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How To Foster Focus and Build Meaning Into Your Kids’ Lives Part I

kevin jarrett

Dear Parents,

I wrote to your kids last week. If you haven’t shared with them my letter, please do. Forward. Or print it out. Tape it to their doors. Tell them to read it. Try the suggestions I give. REALLY try them. For two weeks. TWO. Tell them to text me, email me, connect with me, if they’re interested in making the most of homework. This can be life-changing.

In fact, if we can get eight interested kids, we’ll hold a small group class on managing distractions at our downtown Chaska headquarters. Eight weeks, two one-hour sessions per week. Ask, if you want to know more. It’s so important to learn this skill early (I wish I had), and I believe we can create positive, powerful, and lasting change in our kids’ lives. If they put in the work.

That’s what it’s about isn’t it? Hard work. Effort in = payoff out. That’s what we want them to learn. They can do hard things. They can try, fail, and try again. They WILL succeed.

Cultivating Meaning

Our family is (among many others in our community) in the middle of hockey tryouts, and all of us parents volley the same mantra back and forth while shuffling kids to and from the rink, “We just want them to do their best.” Show gumption. Isn’t that a great word? It’s tenacious and flexible and sturdy. Gumption is going to bed early because you have an important test in the morning. Gumption is packing a snack to eat before practice, hydrating after, and doing drills in the driveway on the weekends. Gumption is investigating your shortcomings, disappointments, and failures to see what they have to teach you about how to lead a fuller and happier life. Angela Duckworth calls it “grit.”

The notion of gumption or grit as what gets us through can be found in almost every self-help, habit-building, business-steering, and success-oriented book on the racks. Why? Because it’s a real thing. And we need all it.

Clinical psychologist Michael D. Whitely writes, in Bright Minds, Poor Grades, “There is nothing better a parent can do than to teach his children how to develop that inner will to succeed, to connect enjoyment and positive feelings to tasks, to learn to work with all their might, and to learn to motivate themselves from within.” Short of a love for the Lord, which is my personal perspective as a Christ follower, I think he’s spot-on. Of all the things I want for my kids, the ability to love and work hard come out at the top every time. I believe that we are hard-wired to seek our purpose, to seek fulfillment in hard work we believe in.

Two years ago, we recalibrated Yellow Parachute mission to personalize the educational experience to transform students into confident, inspired learners who will use their unique gifts, passions, and talents to change the world. This is something that came from my gut in the pursuit of what’s best and right for our kids, but there’s also a boat-load of research in support of building our lives in service of meaning. So how do we set up our kids with their own internal drive to seek purpose and the tools to arrive at that purpose?

It only takes five steps.

We’ll talk about the first 3 this week to give you something to sink your teeth into. Then we’ll dive into steps 4 and 5 next week.

  1. Pave the way to conversation. Picture a fulfilling relationship with your kiddo. How can you assure them that you’re showing up, and how can they assure you that they’re OK and that they’ll come to you when they need something? Maybe you’ve already established this dynamic (good work!). They’re programmed to question us, of course, because it’s a safe place to do this, but are there things that can be better? This is for you. Not your best friend, neighbor, or sister-in-law. We know and watch our kids; it’ll look different for each of us.

Do you worry that they’re pushing too hard in school? Not telling you how they feel? Or the opposite: floundering and unaware of how to climb back out of the homework hole? In any case, what does improved communication look like? What types of words would you exchange? How do you respond when they tell you something? How do they respond when you share? Write these things down. This is the end-goal.

  1. What are the steps to make change? Are there specific trigger points that you notice stress each of you out? And prompt you each to retreat into your corner of the boxing ring, ready for rounds II-X? Conversations around homework, scheduling, music, sport, or other types of practice? Or social life? If you have an open enough relationship, you may be able to tackle scheduling or time management conflicts by setting aside time each week for your kid to plan the week ahead. We do, especially when they’re involved in multiple sports across the week. In fact, here is the very YP Planning tool we use.

Write down a few specific times of day—conversation points—that are stressful for your family. You may need to do a little bit of observational research this week to find the key triggers. Write them down in detail, including what you each say or do to perpetuate the stress.

How can these stressful courses be rerouted? Is there a space here for vulnerability or grace? For you to change your body position? Time to take a deep breath and pause before answering back? If you plan out exactly how you need to respond in a stressful situation, you’re more likely to follow the steps and carry it out. And, though it may take a few cycles, they’ll take your cue. It’s quite amazing. So write ‘em down and plan ‘em out. Pick one to start. You’ll be glad you did!

  1. Now. What are the obstacles to achieving the goal? Let’s dive deep to keep this real. You’ve identified the pain points and thought out exactly what needs to happen to make change. You’re ready to launch! There’s one more step: think through what could go wrong. It’s an important step so we don’t lose steam. There is not an easy road ahead. If it were, we’d all be freshly showered in bed at 9 pm with homework done, outfits picked out for the next day, teeth brushed, and rooms clean. Right? But families push each other’s buttons. So let’s identify the natural roadblocks and break them down.

*Butting heads with your kids: Whitely sums up the parents vs. kids standoff when he says, “Parents and children form very complex emotional and behavioral patterns in their families, and when there are chronic difficulties, the parent’s own impulses to impose various disciplines and rules may be the very things that maintain the existence of the difficulties they are trying to change.”

In short, we’re too close to the problem to see that we’re part of it. Instead, we repeat the same ineffective (even negative) behaviors that reinforce our kids’ negative behaviors.

We repeat the pattern mindlessly, neither parent nor child really listening to what the other is saying, or attending to what is left unsaid.

If you’re identifying with the paragraph above, a reset is in order. We parents give our kids 30+ directions a day, and we have for the past two-to-eighteen years, so when we say “Do your homework,” sometimes it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back—or at least really ticks it off.

Breaking the pattern means reading between the lines and voicing your feelings. Before you bark, “Why haven’t you started studying for your history test?” try asking yourself what you’re feeling. Anger? Why? Are you afraid for her future? Do you feel guilty that you don’t know how to help? Are you reliving painful memories from your own school days? Once you figure it out, tell your kiddo. Showing your own vulnerabilities can help your kids feel safe sharing theirs. And then? You’ve started a real conversation. Listen carefully.

*Micromanaging: We’ve all done this. You know: step in and save the day, think through the possibilities and trouble-shoot for them. Talk to the teacher, arrange the extension, plan the project, tie all the loose ends together an hour before it’s due. Because it’s easier sometimes than letting our kids face the consequences. Remember when we’d spoon feed them? Ahh…those were the days, when we could take care of our kids’ every need and know we were doing the right thing. But now? We know they’re smart and capable and can feed and clothe themselves. We know they can do it. Why don’t they just do it? So we jump in and do it. Because the clock is ticking!

But the problem with this is: if we worry for them, they won’t learn to worry for themselves. If you have a kiddo who has learned to protect her or himself from failure by not trying, and you swoop in to save the day, your kiddo never worries about the consequences, because there aren’t any. You’ve taken on his consequences. And he isn’t able to build the resilience, troubleshooting ability, perseverance, even the self-confidence, to dig out of the hole with his own shovel. When we do things for our kids, we send the message that we don’t think they can do it themselves.

Instead, build an “anything you need” time into the day, around school and homework assignments. I have it set up as a checklist that my kids do in the afternoon, around homework, snacks, loading used dishes in the dishwasher, reading for 30 minutes, and giving me a hug. The neat thing about the checklist is (even if they don’t do it on their own every time), is that I am reminded to ask them about it. It serves a purpose for me too. And because it’s thereprinted on the page for all to see we don’t argue about it.

* Excuses: When you listen to your kiddo’s excuses for not doing something, and you run around trying to connect the dots, trace the steps, and fix the broken pieces, she has you doing exactly what she wants you to do: concentrate on everything else but her. She’s hiding her real worries, fears, thoughts, behind the excuses. The problem: when she makes excuses, she reinforces “powerlessness” over her circumstances. She’s telling you, and herself, that she can’t do it. And you’ve fed right into it.

Try taking YP’s family Executive Function Survey. There’s one for parents and one for kids. Talk about your answers together at dinner, in pairs as you’re able, or in the car on the way to a practice or activity (NO escape!). The answers are all relative to each person and talk about behaviors rather than feelings, so they’re an easy entry into finding the heart of the matter when it comes to family dynamics or misunderstandings.

The good news: As long as there is love, there is hope. For those of you who just wrinkled your noses at the scent of cheese, stick with me. We would do anything for our kids, right? Because we love them. Well then, there’s hope.

I’ll leave you with your homework (and hope) for this week.

-Cara

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Sunday, 08 December 2019