After the birth of my oldest son, five years ago, a friend came over to visit with her toddler. The little boy ran to greet me, tripping over the entry way and scattering the bouquet of flowers he had previously held in his arms. Before crying he looked up at his mom. His mom was so calm. “Lliam,” she said, “are you hurt or just surprised?” Lliam paused. “I’m okay,” he said. “I’m sooo surprised, Mommy!” Then he proceeded to gather up the flowers. No meltdown.
What a great trick, I thought! Now a mother to three young boys, I understand just how much my boys will take their cues from me. So in the face of a minor bump, fall, or crash, I stay super calm. Then I don’t name physical pain before checking in with the child, asking some variation on my friend’s question: “does it hurt, or are you just surprised?” Sometimes it’s both. (And sometimes I know it probably hurts a little even before asking). Often, however, just asking the question slows the tears as the child reflects on how he is actually feeling. Especially with my middle child, a good percentage of the time he realizes he’s not in much physical pain. This small moment of reflection changes his perspective and helps him find his center much faster.
That’s the thing about reflection—it has the power to change our perspective and help us switch directions when we need to. The end of the Jewish year—and specifically the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—are traditionally a time of serious introspection and reflection for us adults. These weeks are a time to take stock of our deeds over the past year, to ask what can be done better in the coming year, and to reflect on who we are as individuals, families, and communities. We ask: How do I want to grow? What’s holding me back? How can I move forward?
As adults, we have plenty of forums and resources to undertake this important work of reflection. There are classes and discussions at our places of worship. There are mediation retreats, work groups, and book clubs. And there are so many kinds of podcasts, websites, and books to help us learn to know ourselves better and improve nearly every aspect of our lives.
What about our kids? Kids are (wonderfully) pretty much living in the moment. So asking them to reflect on how they are feeling right now is a very different exercise than asking them to reflect on their actions and feelings over the past year, month, or even over the past week.
Importantly, however, the value of teaching kids reflection and introspection is backed up by science. Research shows that children who are taught introspection (thinking about their thinking) and reflection grow to be better decision makers. When children set a goal, reflect on their actions surrounding that goal, and spend some time evaluating their progress, they actually build up their pre-frontal cortex. The result is greater self-control and stronger executive function. And, much like adults, children that learn to reflect on relationships with one another can become more emphatic, kind, and caring individuals.
Knowing this, my husband and I have committed to try something new. Over the next few weeks, we will undertake a family project aimed to teach our boys (at least the older two) about reflection. This project is adapted from author Bruce’s Feiler’s bestselling book The Secrets of Happy Families. The Secrets of Happy Families is kind of a positive psychology anthology—a collection of strategies from businessmen, engineers, athletes, coaches, the military, and even TV writers. It’s a book for anyone bored by the conventional parenting books admonishing us all to “eat together,” and “set firm boundaries.”
The reflection practice suggested by this book is pretty simple but (if the author is to be believed) a very powerful tool. The practice is a weekly family meeting. The family meeting is designed to encourage flexibility, to give frequent feed back, to create an environment where the best ideas win, and to increase accountability. You get everyone together once a week to ask, and together as a family to answer, three questions:
What went well in our family this week?
What did not go so well?
What will we agree to work on in the week ahead?
Our thought is that this meeting would give our boys a safe forum to discuss wins and losses and successes and failures—all without blame, shame, or (too much) guilt. But the meeting doesn’t stop at reflecting on what happened over the past week. We continue on to question how we can improve for the next week.
Our plan is to agree on two things to work on for the week ahead and possibly even some ways to hold each other accountable. Then the next week, we ask the same three questions and also check in on how we did with our previous goals. Our hope is that the boys can learn to reflect on their lives and feel empowered to find solutions and see improvement week by week.
Will it work? Will it teach reflection in a way that helps our family and moves us in the direction of our values? I don’t know! I’m so excited to find out.
Katie is a native of rural Kansas. She writes about agriculture, education, children, Jewish interfaith families, the arts, and law. She is on an extended sabbatical from her practice as an intellectual property attorney and lives with her husband and three young boys in Boulder, Colorado.