Transcript #51 – Uplift Kids
Uplift Kids is a tool to help give your kids an inner compass. Today we speak with Jon Ogden, one of the founders of Uplift Kids, about ways to instill spirituality and values in our kids.
Highlights of our conversation include:
At what age can you start building spirituality in your kids, and how?
Specific values to explore further with your kids
What does spirituality mean to young kids?
How a lack of spirituality and loneliness can be related
Why each value needs to have a counterweight. Courage held too tightly becomes recklessness, and then caution can be a great value.
Will Braunstein, A Dad’s Path: Hi, and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path Podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today we’re speaking with Jon Ogden, Co-founder of UpliftKids. UpliftKids gives your kids an inter compass. The goal is to create a culture of meaning and reflection at home. Jon is an expert on creating lesson curriculums and has been on a decade’s long study of the world’s wisdom traditions, looking to keep the best of the past alive while evolving beyond its limitations. We’re going to dive into what this means and more. Welcome, Jon.
Jon Ogden, Uplift Kids: Thanks for having me.
Will: Fantastic. I want to talk a little bit today about emotion, spirituality, values, these sort of big topics, but a good way to start is spirituality maybe. What does spirituality mean when we’re talking about kids and how does that fit in with family and parenting?
Jon: Spirituality is a tough word to define. One researcher talked about how they found 21 different definitions. We have to always caveat with, this is our definition. Our definition is that it has to do with connection. Spirituality is trying to overcome feelings of separateness, and we think it’s really important today because so many teens are saying that they’re feeling sad and hopeless. In fact, it’s gone up quite a bit the percent of teens from, it was about 28% around a decade ago to like now it’s about 44%.
It’s nearly half of teens say they feel persistently sad and hopeless. Our hypothesis is that one of the things that can help is feeling connected rather than disconnected. That’s what we’re getting at with spirituality. In our case, we’re not talking about any specific set of beliefs. Anybody can come with their own set of beliefs to UpliftKids, but we’re talking about it in three specific ways. We’re talking about connecting to something that you are in awe of whatever that might be.
Then connecting with friends and family, through vulnerable heartfelt conversations, something more than just a surface level, like deep connection with those you love. Then finally we’re talking about connecting to your authentic self and your inner compass. Really having inner integrity and really being connected to that aspect of yourself. Everything for us, when we talk about spirituality, is coming down to that idea of deep connection.
Will: That really helps a lot. I love that definition. Like you said, it’s your definition, but that makes a lot of sense. There’s family and involving your family in connection and spirituality. Then there’s also a spirituality within when we become dads, something changes. A lot of us are stay-at-home dads. A lot of us are working extra hard because when we come home from our normal job, we have another job that we want to take even more seriously.
I think that’s a struggle, but it really resonated when you said we’re talking about connection. I’d love to dig in there, connection about something you’re in awe of. Can you help me paint a picture? I like hiking for example, is it something like that? Is it playing tennis? Is it connecting with friends? Is it all those? None of those.
Jon: Yes. It’s all those. I noticed in one of your recent polls on your site, you had like, “What are some of your best memories of your dad?” And people put fishing. I think that really capture the full sense of connection. You’re out in nature, sitting with somebody, talking, it’s low-key, not stressful, hopefully, and you’re just having a nice time side by side and just viewing the beauty. If you’re around a lake or river, it’s a beautiful scene. In terms of connecting to something that you’re in awe of, it would be nature is often where spiritual experiences happen.
We’ve come through dozens of databases, looking through various people recounting spiritual experiences they’ve had, so many of them are in nature. Really it comes down to, I felt this deep connection beyond myself to all, to everything. That is an experience of awe or spiritual experience. Hiking, fishing, totally ways to go about it. Other people feel it in large crowds where everybody’s united around a certain thing. Some people feel it in a religious setting, so it can happen any number of places. The important thing is that we have those experiences because when we can transcend our ego, we end up feeling love and peace in our lives.
Will: That’s beautiful. I hate how simple you make it sound because it’s true. If you just do that, you get out in nature and you can have such a positive impact, and then it’s easy, the opposite to happen, you get stuck behind your desk or at home or wherever it is. Man, I feel depressed. I don’t feel good. I don’t know why. Well, you do know why. How do you recommend planning those kind of connections? I know you can’t plan an actual connection event, but both for yourself, with your family. What have you seen worked from your experience?
Jon: You’re right. You can’t control what the event is going to be like completely, it’s going to happen as it happens, but you can increase the probability of having connection. You’re pointing to something very real like, oh, I’m sitting on my computer all day, every day. Probably not going to have a real deep connection with the world. I noticed this, one of the times that we went camping as a family, we’re sitting around the campfire and my son just started opening up about things that he would never really talk about at that level at home.
It was just one of the best conversations that we’ve had with him. It was largely because we’re out in nature around a campfire rather than huddled around a device. It’s hard to keep in mind because camping does require this lift. You got to prepare, you got to get everything ready. It can be stressful, but once you get there and you’re just relaxed in that space, you increase the probability of that connection happening.
Will: Yes. Like you said, that’s life, you need to just increase the probability of things happening, give yourself the best chance of whatever it is, and same thing with connection. When we’re talking about family, I think that was the second one you mentioned, connecting with family. The example you gave checks off both boxes, if you’re camping with your son. Is that the type of activity you typically see? Can you give me another one that might be less typical or some creative ideas with family or what you mean there?
Jon: In terms of having a spiritual experience?
Jon: Another one is, like one of our lessons at UpliftKids centered around grandparents. We talk about lineage and connecting with ancestors, just learning about your ancestors, who were they? What’s their story. Stuff that a lot of kids don’t know. Who is their great grandpa? Who is their great grandma? That kind of stuff. Then one of our lessons is specifically about grandparents. We got on a Zoom call, because their grandparents live in a different state.
We have a set of questions that we found that are very helpful. They’re a set of questions that researchers have found that if kids know the answers to these questions, they end up having higher well-being. We had this conversation with the grandparents, walking through the questions and it was just a chance for my kids to really connect beyond just my spouse and I. That’s one other example. That one does involve technology. We’re not opposed to technology. Technology can be a helpful springboard as long as it’s engaged with mindfully rather than mindlessly. That’s an example of using technology to connect to somebody else in life.
Will: That’s very cool. I’d be curious to see some of those questions. Do you remember one of them offhand? Sorry to put you on the spot.
Jon: Yes. How did you meet? Tell me the story of how you met. Tell me a memory of the first home you can remember. Kind of situated in a place. I’m trying to think of other ones. I can’t think of another one right now, but those are two.
Will: Those are great examples. Thank you. Then the last area of connection you were talking about is connecting with your authentic self. What does that mean?
Jon: We all have our set personalities and sometimes it’s called the ego. There’s a desire that all of us have to look good and to have our personality shine and to make sure that our ego is fluffed up. We want to look good. We want to be respected. Then there’s a part of us that is always at peace and isn’t so concerned about the rat race. Isn’t so concerned about appearances. This is a big part of meditation practice and mindfulness practice.
When we can be in stillness, we start to attune to that part of ourselves. That’s just at peace with how life is, grateful for how life is. That is in some traditions, it might be called the true self or authentic self. We often use the words inner compass just because it’s a kind of concrete or tactile thing that kids can understand. Here’s a compass and compass points north. You want to let the mud settle so to speak in life so that you can see where it’s pointing to. In practicing stillness, we align to a deeper part of ourselves. We realized that maybe some of the things that we have been fixated on, aren’t really all that important.
Will: I like that. I’ll use the word gratitude. It sounds so much based on gratitude and understanding, hey, look at the treasures around me. We’re here. We all have our own treasures. We all have our own challenges, certainly, but coming at it from the gratitude perspective. I think as you pointed out, is a great way to help create that column and understand where you are. That’s really good. I love this conversation about spirituality. One more question. When would you start with a kid? How old would you say you should start having conversations about spirituality and where would you start?
Jon: One way that I really like comes from a professor at Columbia University, her name is Lisa Miller. She talks about a field of love. It’s just one of the many phrases that you could use. It’s not the right phrase, the single phrase, but I think it’s a powerful phrase. She talks about how, if a kid can understand that you love them as their father and your spouse loves them, their grandparents love them, their aunts and uncles, et cetera, love them, their friends love them, if they can really get a sense that they are growing up in a field of love, where you say like to use the phrase for Mr.
Rogers, “I like you just the way you are.” They really internalize that over and over again, then that is the spirituality that we’re talking about, this deep connection.
The reason it’s so powerful is that, one day your kids are going to leave the house. You’re not going to be there. They’re going to face some challenge, perhaps a crippling challenge that really flows them. If they have a foundation in this field of love, then they can sense that they might not know all the answers right now. Things might seem hopeless, but they know that this field of love is real and they felt that in their life, and that can guide them through or carries them through it when all else seems to fail.
Somebody could write it off and, “Oh, that’s a bunch of fluff. What are you talking about? Those are a bunch of nonsense.” I think it is very real that kids are struggling and they’re facing very hard, emotional situations. One of the best ways to counter it is by introducing them to the field of love and that can happen at a very young age.
Will: That’s beautiful. I think that’s a great, really nice approach. I also like how you talked about having your true compass, and that’s another thing that can resonate as your kids get a little older because they understand what a compass is. They can understand it, always pointing in a certain direction and that direction is basically your values. That’s something you guys talk about and it’s such a great word and it’s such a big word. It’s like spirituality where I can’t define it. Can you talk about values? I don’t need a definition per se, if you have one, great. But I’d love to just hear what it means to either discover your values or rediscover your values, especially as you’re going through a change, having a new child at home.
Jon: I’m glad that you brought up the inter compass there because that’s the first lesson that we encourage parents to do in our curriculum and library at home. It’s like introducing them to the concept of a compass, introducing them to what it’s like to really sit with your values. The values that we explore, we have a lot of lessons around a lot of values, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, et cetera. Basically, all of us want to feel peace inside, and this sense of joy in life. What can get in our way is our pursuit of short-term relief. We pursue short-term relief, thinking, oh, this is going to get me there, and then it does for a moment, and then it sets us back. This could be any number of things.
Values are the things that are more about our long-term wellbeing. Even though it can be a little bit challenging to be kind or a little bit challenging to be compassionate, it’s in our long-term best interest. We choose that value because through practice, we start to realize, oh, when I make this decision, I actually end up happier than when I choose something for my short-term relief. That is only for my short-term relief.
Will: I like that as well. The compass analogy there, it’s also okay to go off true north sometimes. It’s not ideal, but sometimes that’s going to happen. I think that’s another one, I guess you’re talking about forgiveness and that’s a really important lesson. That’s something that I know we struggle with, is that sometimes.
In terms of codifying or writing down your values, I assume you guys use at Uplift or a tool, is that like a mission statement as well? Can you talk about that as something that we’ve talked about using? For us, at A Dad’s Path, we’re all about looking at different tools, and what you guys deliver is a really good tool. It’s not the only tool. It’s not the only way that it does organize things well, and we can talk about that more. Sorry, going back to the mission statement or how you recommend codifying if that’s the right idea.
Jon: We have seven points on our approach that we use to form our lessons at Uplift. Then in the home, I have said it around for types of health, and this is likely influenced by Steven Covey, but it’s intellectual health, physical health, social health, and spiritual health. Then we break down each one of those just to give one example. Physical health, exercise, sleep, good eating. Then each of the other ones is broken down. That’s my personal in-home mission statement, so to speak. Then just to give one example of the Uplift’s approach, one of the things that we list in our approach is about complimentary values.
We say that it’s not enough just to hold one value at the expense of another. For instance, courage is a great value, but if you grip to any value too tightly, it becomes a vice. Courage held too tightly becomes recklessness, and then caution can be a great value. Be careful. I saw that you had an article about that, but if you hold that too tightly, as you said in your article, it becomes paralyzing. You actually end up hurting your kid by gripping to that value so tightly, safety.
You want to find the right blend of courage and caution, and that is actually where you get healthy. That’s where you develop healthy systems in your family. That’s just one of the seven points in our roached Uplift is we say any virtue or value held too tightly becomes a vice.
Will: That’s a great lesson whether through Uplift or not, but that’s not something that we teach actively, I would say, or proactively unless you’re thinking about it. Be careful example, that was when we did happen to teach, but that is pretty much every vice or every virtue. It goes both ways. That’s a lesson that also your kids can start learning in a fairly complicated subject at a younger age, which is healthy because we’re always talking about, how we start at a young age by being open with each other, making sure we’re doing all we can because it doesn’t get easier. They don’t open up later magically.
A lot of that’s based on emotions, and I know that’s something that you guys also focus on and have your kids understand what they’re feeling, being able to express what they’re feeling. I’d love to hear your approach on emotions, and if that’s the right thread there.
Jon: Totally. Emotions are so important to work with, not even especially with kids, just period. I need so much help still in emotional help. What we do is help families first name emotions. My spouse is the illustrator at UpliftKids. We did a deck of 36 cards that each of them have a different emotion on it. We have them in four different groups, they’re grounded in happy, sad, angry, and calm. Then you have the surrounding emotions. Anyway, there are 36 emotions. The first thing is, you have to name it, have to be able to say, “Here’s this emotion. I’m going to name it when I feel it feels like this in my body.”
One of the games we play is, take a card and then do charades. Do emotions charades, you can do this with a fairly young kid. Our Adrian is like probably three or four at the youngest, but they can do this kind of thing with basic emotions. You say like, “Okay, you drew the card angry, act it out for us.” As they learn, I’m going to act it out. Here’s what it feels like in my body. Here’s an image of what it looks like, and here’s the name of the emotion. They start being able to name each one. Then you can say, okay, when this emotion happens, what’s a healthy reaction? This is where it becomes a practice, because we all mess up.
Anger by itself isn’t bad, sadness by itself isn’t bad, but often our reactions when we have those emotions in our body is bad. It hurts people and it hurts ourselves. It’s a matter of when it happens to say, try again. You were feeling angry and then you took it out in this way. You hit your sibling, try again. What is a healthy way to react when you feel anger in your body? Over and over and over again, it’s a lifelong process. Then as we practice it, we get better. We instantly recognize, oh, that’s anger. I know what to do when I feel angry, and then you have a healthy reaction.
Will: Right. Like you said, that’s something that parents can work on. One benefit it sounds like is that I can get in there and say, okay, how have I acted when I get angry? Is that the right approach? The other thing that’s interesting to me is, I’m not always the best at understanding my younger kids’ emotions that they have emotions like, why aren’t you listening to me or why are you so grumpy? As opposed to being, are you sad? Are you okay? Or going down the other road of, hey, what are these emotions? There’s more emotions out there.
That’s another benefit I would think there that I’m still working on, but can you make a curiosity? Very good. Before we wrap up, I want to hear more about UpliftKids, what the product is, and why you started it actually too because I know you’re one of the co-founders, which is very cool?
Jon: A group of us did a mindfulness program. It’s like a nine months program. Over the course of the nine months, we started talking about how much we like what we were learning as mindfulness and human development like how people grow up internally. We said, “Oh, this would be so great, if we could figure out a way to translate this for kids.” We took a lot of those principles and then we added in all the stuff about values and emotions, which were also things that we were exploring. We did several prototypes with groups of families, trying to figure out what would be most useful for the kind of family that would want this kind of thing.
We kept iterating and iterating and iterating. Finally, we landed on this product we have, which is a digital lesson library. We have, at this point more than 90 lessons, we have foundations lessons where we talk about our approach. We have lessons based on values. We have lessons based on wisdom practices, some of these practices that I’ve mentioned, but then also like journaling, singing, et cetera, just practices that have been part of the human experience for thousands of years in their own way. Then, we also have lessons on the world’s wisdom traditions. We pull from the world’s wisdom traditions as well as the latest scientific research on all of these topics.
The wisdom traditions would be like Stoicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Daoism, et cetera. It’s like, what our distant ancestors said about these things and what can we pull? It’s like the best of the best from these various traditions. Our kids learn the language of a variety of people and they also learn like, oh, humans have been thinking about these things for a long time. It’s all part of that same connection, connecting to the past so that they have a foundation to stand on. Then we also have lessons on holidays. Just short lessons to touch in and do something meaningful on a holiday together for like 5 or 10 minutes connect.
Will: Are these religious holidays or these–
Jon: Just religious holidays. We have a variety of holidays. Some might be like a different cultures holiday. You just learn all this. That’s interesting that this culture does this. Others are like in the US like Martin Luther King Day. The whole idea is that a family can sit down for like 15, 20 minutes, run through one of these lessons. If it sparks additional conversation, great, run with it. If not, just close it up. That was great. We had a 15-minute conversation about forgiveness.
What we found is that you can say, oh, I could just do this on my own and you can, but then often without structure, I’ll speak personally like I just don’t. I can get lost in the day-to-dayness of life. I’m like, oh yes, it’s been like six months and I haven’t sat down with my kid and really talk through how to be honest. We have that all set so that a parent can just sit down without any prep if they want, and just go through. We curate videos, we have activities, we have worksheets and stuff like that, that you can just sit down and do it at your own pace. You don’t have to finish the whole lesson. You can just pick and choose what you want from the lesson, start a conversation.
That’s the product. We have a journal and a calendar that have daily questions. You can have this ongoing conversation as a family about all of these things, and we just give parents the tools. Hopefully, it makes it easy to sit down and do it.
Will: I love that. Like we’re saying, there’s a lot of tools you can create your own, but a lot of us just don’t, or do and then don’t, so they keep it consistent.
Jon: We spend about 25 hours per lesson, building it and researching it and writing it. Somebody could spend time, but the ideal parent is somebody who we save them a lot of time, which is like it’s there. They can take what they want and they come on with it.
Will: I like that a lot. One more question actually, before we wrap up in terms of the product. Religion, how does religion fit when we’re talking about the kind of first themes we started, spirituality and values, and how does that fit in with what you guys do?
Jon: We hope to be supportive of whatever religious tradition somebody comes from. We also hope to be supportive if somebody doesn’t belong to a religious tradition. There are a lot of mixed-faith marriages and mixed-faith families. A lot of them have resonated very much with UpliftKids because it’s a way to talk about some of the things that are associated with religion, without making it about the religion. It also, like I said, honors a variety of approaches. You can pull from Daoism right next to Christianity and it’s not like, oh, one of these is the true way and one of these is the false way.
It’s like this teaching in Christianity of forgiveness is really beautiful. This teaching of Wu wei and Daoism is also really beautiful. You can hold these various religious traditions. Now, if somebody belongs to religion, they might favor their own when they’re teaching it and they might view it through that lens like, we’re Christian and so we believe X, Y, and Z, but it’s not a prerequisite to having any of these discussions at home.
Will: No, that’s great. It sounds like it can be complementary or additive, like you said, with mixed-faith marriages or marriages that don’t have faith per se that want faith, but just didn’t grow up with it or grew up with something that doesn’t resonate anymore. I love the idea of taking various threads to create that quilt of values that’s important to you for your family and yourself. I really appreciate you joining us here todayz, Jon. upliftkids.org is where we can find your website.
A lot of great content there, a lot of free content too, by the way. We got just great resources to help you think a little differently, at least for me than I was thinking about my family and how I spend my time. Appreciate it, Jon. Thanks again for joining us.
Jon: Thank you.