The Power of the Pause

Tears streaming down her face, my daughter screamed at me this morning “You’re always bossing me around!”

We were running late to school – a common occurrence – she wouldn’t get in her car seat fast enough and her stupid princess dress was interfering with my ability to buckle the damn thing….

I wanted to yell back, “Yeah? Well you’re too slow and your dress is stupid!” 

I took a moment to consider. I played back a little film of our morning in my head and saw myself barking orders and being snippy.

“You’re right”, I said. “I’m sorry. I do get bossy when I feel rushed.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. She allowed me to buckle her in and asked for a kleenex.

I tried again, looking her in the eyes this time, “I’m sorry.” 

“You’re welcome” she said. She’s three…this was a peace offering. 

I’ve been trying this new thing: noticing my triggers and choosing a conscious response to them. I hadn’t been aware that my frantic rushing this morning was like a ticking time bomb. When confronted by my daughter’s accusation that I was “bossy”, I initially felt defensive and offended. I wanted to make it her fault. I wanted the stress-release of yelling back. Maybe if I’d checked in with myself earlier in the morning routine, I would have seen the warning signs and slowed myself down. 

I’ve come to realize that when I’m stressed out, exhausted, or irritated, my first reaction to a challenging behavior is almost never a good one (in this case, she wasn’t even being difficult, just a little slow and very truthful). I’m trying to take a moment before I react to think about HOW I want to react. I am certain that if I had reacted with my frustration this morning, the bomb would have detonated. It has happened enough times for me to recognize a pattern. Yelling, blaming, or even discipling in this case, would have only escalated my daughter and I further. We get into these kinds of battles all the time. No one wins.

It’s difficult to pull back from strong emotions and consciously consider a response. But I am seeing such positive results when I do.

A great quote that is helping me to remember this practice of taking a pause is this:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl 




Goodbye Kitty!

At some point over this past winter, my girls launched an Anti-Hello Kitty® Campaign. My almost six year-old came home from school one day and stated “I’m sick of Hello Kitty®!”. This declaration spurred our very first discussion on media literacy and consumerism. We talked about all the places they see this pesky cat and how many kids – and even some grown-ups – cover themselves in the clothes. My kids wanted to know Why. Why was Hello Kitty® everywhere and on everything?

The word ‘marketing’ entered their vocabulary that day. I explained to my preschooler and my kindergartner, that people owned the image of that kitty, and these people made money every time someone bought something with Hello Kitty® on it. I told them about how these people put Hello Kitty® on cereal boxes, lunch boxes, clothes, toothpaste, backpacks, candy wrappers, umbrellas, toys, etc. in order to make them more appealing to children.

My eldest, who is very insightful, understood right away; “So kids will want their parents to buy it for them because it has Hello Kitty® on it, ” she said. She saw right away that this was a pretty tricky thing to do to children. If you’re a parent, you know children have a keen sense of justice, so they really disliked being tricked.

This new awareness is what started their campaign to stop Hello Kitty®. They made signs that said “Stop buying Hello Kitty®” and brainstormed the best ways to get the message out – dropping the notes from an airplane was their favorite idea. In the end, the airplane didn’t pan out, but they did start a game where they counted how many times in a day they saw an item with Hello Kitty® on it. This went on for weeks. Whenever we went out to a store, they would see Hello Kitty® and sigh, “Not again.” The campaign to end this pesky cat’s life didn’t end up extending beyond our house, but their interest in the subject did last quite a long time. Just recently we were out shopping and one of them asked for a toy with Hello Kitty® on it. When I pointed out the image to her she just shrugged and said “That’s okay. I’m actually not sick of it anymore.”

Oh well. At least we started a conversation, one that I will keep up for years to come. Our culture’s obsession with consumerism makes it necessary to have these types of discussions with our children from a very young age. After all, the media begins sending their messages straight to children practically from infancy. I’m not going to let some marketer decide for my kids what they should want or tell them what they need. They have to learn how to make those decisions for themselves, and it’s my job to help them.


Reducing Screen Time One Small Step at a Time

It came to my attention while listening to NPR that “Screen-free week” had come and gone in early May. The event, presented by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, is a “celebration where children, families, school, and communities spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment and turning ON life!” (www.screenfree.org). Unplugging and spending more time outdoors. Enjoying time together as a family playing games or reading books. Connecting with family and friends. Those things all sound good, so at first I was disappointed to learn I’d missed it. I considered that my family could easily have its own screen-free week. But when I really started considering what that mean – SEVEN days without TV, iPad, computer, my iPhone for God’s sake! – I had a mini-panic attack.

I pictured day after day of my bored children whining “Play with meeee”; tantrums the size of tsunamis; trying to cook dinner while my two kids bickered and ran after each other through our very tiny kitchen; hearing that nagging voice in my head telling me it would be so much easier if I just put the TV on…

I understood immediately that no digital entertainment for a week would make my life so much harder. It meant that I would have to up my game, participating even more in play and interaction with my kids – frankly as a stay-at-home mom with two kids who’s trying to build her own business, I’m already ‘at capacity’ you know? The other option was to cut them off screen-time and leave them to their own devices. I pictured out-right rebellion at that. How would I endure their whining, bickering, and endless pleading for SEVEN days without losing my shit…..no doubt about it, a screen-free week was a daunting undertaking.

I understand what this campaign is trying to do in terms of raising our awareness about the time we spend in front of screens. It’s important to highlight all the valuable experiences and activities our children could be doing instead like playing, exploring, day-dreaming, reading, creating, and running around. I just know that for my family, a gentler introduction to reducing screen-time is necessary to help us all stick to it. I think most parents feel at least a little guilty or worry about the amount of time their kids spend in front of screens. Given that, I understand why many of us get defensive when the issue of “too much screen-time” comes up. I don’t want parents to feel any more guilt than they already do. A screen-free week is a great idea to get the message out there and start a community-wide conversation. This campaign will get vital information out to parents who need to understand the negative effects of overuse of screen technologies. Unfortunately, information and awareness alone don’t change habits.

To change my family’s habits, I have needed to take small steps and go slowly. I started by looking at the research and asking myself what was a safe and reasonable amount of screen time. My kids were watching about 40 – 60 minutes of cartoons a day, always in the late-afternoon while I was prepping dinner. I knew I needed this undisturbed time and was not prepared to give it up. I also feel like 60 minutes of TV a day is not damaging their developing brains, especially given the fact that the rest of their time is spent in pretty enriching activity. That said, I was feeling unsettled by their reliance on TV for entertainment. The fact that it had become this crutch for all of us was enough to give me pause. I asked myself what I wanted for my children. The answer was for them to know how to entertain themselves; to express their own thoughts and opinions; to make up their own stories and use their own imaginations. I had to confront the fact that this TV habit was not supporting the development of these qualities, nor was I. TV and I were taking turns entertaining my children, and so they had come to expect to be entertained all the time. This is where I saw a problem and wanted to make a change. 

Over the last couple of weeks, we have begun to shift away from using TV as entertainment by replacing it with activities that my children enjoy as much or more. For my girls, ages 3.5 and 6, art and reading have been the most successful (unfortunately I still can’t entice them to play in the back-yard). I do have to up my game in terms of providing the art materials and helping them get started, but little by little they are becoming more independent with their projects. I also have to participate in reading which I don’t always have time for while I’m making dinner. Finding engaging books on tape has helped, as well as providing many interesting picture books for them to just sit with and look at. I also started talking to them about why it is important to limit TV. Putting it in terms they can comprehend, I used the analogy of too much junk-food is bad for your body and too much TV is bad for your brain. Nearly every day they whine about being bored, but now I don’t try to fix that for them. I tell them, “Go sit on the coach and be bored for awhile. Your brain will think of something to do eventually”.

My kids now watch about 40 minutes of TV a day – that’s two 20 minute shows on Netflix. I’ve set this two-show limit in my mind but I don’t tell them it’s a rule. I’ve found it is better to entice them away from the TV with an activity they love, rather than set a hard and fast limit. Before putting the show on, I’ll prepare them by saying, “After your show, you could do some art and make whatever you want”. They see me loading up the table with glue, paper, jewels, buttons, ribbon – and it sits there like a glittery pile of gold waiting for them. Sometimes they are thinking about what they want to make while the TV is on. There have even been times when they wandered away from the TV mid-show and started making it! What I want parents to realize is that even small efforts to reduce screen time can initiate positive changes. You don’t have to feel like it is all or nothing. You can find the path that works for your family and start your journey there. I am thrilled that my children are slowly becoming more self-directed as they discover how to entertain themselves. I have seized on this momentum by praising and encouraging their efforts. Who knows, we might even be ready to participate in the next screen-free week. I’ll need to work on my iPhone habit first though.


The Authoritative Parent

All of us have had that boss at one time or another: the one who barked orders at us, never once asking or caring how we felt about our experience. Or the one who was on a constant power trip, making sure we knew just how lowly a position we held; and my personal favorite, the hypocritical one who pointed out our flaws but never once took ownership over his own mistakes. Yeah. Most of us can’t stand a boss like that. Funny how we so often take these positions in our own parenting.

Think about a time in your own life when someone told you to do something and gave you no choice about it. Your feelings and ideas were not heard. Your in-put was never considered. How did that feel? I’m guessing not too good. It occurs to me that in my position of parental power, I can often become a “bad boss” to my kids.

Like most parents, I want my authority to be respected. I expect a certain degree of cooperation and compliance from my children. Unfortunately, authority has gotten a bad reputation in some parenting circles because it is often equated with dominance and control. I think it is a mistake to confuse “Autocratic” with “Authority”. Demonstrating your authority is not about achieving obedience at all times, or making demands without responding to individual needs, or using your size and strength to impose your will on another person. These autocratic methods can be very damaging to your relationship with your child.

So how can we reclaim our rightful place as authority figures in our families? I would assert that when you parent from a place of connection with your children, balancing your directives with their freedom to disagree, you are parenting from your authentic authority. Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. They are clear about what they expect of their children and set appropriate standards for their behavior. They view discipline not as punishment, but as an opportunity to teach and learn. They nurture their children’s individualism, while emphasizing the importance of connection to the family and wider community.

It is a challenge to balance our parental demands with our responsiveness. Given all the stressors on a modern parent, coupled with the constantly changing nature of a growing child, it can be incredibly hard to stay within this ideal zone. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that help me stay in the zone:

1. Lead by Example – People follow strong leaders. Children are the same. A strong moral leader can change the world by example (think of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.). Children imitate everything – your positive and your negative words or actions. Therefore, if there is a behavior you wish to see from your child, you do it first, consistently.

2. Know Your Family Values – What values guide your family? What do you do to embody those values? Be explicit with your kids about your family’s values. This will help them know what is expected of them and why it is important. All of us want to feel part of something larger than just ourselves. A strong family identity encourages positive cooperation and participation. 

3. Embrace Your Hypocrisy – You model the behavior and values you wish to instill in your children, but you are not perfect. You mess up and have moments when you fail to be your best self. Confront your hypocrisy; admit your mistakes; resolve to do better and then actually do better. When your kids see you adjust your words and actions to better align with your core values, they will respect you and trust you more. This makes you a strong leader they will want to follow.

4. Be empathetic – Kids are not machines. They are people. You can’t press a button and make them do something. They will have thoughts and opinions about everything you ask them to do. They have an internal world – just like you do – that is positively or negatively affecting them at every moment. Understand that. Be sensitive. This demonstartes to them that you do care about their feelings and you will avoid more power struggles this way.  

5. Place Relationship Over Obedience – Recognize that attitudes like “my way or the highway” are damaging to your relationship. Yes, there are some things your kids just have to do, but you can make room for their feelings to be heard. As much as possible, co-create routines together and allow them a say in how things get done.

6. Be Patient and Let Go – So you’ve told your child a million times not to do something. You think he doesn’t listen. You think she just doesn’t care. You want to know what is wrong with them?! Nothing is wrong with them. It’s just that a family is a living system; a dynamic, ever-changing entity of interconnected elements that you cannot control. You must allow for some chaos. The system must be free to self-regulate, grow, and adjust to new influences. It’s frustrating as hell, but it’s the nature of a family and indeed of all life.

Take a deep breath and then go back to number one.


A Brief Lesson in Empathy (from the guy who works at The Dollar Store).



1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

I was in The Dollar Store yesterday when something quite simple, yet unexpected happened; I had a thought-provoking conversation with the young man working the cash. Normally, encounters with cashiers are perfunctory, or even down-right unpleasant, so naturally I wasn’t expecting to get a lesson in empathy.

While I was waiting in line, I had a chance to observe this cashier. He was smiling the whole time he was speaking with customers. He was looking people in the eye and making conversation beyond the cursory “How’re you today?” “Find everything okay?” To me, he seemed to be enjoying himself – which honestly I found quite bizarre; he’s a service worker in a minimum wage job after all. When it came to my turn I realized what was special about him. He wasn’t just pleasant, he was Present. Present and cheerful. When I faced him, he stood ready to engage me in that moment.

As for me, I was prepared to have the brisk back-and-forth we’ve come to expect in these situations and be on my way. I got distracted, however, by my eldest daughter Eleanor, who was whining that she wanted her stuff in a separate bag. I rather apologetically requested that he put the two piles my kids were making on the counter into separate bags, remarking sarcastically, “Heaven forbid her pencils should share a bag with her sister’s!”.

Expecting a roll of the eyes or perhaps an affirmative grunt, I was shocked when he said, “It’s okay, I get it. It matters to her. Even if it seems silly to us, it matters to her.”

Stunned. “Yeah” I think I managed to say.

Then he added, “Kids usually get upset about the stuff that matters; like being hungry or tired or ignored. What do we get upset about? ‘Oh, my phone isn’t fast enough’ That’s not a real problem. Kids know what the real problems are.”

I was so impressed with this comment! I told him, “I usually don’t hear that kind of perspective from someone so young.”

“Yeah” he said, “I’ve got a friend with kids. She’s been teaching me about empathy… respecting a kid’s feelings, even if you don’t get it…trying to see it from their side.”

“It has taken me 5 years of parenting to understand that”, I told him.

“At least you got it,” he said. “So many parents are still like, ‘Stop crying! What’s the matter with you!’”

“You are so right,” I said. “Have a nice day.”

I left the store smiling to myself and wondering about this young man. Was he really learning about empathy for the first time? It seemed like a strange way of putting it, “She’s been teaching me about empathy.” I wish I could know more about what he meant. Maybe there’s a threshold one crosses with maturity where the concept of empathy actually becomes something more visceral. Maybe it’s just that as we get older, we can more consciously choose to practice empathy toward others. I wonder if that’s what he was doing…practicing empathy with his customers, and if so, was that practice making him more engaged and present with them? 

He got me thinking last night about how empathy transforms my parenting. How by simply being empathetic toward my children reduces my irritation with them and allows me to be a more responsive person. And yet, it can be so damn hard to switch gears from “Reacting” to “Empathizing.” Perhaps it is difficult at times to be compassionate toward children because as adults we are so far removed from the experiences and feelings of childhood. We have forgotten that the struggles and concerns of a child are real and they matter. This young man reminded me of that.

Like I said at the beginning, something simple and unexpected happened.


“Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.” – Alice Miller