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One Way to Kill Happiness: Chase It

I came across this quote the other day; it’s from Eric Hoffer: “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” It immediately struck me as being absolutely true. It also resonated with a book I read a number of years ago: Happiness is a Serious Problem by Dennis Prager.

I wonder how many folks would change their striving if they believed that Hoffer and Prager were on target. I’m talking about those folks who say they will be happy after they get a raise, or get a better job, or get married, or get divorced, and on and on. It just doesn’t work like that. How many people have pretty much everything … and are miserable with it?

In their book, The Second Force, Gary and Pat Emery say this: “Learning to be happy is like training a bird to sit on your shoulder. You have to let the happiness come to you rather than chase after it.” They also add, “Happiness is a discovery without a search.”

I LIKE that!

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064

September 29, 2011 Posted by | Healthy living, Inspirational, Self-esteem | , , , , | Leave a comment

Esperanza: Hope is Alive and Well!

Most of us would avoid long stands in the direct sun if we could. But not the Esperanza plants in my back yard. They say, “Bring it on, the more, the better!” Here’s a picture of them.

I love the bumper crop of bright yellow flowers against the deep green of the leaves, and I also love what the word Esperanza means in Spanish: Hope.

These Esperanzas are thriving in south Texas temperatures that topped 100 degrees every single day for months. As long as they’re watered, they’ll grow close to 20 feet in a single season. (I’m no plant expert, but I believe that my Esperanza plants are so tall because they want to get out of the shade. There’s hardly a bloom on them until they grow taller than the fence and then some. They WANT the sun.

When a freeze comes, however, the Esperanzas are the first to go; I cut them down even with the ground every winter. And yet, when spring, they start their climb once more. Why? Well, because they have awesome roots that hold fast, cold or hot.

These Esperanza plants can teach us a very important lesson: If you are rooted well, you know who you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. With strong roots a little care, you can grow and grow and grow. Adversity not only causes you to grow even more, it can even uncover hidden blessings and opportunity.

Hope is alive and well. Grow, Esperanzas, grow!

James Sutton, Psychologist

September 26, 2011 Posted by | adversity, family, Inspirational, Self-esteem, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gaining Compliance Through Balance

GAINING COMPLIANCE THROUGH BALANCE: Here’s an approach to gaining compliance that works well at home or school. In this case, we’ll focus specifically on applications within the classroom using a strategy I call “Balanced Expectations.” The following observations of defiant and noncompliant students are addressed:

Observation #1: A student cannot be compliant and noncompliant at the same time. One of the surest and quickest ways of defeating noncompliant behavior is to empower the student out of it. The easiest way to accomplish this is to offer some sort of choice, although it should be made clear that choice is given all the time.

Observation #2: Defiant and noncompliant students generally feel “What’s the use, anyway,” that they are so hopelessly behind, and that everything they’re being asked to do is absolutely urgent. If we can chip away at this view, we have a chance of gaining more compliance.

Both of these characteristics are addressed when expectations are grouped into three levels: High, Mid, and Low.

High-level Expectations

This level is unyielding; there is no tolerance for any defiance or noncompliance, at all. This is made clear to every student; no exceptions. Whatever the hassle or cost, a high-level expectation will be enforced.

Safety issues at school are a great example, starting with school fire drills. Defiant and noncompliant students know they can’t stay in the building during a fire drill. Result: They leave the building like everyone else.

For a high-level expectation to be effective, a youngster has to know resistance will not be tolerated. This level works best when it is pruned regularly to contain only those expectations that are critical and worth the effort it takes to enforce them. If the high-level category becomes overloaded, old problems will return.

Mid-level Expectations

This level is always task-specific; its purpose is to get work accomplished by empowering students with choice. One way to accomplish mid-level expectations is to offer the same work in several forms or options. For instance, ten math problems could be offered on each of three sheets. The work is the same type and level of learning on each of the three assignments, so it makes no difference to the teacher which one a student selects. The ability to pick from a “menu,” however, could make a big difference to the student, a difference that could pay off in terms of compliance.

Another excellent way to employ a mid-level expectation is to offer a discard:

Tommy, here are five things to do this week. You can pick three and give two of them back to me.

Consider how much better this little empowerment exercise works as compared to giving Tommy the three assignments to start with.

Low-level Expectations

An expectation at this level essentially is a “give back” to a student. It will probably shock the youngster a bit, but he’ll like it, and he should respond favorably.

Low-level expectations are never task-specific; rather they focus on the approach to a task. I was using a low-level expectation in giving this assignment to my middle school students years ago:

Class, it’s now time to work on your SRA kits (reading). You know where you left off last time. Now, you can work at your desk, or you can borrow a clipboard and sit on our new carpet as you work on your assignment. You can stretch out and get comfortable, if you like. Just don’t go to sleep.

Or, if you’d rather, you can sit in the Reading Tub and work, or you can use either one of the large tables in the back.

Notice here how there was no choice as to task; they were told to work on their SRA kits. They had six choices, however, of where they could go to do the activity. That was a menu as to approach to the task. (Parents: Are you getting any ideas here? This works great at home, also.)

Offering students the same assignment, but on different colors of paper, would be the empowerment of choice of approach to a task. For some students, this could make a big difference in overall task compliance.

One additional benefit to the effective use of low-level expectations is that they seem reasonable and enjoyable to the students. They really do position the teacher well. This can only help with other compliance tasks throughout the school year.

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064

September 23, 2011 Posted by | Educators, family, Parents, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Something for a Grieving Child

SOMETHING FOR A GRIEVING CHILD: Grieving children can present a multitude of behaviors as they attempt to process the loss of a loved one, even behaviors of defiance, noncompliance, and a lot of anger. Caretaking adults can help a grieving child a great deal with one simple gesture. This article tells how it can be accomplished.

A few years back I had the opportunity to work with a young man who came to live in a group home following the loss of his mother to cancer. (He had lived for a bit with his grandmother, but that arrangement did not work out.) I’ll call him Charles.

As I worked with Charles, I quickly developed a deep respect for this young man. On his own, he had cared for his mother at home. He quit going to school (middle school) in order to be with her. He even drove her car to the grocery store, post office, and the bank as he took care of the two of them. (He was never stopped or questioned by the police.)

As I worked with Charles at the group home, I asked a question I always ask. The discussion went like this:

Is there something I can do for you, Charles?

You could help me get a picture of my mother.

What do you mean?

When Mom died, my grandmother took down all of her pictures. She said it wasn’t good to dwell on the dead.

But you’d like to have a photograph of her to keep for yourself. Is that right. Charles?

Yeah, I would; I really would.

I noted this need to the social worker who communicated the request to the boy’s grandmother. It took several months, but the picture finally arrived in the mail. It was an obituary card with the mother’s picture on the front, the card that had been passed out at her funeral.

You would have thought the boy had won the Publisher’s Sweepstakes. He carried that card with him everywhere and showed it to anyone who would give him a minute.

I believe he began to heal more readily. Charles eventually quit carrying the card and tacked it on the wall next to his bed. It meant a great deal to him.

Transitional Objects

Psychologists would call this obituary card with the mother’s picture a “transitional object.” In this case, it helped the boy more easily process the loss of his mother. He had a bit of his mother with him when he had the card in his pocket or notebook. On his own, he later tacked it next to his bed as he made the “transition,” the processing of the loss of his mother. He didn’t need to carry it, anymore.

A New Question

I now ask a new question whenever a youngster tells me of the death of a significant adult in their life (often a grandparent):

It sounds like they were a very important part of your life. Do you have a picture of them, or something that once belonged to them, a reminder to you of how special they were?

My experience has been they don’t ask for much at all; they simply want something. One girl wanted only a small, decorative plate that hung on the wall in her grandmother’s living room. A young man told me how he secretly “stole” a tube of lip balm from his grandmother’s medicine cabinet while his parents, aunts, and uncles busied themselves dividing up Grandma’s things. He was left out of that; he said as much.

A Word of Caution

On occasion, a transitional object can get a child in trouble. I worked with one teen whose father had died violently in a collision with another vehicle. Dad had been an avid bird hunter; he had shotguns, ammunition, and bird-hunting equipment all over the house.

The boy picked up three of his dad’s empty shotgun shells one morning and slipped them into his pocket. He showed them around at school and … you guessed it: He got into serious trouble.

“They had already been fired, Dr. Sutton,” he explained. “Empty ones weren’t going to hurt anyone. I just felt better having them with me.”

I suggested to him that if they had stayed in his pocket, no one would have known. Then I offered him an alternative that he readily accepted. We went out to the shop and cut off the lip of the shotgun shells with a hacksaw. Then we punched out the centers, making what looked like three, flat brass washers. He strung them on a chain and put it around his neck. He was happy, and the problem was solved.

How Long?

How long should we allow a child to hold onto a transitional object? Answer: Until they decide they no longer need it. The shotgun shell boy did something similar to Charles when he eventually quit carrying his mother’s picture with him. This boy realized one day at school that he “forgot” and left his shotgun shell necklace at home. More importantly, he made it through the day just fine without it, and knew he had done so. What better evidence of the progress of healing?

Adult, Too!

Are we talking only about children here? Hardly. I commented about transitional objects at a workshop once and two participants came up to me on the break. One gentleman reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar so worn it was completely slick on both sides. He shared how his grandfather had given it to him more than 40 years ago. A woman showed me a sterling-silver pen from her purse. “It doesn’t even work anymore,” she said, “but my late husband once gave it to me as an anniversary present. It’s always with me; I couldn’t bear to lose it.”

Sometimes it can be a challenge to convince parents and caregivers how important a transitional object is to a grieving child. But they would be amazed at the difference it can make.

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064
(800) 659-6628 Email:

September 8, 2011 Posted by | Counselors, Educators, family, Healthy living, Parents, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment