Family Celebrations

August 28, 2012

Family celebrations come around often – birthdays, graduations, holidays, coming of age, driver’s license, and more. These events can go by in a usual way or take you by surprise or you can give them a fresh and loving approach. Here are a few ideas to get you started thinking about some low cost, high impact options.

  • First, be clear about the event or person you want to celebrate or appreciate.   What is your intention?
  • Then, ask yourself at least 20 questions about your intention. Whether you are celebrating a milestone, an achievement, welcoming a new person, or any happening you don’t wish to let go by without pausing to reflect, you may be surprised how much you will learn.
  • An interesting plan will emerge when you think through your intention with a focus on the meaning you’d like to bring forward.  Think outside the box.

Bobby was ready to get his driver’s license. This was a huge deal for both his parents and Bobby. His parents took the time to think about what it was they wanted Bobby to consider as he moved into the important role of driver. They came up with an idea to gather a group of close friends and family to share what it means to have the freedom and responsibility of a driver.

Sitting in a circle, each person was asked to speak about the most important thing they’d learned about driving.  Their stories were about their shock at learning about the cost of keeping up a car and paying for insurance.  One of Bobby’s uncles told a story of how he learned it was his job as a driver to be responsible for any law-breaking passengers.  Bobby’s cousin told a story about a near-miss because she was texting.

The air was filled with a mixture of laughter, surprise and a few tears.  Hearing the cautionary and instructive tales from someone other than his parents may have helped Bobby consider the experiences of people who cared about him as welcome advice.

Carrie, the mother of six and eight year old Halloween trick or treaters, didn’t like the candy race that seemed to be overtaking her children.  She gave some heavy thought to what troubled her and just how she’d like to switch out the celebration.  Dressing in costumes was fun and creative, so that could stay.

It was the emphasis on getting as much candy as possible that she wanted to change. She decided that each child could pick four houses they’d like to visit.  They all sat down and talked about the people they wanted to trick or treat.  Several neighbors made the list.  One family lived far out of the neighborhood.  One didn’t have any family living nearby.  One was in a retirement home.  The three of them made their list and Mom was cast in the role of driver.

The children got fewer treats but they also took the time to connect with special people.  They decided to try this plan for one year, and liked it so much, they make it a tradition.  Some years they had fun bringing Halloween treats to their friends!

It’s a good thing to take the time to mark all those moments that have meaning and pass so quickly.   When you know one is coming up, there needn’t be a big production involved.  A simple structure or idea that carries meaning is enough.  A candle, a symbol, some ribbon, a pile of stones that people place on a table while they say what they want to say.  The field is wide open for your creativity and good intentions.


Teaching Empathy

August 24, 2012

Empathy is innate.  We are programmed to be empathic.  Empathy is at the core of connection.  We are born to be connected.  Being connected is at the core of our survival.  Nature has it right!

You may have seen the picture of infant twins, lying on their stomachs, one having an arm across the back of the other, as if enfolding a buddy.  The weaker of the two was not doing so well and the stronger reached out to help.  Or at least, that’s what the nurses surmised.

Empathy is also learned.  A child who experiences empathic understanding and care knows what empathy feels like.  Responsive care, connecting words and warm behaviors are internalized by the infant and small child.  In this way, he learns to be empathic with himself and others, guided by his own body-knowledge of it.

A baby who is left at the doorstep of an overseas orphanage and who becomes one of 80 in the nursery where babies seldom cry is not in a position to have her innate empathy reinforced or to learn empathy.  At age eleven months, her heels are raw and she is unable to stand with help.  This baby learns that if she is to live, she her energy goes completely into surviving.  Courageous baby.  She lived.  But she can’t afford to let any love in or be empathic with herself or others.  One way or another, she is hard on herself and on the people and pets she lives with.  This baby didn’t have the chance to learn empathy.  When you have developed empathy, it’s hard to hurt another being.

Practicing empathy means striking the balance between “Oh, you poor, poor thing” and completely not noticing or actively ignoring another’s distress.

Empathy goes beyond “poor thing”.  When Kayla’s feelings have been ridiculed, an “I think I understand” or a compassionate “Will you tell me about it?” might be the empathic connection. Just reaching out to scoop a child in for a hug can be the way she knows you are open to hearing her feelings.  She needs to know you value her and are open to hear how a painful or embarrassing experience affected her.  She probably doesn’t want you to fix the situation; she probably does want you to understand her experience.

One of my parents’ most treasured gifts was teaching and modeling the notion of walking in another person’s shoes.  It is one of the ways they taught empathy.  We know that families, classrooms and societies are stronger where people are connected and treat one another with respect and dignity.

Never underestimate what children learn by watching.  As a first grader I noticed that if I smelled scalloped potatoes and ham as I came into the kitchen after school, I knew someone had died.  It was my mother’s first response to those she knew were in grief.  She made potatoes and ham and delivered them to the grieving family as soon as they were out of the oven.  This way of reaching out in our small community was a familiar ritual.  To this kid, it made the whole town feel more loving and connected.

At those times when we adults are distressed, it can be hard to pull up our empathy for others because we are so in need of it ourselves.  What to do?  First off, acknowledge our distress or feelings if beubg flat out of empathic steam.  Then reach out to tell someone else who knows us well and cares about us.  Ask for what we need.  At the very least, take a few deep breaths while you think about our options for self-care.  We don’t ever outgrow our need for empathy


August 15, 2012


Although we want to show respect to our children and interest in their lives by listening to their stories, there are those who go on and on and on.  Running out of time to listen can be a problem!

The story-tellers may begin with a report of an important experience or event.  Or they may begin with a seemingly random account of a situation.  Or they may be expressing anger, sadness or frustration.  Whatever story they have to tell, hey want to be heard and acknowledged.

If the point of the story is sometimes hard to find, how do you help the story-teller get to it?  Counselors have the same problem.  Their job is to listen and make sense of what the client is directly or indirectly saying in order to meet the client’s needs.  Here’s one way to listen for both content and concern.  It’s the tracking device known as “What?  So What?  Now What?”  This is the idea:

The WHAT is listening for what happened that triggered a strong reaction.

“Kevin brought his pet snake to school today and he put a real, live mouse in the snake’s cage and the snake ate it.”              Possible Response:  ask for more details about the snake and Kevin’s reaction to the situation.

Nest, the SO WHAT is about how what happened impacted the story-teller.  What meaning does she make of what happened? Asking for more information and  encouraging the expression of feelings is a great way to help children report how the situation impacted her.

“ Were you feeling excited?”            Possible Response:  “No, I was very surprised  and I was scared when the snake ate the mouse.”

The NOW WHAT part is a chance to ask the child to think about what they might learn from the circumstance/incident.

“Do you think Kevin takes good care of the snake?”

“If that happens again, what would you want to do?”

Feelings give us valuable information.  Listening for feelings is what can take a child (or adult) from merely reporting an incident to highlighting the meaning of the incident to the one who experienced it.

Sadness signals that something is changing, that we’re experiencing a loss and life has an empty place now, at least for awhile. Take account of grieving.

Fear tells us that something or someone in our environment is not safe and we would do well to take measures to get to a safer place.

Feeling anger says there’s a problem to solve.  We may have been discounted, taken advantage of, ridiculed, or deceived.  Anger says:  Recognize the problem and take action that moves toward solving it.

Feeling joy signals that we should be doing more of what is joyful and being with others with whom we experience joy.  Joy can signal we’re taking good care of ourselves or allowing others to take good care of us.  Joy nourishes the soul.

That’s the Stuff of listening to the stories of children.  Adults too, for that matter.  What?  So what?  Now what?

C. Dawson


August 8, 2012

As a fledgling sixth grade student teacher, I soon learned part of my job was to make a final call in disputes.  When students were lined up for lunch or recess, every so often an obvious difference of opinion broke out, evidenced by pushing and shoving…or something worse.   As I would approach said disruption to see what was happening, I’d meet a sea of pointing fingers with accusatory words to match.  “He pushed me.”  “She looked at me.”  “I did not.”  “He called me a Dork!”  Unraveling competing blames got old really fast.

Frustrated by my insecurity about being fair to the parties, I developed the “I Want You to Know What I Know” speech, which I delivered on the first day of school, with deep sincerity and good humor, as follows:

“Here’s what I know about how the human body works.  Bones don’t move by themselves.  When arms, legs and mouths move, muscles do the moving of the bones to which they’re attached.  Further, muscles don’t move unless they receive a signal from nerves.  Nerves are the means by which the brain communicates with the muscles.  Some of the signals the brain sends work automatically, like keeping your heart going.   The other kind of signal the brain sends is a direct result of a decision the brain makes to send them, like when you want to pick up a pencil.  Brain says “Pick up pencil” and hand picks up the pencil.

“Therefore, please know what I know.  If your arm hits someone, your body merely responded to your brain’s decision to hit.  So here’s how it is.  On those rare occasions when I am compelled to respond to an argument or fight, I will listen only to the people actually involved.  You will report on your part only.  I will not be listening to any blaming of someone else.  Period.”

Funny how quickly students learned there was no benefit in escalating trouble by blaming somebody else because if disputing parties did not accept responsibility and show willingness to make amends, it became my job to adjudicate the dispute, and I assured them, should that be the case, no one would wind up happy!

At home, when children’s disagreements get ratcheted up in a control battle of some proportion, separation and retreat to different spaces for time to think about and own what each brought to the battle makes resolution possible.  Children can learn the process with a few rounds of practice facilitated (and modeled by an adult.  The process is:

  1. Calm heightened feelings.
  2. Bring the parties together and ask each to report his or her part in the dispute.
  3. Each child can share an underlying dynamic that may be behind the scene, if they choose.  (Postpone and follow up later if it distracts from addressing the current problem.)
  4. Provide the opportunity for expressions of how they plan to handle disputes in the future (in the interest of feeling better about themselves and the other).
  5. Make a new agreement geared to prevent and/or address the next     conflict.
  6. Make room for apologies.

By accepting that the conflict is probably about one child’s needs clashing with another’s, or where the children’s values differ, parties of good will can build trust and connection by accepting responsibility for their choices and making new agreements.  No blaming.  No excuse-making.  As a matter of fact, whenever blaming or excuse-making is heard, it is a signal that responsibility is being avoided!

August 1, 2012


That’s not a good idea.

A friend was surprised and pleased by her two-and-a-half year old grandson’s way of handling no-saying.  I’ll call him Ben.  This Grandma sees the young fellow every four months or so and marvels at his changes between their visits.  Here’s what happened.

Ben was deeply involved in playing when his mother told him they’d be leaving soon to meet his other Grandma.

Ben’s response?  “No, no, no.  Not good idea,” he said waving his forefinger in a “better to stop and consider” way while scrunching his face and shaking his head side to side.  “Play, play, play.”

Mom squatted to his level, asked him to look at her, which he did, and said evenly, “We need to meet Grandma so we can go with her to buy a birthday present for Grandpa.  You can play more as soon we get home.”

Ben thought for a moment and up went his wagging forefinger again.  “That good idea,” said a smiling Ben.  A few minutes later, he left his playing behind and let his mother help get his jacket on.

This story struck me as a winning way to handle opposition during the time when children are beginning to resist having someone else doing their thinking for them.  As they should.

Mom signaled an upcoming transition.  She calmly met Ben’s first resistance with an explanation of what was going to happen and why they needed to leave.  She respected Ben’s desire to play and listened to what he had to say.  Because of their history, Ben knew that Mom would make the final decision, even if he didn’t think leaving his play was a good idea.

The best part is that Ben is learning the rudiments of what it takes to make decisions:

Knowing and expressing what he wants/needs, and

Evaluating and choosing, so long as he is given information

to consider. and

Thinking about how things might work out for him.

Ben also uses his technique to assess what other kids are doing.  The family was at a playground when Ben saw several kids pushing, yelling and hitting in a dispute over a soccer ball.  Ben’s comment?  He said to his parents in a sad tone, “That is not a good idea,” using, of course, the requisite head and finger moves.

It doesn’t take much imagination to know where this most effective strategy came from.  There’s a lot of deep learning embedded in it.  This Mom and Dad have apparently learned the great importance of stopping to consider how a choice does, or will, work out before engaging in it.

I’m sure there are those times when Ben’s mom or dad need to scoop him up because they’re not leaving him alone.  Even then, Ben has a choice.  “Would you like to go to the car under my power or under yours?”  Not a moment’s anger for the parents.  Just a calm and certain sense that they are the one in the room with the authority Ben can trust, even when he doesn’t like it.

Connie Dawson

When Values Conflict Between Parents or Caregivers

August 1, 2012

August 1, 2012


Parents often mention, usually with some frustration, how they have certain beliefs about raising their child, and the partner(s) they are parenting with is coming from a very different place.   This happens in families, with other family caregivers, and is oftentimes present when there has been a divorce.  Conflicts about how to raise children is a primary place where couples have disagreements.   Using values to confront the problem can be helpful.


Think about how and why the value you hold is important to you.  Where and how did you learn it? Is it still working for you in a positive way?  Focus on how your value may be useful to your child now and moving forward into adulthood.  Sometimes we have expectations without really choosing them.  An example might be when someone says “That’s how I was raised, so that’s how I will raise my child”.  The key is whether or not we have examined all that statement entails, and have made a choice, or if we are just following along with what our parents did and expecting that will work.


We tend to believe at some level that the way we were raised is the best and only way to raise children, even if we have some doubts about that.  If we think about the process of living in a family, it is the place where we are nurtured, cared for, learn about life, how to get along with others, etc.  Since that is the reality that we know, and we were dependent on the grown-ups who raised us in order to survive, we see their actions as being the “right and only” way and defend them.   Examining and choosing how we parent involves courage, being aware, and taking an honest look at our own upbringing.  It also means knowing that as leaders of our own families, we can create a place where the language, rules, and actions fit with our values.  This is what Dr. William Doherty identifies as “parenting with intent”.


Confronting another parent about how they do things, may be a challenge, given the strength of the emotional ties to the behavior and values that they hold.   Below are some thoughts about how to talk with someone about their values:


  • Realize that they came by their values through their family.  Changing their behavior may be seen or experienced as betraying their family of origin.
  • Own where you are coming from without criticism.   “When we argue about how to raise the children, I am uncomfortable about the message we are giving them.  Let’s talk about what we both want for them and see what we can agree on.”
  • Suggest having a meeting when both people are open to having a discussion without blaming the other person.
  • Set a time limit.
  • Pick a value that you both agree on and talk about ways to teach that value, both through daily experiences and examples.
  • Listen and hear what each other has to say.
  • Look for places where you have some common ground and build on that.
  • Validate the other person for their willingness to talk, listen, and consider alternatives.  Sometimes that is an important first step.
  • Realize that both people need to change.
  • Support each other in the changes that you are making.


If you find that your values are in conflict with the person with whom you are parenting, choose one of the ideas above, or one of your own, and work together to create the values that you desire for your children.  You deserve to be competent and successful parents!


Sandy Keiser, LISW-S, CFLE

Catholic Charities SouthWestern Ohio

Teaching a Value: An Example

July 25, 2012

July 25, 2012

The values you have chosen to guide your children will be a road map for how you make day to day choices about your interactions and parenting decisions.  Once you have named the value, it is important to decide what they mean to you and what they look like behaviorally.

In my parenting classes, oftentimes parents identify the value of respect.  Let’s look at some of the ways people may define respect.

  • Speaking in a normal tone of voice (no criticism, name calling, sarcasm, anger)
  • Make eye contact ( no eye rolling, walking away) when speaking or listening to an adult
  • Being polite by saying “Yes Ma’am” or “No sir”
  • Listening
  • Being obedient and doing what you are told
  • Don’t question authority
  • Learning how to disagree appropriately
  • Thinking about what to say or do before acting

The list could go on and on and I invite you to think about what pieces you would select or add.   Note that in considering this list, some of the items may be in conflict with other values that you might like to promote.  For example, you may want your child to also learn to express feelings appropriately, so how does this fit with the expectation that s/he talk in a normal tone of voice in order to be respectful?

Go back and look at the list and think about each of the items and how they might work out and be useful for an adult.  Considering the long range effects is often helpful in determining what and how we think about teaching the value.  Remember, that we are not born having the values and the skills to act upon them.  They need to be taught carefully and intentionally.

If being respectful is a value that we want to teach, perhaps it means looking at how we show respect for ourselves, other adults and children.   I believe that when we interact with others, we are always teaching something, whether verbally, non-verbally, physically, emotionally, or through voice tones, etc.    How we present ourselves reflects values that we have about ourselves, other people, and the world.   I think that it makes sense to be intentional about our words and actions, so that we communicate the values we want to share with others.  Let’s look at how we might teach respect to children.

  • Be respectful of children when we interact with them;
  • Pay attention to their level of development and decide if we are expecting too much or too little of them;
  • Encourage children to do what they are capable of doing by themselves, even though it may not be done perfectly;
  • Validate their abilities, being clear about what they have done; “I appreciate that you put your toys away before going outside.”  “Thank you for bringing the car home with a full tank of gas.”
  • Help them to problem solve in anticipation of a situation as well as afterwards; “What might you say or do when your friends laugh at Jeremy when he makes a mistake?”  Spend time listening to the response.  “How do you think that might work out?”
  • Name respect when you see or hear it in real life experiences, or in the media.
  • Comment about a specific behavior that your child has done that demonstrates respect.   “I know that you were really angry with your sister for ruining your shirt.  I like how you held her accountable for her action, without putting her down.  That was very respectful.”
  • Think of some other ways you might teach respect (for self, property, or others)
  • Be gentle with yourself as you experiment with new ways to share the gift of your values.

You can use the suggestions listed as a model for teaching other values.  Think about how you might do this.

Sandy Keiser, LISW-S, CFLE

Catholic Charities SouthWestern Ohio