made my bed every day since then.  Honestly,  it really does make me happier.

“Outer order means inner order,” as my agent, Lisa Gallagher, likes to say!

And of course, the big “E.” There is no denying that I feel consistently happier when I exercise. I shoot for 7 days a week and usually end up with 5.  Three of those 5 are “real” exercise, and two are “phone ins.”  The correlation is unmistakeable: the more I exercise, the better I feel. Period.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Do the most important thing of the day first thing in the morning.

I like to exercise in the morning because if I don’t do it then, my day can very easily slip away, and then I don’t do it at all.  And/or, those times when I leave exercising until nighttime are the “phone in” workouts. I don’t push myself at night.

The problem is that I also find morning to be best time for “the brain juice.” So, if I need to get something written or to deep think, I really hate to waste the best brain juice at the gym.

Bottom line: priorities change.  Mornings are reserved for those things I deem to be most important.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Not that I can think of! The closest I can come is, “staying up too late.”  I shoot to be in bed by 11 p.m., but the truth is, I’m rarely in bed before 1 a.m. (eek), and since I’m a “morning person,” this doesn’t leave me with enough sleep.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.).

Watching 1-2 episodes of a funny sitcom right before bed with my kids.  We never end the day without watching a funny show together — ever. I find it to be good for the spirit to laugh together, right before bedtime.

At least 6 hours per night of sleep.

I try to eat healthy food. I’d say I’m about 75% successful!

Exercise!  I get in shape fast … and I get out of shape twice as fast.

And everything feels bad when I’m not in shape (i.e. clothes, mood, etc.).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Oh goodness, I’m always going in and out of habits. If I really want to make something happen, it goes on the #1-priority-when-I wake-up list.

The other trick I’ve used to get myself back into exercise is to buy nice gym clothes. I know, that sounds shallow, but if I have exercise clothes that I’m excited to wear, I’m more likely to do it.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

TOO HARD FOR ME TO ANSWER THIS BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE ALL OF THEM! [For what it’s worth, I think Debbie is a Questioner.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties).

My inability to say no.  I’m a knee–jerk “yes” person, which means I over-extend.  I end every day feeling unaccomplished when the truth is that I usually accomplish a lot, but I bit off more than I could chew.

Also, I usually underestimate how long something will take to do.  I’m bad at estimating time.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Not that I can think of.

I’ve made many changes as a result of reading a book or conversations with friends, but I can’t think of any “flash” changes.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I love habits (at least in theory).  I spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to maximize my life, searching for life hacks, etc. I’m obsessed with squeezing every drop out of every experience, so I’m always on the hunt for new systems and habits that’ll streamline.

Also, I love seeing and hearing about other people’s systems and habits.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Catherine Johnson (blogger: Kitchen Table Math and co-author with Temple Grandin of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior)!  She is “the queen of the system.”  You should visit her at her house and have her show you her systems – she is extraordinary and GREAT at “habits.”  One of my all-time favorite activities is to have Catherine tell me about her systems.

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Before and After: Use Self-Observation to See What the Triggers Are.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Kelly Pietrangeli.

I used to have a very bad habit of shouting at my kids. (The irony of shouting at my kids to “stop shouting” was not lost on me.) I knew I needed to stop, but counting to 10 and taking deep breaths never worked for me. I needed to find some kind of strategy that would actually work.

 

I decided the first step was to talk to my kids and tell them I wanted to change this habit. I promised them that if I ever shouted I’d have to apologise. I don’t like to apologise so this was a real biggie for me.

 

Next I went into self-observation mode for a few days to see what my typical triggers were. I noticed I’m short fused when I’m tired first thing in the morning and at end of the day and that being on time for school or activities made me edgy and more prone to outbursts. Knowing that I have more patience at some times than others made me see that often it wasn’t their behaviour that ’caused’ me to lose my rag, but it was my own problem.

 

I don’t tolerate winging, complaining or being uncooperative, but I created a mantra: “My child is not BEING a problem, my child is HAVING a problem.” This helped me to reframe the situation and come at it from a better angle.

 

I then read Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham.

 

Dr. Markham tells us that if we really want to stop yelling, it’s completely possible – no matter how ingrained it is. It’s not rocket science and takes about 3 months once you’ve made the commitment.

 

This is the best book I’ve ever read for helping me understand myself and my children better.

 

Becoming a former Shout-a-holic was not an easy process for me and I slipped up a lot in the beginning, but I chose to persevere. I still have my occasional shouty moments, but they happen rarely now instead of daily. (Hourly!)

 

It really came down to self-awareness and a deep determination to change. I am incredibly proud of the new me!

In Before and After, I call this the Strategy of Foundation. We do a lot better job sticking to our good habits, I believe, when our foundation is strong. That means making sure we get enough sleep, that we’re not too hungry, that we’re not rushed or overwhelmed by dealing with clutter or lost items.

I also write a lot about this kind of issue in Happier at Home: when I’m happier, my family is happier, so I need to take the steps that help me to stay calm, attentive, and tender-hearted.

How about you? Have you worked on your foundation, and found that it helped your habits?

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