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Challenging the Brain’s Natural Tendency

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Sometimes, we have to challenge the brain to see more than what it initially recognizes.

The brain loves to put “things” in categories.  So, when we see something similar, our brain is wired to associate it with something it already recognizes. For the most part, that’s a great plan.

But there are two major downsides to this natural tendency of the brain. First, labeling people to be “things” is limiting in that it negates the possibility that another perspective is equally possible.  Here are some examples:

  • A liar could be someone who isn’t confident how the truth will be received.
  • A selfish or manipulative person could be someone who hasn’t discovered how to get her needs met while also considering others.
  • A lazy person could be someone with a disorganized brain who is not able to compensate well enough to finish or do multiple tasks.
  • A hyperactive person could be someone with poor balance (since we balance more easily when we move).
  • An immature person could be someone with retained primitive reflexes and underdeveloped lower centers of the brain.

So, why do we tend to go with the first, more negative perceptions of such people?  Well, the brain also has a natural tendency to shine a spotlight on someone else, rather than on ourselves.

For example, it may be easier to view Tiffany as a liar than to reflect on how we respond to mistakes. It may be easier to view Luke as selfish or manipulative than to model and teach him how to respond in ways that consider everyone’s needs.  It may be easier to view Evan as lazy or hyperactive or immature than to explore what parts of brain development are incomplete and learn how to facilitate such changes.

Second, we may be limiting our own creativity when we don’t challenge ourselves to see beyond the “thing” that our brain initially recognizes.  Yet, the art of invention is based on envisioning something ordinary in a new and different way.

For example, my memory of a Cambodian refugee still rates as one of my favorite examples of doing just that.  After hearing this gentleman play incredible music from an instrument I did not recognize, I asked where he had bought it.  He smiled and explained that while it was a common instrument in Cambodia, once here, he couldn’t find the right kind of wood he needed to make it.

So what did he finally use?  A baseball bat.  Yes, he created that amazing sound from what was originally an old bat that likely spent much of its prior life lying in the dirt. To this day, I’m probably one of the very few people who think of beautiful Cambodian music when watching a ballgame.

But while the brain has a tendency to classify, we don’t have to just accept every first perception and every “thing” as absolute. We can sometimes challenge ourselves to think beyond the traditional viewpoint, the expected, the obvious.

And in doing so, who knows what kind of incredible changes we may then experience?

The Taking Care of Business Quiz

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If feels good to “take care of business.”

What is Taking Care of Business?

It’s a cortex way of getting everyone’s needs met. When using this approach, we:

  • Know what we are needing and wanting
  • Consider what others are needing and wanting
  • Keep both in mind when exploring options
  • Are specific and clear as to what we’d like to happen and why
  • Avoid being both defensive or offensive
  • Offer doables that move the situation forward
  • Ask instead of tell
  • Infuse humor and creative thinking whenever applicable

Quiz Directions

So, how well do you “take care of business?”

To find out, encourage your kids and other family members to take the quiz.  Read each situation listed in the quiz and the possible ways to respond. Choose the answer that is most similar to what you’d likely do if you were in that circumstance.

When you’re finished, read the answers and explanations to learn which do and do not reflect taking care of business and why.

To note: This quiz includes problems that both kids and adults often face. So, if a situation seems more applicable for a child or vice-versa, just modify it. For example, a child who does not want to take out the trash can be easily changed to be an adult who does not want to do a particular assignment at work.

Last, it’s important to remember: Taking care of business doesn’t mean that we automatically get the outcome we desire. But, hands-down, it’s still the most likely way we’ll move forward.

The Quiz

Situation 1: You’ve heard that someone is spreading gossip about you that is not true.

a) You bad-mouth that person, as well.

b) You do nothing, and try to avoid that person as much as possible.

c) You call that person out in front of others, demanding an apology.

d) You approach the person and say that you’re thinking she may have some misinformation and would like to clarify (and then do that).

 

Situation 2: You’re informed of a new rule when you take your father to his health clinic. Starting today, all patients must show a photo ID. However, your father did not bring any ID with him.

a) You reschedule another appointment (and ensure your father brings his ID).

b) You firmly point out that this rule is new, and you were not informed of it previously—so it should not apply today.

c) You acknowledge that you don’t want the person checking patients in to get in trouble by sidestepping the rule, but you’re frustrated since you’ve driven a long way and your father needs this appointment. So, you ask if there are other ways to verify that’s him (e.g. confirm his address, phone number, social security number) that’s already in the computer and . . . with a twinkle in your eye, use your hands to frame his face and say, “And this could be the photo ID.”

d) You tell the person checking patients in (who knows your father) that it’s silly to ask him for an ID since he already greeted him by name.

 

Situation 3: You’re sitting on the sidelines during the tournament, and it doesn’t appear that you’re ever going to get to play.

a) You sit stoically, but then break down (i.e. become upset) once you’re alone with your parents.

b) You act as though you don’t care while everyone else is being subbed in the game (don’t even watch all of the game).

c) You get up and demand that the coach gives you a chance to play, pointing out that you paid your money to be in this tournament, too.

d) You are fully engaged from the sidelines, watching what players on the field do that may have earned them time on the field. After the game is over, you ask the coach to give you three specifics to work on that may result in more playing time for you.

 

Situation 4: Someone has just criticized you in front of others.

a) You defend yourself.

b) You say something that is critical of that person.

c) You say nothing.

d) You respond by shining the spotlight back on that person and saying, “What were you hoping I’d do with that information?”

 

Situation 5: You don’t like the chore of taking out the trash, but that’s the job you’ve been assigned.

a) You whine whenever you have to do this.

b) You approach your parents and say: I know that we all need to pitch in to help around the house, but you may not know . . .I really don’t like taking out the trash. Is there another chore I could do instead of that one?

c) You do a terrible job (e.g. spill trash), hoping that your parents will think they need to assign this chore to someone else.

d) You do it, but you scowl to make it clear that you don’t like this job.

 

Situation 6: Various co-workers never clean up their dishes or trash after eating in the staff lounge.

a) You complain about those who don’t clean up to those who do.

b) You send an email to all your co-workers saying, “Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to lay off the maid for the staff lounge.”

c)  You send an email to everyone saying, “Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to lay off the maid for the staff lounge;)  So, how about we agree to a day where each of us is in charge of making sure all dishes are washed and all trash is cleared from the tables?  If you’re willing to do so, please email me which day(s) would work best for you to assume that role. Thanks.”

d) Pick up after those who leave their dishes and trash—and do not say a word.

 

Answers

Situation 1: You’ve heard that someone is spreading gossip about you that is not true.

Answer: d

This response does not judge the person or assume she was trying to “hurt” you by telling others false information. It also gives you a chance to clarify, without putting the other person on the defensive.

Responses “a” and “c” will only likely escalate the situation. Even if in response “c” you note what information was false, that part of the message won’t be heard since the approach is accusatory and focused on making the other person admit she was wrong.

Note that response “b” is only a possible solution if gossip truly does not bother you or whatever is being spread will not cause future problems (as a result of others hearing and acting on the misinformation) or if you can actually avoid that person. Those are a lot of variables, which is why this response may not actually take care of business.

 

Situation 2: You’re informed of a new rule when you take your father to his health clinic: Starting today, all patients must show a photo ID. However, your father did not bring any ID with him.

Answer: c

This response acknowledges that the person who works at the clinic needs to do his job as directed while also giving him an opportunity to meet your need (i.e. have your father keep his appointment).

Response “a” meets the need of the person checking patients in, but it does not meet your father’s need to keep his appointment that day.  Responses “b” and “d” do not acknowledge that the person who works at the clinic is trying to follow the new rules and will likely put that person on the defensive.

 

Situation 3: You’re sitting on the sidelines during the tournament, and it doesn’t appear that you’re ever going to get to play.

Answer: d

This response allows the coach to know what you’re needing and wanting while shining the spotlight on him to give you specific ways to improve.

Responses “a,” “b,” and “c” do nothing to move you forward (i.e. get more playing time). In fact, response “c” is just likely to put the coach on the defensive.

 

Situation 4: Someone has just criticized you in front of others.

Answer: d

This response sidesteps a need to defend yourself, while asking the person who made the comment to clarify his intent behind sharing the comment.  By doing the latter, the focus is immediately placed on the person who made the comment, rather than on you.

Responses “a” and “b” will only escalate the situation.  If you say nothing (response “c”), you may still antagonize the person if he thinks you’re ignoring him (and he will then likely criticize you more).

 

Situation 5: You don’t like the chore of taking out the trash, but that’s the job you’ve been assigned to do.

Answer: b

This response acknowledges that all family members need to contribute and help around the house, while opening the door to explore whether there’s any flexibility in who does what job.

Response “a,” c,” and “d” do not take care of business because there is no acknowledgment as to why you might be asked to do this chore. Moreover, if continual whining or scowling or passive aggressive behavior (i.e. doing a terrible job) ultimately gets you out of doing the chore, you have not only missed an opportunity to take care of business, but your brain now also incorrectly registers that such unproductive behavior may be helpful.

 

Situation 6: Various coworkers never clean up their dishes or trash after eating in the staff lounge.

Answer: c

This response begins by using humor. Yet, unlike “b,” this answer also specifically notes what isn’t being cleaned in the lounge and offers a solution/doable to improve the situation. This response additionally asks, rather than tells, co-workers to take responsibility. Last, it gives yet another doable by spelling out exactly how coworkers can respond if they agree to be in charge of clean-up for a day.

In contrast, response “a” (like “b”) does nothing to improve the situation.

Yes, response “d” ensures that the staff lounge is clean. But, over time, you may start to feel as though you’re the only one being responsible and, therefore, start to judge or resent those who continue to leave their mess, as well as those who do nothing to remedy the situation.

 

 

Viewing Challenges as Gifts

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Challenges are gifts . . . but only if we’re open to receiving them that way.

Challenges are really just opportunities to learn. With that mindset, we embrace struggles rather than fear them.

What do I mean?  Well, suppose a child has Tourette’s Syndrome, which is characterized by uncontrollable sounds (e.g. coughing) or movement (e.g. facial twitching) which are called tics.

Okay, you may be thinking: What could possibly be the upside of that?  After all, kids are just going to make fun of that child.

And you’re correct . . . there’s a high probability that child will be ridiculed at one time or another.

But while we can’t control whether our child has tics or how others treat him when they appear, we do have the power in how we teach our child to respond—and how we then respond, in kind. Those are the gifts that are waiting to be unwrapped.

For example, if our child has Tourette’s Syndrome, we can teach him to answer in a way that empowers him and leaves no room for feeling like a victim.  Such a response might be, “My twitches are just a tiny, tiny part of all of me. How can I help you see all the rest of me?”

We can teach our child to appreciate and value friends who see beyond a physical impairment.

We can create opportunities where our child befriends another child with a different kind of disability, giving our child the chance to be the one who models recognizing and honoring the core of that person.

We can teach our child that another person can only hurt us to the degree that we allow.

We can model an attitude that reflects a sincere belief that challenges are opportunities to learn, reflect, and build character.  Consider how that greatly contrasts with our modeling endless worry over how our child is going to feel if the dreaded scenario ever happens.

In short, worrying only amplifies a feeling of helplessness. If it actually influenced a positive outcome, then sure, we should worry all day long. But it doesn’t. It just creates more angst.  In fact, the movie star Michael J. Fox says he never worries for one main reason: If the bad “thing” eventually happened, then he will have lived through whatever he dreaded twice.

So, yes, there are going to be challenges in all of our lives. Count on it. But when such struggles arrive on our doorstep, why not teach our children to ask:  What gifts are wrapped inside this challenge?

 

Dalai Lama Parenting

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Although the Dalai Lama is not a parent, there is much we can learn about parenting from him.

The Dalai Lama recently visited San Diego, and he impressed every reporter who wrote about him.

And yet, when I read what the reporters admired, I couldn’t help but think . . . those very same actions are truly within reach of every parent.

So what did reporters note, and what can we glean from that?

1.  After every speech, the Dalai Lama took time to pay his respects to the security guards, ushers, and hotel doormen.

For parents: We can take time to acknowledge people who have helped our child in different ways.

2.  He was fully present while engaged with others.

For parents: We can set aside specific time each day to interact with our kids without any technological device in sight (let alone on).

3. He respected his nailed-down precise schedule, yet he also understood the need to sometimes change plans.  For example, when the Dalai Lama heard a donor who had helped to underwrite his visit was too ill to attend the panel discussion, he went to the donor’s side for a brief conversation and prayer.

For parents: We can respect family schedules, but also trust our intuition to know when changes are warranted.

4. He was never more than about 10 minutes late to an appointment the entire three, whirlwind days he was scheduled for events in San Diego.

For parents: We can model being on time, underscoring that we respect the time of others.

5. He talked about his temper (yes, the Dalai Lama says he has a temper).

For parents: We can be honest about our own short-comings and negate illusions that suggest we’re perfect.

6. He was affable, open, and spontaneous (everyone noted that is was fun to be around the Dalai Lama).

For parents: We don’t have to take everything so seriously. We, too, can be joyful!

But here’s what seemed to impress everyone the most about the Dalai Lama.  He didn’t just act a certain way in front of the cameras. He was the “real deal.”

The truth is . . . our kids are kinda like our own personal reporters. They observe what we do behind the scenes and form their own conclusions.

So, here’s what could happen if we did all of the above.

The Dalai Lama makes a return visit, and reporters once again portray traits such as paying respects, adhering to schedules (while also being flexible), being forthright about shortcomings, and acting cheerful as incredible, surprising ways to act.

Yet, as the rest of the world continues to be amazed by such poise and grace, our kids scratch their heads and go, “Huh? That just sounds like how everyone acts in our house.”

And from what I’ve read about the Dalai Lama, I think that response would make him smile.

 

Family Recess

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Research has proven that playing is good for the brain.

I often ask kids what they like best about school. Hands down, the most common answer is . . . recess.  Intuitively, kids know what science has now proven—both kids and adults need time to engage in pointless fun.

We used to call that “playing.” Yet in our current, overzealous, gotta-make-sure-our-kids-get-ahead-world, allocating time to play is often relegated to a back burner.

However, research on play shows that it makes us more adaptable, and it actually improves how our brain functions. For example, when we combine physical energy with a sense of joyfulness (i.e. when we play), we reinforce neurohormones.  And when we engage in activities that free us from having a set outcome, there’s a positive effect on our mood and perceptions of time.

In fact, according to researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, we need play in our lives as much as we need sleep.

So what is Brown’s definition of play? He says real play has no purpose. We do it for its own sake. It’s voluntary. We may even lose track of time or temporarily forget who we are in real life.

What’s the purest form of play? That’s when we improvise, where we make up whatever we’re doing as we go along.

So back to recess . . . where activities have little or no structure, where nothing is measured or ranked, where kids are free to be loud and move as quickly or slowly as they choose. Is there any surprise that kids fly out the classroom door as soon at that recess bell rings?

But then, that bring us to this question: Since playing has a natural appeal and is now proven to enhance the brain, why not create family recess time in our very own homes?

Yes, why not have the whole family take a break from household chores or homework or paying the

bills. . .  to now play together?

Note this is not just time for our kids to play. The idea of family recess is for us to play with them.

And guess what happens when we do? We discover that even though we’re adults, we never really lost our zest for play.

We prove that all the time at the Brain Highways Center. Here, parents enthusiastically engage in playful activities with their kids as part of our curriculum.  In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to decide who’s having more fun when observing, for example, a beanbag “fight” between a father and daughter.

So for my proposal of family recess, any unscripted, joyful movement works. Here are some ideas to get you started, but be sure to ask your kids for their input, too!

  1. Have pillow fights.
  2. Arm wrestle.
  3. Engage in (human) wheelbarrow races.
  4. Build a fort.
  5. Play tug-of-war.
  6. Create and run through an obstacle course.
  7. Climb a tree (yes, moms and dads can do this, too).
  8. Play freeze (or other) tag.
  9. Jump rope.
  10. Jump (barefoot) on bubblewrap.
  11. Jump on the bed (why not?).
  12. Wear a blindfold, and then try to squirt each other with plant sprayers.
  13. Toss water balloons, where one person takes a step back after each time the balloon is caught.
  14. Roll down a hill.
  15. Make a puddle of water, and see who can make the biggest splash.
  16. Build a mud structure.
  17. Play hide-go-seek (inside or outside).
  18. Play a variation of hide-go-seek: Only one person hides somewhere in the house while everyone else shuts their eyes. Then everyone tries to find that person. When a person discovers the hiding place, he or she now quietly hides there, too. As the game goes on, fewer and fewer people are left searching for where everyone else is hiding. (It adds to the fun when everyone tries to remain quiet as more and more people squeeze into the hiding place.)

Note that family recess time is not viewed as procrastination, where everyone is just putting off what needs to be done.  Rather, the mindset is one that suggests less work and more play is truly productive.

In the twenty-first century, that kind of thinking may be viewed as radical and revolutionary. But in our home, we can make such perspective a way of life.

How Pink Slime Affects Us All

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Our choice of words often may have more power than we realize.

The meat industry has been using a ground mixture of scrap parts—mostly connective tissue and fat—as meat filler for years. But it was only after a microbiologist created the moniker “pink slime” that social media took note.

Yes, pink slime is a two-word combo designed to get your attention and cause worry.

But if two simple words can cause such frenzy in the media, how often does our choice of words trigger similar negativity and angst in daily life?  For example, do we refer to people as poor listeners, master manipulators, classic underachievers? Do we perhaps frame others as an unbelievable klutz or incredibly lazy?

If so, don’t those (and similar) word combos have the same adverse effect on people as the media calling meat filler pink slime?

In truth, there are hundreds of thousands of words at our disposal.  So, we decide whether we choose word combos that reek negativity or those that show insight and compassion.

For example, it’s possible that people have difficulty listening and completing tasks because they have incomplete lower brain development. It’s possible that people are uncoordinated because they have poor proprioception. It’s possible that people are tired because they are already compensating 24/7 for a brain that is not functioning as intended.

And if so, then why throw “pink slime” at them? Yet, that’s what we do when we frame people with negatively charged words.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that a mere choice of words—pink slime—made a story on meat fillers explode.  From what I’ve read, it seems like it was something worth investigating.

Just don’t think there’s any justification for flinging “pink slime” at kids.

 

Safe Haven for Kids

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Kids need some space and freedom to learn about the world and themselves.

When I watch kids at the beach, I always find myself smiling. It may be one of the few places where kids can be loud and dirty and run here and there—without adults telling them to lower their voice, wash their hands, and sit still.

So I’ve come to think of the beach as a safe haven for kids, a place where they can just naturally be their age without conforming to adult perceptions as to what is “proper.”

Camping in the woods also comes to mind as another safe haven for kids.  Once again, in this environment, adults seem to “let go” of their need for quiet voices, cleanliness, and being still.

But not everyone has access to the beach or woods or, if so, there probably isn’t time to go there every day.

Yet, that doesn’t change kids’ need for daily downtime in a place where they truly can be themselves without adult restraints.

No, I’m not talking about allowing kids to run amok or do something harmful.  I’m just advocating that we allow kids time each day where they go with their own flow, move at their own pace, and engage in activities that naturally appeal to them.

With that mindset, we can be creative and ensure our kids engage in daily safe haven time.  So, how might we do this within our already hectic schedules?

First, we need to list our possible safe haven environments. On such a list, we may write: the park, the backyard, the bedroom, the beach.

Note that some of those possibilities include places within the confines of our own home. That then makes it easier to implement daily, rather than weekly, safe haven time. In other words, if we don’t have to do more than open a door (to go to the backyard) or close a door (to go in a bedroom) on our part, then scheduling daily safe haven time won’t be that challenging.

So, what might be some guidelines for safe haven time? Here are some suggestions:

  • We don’t comment on how our child chooses to spend this time. This includes positive feedback. Why? Well, if we “praise” how he spent the time on Monday—but then say nothing on how he spent the time on Tuesday—our child is likely going to get the message there’s a “right” way to do safe haven time.
  • We let go of adult-like perceptions of what’s proper during this time, remembering and honoring that this time is for our child, not us. We also don’t even think judgmental thoughts since kids’ radar for picking up subconscious messages are pretty accurate.
  • We establish safety perimeters (which are different than proper perimeters) to be clear that safe haven time is just that . . . safe and nurturing.
  • We actually schedule this time each day, and post that somewhere where our child can see. That way, he knows with certainty when this is going to happen.
  • We don’t offer a single suggestion as how to spend the safe haven time.

If we do the last suggestion, we may (initially) experience that our child has no clue what to do. So, he turns to us for some ideas.  If so, we say no more than, “Just go with your intuition. What sounds fun or interesting to explore?”

In such case, we may also ponder: Is our child’s life so programmed that he has lost his natural spontaneity? If so, then asking for help with safe haven time can be viewed as feedback to ensure that we implement this daily.

But more than likely, you’ll get a different response. Watch your child’s facial expression when you tell him he’s now going to have daily safe haven time, where no adults are going to be on him to do this or that.  You’ll probably see a look of sheer joy.

And that expression and feeling is what we want to make sure is part of our child’s life—each and every day.

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