Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Children Need Authoritative Communities

Two weeks ago I focused this column on a report written by a group of 33 children's doctors, research scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals entitled Hardwired to Connect. The study, a joint project of the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School and the Institute for American Values, discusses the rising rates of mental problems and emotional distress among U.S. children and adolescents, identifies important contributors, and suggests specific strategies to address this crisis.

Children, the researchers insist, are in special need of “authoritative communities” to help them regain "close connections to other people and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning." Their findings are based on scientific studies from an interdisciplinary perspective , including medicine, child and adolescent development, religion, sociology, psychology, and neurobiology. Their two primary claims are that we are “hardwired for close attachments to other people” and “hardwired for meaning,” that is, we are born with a “built-in capacity and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life’s ultimate ends”(p. 14). Both of these needs, the authors argue, are best met and satisfied in authoritative communities.

According to the authors of the study, there are ten main characteristics of an authoritative community.

1)      It is a social institution that includes children and youth.
2)      It treats children as ends in themselves.
3)      It is warm and nurturing.
4)      It establishes clear limits and expectations.
5)      The core of its work is performed largely by non-specialists.
6)      It is multi-generational.
7)      It has a long-term focus.
8)      It reflects and transmits a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
9)      It encourages spiritual and religious development.
10)  It is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor (p. 34). 

The authors expound on each of these characteristics at much greater length than is possible here, but from a quick overview one can easily see that most, if not all, are fundamentals associated with a healthy family. At the same time, they are not necessarily limited to family life. A faith community, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, 4-H and Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) are also possible examples. Many organizations involve children and youth, but do not necessarily focus on their growth and development, i.e. the focus of youth engagement is not limited strictly to winning games or claiming a trophy.

As a psychologist and family therapist who has worked with hundreds of children, couples and families over the last three decades, I value the skills professionals bring to the table. At the same time, I see that the most critical person in a child or adolescent’s life may be a grandparent, concerned teacher, dedicated mentor or caring minister. Since children tend to learn to be what they admire, positive relationships with worthy adults are key to their development.

I think I was most taken with the study’s claim that an authoritative community “recognizes that religious and spiritual expression is a natural part of personhood.”  Of course, this assertion is also closely tied to the long-term focus of an authoritative community, its understanding of what it means to be a good person, its orientation to the equal dignity of all persons, and the principle of love of neighbor. If what the authors say is true, than we really do have a lot of work to do in helping our children and adolescents form the deeper spiritual connections often found in a faith community.

It’s not often you hear this sort of challenge from the scientific community. I wonder how we will respond.

Grateful for community,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, November 17, 2014

Making the Dinner Connection

“We had the Smiths over for dinner Tuesday. I fixed oven-baked chicken, Aunt Erma Jean’s potato salad, fresh green beans, coleslaw from a new recipe out of the church cookbook and peach pie for dessert. Wish you could’ve joined us.”

I wished I could have joined them too. This kind of information was included in so many of my mother’s weekly letters to my sister, brother and me that it almost became a joke to us. She had a knack for cooking and enjoyed inviting others for dinner. She would never have described herself as a gourmet cook—though she once baked her way through every sponge cake, jelly roll and cream puff recipe variation in the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Rather, it was more that she enjoyed welcoming people to her table and reveling in their company as we ate.

I thought about my mother the other night when I gathered with five women around our dining room table. I’ve been trying to do this about once a month for the past six months. I got the idea from the IF Gathering Blog, which basically suggests you gather six women for dinner over two hours with four questions. The meal need not be fancy, but it should be fun. The focus is on conversation and  becoming better acquainted.

I’m happy to report that even with a hectic work schedule the dinners have far exceeded my expectations and been worth every bit of effort. At the end of every evening I’ve found myself enlivened by the fun we’ve had together. This past week was no exception. 

by Tsnoni on

This month I focused exclusively on gathering women from my neighborhood. All of us were randomly acquainted with one or more of the group, but none of us knew all of the others in spite of the fact that five of the six of us could see each other’s houses from our yards.

What did we talk about? Everyday sorts of things—home, families, work—the kinds of things most folks talk about. The difference was that we also used the four questions I referenced earlier to guide our conversation.

1) What are the easy, uncomplicated things that you’re thankful for this season?
2)  What are some of the more unexpected or surprising gifts of this last year?
3)  Even in the midst of gratitude, is there something you’re longing for?
4)  What might God be inviting you to learn through the longing?

Not everyone may be comfortable with all these questions, but the members of the group didn’t seem to mind. As we started with the first one and worked our way to the last, we all discovered a bit more about each other than what is revealed through a wave, a nod and a smile across the front yard. We started to become a little community to each other. We began to learn a bit more about the hopes, fears and dreams of every person at the table.

Research confirms that people live longer and are happier when they are connected to others in meaningful ways, e.g. through dinner and conversation. For my mother, this seemed to be second nature.  I have to be more intentional. I need to put it on the calendar, invite the guests and put the meat in the crock pot before I leave for work. It’s not quite as easy for me, but based on the fun and friendship we experienced last Thursday night, I’d encourage anyone to make the effort. Keep the meal simple. Let others bring something if they like. Invite just enough people to keep conversation flowing—six is about right. 

"Breakfast" by Phil Hawksworth on

Most importantly, find a way to get everyone talking, sharing each other’s lives. Four pre-planned questions are helpful. Gatherings like this are every bit as important to your health and well-being as a regular exercise program. They might even be more fun. Just remember to go easy on the dessert.

Making the connection,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Authoritative Communities

Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. That's the title of a new study written by a group of 33 children's doctors, research scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals. It's about the rising rates of mental problems and emotional distress among U.S. children and adolescents.

As the director of a community mental health clinic who supervises dozens of cases associated with children and their families, I don't have to read a scientific publication to know that many of our children are in trouble today. Over the past few decades we have seen deteriorating mental health for a growing number of children, including (according to the report), "high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, thoughts of suicide, and other serious mental, emotional, and behavioral problems."

The report goes on to talk about how we, as Americans, think about these problems. In large part, we tend to focus our attention on "medication, psychotherapies and designing more and special programs." While these kinds of approaches are necessary, they are inadequate and may even distract us from looking at the cultural or contextual conditions contributing to the problem.

Children, the authors argue, are naturally programmed to connect with other human beings--first their caregivers and then other important people. What's causing this crisis of well-being among our children is a "lack of connectedness," specifically "close connections to other people and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning." The authors argue the solution lies in developing or restoring "groups that live out the types of connectedness that our children increasingly lack." This includes "people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life."

Every day I see exactly what the authors are saying. I read dozens of case notes about children struggling exactly as the authors describe. I also observe how disconnected these children generally are from stable, happy adults exemplifying an "authoritative community."

When I consider the opportunities these children have for becoming part of such a community, I'm even more alarmed. Leaders of all kinds of organizations focused on helping kids develop into responsible adults lament about their need for dedicated volunteers. This includes scouting and 4-H leaders, Sunday school and youth teachers, coaches and mentors. We adults, especially those of us with the gift of good health and accumulated years, have become so absorbed and preoccupied with our own lives that we often forget the children of our community are yearning for a relationship with someone who knows and cares about them over time. It's more than the physical things we do for or give to our children; its about the ways we connect with them and help them connect with others.

Years ago our son complained to me about how he got in trouble for everything because his dad was principal of his school and his mom worked as the Director of Family Life Education. I acknowledged it was hard living in a glass house of sorts, but also exclaimed , "Isn't it lucky for you that so many people care about what you're doing that they tell me and your dad? You are one lucky guy!" 

I'm not sure he felt that way at the time, but today I bet he would tell you he was fortunate to be raised in an "authoritative community that helped him foster close connections, deep convictions and moral meaning. It seems to be the same sort of community he's pursuing for his own children.

All about authoritative communities,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Two Day Challenge

Feeling a little grumpy lately? Out of sorts? Irritated with others whose behavior makes your life more difficult. You might want to consider taking the “Two Day Challenge.” I read about it recently in Soul Keeping, a book by John Ortberg on “caring for the most important part of you.”

“Try this experiment,” Ortberg writes. “Every time you greet someone the next 24-hours, begin with a small complaint, e.g., ‘The traffic was terrible today;' or 'I can’t believe this weather;' or 'This day is off to a lousy start.'

“Then,” he continues, “the next 24-hours start every encounter with an expression of gratitude or appreciation, e.g., ‘I love this time of the year;’ or ‘I listened to some great music on my drive to work this morning;’ or ‘I’m looking forward to what this day will bring.’”

“At the end of these two days,” Ortberg encourages “evaluate which day made you happier. On which day did you feel more satisfied and content?”

Unfortunately, most of us think a change in circumstances will make us happier. We wait for the magic moment when our family members will treat us with love and respect, our colleagues or co-workers will acknowledge our contribution, the neighbors will be more neighborly and the person in front of us will get off their cell phone and drive. While some of these things might make us momentarily happier, their contribution is to our overall sense of well-being is unlikely to last. The secret to feelings of happiness and well-being is rooted in something much different.

In just a few weeks we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, our national holiday set aside to recognize our many blessings and give thanks. I’m glad we have a whole day each year set aside for this observance, but lately it has occurred to me how important it is to live each day with an “attitude of gratitude,” especially when life seems overwhelming or hard.

On dark and difficult days we are typically prone to feeling discouraged and disgruntled. It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves. It’s hard to think beyond our own misery. There is, however, an antidote to these kinds of days that I’ve found very helpful—being grateful for all that we have and giving to others.

A year or so ago my Main Man introduced me to the Rainbow Network, an organization dedicated to building homes for people in Nicaragua. Not long ago, we also decided to adopt a World Vision child. Genet is seven-years-old and lives in Africa with her family. She is not yet in school because children from poor families often do not attend school until they are older—if at all. Thinking about the families in Nicaragua who are so very grateful for a humble home with four walls and Genet and her family in Africa has helped me a great deal to put the problems and irritations of each day into perspective.

Regardless of whether I get a good night’s sleep, I have been able to think about the clean sheets and comfortable bed I have that Genet does not. I have a house with heating and air conditioning that families in Nicaragua do not. Both hot and cold clean water comes from the faucets in my house. To millions of people this is a great luxury. Millions around the globe struggle to have adequate food and clothing. My occasional frustration with knowing what to wear is related to too many choices in my closet. If I can’t figure out what to take for lunch, it’s usually associated with the same thing.

There are many days I am tempted to think that something more or different would make me happier, but then I stop and remember all that I do have and I am humbled. Out of this abundance, I have the great privilege of sharing with others. When I do this, when I acknowledge all that I have and am privileged to do, then I know true happiness. In this season of thanksgiving, I hope you will know the same.


Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, October 27, 2014

Strategic Planning for Life

“Focus. Focus. Focus.” That’s what the expert in strategic planning said at a meeting I recently attended. “If you’re going to be good at strategic planning, “ he continued, “you need to determine what things you will do in the next three to five years, as well as what things you will not do.”

That got my attention. I’m a list-driven kind of person. If it’s on the list, it gets done. If it’s not . . . well, then it’s pretty much up for grabs. The problem is the size of my list. Judging by its length, I must be laboring under some sort of super human delusion that I am Wonder Woman. In reality, it is simply not possible to accomplish every item on the list.

How many of us, I wondered go through the motions of our everyday existence without much consideration for whether or not our activities actually fit with what we want personally and professionally over the next three to five years. If strategic planning is important for business – according to the experts, a good strategic plan will yield greater success and a higher profit, then it might be even more important for one’s day-to-day life.

I have a good friend who is especially good at modeling this sort of thing. She has a responsible job by day, but by night she paints. Although she already had some training as an artist, over the last few years I have seen her say no to some things (e.g., social media) in order to make time for painting. She has also taken painting classes, arranged for studio space, and participated in a number of shows. I have been impressed with the results and look forward to owning one of her paintings soon. Her ability to say “no” to some things has allowed her to say “yes” to an artistic ability that rejuvenates her soul and brings joy to others.

I know other families who make a conscious decision to curtail the time and effort associated with gift giving during the holidays. They are not anti-Christmas. They simply want to focus on being together, having fun, and enjoying the company of others more than they do on shopping, spending and wrapping. To do so, they make a conscious decision not to buy presents for each other.

Let’s be honest. We actually make these kinds of decisions all the time—but not consciously. We say we want to be more fit, but then find ourselves stuck in the recliner watching TV. We say we are bored and over-committed to things we no longer enjoy, but fail to say “no” in a way that would allow us time to embrace a new endeavor. Our closets are crammed with clutter, but we can’t bring ourselves to make space for something new. In so many ways we are making choices about our lives, but not with much thought or intention.

Human beings are creatures of habit. We are programmed for routine and ritual. Perhaps that’s why it can be so difficult to make a conscious decision about things we will no longer do. At the same time, if I continue to insist on certain practices and habits it’s becoming very clear to me that the list will only grow longer and I will become more exhausted and dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s time to do a little personal strategic planning that begins with a list of things I will stop doing . . . at least for a while.

Inspired to compose a list,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

P.S. To see more paintings go to

Monday, October 20, 2014

Unexpected II -- Bright Spots on Cloudy Days

When I wrote about my Main Man's question asking me to look for the unexpected in my everyday life, a number of you followed up with me to ask, "So, what happened? What unexpected things did you see?"

To be truthful, I can't say that anything amazingly unexpected occurred.  If only it were that easy. Things went along as they typically do with a fair amount of frustration and stress. It wasn't that the days were unusual. The difference was more in me. I started looking for the little joys and celebrations, the kind of things that brighten and enhance our days if only we notice and acknowledge them. Here are just a few of the things I've observed in the last few days:

Autumn colors are brightest on the grayest of days. On bright sunny days, the changing colors of our landscape appear dull in the brilliant sunlight, but on dark, cloudy, rainy days even the dullest of leaves is a standout. We've been blessed with a few of those lately to illustrate my point.

Comfortable shoes are a real treat after five hours in pinchy heels. Some occasions require heels for women. I do the best I can, but after a couple of hours my feet have had it. That's when I rediscover the joy of truly comfy shoes. What a gift that is. Millions of people in our world don't own even one pair of shoes.

Positive reports about my children. Of course I'm proud of them. I'm their mother. But when someone else tells me how talented or wonderful or generous they are, my joy overflows. This actually happened for me with regard to each of my children in the last ten days. That was unexpectedly special.

Friends and family who put up with prickly me. Some days are more stressful than others. Sometimes I'm just tired and grumpy. On those days when I'm not the easiest to be around, I'm especially grateful for people who put up with me. Not everyone is so kind. It's a good reminder for me to be as forgiving with others.

Pansies and ornamental cabbage. Some men bring their wives flowers regularly. My Main Man is not one of those people. He thinks cut flowers are a waste of money. This doesn't mean he wants me to do without. This fall he built a new flower bed I can see from our kitchen window--the one over the sink, and filled it with pansies and ornamental cabbage. Every time I look down I can see a reminder of his love for me.

If you're a fan of the Prairie Home Companion,you know Garrison Keillor begins weekly his monologue by saying "Its been a good week in Lake Wobegon," but sometimes in real life it hasn't been a particularly good week. Truth be told, many of us experience considerable tension, frustration and disappointment. Life can be hard. That may be when it's especially important to look around an notice the bright spots shining like autumn colors on a cloudy day . . . the warmth of a friend, the helpfulness of a co-worker, the comfort of a family member, the beauty of the season. Even on the darkest days, there is surely some unexpected beauty or gift for which we can be grateful.

On the lookout for the unexpected,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Difference a Group Can Make

I never liked group projects in school because I didn’t want to be responsible for or dependent on someone else’s work. I didn’t have much opportunity to play team sports as an adolescent since those weren’t available for girls in high school when I attended. My mother insisted I learn to play the piano—typically a solo instrument. It was much more practical than ballet lessons she said. My father wanted me to learn to do public speaking—again an activity singularly focused on one person’s ability.  It wasn’t that I avoided group activities as a kid. Much of the time, it just wasn’t an option.


In college, where they did have women’s sports, I settled on swimming. There, I was part of a team, but other than relays, all of our efforts were pretty much independent from each other. In swimming, there’s a lot of keeping your head in the water and focusing on the goal of propelling yourself swiftly and smoothly from one end of the pool to the other. Interaction with teammates is rare until you get out of the water.

Perhaps that why I have always had a fairly independent streak when it comes to behavior change in my own life. I know that support groups, mentors and coaches can be helpful for some, but I generally expect to “go there alone.”  After all, I’ve reasoned, I know what to do. It’s simply a matter of doing it.

Ah, but that’s where the illusion of “knowledge = behavior change” takes over. Just because I know to do something different, doesn’t mean I can actually do it. According to one expert, “Habits eat willpower for breakfast” and in my case, at least, he’s right. Knowing that I need to change a habit and actually doing it are two different things.
If I needed further evidence, all I had to do was check my weight. For approximately a year I weighed myself three or four times a week. I had heard that simply becoming more aware of one’s weight through a regular discipline of stepping on the scales might help to alter my eating patterns. It didn’t, probably because I never shared my weight diary with anyone else. Only I knew that my weight never varied more than three to four pounds. Only when I decided to return to a group setting (Weight Watchers) where I was more accountable for my weight and received the support of others did I manage to shed 15 pounds.

Apparently I’m not alone. In Eat Move Sleep, Tom Rath identifies several studies emphasizing the importance of social support for behavior change. In one, 218 people were assigned to get more exercise and then randomly assigned to one of three different groups. One-third of the group received no reminders at all, one-third received automated calls every three weeks for a year, and one-third spoke to a real live person every three weeks. Guess which group increased their exercise the most? If you guessed the one with personal phone contact, you’d be right. According to Rath, “A simple check-in from another person nearly doubled each participant’s activity over the span of a year” (p. 162). The take home for me … if you really want to change your eating habits, a group might help.

It’s not easy to admit you need the help of another. Pride, embarrassment, fear, misplaced priorities—all these can stand in the way of placing one’s self in the position of seeking support from others. If you truly want to change, you can try to go it alone. Some people are successful with that strategy – a few, but most do much better accessing support from others. If you really want and need to change something about your life, I hope you’ll consider the second option seriously.