Monday, December 15, 2014

The Annual Christmas Crisis--Part 2

“Why can’t you just help out with the wrapping?  I did everything else”

“I don’t know why you have such a bad attitude about helping with the Christmas tree. This could be fun, if you weren’t acting like a big grouch.”

“Do things really have to be that perfect? Why can’t we just relax, order a pizza and have a good time?”

The holidays bring with them a unique kind of stress based on the expectation that things need to be a certain way in order for our celebration to be complete. This “way-things-have-to-be-so-we-can-really-celebrate” perspective is fueled by the rituals and traditions of our childhood, images promoted by marketing wizards of the media, and our Western culture in general. In many instances, it all adds us to conflict in the couple relationship. I know it has in ours.

One of Us is Working Much Harder than the Other
A couple of weeks ago I alluded to the annual Christmas argument my husband and I trotted out with regularity soon after Thanksgiving for the first decade or so of our marriage. I simply could not understand why he did not appreciate all the effort I expended to make gifts for our immediate and extended families and then put them in the mail in a timely manner. Moreover, he did not seem to care that I hand addressed all the Christmas cards and almost single-handedly decorated the house, wrapping all the packages with care and creativity. Never mind that this over-and-above effort on my part added to a growing resentment of how little he did to contribute our seasonal gaiety.

My husband, on the other hand, had very different holiday expectations floating through his head. He wanted a happy wife and relaxed home life. Given that his job required him to attend at least a dozen evening basketball games during December as well as two or three children’s Christmas programs, he had his share of work-related responsibilities. On the rare evenings when he was home, my festive activities were not his favorite fare. Rather, he longed for down time and easy living to combat typical work week stress.

Martyr – Abstainer Roles Typical
According to Dr. Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family, couples easily find themselves entrenched in the “martyr – abstainer dance” around the holidays. One person, often the woman, assumes the, “Alright, I’ll do it approach,” but does so with decidedly declining humor and good will as her exhaustion and exasperation increase. Noting her prickly nature and failing to share the same degree of excitement about Christmas tinsel and homemade taffy, her husband assumes an increasingly lower profile hoping to avoid additional conflict, only makes the situation worse. A couple of weeks into the month the two are barely speaking and making merry as a couple is definitely out of the question as both grit their teeth, put on a happy face and look forward to the end of the holiday season.

Change the Dance
Doherty suggests couples extricate themselves from an unhappy holiday hoe down by considering the following possibilities:

1)             Expect difficulties. In the early exuberance of the season, it’s easy to overextend one’s self, promising to do far more than most humans are capable of doing.  Trimming back expectations, remembering the complexities and conflicts of Christmases past can help couples to laugh about difficulties rather than argue.

2)             Plan for difficult moments. You probably already know what tasks and which family members have the potential of creating the greatest stress. Since you know they’re coming, plan ahead to work as a team to defeat them together.

Next week we’ll talk about other ways for reducing conflict and increasing joy--especially if single parent or stepfamily relationships are involved.

Until then, I remain focused on avoiding the "Christmas crisis."

Dr. Jennifer Baker 

*In the interest of preserving my own Christmas spirit, this post is an update of one that originally appeared a few years ago.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Best Gift Ever!

I got a text from my daughter with a photo attached. It said, “Best gift ever—learning to sew last year! Thanks again.” I couldn’t help but smile. A few years ago we gave her sewing lessons for Christmas. She had been asking me to teach her for years, but weeks turned into months turned into years and we still hadn’t found the time. Besides, I wasn’t all that certain that I would be the best teacher for her. Then a couple of years ago I purchased a new sewing machine for myself and took a few lessons to sharpen my skills. It occurred to me then that the instructor I enjoyed learning from might also be an excellent teacher for my daughter . . . and I was right. She took several hours of instruction and learned how to use my mother’s Bernina sewing machine. In short order she began turning out all kinds of projects including new curtains for her home, alterations to clothing, and gifts for others. We could have given her a lot of things, but none would have been as valuable in the long run as the gift of learning a new skill.

It strikes me that giving a gift that enables someone to do something new is a lot like the saying that goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When we give a gift that teaches someone how to do something new, we give a gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving. My grandmother was an excellent seamstress and my mother marveled at how she would make dresses “without a pattern.” My mother was spectacular constructing everything from lingerie and our wedding dresses to a pop-up tent. She upholstered furniture, smocked dresses for our babies and cross-stitched snowflakes on our Christmas dresses. I was never as proficient as she was, but I did learn to sew, embroider and quilt. Now I had the opportunity to pass that love of creating with fabric and the associated skills along to my daughter through the gift of sewing lessons. From what I have seen, she is embracing the family tradition.                                                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                        This causes me to wonder about how we might be intentional in passing along the skills associated with having a healthy family. Those of us who grew up in a happy, healthy, stable home may think that having a good relationship comes naturally, but we’d probably be wrong. The world has changed and young adults today face many challenges with family formation their parents did not. Learning the skills to communicate well about the challenges facing today’s families is a must. Resolving conflict safely without damaging words and building resentment is essential. Keeping fun and friendship alive after the babies come and the years roll on is critical. Skills-based relationship education can make all the difference in helping people attain the kind of home and relationship they want for themselves and their children.

A year from now Christmas will roll around again. When it does, will you be getting a thank-you note, an email or a text from someone you love? Imagine how you would feel if you read the following:

“Best gift ever—reconnecting with my mate after the baby came. Thanks for helping us keep our love alive.”

“Best gift ever—getting our marriage off on the right foot. Thanks for giving us a head start.”

“Best gift ever—helping us stick together just at the moment we were falling apart. Thanks for caring.”

“Best gift ever—helping me make better choices when it comes to a healthy relationship. Thanks for caring about my future.

You can do this for yourself and lead by example. You can do this for people you love. You can do this for others who can’t afford it for themselves, but desperately need the help. Give a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.

Thoughtfully yours,

Dr. Jennifer L. Baker

P.S. The first quilt pictured is from my daughter. The next three are photos taken at the Ozark Piecemakers biennial quilt show this past September.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Annual Christmas Crisis*

Let’s face it. Celebrating the holidays can be very stressful and depending on your family’s background and traditions, the tension can last for weeks. Even if you are able to keep plans for your festivities reasonable, you still have to cope with the behavior and expectations of others. Just trying to find a parking place near your favorite store can be a hassle on December days when every space is taken. This kind of stress is peripheral to the pressure we may feel from family to perform in a certain way (gatherings, gifts, etc.) on specific days like Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Some folks I know spend a majority of their time shuttling their offspring between households of extended family regardless of weather conditions, sleeplessness and exhaustion because it is expected they will do so. A perfect storm of stressors begins to build for many families around this time of year and often reaches a boiling point right at the time we long to be “merry and bright.”

Christmas Amnesia
Because this “holiday hoe down” happens every year, we ought to be smarter about planning for it and preparing to alter the course of our behavior, but most of us don’t. Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family, refers to this phenomenon as “Christmas amnesia” and notes that it is akin to “women forgetting the pain of childbirth soon after delivery. It is an amnesia that helps to populate the earth and keep the tradition of family Christmas alive.” We could make plans to do things differently, to allow for demanding people and difficult situations, but we often disregard our discouragement, delay making plans to do something different, and delve back into the same dilemmas a year later. This year, why not plan to do something different.

Be Honest about Discouragements
There’s no time like the present to take a few notes about what discourages you most. You may not be able to extricate yourself from some holiday hassles this year, but the hope of doing something different next year can help sustain you. While the feelings and thoughts are fresh, write them down. This will be critical in March and April when Christmas amnesia is likely to set in.

Plan Early to Do Something Different
You know that celebrating the holidays can have its anxious moments. You’re aware there are some people—often those to whom we’re related—who will be difficult. If you are the person in charge of seeing that the holiday happens for your clan (Doherty refers to you as the “Christmas Coordinator), then recognize you need help. The key to all these realizations is planning for changes before the season heats up and then letting others know early and often about the changes that will occur. What might that entail?

Developing Solutions for Old Dilemmas
If you are the Christmas Coordinator you’re very likely to assume a martyr role as the holiday approaches, doing more and enjoying it less, while your spouse and family sit on the sidelines and watch you work. Here are some suggestions to assist you in altering that behavior.

1)              Involve other by asking for help with specific tasks. Instead of saying, “I need help with the shopping;” say “I need you to purchase the gifts for your brother and sister. I’ll give you the list at least six weeks in advance.”  Rather than bemoaning that you “always have to do all the decorating,” say “I need you to get all the boxes out of storage and set up the tree the day after Thanksgiving.” Others are much more likely to respond when they know exactly what they need to do to assist and how much time it might take.

2)             Respect the old, but try something new. As families grow they include others, e.g., a new brother-in-law or sister-in-law, who will have new traditions. Take the time to discover how they celebrate. Do they exchange names for gift giving versus buying something for everyone? Do they swap “white elephant” presents in lieu of something more serious? Consider how you might honor the traditions of new members while trimming back some of the old.

3)              Discuss gift exchanges and holiday travel well in advance. If you want to spend Christmas Eve or Christmas morning in your own home and this challenges the expectations of others, tell them early (e.g. in July) and often (repeated monthly if necessary) about your plans. Expect change back messages on the part of other when you do this, but hold firm.

It’s not easy to make changes in family routines and rituals, but it is possible. Challenge yourself to think about the memories you want both you and your loved ones to have as they recall Christmases past. Will what you’re doing now cause them to remember you more like the happy and fun-loving Buddy in the Christmas movie Elf or someone more akin to the Grinch who stole Christmas? It’s really up to you.

Merrily yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

*In the interest of preserving my own Christmas spirit, this post is an update of one that originally appeared a few years ago.

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