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3 ways to raise happy, connected children*

2013 January 16
by Rachel Turiel

I was recently snuggled up on our couch with 3 Mama friends, one of whom announced, “hey, we’re all raising boys. How do we steer them away from harmful media messages and towards an emotionally-intelligent, meaningful, courageous life? What sort of coming-of-age rituals are available to our boys? Who are the inspiring male role models?”

(okay, maybe she didn’t say these exact words, maybe it was more like, “how the *%$#! do we parent these boys?” but this became the general vibe of the conversation).

We had a good talk. I love these women. I need them on this parenting journey. I don’t know the answers, but I have some beliefs that feel right to me.

I love the idea of a coming-of-age ritual (sort of like Rose’s weaning party, but y’know, for adolescents), and I also believe that raising healthy, resilient children is, like a daily vitamin, an ongoing endeavor.

I believe kids need as much unstructured time outside as possible. This is where the noise of the media fades and we recalibrate to a slower, saner pace; where, in the absence of societal pressure, you become free to, as Oscar Wilde said, “be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” If children can retain their wonder at a swallowtail butterfly unfurling its tongue to draw up nectar from a patch of queen anne’s lace, perhaps they will learn to speak for the voiceless, the disenfranchised, or at least their curiosity will never be dulled. And, I believe the real-life allure of a butterfly will outlast the siren song of a violent video game.

I believe children need people in their lives who truly see them, encouraging their endeavors and passions, without judgment (while holding back on praise, which can actually inhibit the courage to follow your passion). It may look like your child is just snapping Legos together, but really she’s practicing spatial awareness, focusing, innovation, geometry, architecture, and construction. Children need time to enjoy being in the flow of their current passion, even if you can’t map that passion on a career counselor’s chart.

I believe children need empathy for their feelings, all their feelings. The other day, Col said, about something I had asked him to do, “but it’s so hard.” And I snapped back, “no it’s not.” And while putting away clothes, a regular chore around here, seems pretty easy, I wish I had said, “putting away clothes feels hard to you, huh? You wish you didn’t have to do it.” (Of course he still has to do it, empathy is not fixing, it is acknowledging). It never feels good to have someone negate or belittle your feelings, especially when they’re of the most difficult variety: guilt, jealousy, shame, sorrow, the feelings that we’ll end up stuffing and numbing if we don’t belief it’s safe to seek support.

It’s not easy to veer off the path that mainstream media (or your internal critic) suggests you should be following. I have quarterly talks with myself about remembering to celebrate my son’s talents and wisdom, his compassion for others, his insatiable curiosity, his natural, personalized development, even when academically he may look “behind” his peers. There is no race, and besides, enjoying the ride seems more important than winning.

What are your strategies for raising emotionally-healthy, happy, resilient children?

ps: it seems all your e-mail subscriptions have been restored, despite some of you re-subscribing in the interim. So, feel free to delete any redundancies. xo

* I can’t believe how I just titled this post. This is so not that kind of blog. I mean 3 ways to eat broccoli leaves, yes, or 3  DIY ferments to make while you’re trying to homeschool the feral youth, sure. Well, anyway…


41 Responses leave one →
  1. Jamie Gustine permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Perfect timing. Thank you.

  2. Michele permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Inter generational experiences. Have them around old people and babies as much as possible. Always something to learn.

  3. Erin permalink
    January 16, 2013

    I’m happy to be here. thank you for writing.

  4. Ed Oak permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Im right there with you Rachel on the unstructured outdoor time. As a kid I demanded it! We definitely all respond WELL to being seen for who we are, additionally, I would say that some adults are better at giving kids room to be KIDS then others. We need to value the amazing gifts and insight that all kids bring to the world. Also agree about withholding praise, trying to wrap my head around that one, I’m sure that there’s a time and place for it? Or is it better to just let the accomplishment speak for itself?
    Although Drew is out on his own, running wild and free on the streets of Durango, I am living in a house with a 7 yr old and a 9 yr old so kids are still part of my life . . .

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      January 16, 2013

      Ed, I love your thoughts here. Yes, all kids bring amazing gifts and insight to the world. As for praise, this has been super counter-intuitive for me, and requiring a lot of practice.

      What I try with my kids is to “see and acknowledge” them. When Rose taught herself to swim, instead of saying, “good job!” I say, “look at you! you’re swimming now! you just taught yourself to swim!” I am beaming and maybe shouting a little because she is so excited. It feels a little weird to state the obvious, but it acknowledges their pleasure at their accomplishment. When Col shows me his latest drawing of a ship, I say, “I see that there are 50 portholes, wow, that’s a lot, who are in those rooms looking out? What is the cannon for?

      I don’t think kids want to hear “good job” anyway. Whenever Dan says, “good article, honey,” it sounds sort of bland and dismissive. If he says, “I liked this line, where you said xyz,” then I know he is really seeing my work.

      xo to you, Ed!

  5. Melissa permalink
    January 16, 2013

    But Rachel, this is shaping up to be *that* kind of blog, too! Go with it! You have much wisdom to share. And you write so beautifully about the process in an honest and refreshing way.

    We believe in the power of repair. Of acknowledging when we make mistakes. It’s humbling and also such good modeling. We also believe in asking for professional help when needed. I’ve had really wonderful consultation lately and it’s been so helpful.

    A little story: we scored a free table and chairs for Avi on out way out of school the other day (thank you, universe!) and he was so psyched to put it in his room and then declared, “everything needs its place!” and proceeded to organize his toys. I asked if he wanted my help and he said “sure Mama, come into my room with me!” and proceeded to direct me about where things should go. I really believe kids need to have some say about things and if we can follow their lead about certain things, it usually turns out okay.

    Xo to all of you, and ps. Things may be a changing over here…

  6. Sheryl Lock permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Thanks Rachel!
    I try my best to be empathic to their feelings “most of the time” : )
    This morning I had a tough one. My son, Nils, has a fashion crisis just about every morning.
    He has his favorite pants and his favorite shirt and that is all he wants to wear- ever.
    Well they get dirty. Yesterday and then again today because we wanted him to wear something different- he cried and cried that he didn’t want to go to school cause he didn’t look good.
    Are you kidding me? jeans and a tshirt. most boys favorite. I bought him two new pairs of pants like his favorite for Christmas but they turned out a bit too big when he put them on. Do you think I let him only wear that one set of clothes? I’m not the type to go buy new clothes when he already has plenty of them. I took him out the door crying, but by the time we got on the trolly he was over it and I was left feeling terrible.
    What would you do? Anyone?

    • Sheryl Lock permalink
      January 16, 2013

      I should mention that his favorite clothes are black sweat pants and a turtleneck.

      • Rachel Turiel permalink
        January 16, 2013

        Oh Sheryl, that’s going to be tough when it warms up. :)

        I would ask Nils what he thinks should be done. I’m sure it’s clear that keeping his 2 preferred clothing items always clean and ready is beyond even a kick-ass Mama like yourself. Maybe if you come to him with no agenda, just an open loving heart, and a pen and paper to write down ideas, he will see that his opinion and ideas matter to you, and that he has the power to make decisions about his own life, and you trust him to do this and do it well. Sometimes kids that have rigid ideas about something are testing out needs for power and control because they don’t feel they have enough.

        And (God, I know this is hard when you have a trolley to catch and you can’t be late, but maybe clothes can be figured out the night before), try a huge dose of empathy. “Nils, you really really want to wear the sweat pants and turtle neck. You like how you look in those. You don’t want to wear anything else.” Hold him while he cries and cries. Maybe you’ll learn why he doesn’t think he looks good otherwise. Did a kid say something to him about another outfit? And then, once he seems to have expressed his feelings, all of them, which could take awhile, you turn to solutions. “Okay. So the clothes you love are dirty. What should we do?” Write down the ideas, or have him write them down, and tack them up somewhere that he can see and remember.

        Col, recently made a stink about wearing a plum colored snowsuit to school, the same one he had worn all weekend, playing with several different friends. I couldn’t understand it. It’s more dark, dusky purple than bright purple and he hadn’t said a word all weekend. Not a word. And suddenly he wouldn’t go to school. Well, turns out he thought some of the boys would tease him about it. I gave him empathy (as much as I could muster 10 minutes before school starts!) and the option to skip the snowsuit and not be able to play in the snow that day. He wore the snowsuit and has everyday since.

        Love you!

    • Anonymous permalink
      January 17, 2013

      I just gotta say that after watching “It Takes a Thief” in 1st grade I bullied my mom into buying me a black turtleneck too! That was in 1965! I guess they’re in again :-)

  7. January 16, 2013

    Nice piece. Splendid insights. Thanks for sharing. And don’t fret the how-to delivery — it’s the right tool for the job. We all appreciate things laid out neatly on our intellectual table sometimes.

  8. January 16, 2013

    I think you nailed it. There are indeed very few “steps”; more like “spaces” which allow a very natural, more than human, way of growing unfold. Fantastic post. Thanks

  9. January 16, 2013

    My father thought I was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. And he let me know it. My parents were a disaster in a lot of ways, (alcoholism, divorce when I was 4, undiagnosed depression, multiple marriages). It wasn’t an easy childhood, and it took me a while to find my own center/balance as an adult. But that core knowledge that someone had loved me unconditionally when I was small, had celebrated my presence on this earth, had instilled in me the belief that there was nothing unavailable to me just because I was a girl, not by saying it, but by his actions…it carried me through. Because ultimately, I believed in myself because of it. And once I remembered that, it was OK to move forward, even though I was scared. I have huge compassion for people who didn’t have this in their lives growing up, and yet are still trying to be self aware fully functioning adults. So love, once again, is the answer. Love, even when you make mistakes. Love, even when you say the wrong thing in the moment. XO.

  10. January 16, 2013

    Tell them, even to the point where it makes them roll their eyes, that you love them. Even when, maybe especially when, you are angry with them. So many times I say “I’m so angry right now and I don’t like the way you just behaved, but I love YOU very much.” It reinforces that there is nothing they could do that would cause you to ever stop loving them, and encourages them to always, always share things with you. If you ever are met with a “I hate you!” respond with a, “I’m so sorry to hear that, because I sure love you.” It disarms them and reminds them that you are always there.

  11. Ellie permalink
    January 16, 2013

    New reader here, and so enjoying your blog…the style, the honesty, the content. I have a 6-year old boy and a 3-year old girl, and all your thoughts on raising children sound just about spot-on right to me. We live in the SF Bay, where so much natural beauty abounds and yet so few people take advantage of it. If I had a choice, I’d move to some place a lot LESS populated, but even here, it saddens me to see how few children spend time outside in an unstructured way. Also, I teach high school, and I see the effects of misdirected/excessive praise every single day–kids who are addicted to praise and need praise in order to feel good about themselves, kids for whom no activity has intrinsic value, and kids whose umbilical cord is tied to distorted images of personal worth and self-esteem derived from the popular media.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      January 17, 2013


      Thank you for your comment. As a (recovering) praise-junkie myself, I can totally relate. In fact, my own struggles with teasing apart the value of my work from the praise it receives is a huge motivator turning the praise dial WAY down with my children. Also, you might be one of those people who are subscribed 3 times!


  12. January 16, 2013

    yes, yes, yes. that would be three resounding YES yawps for your three bullet points.

  13. January 16, 2013

    Oh this is beautiful. It’s so insightful it needs a *high brow* title:)
    Play and the space to be free and creative. The power of choice and routine. Wow, you touched on so much of it. I love having our girls around people who love my children like their own, who parent in familiar paths. It strengthens their idea of support.
    And, “Children need time to enjoy being in the flow of their current passion, even if you can’t map that passion on a career counselor’s chart.” Yes.
    So well done.

  14. January 16, 2013

    Three wonderful things! I would add simple honesty and a good amount of whimsy.

    And in terms of rituals, I think it’s they can be amazingly powerful. I read molded in the Image of Changing Woman in college (it’s about Navaho rituals for girls), and think you might like it.

  15. kelsey permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Every time I visit your space I take something away. Thank you for today’s post!

  16. January 16, 2013

    As the mother of three boys, I agree.
    – getting them outside as much as possible
    – three boys create a lot of energy so mine do a lot of sport, which also links them into community
    – tuning them into the cycles of nature and the other creatures in their world
    – showing gratitude for what we have (saying ‘grace’, talking about where our food comes from and all of the elements that brought it to our table)
    – talking to them about responsible ways of being so we don’t have as much impact on our environment (including “yes, I know you like the taste of those biscuits but they have palm oil in them and that is bad on so many levels)
    – constantly reminding them of how what they say and do affects other people’s feelings, thoughts, and actions
    – my husband is big on teaching them respect for women
    – when they are playing rough, “no” and “stop” mean exactly that
    – the importance of teamwork
    – acknowledging their feelings
    – and being a good role model and a reflective parent – they are watching YOU!

    • January 16, 2013

      Oh, and one more thing – no gender stereotyping. It’s absolutely OK to play with dolls and prams, to like arts and crafts, and drink from a pink cup.

      • Rachel Turiel permalink
        January 17, 2013

        yes yes yes! We have 2 carseats in the back of our car, one pink and flowered, one solid black. The kids used to feel pretty strongly that one belonged to each of them, and now they just get in whichever is most convenient. When I see Col in the pink, flowered seat, I feel like invisible and harmful barriers have been shattered.

  17. January 16, 2013

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you wrote, and am trying to raise my little man keeping these same things in mind. Great post!

  18. Chris permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Chiming in on unstructured time outside – YES! I’m dumbfounded (and dismayed) that this is the distinguishing feature of my sons’ lives when compared to their peers.

    I’m guessing a lot of parents give up too soon on this or have had too little experience with being outside themselves to recognize what a difference it can make. It does often require some fortitude. Even my sons, who’ve spent great swathes of time outdoors in the dirt, messing around with water, making up games, bushwhacking instead of staying on the trail – they often moan and object and drag their feet when I announce we’re going out (or they’re going out), but only once in hundreds of times have their initial objections not been overcome by the whole sensory experience of being outdoors. Even in the cold, even in the heat. Even the 12 year old who thinks he’d rather be holed up in his room listening to music (he’s often the first one to admit that it was fun being out).

    There’s much more to raising healthy kids as your blog illustrates so well – but I’m convinced that this is the single easiest change parents could make to relieve stress and achieve more balance and joy in family life. Your family reflections and photos bring me back here again and again – it was such a relief to stumble across another family who spends significant time outdoors, even if you are several states away from us!

  19. January 16, 2013

    Thanks for this, Rachel. Time outside is *key*. It is the magic, cure-all drug. Also, I like what Hakea said : )

  20. Caraway permalink
    January 17, 2013

    Thank you Rachel for great reminders!!! Now how do make peace with myself when I forget the empathy or lavish praise on them that I am later afraid has stunted their self esteem? Often I know what to do, but doing it in practice when I’m caught off guard and it’s a new situation is sometimes difficult. :-)
    I’m really appreciating your blog, and missing you guys!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      January 17, 2013

      Then, you forgive yourself, you remind yourself that you are a stellar mother, you’re doing your best, and your children will be absolutely fine.

      (I have to literally rein myself in—the wild bucking horse of me—the one that wants to shout, “Col, your painting is SOOOOO amazing! I love it! You are incredible!” to say something like, “look at all those colors you chose, I see multi-color lava erupting out of the blue volcano cone.”

      And then I faint from the restraint of it all. But I believe it’s still the right thing to do.

      • January 18, 2013

        Oh I agree about the praise and how difficult it is to rein in. And also how easy to say ‘it’s great’ and avoid taking the time to really examine. How often I am guilty of this! Now my kids have a new standard; ‘will you put it on your blog?’ I don’t want this to be the default maternal tick of approval…

  21. January 17, 2013

    I am hanging on to your every word. You’re my hero, you know that right?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      January 20, 2013

      Oh Justine, I typically write about what I need to hear. You know? I haven’t mastered any of this, just an eager student myself. xoxo

  22. January 17, 2013

    you’ve got so much to offer in this area. your post title, or content, should not alarm anyone, any more than the ones about pee fertilizer and elk butchering. it’s obvious to anyone who is paying attention that you have a knack for this whole healthy whole child raising thing. we are lucky to have you in our lives, rachel. xoxo

  23. January 18, 2013


    The only thing to add is oodles of patience when they decide they want to learn to cook, which does not necessarily include learning to clean the kitchen after they use every thing they can find.

  24. Molly permalink
    January 18, 2013

    We are practicing 15 minutes a day of play. There are no rules for my girl, pretty much. For me the rules are no correcting or directing. We’re finding out what’s left, when I leave that out. Praise is a kind of direction. I can narrate, and share her delight. I experience this as fun, and also like a game of bumper cars, where the other bumper cars are full of my controlling impulses. I’m doing this because I talk to late adolescents for a living, and I know how parental good intentions and nice kids can be not really enough, sometimes. Also, sometimes when I think about how to respond to her, I try to picture how I want her to respond to me when I’m old and, though wise, more prone to drool, spill, forget, and not follow simple directions.

  25. January 19, 2013

    i’m gonna go ahead and 2nd mb’s thoughts about luck – amen.
    and as fer the raising up of the boy children – space and total acceptance of Feelings. the knowledge that *all* Feelings are utterly valid – even the big, scary, ugly ones, the ones that look like rage and venom and (gasp) even hatred. i have to say to him, “*FEEL* those feelings, kid. Feel Them. they are there and they are welcome and i love and respect them, all of them – even the not-so-easy ones. even the big ones – because they are a part of *you.* and i love and respect *you* and alla yer parts. Feel Those Feelings.”
    the tricky part is what we *do* with those feelings. all feelings are valid and respected in our household – the thing we need to be aware of is how the Expression of those feelings manifests itself. hurting yerself or other people to express is not ok. being destructrive to things not there specifically for the purpose of being destroyed is not ok.
    the trick, i think, is to have a myriad of options for fierce expression that *are* ok – stomping feet, yelling loudly, rocking, biting a stuffed animal, ripping up paper, being held, doing a “wiggle-waggle” dance, making faces, etc.
    and then maybe these boys of ours can express the anger that they are experiencing, and dig deeper to the root feeling (fear. sadness.) and have a safe place to express that, too. all the while learning that feelings are fluid and valid, no matter what, and that there are plenty of available and safe actions to express those feelings.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      January 19, 2013

      I am hugging this comment because I love it so much.

  26. January 21, 2013

    Yes! Your three points are close to my mama heart. I love what you said in a comment above about being an eager student and writing what you need to hear as I can very much relate. And I am thankful you write what you need to hear because it is often what I need to hear as well. This is why I come here. Thanks for the inspiration, support and encouragement. xo

    • January 21, 2013

      Also thinking about a few beliefs that work well for our family; some continuations on your thoughts…

      * allowing kids to figure stuff out on their own, to *really* try it and then help when they ask for help (instead of “helping” which is often hurrying something along to meet our own impatience like tying shoes or opening a jar or buckling a car seat or opening a door…)

      * speaking in positive statements. This works so well for us! We talk about what we want, how we want to feel, what we can do, what kind of friend we want to be (instead of what we don’t want/can’t do etc). I watch my kids shift their emotional state just through language use. The real power in positive thinking.

  27. January 23, 2013


    Alas, I wish it weren’t so hard for me (sans yard) to create opportunities for unstructured time outdoors!

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