Monday, June 25, 2012

Don’t Use Your Words

A Guest Post by Sarah MacLaughlin, Holistic Moms Network member and author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.

"Use your words,” is an oft-repeated request in U.S. households and schools these days. Maybe it is a step up from yelling “Stop hitting your sister/friend,” but it’s probably not the most effective route if you want to teach conflict resolution skills and emotional literacy. More on that later. First, a little about how you, as the grown-up, can improve your communication skills with less words. A forty year-old study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian showed that much of communication is nonverbal. That’s certainly worth paying attention to!

So try not using your words. And don’t ask children to use them either. You first—here’s a few ideas for responding to children without any words at all.

Use your body. When you are working with young children, keep in mind how much smaller and shorter than you they are. My motto has always been: “Get low and stay low.” You can also use your physical self to stop problems before or as they are happening. Step between the children who are in conflict, crouch down and make eye contact with each one. Place your hand on a child’s shoulder to keep them from careening toward another. Cup your hand between the biter and the one about to receive.

Use body language and facial expression. Sometimes we overworked and stressed-out grown-ups don’t keep tabs on our facial and body language. Thinking about our own problems can leave us with arms crossed and a grimace on our face—and we don’t even know it! Stay mindful of what your expression might look like. Children often interpret a furrowed brow or blank face as an angry one. Keeping your body relaxed and a smile on your face may be the easiest invitation for cooperation you’ve got! You can also send a quick message by shrugging shoulders or putting up your hand in a “stop” gesture.

Use touch. In our litigious society, we have become very “hand-off,” and not necessarily to the benefit of our young ones. While children should be taught the difference between good, bad, and scary touch, they should not be left untouched. A pat on the shoulder, a hug, or rub on the back can convey understanding and encouragement. It is, however, best practice to ask first if you are working with, or taking care of, children that are not your own.

A last tip from Dr. Mehrabian is to pay attention to your tone. While words alone have the least impact, the clearest message can be sent and received when our tone, body language and words, all match. This means that you shouldn’t add a question mark, or even a questioning tone to a directive statement. Refraining from using sarcasm is also a good idea. Kids don’t get it and it can be quite insulting. Try to aim for a warm, engaging tone. When you need an authoritative or attention-getting tone for safety purposes, it will have more impact if it has not already been well used.

And why not ask a child to “use their words?” First of all, it’s become a pat statement, much like, “good job.” It’s just not specific enough. Plus, it doesn’t honor the fact that she would be using her words if she was capable of doing so. Typically children are hitting, or grabbing, or yanking in the scenario where you request words. Please assume that if they had it in them to share their feelings verbally, ask before taking, or ask for a turn, they would have already done so. When they don’t, for whatever reason, it is a signal to you that they require guidance in this area. Offer this guidance kindly, and see what happens.

When you use your words, say, “I’m going to help keep everyone here safe,” “Looks like you want a turn, let’s ask your sister about that,” or “Please come back and check in with your friend.” Or use one of the nonverbal suggestions above. You won’t have to say a thing.


Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about using or not using your words with your child, so that you can enter to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post at the end of the week. (Other stops during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah's blog here: Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you're the winner!

Also, be sure to enter at Sarah's site ( for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th.

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Currently, Sarah works as a licensed social worker with foster families at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine.

She also teaches parenting classes and consults with families. In addition, Sarah serves on the board of Birth Roots, a perinatal resource center, and writes the "Parenting Toolbox" column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family.

As reflected in her book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, Sarah considers it her life's work to promote happy, well-adjusted people by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today.

In a busy modern life, while Sarah juggles her son, her job, her husband, her family, and time for herself, she's also aiming for: mindful parenting, meaningful work, joyful marriage, connected family, and radical self-care. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Beyond Plastic Bags

Paper or plastic may seem like a trite question for many of you. You have made the switch from plastic shopping bags and water bottles, and proudly tote your own in your everyday travels. But look deeper. How prevalent is plastic in your life? Did you write with a plastic pen today? Did you purchase food in a plastic tray, wrapped in plastic, or with a plastic lid? Did you put on makeup or brush your teeth and notice what the product containers were made of? Did you blow dry your hair, grab an energy bar for lunch, or eat a container of yogurt? Did you chew gum? (Yes, gum.)

And did you ever really notice how ubiquitous plastic is in our lives? It's daunting - and scary. Sure, reusable bags and bottles are a great first step, but how about living plastic free? This week, the Holistic Moms Network hosted a Twitter Party with author and blogger Beth Terry, who is striving to do just that. Beth's journey started with an alarming awareness that we are all surrounded by plastic. She took on the challenge of refusing all new plastic in her life. That means not buying, accepting, or allowing anything with plastic. And that's no easy task.

Plastic bags alone are ever present. Americans use more than 380 billion of them each year - that's about 1,200 per person. Only about 2 percent of those are recycled. The rest wind up in garbages, landfills, and in our environment, including in our oceans. "Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil," reports Plastics are choking out wildlife and impacting our health and well-being. And plastics have found their way into virtually every corner of our lives. And into our bodies and our children. Chemical additives in plastics, such as Bisphenol-A (BPA), have dangerous implications for our health and many of the ingredients in plastics "migrate, or leach, into the food and water they contain" according to the Environmental Working Group.

Outside of being overwhelmed and completely daunted by plastic's presence, what can we do? We can start with awareness and acknowledgement of all the places plastics are found. Once we identify them, we can take steps, along with Beth Terry, to refuse to invite them into our lives. Start with Beth's Plastic Free Guide online and find an action you can embrace. Let go of convenience and pack your own containers. Buy in bulk. Embrace natural cloths and fabrics. Compost, recycle, and reuse. Make choices that are healthier for you, for your family, and for the planet. Get inspired. And check out Beth's new book for ideas, resources, and motivation. Every action helps, even when the problem seems insurmountable.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Nurturing Dads

With all the talk about moms lately, dads are being left behind. Given the so-called "mommy wars" perhaps they are grateful. But as Father's Day approaches, it's time to say thanks to all the amazing dads out there.

While moms are being chastised for helicopter parenting or questioned if they are "mom enough", dads are sliding under the radar. What does being a dad mean in our modern independence-driven culture? Battling it out with other parents during your child's little league game? Being so wired up that you don't have time to put down your phone and engage your kids? No, fathering is about being attached, connected, and nurturing. Yes, nurturing.

For decades, scientists have been arguing that the cultural role of a nurturing father is a social invention. "Human males do not have a biological parental role," writes James Kimmel, Ph.D. Rather, men develop a nurturing style as a result of nurturing behavior they are taught by their own mothers. "How males are mothered largely determines if, and how, they will father," asserts Kimmel. This assertion, however, leaves women to shoulder the responsibility of entire generations of men - or to assume the blame for their lack of connection. It feeds the mama-drama and continues to allow women to be the focus of the media storm that ensues. There is no doubt that attachment is essential for building strong, empathic, and nurturing children. Nature arguments insisting men are not wired for attachment don't help and modern culture isn't making it any easier. Our high-tech world and particularly social media "contributes to a growing empathy deficit" according to David Sack, M.D. Early attachment deficits and lack of parental connection are also reflecting in the statistics on empathy: "today’s college students are 40 percent less empathetic than those in the 80s and 90s".

So what's the dad connection to quality parenting? Many studies have demonstrated that absenteeism on the part of dads is connected to lower academic achievement, aggression, and social disorders among children. But good fathering goes well beyond simply just being there. For dads, as for moms, being connected, engaged, and nurturing bring about some of the most positive benefits - for children and for the dads themselves.

For starters, let's consider that men may in fact be biologically wired for nurturing, according to a recent study. Men in partnered relationships with children have lower testosterone levels, which "could help men who are fathers better handle the demands of parenting and allow them to become more nurturing, the researchers suggested." Whether nurture or nature, developing the qualities of a connected, empathic dad are the key to great parenting - and something that can take commitment and work to develop, whether you're a dad, mom, or caregiver. Dads who are engaged and involved impact academic achievement from the toddler years straight through to adulthood and demonstrate that "an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents." Children who have involved fathers are also "more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections with peers."

While we don't need any "daddy wars", it's high time to acknowledge and appreciate connected, attached dads and their ability to nurture. The huge benefits for children are also indicators of a more positive life experience for the dads themselves. A recent report indicated that dads are, in fact, happier than their childless peers. New research published in Psychological Science indicates that "being a parent, especially a dad, appears to confer greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning than being childless."

So this Father's Day we celebrate all the dads for their commitment, dedication, and passion for fatherhood. We embrace their nurturing styles and encourage them to relish their roles and delight in the joys of fatherhood.

Happy Father's Day to all!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Lost Art of Live Communication

Your teen is in another room and you have a pressing question - what do you do? Get up and
start a conversation, yell down the hall, or pick up your phone and send a text? If you chose texting, you're not alone. And if you're a teen, it's likely that the first two options were not even under consideration.

According to the Pew Research Center's recent report "Teens, Smartphones & Texting", "23% of all those ages 12-17 say they have a smartphone . . .31% of those ages 14-17 have a smartphone." For smartphone-toting youth, "the volume of texting among teens has risen from 50 texts a day in 2009 to 60 texts for the median teen text user." And texting is quickly displacing other forms of communication. The Pew report found that "63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%)."

With the evolution of technology we are communicating faster and more frequently, but less personally and less deeply. We have apparently reduced communication to characters on a screen, and are starting younger and younger. At what cost? Are electronic devices contributing to the lost art of communication? Are online social sites making us lonelier? Some opponents would certainly make the case. Facial expressions, body posture, emotion, and physical proximity - or dare I say "closeness" - are on the decline. As reported in the Huffington Post, Janet Sternberg, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York has "noticed that more students don't look her in the eye and have trouble with the basics of direct conversation – habits that, she says, will not serve them well as they enter a world where many of their elders still expect an in-person conversation, or at the very least a phone call."

As we become more attached to our devices, we have not only detached ourselves from one another, but we have filtered our experiences through the information we elect to receive on our phones, computers, and through our DVRs. "We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party," explains Sherry Turkle in the New York Times. We opt in and out of information and communicating, representing ourselves through filters, editing our words, pictures, and personas to a world of electronic associates.

The big problem, however, is that "human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference," Turkle writes. And as we keep our heads down, tick-tick-ticking away, we are forging digital connections that fall far short of real, personal relationships and bonds. We like that our devices are always there and always ready. We feel that we have a constant voice and an unwavering audience. But it's shallow and incomplete. How many times do you find yourself standing in line or waiting for an appointment with a moment of solitude and self-reflection upon you, only to pull out your smartphone and distract yourself with digital happenings?

And what of parenting is this digital age? Do your kids ever say "Mommy, put down the phone?", "Get off Facebook", and "Pay attention to me?" Parenting is inherently messy and demanding - and challenging. Do we wish our years away, long for them to be simple and easy, like a Facebook friendship or online chat? Do we abhor even more the principles of connection with our children, rail against the ideas behind attachment, and pack our phones for family outings?

It worries me that we are losing live communication, community, and connection. We fool ourselves into thinking we are "engaged" and "activist" when we are recipients of digital information and electronic characters. In this digital age, we lose the ability to respond emotionally, physically, and energetically to each other. We avoid self-reflection and stunt personal development when we edit everything that we say and do, see and hear. And, as parents, we are doing a disservice to our children if we make electronic communication the norm and refuse to dive into the messy, complicated, and emotional world of real, face-to-face communications.