One morning last spring, my youngest child announced that he was going to ride a bike without training wheels. He hopped on with confidence, but after about 10 minutes of wobbles and falls, he threw the bike down in frustration.
“It takes a while to learn how to ride,” I reminded him.
“But mom,” he replied. “I don’t want to learn how to ride a bike — I want to know how to ride a bike!”
I get it. I often want that magic wand myself — to bypass the stretch-zone of learning and move straight to mastery. This is particularly true when it comes to building habits. For example, we know from research that gratitude, optimism, and mindfulness can help us navigate life’s challenges. But if I only try deep breathing when I’m in crisis mode, I’m going to fall off the bike. And how often do we expect our children to exhibit these traits without giving them concrete opportunities to practice them?
I teach a weekly workshop to middle schoolers on how to build the social and emotional habits that help us thrive. This semester, I’m conducting a bit of an experiment with my students that has rippled into my parenting: the 3-minute “3L Reset.”
- L #1: Look Backward with Gratitude
- L #2: Look Forward with Hope
- L #3: Look Inward with Mindfulness
Here’s how I structure this short opening exercise:
Look Backward with Gratitude
The Prompt: What are three things that have happened in the last 48 hours that you are grateful for? Nothing is too big or small to mention! The more specific the better.
The Reasoning: I adapted this exercise from Dr. Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things in Life” experiment where “participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week.” The result? This intervention “increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months.”
This matches up with research on gratitude. Expressing thankfulness helps people “feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” Our brain often hyper-focuses on what’s not going well. As a matter of survival, we are wired to pay more attention to the tiger hiding in the bushes than the wildflowers growing on it. Gratitude offers a gentle balance.
Here’s what I’ve noticed with my students and my own kids: At first, it was hard for some kids to generate even one item — so I prompted them to think about things as small as an interaction with a friend, a good night’s sleep, or a yummy snack. By the third week, students were very adept at generating their lists and more willing to share these small joys aloud.
Look Forward with Hope
The Prompt: Write down at least one thing that is giving you hope right now. What little (or big) things are you looking forward to?
The Reasoning: Katie Hurley, an adolescent psychotherapist and author of the new book, “A Year Of Positive Thinking For Teens,” recently told me that she often asks kids and teens, “What are some things that give you little bits of hope right now? What would help you feel one percent better?” These “little bits of hope” can become small steps for moving forward.
In her new book, Thrivers, Michele Borba writes that “optimistic kids view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, and so they are more likely to succeed.” She notes that this mindset can be taught over time — particularly if kids have parents and teachers who model hopeful responses to life’s challenges. As Borba told me recently, “Resilience isn’t built in the DNA or fixed — it’s the ordinary things parents do that help their kids build strength.” Like asking them what they are looking forward to and really listening to their answers! We can learn so much about our kids by paying attention to what gets them excited or makes them smile.
Look Inward with Mindfulness
The Prompt: I change this up each week, sometimes showing a one-minute meditation from Calm or Headspace and sometimes just leading them in a breathing exercise (here’s a list of exercises I put together for younger kids).
The Reasoning: Deep breathing helps our brain settle down so that we can work through challenges. There’s abundant research on the benefits of teaching kids basic mindfulness strategies — including improvements in cognitive control, emotional regulation, and attention. But like anything else, it takes practice. And the best time to practice mindfulness is when you are not in fight-or-flight mode!
While I don’t have quantitative data on how the 3L exercise is affecting the students, I can see how it is training my brain. As I prepare for class, I automatically begin to catalog the “good things” that have happened to me in the last 24 hours — the sunset, a call with my sister, reading Superfudge to my kids — and I scan ahead, asking, “What am I looking forward to this week?” And the answers to both questions always seem to include my kids and my students. Their presence makes me grateful, gives me hope, and keeps me tethered to the present.