Category Archives: Parenting

Routines in Marriages and Families

One day last week I got up as usual and showed up at the gym at the usual time as part of my daily routine.  There was only one problem.  I forgot that it was Saturday.  The gym opens 30 minutes later on Saturday mornings.  I knew that; I just forgot.  So, I put gas in the car and came back, checked messages on my phone.  No big deal.

Routines are helpful parts of our usual day because they allow us to execute mindless tasks while thinking of other things or talking to other people at the same time.  Think of the mindless tasks we execute every day when we dress, eat or brush our teeth.  Multitasking is enabled by simple routines.  Routines are helpful.

Establishing routines can be an exercise in efficiency.  For example, I know that when I use my key to open the trunk of my car, I will, without thought, leave the key in the lock.  This way I won’t lock my keys in the trunk…like I used to do…until I learned a new routine.  Now, I don’t have to waste time waiting on a locksmith to open my trunk so I can get my keys.

I like to keep routine office hours.  This way, people know when they can come to my office and have a face-to-face conversation without having to bother with an appointment.  I do my best to maintain those regular, predictable office hours; but, there are exceptions.


In marriages routines are important ways to establish and maintain  trust.  Regular, predictable behaviors and attitudes over a long period of time build relational strength and flexibility.

For example, when one partner knows the other will be at a certain place at a certain time it becomes an expectation.  It is part of the routine.  A simple text message or phone call when the routine is changed can assure partners that all is well; no worries.  However, repeated disruptions of routines without warning can erode trust; a key to lasting relationships.

Partners tend to choose to believe the best when routines are maintained and they are informed about sudden changes.  Unexpected changes in routines without clear lines of communication can lead partners to begin to question their choice to trust.  If left unattended, trust in one’s partner can become a serious question.  In decaying relationships, partners can actually begin to believe the worst, even for the most innocent of alterations to routines.

Routines are important.


A common refrain I hear from the self-employed business owner is that good help is hard to find.  When asked what the most common problem they must face with new employees I often hear that they are not dependable.  In other words, their routines have not adapted to show up for work on time rested and ready to be productive throughout the work day.

A potential employee may have a predictable routine of staying up late at night playing video games, sleeping later than most in the morning and being sluggish throughout the day.  Nonetheless, as comfortable as the potential employee may be with similar routines, they will likely have to change when a typical day-job with responsibilities comes along; that is, if they wish to in crease the probabilities for lasting employment and a good reputation.


More than just something to do over and over, routines can be keys to trust in your relationships.


Family Time

FamilyVacationAs summer begins to make way for the fall a whole host of challenges open up for many families.  Preparing for school and all of the activities associated with sports and other special opportunities present all kinds of scheduling challenges.

During the month of August many families squeeze in their vacations and special activities and events before the rigors of the new school year’s demands begin.  As the end of summer breaks approach there are a few things to keep in mind that might be helpful.

  1. Quantity versus Quality – Family quality time often happens spontaneously and  unexpectedly.  So, quantity time makes quality time more likely to occur any time, not just during summer vacations.
  2. Communication Is Critical – It is impossible to not communicate.  Therefore, it is important to be consciously intentional of what we are communicating to increase the likelihood that people are hearing the messages we are wanting to send.  This is especially true as family members work to navigate through times of transition.conflict-in-family
  3. Golden Rule Rules – Treating family members as we wish to be treated will go a long way towards fostering considerate behaviors.  Power moves such as raised voices, belittling comments and other forms of intimidation may bring immediate compliance; but, the long-term consequences are often less desirable.
  4. Loving Listening – In all of the hustle-bustle at this time of year a listening ear can go a long way towards helping family members work through their own difficulties on their own.  Just listening to ourselves out loud can help strengthen our reasoning abilities and self-governing behaviors that will internalize over time.  In an age of instant messaging and electronic noise, we all need a good listener who will take the needed time to actively hear what we are trying to say.

These simple guidelines may help make this hectic time of year less trying as everyone works together to make the new school year the best ever.

Learned Optimism


It is amazing to me how we often define words like “optimism”.  To the optimist, the word means that you believe the best.  To the realist, the optimist is still in touch with reality; but, just barely.  To the pessimist, the optimist has totally broken with things as they are and is slipping into delusional thinking.  Seeing the glass half-empty or half-full is a more considerate way of explaining the difference.

Martin Seligman has spent a lifetime studying the contrast between optimism and pessimism.  You may remember his early studies on “Learned Helplessness“.  He contends that optimism is a learned behavior that can help people overcome depression, anxiety and a host of other disorders.  In the second edition of his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Seligman, 2006), Seligman takes on the ‘self esteem’ movement in our culture and its shortcomings.  Just a quick read of the preface to this edition is both insightful and convincing.

Optimism is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”

I believe that God is an optimist.  A primary example is His relationship to Israel.

“For he remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham. He brought out his people with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; he gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws.” (Psalm 45:42-45)

In this psalm the author recalls the great works of God as He brought His people out from the land of Egypt, concluding with the prequel to their entrance into Canaan and the result. Canaan was a land that had been prepared for them on account of at least two things: 1) God’s promise to Abraham and 2) the wickedness of the nations that had lived there before them.  Moses made it clear to them that it was not because of Israel’s righteousness or because they were better than anyone else (Deut. 9:4-6). Yet, he gave them this land to that they would “keep his precepts and observe his laws.”


Anyone who is familiar to Israel’s history knows of the difficulty they had keeping His precepts and observing His laws.  How many times did God, the eternal optimist, tell Israel, in essence: ‘C’mon, trust me.  You can do it.  I’ll help you.’  Knowing that they would fail, that they would pursue other gods and that they would disobey Him, He still chose to believe in them.

Parents often beat themselves up because their children chose to live in ways that disrespect their upbringing.  Plagued with guilt, they wonder what they did wrong, how they missed the boat and what they could have done differently.

Sure, there are things we could have done differently.  Sometimes things work out beautifully, in spite of a child’s parents whose parenting skills were horrible.  Sometimes ‘perfect’ parents have children that just do not seem to have any regard for their family’s beliefs, values and morals.

In the midst of that, all parents have an opportunity to make a choice: “Am I going to deal with my disappointments and hope for the best or anticipate the worst?”  Without going into all of the reasons, in the end, I would recommend TrumanQuotethe course of optimism because that is the course God has chosen.

In other words, when you hope for the best, even when your kids demonstrate that they presently have no intention of moving in that direction, you are in good company with the God of high hopes and a broken heart:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Reflections From Father’s Day

Arnold and Wanda waiting on the bus in front of the train terminal in Helsinki.

Father’s Day is a relatively new event, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972.  While there are no ‘official’ job descriptions for fathers, there is a general consensus about what they are supposed to do.  Much of this is anchored in Scripture and goes back to the ultimate, perfect Father who set the bar for the rest of us.

I have been contemplating this concept since celebrating my own father’s holiday last Sunday and pulled together some reflections based upon my observations of his life with my mom.

Family First – When I think of dad I think of mom, too.  I never really saw them take much “me time” with the girls or with the guys.  They were all about ‘us time’.  On our little farm in Plymouth, Michigan there were always chores to do, animals to care for and projects to complete.  Cleaning brick for the patio, tearing down an old house, cleaning out the stalls of the horses, sweating copper pipe joints for the baseboard heating, working in the garden….most all of these tasks had one thing in common: we did them, usually, together. 

Integrity – Even if there was a cost involved, doing the right thing was always the right thing to do.  Sure, there were agonizing moments but, in the end, the clarity of conviction and principle won the day, trumping short cuts and easy answers.  I can remember dad having to file extensions every year for his taxes with receipts all over the dining room table because he would not take a deduction unless he could verify it with a receipt.  It used to drive all of us crazy!

Industrious – Need something done? Sure, we can try.  Where are the manuals.  So many things I learned about cars and home maintenance and construction came from working alongside my father as we learned, together, how to lay brick, how to build a sauna, how to sweat pipe, and so much more.  The spirit of “I can do it” helped me venture into packing the bearings on my bike’s wheels, design a diving bell for exploring the local pond (it didn’t work, by the way!) and, now, to rebuild an old car from the ground up, build a garage and take on projects for the first time.

Gallimore School Sign
Dad Was The Principal Here In The 1960’s.

Creative – Out of the box thinking, willing to go against convention and try new things, innovate, change, forge ahead.  Taking advantage of a neglected forrest area behind Gallimore School he pushed forward and transformed it into a nature trail with an amphitheater, walking trail and nature experiments.  Just getting the Road Runner as mascot for the school required contacting Warner Brother’s for copyright permission.  As a kid I can remember the excitement I felt when dad received the letter granting permission, coming from Warner Brother’s studios itself!

Faithful – On the farm there will be accidents, bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes and blood spilled.  This is not a place for the squeemish, the faint or the timid.  On the farm, you see it all, smell it all, and experience life, front and center.  Truly, the farm is a great place to raise a family to prepare them for the world.  Great place to learn that if you don’t feed the animals, the animals don’t get fed.  If you don’t clean out the stalls, the animals have to…well, you get the picture.  So much of the farm’s functioning depends upon it’s owners being regular, predictable…faithful.  Never had a question about whether or not he was devoted to be faithful to his marriage or his family because he was there all of the time when not at work, helping us do what had to be done.

Spiritual – The underpinnings of my faith have undergone significant transformation over the years but it began by watching my dad faithfully, dutifully, make sure that our family attended church every Sunday.  Even when we were on the road on vacation, our priority was to find a church on Sundays and Wednesdays where we could meet with the saints.  Serving each other communion in the woods while hunting in northern Michigan or dressing for Sunday service in the pop-up camper before going to church…these memories

Arnie’s Army – 1976 AIC Champions

are embedded in my consciousness.  But it was more than that.  My dad’s fastidiousness with church attendance was matched by his spiritual journey that I have watched over the years.  Immersed in legalism in our early family life, we, as a family, have all grown together–at varying rates of progression–in our appreciation for God’s grace.  Much of this was initiated when my father and mother made the decision to uproot our family from Michigan as the drugs began to flood the schools and move us to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas where he would earn a reputation as a spiritual swimming coach for  Arnie’s Army.


While much more can be said about fathers and the legacy they leave behind, my personal reflections serve to remind me of the things I hope to pass along to my family in the years to come.  Some of our fathers never had the opportunity to learn from great examples and they had to make it up as they went along.  Some fathers fail miserably,  passing along their dysfunctions to generations;  trouble that only the brave and resolute will correct.  My hat is off to those who have chosen to be good fathers in spite of their experiences.

For most, however, we look up to fathers who did their best.  In most cases, this quality rings true through all of the incredible variety of challenges and experiences we will face over the years, testing our resolve, our commitment, our principles and our values to our very core.  Need a good role model in those desperate times?  Look to God and seek out someone who knows Him well and you will be well on your way to being the father that your children will cherish.

The Double Bind

Man Scratching HeadThe Double Bind is defined as “…a psychological predicament in which a person receives from a single source conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made” ( correctly credits Gregory Bateson with the exploration of the concept back in the 1950s as systems theory began to form the basis for Marriage and Family Therapy.

For example, the mother who complains because her son does not demonstrate his love for her, pushes him away when he reaches out to give her a hug.  It is a type of schizophrenic messaging that leaves the child confused about correct responses that will please his parent.

In reality we all give off double-bind messages to one degree or another.  Wanting a child to do his or her chores is one thing.  Insisting that they enjoy doing their chores may not be an effective strategy for making sure the job gets done.  Or asking someone to choose where to go out to eat and then shooting down every suggestion they make puts the person in a double bind; i.e., no right answer.

Families taking pride in their openness and transparency can sometimes discourage the very thing they want.  This can often be because of poor listening skills that unintentionally communicate very different values.

Alcoholic families often wrestle with these mixed messages.  For example, the father who comes home drunk explodes in anger over the most insignificant infractions in the family; sometimes over nothing at all.  At the same time he might totally ignore the most horrendous behaviors among family members. Add a healthy dose of unpredictability and the family is constantly in a state of confusion about family rules for day-to-day functioning and simple tasks.  These patterns of behavior can become so entrenched in families that, long after substance abuse has stopped, the alcoholic family dynamics and belief systems persist for generations.

To the outside observer, the family’s attempts to cope with these double-bind situations of mixed messaging and unpredictability look illogical and even irrational.  Within the family system, however, the unusual behaviors actually make sense at some level.  Try those unusual behaviors in other settings, however, where predictable, logical rules are applied in a consistent way and the unusual behaviors don’t make any sense at all.

The most common reaction in these situations, it seems to me, is to withdraw and isolate one’s self from the tensions they perceive in the family.  People get quiet, go underground, retreat, stuff their feelings and even slump into depression.  On the other hand, family members who attempt to confront the family’s system are sometimes ostracized and labeled as “the problem.”

The double bind is just one of many examples of the types of challenges Marriage and Family Therapists address frequently.  It is all part of how relationships work in marriages and families.  But, more than that, you can also see these dynamics in many social structures such as in church, government, the workplace or school.  In whatever setting, there are things that can be done to confront the double bind systems that we deal with every day, encouraging healthy communication and consistent messaging while also reconciling conflicting ideas and addressing cross purposes.

Parenting is Tough

Dad with little son outdoors at oceanParenting is tough.  While children go through their developmental changes, each with their own unique personalities and temperaments, parents must morph their parenting tools to adapt and change.  Not only must the techniques and tools change with developmental stages but, at the same time, they must further adapt to the uniqueness of each child.  I sometimes wonder who must change the most during these transitions: the child or the parent!?

Wise parents use a complex, dynamic arsenal of tools to help their children move from the cradle to differentiated lives as adults. We use rewards to encourage good choices and punishment to discourage bad choices.  At other times we ignore behaviors in hopes that they will stop for lack of reinforcement while we redirect their focus of attention to encourage positive feedback loops and new interests.

There are parents who do not have a clue about how to use these tools equitably and their kids still live successful lives. At the same time there are others who apply them with wisdom only to watch their offspring make horrible choices with painful consequences.People & Cross

As the ultimate Parent, God, the Father of Israel, worked to shape the lives of His children over hundreds of years of history with punishments, rewards, forgiveness and blessings and so much more…but they still killed his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

Parenting is tough…just ask God.

And when you struggle with the choices your kids make, remember: God wrestles with the choices we make as well, in spite of everything He has done for us.  Yet, our failures do not mean He is a failure, nor do our children’s wrong choices necessarily mean that we are bad parents.

Children will make wrong choices, just like you and I did!

Here is the kicker: bad choices are often made because we choose to make them, not because God let us down.  It’s the same with our kids.  Sure, unlike God, we have all made parenting mistakes…some of us more than others.  But at some point we must realize that our children are free to make their own choices and to suffer their own consequences for those choices.  Like us, our hope for them is that their choices become learning opportunities that open the door to better choices in the future.

So, give yourself a break now and then and stop beating yourself up for the mistakes your kids make.  Parenting is tough and perhaps the biggest lesson to learn along the way is that the maturing process may have more to do with what we learn as parents than what our kids learn under our watchful eye.  Perhaps just as important as what our kids learn in the process of life is discovering what we are learning as parents who are hoping for the best in the process.

Struggling with parenting? You are in good company!

Hosea 11:1-4

1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.

Sexual Conduct Correlated to Sexual Behavior in Movies

News Flash!

A recent study has revealed that exposure to movies that contain sexual content has an impact upon teenage sexual behavior!

This assertion was measured along two dimensions:

1. Sexual Debut – A correlation was found to suggest that “Movie Sexual Exposure” led to teens having their initial sexual experience at an earlier age.

2. Risky Behavior – A relationship between “Movie Sexual Exposure” and an increase in ”sexual risk taking’ was also found suggesting an increase in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The study further determined that there may be an interrelationship between teenage exposure to sexual content in movies, sexual debut and risky behaviors.

This study is discussed in more detail on the Baptist Press News website and it provides something of a wake-up call for something we already know.  These common sense correlations raise red flags to parents and verify that it makes sense to take care of a few things at home.

1. Be clear about your own personal sexual values to make sure they are in alignment with your own faith and beliefs.  Throughout the Bible, for example, there are clear teachings about God’s gift of sexual expression and the boundaries that surround it.

2. Lead by example by making sure that, as adults, our sexual values and our movie watching habits are in alignment with each other.  Let your children catch you doing the right thing by watching movies and surfing websites that reinforce those values that you wish to pass on to the next generation.

3. Be prepared to talk to your pre-adolescent children and teenagers about the contrast between your family’s sexual values and those of Hollywood and the entertainment industry.  Better yet, make time to proactively discuss this with them in age-appropriate ways; rest assured they are already being bombarded from other sources.

4. Demonstrate your love and concern by monitoring the movie and entertainment habits of your teens.   Transparent tools such as Covenant Eyes can help curb the temptation and empower parents.

Of course, there are no guarantees for success in passing on parental values to our children and teens.  It just makes sense to communicate and encourage values that we believe in–and that we live by–to give children and teens a touchstone from which to make their choices in life.  Counseling teens and their families can be helpful for setting boundaries and shaping behaviors.


Children & Family Therapy

Family Therapy for children recognizes problem behaviors in families from a family systems perspective.  What that means is that the Marriage and Family Therapist recognizes that family members who are having difficulties can be the problem while, at the same time, they can be the symptom.  For example, in a dynamic often seen, when mom and dad focus upon a child who is misbehaving it helps divert attention from the interpersonal conflict they are having with each other.

At the same time, a child’s misbehavior can be more than a symptom of the family’s relational challenges; it can also be due to a number of other factors that need to be addressed first.  For example, children with obsessive-compulsive behaviors or chronic depression may be dealing with chemical imbalances that need immediate attention.  Nonetheless, the family is still a factor as they have developed patterns that may perpetuate the problem or, even, unintentionally make it worse.

Helping children deal with  intense, negative feelings in constructive ways can be challenging, especially when those feelings are already being expressed in ways that are extreme or inappropriate.  A part of helping children deal with intense emotions is to help them learn to identify feelings with words that describe those feelings.

Always looking for new ways to help kids communicate this link to a mother’s attempt to help her child identify feelings and to act appropriately is interesting.  Many children play these video games starring Angry Birds.  Perhaps one way to clarify feelings is to give your child some expressive faces, verbal associations and some idea of consequences associated with good and bad behaviors and words.

It usually takes a great deal of energy for a parent to finally pick up the telephone or send an email asking to schedule an appointment for counseling.  One of the first questions a therapist will ask is “What event or situation led you to set up a time to meet?”  The answer to that question begins the process of identifying the problem which immediately lends itself to specifying the goal of therapy.  In solution-focused, brief marriage and family therapy the therapist will want to know how the problem started, how the family addressed the problem and what factors may be going into maintaining the problem.

By the second or third session the therapist begins the process of formulating a strategy to help the family tap its own resources to address the challenges in new and different ways.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Rather, the wonder of the family systems approach is that healing often involves a rich mixture of behavioral changes, re-alignment of perceptions and assumptions and a creative channeling of the family’s focus and energy to promote healing and stronger relationships.

Marriage & Family Therapy With Children

As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I am often asked if I see children and teens in my practice.  The answer is yes; but, not in the traditional sense.

In Family Therapy, the first few sessions of psychotherapy with a child or adolescent will also involve meeting with either or both parents and their siblings.  The therapist’s task is to consult with the family to assess their unique interactional patterns, to define the problem and to specify the goals and objectives of therapy.

During the assessment phase someone in the family describes the problem.  The Family Therapist may bring the whole family together for a session.  He or she may also meet individually with other family members based upon the belief that  a child’s problem or adolescent’s behavior is best viewed in the context of the interaction patterns between family members.

During the process of goal formation these communication patterns are important.  First, they contribute to the psychological health of the family and, second, they clarify the dynamics of the problem as defined by the family.

Finally, drawing upon the strengths and wisdom of the family the therapist works within the interactional patterns to help bring about a solution to the problem.  Therapy is concluded when the goal that the family identified is achieved.

This emphasis upon the family system as opposed to focusing exclusively on the individual sets family therapy apart from more traditional approaches.  In the end, this approach makes sense as key members of the family are engaged with and invested in change for the better that will last beyond the therapy sessions into everyday life.