How do I get my kid to stop playing video games and go outside?

I am concerned with my child's unwillingness to do anything outside of our home. All he wants to do is watch tv, or play video games. We cancelled the cable and took away the game stations in hopes that this would encourage him to get out make friends and play. When that didn't work, we enrolled him in as many summer activities as we could afford and we have started making him go outside and walk to the park which is about 3 blocks from where we live. I feel like I am being harsh when family and friends call and say that they have seen my son out and that he looks so sad or he looks so lonely. Please if you could offer any advice or just peace of mind I would be greatly appreciative.

You don't mention the age of your son, but I'm guessing he's at least in elementary school. I'd be curious to know why he doesn't want to go outside, and to find out, I'd just ask him.

It might sound something like this: "Hey, son, I've noticed you seem to want to spend most of your time indoors playing games and watching TV, and I'm wondering what makes that so much more interesting to you than going outside. Will you tell me about it?"

You may be surprised at what is going on in his head. You may discover that he gets overheated in the sun, or feels like he's not good at sports and is embarrassed, or that the kids in the neighborhood are always offering him drugs and he'd rather not be put in that position. Would your feelings about him staying inside so much change if you found out that one of these factors was motivating his behavior? Mine probably would.

Until you understand his reasoning and motivation, your attempts to get him outside may be ineffective at best, or drive a wedge between you at worst. Find out what is going on for him, and you'll have a jumping off point for a collaboration.

So let's get you off the hook by reframing your job as a parent. You are not required to force him outside. If you were to succeed, it would be a hollow victory anyhow, because you haven't achieved anything that he is likely to continue to do for himself without your enforcement.

So what is your job, then? To communicate your concerns, invite him to share his, and then to teach him by example how to collaborate on win-win solutions.

Let's listen in on a collaboration so we can see how it might sound.

The invitation:

Son, would this be a good time to talk a bit about this 'going outside' situation? I'm not feeling good about trying to force the issue all the time, and I'd like to learn more about what's up for you. Would you be willing to tell me about why you'd rather play games or watch TV than go outdoors?

A possible response:

Well, Mom, the kids next door seem really nice, I know, but whenever there are no adults around they shoot at me with their pellet gun, and it hurts! I'd rather just stay in here where it's safe and they can't bug me. You always make me go out alone and it's just like I have a big target on my shirt.

Reflect what you heard to let him know you understand what he just said, and ask if there's more:

Sounds like you'd rather stay inside so you don't have to deal with them. Anything else going on?

After you are sure he knows you understand his reasoning and are not trying to talk him out of it, but only to understand where he is coming from, then go ahead and ask permission to share your concerns:

Can I tell you why I'm always bugging you about this?

Share your concerns:

I feel like a bad mom if I let you miss out on all that sunshine and fresh air and exercise that is so healthy for our bodies. I'm worried about what could happen to the muscles of your hands, or your vision, if you play games for so many hours in a row without moving around.

Now, time to collaborate:

Hmmm, what could we do about this situation?

Pause, to let him generate some ideas, then make some suggestions of your own if you wish:

Maybe we could ride our bikes together down by the creek, or play catch in the back yard? (It's no coincidence that both of these suggestions involve a structured activity with you, rather than just sending him out alone with nothing specific to do. Your presence will go a long way toward sweetening his experience as well as helping him feel safe and protected.)

Sort through the solutions with him and find some that work for both of you. Then try them out, and see how it goes.

You may have noticed that this technique requires us as parents to get clear about what we want and why. We may have heard somewhere that it was good for our kids to play outside, but until we can specifically understand and communicate why we think it is good, as well as open our minds and try to understand why our kids don't think it's good, we are not ready for a collaboration.

Sometimes, when we sit down to sort this stuff out, we discover that our request was rather arbitrary in the first place, and we may decide to just let it go. That's not being weak or inconsistent as a parent, it's being honest and clear.

I hope this helps. Let me know how it turns out.

When your kids don't want to see their other parent (and you kinda wish they didn't have to)

Here's an excerpt from an email I received recently:

I have two incredible kids, ages 7 and 9, and have been divorced from their father for a few years. The problem is, he is a complete trophy father when he is single, but when he is dating he is absolutely awful. The kids cry when the time comes for him to come get them, begging me to allow them to stay home. If they ask him if they can stay with me he gets nasty with them and hangs up on them, which he has done often, even calling them names at times. I have started taking my kids to a therapist, but I don't know what to do about their father. Help! Please! I don't know what to do, he won't listen to what I tell him when it comes to the kids and how they feel.

My heart goes out to this mom and the thousands of other parents who could have also written this letter. This is a deeply painful situation that pushes almost every button in a parent's psyche. I will answer this reader's question about the kids not wanting to see their father, but please know that this same advice also applies when kids don't want to see their mothers.

I'll offer several suggestions for you to chew on. You may not like some or all of them -- my opinions are usually pretty radical. I'll trust you to experiment with whatever resonates with you and leave the rest. So here we go:

It would be easy for me to jump on the ain't he awful bandwagon, and commiserate about how wrong he is for doing all these things. But I'm not sure how helpful that would be for you. If you are wanting empathy, as we all do at times, I'd encourage you to talk with sympathetic friends.

As for me ... I cannot tell you how to make their father listen to you.

I cannot help you teach your girls how to get him to listen to them.

What I may be able to help you do is re-calibrate your expectations of him with what he IS doing, and take your focus off of what he SHOULD be doing. And once you are grounded in what is real at this moment in time, any actions you need to take will become obvious.

So let's start with what is happening. What can you count on him to do? At the risk of oversimplifying and overdramatizing, let's say: partner with women who are not maternal or even cruel, ignore your kids when he's in a relationship, get angry and defensive, call them names, refuse to listen or communicate constructively, etc. Not that he's going to be this way forevermore, but for now, that's been pretty consistent, right?

When we divert our energy into thinking about what he should be doing better, we miss some opportunities to take action ourselves, and to empower our kids to do the same. So for the time being, let's assume his behavior is not going to change anytime soon, and that no amount of bringing it to his attention will impact it.

In the state where I live, being uncommunicative, mean, and defensive is not legal grounds for a reduction in parenting time. The courts will take action if there's evidence of neglect or abuse, of course, but if I am hearing you right, this is not happening in your case. I'd advise you to consult with your attorney to see if any legal action can be taken.

You mentioned you were thinking about moving out of state. It may indeed come to that, but denying kids contact with a parent can have a long-lasting impact on their sense of wholeness and well-being, and there are many other things you can try before you even think about going that route.

I love that you are taking the kids to a therapist, and would encourage you to see one yourself, who can help you tell the difference between your reactions to what is happening and your kids' reactions. It can be hard to sort that out ourselves.

Although it breaks our hearts to see it, crying will not damage our children. Nor will disappointment. Please understand, I don't mean to belittle our children's emotional pain, or our pain when we see our children suffering! It can feel devastating. I truly do understand that.

And given the nature of this world, no matter how much energy we put into preventing our kids from having to experience pain, we cannot. Life will make sure to disappoint all of us at some point. And that's a good thing. The ashes of disappointment are fertile ground in which the seeds of resolve, clarity, and determination can sprout and take root.

What you may not realize is how much of a difference your presence makes in the life of your kids. Because you are there, standing as an example of availability, compassion, and presence, they will never be confused about how they want and deserve to be treated. The trick is not to lose your center by becoming angry at him when you hear what's he's doing, because this takes your focus off of listening and being present with your girls.

How do we do that? We work through our own guilt and anger in therapy or with friends. We forgive ourselves for picking him as their father, or for leaving him to meet our own needs, or for any harm we think our choices may have caused to our children.

When we've done this inner work, then we can listen. We can empathize. We can stay engaged with our kids, even when they are in pain, without feeling enraged or guilty. We can witness their experience with compassion, and help them find their way through.

We teach them by example that big feelings are okay, and that we are not afraid of them, and that they pass all on their own eventually, just like a thunderstorm. These are powerful lessons that will serve our children well every day of their lives.

We avoid jumping on the ain't he awful bandwagon together, and instead help our kids to stay focused on experiencing their feelings in the moment. "How does that feel in your body? I notice your hands are squeezed tight -- what are they saying?"

We don't ask questions about the details of what was said or done, we keep the focus on their feelings. We set our own thoughts and feelings and judgments aside for processing with adults later, and we allow our kids to fully express theirs.

Here's what is amazing about this process: when the energy of feelings is allowed to flow freely, the intensity naturally dissipates. I know a mother who would sit with her son and just listen for 15 minutes or so to his intense anger and outrage after he came back from visiting his father. And then he would suddenly just run out of steam, and ask what was for dinner beore heading outside to shoot hoops or something.

She did not agree or disagree, she just let him vent. She could not fix it for him, as much as she wanted to, so she didn't offer suggestions or give advice. She could not impact his dad in any way, so she could not help. All she could do was love him and listen. And it was enough.

Years down the line, not much changed at his other house. His dad was still doing the same old stuff. But her son's feelings about it were different. He stopped taking his dad's behavior personally. He stopped thinking that if he just told his father what he needed, he would give it. He became somewhat impervious to it - he would say, Yeah, you know, that's just Dad. He still loved him. He just took him with a grain of salt. And he learned some strategies for dealing with others that will come in real handy later in life.

You may never change your ex's behavior, or protect your kids from having to cope with it. But you can let your frustration strengthen your resolve to be the kind of parent your kids deserve. They will naturally recognize and gravitate towards emotional health when it is available. So make sure it is, in YOU. The rest will work itself out.

note: There are many additional important points in my responses to the comments below, so please consider reading them for additional helpful information. 

ask, don't tell

I wonder where we got the idea that our kids are supposed to blindly obey our orders, and how that delusion persists in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. Maybe it came from the same myth-makers who told us Children should be seen and not heard.

In any case, let's just forget about that blind obedience thing. This generation of kids never received that memo anyway. It's causing a lot of frustration for parents and children alike, and creating unnecessary power struggles.

Instead of telling your children what to do, try asking them instead. You are far more likely to receive a cooperative response when you say, "Honey, think you can get those toys picked up before we have lunch?" rather than, "Pick those toys up right now!"

I know I've mentioned my little respect-and-cooperation formula before, but perhaps not in this venue.

To achieve maximum cooperation and gain the respect you desire, speak to your kids the same way you would to a visiting neighbor.

No, I'm not kidding! It really works.

If your elderly neighbor spilled her lemonade, would you chastise her, or just accept her apology and help her clean it up? Can you imagine how grateful your kids would feel to be extended the same kindness and benefit of the doubt? It's really just common courtesy, but it may not be common enough between parent and child.

Yes, of course, we all blow our stacks and yell at the kids sometimes, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about everyday interactions, where we think we are failing as parents because our kids don't instantly comply with our orders. But we're not failures - our expectations and strategies are simply obsolete.

When we treat our kids with courtesy and respect, they actually WANT to respect us back. Neat how that works out, huh? And really much simpler than trying to force compliance.

good food/bad food

Parents often think it is our job to teach our children about healthy and unhealthy foods:

"Sugar and junk food are bad for you. Eat something healthy, like carrot sticks, instead."

I'm simply not convinced that this approach is very effective. Weak food/strong food, healthy/not healthy, good for you/bad for you are all externally imposed value judgments, and are only the endpoints of what is actually a continuum of value that is different for each person's body chemistry.

Many kids respond to pronouncements and directives such as these with rebellion, rather than acceptance. (You'll find them sneaking candy bars and hiding them in their rooms, or getting 'bad food' from a friend's house.)

It's not really that surprising, is it? Kids learn best through experience. When we forget that and issue directives, all we do is clutter up their feedback loop. "I don't care if my stomach hurts or not - I'm gonna eat it anyway! She's not the boss of me!"

What if instead, we let our children's appetite and inner sensory feedback guide their choices? What if we mention our concerns and our own experiences, and then encourage them to experiment and gather information about their own bodies?

Here's how it sounds to share our concerns:

I'm concerned that chocolate might make it hard for you to fall asleep in an hour.

I'm concerned that if you eat more bread right now, you won't be hungry for your chicken when it comes.

Here's how it sounds to share our experiences:

When I have chocolate after dinner, it's hard for me to fall asleep.

When I eat lots of bread before my dinner comes, I notice I sometimes am not hungry for the meal I ordered, and I usually feel sort of sleepy and cranky after that.

I love how much energy I have all day when I have a big salad with turkey on top for my lunch!

Both of these can be followed by:

It will be interesting to see how your body feels after eating that.

I don't know about you, but I don't want my kid walking around thinking that 'bad' food has some kind of magical power over his body. I'd rather help him simply link up how he feels after eating, and then step aside so he can conduct the next experiment.

As always, it goes without saying that parents can be very influential role models by demonstrating the kind of eating habits you hope he will develop. I wouldn't advise stocking your fridge with only soda or your shelves with only candy. But I also wouldn't advise sending your child to a birthday party with a sugar free granola bar to avoid all the toxins in birthday cake! Most of us can handle anything in moderation, and being afraid of food is not healthy, either.

As much as possible, let your kids learn for themselves how they feel after eating certain things. Make the process safe by being empathetic rather than saying "I told you so!" The conclusions they draw from their experiments will be far more powerful than any lessons you've tried to teach them.

take the pressure off!

You know what 90% of my work with parents consists of? Helping them to release the conglomeration of 'shoulds' that they have gathered along the way, which are burdening them like a bunch of barnacles on a ship.

Children should eat three square meals a day.
Children should obey their parents.
Children should have an early bedtime.
Children should be potty trained by age 3.

None of these are universally true, but we often feel like inadequate parents if we can't achieve them! Maybe grazing on nutrient rich foods all day long suits your child's body chemistry better than three square meals. Maybe your child would be better off going to bed at 9:30 and sleeping in until 9 am so she can spend time with her daddy when he comes home from work at 8. Maybe your particular child responds far better to requests than orders or demands.

Who knows what works best for your family? Yep - only you. And how do you know? You experiment. You try different options and see how it goes. Books, other parents, and 'experts' can be a useful source of ideas to experiment with, but nothing can replace your intuition, your connection with your child, and your own experience.

Parenting is a journey, not a destination. It's one big ongoing experiment. We will never get it down to a formula that works in every situation forevermore. It's the flexible willow, not the rigid oak, that survives the storm.

When you let go of all those 'shoulds', you have more resources available to generate strategies that actually work instead of being frustrated that what should work, doesn't! It's okay to lighten up and play with new ideas and see how it goes.

a mother's heart

I took my 17 year old son to enlist tonight. That's him with my daughter and I at his high school graduation a couple weeks ago.

It surprises me that hours later, I am still crying. I thought I'd just say goodbye and turn my attention to the next thing. I know he is prepared. We were all prepared. I knew this day was coming for months in advance. Years, really.

I willingly signed the papers that allowed him to join before age 18. So it should have been no big deal, right?

Ha. Right. I never knew I had so many tears in me. I can't quite explain what is going on behind the waterworks - it feels like some kind of primal maternal grief. It makes no sense, but that doesn't seem to matter.

My boy is now a man.

My role has changed forever.

And I will miss him. That goofy earnest grin, thumping down the stairs on that impossibly noisy body. The pocket knives being snapped open and closed ad infinitum. The overly technical explanations of all-things-computer that I could hardly understand a word of.

The military will be so lucky to have him. Ever since he was a little guy, he was always willing to drop anything to help someone. We moved a few weeks ago, during the time that he was preparing his final presentation for his high school graduation. Nevertheless, he provided solo tech support and heavy lifting for me and his sister. He had so many tasks of his own to complete, but the second he got wind of the teensiest curse emanating from the vicinity of my desk, he was at my side, ready to assist.

It seems like yesterday that I first looked into his newborn eyes and was shocked to realize that there was someone already in there, not just an empty vessel waiting to be filled. I can't believe 17 years could possibly have passed since then. They have been wonderful years, truly. I love my son with all my heart, and I could not be prouder of the man he has made of himself.

I know I have said this before, but perhaps it bears repeating. The active parenting years fly by. Few of us, parent and child alike, will remember the details. But your children will remember some things after they are grown: things like whether you approved of them, trusted in them, or gave them the benefit of the doubt.

They will remember whether you had confidence in them or not, and whether you saw their good intentions. They will remember if it was safe to tell you everything. They will remember the tone of your voice.

In fact, it's entirely possible that not only will our children remember the tone of our voices, but they may even hear our words to them repeated in their own minds for many years after they have left our care.

So today, while your kids are young and making so many mistakes as they figure out how things work, please be aware of how you speak to them. You still have time to make sure that when they leave your nest, you will feel good about the inner parent they have created from your example. And while you may still cry as they walk confidently away, your tears will be those of pure and simple sadness, untainted by regret.

And how interesting that as I write these words, my tears have finally stopped. For truly, I have no regrets. For this I can thank the many excellent authors and mentors who graced my parenting journey with the wisdom of their experience, as well as my own mother, who so gracefully continues to be the source of a parenting template based on unconditional love and respect.

Oh, and I can also thank my very shoddy and selective memory, since it has not stored up anything I am ashamed of for me to remember. Except that one time, when he was a toddler and in a very defiant phase, when I snapped and swatted his bottom. I felt terrible - that look in his eyes was devastating. Until that moment, he had trusted me implicitly. For the first time that day, I saw him fear me. Ouchie.

If you find some memories that you regret, too, it's never too late to make amends. Tell your child of any age what happened, how you feel about what you did, and what you wish you had done instead. Ask about their memories, their feelings, and their experiences related to that. Ask for their forgiveness, and forgive yourself. Then move on. We are all doing the best we can in any given moment.

Goodbye, son. Good luck (even though you won't need it.)

It's time for you to fly.

postscript: what a difference 24 hours makes! there's something magical for me about expressing my feelings in writing. once I have fine tuned the words so that they feel like the exact expression of my feelings, the feelings themselves seem to dissipate. maybe the ink holds them instead of my heart -- I dunno. What I do know is that I felt immeasurably better when I went to bed last night, and the trend has continued. So in a way, the words above are already lies, because my experience has changed. But I'll leave them here anyway, in case they resonate with someone else someday.