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How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected

Put your phone/devices away when you are home with your kids. There are campaigns not to have distracted driving — I’m on a mission not to have distracted parenting. When your kids are talking to you, and you get a text/or call — it can wait. Of course, I don’t mean kids shouldn’t develop the ability to wait, but I mean, let’s focus on our kids when we are with them and not have so many distractions.

Parenting is challenging. We all try so hard to give our all to our children. We desperately want them to feel loved and connected. But somehow there is often a disconnect. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or that we don’t seem to speak the same language as our children, or just all of the “disconnection” that our kids are dealing with in today’s frenetic world. What are steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? As a part of our series about “How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected” we had the pleasure to interview Melanie Underwood. Melanie Underwood is the Founder and CEO of Gather Culinary, a Culinary Instructor, and a certified high school culinary arts teacher with over 26 years of experience. Gather Culinary offers classes for children and adults through after-school programs, in-person and virtual classes, as well as retreats. As a certified mindfulness instructor, Melanie’s unique approach uses food as a medium for teaching acceptance, kindness, and connection.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know a bit about you. Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”? Iwas raised on a farm with my four older sisters in Virginia. My grandparents lived next door, and I spent most of my time escaping chores by running to their house, cooking, baking, and gardening with them. My mom was an engineer and worked a lot, but every night, my sisters, grandparents, and dad and I cooked, ate dinner, washed dishes, and talked. These are some of my favorite memories — we weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary, but we were connecting, and every night felt special. At the age of eight, I had three cats run over in the road and needed to do something. We didn’t have speed limit signs where I lived, so I wrote to our senators and congressman asking for speed limit signs. Our congressman commissioned the Virginia Department of Transportation to do a study to determine if signs were needed — and 6 months later, speed limit signs were posted. This seemingly small act made a big impact. I thought, if I can do this at eight, what can I do when I’m an adult? This inspired me to want to become a lawyer and advocate for others. Once I was in college, I realized this wasn’t the path for me, and I asked my parents for advice. Fortunately, my mom said, “Do what you love — you may have to do it for a lifetime” I went on to work in baking and pastry and eventually teach. These little moments taught me to trust myself and that I could make a difference. Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career? After working as a pastry chef, I went into teaching adults cooking to help people eat better, order out less, and overall take care of themselves through food. Making an impact has always been important to me. I had been teaching for 20 years, and students had always told me I was very impactful — then I realized I wanted to start working with kids. I felt like If I am making an impact with adults, I have an amazing opportunity to truly help young people connect to themselves, to each other, and the community. I was fortunate to find a job in a high school that has an amazing culinary program. Then, during the pandemic, when we were all remote, I continued to teach in high school and launched my own business, Gather Culinary. With everyone being on Zoom, I realized I had an opportunity to help people worldwide. Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you explain to us why it is so important to forge a strong connection with our children? Absolutely! There are many reasons why it is important to forge a strong connection. We want to develop trust between our kids and having a healthy connection with them allows for that. When they trust their parents, they will confide in them, ask for help, and turn to them when they are unsure of how to navigate things in life. It increases their confidence, self-esteem, and their ability to connect with others to develop healthy relationships. There is no downside to a strong connection to our children. What happens when children do not have that connection, or only have a weak connection? Children without a connection are often lost, distrustful — of others and themselves, and struggle with appropriate decision-making. They are lacking guidance and often look to peers or online for information that is often misguided. We want our kids, not just our own kids, but collectively all kids to feel connected. If we all connected and paid attention to all kids and reinforced the positive, we would be better in our society. Do you think children in this generation are less likely to feel loved and connected? Why do you feel the way you do? I do. I feel this way because I work with children, and I hear it almost every day. Many share they feel disconnected from family and friends. Some also share that many of their friendships feel superficial. If you look around a room with students, especially teens, they may be sitting next to each other, but more often than not, they are all on their phones, not engaged in conversations, and definitely not making eye contact. We live in a world with incessant demands for our time and attention. There is so much distraction and disconnection. Can you share with our readers 5 steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can. Put your phone/devices away when you are home with your kids. There are campaigns not to have distracted driving — I’m on a mission not to have distracted parenting. When your kids are talking to you, and you get a text/or call — it can wait. Of course, I don’t mean kids shouldn’t develop the ability to wait, but I mean, let’s focus on our kids when we are with them and not have so many distractions. Pay attention/listen to what your kids have to say. Many of my students tell me the one thing they hate the most is when their parents are texting or on the computer when they are speaking. Ideally, as a parent, model the behavior you want from your kids. I have a student who told me. “Every time I speak to my mom, it feels like she is texting and not listening to me. I feel like she doesn’t care.” I suggested she speak to her mom and tell her how she felt. Her mom was shocked, as she didn’t realize how much she was on the phone and that her daughter felt isolated from the lack of attention. Talk to your kids. Sometimes it may feel like they don’t want to share — but ask open-ended questions like, “What did you do in school today” or “Tell me more about….” Essentially, questions about why, what, or how don’t allow for a simple yes or no answer. This will show your kids that you value their opinion and help build their executive functioning, communication, curiosity, and critical thinking. I like to have these conversations over dinner. The atmosphere is relaxed, everyone in the family has had time to wind down from school and work, and everyone is together, making it an ideal time for conversations. Schedule, in your calendar, a minimum of 30 minutes a day to spend with your kids, distraction-free (no devices). Activities such as Walking in the woods, a park, or somewhere outside without distractions. Cooking and eating dinner with your kids. This is a great opportunity to talk and ask open-ended questions. Or bring out the board games! Leave kindness notes for your kids. Whether a post-it in their backpack or a note on their pillow before bedtime. Tell them — I love you — you are important to me. Write something you admire about them. I admire how much tenacity and care for others my children have, and I tell them. No person is ever too old to receive a kindness note. Host an activity such as movie night, painting pottery, or a cooking party at your house with your kids and their friends. This is a great way to build connections with them and their friends. You’d be amazed at what you can learn from spending an evening, even if just in close proximity, with your kids and their friends. Building stronger, more meaningful connections with friends will help with self-confidence and building strong relationships. How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story? As someone who accepts, loves, and emotionally supports their kids while setting boundaries. What those needs look different for different kids and families. Reset expectations. Many kids feel like their parents are only concerned with getting good grades and not much else. One of my students has a B and came to me on the verge of tears, saying she must have an A, that her mother insisted she has an A in the class. This student didn’t turn in an assignment after being given extra time, but her mom couldn’t accept that she would have less than an A. Ideally, parents would address issues like this by reminding kids this is a consequence of not doing their work. Teaching kids accountability and responsibility is a big part of being a “good parent.” How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story? Not imposing limits on what they dream- keep the “ you can’t do that because….” out of the conversation and bring in. “ You can do that — how would you make it happen.” Letting them dream their dreams, and not expecting kids to be what you, as a parent, think they should be. My oldest son is 25, and my youngest is 13. I let them have room to make mistakes and gave space for them to figure them out. Allowing kids this opportunity helps build their confidence and know they can overcome obstacles, allowing them to dream big — they know they can accomplish what they set their mind to. How would you define “success” when it comes to raising children? I only can define my success as a parent. For me, I want my kids to know I love them, I have their back, and I want them to pursue what makes them happy. As I mentioned, my mom telling me to do what I love was a game changer. Everyone is concerned about their kids future and financial stability, but it usually works out if they are happy in their work. I also teach adults and feel I get to see the outcome of the disconnected kids who didn’t have parents allowing them to do what they love — those adults are still struggling and trying to make it work. This is a huge topic in itself, but it would be worthwhile to touch upon it here. What are some ideal social media and digital habits that you think parents should teach to their children. Setting boundaries, having conversations about what’s appropriate, and leading by example. We not only have to set boundaries for our kids, but also for ourselves. It’s easy to be on devices — we read news, scroll social media, and use apps for just about everything, so it can be we are on them all the time. Teach yourself and kids to put your phone away when you/they come home from work/school. Also, not keeping phones in the bedroom at night. I teach high school, and almost every student talks about being on the phone late at night. This isn’t good for them on many levels — not enough sleep, disrupting natural rhythms, and too much exposure to blue light. Kids need boundaries from their caregivers. There is a lot of talk about digital citizenship, but what does that mean? Having conversations with kids about online behavior and what is appropriate and what isn’t. They don’t know — they need guidance. What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them? I don’t have any favorite books or podcasts, but my resources are the children I teach. Listening to their stories and hearing their fears and dreams inspire me to be a better person and to make sure I make a positive impact on as many children as I can. I found sharing ideas and concerns with other parents is helpful. It’s a great opportunity to discuss what other parents allow their kids to do. An example of this is when my son says, “All of my friends are allowed to stay up until 11 pm.” but when chatting with his friends parents, we can all find out the real deal about what we are doing. Every parent I know has had this same experience. Sharing in this way helps parents set similar boundaries and not feel like the bad guy. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? My favorite life lesson quote is from Henry Ford - “Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.” Or, as I like to paraphrase, now what? That is my motto. I am one of the happiest people I know, and I believe it is because I never am concerned about making mistakes or what went wrong. I focus on moving forward. I know when things don’t turn out as I had planned, I can shift direction and make it work. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-) I would love to inspire the world to bring cooking back into middle and high schools. Not Home Ec from a different era, but classes like Intro to Culinary, Food Services, and Global Cooking. Cooking teaches kids confidence, teamwork, and communication skills through collaborative group work, and they develop problem-solving, adaptability, and self-reliance. They can explore outside of traditional recipes to work on creativity and innovation skills which carry over to other areas in their lives. Not to mention the practical skills of math, reading, and critical thinking. Food connects us, and students develop friends and bonds through food and cooking and have a caring space to ask questions and express themselves in a nurturing environment. We can reduce stress, anger, and violence by cooking and encouraging healthy, connected children. Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!


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