Tag Archive for: Family

My son was four months old the first time he flew on a plane. 

I was invited to a tech conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was exclusively nursing, living on a special diet of no dairy, soy, or egg, and getting four solid hours of sleep a night.

It wasn’t easy, but seeing my little boy fall asleep on the plane, ga-ga at strangers on the city sidewalks, and marvel at the curves and shapes of Pittsburgh architecture made me grateful for seizing the opportunity.

When he was two years old, we went on a family trip to Boston for a week.

My husband and I love the city, and there are so many fun activities for young ones to enjoy.

At three, my son went on his first beach vacation to Key Largo, an island off the southern coast of Florida.

It was a work trip for my husband, but it became one of our most memorable experiences.

And last week, we visited the Grand Canyon and the deserts of Arizona.

My now four-year-old continually asks if we just came back from outer space. He’s convinced we went to Mars because of Red Rock State Park in Sedona.

Why am I sharing my son’s travel history with you? Because we did it, and you can, too. 

Before moving forward, let me make one thing clear: There were plenty of blowouts, meltdowns, and tired tantrums on each of these trips.

I’m no Mary Poppins, try as I might. But the memories made, experiences had, and the personal growth my husband and I experienced was far worth the chaos.

A study released in 2022 by the Student and Youth Travel Association found that children who travel benefit in a myriad of ways, including better performance in school.

Some of the most noteworthy findings include:

  • 74% of the educators polled believe travel helps students’ personal development.
  • 56% believe travel positively impacts students’ lifetime education and career.
  • 80% of the teachers in the study said travel is an “extremely effective” teaching method.
  • Students who travel often reported having an increased desire to graduate and attend college.

Travel is a luxury not everyone can afford.

However, it’s not the distance that makes the experience beneficial to parents and children; it’s the out-of-the-box experience.

If finances are tight and resources aren’t easily accessible, consider visiting a local monument, park, or museum.

Find a nearby grocery store with culturally diverse foods, people, and languages. Spend some time reading books about places you might want to visit someday and make a tentative plan for how to get there.

If having young children is holding you back from travel, think again.

Seeing the world (no matter how close or far away from home) through the eyes of a small child may be the perspective shift you need to boost positivity and increase creativity. Plus, it can help your child develop a healthy curiosity and openness to critical thinking that will carry them through life.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

My grandmother passed away last week. She was 85, and her health had been slowly declining for a few years. But it didn’t make the news any easier to hear when she passed.

When I was growing up, my grandmother and I spent a lot of time together.

Some of the time was regularly scheduled, as she cared for me a few days a week while my parents worked. But the majority of the time we spent together was prompted by me. I loved being with her. We played, shopped, watched movies, and talked about life for hours. She made me feel seen, heard, and cared for. Nurturing was her superpower.

I know I’m lucky to have lived within 15 minutes of my grandparents for most of my life, which provided ample opportunities to see and spend time with them.

But research shows quality time between grandparents and their grandchildren matters more than quantity.

A longitudinal study recently published in The Journal of Family Issues found that grandparent relationship quality, but not grandparent contact, was linked to multiple late adolescent outcomes, such as mental health and relationship skills. The study also found positive associations between a high-quality grandparent relationship and their grandchild(ren)’s self-worth and perceived competence in close friendships throughout their life.

In other words, grandparents can influence their grandchildren for a lifetime.

However, their influence is built through the depth of their presence rather than frequency. Similar to research on family dynamics within a household, the relationship between married grandparents also bears weight on grandchildren. A healthy, kind, and connected relationship between grandma/grandpa creates a stable environment for a child to establish a sense of belonging and confidence within their family.

What does quality time between grandparents and grandchildren look like? Here are four things to consider.

1: Stay connected with Mom and Dad first.

Parents are (and should be) the gatekeeper to their children. If grandparents do not have a solid relationship with their own son/daughter or son/daughter-in-law, it will be difficult to create a firm foundation with their grandchildren. Also, when grandparents are spending time with their grandchildren, they must follow the rules, boundaries, and cadence of Mom and Dad. This will build trust between the whole family.

2: Let the grandchildren have a voice.

It can be easy for grandparents to have expectations about what their grandchildren should do or how they should act, but it’s more important to connect with them than to control them. Grandparents should ask questions and invest in what their grandchildren are already interested in, rather than trying to sway them in a certain direction out of self-interest or a desire to pass down a specific hobby or pastime.

3: Make the family legacy known, but only when it matters.

Grandparents can certainly share stories and insights about great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but it’s important to do so in a way that expresses family values and connection, not drama, apathy, or disdain. Children are more confident and feel supported when they know they are part of something bigger than themselves, especially when that “something bigger” is positive and life-giving. If those examples don’t exist, grandparents can consider waiting until the child is developmentally prepared to discuss some of the lessons learned from past generations.

4: Do communicate between time spent together.

While quality matters more than quantity, sending a card, making a phone call, or scheduling a quick Facetime between visits will help everyone stay connected and cared for. Grandchildren need to know that their grandparents are still there for them even when they’re not physically present.

I spent the night with my grandmother well into my late twenties, before my son was born, and before she moved into an assisted living facility. She wasn’t perfect, and she knew that, but she was wholly present and interested in our lives. I’m grateful for her, as I know all grandchildren are for caring, loving grandparents.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at [email protected].

Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova on Unsplash

“Momma, when you die and I don’t have a Momma anymore, can I go live with Nana and Poppy?” my four-year-old asked nonchalantly last Saturday.

“Well, if anything happens to me and your dad, you can certainly live with Nana and Poppy. What made you ask that question, bug?” I said blindsided.

“People die. And, I know you’re gonna die and live with Jesus. So. I just want to have someone to live with, too,” he responded. Then, he ran outside and started digging in the dirt with his dump trucks.

I was in shock from the conversation. What was going on in his little mind? Where did that question come from?

My husband reminded me that our son has attended four funerals in his short four years of life– three great grandmothers and a great aunt. That’s a lot of death to unpack. I also learned he overheard a conversation about the tragic shootings and deaths of 3 adults and 3 children at the Covenant School in Nashville a few weeks ago.

As a parent, I want to protect my son at all costs.

I want to keep him from having to deal with the hard, unfair and cruel injustices of this world. But, the truth is, avoiding difficult conversations and shielding him in an effort to preserve his innocence does more harm than good in the long run.

The American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement earlier this year encouraging parents to have hard conversations with young children: 

“Taking a proactive stance and discussing difficult events and topics in age-appropriate language can help a child feel safer and more secure. If adults don’t talk to them about it, a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence. So, be the first to bring up the difficult topic. When parents tackle difficult conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive.”

While this statement is empowering, sitting down and having these conversations can be stressful. How do you define age appropriate language? What if you don’t have all the answers to the questions they ask?

Here are a few things to remember when these hard conversations happen:

1: If you can, practice ahead of time.

When a tragic event occurs, try to be the person your child hears it from first. Decide what you’re going to share, how you’re going to share it, and most importantly, when the best time is to have the conversation.

2: Timing is everything.

Choose a quiet place to sit with your child one-on-one and look them in the eyes. Avoid having hard conversations when you’re busy making dinner or when your child is playing. The conversation at hand should be the center of both your attention.

3: Ask them what they already know.

“There was a shooting at a school. What do you know about this?” And then listen, listen, and listen more.

4: Tell them how you feel.

Sharing your emotions with your child allows them to create a deeper connection with you. It’s also a great opportunity to model behavior and emotional regulation for them.

5: Stick to the facts and avoid details.

Tell them the outline of what happened. There’s no need to share gory details or show gruesome graphics. 

As a parent, the greatest thing you can do for your child is build a deep connection with them. No matter how hard we try, we can’t control them or the world around them. Having hard conversations when they’re young allows them to see you as a safe, wise and trusted source for a lifetime.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Jonas Kakaroto on Unsplash

For the last seven years, I’ve had the pleasure of working for First Things First, Inc. (FTF).

We’re a non-profit dedicated to helping every family have healthy relationship skills to pass down from generation to generation. I’ve served in several roles at FTF, but for the last twelve months, I’ve been honored to serve as President and CEO. 

This is my first of many articles to be published in this column for The Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Mitchell Qualls, our Vice President of Operations, is handing me the baton. I will continue to share research-based relationship skills and best family practices with you. I’m so grateful for the dedication and exceptional content Mitchell created over the last two years. I know many families in our community have been encouraged and empowered through his writing.

So, here we are in another time of transition.

A different byline will appear in this column. A new season is approaching. The holidays and the hustle and bustle are right around the corner. If there’s one thing that’s certain to stay the same in life, it’s change.

I’m thirty-two years old, I’ve been married to my husband Daniel for almost nine years, and we have a sweet, rambunctious three-year-old named Strider. At least once a week, my husband and I talk about what we can do to create a more consistent schedule. We’re convinced consistency will make daily life easier and make everything fall into place.

But the truth is, no matter how well we plan, we can always expect change.

We can’t prohibit the flu from taking over our household. We can’t keep the tree from falling down in our yard during a storm. We can’t stop mechanical issues from happening in our car. As much as we might wish it wasn’t true, change is here to stay.

However, we can choose how we support each other when change inevitably occurs.

In 2021, Cleveland Health Clinic reported people experience increased stress symptoms when going through change, and these symptoms increase the more change we encounter.

So, we’ve already determined change is inevitable, and now we know stress is also unavoidable. What’s the solution if we can’t avoid it?

A 2017 research article published in the Innovation in Aging journal through Oxford University Press revealed healthy family relationships can limit stress, increase the production of mood-boosting chemicals in your brain, and create a sense of belonging and unconditional love.

In other words, the best way to deal with life changes and the stress they create is to have a solid support system to rely on.

While we can’t plan for change, we can work toward building stronger relationships and families that will help us weather the storms and enjoy the sunshine on the other side.

According to the Journal of Marriage and Family Review, strong families have six significant qualities in common:

1: Appreciation/affection

2: Commitment

3: Positive communication

4: Time together

5: Strong coping skills

6: Spiritual well-being.

Over the next six weeks, we’ll take a closer look at each of these six qualities and suggest ways to assess them in your relationships, along with practical tools you can use to strengthen your family for generations to come.

I look forward to continuing this relationship journey alongside you.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Remember me?

It’s been over 3 months since I last wrote a column. On July 24th, we welcomed a new little girl to our family, Larkin Maeve Hall. She’s the sweetest baby, easygoing going, and loves to sleep… which is very different from what we experienced with her now four-year-old brother. What they say is true – no two babies are alike.

I worked until I went into labor, and then some.

I may have sent a text or ten from the hospital bed, and I may have taken a phone call or five while in labor. I’m not a workaholic. There were loose ends that needed to be tied before I could shut down my brain and focus. One week after Lark was born, I found myself checking emails, messaging staff, and wondering if I should just “stop by the office for a quick check-in.” My husband gently reminded me on multiple occasions to put my phone away and unplug so that I could enjoy the season we were in. After a bit of force, I realized that I wasn’t practicing what I preach. I needed to set sturdy boundaries for myself to give my family attention and connection. I needed to put first things first. 

Personalities, responsibilities, and experiences play a large part in someone’s ability to step away from their work, but I believe there are even bigger elements at play, and multiple research studies reinforce my theories.

Here are three big obstacles to putting first things first, and what we can do about it.

Obstacle 1:

Technology creates unrealistic expectations for responsiveness and availability.

Whether it’s a boss texting at 9 am on a Sunday or a colleague with a question while on vacation, technology has created an expectation for urgent responsiveness. “The expectation of constant availability… can lead to longer working hours and a lack of separation between work and personal life,” state researchers Priya Keshwani and Shweta Patel in their 2023 report: The Impact of Technology on Work Life Balance. “The boundary between work and leisure time becomes blurred, making it challenging for individuals to fully disconnect and recharge.”  

Solution: Verbally set boundaries and expectations with your coworkers.

Our First Things First team established a rule: Email is the primary source of communication for all work-related items. If an emergency occurs or an urgent matter needs to be addressed, a text or a phone call is acceptable even after hours. What defines an emergency? Something that will harm someone or the mission of the organization if not urgently addressed. All other matters can be responded to within a 24-48 hour period.

Obstacle 2:

A lack of support for parents means the parent/child relationship suffers.

You’ve heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It also takes a village to support a parent. A 2018 survey by Pew Research indicates that 15% of parents feel completely unsupported by their family or community, while 40% feel slightly or somewhat unsupported. This means over half of parents don’t feel they have the support they need to create the secure relationship with their children they desire.

Solution: Actively ask for help and accept assistance when it comes.

This is easier said than done and doesn’t look the same for every parent. In my recent experience, many friends and family assumed I was “fine” because it was our second baby, she was a good sleeper, and I’m a “high energy” individual who can “handle more than the average person.” When I expressed my need for a break to my Mom, she appeared in a heartbeat and said, “Thanks for letting me know what you need.” When friends asked if they could come to see the baby, I said “Yes, but please bring coffee, food, or grocery items with you!” 

Obstacle 3:

The average pace of life is faster, which means deep connection is harder to obtain.

It can be easy for families to assume that the more we do together, the closer we become. But a recent study conducted by Dr. Robert Whitaker, director of the Columbia-Bassett research program at Columbia University in New York City, found family connections are made at home. Whitaker reports that “the essence of family connection is children feeling that they are accepted and nurtured at home, which allows them to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are in a safe environment as they are building their identity.”

Solution: Slow down and create an environment where children are seen, heard, and feel like they belong.

“Adults do not need to make grand gestures to bond with their children,” says Elaine Reese, a professor of psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. “Having meaningful conversations is more important for your connection than taking them on expensive trips or doing extravagant things together.”

In essence, putting first things first isn’t easy, especially in our constantly connected, individualistic, and fast-paced world.

But, the next generation depends on it and the health of our families is determined by it. So, the question is how will you overcome the obstacles to putting first things first in your own life?

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

It’s no secret that poor communication habits are the silent killers of many relationships.

Spouses, parents, children, and siblings often fail to connect, express, and respond to expectations and effectively work through conflict. In all relationships, it’s easy for individuals to misunderstand each other, not actively listen before responding, and miss verbal cues for connection.

As much as clear communication plays an important role in relationships, one method suggests the Most Generous Interpretation (MGI) of people and their behavior plays an even bigger role in family health.

Dr. Becky Kennedy, author of the New York Times bestselling parenting book Good Inside, suggests that you can separate a person from their behavior. “Finding the MGI teaches [us] to attend to what is going on inside… (feelings, worries, urges, sensations) rather than what is going on outside (words or actions).”

Here’s a parenting example:

We had a few families over for dinner last week. My 4-year-old son enjoyed playing with all of his friends. When the night ended and everyone went home, I told my son it was time to take a bath. “No! I won’t take a bath. I’m not going to do it right now, and you can’t make me,” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

At that moment, I had a few response options:

1) Yell back with something like, “Don’t talk to me like that or you’ll be punished!”

2) Lay the guilt trip on with a statement like, “I just gave you a fun night with friends. You’re ungrateful.”

3) Make it about my emotions, saying, “It makes me really sad when you talk to me like that. I don’t deserve that.”

4) Use my Most Generous Interpretation by separating his behavior from who he is and following up with curiosity. “Wow, I hear how upset you are. Tell me more.”

I chose option four.

My son then told me he didn’t think it was fair for everyone to go home. He missed them and felt sad that they were gone. He started crying and told me he was extremely tired and didn’t think he had the energy to take a bath. So, I responded, “I get it. I’m tired, too. If we don’t take a bath before bed right now, then we have to wake up a little early in the morning to take one before school. It’s your choice. Bath tonight or in the morning?” He chose the morning option and was asleep in about 5 minutes. He woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to take a bath before school.

Some may interpret this method as “being too easy” on kids, but Dr. Kennedy suggests it’s actually framing their behavior in a way that will help them build critical emotion regulation skills for their future, and parents are preserving their connection and close relationship along the way.

“I often remind myself that kids respond to the version of themselves that parents reflect back to them and act accordingly,” Dr. Kennedy shares. “When we tell our kids they are selfish, they act in their own interest… but the opposite is true as well. When we tell our kids, ‘You’re a good kid having a hard time… I’m right here with you,’ they are more likely to have empathy for their own struggles, which helps them regulate and make better decisions.”

So, how does this method work in a marriage?

The next time your spouse snaps at you, ignores you, or does something to make you feel unseen or unheard, use the MGI rather than yelling, sulking, or blaming. Let them know you see them and want to know what’s going on inside, beyond their behavior outside.

Say something like, “You seem upset. Would you like to talk about it?” or “You seem distracted. Can we talk about what’s on your mind? I’m here with you.”

Choosing the Most Generous Interpretation isn’t easy. At the end of the day, it forces you to respond instead of react and to be curious rather than make assumptions. The connection and depth the MGI can bring to your family is worth the challenge.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

It’s been twenty-five years since my grandfather was killed in a tragic car accident.

He was sixty-two and the true patriarch of our family. His joy for life was infectious, and his love for his family and friends was intoxicating. As a child, I adored my grandfather, and his death left a gaping hole. Luckily, he left many traditions and values to aid us through the grieving process and carry on his legacy – the most important of which happens around Thanksgiving.

For twenty-eight years, the Swafford Family has spent a week together around the Thanksgiving holiday. Our family has grown to thirty-two members, so finding a place to accommodate us certainly has its challenges, and not everyone can stay the whole time due to work and travel issues. But everyone tries. It’s what we do.

During our time together, we dance, sing, play games, eat a ton of food, and most importantly, we hold each other accountable and support one another. Over the years, we’ve sat around the kitchen table and cried over the death of loved ones, shared our fears and frustrations with work, school, or relationships, and opened up about challenges in our marriages, parenting, and faith. Our Thanksgiving tradition sets the tone for what my grandfather wanted our family to be – something we’re proud to be a part of, something we rely on for support and belonging.

I recently read a 50-year review about family traditions in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Family Psychology.

As it turns out, family routines and rituals are alive and well. They are associated with marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement, and stronger family relationships. Psychologist Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., and colleagues at Syracuse University began their review by distinguishing the difference between a family routine and a family ritual.

“Routines involve instrumental communication conveying information that ‘this is what needs to be done’ and involve a momentary time commitment so that once the act is completed, there is little, if any, afterthought,” says Dr. Fiese. “Rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic communication and convey ‘this is who we are’ as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations.”

Dr. Fiese goes on to say that rituals create memories through evoking emotional imprints. Rituals are often looked back on with fondness or looked forward to with anticipation. On the other hand, routines are expected, planned, and implemented. They leave little to no room for building values or creating environments.

As you find yourself making plans with the ones you love around holidays or other special occasions, ask yourself these questions to determine if your family traditions are built on ritual or routine:

  1. Are we making plans simply because it’s a holiday and there’s an expectation for us to get together? Are we intentional about connecting or deepening our relationships outside of the holiday as well?
  2. What are our family values? What type of environment do we want to create in our family, and how will we make sure it’s consistent in every gathering, life event, or interaction we have?
  3. Do I want my family to remember what we did year after year? Or how it made them feel when we were together? 

The year my grandfather died, he had prepaid for us to stay together in a cabin in Gatlinburg, TN. We almost didn’t go because it was so painful, but we knew it was what he wanted, and that we ultimately wanted to be together. We decided then and there that we would continue the tradition he set, not out of expectation, but because it’s part of who we are. Now, it’s a ritual.

If building family traditions around rituals feels a bit overwhelming for you, start by opening the conversation to other family members.

Talk about what values your family already shares and what values you may want to implement and why. Think about the future generations–what legacy will they remember and want to pass on? How do your traditions mirror your answers? Traditions based on rituals should help people feel connected, appreciated, and like they’re a part of something bigger – a family.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash

Merry Christmas and happy holidays from all of us at First Things First! We hope that this year gives you the opportunity for your family to get to know each other better. And what better way to get started than with Christmas questions?

Here are some great Christmas questions to help your family connect and grow together during this season.

  1. What is a new family Christmas tradition you would like to start?
  1. What smell reminds you of Christmas?
  1. What is the single most meaningful Christmas gift you’ve ever received, and why was it so special?
  1. If time and money were not a concern, how would you decorate the outside of your home?
  1. Candy canes, of course, are the traditional candy of Christmas. If you could have your way, what would be the official candy of Christmas?
  1. You have a beautiful 50-foot pine tree in your front yard that you are allowed to decorate with only one color of lights. Which color would you choose?
  1. What is your favorite family memory from this past year?
  1. Of course, red and green are the traditional colors of Christmas. What two other colors do you think could— or should —become the standard for the season?
  1. At Christmastime, which do you honestly enjoy more— giving or receiving?
  1. What is the first Christmas you can remember? What do you remember about it?
  1. Do you have any ethnic or family traditions that you honor during the Christmas season?
  1. What holiday food do you enjoy the most?
  1. Which event or aspect of the Christmas season do you look forward to most of all?
  1. If snow could fall in any flavor, what flavor would you choose?
  1. What has been your most memorable Christmas?
  1. If you could Christmas shop-until-you-drop at any one store or website, which would yo choose?
  1. What is one thing your family does together during the holidays that you enjoy the most?
  1. If you could indulge in only one type of cookie this holiday season, which cookie would you be eating a lot of?
  1. If you could invite any famous person to your house for Christmas dinner, whom would you invite?
  1. What would be the ideal way for you to spend Christmas Eve?
  1. On a scale of one to ten (with one being very relaxing and ten being very stressful), how stressful is the holiday season for you?
  1. What brought you joy this year?
  1. If you could spend Christmas anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
  1. What is something from the past year that you are truly thankful for?
  1. What is your favorite Christmas movie?

BONUS: Family Christmas Questions Challenge! How many words can you make from the letters in Christmas? (Example: Stir.)

The holiday season can get hectic and pull your family in all different directions. Try to stay connected and enjoy each other during the holidays. Give each other the gift of growing, meaningful relationships.