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Dianna laughs that these intros are written like someone else is doing it. It’s me. Trying to pique your interest in my blog. I have lots of boys and a husband of lots of years, and lots of boxers. I’ve been on the battlefield, in the boardroom, and served blissful years as a PTO President (glad I’d been on the battlefield). I love good food, good friends and good laughs.

Pour a cup of coffee, or perhaps it is a glass of wine, and share a moment with me. For extroverted folks like me, connecting is life. Even if it is connecting on the web. Webs are about connections. Let’s do this!

Coffee with a Slice of Life

Cultivating Empathy

One of the things that propelled me to start Girl Smarts were the stories of girls being bullied in school. I was angry. Angry that bullying was occurring, angry that the children doing the bullying weren’t being held accountable and angry that our children were being bullied and didn’t have the skills to stand up for themselves. When we worked to create workshops to support children who are being bullied, the first thing we focused on was the concept of empathy.

I am sad to say, I don’t believe we can stop bullying. It is born of so many human flaws, generational reinforcements of negative behaviors and a lack of self-awareness. I do not believe we will ever stop the behaviors from developing in some children. I do believe, however, we can shift our children’s mindsets so they have an understanding of how broken their aggressors are and how the aggressors’ behaviors have nothing to do with them as the targets. In the next few posts I plan to talk about what we can do to help our children stand up for themselves and what we can do to ensure we don’t raise kids who are jerks.

Empathy is the ability to experience and share someone else’s feelings. It is a deep sense of understanding and sharing someone else’s emotional reality. When my boys were young I found myself as concerned about their development of an emotional quotient as the development of their intellectual quotient. Our personalities are formed between the ages of 0 to 6. It comes from a variety of inputs, according to experts like Freud, Skinner and Bandura, and the management of those inputs is something my husband and I considered of critical importance with our children. One of my favorite mantras in parenting was:

“What you say to your children becomes their inner voice.”

Purposefully working on messages and actions focused on empathy has served our family well. But it wasn’t easy. It took deliberate planning, deliberate conversations and purposeful actions and dedication.

Here are some specific things you can do support the growth of empathy in your children.

1. Make a difference.

Turn days off into days on. If you have a three day weekend or extended break consider helping your children organize something to support others. Every summer my boys would organize a charitable drive in our neighborhood. We had pet shelter drives, food drives, toy drives for charity. The boys created the flyers, asked local businesses to support with free copies of the flyers, went to grocery stores to have plastic grocery bags donated and we went around together to distribute the flyers.

They even formed a team name “Brothers for Others” to brand their efforts.

The trip to the donation site was a trip filled with satisfaction, compassion and understanding of the good fortune we shared as a family and the needs of others. It also laid the groundwork for their charitable efforts as young men when I was no longer the instigator of the effort.

2. Volunteer to serve meals at local shelters.

This will take some effort by you to ensure that where you are volunteering is safe and controlled. I wouldn’t advocate a walk-in appearance at a local venue since you want to ensure that your children have an opportunity to actually work and be a part of an organized event. By reaching out ahead of time to local support groups you can find a way to have a healthy experience. In our case we served Thanksgiving breakfast at a local shelter in town. There was an associated church in support and while we weren’t a part of the church we were allowed to participate as manpower for the event.

It was particularly rewarding to support Thanksgiving morning events with our children that led to Thanksgiving prayers at our own dinner. It meant we had to do a lot of prep for our own holiday meal sometimes days before, but the payoff was doing something for others in need and actually realizing our blessings of the day.

3. It is one thing to let your children watch television or YouTube videos, it is another to watch it with them and have conversations about the emotions of the characters.

My goodness, watching children’s shows was a tedious task and consumed many moments of my parenting life! But I did it with a purpose. We’d talk about the characters and their emotions. We’d discuss how the characters’ actions influenced others both positively and negatively. With small incremental steps of connection with emotions children learn and practice empathy. It is a skill and a strength that not everyone has but one that everyone should work to impart in our children.

So how does this help with bullying? Everyone is dealing with something. Helping your children understand how important their actions toward others are can help them stay mindful of their words and behaviors toward others. Also, and I believe this to be true, it can help you emphasize that someone’s negative behaviors toward your child has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with the person DOING the bullying and that child’s need to lash out at someone else. It is one step, probably the first step of keeping your child strong when harmful dynamics are in play. Hurt people hurt people, and while that isn’t a get out of jail free card for the bully, it is a mindset shift for our children.

In the next blog I’ll list some very specific activities you can do with boys and girls to help them understand the impact of their own words on others. In subsequent blogs I will give you the language for them to respond and the actions you can do to support them if you need to raise the issue to their school.

Let me know if you have any specific questions I can answer. If I have the ability to I will.

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Strong Conversations

I had a strong conversation with my son recently. It was one of those life lesson talks that I hope helps him grow.

I’m very purposeful with my serious discussions. Usually I ask the son involved to come to the front porch and sit with me. It has become our grown up “time out room”. I save those front porch talks for the important stuff. I’m not sure if they like those talks or not but they always result in growth for both of us.

To set the stage, my 17 year old and I had to do something unpleasant. We got wet, and muddy and had to go up and down flights of stairs numerous times carrying, big, bulky, wet, equipment. We had to walk through spider webs and poke around trying to find drainage openings all in muggy weather that was followed quickly by pouring rain (and a tornado watch). It was not pleasant. My son overreacted in a teen boy sort of hormonal way and rather than blow up, I very purposely became very calm.

It was a bit creepy, actually, how calm I became. It was the equivalent of me whispering to them when they were young children and I was very angry with them. Whispering always got their attention.

After our effort and showers I asked my son to join me on the front porch.

The conversation went something like:

“Son, I’m disappointed in how this whole thing went. I know it was tough but you need to understand, we don’t quit. We don’t say “that’s too hard” or “get someone else to do it.” We are a family that works to influence outcomes. We work together to make it better even when it is hard. I was disappointed in your response to what we were doing and I want you to consider what I’m saying. I have to be able to count on you and sometimes that won’t be comfortable but when you show undue frustration or undue anger because things are hard, it makes me consider my ability to count on you. Do you understand?”


That’s all I got—yup. But I know my message was loud and clear. He went upstairs to his room and then he came back downstairs to help with dinner.

I want my boys to grow into strong men. I don’t underestimate my role in that process. Sometimes “suck it up” means more coming from your momma. Especially when she is working beside you soaking wet, sweating, muddy with spider webs hanging off of her arms.

We’re all in this together and sometimes you just have to suck it up. I think the “suck it up” mentality is one we don’t teach enough. Today I’d equate it with the concept of grit. Life is hard but it is harder if you don’t learn how to navigate challenges and just deal with the angst of living.

This is a year of “embracing the suck” for me. I’ll be okay, but sometimes the days pass more labored than others. Sometimes I have to pull myself outside and remind myself that I have to just put my head down and work hard. Lift my head up and look forward and set the example I want my children to follow. Maybe someone out there needed to hear this.

I hope it will help you lift your head and move forward—always forward.

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A girl’s self-esteem peaks when she’s nine years old. That’s crazy isn’t it?

Girl Smarts focuses on giving girls ways to combat the drop in self-esteem with real skills and tips to navigate life as tweens and teens. The social skills we teach help children feel more confident and reinforce what many of you teach as a matter of course in your parenting.

If you’d consider our input, here are the top five things we teach the children to help them make a great first impression:

1. How to shake hands.

No really, we teach them the steps. We show them where their “perlicue” is and teach them that a woman’s handshake is noted in introductions as an indicator of their personality and strength. Usually about 50 percent of the girls we work with have never been taught how to do a proper handshake. Think about it. How often do we tell little Johnny to come over and shake Uncle Bill’s hand and suggest to Ellie that she give him a hug? Of course it isn’t ill intended but teaching our daughters how to do a firm and proper handshake is a great step toward helping them make a great first impression.


2. How to make eye contact.

Body language is important. It is the focus of our very first workshop “Face to Face”. In “Face to Face” we give the girls a trick on how to make eye contact because looking someone in the eyes creates a connection with them. We get it that so many of our children find direct eye contact overwhelming. Sometimes a child avoiding adult eye contact is a cultural decision. Of course that is any family’s choice. But if you want your child to look people in the eyes and they simply cannot, fussing at them increases their anxiety. In our program we use a small, round, yellow dot. We place it in the space between the eyes and just above the nose. We practice talking to one another looking at that space. It is a trick and it is meant to let the girls conquer their anxious feelings about making direct eye contact. More than any other skill we give the girls, this one comes up time and again as one they remember even ten years later. One of our greatest compliments came from a parent when she wrote and said, “My daughter has never looked us in the eyes and after Girl Smarts she is doing it all the time.” We tell the girls this is an interim step and when they feel better and stronger they can make the move to direct eye contact. Coupling a good hand shake with direct eye contact is a winner first impression.

yellow dot

3. How to say no.

Raising children is hard. We all get that. We have to set boundaries and sometimes have them do exactly what we say. When one of my children would wander astray because they wouldn’t listen to some specific guidance, they’d often start their explanation with the words:

“But I thought...”

Our go to response was:

“Don’t think, it hurts the team.”

Sometimes they just need to use the play in the playbook and do exactly what they are told.

But we have to teach our children that it is okay to sometimes tell adults, and of course their friends, no. As parents we teach them to say “thank you” and “please” so why not give them a way to turn down something firmly and help them embrace their ability to make choices. One of the earliest phrases we taught our boys was, “No thank you, but thank you for offering.” Trust me, they used it A LOT. When our children feel like it is okay to say no respectfully then they gain the strength to say “No” when it becomes critical that they make a tough choice.

By middle school, I also suggest you give them ways to say “no” to other things like alcohol or drugs. There are significant challenges ahead. They will have to know how to navigate those challenges without us.

4. How to order their own food at restaurants.

I have a friend whose son didn’t like hamburger meat. Early on she taught him to order a “plain cheeseburger without the burger”. It sometimes had to be repeated a couple of times but he would get what he wanted to eat. By 4th and 5th grade if your child has a special desire for a certain way they want things ordered, practice ordering with them before you head out to eat. Pull up a restaurant’s menu and help them work through ordering as if you were the waiter. The next step is returning food if it isn’t what they ordered. We can teach them to be polite but firm in getting what they want. Of course this may involve a bit of extra coaching at the restaurant when they discover the order is amiss, but by giving them this simple skill you are helping them find their voice. All of these things take practice and that practice builds confidence.

club sandwich

And finally – and this is a big one for back to school time:

5. How to introduce themselves and you.

Start the year right by having your children introduce themselves first to the teacher and then have them introduce you. Practice how you want that to go:

“Hi, Mr. Rowland. My name is Katie Barnes. I’d like to introduce you to my mother Ellie Barnes.”

You can even set them up with some questions they might like to ask their teachers to start the new year.

“Are there books I can get a head start on?”
“What is the best way for me to be successful in your class?”
“How do I communicate with you after school if I have questions about an assignment?”

Finally give them a wrap up sentence or two.

“Mom, did you want to ask anything?"
"Thank you Mr. Rowland, I’m really looking forward to the new year.”

Does it seem scripted to you? Trust me, by the second teacher they’ll be comfortable enough to make their own script. If you come up with this type of back and forth and practice it before open house you’re sending all sorts of great messages to your children. You’re showing trust and giving them ownership of the event. You’re letting them own their space as a student and as your child. And you are letting them take the lead in their education. As we conclude the first workshop of our program I often bring in my 6’6” son to practice introductions with the girls. He is big and intimidating and every single time the girls are up to the task.

Giving our children new skills IS empowerment. And empowerment makes a difference in how they grow up.

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Building Moments

What moments built you? Can you pinpoint times when something happened that turned into a building block for who you are?

I have one that came from a most unexpected origin. I was 27, already commissioned, working and building my life as an Army officer. As a young captain I was always looking for moments of inspiration and they often revealed themselves during unexpected moments. This particular reveal was during an Officer Professional Development (OPD). Of course the Army takes building leaders very seriously. Each month we had organized OPDs planned by fellow officers or led by our commanders. Occasionally special speakers came in to support the session. One such special session on our calendar featured a professional football referee as our guest speaker.

I thought, “Oh great. Here we go again. I’m embroiled in testosterone and I have to listen to the crotch grabbing, butt scratching philosophies of a professional football guy. Welcome to my world.”

This football official had amongst his credentials a long list of post season assignments including ten championship games and Super Bowls VI, XI and XII. His name was Jim Tunney. I barely watched football or any sport at that point in my life so the impressive nature of these credentials was lost to me. Still I, like every other officer in the unit, settled in for an hour of “mentoring” that I thought would leave me with nothing but the good old boy take on life.

I was quite wrong.

Dr. Tunney’s stories were varied and inspirational. One stood out to me and became my building moment. Dr. Tunney talked about working to support the Special Olympics. He was the “Head Official” during the day of competitions, and thus gave out the awards. At the ceremony Dr. Tunney commenced with his honor of hanging the medals on the necks of the champions. He went up to a young boy on the tallest podium. The boy won a track race that day, and accordingly Dr. Tunney hung the gold medal around the boy's neck. The young boy, while avoiding eye contact, said a simple "Thank You."

Dr. Tunney joined the parent group standing by the podiums while the medal winners stood to the applause of the crowd.

He nonchalantly leaned over to the mother of the boy he’d just awarded and said, "Isn't that wonderful?"

The mother, her eyes brimming with tears, responded, "Yes it is. Those are the first words he's ever spoken."

(Pause here because this still makes me tear up.)

His story hit me hard. I rolled the mom’s words over and over in my mind. While everyone applauded the gold medal, a mother stood in awe of the real and unexpected win. I took that lesson forward in my life and for years I’ve looked for the unexpected wins. It made me a better officer and a much better parent.

It’s natural, I think, for parents to get a bit competitive when it comes to our children’s accomplishments. Of course we all want to have successful children. We want things to be easy for them and have them move seamlessly through life, enjoy the classic success of being the athlete, the successful academic and/or the “best all around” in school.

I’ve come to understand that the greatest periods of learning in my boys are not when times are easy or when they are “winning”. It’s when times are challenging and hard to accept. Times when they are failing and looking for the grit to rise up and try again. I work hard to “coach” them vice clearing the path for them and notice when they navigate obstacles they are learning the most in terms of life. It is hard to stand by sometimes, and no doubt it is a delicate balance on when to step in and when not to. As the coach I want my “team” to win, but I’ll take the loss on occasion as long as we learn the lessons.

The seasons are changing and soon our children will be heading off to new adventures in new grades with new friends. There will be conflict and course corrections, there will be failures and successes within their worlds and mine. I don’t want to always look for the gold medal. Sometimes I just want to take the time to notice the challenges they face, coach them through the difficulties that arise, and when we have a chance to sit down and review what they’ve learned from those challenges, I look forward to pointing out the unexpected wins.

Those unexpected wins, their life lessons - those will be the moments that build them.

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How you doin'?

So let’s talk about our girls. I’m the founder and one of the facilitators of a program called Girl Smarts. You can read about it at or on Facebook at Girl Smarts LLC. It has grown in popularity, and over the past 10 years we have had about 4,000 students attend our workshops. Girl Smarts is throughout Central Virginia and has a growing footprint in Northern Virginia as well. In this post I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Hope it will provide some insights.

“What can I do for my daughter to make her stronger?”

That’s the question I get most often when I am speaking to groups of parents. This is the first time I’m offering some systematic steps you can take with your daughter to help their confidence. These work similarly for boys. My program is just “packaged” for girls.

I’m from Jersey so I will share my focus for this post in the voice of my people:

“How you doin?”

A study done by Dove showed that 66% of our girls look to their moms as their primary role model. So, as if we didn’t have enough to do, we have to remember our girls are watching. How are you doing in terms of showing your strength? You can begin to consider the example you’re providing with these thoughts as self-reflection points:

1. What you say to and around your children becomes their inner voice.

It is painful to see girls at 9 years old talking about their self-declared body defects. We as adults must be self-accepting and loving of ourselves, with all of our imperfections, to set the example for our daughters. If we are critical of how we look in the mirror; how our bodies are not what we want them to be; our hair is a mess, too long, too short; talk about how we hate our nose/chin/ears and of course the “f” word (fat); then the girls will totally pick up on that self-talk and insert your discussion points into their own mirrors.

What they hear you say about yourself and others, as well as what you say to them, will become their inner voice. Let’s perhaps reframe and practice saying things about ourselves that promote acceptance. “You know I love that fact that I have my grandma’s nose.” Or stay away from body comments completely. See the image at the bottom of this post for some alternate compliments we can use.

2. Stay in the picture.

In 4th and 5th grade I’ve watch as girls remove themselves from a group photo. When I ask why they don’t want to be a part of the group shot I often hear, “I don’t like my picture taken.” Often these are girls who are differently sized than their peers: taller, shorter, heavier or thinner. They already feeI the difference and they don’t want to be in the group photo. Is that a self-learned behavior?

If you are a mom who doesn’t like having her photo taken I’d encourage you to reassess your approach and keep yourself in the picture and in the history of your children’s lives. I lost my mom about 10 years ago. When I flip through photos of her I never, ever say, “Gosh she looked bad in this picture.” Be a part of their memories.

3. Don’t stress the small stuff.

How we react in stressful situations is how our girls learn to react in stressful situations. (*note: I am not talking about situations where medical diagnoses are present.) When you are dealing with something hard, what is your process? Do you approach it with thought, reasoning, resilience and grit? Bring your girls into that process when you can. Let them see how you handle tough things and they will learn how to handle tough things (of course all age appropriate). Identify between what you can control and what you cannot control. It will help them do the same.

When my boys were very little we lost our 9 month old pup after she suffered a heart attack at our back door. It was a very difficult moment. It was early in the morning, before school and we were all very sad. When I understood what was happening I went to hold our pup Phoebe in her last moments. I loved her and whispered calmly into her ear that it was okay. My son was watching. It became a teachable moment when I asked the boys if they wanted to say goodbye to Phoebe. They did and then we talked about death over the coming days and made it a part of life.

I’m not sharing this to say our message is the message you have to send, but to say that teachable moments present themselves all the time. How we use them to coach our children to grow is an important part of this coaching process.

4. When you use your tongue like a sword, you will cut your own lips.

This is back to where I started. Your kids are watching EVERYTHING you do. They see how you treat your men friends and how you treat your women friends. They see how you allow yourself to be treated by both men and women. Be thoughtful to lift others up as you speak of them in front of your children. That will go a long way to show how they should treat their friends.

One exercise I do with the girls is I tell them I’m going to teach them to “talk behind their friend's back”. Of course they are aghast that I would consider showing them that sort of thing and there is always an audible gasp or two. Then I ask for a volunteer. When “Susie” comes to the front of the room I tell her to turn around so her back is to the group and I lean over like I’m telling a secret:

“Hey guys – you know what I saw Susie do?” I whisper loudly. “You’re not going to believe this.”

Of course they hunker down and lend an ear.

“Susie saw a kid struggling with his book bag and she went right up to him, asked if she could help and carried his bookbag all the way to his classroom for him. And that outfit she had on today, wasn’t that the cutest?”

I watch as their faces change and show their understanding of what I’m doing.

If our children hear us speaking positively about our friends, our relationships and our co-workers, they learn that is the standard. I know, this is WAY harder than it sounds. And who doesn’t love a bit of gossip now and again; but be thoughtful of your words because words count. And sometimes they hurt.

Okay enough for today. But the message of this post is empowerment of our children starts with you. Take a moment and take an inventory of yourself and see what standards you are setting for your children. I’ll be back with my very best tips on helping your child make a great first impression and a couple of tricks they can use to help them feel at ease.

Let me know below if this was helpful to you. Or perhaps there’s a topic you really want to hear about as you travel this path with me. I’m happy to share what I am learning.

non appearance related compliments


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Rappahannock Area Court Appointed Special Advocates

CASA is an advocacy center serving children in the Greater Fredericksburg area comprised of Fredericksburg City and the counties of King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford. Its mission is to advocate for and locate permanent homes for abused and neglected children who are navigating the court system.