The Hard Thing rule

I've been a bad blogger lately. I just need to fess up and own it. Sarah's happily picking up Jordan in France this week and I pledged to cover for us both here but I've also been diving deeply into my dissertation research and forgetting to come up for air. Because deadlines.

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900  via

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900 via

In a moment of giving in to my well-seasoned delay and distraction tactics, I clicked over to read a National Geographic profile of persistence/grit researcher Angela Duckworthrationalizing that it was oh-so-faintly related to my research on mindset. Her focus and work ethic inspire me and I'm motivated by the description of her passion for her work and lab--not to mention the fact that she went back for a PhD later in life, too. (Let's hear it for mama grad students!) On another level, I appreciated the glimpse of her family life and how some of her research findings are showing up in the way she and her husband Jason parent:

Angela and Jason have two daughters—Amanda, 13, and Lucy, 11—who attend a public magnet school in Philadelphia. Angela says she of course wants them to have grit, in addition to kindness, generosity, honesty, and gratitude. "I think kids are not able to just spontaneously grow up to be gritty people without being supported in that," she says.

...Back at the Duckworth household, meanwhile, Angela and Jason have instituted something called the Hard Thing Rule as a way of familiarizing their young daughters with the experience of grit. The Hard Thing Rule is that all members of the family have to be doing a hard thing. It should be something they have an interest in, of course—ballet, a musical instrument, archery—but the corollary is that it also has to require deliberate practice almost daily, and they're not allowed to quit just because they're bored or feel no good at it. They can revisit their interest at the end of the tuition period, say, or semester, or school year, but not before.

"I believe kids should choose what they want to do, because it's their life, but they have to choose something," she says, "and they can't quit in the middle unless there's a really good reason." There are going to be peaks and valleys. "You don't want to let kids quit during a valley."

The girls' "hard thing"s right now are the piano for Amanda and the viola for Lucy. For Angela and Jason, it's their jobs. Jason's a real estate developer who creates compact, mixed-use, pre-World War II-type traditional neighborhoods you feel safe letting your kids walk around in alone. Angela, of course, has enough challenges to sustain her through multiple lifetimes. How she can be a better mentor. How to solve that measurement problem. Which school district is going to do which study.

"It's all incredibly hard."

I like the framing of persistence and grit into the Hard Thing rule. I know many families have adopted the battle cry "We can do hard things!" and that grit is a popular word these days. But it's another thing to build that stretching and, yes, discomfort into the fabric of the family rules. As someone who tends more to the "flight" (=give in, find an escape hatch, move on) in the fight-or-flight response, I probably should have enacted this years ago! Darn. 

And so, even though I'm pretty well acquainted with these ideas theoretically, I think I needed this reminder as much as anyone: "children [and grown 45-year-old women] need to be taught to appreciate that they're supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They're supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they're on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve." 

What do you think? Do you have something like the Hard Things rule at your house? What's your own Hard Thing right now?

p.s. Here's a TED talk on grit by Dr. Duckworth

The power of grit

As we ramp up to the World Cup's opening ole-ole-ole-ole starting next week, we were really excited to catch a glimpse of a familiar face featured in a Powerade commercial. 

Nico was a talented and, yes, hard-to-miss fixture on the soccer fields in our community back home. He was a fellow student alongside our kids in Concord schools and frequently a ref for Sam's soccer games. But even if we didn't share a hometown, I'm fairly certain we'd still replay the video over and over and find his story--captured from videos his dad filmed over the years--powerful and inspiring.

You only have to glimpse the video a few seconds to see that his parents set an empowering, get-on-with-living-life mentality with no excuses. In an interview with Coca-Cola, Nico said "People usually think I was trying to make a statement by playing soccer with able-bodied people and not giving up, but really...I just love playing soccer." Although he had a prosthetic as a child, when he was 5 he decided to ditch it and use forearm crutches instead as he competed on the soccer field and wrestling mat. At 13, he raised $100,000 for Free Wheelchair Mission and was the first person to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro on crutches (and was invited on Ellen to talk about it). These days he's the youngest player to land a spot on the US national amputee soccer team.

Recent research has posited that a good predictor of future success is not necessarily unending talent but rather a combination of curiosity, character, and grit, or in other words the drive to persist through failures and challenges.  Nico? He's the king of grit.

In another video interview a while ago he said, "Some people when they look in on my life, they think that, oh, what a crappy hand of cards this kid got dealt. I look at it in a totally opposite way. I've got a community that's completely accepted me for the person I am. I have parents who went through all this trouble to find the right mobility device for me after a prosthetic. And I've just, and I've got're not defined by what you have. You're defined by the things you make of what you have."

"Youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit"

I love this TED talk where the late Peter Benson shares his vision and research on how youth thrive. (Thanks and hat tip to my friend Aerika for sharing this. She shows it to her adolescent development class each semester.) 

I highly recommend watching the whole thing but if you don't have 20 minutes right now, here are a few takeaways from his talk based on the youth research that the Search Institute has analyzed and assembled over the last decade:

Petrarch said "youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit." When we ask youth "what animates your life, brings you joy and energy? What is your spark?" 100% of them get it--and most can name at least one thing that brings them meaning and joy. Some name a skill or talent (e.g., music, writing, leading), some a commitment (e.g., social justice, environment), and others a quality (e.g., empathy). 

Thriving = spark + 3 champions (at home, school, or community) + opportunity

Sadly, we don't often pay attention to spark, finding 3 champions is rare, and opportunities for many youth are scarce. When a young person names their spark to you, they are inviting you to be a champion. You can:
- say it back to them
- tell them you see it in them
- thank them for sharing it
- find opportunities and resources for them to kindle the spark

The spark may or may not be a part of their future work, but human development is about today, about now. The best development is from the inside out. Helping youth find their spark helps teach a life orientation for discovery. It's a way of being present and nurturing and naming what's internal.

In families we can ask our young people "What is your spark? Who knows it? How can I help?" And wouldn't it be amazing if parent/teacher conferences began with a conversation about the student's particular sparks first?!

"You shall know them by their sparks." Changing the focus of youth development to kindling their sparks will reframe how we, as a culture, view our young people and will help support them in developing from the inside out. 

Much more about sparks here. And there's a book: Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Inner Strengths of Teenagers.

What was your "spark" when you were 16? What is it now? 
Do you know the "sparks" that energize the young people you know? 

Two for Flinching

Did I tell you that I took a year's leave of absence from my PhD program when we moved to Australia? I asked for three months to get us moved, unpacked, and organized but the powers-that-be said that they would only grant a leave for a year at a time so I gladly took the whole year. (I mean. Wouldn't you?) Oh, I'm so glad for that blessed year because it gave me time to think and adapt and nurture our transplanted kids and, yes, begin to incubate this blog project with Sarah.
Well--you guessed it--tomorrow it's time to strap on my student gear and go back to school one...last...time since (erm, knock on wood, please bless, fingers crossed) I plan to finish and tie it up with a bow by the end of the school year. (There, see that? I put it down for all to see.)
Since I'm in the back-to-school mindset, I've been reading through those patient, long-suffering, slightly accusatory piles of research journals and the like that have accumulated next to my desk. As I've skimmed and studied, I've thought of you Nest & Launchers so I highlighted passages I thought were relevant to mid-stage parenting or that you might find interesting. 
Photo by Vivian Maier

Photo by Vivian Maier

The study described in "Two for Flinching: Children's and Adolescents' Narrative Accounts of Harming Their Friends and Siblings" in this month's Child Development caught my eye, partly because I remember that two for flinching game, partly because I do always appreciate a catchy research article title, and also because the topic is one most of us can relate to, from both childhood and parenthood perspectives. Researcher Holly Recchia and colleagues asked 34 seven-year-olds, 33 eleven-year-olds, and 34 sixteen-year-olds to describe specific incidents where they caused harm or upset to a friend and a specific time when they caused harm or upset to a sibling. Then they compared the desciptions of harming in friendship with those between siblings to see what they could learn about the kids' experiences. Here's what they found:

In friendships:

  • Children especially show heightened moral concern for others within friendships, probably because they are relationships that are earned and can be jeopardized by harming and hurting behavior. Compared with sibling conflict, within friendships children seem more able to control both their own harming of others and their responses to others' harming of them.
  • Compared to siblings, harm or upset between friends was more often based on "relationship-centered concerns" including trust building and connectedness. The most frequent reason for harm between friends had to do with hurting feelings due to sharing (or not sharing) time together, as in something like "I think I hurt my friend when I didn't hang out with her between classes but instead played sports with another group of people."
  • Harming experiences with friends can teach children and teens that it's not always possible to anticipate what harm you may cause even if you don't intend it. 

In sibling relationships:

  • Harming (as you might expect) between siblings was more "ruthless" and "uninhibited," possibly because of the frequency of interactions and also because the nature of the relationship is given (a sister stays your sister, even if you harm her) rather than earned ( a friend might stop being your friend if you harm her). One boy said "I learned this thing from my friends, like when you make somebody flinch, you punch them twice and say "two for flinching." So I did that to her and I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it."
  • Sibling harming typically happened intentionally and was triggered by either explicitly offensive behavior like teasing or over the sharing of things and property disputes.  
  • Children described their harmful behavior as a result of anger or loss of control and was more often provoked. 
  • More often than with friends, siblings responded to being harmed with stronger, more emotionally intense reactions:  escalating behvavior, crying, anger. 
  • Children understand and recognize the cyclical pattern of escalation in harming siblings and know that these patterns are problematic.  
  • As children got older, the differences between treatment of friends and siblings because more similar as adolescents become less careful about upsetting friends and as relationships with siblings mellow. 
  • Harming in siblings interactions can give important feedback to kids and adolescents about what is and is not tolerated, especially since siblings are typically not shy about reacting to harm.  

Take away messages for parents:

  • Handling situations of harm or upset actually may be an important part of children's moral development; it's certainly not something to seek out but when it happens, it can be framed and used for learning. The relationship settings--either between friends or siblings--can provide different and complementary lessons.
  • The feedback that children and adolescents receive from their siblings and parents is particularly helpful in helping them form moral judgment and understand the negative consequences of behavior.
  • Parents can help children process the situations--and understand the intense feelings of anger that provoked the behavior as well as the remorse or regret that can accompany times where the harm is more harsh, ruthless, or intentional. 
  • It gets better, typically. As children age, the sibling conflict mellows. For example, 16-year-olds were more likely to refer to their siblings' sadness than that of their friends, whereas for 7-year-olds the reverse was true. 

What do you think?

p.s. And, come on, how could I resist this especially illustrative description by the Deschanel sisters?


The big sleep

If you have a teenager you know that there are about 39,847 things easier than waking one up in the morning. Sleep is something they can do very, very well. And they need it.

Often academic pressures and busy, brim-full lives mean that sometimes teens & college students are tempted to steal from their sleeping hours to squeeze in studying time for tests and assignments the next day. That decision might actually be counterproductive: A recent study reveals that the sleep/study trade-off might not be as helpful as we think.

Researchers studied high schoolers longitudinally during their four years of high school and found that, especially for those in the later two years of high school, sessions of extra, burn-the-midnight-oil studying were actually associated with worse academic performance the next day. They found that no matter how much time the student typically studies (or the amount of sleep she usually gets), if she sacrifices sleep to study more than usual she will be more likely to struggle on a test or in understanding concepts the following day*. In other words, consistency is key and don't throw bedtime out the window.

Turns out that those vital sleep routines are not just for toddlers after all! A teenage version might not be a bad idea, especially if it includes a consistent bed time and a distraction-free bedroom (meaning those pesky, message-chirpy phones would be better off elsewhere over night).

*Now, mind you, I haven't personally researched this but I would venture to say that if the student hasn't done any studying but sleeps a lot, that's probably not the key to academic success either.

via  zulily

via zulily

Oh, the worrying


Despite all happy-go-lucky appearances, when the worry genes were handed out in whatever queues are involved in such things, two of these kids must have received double doses. Or gone back for more.  

Now, I'm no stranger to a good case of the worries; I am surely and admittedly a worrier at heart. I think it must be in the sap running through the branches of our family tree. My grandmother was a champion hand wringer/worrier who seemed to be convinced that her vigilant worrying kept bad things at bay. As a girl I watched my brother refuse to get out of the car for school some mornings, so incapacitating was his anxiety at times. ep, I know where my kids' ruminating came from and you know what? Now I worry about their worrying! I know firsthand that it can drain the joy from life. Or--here--Corrie ten Boom said it much better: "Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength." What's a parent to do?

A recent study of 1200 elder adults revealed a commonly held, surprising regret. When they looked back over their lives, their biggest regret was the time they wasted worrying. What did they suggest doing instead? Their good advice for reducing worries was threefold: focus on the short term, prepare, and adopt an attitude of acceptance. 

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott's advice to writers is relevant to worriers as well. "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." Likewise, focusing on the short term and breaking down the big worries into smaller tasks has been one method that's worked for us at our house. 

A few years ago Sam came into our bedroom and unloaded a late-night litany of concerns about not measuring up during an especially stressful time at school. We talked it through--he had done the studying and work--but he had such high standards for himself it was hard to convince him to loosen his grip on those worries. In a stroke of inspired desperation, we drew up an official, parent-issued License to Fail on the back of a scrap of paper. He never flashed it or cashed it in but I think it served some purpose in dialing down the pressure he felt. It stayed pinned to his headboard until we moved.

Dr. Edward Hallowell, in his book Worry, relates ten helpful tips for addressing anxiety that I have adapted here (in the parentheses) for helping kids and teens:

  1. ever worry alone. (Make lots of opportunities to talk with your worried teen and even get their pledge that they'll never worry alone.)
  2. Get the facts. (Help your child discern between what's actually true and what they're just predicting or fearing. As the saying goes, "just because you think it doesn't mean it's true.")
  3. All worry isn't bad. (Help your child understand the difference between toxic worry, which is paralyzing and defeating, and good worry, which spurs planning and problem solving.)
  4. Let it go. (Help your child understand and use Hallowell's mantra: "I'll fix what I can and then I'll put the rest out of my mind.")
  5. Take care of yourself. (Make sure your child is getting enough exercise, sleep, and a well-balanced diet. All three can greatly affect anxiety.)
  6. Add structure or routine where you need it. (Help your child make lists and introduce routines that help reduce the worry. Sometimes repeated worry can mean kids are over-scheduled or overwhelmed so help them simplify until they reach a better balance.)
  7. Reality test your worry. (See number one; lots of talking helps put things in perspective.)
  8. Use humor. (You don't want to make fun of worries but adding some humor to any situation brings more perspective and lightens things up.)
  9. Look for what is good in life. (Bring out the positives and encourage your child to find them, too. Avoid too much tv and internet.)
  10. Develop connectedness. (Hallowell calls this Vitamin C, as in "vitamin connect." Worries love isolation; they multiply there. Encourage connection with family, other adults, peers, and friends and provide lots of opportunities to be part of a larger community and purpose.)

ne thing I've noticed: Not everyone--even within the same family--registers their worries in the same way. Or at all. As I said, we have two worriers but the other of my three children seems to float above it all in a sunshiney land of it'll-all-work-out. Lauren's a laid-back, come-what-may-and-love-it kind of gal who, truth be told, could probably stand to have a little more worry in her life.  Once during her hectic junior year she said to me, pensively and almost in awe: "Mom, I think I have a strange feeling. I don't know what it is...but I think I might"  Oh, if only we could redistribute those go-with-the-flow and worry levels among us! Then maybe we'd all be at worry equilibrium once and for all.

I haven't tried this personally but this Outsmart Your Worry tool kit for kids and teens looks pretty interesting and looks like it takes a skill- and strategy-building approach for handling stress and anxiety.

I also liked this visualization exercise for putting worries into perspective (via Cup of Jo, also the source of the illustration below:)