Tag Archives: children

How Laura Ingalls Wilder Got a Rebel To Learn His Lessons

I’m a huge fan of children’s literature (in fact, I’m in three reading groups where we read children’s and young-adult literature), and Laura Ingalls Wilder has always had a special place in my heart.

So I was thrilled when I found out that her book Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, was being published. I raced through the book last week; so fascinating. For instance, it turns out Nellie Olsen was an amalgam of three annoying girls.

I was particularly struck, however, when I read a scene that also appears in These Happy Golden Years. Which I know like the back of my hand, by the way.

Laura is fifteen years old, and teaching school, where one of her pupils is Clarence. He’s older than Laura, very smart; “he was quick in speaking and moving…[and] had a way of speaking that was almost saucy.” He misbehaves occasionally, but the bigger issue is that after the first few days, that he refuses to study, and tells her “It’s no use trying to learn such long lessons.”

Laura is frustrated, because she knows that he could learn the lessons if he tried, but he won’t.

When Laura asks her parents for advice, Ma says, “It’s attention he wants.” Now that I’ve figured out the Four Tendencies, I disagree. I think Ma was nearer the mark when she also observes, “Better not try to make him do anything, because you can’t.” (If you want to read about the Four Tendencies–Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel, or take the Quiz to determine your own Tendency, go here.)

From the description, I’d say that Clarence is a Rebel. He can’t stand for someone to tell him that he must do something; when he hears this, he resists, even though he’s a smart kid who wants to learn.

But when Laura changes her approach, he changes.

When Laura gives others their assignments, she tell him, “This doesn’t mean you, Clarence; it would make your lesson far too long…How much do you think you can learn? Would three [pages] be too much?”

In this way, she does two things. First, she leaves the choice to Clarence, and gives him freedom. Rebels want to act from choice and freedom.

Second, for Rebels, the impulse “I’ll show you!” is often very strong. They tend to respond to a challenge. When she suggests that he can’t master three pages, he thinks, “I’ll show her.”

The Pioneer Girl version shows this dynamic even more dramatically. There, Laura reports that she said, “‘Is that too long Clarance? Perhaps it is and better take only to here. I really don’t think you could learn so far as I first said,’ and he would exclaim, ‘Oh yes I can teacher.’ He had now gotten to the point where he would add a little more to my first suggestion and learn it too, to prove that he could.”

Within a week, Clarence has caught up to the other pupils.  He studied at night to master the material.

It’s very useful to understand the Four Tendencies, because Rebels — and Upholders, Questioners, and Obligers — really have very different perspectives on the world. If we want to be persuasive, if we want to work and live harmoniously with other people, it’s helpful to understand their ways of seeing things.

Ah, how I love Laura Ingalls Wilder! The end of my book Happier at Home is an homage to her and her brilliant work. Of everything I’ve ever written, I must say, the last few pages of Happier at Home are definitely among my favorites.

Have you ever found a way to communicate with someone — so that a point of conflict vanished? It’s not easy to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

“Replying Too Quickly to Emails Is a Rotten Habit of Mine.”

Habits interview: Jennifer Senior.

I’ve long been a big fan of Jennifer Senior’s writing in New York magazine — for instance, she recently published a fascinating piece, To the Office, With Love: What Do We Give Up When We All Become Freedom-Seeking, Self-Determining, Autonomous Entrepreneurs? A Lot, Actually.

Jennifer has also written a terrific, thought-provoking book (which by the way has an absolutely brilliant title): All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. So many books tackle the question of how parents affect their children — but this book examines how children affect their parents.  Which they do, dramatically.

All Joy and No Fun just came out in paperback, so that seemed like a good time to ask Jennifer some questions about her habits.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Jennifer: It can be really awkward to talk about this, but new parenthood, I’ve discovered, often derails our habits for a while. Even having young kids can do it. I hear this a lot from parents: I used to read/go to the gym every morning/cook Thai three nights a week before my kids came along. It feels vaguely heretical to discuss it, because if we admit as much, it sounds like we’re blaming our kids—My life was so swell before you came along! You’ve upended my life! But of course they’ve added something immeasurably huge to our lives. We’re psychotically, madly in love with them (and have never known this kind of love before); they give us a vectored sense of purpose. They’ve just left us a bit confused about how to reapportion our time. Three days ago, after giving a talk, I was chatting with this lovely woman who said, more or less: I haven’t read a single book since my kid was born. And I replied: And I haven’t gone swimming in over two months. (Her kid, at least, was two. Mine is seven.) I thought my evening swims were pretty well established in my life. But I swam at just the hour I now come home from work to make sure I see my son. My body just doesn’t seem to enjoy swimming at any other time of day. What I’ve discovered when talking to parents—at least of young kids—is that we all temporarily lose something. The trick is not to judge ourselves too harshly for it, and to have faith that it will come back, or at the very least to think imaginatively about ways to partially get it back. Partial may have to suffice for now. (You talk about this a lot in your work: Focus on making things *better,* not on total perfection.)

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I gained and lost a healthy habit, which stands out to me as both a sunshiny beacon of hope—I can do it!—and a grim little monument to my own failure (How on Earth did you let that slip away?) It was this: For one glorious year, I meditated. Every day, twice a day, twenty minutes each time. It was the. Greatest. Thing. Ever. My sleep improved in ways I’d dared not hope for, at least as an adult. I was less reactive around my kid. I had more perspective around adults. I had more energy. Less twingy-annoying aches and pains. I should also emphasize how weird it was that I meditated in the first place: If the human body is made up of quadrillions of molecules, about six of mine are prone to New Age solutions to everyday anxieties. You have to show me several thousand peer-reviewed Western medical journals before I start contemplating such a thing. The literature on meditation convinced me—meditation isn’t New Age anyway, but thousands of years old—but then I went and did something extremely counterproductive: I Googled my mantra. You are, needless to say, not supposed to do anything of the sort. It sounds like the kind of thing Larry David would do. No good can come of it, and no good did. Once I’d Googled, I’d crossed some invisible Rubicon, because I read just enough stuff about TM to make me feel queasy about it—even though it was helping me. Enormously. I mean, at that point, it truly shouldn’t have mattered. Yet it did.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ooooh, I have an answer for this, though I warn you now: It’s very trivial. But you did ask for something simple, so here goes: I love making healthy smoothies in the morning. They’re virtue in a cup! If I do nothing right all day long, I have at least started my day with the soothing ritual of peeling ginger and stripping kale away from its veins and throwing flax seeds into a blender, as if I were tossing rice at bride. And then I drink the whole mess, which means I’ve had at least one healthy meal.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Yes. I tend to classify too many things in my mind as “urgent”—work in particular—which gets in the way of my ability to regularize activities that are healthier and more fun. (Exercise being a particularly good example: I somehow think, I can always swim tomorrow, but I’m so behind on this thing I have to write/research/reply to that I’d better do it NOW.) I think lots of parents do this, working mothers in particular. It takes a lot of discipline to remember that minute-to-minute stuff is just that, STUFF, not a crisis. As a corollary to this problem: I’d say that replying too quickly to emails is a rotten habit of mine. So is checking them too frequently. All of us do this, but because I’m not much of a dopamine fiend—I’m not a big drinker or gambler or anything-elser—this must be how I get my fix. (It does not help, I should add, that my desk is in my bedroom. For this, I blame New York City real estate. Our place doesn’t have enough rooms for me to have a separate office at home.) Many parents talk to me about this too—again, with great guilt. They feel like they’re scanning their emails when they should be hanging out with their kids. I think all of us would benefit from better habits around this stuff, but we have to forgive ourselves too. As Sherry Turkle from MIT likes to say, “Just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up.” We haven’t yet developed a set of norms about when to reply to emails. They also come intermittently, which, as we know from B.F. Skinner’s work with rats, is the single most satisfying reward schedule to our brains. It’s hard to resist checking our inboxes, knowing that something marvelous could appear in there at any time.

This said, I went on an email sabbatical this summer — by which I mean I stopped checking my email in the evenings and on weekends — and it was a revelation. Perfect in every way. I’m going to try to institute the evening rule again.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

An Obliger, no question. For better and for worse. [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, the Quiz is here.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Interesting: I never thought of myself as a person with many habits. I don’t think I resist having them so much as fail to develop them in the first place, if you know what I mean. Some people are more reactive when it comes to life, particularly us Obligers—if something happens that we need to accommodate, we accommodate it. I’ve also never been a person who craved structure—I’m strikingly oblivious to pandemonium, and I’m perfectly delighted to keep things loose at all times (and this is probably good for parenting)—but I suspect habits would make me far happier, because I’m almost stupidly happy when someone supplies a routine for me. (And kids love routines. So that, too, is great for parenting.) It’s just not an Obliger’s instinct to actively seek one out, as you know.

“Do the Most Important Thing of the Day First Thing in the Morning.”

Happiness and habits interview: Debbie Stier.

I got to know Debbie when she was working in book publishing, because she was one of the first people to go deep into the question of how online tools could help authors connect with readers.

We became friends, and when she started The Perfect Score Project, I followed her progress with delight on her blog. I love a project, I love Debbie’s approach to the world, and I was fascinated by her undertaking — to try to connect better with her teenage children through the SAT, and in the process, figure out the SAT.

Her book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, just came out. It’s wonderful — a great read, even if you don’t care about the SAT, it’s just so much fun — and has been getting a crazy amount of buzz, from The New Yorker to the Today show.

Debbie thought a lot about habits during her work on The Perfect Score Project, so I was interested to hear what she’d learned.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Debbie: Making my bed (hehe). Seriously, I read about “making the bed” in The Happiness Project, and I’ve made my bed every day since then.  Honestly,  it really does make me happier.

“Outer order means inner order,” as my agent, Lisa Gallagher, likes to say!

And of course, the big “E.” There is no denying that I feel consistently happier when I exercise. I shoot for 7 days a week and usually end up with 5.  Three of those 5 are “real” exercise, and two are “phone ins.”  The correlation is unmistakeable: the more I exercise, the better I feel. Period.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Do the most important thing of the day first thing in the morning.

I like to exercise in the morning because if I don’t do it then, my day can very easily slip away, and then I don’t do it at all.  And/or, those times when I leave exercising until nighttime are the “phone in” workouts. I don’t push myself at night.

The problem is that I also find morning to be best time for “the brain juice.” So, if I need to get something written or to deep think, I really hate to waste the best brain juice at the gym.

Bottom line: priorities change.  Mornings are reserved for those things I deem to be most important.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Not that I can think of! The closest I can come is, “staying up too late.”  I shoot to be in bed by 11 p.m., but the truth is, I’m rarely in bed before 1 a.m. (eek), and since I’m a “morning person,” this doesn’t leave me with enough sleep.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.).

Watching 1-2 episodes of a funny sitcom right before bed with my kids.  We never end the day without watching a funny show together — ever. I find it to be good for the spirit to laugh together, right before bedtime.

At least 6 hours per night of sleep.

I try to eat healthy food. I’d say I’m about 75% successful!

Exercise!  I get in shape fast … and I get out of shape twice as fast.

And everything feels bad when I’m not in shape (i.e. clothes, mood, etc.).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Oh goodness, I’m always going in and out of habits. If I really want to make something happen, it goes on the #1-priority-when-I wake-up list.

The other trick I’ve used to get myself back into exercise is to buy nice gym clothes. I know, that sounds shallow, but if I have exercise clothes that I’m excited to wear, I’m more likely to do it.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

TOO HARD FOR ME TO ANSWER THIS BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE ALL OF THEM! [For what it’s worth, I think Debbie is a Questioner.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties).

My inability to say no.  I’m a knee–jerk “yes” person, which means I over-extend.  I end every day feeling unaccomplished when the truth is that I usually accomplish a lot, but I bit off more than I could chew.

Also, I usually underestimate how long something will take to do.  I’m bad at estimating time.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Not that I can think of.

I’ve made many changes as a result of reading a book or conversations with friends, but I can’t think of any “flash” changes.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I love habits (at least in theory).  I spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to maximize my life, searching for life hacks, etc. I’m obsessed with squeezing every drop out of every experience, so I’m always on the hunt for new systems and habits that’ll streamline.

Also, I love seeing and hearing about other people’s systems and habits.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Catherine Johnson (blogger: Kitchen Table Math and co-author with Temple Grandin of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior)!  She is “the queen of the system.”  You should visit her at her house and have her show you her systems – she is extraordinary and GREAT at “habits.”  One of my all-time favorite activities is to have Catherine tell me about her systems.

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Before and After: Use Self-Observation to See What the Triggers Are.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Kelly Pietrangeli.

I used to have a very bad habit of shouting at my kids. (The irony of shouting at my kids to “stop shouting” was not lost on me.) I knew I needed to stop, but counting to 10 and taking deep breaths never worked for me. I needed to find some kind of strategy that would actually work.


I decided the first step was to talk to my kids and tell them I wanted to change this habit. I promised them that if I ever shouted I’d have to apologise. I don’t like to apologise so this was a real biggie for me.


Next I went into self-observation mode for a few days to see what my typical triggers were. I noticed I’m short fused when I’m tired first thing in the morning and at end of the day and that being on time for school or activities made me edgy and more prone to outbursts. Knowing that I have more patience at some times than others made me see that often it wasn’t their behaviour that ’caused’ me to lose my rag, but it was my own problem.


I don’t tolerate winging, complaining or being uncooperative, but I created a mantra: “My child is not BEING a problem, my child is HAVING a problem.” This helped me to reframe the situation and come at it from a better angle.


I then read Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham.


Dr. Markham tells us that if we really want to stop yelling, it’s completely possible – no matter how ingrained it is. It’s not rocket science and takes about 3 months once you’ve made the commitment.


This is the best book I’ve ever read for helping me understand myself and my children better.


Becoming a former Shout-a-holic was not an easy process for me and I slipped up a lot in the beginning, but I chose to persevere. I still have my occasional shouty moments, but they happen rarely now instead of daily. (Hourly!)


It really came down to self-awareness and a deep determination to change. I am incredibly proud of the new me!

In Before and After, I call this the Strategy of Foundation. We do a lot better job sticking to our good habits, I believe, when our foundation is strong. That means making sure we get enough sleep, that we’re not too hungry, that we’re not rushed or overwhelmed by dealing with clutter or lost items.

I also write a lot about this kind of issue in Happier at Home: when I’m happier, my family is happier, so I need to take the steps that help me to stay calm, attentive, and tender-hearted.

How about you? Have you worked on your foundation, and found that it helped your habits?

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“The Things That Have Made Me Most Happy Started Out as Challenges I Wasn’t Sure I Could Handle.”

Happiness interview: Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest.

Two friends of mine have just come out with a terrific book, Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less. It’s particularly thrilling for me to hold this book in my hands, because I remember talking to them about it when it was still just the beginning of an idea they were playing with. And here it is, out in the world.

It’s a great guide for anyone who wants to have a happy home life, by keeping things simple, calm, and in tune with family values.

Asha is the force behind the terrific site Parent Hacks — “forehead-smackingly smart tips that help you simplify family life, save money, and have fun.” Christine is the founder and editor of Boston Mamas – “a lifestyle portal for families in Boston and beyond.”

I wanted to ask them both about their thoughts on happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Christine: Running or some kind of physical activity. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to get out there (I don’t do the “dreadmill” so I’ve run in temperatures as low as 8 degrees this winter…eep!) and sometimes I drag a little when I’m out there, but I always feel happy when I’m done. Also, sleeping. Man, do I love sleeping.

Asha: Walking my dog always makes me happy. The combo of fresh air, seasonal change, dog antics and snippets of neighborhood conversation never fails to cheer me up. In the department of “not thrilled while doing it, but extremely happy with results,” processing the mail and paperwork on my desk. I dread it, and the pile of paper makes me anxious while it’s sitting there, but when I’m done I feel this rush of creative energy. Sometimes I find an uncashed check in the pile!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Asha: That happiness is more a mindset choice than a response to specific events. Yes, I’m happy when good things happen, but I also know that, when I’m in a “life dip” and am naturally feeling down, that I won’t be there forever.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Christine: I have a tendency to devote too much bandwidth to the (bad or questionable, in my opinion) behavior of other people. The best advice I ever got from my therapist was that you can’t control other people’s behavior, only how you react to the behavior. Repeating that mantra has helped me enormously time and time again; I now can let go of things more quickly.

Asha: Staying up too late (it torpedoes my patience!), and procrastinating about mundane household jobs.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? 

Christine: Doing something with my hands, such as crafting or baking. In January I set intentions to do more hands-on creative projects and spend more one on one time with my 8-year-old Laurel (who often gets the short end of the attention stick these days because of her sometimes demanding toddler sister Violet). I decided to block out Thursdays afternoons while Violet is in day care to be Thursdays with Laurel (I literally put it in my calendar as a recurring event so I wouldn’t schedule work things in that window). Because Laurel loves art projects, we end up crafting a lot. It is the ultimate happiness boost to shut off the computer and craft and chat with Laurel on Thursday afternoons.

Asha: Curling up with my family and watching favorite movies. The Lord of the Rings series (extended edition, plus all the extras) has a particular tonic effect!

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Christine: I am, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been right now. In general, I’m a very cheerful person but my childhood was challenging and at times very stressful. And then just as I was leaving home for college, I became involved in an emotionally abusive relationship that unfortunately persisted for several years. I also spent 10 years in an academic career that I ultimately found myself very unhappy in. But now…my husband Jon is a gem – he’s unconditionally supportive and loving and he challenges me to process my history, which is necessary to move forward. And I’ve been calling the shots on my professional work ever since I left academia in 2006. And I have two wonderful, healthy kids. And friends + family + fantastic burritos and pastries in striking distance + so many good things. I feel so blessed.

Asha: My childhood and early adult years were amazingly happy. Looking back, I think it was partially a result my temperament (I’ve been called obnoxiously optimistic) and partially because those years were relatively stress-free. I sometimes think I grew up when I became a mother, because with that experience came both overwhelming joys and challenges. The early years of motherhood were some of the hardest of my life, and YET they have left me with a sense of confidence and humility and gratitude that has directly contributed to where I am now. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier or more thankful. And now I’m craving a burrito.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

Christine: My happiest place in my house right now is my bed. I’m not even kidding. And this is a recent development because finally, after dragging my heels for over a decade, I finally replaced our tired old bedding and bought a beautiful quilt + shams that I love. After a childhood of tight finances and then spending so many years as an academic indentured servant, sometimes I resist spending money on certain things, particularly if they don’t seem absolutely essential (as in, who else is going to see my tired old bedding?) and even if they’re not particularly expensive. Jon was the one who finally said, “You deserve to sleep under a bedspread that makes you happy. Don’t just look at the Target sale section; pick something you love first and then we can look at the price tag.” Just another reason I love that man.

Asha: The gas “log” in our living room fireplace. It doesn’t matter that it’s essentially a fake fire, with fake wood and fake “glowing coals.” Sitting there, watching it flicker and feeling its warmth, while listening to music and doing my work or hanging out with Rael and the kids…it’s heavenly.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Asha: It’s ironic — the things that have made me the most happy started out as challenges I wasn’t sure I could handle at the time.

Anything else you would like to say?

Christine: My gratitude. To you for your friendship and inspiration. To your readers for being committed towards being happier, reading this interview, and opening their minds to change. I hope your readers will consider Minimalist Parenting – it was such a joy to write this book with Asha and we truly hope it helps people create degrees of freedom in their life.

Asha: I would just add that there are so many “right” ways to parent and find happiness. What I love most about your happiness discoveries is your first commandment: to Be Gretchen. The first step toward minimalist parenting (and happiness) is to know – and be – your true self.

Gretchen: Awww, thanks you two! Congratulations again.