My Parenting Resolutions for 2014

Have you ever heard the joke about the husband who committed to losing weight for his New Year resolution? As he stood on the bathroom scale one morning, sucking in his stomach, his dutiful wife caught him in the act and began to admonish him. "Why on Earth are you sucking in your gut? It won't help. Holding it in certainly won't make you weigh any less," she quipped. "Ahh... how little you know," he replied. "Sucking it in actually does help. It helps me see the numbers on the scale, so take that!"

I am sure one would not be surprised to know that losing weight has been one of the top American resolutions for years. If I can be somewhat transparent, it has been one of my top five goals for a large portion of my adult life. Quite honestly, it is human nature for people to want to lose something as we escort in a New Year. We lose weight, bad habits, negative influences, poor spending practices, addictive tendencies. We are in such a rush to begin the New Year with a clean slate and leave all of our former weaknesses behind. Will we succeed? Only time will tell.

This year, I have decided to once again become "the Biggest Loser," but I will place my focus on more important matters -- my children and family. In an effort to become more connected, involved, present, and engaged, I vow to LOSE in four areas of my life:

LOSE heavy screen time. A recent poll from Common Sense Media indicated children between the ages of 0 to 8 spend over two hours viewing screen media on a typical day. More than a quarter of their screen time comes from viewing television, playing on computers, video game consoles, cell phones and hand-held tablets. The average age for first-time use of a computer is around 3-and-a-half years old. Though I am not at all opposed to periodic screen time, I do recognize the need to closely monitor daily use. I feel parents can occasionally lose sight of how much screen time is too much, and will resort to using the screen as a caregiver when life becomes busy or overwhelming. I think it is our responsibility as parents to make sure we are ever mindful of both the positive and negative influences of these devices. For example, my 7-year-old son would happily play on the Kindle or iPad for hours, with no adult intervention. One evening, I realized that he had been logged in to Candy Crush, Minecraft, and Ninjago, uninterrupted, for two hours. I was horrified to realize the time had gone by, unnoticed. We have since integrated egg timers, family fun breaks, and usage charts at home to help him understand his limits and how to manage his time appropriately.

LOSE myself in free play. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a well-known psychologist and author, proposed the concept of "flow" as a state of mind one achieves when they are fully immersed in a task, forgetting about the outside world. When you're in the state of Flow, you are completely focused on the task at hand; forget about yourself, others, and the world around you; lose track of time; feel happy and in control; and become creative and productive. Research shows that "flow" has real health benefits as well, and can lead to physical and emotional states of well-being. I often witness my children in a state of flow when they are building pillow forts, playing Legos, or creating villages with empty boxes. I miss those days of childhood when 'being in the moment' was organic, and instantaneous. I could quickly find a sense of calm and happiness in play. In my adult life, however, when I attempt to take a casual walk around the neighborhood or play with my children, I often find myself thinking about the unfinished errands or chores, dinner that needs to be made, reports to write, or phone calls to return. It is never completely satisfying play, and I often find myself feeling as if I am not as connected with my family as I should. I am sure my loved ones sense my distraction as well. This year, I promise to make a more concerted effort to deeply engage with my children when I get down on the floor and play with them. I plan to lose myself to nature when I'm out taking a long stroll, and not worry about the emails pinging away in my absence. I may not reach a full state of flow this year, but I will certainly attempt to come close!

LOSE myself in family time. This dovetails somewhat with my last resolution, but it's worth repeating again. Life these days is crammed with extras: work commitments, financial burdens, after school activities, religious activities, school projects, etc. As hard working adults, we often become bogged down with all the Must Do's, and coveted family time can easily turn into a Want To. I urge all of us to move family time to the Must Do category, and make time to engage with family on a regular basis. For example, we have a standing rule in our household that unless a family member is out of town, or there is a late night activity, the entire family eats together at the table each evening, including our dog who scours the floor for crumbs. We have established predictable routines in our family (setting the table, family gracing of the food, sharing daily highs and lows), and we hope this will allow our children to grow up to become connected teenagers and adults in the future. We sincerely believe it makes a difference.

GET LOST outdoors. The research shows that children today spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation (I strongly encourage reading any of Richard Louv's books for research-based evidence). Most parents with children between the ages of 3 and 12 cite safety concerns as one of the primary reasons they do not allow their children to play outdoors, however neighborhoods are also less diverse by age-groups, and more home-centered. In addition, after-school activities are more structured for children, making them less available for neighborhood play. Children predominantly play indoors, with their activities monitored and controlled by adults, compared to children a generation ago. In fact, children of this current generation can identify almost 25 percent more Pokemon characters than wildlife species by the time they turn 8-years-old. Something is wrong with that picture!

What we have learned from the research makes quite a statement:

1. Contact with the natural world can significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children as young as 5-years-old.

2. The greener a child's everyday environment, the more manageable are their symptoms of attention, self-control, and focus.

3. Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children's ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities.

4. Nature is important to children's development in every major way -- intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically. Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual development.

5. Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured outdoor play.

This year, I will work to promote more outdoor time with my family through mountain hikes, beach time, nature walks, fishing excursions, picnics, puddle jumping, and star gazing. Getting lost outdoors can be a win-win for everyone!

As we enter the New Year, I share my parenting resolutions here, and invite you to join me. Let's meet on the other side of 2014 and see how we fared. Good luck!