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Debate Club: Can a New Year’s Resolution Actually Make a Difference?


Why I’m making a New Year’s resolution this year

by Kristina Johnson

I guess you could say I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve been making New Year’s resolutions my entire adult life, despite being among the vast majority of people who rarely stick with them. Every year when December 31st rolls around, I’ve found myself gearing up to start fresh in the year ahead with a totally cliché list of goals to achieve. Eat healthier. Get my caffeine habit under control. Start working out more (or, to be honest, at all).

Last year, however, was a little different. I rang in 2016 in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital where I’d given birth to my daughter the day before. With a due date in late January, I’d laughed it off whenever people had joked that I might have a New Year’s baby (convinced as I was that I was would be pregnant literally forever). To my great surprise, I did indeed begin the year as a brand new mother.

There’s nothing like being handed a mini human to care for 24/7 to give you a sense of perspective. Suddenly the idea of resolving to live a healthier lifestyle was more important than ever – I’m someone’s mom! I can’t have the dietary habits of a 7th grader anymore! But as so often happens to those of us who begin each new year with grand plans, life simply got in the way. My dreams of eating well and exercising more became hazier and hazier as my baby consumed more and more of my time.

I was ultimately much too busy to stand a chance at sticking to any sort of resolution for 2016, but as this year winds down I find myself thinking ahead to 2017 and the type of woman and mother I want to be in the new year.

Before I quit my job earlier this past summer to become a stay-at-home mom, I’d have to fill out a self-evaluation as part of my annual performance review. I would have to rate myself on how well I’d done my job. Was I “exceeding expectations”? Did I “need improvement”? Did I “achieve my goals”?

I was never too shy to give myself a glowing review. I knew I worked hard, had the respect of my peers, and always got the job done. I started each new work year proud of my accomplishments and confident that I’d learn more, earn more, and keep climbing the corporate ladder.

There was no official performance review for my first year as a mother, however. No one’s logged the countless hours I spent comforting and cuddling, and no one’s going to hand me a raise and a promotion for all my efforts. I certainly worked my butt off in 2016 to be a great mom. It was hands down the best year of my life, but it was also one filled with challenges and self-doubt and too many mistakes to count.

The smiling face of my happy, sweet, and mischievous almost-one-year-old lets me know I must have done something right this year. But I also know I can be an even better mother, because there’s always room for improvement when you’re doing the absolute hardest job in the world.

In 2017, I resolve to be more patient. I resolve to play more and hover less. I resolve to teach my daughter new things and learn some more myself. And yeah, I resolve to eat healthier and kick the caffeine habit – because there’s a little set of eyes watching everything I do.

The data says I won’t always be able to stick to these resolutions. And that’s probably true. But having some filed away in my mind gives me something to work toward. And they remind me that as my daughter begins her second year of life in 2017, and I begin my second year of motherhood, I owe it to both of us to never stop striving to be the best me I can be.

Don’t make New Year’s resolutions

by Cheryl Maguire

It’s January 14, 2016. People are filtering into the cycle room at the YMCA. I’m adjusting the seat on my stationary bicycle when I realize the class is almost full 20 minutes before it even starts (which is unusual).

The woman next to me, who regularly attends the class, grumbles, “I hate this time of year when all the ‘ressies’ take over the gym.”

Since I’m also a regular, I know her term “ressies” is referring to all the people who newly signed up for a gym membership in hopes of fulfilling their New Year’s resolution of working out. Every January for the past 15 years that I’ve been a member of the gym, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon.

I turn to her and say, “Don’t worry. They’ll all be gone by March.”

She laughs and says, “That is so true.”

Even though I made light of the situation, I actually feel sad knowing all of these people will not achieve a goal they created. Richard Wiseman studied 3,000 people who made New Year’s resolutions. At the end of the year he found only 12 percent of them had achieved their goal.

Despite the high number of failed goals-reaching, about 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. According to psychology professor Peter Herman, people usually don’t achieve their New Year’s resolution goals because they create unrealistic goals. People also tend to underestimate the difficulty in achieving these goals.

I wasn’t always a fitness fanatic. In fact, I would liken my former self to more of a couch potato who avoided all forms of exercise. My transformation was a long and slow process (over the course of several years) and it never involved a New Year’s resolution of working out more.

I think creating a goal just because the calendar (or other people) are telling you to will only set you up for failure which could result in a decreased sense of self-worth. Instead of setting a New Year’s resolution because it’s a new year, create goals throughout the year in those areas of life where you want make changes.

Instead of creating New Year’s resolutions this year, consider the following questions:

  • What did I accomplish this past year?
  • How can I build upon those accomplishments next year?
  • What are some things I could have done differently this past year?
  • List some people who were supportive of me this past year.
  • How can I support other people next year?
  • When I think about this past year I feel happy to remember . . .
  • When I think about this past year I feel sad to remember . . .
  • What are some new skills or information I learned this year?
  • What are some new skills I’d like to learn in the future?
  • What steps do I need to take to acquire these new skills?
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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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