Michael was seven years old and headed to class in second grade. Here’s what he was wearing: pointy black cowboy boots, a brown leather aviator jacket, and faded blue jeans, each knee with a rip of his own making.
He had also put on black sunglasses and a black-and-white bandanna, wrapped expertly, by his own hand, around his brow. And to top it all off, dangling from his right ear, left over from a Halloween costume, was a gold-plated, clip-on hoop earring.
At the time, this was pretty much his standard outfit. He was four feet tall and weighed 45 pounds. He boarded the yellow bus decked out like a rock star going on a cross-country tour.
All this took some serious preparation behind the scenes. Michael would hang out in front of the bathroom mirror, combing his thick, wavy brown hair to mimic the styles he caught on music videos on TV. He begged us to let him grow his hair longer so he could sport a ponytail.
But the look Michael adopted was going to take him only so far in his still barely adolescent life. So he also mastered a second language: fluent back talk. If I joked with him or somehow said something that upset him, he might tell me to give him a break or take a hike or fly a kite.
He would propose, with a growing frequency that caused me worry, that I either get out of town, get real, get a job or, more simply, get a life. His mouth came to strike me as a prematurely—and precociously—adult instrument, a weapon of mass destruction.
Oh, he was the complete package all right: the funky uniform, the hipper-than-thou attitude, the up-to-the-minute idiom. His purpose was clear. Michael wanted more than anything on the planet to be cool. Too cool for school.
So it went for a spell, maybe a year or two. He would strut through our apartment, lip-synching to M.C. Hammer and fingering an air guitar. He would carry a comb to school to keep up appearances. He would chase girls around the playground, no doubt without yet quite understanding why.
He bopped along with us on family outings too—bandanna, earring, and all—and drew surprised glances and even occasional rubbernecking from passersby. One time we all went out for pizza and the teenagers at the next table in the restaurant were so taken with his look that he was invited over for a cameo appearance.
As it happened, I knew the deal here, understood the impulses that drove our son. At his age, I was short and skinny, with thick black glasses and frizzy hair. I, too, once wanted more than anything to be too cool for school.
So I never said anything to Michael about his getup or his wisecracks, nor saw any reason to. I knew nothing I said to him would make any difference, or even necessarily should. Rather, I chose to do what I really had no choice but to do. Privately, in my heart of hearts, I cheered him on. At least one of us, I figured, should get to be cool.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.
Happiness is a warm puppy. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. Don't worry, be happy! Rules for how to live happily are nothing new. But lately, our well-being -- and that of our kids -- seems to be in free fall. Depression, anxiety, and even youth suicide rates are increasing, as is cell phone and device use and the constant expectation to be "on." Raising kids to be happy in today's world isn't impossible: Many generations of parents have managed to do so when the threats were way worse than FOMO. We just need to rewrite the rules for the digital age.
The quest to make sure our kids are happy may have led us in the wrong direction. While media and tech deserve some of the blame for our collective stress, no one really knows how much. However, we do know that turning everything off doesn't magically make us happier. In fact, studies show that some types of screen-based activities can be beneficial -- and we all know the warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we enjoy media together. As more research emerges on the impact of media and tech on kids' mental health, it confirms what we've always known about how to be happy: Supportive relationships, a feeling of self-worth, strong character, and other positive influences are what really matter. And while you can’t mandate joy, supporting your kid -- both online and off -- creates an environment where happiness is there for the taking. These tips can help you raise a happy kid in the digital age:
Grit -- the combination of perseverance and resilience that helps you bounce back from disappointments -- plays an important role in well-being. At school, online, and even with friends, kids feel pressured to achieve something on the first try. Instead, instill what’s called a "growth mindset," the process of trying, failing, and learning from mistakes. When they feel defeated, their inner voice will say, "You got this!"
Nourish their sense of self-worth.
Likes, comments, and other indicators of online status are part of kids' social-media lives. But there's a tipping point when a kid’s perfectly natural curiosity about what others think about them turns into a harmful fixation on peer validation that can cause depression. You can help inoculate your kid against this by fostering an internal sense of self-worth. Encourage activities and hobbies that give kids a sense of accomplishment on their own terms.
Being aware and thankful is a tried-and-true life hack that leads to a stronger sense of well-being. You can actually use media and tech to cultivate a sense of gratitude. Check out sites and apps that let kids help make the world a better place. Watch TV shows and movies that inspire gratitude. At home, create a culture of appreciation by discussing what you're grateful for. Check out Greater Good Magazine's Gratitude page for more ideas.
Seriously, that's all you need to do. Nature is scientifically proven to boost well-being. If you need inspiration, watch nature movies or download apps that encourage outdoor exploration. Or just put down your phone, close the laptop, turn off the TV, and go for a walk.
In the digital age, kids can make new friends and strengthen existing relationships online, whether it's in a rousing game of Fortnite, a few hearts on Instagram, or even a FaceTime session with the grandparents. But the happiest people are the ones who consistently find a balance between screens and the rest of life. And as the grown-ups, we're the ones who need to model healthy habits. So, carve out screen-free times at home. Unplug everything so you can make eye contact and really listen to family and friends without distractions. By all means, enjoy media together -- but set limits so it doesn't interfere with face-to-face interactions.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.
On special occasions, like birthdays, my parents would let my sister and me share a can of soda with our dinner. I remember how we would put two identical glasses side-by-side on the table and take turns pouring a little soda into each of them, periodically checking, like surveyors measuring a million-dollar property, to make sure that both glasses contained exactly the same amount of liquid, down to the last milliliter.
We measured our parents’ love in the same way, always vigilant to make sure we got equal amounts of it: equal amounts of attention, affection, praise, and presents. If one of us ever felt she was not getting her fair share, our home would ring with that most aggrieved accusation in the siblings’ handbook: “You love her more than you love me!”
In less emotional moments, one of us might slyly pose the only question that makes mothers and fathers more uncomfortable than the one about where babies come from: “Who do you love more, her or me?” Every parent knows there is no answer that will satisfy the child who asks this question. If you say you love both or all of your children the same, the kid won’t buy it. He’ll either think you’re humoring him and try to wheedle another answer out of you, or suspect you’re not telling him the truth because you love his brother or sister more (or less) than you love him but don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.
The problem is that “Who do you love more”” isn’t the right question. It’s not a matter of the amount of love you have for each of your children; it’s about how and why you love each of them, how you express your love to each, and what you particularly love about one or the other. Try explaining that to a six-year-old!
The fact of the matter is that if I had to divide my heart between my son and daughter, I have no doubt the two parts would come out equal. But if I had to describe my love for each of them individually, it wouldn’t sound the same, for the simple reason that they are not the same people. I love my son’s gentleness, his protectiveness toward those he cares for, his instinctively sunny disposition. I love my daughter’s engagement with the world, her curiosity, the intensity of her feelings and beliefs. As mother and daughter, she and I share more of our emotional lives with each other, while with my son, I share a sweet, easygoing camaraderie. How can I even out the lump sum of such an assortment of sentiments and attachments in a way that they will understand?
Growing up, both kids had gripes about the unequal (i.e., unfair) treatment they felt they sometimes received from me. My son complained that I spoiled his sister, that I indulged her and got her anything she wanted. My daughter grumbled that I was more lenient with her brother, that I laughed at some of his misbehaviors, the same misbehaviors for which she got scolded.
I here and now freely admit that their grievances were absolutely legit! I did buy daughter more, because she seemed to need more—more clothing, more paraphernalia, more stuff —while my son seemed to need less. (We’re talking about a boy who could wear the same shirt for a month and not notice.) I did scold him less, because he knew how to charm the anger out of me by explaining himself in a way that made my stern face crumple with amusement. But did these inequities mean that I loved her more than him or him more than her? Not for a minute.
So, where does that leave us? Maybe there’s a mother out there somewhere who knows how to satisfy her children’s incessant desire to extract the inexplicable, but my own best guess is that we’re back where we started, with “I love you the same amount,” amount being the operative word. Although that answer might not be complete, and it might not pass muster with our kids, it is truthful—at least for me it is. My heart is filled with love for my children, and the feelings I have for each are bound together inextricably. One of them may take up more space in there one day, the other loom larger the next. But there is always plenty of room for both.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.
Every week, starting when I was ten, my mother took me on a forty-five-minute drive to ballet school. We kept up this routine for two years, until it became clear that no amount of lessons would ever turn graceless, waistless me into the Sugar Plum Fairy. But if those car trips didn’t lead to the dancing career I’d dreamed of, they gave me something I prized even more: time alone with my mother. Ballet night was the one night of the week I didn’t have to share her with my sister and my father. During those long rides to and from dancing school and at dinner in a coffee shop after class, I had her all to myself and was the center of her attention. It was bliss.
I can’t be sure that all children want to have their parents to themselves, but I certainly did—and so did my kids. Just as my husband and I needed time alone together, my son and daughter made it clear they craved time alone with one or the other of us, mostly by asking unsubtle questions that included the phrase “just the two of us?”
I suspect that even the closest of siblings sometimes fleetingly wish that they were only children and could have their own rooms, their own stuff, their own moms and dads. This is hardly surprising; if kids have a tough time sharing their toys, how much tougher must it be for them to share their parents?
Recognizing our own kids’ desire to have at least one of us all to themselves, their father and I tried to give them an equal portion of our undivided attention by pairing off and doing things separately with one or the other of them. This practice allowed us to address their dissimilar interests and concerns and kept in balance the exquisitely calibrated scale of fairness all siblings seem to have implanted in their brains. We never had to field the question regularly heard in other households of four or more: “How come he (she) gets to do that and I don’t?”
My son, for instance, has always loved the outdoors in general and hiking in particular, something his sister has loathed apparently since birth. So, when he and his father would go off hiking together on weekends in the spring and fall, she and I would go to visit Grandma, who lived two states away and baked the best banana bread within a thousand-mile radius. And while the guys were bonding over trail mix, she and I were driving westward and talking about everything under the sun, from what she would wear for Halloween to the ever-shifting allegiances of fourth-grade female friendships. In fact, it was during one of these three-hour drives to Grandma’s house that my then nine-year-old little girl asked me if a teenager could have a baby. The question triggered our first serious talk about how her body would soon start to change and what that would mean as far as having babies was concerned. It was a conversation we could never have had at, say, the family dinner table.
My husband and I made sure that we didn’t always pair off girls on one side, boys on the other. So, I was the one who took our son shopping when it came time to buy him his first suit, and my husband was the one who took our daughter to play in her soccer team’s first weekend match. The result was that he got to cheer when she made her first and (as it turned out) only goal of the season, while I got to catch my breath at how handsome my son looked in blue serge. I’ll never forget how, at lunch that day, he looked up shyly from his cheeseburger and told me about the “really pretty” classmate he planned to ask to the seventh-grade dance.
Through the years, moments like these helped the four of us develop unique relationships with one another that were subtly different from the ones we had as a foursome. I believe these supplementary bonds strengthened us, both as a family and as individuals, because they satisfied a deep-seated and universal human desire. The fact is that no matter how good it feels to be an integral part of a family unit, all of us—big and small alike—yearn for intimate, one-to-one connections with the people we love.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.