Have you ever wondered how social media companies like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram decide what content should be suggested for your viewing? Until recently, I never paid it any mind. That is until I found out about the disturbing content that is sent to young viewers. It’s fine if suggested videos are how to make the best cookies or look at these adorable puppies. It’s not so fine when “challenges” are suggested. Young children cannot decipher the risks in challenges like swallowing Tide pods or trying to blackout from strangling. Recently several children as young as 8 and 9 years old died from trying to replicate these videos on TikTok. Children (especially girls) are receiving suggestions for weight loss and negative body image messages.
Here’s what you can do:
1. Discuss the concept of an algorithm. When kids click on videos mindlessly they are sending a message to the social media company that they want to see more like that video. But sometimes the company tries slightly off topic videos and when the child clicks on that, the choices for future viewing are refined. Knowing how it works can lead to smarter clicking choices.
2. Go on your child’s social media with them. See what kinds of videos are coming up in the For You section. Have an open non-judgmental discussion about it. Ask your child how they feel about what they are seeing?
3. Discuss why people do challenges. Is it for likes? Is it for popularity? Is it for fun? Talk about the hidden dangers that might not be obvious. Ask your children to pause and resist impulsively jumping into a challenge.
4. Remind your children that they can always come to you to ask questions or if they have an issue. You will try very hard to calmly work through a problem or answer a question.
Pick up a copy of First Phone: A Child’s Guide to Digital Responsibility, Safety and Etiquette
This has been a pretty crappy year all around the globe. The Coronavirus swept in and ruined life for all of us. We’ve all missed a lot and suffered to more or less extent. When I look back on this year I will no doubt remember the frustrations, the tears and the stress of dealing with the unknown.
But the dread of being locked down for nine months isn’t the whole story. I want to remember that there were good times here. We found ways to keep busy and stay sane.
Here’s what I did for almost a year. I’ll warn you, there was a lot of television and screen time for all of us. I don’t care one bit. We are alive.
Top moment of 2020 quarantine:
Kristen Bell read my book, Ignore It!. Then she talked about it on the Today show with Jenna Bush Hager. Then she sent me kissy faces on Instagram. Thrilling doesn’t cover it. The thing is when this happened I was in a very low point. I just felt like I needed something good, and I said that to my friend Ellie. Then an hour later Kristen Bell posts something about my book. It felt like the universe was giving me what I needed at the time I really needed it. So thank you Kristen Bell.
I’m a podcast addict. These are just a few I liked from this last year. Warning…I lean toward investigative reporting with some serious topics.
Do No Harm: Not for everyone, but this is what happens when child protective services gets it very wrong. For any of my social work friends, I highly recommend.
Verified: The first season of this really stuck with me although I also liked season 2. It’s a podcast about what it means to be verified (spoiler: it doesn’t really mean safety).
You and Me Both with Hillary Clinton: I couldn’t love HRC more. Listening reminds me of what a smart, kind, funny and accomplished woman she is. She laughs so much, that’s my favorite thing.
Canary: About a woman who was sexually assaulted, the court case, the judge and a victim from the past.
Nice White Parents: Fascinating and depressing look at what happens when white parents try to “help” improve a school.
Even The Rich: Silly, fun 4-part podcasts about uber rich families like the Murdochs, Ted Kennedy, The Queen and Beyonce and Jay Z.
Meditative Story: There are many nights I wouldn’t have slept at all if it wasn’t for this podcast. It’s stories told quietly with nice music and some meditation at the end.
For Best podcast of all time with an update during Covid: In The Dark Season 2. Don’t google it. Just listen. Then tell me because I love to discuss it.
I am the slowest reader of all time. It’s so annoying. So, I typically read one book at bedtime (at a snail’s pace), and then I listen to one audio book. I love being read to and the audio books get me outside taking long walks. This year during quarantine I read more books than any other year. I guess there’s the upside to being locked down with nothing to do.
Here is what I read and a one sentence summary.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb –Funny and touching book about a Jewish grandma and her loving but critical relationship with her granddaughter. LOVED.
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker – Fascinating and devastating true story about a family of 12 children in the 1970s where six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. LOVED.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Highly researched historical fiction about Shakespeare, his family, the plague, marriage grief and love. I LOVED this book until the last word.
Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump – An inside look at the family dynamics of the Trump family from Donald’s niece. LOVED.
We Walk: Life with Severe Autism by Amy S. Lutz – Smart, thoughtful essays written by the mother of a severely autistic child. She has a lot to say and many opinions that are different from the cultural norms. I really enjoyed this book.
This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – Story of a family of five boys when the youngest decides at 5-years old that he wants to be a girl named Poppy. It is so nuanced and thoughtful. I LOVED this book and this little girl so much I named my puppy Poppy.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Slow and steady telling of a family drama in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Very Good.
Born a Crime by Trever Noah – Memoir of Trever Noah’s youth growing up in South Africa. I enjoyed three quarters of this book.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller – horrifying story of the woman who was assaulted by Brock Turner and how she fought back in court. I listened to this audio read by the author. I have a hard time finishing due to the audio. But I found her Instagram account and I LOVE that.
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming – A daughter looks into the brief disappearance of her mother in a small British town. Good not great but with some interesting family photos and details.
Adult Conversation by Brandy Ferner – Everything you may have felt about motherhood but couldn’t tell anyone, this book shows the real struggles of early parenting, marriage and how to find funny when nothing is funny. I actually laughed and cried. LOVED.
March (trilogy) by John Lewis – The true story (told in graphic novel) of how Congressman John Lewis and other brave people protested for civil rights in the 1960s. LOVED.
Me by Elton John – I’m an obsessive lover of all things Elton. So obviously I loved this memoir.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makki – Set during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, this book details the lives of several people affected by the crisis. It’s told in alternating voices and I liked only one half of the duo telling the story. Meh.
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe – The complicated lives of two teens figuring out life. Liked.
My Life in France by Julia Child – This is a straightforward but lovely memoir of Julia’s time in Paris writing her epic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Very Good if you like Julia.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed – Written as an anonymous advice column these long responses to reader letter vary in interest. Meh
Favorite book I read last year that came out this year: Three Ring Circus by Jeff Pearlman
Currently Reading: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – not my favorite.
Cooking and Baking
I love to cook but started really getting sick of my own food during so many days of eating at home. Here are a few of my favorites that I made over and over again. I lived by the NY Times cooking IG page and Smitten Kitchen.
Grape tomato kimchi – I can eat this entire bowl myself. Add cucumbers for even more deliciousness.
Best meatballs– I love this recipe because the meatballs are baked instead of pan fried. Easy and healthy.
Best chocolate chip cookies– I survived this quarantine by baking these cookies and sharing them with friends. I use salted butter, sprinkle some sea salt on top and use the highest quality chips. I promise these are the best cookies.
We don’t all like the same games. But we can all agree on Jackbox.TV. We have had so many laughs playing these games. We even bought a second pack.
The Great Outdoors
Living in California has afforded lots of safe opportunities to get out of the house. I have walked and hiked many miles and swam with fish and sea lions in the ocean. These activities 100% are the reason I didn’t snap on my family and we all still like each other.
Casey made friendship bracelets, Emmett felted a lot of little guys and I did some quilling which I hadn’t done in years. I also made a life-sized paper mache lady because when you have nothing to do and no where to go, you make giant paper mache people, right?
One of the saddest parts of the quarantine was saying goodbye to our beloved Norma the dog. We were all a bit lonelier for a few months. But then Poppy came to brighten our lives. She’s a mini Bernedoodle and she is a pain in the butt but also pure joy.
For much of the pandemic I could barely put two words together. But a few articles bubbled to the surface and I’m really proud of them.
“White Kids Are Using the N-Word at School!” How To Talk About Discrimination – I pitched this to Your Teen Magazine after my son and nephew talked to me about how kids use the N-word without a thought. This came out without much fanfare due to much more pressing issues in the country. Still, I worked hard on this and both kids also got a byline.
I watched so much television. It seems impossible I could have done anything else. But I promise I really did all the other things I already listed and also spent time with my kids. Here are a few of the highlights:
All of Grays Anatomy (I am so ashamed, there are 384 episodes)
All of Downton Abbey
All seasons of Somebody Feed Phil – Creator of Everybody Loves Raymond goes around the world eating and meeting the people.
The latest season of The Great British Baking show
Anne with an E – adaptation from Anne of Green Gables.
The Crown season 4
Lenox Hill – Follows 4 doctors at Lenox Hill Hospital (including my high school boyfriend). It’s amazing.
Virgin River – stupid but gorgeous nature and gossipy plot.
Indian Matchmaking – Just so much fun but unsatisfying in the end.
The Surgeon’s Cut – Kind of like Lenox Hill but different. Also great.
Next in Fashion – Like project runway but better plus I <3 Tan France.
The Queen’s Gambit – loved it all including the wallpaper
Challenger: The Final Flight – obviously about the Challenger and what lead up to the explosion.
Never Have I Ever – Sweet teen drama
The Octopus Teacher – man swims with and befriends an octopus. Nice if you like sea life.
Also, every 90-day Fiancé (because I have no shame) and Housewives of Salt Lake City (including my second cousin).
Favorite quarantine show hands down would be Voices of Fire. It’s like American Idol but for a gospel choir.
I’m writing to you because you are old enough to know the truth. Actually, you aren’t. You are innocent children who deserve a childhood without fears and nightmares. But the truth is unavoidable, and at this moment there is nothing else I can say. So here it is.
I cannot protect you from a gunman. Not at preschool. Not at a concert. Not even in temple. There is no amount of guns that can make you safe because those same guns will always find a way into the wrong hands. If someone wants to kill you while you are peacefully playing tag in the playground, I cannot help you. If you are having fun at a concert with your friends or enjoying the latest movie in the theater, I cannot protect you. You could get shot, and you might die.
My beautiful daughter, I can almost guarantee you will experience lots and lots of sexual harassment. You will have unwanted attention from strangers who will look at your body and sexualize it. You will probably have a boss who will discriminate against you because you are a female or while you are pregnant or after the birth of your beloved child. You may even be raped by a stranger, or worse, someone you know. And if you choose to speak up you may not be believed. You may lose everything in the process. There are people in powerful positions who will work to silence your voice. Even if you present the most compelling evidence and you are believed, sometimes nothing will change. Because lots of people don’t care.
I’d like to tell you that you get to make decisions about what happens to and in your body, but I can’t. The right to an abortion is a fragile one, and there’s a chance you may lose that right. Even if your life is at risk, you may not be able to have life-saving surgery because some will value your fetus more than you. Don’t think you can rely on contraception to avoid an unwanted pregnancy because that right may go away too. Depending on where you live or where you work you may not have access to an IUD or the pill. And you may not always have enough money for condoms. This makes me terribly sad, and I’m sorry.
My science-loving boy, I’d like to tell you that science and data matter. That people rely on high-quality research conducted by respected institutions around the world to make decisions about our planet. But that’s not always true. There are many people who look at widely accepted beliefs about climate change and deny the existence of overwhelming data. Some people will govern with the narrow focus of getting themselves reelected. They make the rules that we all have to live by. Your grandchildren may not have any water to drink or a dry place to build a house. I know it’s scary but that is already happening to many.
You have the right to vote and voting matters. You still have this right, but some will make it difficult to actually cast your ballot. People will change the rules at the last minute to favor their political party. They will try to minimize dissenting voices by making it difficult to vote by asking for identification or limiting voting hours or moving polling locations without notice. People will say every vote counts but sometimes it doesn’t. The popular vote can go to one candidate but an antiquated system will have the electoral college pick a different winner.
In these horrible times I wake up nearly every day with astonishing disappointment and pain. So it’s really hard to continue to pretend that these terrible things won’t happen here. I cannot look into your beautiful innocent eyes and say, “It can’t happen to you.” It can. It happened to school kids just like you in Miami and Newtown and Columbine. It happened in the supermarket in Kentucky and in a temple in Pittsburgh. It happened to a professor, just like me. The congressman in our district doesn’t believe in climate change. It’s all around you, and I can’t lie to you.
But in all of this painful uncertainty, there are some truths that might help you.
I will speak up to do my best to protect you. I’ll do this by fighting the school district or suing my employer for discrimination or by writing about injustice. Speaking up may not always change things but it will show people that I care and support them. That’s not nothing. If I see something that is hurting someone, I’ll say something. If I can right a wrong, I’ll do it. It will not always be easy. But that’s usually when it’s most important. I will do this for you and you must do it for others.
I will vote until my last breath. I still believe change can come. People sacrificed in significant ways to give us the right to vote. I’ll do what I can to protect that vote, and I’ll exercise my right in every single election.
I will create a home where everyone is welcome to Sunday dinner or Passover regardless of faith or race or sexuality. I’ll make Christmas dinner for our Christian friends or Iftar for the Muslim ones. Why? Because our lives are made better by people who are not exactly like us. I’ll teach you to be open-minded and have an open heart. I’ll be kind and generous whenever I can and sometimes when I think I can’t. I’ll show you that you can make a change in this world even if it’s just to one person. To that person, that might be the difference between life and death.
I will try to live my life to the fullest because bad things can happen. I can’t prevent a lot of the bad things I mentioned. But they are less painful when we live our truest best life. Go out and live your lives and enjoy it. We owe that to the people who have been lost.
I love you. I pray that’s enough to comfort you. Love, Mom
My friends Noel and Michelle and I like to celebrate our birthdays at the beach or out for lunch. This wasn’t possible so we put together a little social distance party for Michelle’ birthday this year.
My family, just like millions across the globe, has been in quarantine for 29 days. In the beginning I wrote a blog with a few suggestions for how parents can manage the time shuttered at home with kids. However, real life is a little different than aspiration. Here’s how it’s really been going at our house and what I’m doing to keep my head up.
I say yes to almost everything.Can I make a banana cake with peanut butter frosting? Can I take apart your old computer? Can I dye my hair? Can I shave it off?Can I watch more television? Can I play more video games? Yes, yes, yes. Yes, to anything that isn’t dangerous that can be construed as an activity or fun or relaxing or just time consuming.
I’ve lowered my expectations. My house isn’t clean. My kitchen is a disaster. A friend mentioned seeing a list of things to remember to clean around the house. I told her not to send me the list. I can’t handle more cleaning. The dishes pile up faster than I can blink. Staying above water is such a fine line. I’ve had to stop caring about the way my house typically looks. Letting go feels better than trying to live up to standards that feel not worth the effort right now.
Keeping my eyes on my own paper. I always tell parents to worry about what goes on in their own house and forget about how perfectly it all looks at the neighbor’s house. No one has it all together all the time. Now more than ever we have to remember this. We’ve all seen pictures on Instagram of gorgeous breads and perfectly cleaned linen closets. Some people are incredibly productive at this time. Others are hanging on by a thread. Some people are both. I can tell you no one is winning the quarantine. We are all just trying to survive.
Communicating the ugly feelings, to someone. I tend to keep things inside until I’ve had time to process and deal a bit. But this isn’t possible or even recommended when confined to quarters with other people during a traumatic experience. I’ve confided in friends and family when I’m on the edge. I also found a way to politely ask my husband for a little more support around the house when I need it. Talking and reaching out has helped me face another day with a little optimism.
I cry. Despite best efforts to keep it together, I cry. I cry for the people who are sick or caring for the sick. I cry because people are running out of food and money. I cry because children are learning a horrible new normal. I cry because there is no end in sight. I cry because I’m overwhelmed and lost sometimes. I cry because I miss my friends and family and my old life. I cry because so much we have been looking forward to has been cancelled. I cry because I’m helping no one. I cry and I don’t feel bad about it.
Sunlight on my face literally feels like having my battery recharged. I know myself. I need nature to brighten my outlook on just about everything. Sitting in my back yard listening to birds and seeing butterflies and flowers makes me happy. If something will make me happy right now, I do it.
I make plans. Having something to do makes each day slightly different, in a good way. I made a date to play the ukulele with our old piano teacher. I made plans to make croissants from scratch with my sister and a friend. I met up virtually with two of my editors for a chat. I made a birthday cake for a friend and dropped it off at her house (from a distance). These activities shaped my days and gave me a purpose that I need so desperately right now.
I soak up the special moments. Even during a horrible pandemic, there can be joy. One day I sewed masks at the dining room table with my daughter while we binged Love is Blind. It was a welcome break from the bleakness of this time. I picked up my phone to memorialize the moment so when I look back and remember how hard this was, I will also remember how special it was to be home with my kids.
I make soup. Soup comforts me. Yesterday I made my great grandmother’s cabbage soup. My mom gave me the instructions, but I wasn’t sure it would taste like my hers. It came out just like I remembered from my childhood. Last week I made Matzoh ball soup. The week before it was pumpkin lentil. It’s the little things that help us get through. For me, it’s making soup.
I don’t care about school. I truly couldn’t care less what homework my kids are doing. They do their work, or they don’t. I don’t check. I have teenagers so I know this may not be possible for all families. But it works for us. Here are more of my thoughts about parenting teens and school during the quarantine.
I take space when I need it. There are times when I cannot be around anyone or I will burst. I’m a person who loves people and also loves a little alone time. There is very little alone time and that can get to me. So when I need it, I excuse myself and go to my room. I watch the Shahs of Sunset or I play Ruzzle (play me, I’m CatherinePEA) or I listen to a podcast. After a short time I’m ready for people again.
I love having a show to watch with my kids. It’s not just fun to watch with them. These shows bring up important issues to discuss and provide lots of funny inside jokes. Despite the bad rap for screen time, watching shows brings us together and closer. There is no better time to start a series with many seasons. Here are some of my family favorites to watch.
100 Humans on Netflix Science and Nature – 13+ (16+ if squeamish about the idea of sperm being discussed vaguely)
A social experiment where 100 individuals are part of interactive research studies to understand complex sociological issues in a fun way. Every wonder which is the smarter sex? How does age impact ability? How does racial bias impact our decisions? There are so many questions 100 Humans works to answer. There are lots of methodological problems with the research but each study brings up interesting ideas about how we all operate and why. I promise this one will spark endless debate and conversation in the house.
Atypical on Netflix Family Drama, Autism, LGBT, College Life, High School – 13+ (15+ if worried about sex and relationships discussed)
Sam, an 18-year-old on the autism spectrum, decides it’s time to find a girlfriend, a journey that sets Sam’s mom on her own life-changing path as her son seeks more independence. This is a great family drama (like the movie “Parenthood”) with real-life themes for all families.
The Zoo on Animal Planet Science and Animals – Any age
The Zoo offers a unique behind the scenes look at The Bronx Zoo in New York City. This show is so much more than animals. They show their work on conservation, animal care, reproduction and more. It’s funny and sweet but also important.
This show is for people who like to bake, for those who like to eat and for those who cannot bake a thing. These British bakers are sweet, endearing, and they creating incredible edibles. Unlike many American shows, these competitors are all kind, help each other and are amateur bakers.
Cheer on Netflix Sports, Competition, College Life – Any Age
Cheer offers viewers an inside look into the lives of a highly competitive cheerleading team at a community college in Texas. You will come for the cheerleading (it’s an actual sport with highly skilled athletes), but you’ll stay for Jerry and La’Darius.
Gilmore Girls on Netflix Family Drama,College Life, High School – 13+
Cheesy but engaging mother-daughter drama about growing up, family and life.
The Good Place (from creator Michael Schur of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation”) is a comedy about what makes a good person. This show is so much more than that. Every episode incorporates ethics and interesting philosophical concepts. There is so much to discuss after each episode.
Battlebots on Discovery Science, Robotics, Competition, Smashing stuff up – 9+
BattleBots like a mashup of mixed martial arts and a monster truck battle. Two remote controlled robots are put into a bulletproof cage and let loose on each other until one bot dies. There are fireworks and head on collisions, loose wheels flying, flame throwers and screaming and laughter and … I could go on and on.
I came late to this party but glad I got there. This historical family drama follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in the family’s Edwardian country house. You will love them and hate them, then you will miss them.
With massive numbers of school closures beginning across the county, it’s important to have a plan. Most kids and their parents are not accustomed to 24/7 exposure for weeks on end. Here are some ways to get through with your sanity and even how to enjoy it.
Do School for set limited hours. Most children attend school for seven hours a day, but it really doesn’t take that long to learn the material. When working with children one-on-one they can learn much faster. Plan a few hours (2-3 for young kids, 3-4 for teens) a day to work on schoolwork and schedule it into the day. Have that time remain consistent and don’t negotiate this. If you have a non-negotiable time kids might fuss at first but eventually, when they realize there is nothing else happening until the work is done, they will get going.
Don’t recreate the wheel. There are millions of useful resources available online right now. You don’t have to have a lesson plan or become a teacher yourself. Most likely schools will offer guidance. But if not, there is Khan academy, Common Sense Media and loads of resources available by simply googling.
Be creative in how school gets done. School at home isn’t just about homework. Show documentaries, read books aloud, discuss news articles, download some audible books related to what your kids are learning in school. Whatever you do, think about how to make this enjoyable for your children and for you.
Break the rules. Living together, under one roof, in sometimes small areas, can be stressful. Be willing to change some of the rules to help everyone get along and find something to do. Have a picnic or a camp out. Make a fort and don’t bother cleaning it up. Have dinner with a movie (even every night). Bake a ridiculous amount of sweets and eat them. Play games for hours. Binge watch a show (but do it together). Sometimes keeping order is about breaking the rules in favor of fun and survival.
Don’t break all the rules. Chaos ensues pretty quickly when all rules are thrown out the window. Keep some semblance of order by having some rules that cannot be negotiated or changed. For example, keep up with bedtimes and wake times. Don’t allow phones and computers at all hours in the bedrooms. Limit screen time reasonably. Have mealtimes rather than everyone takes food whenever and wherever. Find what works for your family and stick to it.
Ignore It!. One of a parent’s best defenses against poor behavior is to ignore it. Yes, sometimes things get better when we do nothing. It’s amazing, very freeing and it works. I wrote a whole book about this. But here’s the primer: Not every behavior has to be disciplined and sometimes giving it attention only makes it happen more often. Life at home in a quarantine is hard enough. Be willing to look the other way, let some small stuff go and ignore anything annoying. There’s no benefit to discussing every behavior and there is a gigantic one to avoiding it. Trust me on this. You can read all about Ignore It! here and here.
Separate. Too much together time is just, well, too much. Have breaks in the day when everyone goes to their own corner. Consider it rest hour. Read. Try to break a Guinness Book of World Records. Write letters. Paint. Sew. Make a movie. Work. Build LEGO. It doesn’t matter what people are doing during that time, just do it alone.
Disconnect, a little. There will be the temptation to check Facebook and email continuously to stay connected. That will be important. But too much of that will have diminishing returns. Have time in the day when devices are banned, for everyone (parents, I’m looking at you).
Find the fun and funny. There will be a lot of ridiculous moments when so much time is spent together at home. You will have to laugh or you will scream. Find the funny. Write it down. Share it with friends. Be silly in ways you aren’t normally. It will make this time more memorable and so much more tolerable.
Share the load. Being homebound means finding ways to share to chores. Assign every member of the house a workload. This isn’t permanent but everyone needs to pitch in. Here are some ideas to get you started. If there is another adult in the house, have a meeting to divvy up the work what children cannot do. This will help with resentment and also not burdening one family member.
Say thank you. Sometimes we forget our manners. This isn’t the time for that. Thank your kids for helping out and doing their homework. Thank your neighbors for leaving food at your door. Thank your partner for supporting you. Thank your employer for letting you work from home. You get the idea. Thank you goes a very very long way in keeping the peace and making everyone feel appreciated.
During the holiday season, we all tend to give a lot to our family, our friends, maybe our neighbors and our coworkers. That’s all good. But the thing is there are lots of people who don’t enjoy this time of year. It’s expensive. It can be extraordinarily lonely. It is often stressful with all the shopping and parties and planning. And there tends to be more depression and anxiety than other times of the year.
There is so much we can all do to help others as we would help our inner circle. And maybe doing it for a stranger will make that act more meaningful. With the holidays approaching, I’m ready to get back into giving business. I want to see if you will join me.
It’s been six months since I donated my left kidney to a man I’d never met. I feel great, and my tests show my one kidney is working as well as ever. Every morning when I look at my scars, I’m filled with the greatest satisfaction I’ve known in my life.
After I donated, I received an outpouring of supportive messages. It was completely unexpected and in a way that was what made them even sweeter. What struck me the most is how meaningful my donation was to other people. Many messages said some version of:
“My faith in humanity is restored”
“This story gives me hope” “This is what we need in a world filled with so much anger and sadness.”
It wasn’t that I donated my kidney that was meaningful to most people. It was that I did it for a complete stranger.
A few years ago I read about a study that divided people into two groups. Both groups were asked to rate their happiness. Then they were given an envelope with either $5 or $20. One group was asked to spend the money that day on something for themselves. The other group was asked to spend it on someone else or donate it to charity. At the end of the day both groups were asked to rate their happiness again. Who would you predict was happier?
The people who gave the money away were happier. It didn’t matter if the participants were given the $5 or the $20. Giving it away just made people feel good regardless of how much was.
This study taught me two very important lessons.
Giving also helps the giver and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Giving in small ways is just as good as big gestures.
In 2015, inspired by this experiment I decided to buy 20 $5 Starbucks gift cards and hand them out in a Target parking lot. The whole family joined in. I wanted my kids to feel the gift of giving even though it wasn’t their money. We all took a stack and wrote messages on the envelopes. Then we walked around the parking lot distributing our cards. I remember my husband walked past a car with two young women waiting to park. He handed one a gift card. She was incredulous and frankly, she was suspicious. She wanted to know why he was giving her the card. After explaining there was no reason, she was visibly shocked and elated. He gave another card to the passenger. There was a mom putting a baby and her packages into the card. I recall the exhaustion of those days well. We slipped a card silently onto the baby’s empty car seat and walked away.
Though we were a sample of only four, we can completely validate the results of the study. Once on a road trip someone treated our family to a meal. We never saw them. They just paid the bill. I almost cried. I wondered why they picked us. We immediately paid for someone else’s meal and walked out doubly happy. Giving and receiving feels good. We should do it more.
Now comes the big ask. For the next three months let’s make the world a better place by being nice to strangers. I mean make an actual concerted effort every day to do something nice for someone outside of your friends and family. Go big or small. Spend money or don’t. All you have to do is find ways every day to do something nice for a stranger until Valentine’s day.
Why stretch this giving thing way past the holidays? Because lots of people help out during the Thanksgiving to Christmas stretch. But often people feel more alone in the dark days of January and February. Valentine’s day stinks for a large portion of the country. So, let’s do this all the way until the promise of Spring is upon us.
I’m going to be using the hashtag #strangerkindness to keep track of our good deeds. There is no need to let me know if you’d rather stay private about your good works. But I’d love to see if we could log 1,000 acts of stranger kindness by 2/14/2020. If you use the hashtag and tag me on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, I’ll count it. My dream would be for this effort to spread far and wide to everyone you know and all the people we don’t. So if you feel comfortable, please share this campaign.
What do I get out of this deal? I get to feel warm fuzzies on a regular basis knowing people are out there being kind to each other. Selfish? Sure. But we will also do lots of good so what’s so wrong with that?
Below is a list of my favorite ways to make a stranger’s day. Some cost money. Many don’t. If you’ve got more ideas, let me know. I’ll add them to the list. Thank you for reading this far and considering being kind to a stranger.
* Give someone a smile and ask how his/her day is going
* Offer a compliment
* Treat the next person in line at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts to a free drink (this is my husband’s favorite)
* Buy gift cards to CVS, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target to keep in your car. If you see a person who might benefit from a card, give it.
* Become an organ donor (donating at the time of death can save up to 8 lives)
* Go to your local nursing home and ask to visit with someone who doesn’t receive many guests
* Make a cake and deliver it to a neighbor you don’t know
* Bake cookies for a local soup kitchen
* Donate fruit growing on your trees or help pick for someone else’s fruit that would be wasted
* Go serve or volunteer at a shelter or food pantry
* Offer a kind word to a parent of a screaming baby on an airplane and/or offer to help.
* Read to kids or teach English to second language learners at your local library
* Buy stamps and stand at the post office offering them to people
* Give blood through the Red Cross
* Let someone have the parking space you are waiting for
* Let someone go ahead of you at the supermarket
* Take back someone’s shopping cart for them
* Write a kind note to someone’s boss about the good work they are doing (this is really meaningful in the service industry)
* Teach an elderly person to use a cell phone or computer
* Pay for someone’s gas at the station
* Share your umbrella
* Buy extra movie tickets and pass them out
* Tell a parent in the middle of dealing with toddler meltdown “You are doing a good job.”
* Offer to get a snack or treat for someone working overtime at the hospital
* Make cards for to thank veterans for their service
* Call a dialysis center and offer to decorate or even throw a party for people receiving treatment
* Offer to babysit for a single parent or any parent
* Go to a nursing home and offer to give manicures for the resident
* If you see someone having a hard day, ask if they could use a hug
* Go to a LGBT center and offer to be an adoptive parent for someone whose own parents have disowned them.
* Hold the door open for people
* Leave tampons or pads or condoms in a public bathroom with a sign saying “take one if you need one”
* When it snows go around an shovel/plow someone’s driveway for them
Lately I’m considerably more conscientious about preparing my children to successfully launch into adult life. Maybe that’s because my children are 13- and 16-years old and college is around the corner. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen in my practice and in the literature that young people are just not as ready for real life when they leave for college or start work. When I grew up, adulting wasn’t even a word, now the lack of it is an epidemic and a syndrome (check out this fascinating look at the rise of the actual term adulting.).
A few years ago, I saw Julie Lythcott-Haims speak to a large group of teens and parents. I read her book (How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success), and I consider myself fairly up to date on parenting and child development. But during her talk, Haims said something that resonated so deeply. She said, “Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job.” That was it. So simple. It was like being hit over the head with a cast-iron frying pan and suddenly, my mindset shifted.
Around the same time when I was writing Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction I stumbled across a flyer from the Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. It reads “If you are dropping off your son’s forgotten lunch, books, homework, equipment, etc., please TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.” Yes, Yes, Yes!!! The universe was telling me (and every other parent) that something had to change. We’ve got to stop enabling our kids to sit back and have their parents solve their problems.
With my parenting brain realigned I understood there were lots of things I was doing for my children that needed to stop. Out was checking up to see if they did their homework. Out was making sure the gym uniform was washed, dried and returned in the backpack. Out was cooking every morsel of food that was to be put into their mouths. Additionally, I made sure to give the kids several chores in the house that they were required to do on a daily basis. When my kids instinctively ask for help opening a cheese stick (yes 13- and 16-year-olds still ask this) or how to spell astronaut I now tell them to figure it out.
With Haims’ phrase and the Catholic school’s flyer in mind I’ve mostly avoided overparenting. Recently a teacher approached my high schooler to say, “Your mother sent me an email about your grades. Let’s talk after class.” My daughter looked at the teacher and said with complete confidence, “There’s no way my mother sent you an email.” She was 100% correct. There was absolutely no way I would send an email to my daughter’s teacher about her work or grades. I would have recommended my child email the teacher directly if he/she wanted to get some extra help. If the child chose not to get the help, then that child would have to deal with the consequences of not be prepared for the next test. Turns out the teacher was speaking with the wrong student.
And so it’s been going until I was forced to decide how far this adult preparation was going to go. This morning I allowed my son to miss his bus so we could have breakfast out together before school. This is normally my husband’s weekly special time with my son but in his absence this week I took over. I was planning on dropping my son at 8:30 am and meeting a colleague at 9 o’clock. Everything was going perfectly. We were enjoying each other’s company. We were discussing life and important topics over a chocolate almond croissant. When I mentioned the Say No to Drugs Red Ribbon Week campaign at school my son looked up in a panic and said, “There’s a Halloween costume contest at lunch today.” At 8:11 he’s realized that he did not have a costume. He forgot. Now I’m faced with a choice. We are two minutes from school and at least 10 minutes from home. We really didn’t have time to get his costume and for me to meet my coworker without being late. Morosely, we got up and ambled to the car.
On the way there I’m muttering about how we really don’t have time for this. My son is muttering as well. He’s saying, “It’s ok. We don’t have to get it.” But my heart is breaking. He’s such a good kid on all fronts. He’s generally responsible. He does take the dog out and empty the dishwasher with a minimum amount of complaining. He’s self-directed and above all, I know he would go out of his way to help me in an emergency. It all comes down to one question: Is this one of those times I should not rescue him and let him suffer the consequences for forgetting something?
I don’t want this question. I just want to enjoy my breakfast with him, drop him off and arrive on time to my next appointment. And I really really don’t not want to reinforce any kind of disorganization. However, I looked at the kid in front of me. He absolutely loves Halloween. School is mostly boring and lame, and this is one of the fun days (even if it has nothing to do with actually preventing drug use). Do I want him to miss it because I have a principle to uphold?
It turns out that I didn’t. More than I wanted to teach him a lesson, I wanted him to have his costume today. I’ve taught him many lessons, and I will continue to do so. But I realized there isn’t an all or nothing in this parenting gig. Consistency and following through are important. I made a video on this exact topic yesterday. But there are times that instead of being the parent I need to be a human being who has empathy for another human in distress. I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve frantically called my husband because I’ve forgotten something important. It happens to the most organized among us.
So, I quickly turned the car around and started driving toward home. If this were the 10th time my son forgot something for school this would have turned out differently. But it wasn’t. It was the first. My son and I said nothing for a few blocks, and then he said, “I think we can make it.” We caught every green light on the way home, and I took the toll road (expensive but fastest route) on the way back to school. Because my son knows that I don’t normally rescue him if he forgets something, he was unusually grateful. A block from school he rushed out of the car flashing a smile. I rushed back to the highway.
I arrived at exactly 9 o’clock on the dot. My son was right. We both made it. Still thinking about if I made the right choice, I looked down at the floor of the passenger seat to see my son’s pencil case laying there. In his rush to get his costume on in the car he must have dropped it. I will not be dropping them back at school.
Google the word “teenagers” and a plethora of How to Survive Your Teenagers articles will appear. The memes and GIFs are endless. Sometimes they are funny (really funny). But mostly they just drive home the point that teens are unbearable beings that have no manners, roll their eyes in disgust and treat their parents without respect or consideration. As a family coach I know for sure that this is often the case, or at least it feels this way. However, when teens are consistently seen and portrayed as demons that is pretty much all many parents can see.
I don’t find demons in my house. My kids friends are not demons and neither are any teens I’ve met (and I’ve met some really tough kids as a social worker). When I see young people, I see promise. I see possibility. I see the future. In an effort to rebrand kids ages 13 to 19, here’s an ode to all that’s good about parenting teenagers.
Teen are funny. Teens are known to be a bit impulsive. What’s so great about that is they often say whatever comes to mind, and that can be insanely funny. They don’t have filters either. Also, funny! Don’t take your kids so seriously and you will start to see the funny.
Teens aren’t jaded. They aren’t bogged down by past experience, and they see the world as changeable. They think they can fix global warming. They think they can elect people who will care about gun violence. They think a better world is possible. For this, I’m eternally grateful because we need changemakers now more than ever.
Teens are sponges. They think they know it all but in reality, they don’t know all that much. It’s incredible watching kids suddenly make a connection from what they learn in school and real life. It’s adorable taking teens to try dumplings or roller skating for the first time. They have a zest for life when they give something new a chance. It reminds me of watching toddlers discover the world around them but on a much bigger scale.
Teens are savvy. They can figure out new technology before their parents can sign into their iPhone 7s. They have never known a card catalog or a AAA trip tic, and that’s amazing. We can learn a lot from our kids if we can get past the brief Mom-you-are-an-idiot-for-not-knowing-how-to-do-this moment. Being tech savvy also translates into figuring other stuff out too if teens are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.
Teens do chores. Sure, younger kids can and should do chores. But teenagers can do them more competently and at a more advanced level. One of the best parts of my kids getting older is they can actually help me around the house. They take the dog out and empty the dishwasher. Both jobs I dislike. Teens who drive can also run to the drugstore for a prescription or the supermarket for items for dinner.
Teens are good company. If you can find just the right activity, kids are great companions. Look for a tv series or program, a music group or type of food where you can bond with your teen. What to do if you have nothing in common with your kids? Pretend. Find something your child enjoys and take an interest.
Teens are dedicated friends. Part of typical development is for teens to move their focus away from their home and parents. Their friends become vitally important, often to the dismay of their parents. But it’s fantastic to see the lengths teens will go for their friends. They bake them cakes. They rescue them even when it’s inconvenient. They stay up too late talking to them about every minute detail in life. This is all good practice for adult friendships, including transitioning to a different relationship with their parents.
I love to watch my kids play sports. I love watching water polo. I love flag football. I love the fast pace of the basketball games. I even love the boring (sorry, it’s true) baseball games. I don’t care if my kids win. I don’t particularly care if they play that well. As a parent, what makes my day is watching my kids have fun. Sadly, there are almost always one or more parents who just suck the life out of the game. They seem to live or die by every play. They offer endless chirps of advice from the sidelines. None of it is actually helpful. Their kids clearly hate it. It’s the #1 reason kids stop playing sports by the age of 13.
My kids are not sports superstars. They are not getting a scholarship or even hoping to be a walk on somewhere. They get out there to exercise, have fun, and make friends. What I enjoy at my kids’ games is seeing them have a moment. Sometimes it’s making a great catch or scoring a goal or a touchdown. More often than not, it’s a moment that’s nearly imperceptible to every other spectator. It’s when my son knows he did his best, and he flashes us a little smile. It’s when my daughter gets aggressive with another player (totally normal in water polo), and we marvel at how far she’s come in the game.
Unlike the typical sideline sports parent debacle, today I got a glimpse of what sports could be like if all of the parents behaved themselves and enjoyed the game.
My 12-year-old son, Emmett, is in his last year of flag football. At the game today my husband and I noticed 10 dads who appeared to be having a party in the stands. It was like they had just come from the best tailgate and couldn’t wait to see the big game. But the big game was flag football for middle schoolers. Instead of heckling “helpful tips” to improve play, they shouted supportive sayings to every player. They laughed (a shockingly rare occurrence on the sidelines). They cheered. They did the wave.
At one point my son made an interception. The crowd went wild. Then Emmett did it again, but this time ran for a touchdown. The fun dads asked us his name. Then they started chanting “Emmett, Emmett, Emmett”. My son did the tiniest of celebration moves to acknowledge the crowd, and we all chuckled. This group of men made the game entertaining not only for the kids, but for the parents. It was pure joy, and I’m grateful that my son had the game of his life while these dads were around. Not for the glory. But because their enjoyment was contagious.
At the end of the game, the dads all lined up at the front of the bleachers and yelled for Emmett to come by for a round of high fives. Not one of these guys knew Emmett before the game. They treated him like the most coveted player ready to be drafted. Then they called over each boy on the team for their high fives. All of the boys went home with a smile.
My son is an average player with good heart. He’s never the center of the big play. He’s typically one of the last players in and he’s mostly ok with that. Today, these dads brought their A game to flag football and made my son’s year. I wish every kid could have a sports parent section like this at every single game. It certainly beats heckling our kids to do better. Thanks Dads!
These dads are the heroes of today’s flag football game