Author Archive for Kim Cameron-Smith

Farewell Post

After four and a half years, our ministry here at CAPC has come to an end.

CAPC has truly been a labor of love. I still believe in our mission of supporting Catholic parents who are seeking information and friendship as they try to live an attachment-minded lifestyle with their children. I always had a hard time finding other Catholic parents who were like me, who were figuring out day to day how connect their beliefs about parenting with their faith, who were making counter-cultural choices to prioritize the well-being of their children. My own life has simply become more complicated and my attention is being drawn elsewhere away from this site, particularly to the heart of my home and the relationships within it.

Ah, but all is not lost! You can still find great information and insights about gentle Catholic parenting at my personal gentle Catholic parenting website and we will continue to host our Facebook page, so be sure to visit us there! You can find links to our staff writers’ websites at the end of their bios on our About page.

God bless you and your families! Please pray for me and my family as I will pray for yours.

Kim Cameron-Smith

Top 5 Parenting Challenges & How to Deal with Them

92861969I like this interview with Rebecca Eanes, author of the book Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide (to be released in July 2016). Eanes talks about the top 5 parenting challenges as reported by parents, and how we can tweak our approach to addressing these challenges so we have a “more positive parenting experience.” I personally feel less concerned about my experience of my parenting than I do about my child’s experience of my parenting, but nonetheless this is good stuff. I like that Eanes considers the neuroscience of child development in presenting her advice and she understands the critical role of the parent-child connection when addressing any behavior issue.

Here’s a summary of her insights about the top 5 parenting challenges along with my own 2 cents:

1. Aggression

One minute our little darling is playing sweetly with our best friend’s child; the next minute . . . scratch, pow, bam! Aggression. It’s hard to watch in our own children.

Many parents struggle with their child’s aggression toward other children. Eanes cautions parents about responding to their child’s aggression with aggression, such as spanking. Instead, model self-control. She suggests “time-ins”: your child sits with you while he calms down. If he isn’t calm, his brain remains in a reactive state. When your child is finally calm, you can let him know how his aggression made his friend or sibling feel, and we can help him make amends. This helps him get out of his own head and experience to connect to others emotionally — he’s exercising those empathy muscles.

I’ve always preferred this concept of “time-ins” or “couch time” to time-outs where the child is sent to sit in a corner (or in the dreaded “naughty seat”) because the latter is much more punitive in tone. I also think we can consider not only what our child is doing – hitting, biting – but why he’s doing it. In my experience, that’s the most important thing to remember when looking for solutions to aggressive behavior. Does our child feel safe? Is the hitting and biting happening in preschool but not at home? Does it tend to happen with only particular children or with us? What’s going on in that relationship? If a child doesn’t feel safe and secure with a person, he will become aggressive. Fear is often at the heart of aggressive behavior even if our child looks mighty when he’s slapping the child next to them.

2. Tantrums

As the author points out, there’s a difference between a toddler and preschool-aged child’s tantrum and an older school-aged child’s “fit”. Young children frequently cannot manage their emotions — their big feelings rise up in them and they really are utterly overwhelmed. Once they get amped up to a particular state, they really can’t come down without our help. Yes, we can scare the daylights out of them by screaming at them and maybe they will calm down because they’re scared of us, but that doesn’t help them regulate their emotions in the long run. Eanes says, “Ultimately feelings cannot be punished away; they must be worked through. It comes down to determining why a tantrum is occurring and giving children the knowledge and skills needed to move beyond tantrums.”

With older kids, I recommend setting clear expectations about behavior especially in hot button situations. Eanes points out that sometimes older kids genuinely feel we are not respecting them or listening to them, so we can have compassion for their experience while still requiring respectful communication with us. But sometimes older kids also develop bad habits of manipulation. They figure out that they can get what they want if they ask for it for at the right time. Because we’re less likely to say no to their requests, they know to ask for extra computer time when we’re tired after dinner or to ask for candy in the check-out stand in the grocery store when we’re distracted. Then if we do say no, they realize they can throw a fit and we’ll be too tired or embarrassed to go on. We surrender. These kids aren’t bad; they’re just being resourceful!

Before you enter your hot-button situation, remind your child of your expectations: no candy at the check-out or no computer time after dinner. And then don’t give in. While you are rested and calm, explain to your older child how their behavior is making you feel and why you have set the imposed limitation (not to ruin their lives, but to make their lives better).

3. Whining

Most parents are worn down by constant whining, even the most gentle-minded parents. Eanes cautions against heading the traditional advice to ignore whining; we shouldn’t ignore anybody important to us. So true. She offers 4 approaches to handling whining:

1) Really listen to your child. All human beings have a need to be heard and understood. Kids are no different. Sometimes whining is the natural result of mom or dad being too preoccupied with their own affairs.

2) Look for the reason behind the whining. Sometimes we’re so irritated by the way our child is whining that we forget to ask ourselves why they are doing it. Kids might be hungry, tired, lonely, or bored. Sometimes they just need a snack or help putting on their shoes so they can play in the back yard.

3) Get your child to laugh. Larry Cohen has a whole book on responding to your child’s behavior problems through play and laughter. It’s superb. The great thing about this approach is that it not only interrupts the child’s behavior, but it gives us tools for strengthening our relationship with our child.

4) Ask your child to use a different tone of voice.

4. Not Listening

We want our kids to “listen” to us because we want them to cooperate with our expectations. However, perhaps we can reflect on how we’re communicating with them. “Nagging, lecturing, counting, and demanding do nothing to foster cooperation. Punishment or the threat of punishment may compel the child to act, but this isn’t real cooperation.”

The key to cooperation is a solid connection with a child. If we ensure we’re spending quality with them doing fun, positive activities we are more likely to have a cooperative tone in our relationship with them. How do we spend the majority of our time with our child? Are we lecturing them, telling them to do their homework and chores, reminding them of how they’ve disappointed us? If so, they will tune us out just like we do them when they are whining!

Those times when we are the “rule enforcer” should be far out-balanced by those times when we are building rapport with our child through positive, fun activities. If the majority of our time with our child is spent on things like games night, going for hikes together, cooking together, even just sitting around the dinner table chatting — whatever works for your relationship with your child — then our child is more likely to pay attention to what we’re saying when we need him to do his chores or get ready for bed.

5. Back Talk

What did he just say? Back chat, giving us lip, back talk; it makes us feel like our child doesn’t respect us and we want respect. Eanes recommends that we don’t shut our child down, but that we use the back talk as an opportunity to practice conflict resolution:

We are tempted to shut it down immediately in order to prove our authority, but children learn the valuable skill of conflict resolution by being in conflict with people, and that means firstly by being in conflict with parents. Rather than being quick to shut down back talk, we can use it as an opportunity to teach our children how to respectfully communicate their disagreement and state their case.

She suggests engaging with your child about what they want or need, but to still require respectful communication. You can come up with solutions that will work for everyone. I think this advice seems most applicable to older children. Very young children tend to back talk because they’re asserting their budding sense of independence – they realize at about age 3 that they are their own person. They want to press the boundaries and press our buttons so they can see how far they can go! With little children, I guess we can do some negotiating, but I think back talking at this stage is best handled by coaching in how to speak in a respectful manner while asking for what they want or need. Setting clear rules about respect and reminding our younger kids about those rules is important.

With older kids, we assume they already know how to communicate respectfully if we communicate with them respectfully, but sometimes they lack the practice and they get into the habit of back talking out of frustration. I would not engage with an older child who is back talking; I would tell them that what they have to say is important to me, but I will not engage with somebody who is being rude to me. If the foundation of the relationship is strong — if the connection and rapport are solid — then the child will want to work things out and will figure out that they are not getting accomplishing anything with back talking. If that basic foundation is weak, it doesn’t matter what we think or say — our older child won’t care if they’re hurting us. So the problem is the weak foundation in the relationship and the back talking is a symptom of that.

Benefits of Night Time Baths for Kids

Mary Cassatt The_Child's_BathLast night after a long day exploring a nearby bustling city, my Lydia (age 6) desperately needed a bath. Not only was she covered in city “dust”, but somehow a chocolate shake found its way down her leg. When she emerged from the tub, still sudsy and smelling like lavender, I helped her dry off, slathered a layer of lotion on her arms and legs, and popped her Hello Kitty jammies over her head.

It seemed a perfect way to the end a wonderful day together. I recalled her infant and toddler years when I gave her nightly baths as part of her bedtime routine. While she still has a good bedtime routine, baths are rarely part of it anymore. Her bathing has become more unpredictable. Sometimes she has baths on Saturday night so she’ll be spiffed up for Sunday Mass, but on weekdays I usually (but not always) put her in the tub in the morning to let her play while I get a little schoolwork done with her older siblings. She loves to pretend that she’s swimming and often takes in a snorkel and goggles. So, her bathing has become part of our school routine instead of our nighttime routine.

Of course there’s nothing really wrong with that, but last night I did think about the unique benefits of the nighttime bathing routine of her little years.

1. Baths Calm Kids and Help Them Sleep

Most of us give our small kids baths at night in an effort to get them to sleep (sometimes an effort born of desperation . . . ). We know from trial-and-error experience that a bath calms them down and helps them fall asleep once they are in bed. There is a simple scientific explanation for this. Warm bath water lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles, which is a very calming. It also slowly increases the body’s temperature, then when our child gets out of the tub, his body returns to a cooler state which releases melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep.

2. Baths Reduce Bedtime Conflict

Bedtime is extremely stressful in many families. Some kids resist going to sleep. They seem to possess some super-human ability to stay awake while their parents are so tired they can barely speak in coherent sentences.  These parents dread bedtime because they know they are about to engage in a battle that leaves them depleted. This isn’t good for the parents’ well-being or for their relationship with their child.

The first thing any parenting expert recommends to such parents is developing a consistent bedtime routine, including baths, brushing teeth, and stories. Routines provide young children with a sense of certainty and safety, which is necessary for their psychological well-being. Small children in particular benefit from knowing what to expect. When there’s too much unpredictability, kids can develop behavioral issues. When kids become accustomed to their bedtime routine, they are more willing to go with the flow the evening, including transitioning to bed. Routines don’t just help the parents get the kids into their bed; they help the kids ease into sleep.  One study in particular showed that bedtime routines not only help with the onset of sleep, but with the number of night wakings as well.

3. Baths Can Heal Irritated Skin

My two older children had eczema when they were younger and I know it affected their sleep. Many studies have shown that adult eczema patients have much higher rates of insomnia. I’ve never read any such studies that focus specifically on children, but it makes sense that kids with skin issues would have a harder time getting to sleep and staying asleep because they are distracted by discomfort and itching. I think night time baths can help, especially if you include bath salts. I’ve been taking salt baths for years, and I recently learned about the benefits of salt baths for children so I’ve switched to salt bathing for Lydia. Salt baths are particularly great for kids who have skin issues. You can even get bubbly sea salts now so that your kids don’t have to miss their bubbles.

4. Baths Are Fun!

Baths provide us with a fun, easy way to connect with our kids right before bed. The sky is the limit for bath fun. Give your kids strainers, cups, spoons, building blocks, bath crayons, and lots of bubbles. When my kids were small, I even read to my kids while they were in the tub.

Fortunately, we no longer have any resistant sleepers in our house and we have a consistent bedtime routine. My husband is the star of the night time routine. He gives our kids a snack, helps the small kids brush their teeth, reads them all a story, and tucks them into bed. But he has never been one to give them baths. When they were little, I would bathe them before he got home from work, so they were in their jammies and ready for Daddy’s routine. But now Lydia is the only one who takes baths; the others all shower. But when I remember the benefits of bathing not just for babies and toddlers, but for older kids and even grown-ups, I think I might suggest it to them, especially when they’ve had a long or hard day. At the very least, I’ll let Lydia snorkel in the tub at night instead of — or perhaps in addition to — the morning from now on!

Please Go Home Now (or How to Balance Your Child’s Need for Friendship with Your Own Need for Sanity)

teen friends“I need to get some more friends. I want my friends around all the time but sometimes my friends are too busy doing other stuff.” This remark was made this week by my 10-year-old son about 45 minutes after his and his 12-year-old sister’s five friends left our home to return to their own families. We had hosted them for six hours. I was exasperated and a little annoyed.

How much more can I do to encourage and support your friendships? Why can’t we just be together as a family and it’s enough for you? Why can’t I have a whole day without other people’s children at my house? That’s what I was thinking. Not very charitable.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I love being “that house” where tons of kids come to hang out. I am delighted that my kids’ friends feel comfortable here and that I get to witness the unfolding of these lovely relationships, including the Lego building, Nerf wars, and lemonade stands. But sometimes I just want to lock my door and be alone with my family for a while. I want to put on my old flannel bathrobe, put my feet up on the coffee table, read a good (or even lousy) book, and enjoy the sound of nothing. At least nothing but my 4 kids, 2 chickens, dog, and husband.

My kids are maturing. When I started this blog, I had a new teenager and my other three children were still pretty small. My Lydia was only 2. Now my kids are 6, 10, 12 (almost 13), and 17. I’ve entered a new stage this last year as my older children are pressing to new phases of individuation and independence. My oldest child, Aidan, has friends and he’s always been interested in hanging out with them, but only a few times a week. He never had this impulse for constant contact with them like my two middle children have for their friends. I think Aidan is an introvert like my husband and me.  He says he needs lots of time alone to be happy. So do I, which is why the habits of the two middle kids sometimes challenges me and pushes me beyond my comfort zone.

The Desire for Friendship Is a Sign of God in Our Children

When my children ask to have their friends over for play dates or sleepovers, I nearly always say yes or I tell them when I will be able to say yes. We have kids at our house nearly every day and somebody sleeps over at our home nearly every weekend. Because we homeschool, it’s important to me that my children never feel they were deprived of chances to socialize and make friends. Particularly with the two middle children (my social butterflies), I strive to see their perspective. I know that my need for alone time may be far greater than theirs. I recognize that they may simply have different a temperament from my own, they may genuinely need more time with their friends than I ever did when I was their age.  I want to be open-minded and flexible.

I can see how in so many ways, their desire to be close to their friends is a sign of God in them. The desire to be known, understood, and accepted is uniquely human. Our yearning for friendship is natural because we are not meant to be alone; we can never be whole without communion and love. Our friendships remind us of how God feels about us and how he wants us to feel about him. He doesn’t want us to fear him, to avoid him; he wants us to hang out with him, to let our guard down. He’s the kind of friend who laughs at your bad jokes because he hears the joke the way you meant it, not the way it comes out.

God even uses our friends to reveal to us things we wouldn’t otherwise notice about others, the world, ourselves, and God. Friendships are little sacraments, a sign of God’s special graces and the instrument of some of his best surprises for us. I can use my children’s affection for their human friends to teach them these deeper truths about The Great Friend.

When Friendships Hurt Our Kids

On the other hand, we all know from our own experience that the devil can use our relationships to ensnare us; they can become an instrument of darkness. Wise parents have an awareness of two things when it comes to their kids’ friends: 1) the health of the dynamics between the child and their friends and 2) the balance in their homes between family and outside friends.

What makes for healthy or unhealthy friendships?

  • In healthy friendships, our child is able to be himself, and he’s able to grow and change as he matures. In unhealthy friendships, our child is fearful of being himself, and the other friend feels threatened by our child’s new interests or developing abilities.
  • In healthy friendships, our child is free to have other friends. In unhealthy friendships, our child doesn’t nourish new friendships because her current friend becomes jealous.
  • In unhealthy friendships, our child is free to form her own opinions. In unhealthy friendships, one friend sets the standards for acceptable opinions and the other friend feels compelled to agree with those opinions for fear of rejection.
  • In healthy friendships, our child feels nourished and enlivened by the relationship. In unhealthy friendships, our child feels drained and exhausted after being with the friend.
  • In healthy friendships, friends can trust each other and count on one another. In unhealthy friendships, one of the friends may betray confidential conversations, frequently let the other friend down, or lie and manipulate.

I’ll continue to watch for these things, but I think my kids have pretty healthy friendships in terms of the dynamics between them and their friends. I don’t see any big issues with boundaries, trust, or physical and emotional safety.  However, I think their attitude toward their friendships may need some adjusting and that we need to find a better balance between friend-time and alone-time.

Find Your BFF (Balanced Family First)

Kids need space and time to think, to grow, to settle back into themselves after being with others, particularly their peers. You can get the impression from watching t.v. or reading magazines that it is normal for kids to spend every waking hour with their friends, or to talk to them on the phone, text with them, or think about them every minute that they are not physically with them. If children really can’t tolerate being alone, if they become uncomfortable without peers around, there is a problem with that child’s self-perception, emotional adjustment, or relationship with her parents.

Some kids rely on their peers for their sense of identity and meaning, and this is unhealthy. Even though it’s normal for kids to want to be with friends, emotionally healthy children still trust their parents more than anyone else; their parents are their “secure base” even though they enjoy and cherish their friends. They hang out with friends, but they have a natural tendency to return to their parents’ company in order to “check in” emotionally. I need to remind myself that, while I am responsible for helping my kids nourish their friendships, I’m also responsible for helping them build habits that allow for a good balance between friend time and alone time.

I want to remember, too, that in healthy, family-centered homes, the needs of all family members are taken into account. Naturally I prioritize the needs of my children to my own, because they are younger and more vulnerable than me. But my needs count, too. My kids have a legitimate need for friendship but I also have a legitimate need for down time, for refueling. I hope I can do a better job at balancing these conflicting needs. And there is a difference between a legitimate need and a mere desire. I need to facilitate my children’s friendships because this is a real need, but I can meet that need without consenting to all their desires for play dates.

So, when the two middle kids ask to have friends over, I simply have to say no more often. They will not break open and dissolve into a vapor. I need to remind them that the “other stuff” their friends are doing is usually spending time with their families, visiting relatives, doing chores, practicing their musical instruments, working on history projects, figuring out a computer programming conundrum, “stuff” like that.  Their friends possess many opportunities and gifts apart from my children, and my children, the wonderful friends that they are, really want that for their friends. I’m sure their friends want that for them, too.

Image credit: nenetus (freedigitalphotos.com)

Divine Mercy for Parents

Here’s an updated and revised version of my Divine Mercy reflection from 2014!

*****

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter.

What is “Divine Mercy” anyway? I think understanding Divine Mercy can help us in our parenting vocation. Father Ed Broom wrote a great summary of the main principles of the doctrine of Divine Mercy on Catholic Exchange that really helped me recognize the connection.

1. God Is Rich in Mercy

God’s greatest attribute/virtue is His mercy. No matter how grave and numerous our sins, God is always ready and willing to forgive us if we simply say: “Jesus I am sorry and forgive me!” In a heartbeat Jesus is ready to forgive even the worst of sinners.

The more I understand myself as a disciple of Christ, the more I am forced to shed habits that harm my relationship with my children and my husband. I have failed too often in my mothering: I failed to love, failed to be generous, failed to give. I have fallen as a wife, forgetting to give, refusing to forgive. It’s hard to face the truth of my own failure sometimes, but when I do I open myself up to conversion, to renewal, and to mercy.

Recognizing this reality of who I am, it would be human of me to give up, to despair. True conversion is about seeing the truth of our darkness and failure, but also our potential for goodness when we turn to God, when we commit ourselves to his path, to his will for us. True conversion is also about recognizing that mercy is total gift, nothing that I deserve or have earned.

2. We Must Be Merciful

If we want to receive the mercy of God, then this is a two-way street, we in turn must be willing to forgive those who have hurt us and be merciful. Jesus once again teaches us: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”

Catholic parents, no matter their views on parenting style, should treat their children with mercy. This takes two forms: we forgive their trespasses and we relieve their need or suffering. These two aspects of mercy are related to two of the 7 Building Blocks to a Joyful Catholic Home: gentle discipline and responding with empathy.

Merciful/Gentle Discipline: Doesn’t justice require a harsh consequence for harsh infractions? Shouldn’t kids get what they deserve when they do something wrong? Isn’t God a god of justice? Yes, but his justice is always balanced by loving mercy.

When justice isn’t tempered by mercy, cruelty can result. God takes everything into consideration and tries to reach our hearts. We should treat our children the same way. Extending mercy toward our child doesn’t mean we let him “get away with” things. It means we take everything into consideration: his state of mind, his maturity level, his perspective of a situation even if he is wrong on the facts.

When we respond with mercy, we really reach his heart because we have the big picture in mind. We aren’t focused on punishing him, but rather on the unfolding of his character and the strength of his trust in us and God. We shape his character through guidance and mentoring in the virtues. In particular, when he’s old enough, we explain which virtue was missing in his actions and how he can exercise those virtue muscles in similar situations in the future.

Empathy: Mercy is not only about forgiving others for their offenses; it’s also about relieving their needs and suffering. This kind of mercy requires empathy – the gift we use to know another person.

Sometimes as parents we assume we know what our child feels or needs, and we attempt to remedy the situation only to find we didn’t understand our child’s experience very well. We assumed what he needed based on our own perspective. Through empathy, we can understand and respond to our child’s needs and feelings better. Sometimes this amounts to asking him a few questions, learning a little about child development, or just doing our best to comfort him when we don’t have clear answers about why he’s sad or angry. Even without clear answers, we can mirror his experience for him: “I can tell you are angry. Should we sit down for a while in our quiet corner together?” or “Oh I am so sorry you’re feeling sad. When I’m sad I need a hug. Do you need a hug?” Children internalize this mirroring and affirmation and over time they’re able to regulate their own emotional experiences.

3. Confession

God’s mercy is manifested most abundantly upon our soul when we have recourse to the Sacrament of Confession which can also be called the Sacrament of God’s mercy. Jesus expresses mercy in the person of the priest. If you have not been to confession in years, return. Jesus the merciful Savior is gently and patiently waiting for you.

If you are queasy about the idea of Confession, just remember that it’s more an opportunity than an obligation. Scott Hahn penned a beautiful reflection on the Sacrament of Confession that I recommend highly. He helps us see how practicing Confession is meant to move us along in our spiritual development, not make us miserable.

I wrote a guest post over on Dr. Greg’s blog about how to raise children who love Confession. I offer three tips: 1) Use gentle discipline methods because “how we respond to our children when they fall short of our expectations or rules will create a model in their minds for how God responds to them when they seek his forgiveness.” 2) Focus on helping your child identify what kind of person he wants to become rather than what sins he should avoid (reaching for greater heights rather than just avoiding the gutter). 3) Help him develop greater spiritual awareness through a daily examination of conscience.

4. Daily Acts of Mercy

Divine Mercy Sunday was instituted by Pope John Paul II in honor of Saint Faustina who received visions of Jesus and had conversations with him throughout her life. She recorded many of their conversations in her diary. Christ stressed to her that understanding mercy intellectually is important, but we also need to practice mercy every day. He gave three specific daily practices: praying for others, offering words of kindness, and offering deeds of kindness.

Imagine what our homes would be like if we really put these suggestions into practice? These daily acts require no extra time in our day, but they set the tone for how we live together and treat others beyond our front door. This modeling so important for raising children who are naturally merciful and kind.

5. Divine Mercy Devotional Practices

Father Broom explains several Divine Mercy practices that I had never known about or understood (I may not understand them clearly yet; let me know if I goof!). Here’s a summary:

  • Divine Mercy Image: In one of her visions, St. Faustina saw Jesus with two rays of light coming forth from his heart — one ray was red, the other blue. He instructed her to have a painting made of this image and promised to protect those who venerated it.

divine mercy

  • Prayer at 3:00. 3:00 is the hour of mercy because our merciful Savior died at that hour. Perhaps we busy parents can say a short prayer at 3:00 no matter where we are, asking for God’s mercy and searching our hearts for any resentments or anger toward others we are holding on to that day. An Our Father or the Divine Mercy chaplet, perhaps?
  • Divine Mercy Chaplet: This is a beautiful, stirring chaplet; some of the prayers come from Saint Faustina’s diary. Here’s a link to instructions on praying the chaplet.
  • Divine Mercy Novena: This Novena was established through the instructions Jesus gave to Saint Faustina; there are different intentions for each day of the Novena. Here’s a link to instructions and all nine intentions.

You can find lots of ideas for crafts and food for Divine Mercy Sunday on the internet. Catholic Icing has a darling idea for a “Divine Mercy Sundae”. In addition to reading St. Faustina’s diary, don’t forget that Pope Francis wrote a book on mercy. I highly recommend it!

Paying Attention During Lent: Encouragement for Exhausted Parents

paying attention during lent

In this terrific reflection over on God In All Things, Tony Krzmarzick reflects on how busy he is and how this affects him spiritually. He works intensively as a campus minister all day, then he returns home to face chores, cooking, and other duties. It seems unending to him:

Between work and home, I could spend all my time working on something. All of this work wearies me and leaves me exhausted.”

That’s how I feel sometimes. Between teaching my own children, teaching other folks’ children, engaging in volunteer work in my community and parish and attending to sick family, scraped knees, dirty dishes, and piles of laundry, I could work non-stop 24 hours a day. And I’d still have tasks left over!  Then let’s throw in updating our kitchen, family outings, fun sewing projects, and the many other things that make life delicious but also busier.

Lately I’ve been tired. Sometimes tired and grumpy.  I don’t like it.  I wonder if I am over-committed but everything I do is important; I can’t imagine what I would give up without hurting somebody. But if I’m hurting myself, I won’t be much good to anybody. In my gentle parenting ministry, I often urge parents to find balance and to carve out moments of peace every, single day. I wonder if I’m doing a poor job of following my own advice.

I’m really truly wondering, considering, and praying about this during Lent. Yes, it’s Lent. This is a time when I should be slowing down, taking a Great Pause, to reflect and pray, yet I feel like I’m struggling more than ever to find time for sincere, focused prayer. Lent seems to have got sucked into my lungs and I can’t breathe out. I want my Lent to be meaningful and full of epiphanies, but I’m still waiting. Waiting and a little tired.

Krzmarzick says he finds comfort in the Scripture passage “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt.11:28)” but he wonders why he has to hit a wall before he can turn to Christ for rest.

And God wants to give us rest because it is good and holy and necessary, not just when we are tired and weary from our labor, and not just when we need it and can’t go on without taking a break. We need regular rest because when we stop to rest we remember our blessings, and when we feel blessed, we turn to God in praise.

We need rest not just to recover from all that hard work we’re doing, but so that we can pay attention. When we are crazy busy it’s certainly harder to pay attention, especially when we work ourselves into the ground. God needs our attention to reveal himself. Krzmarzick shares that he gives God that attention through quiet meditation. He takes ten minutes to close his eyes, calm his mind, settle his heart, and rest so that he can notice God holding him in his hands.

While I agree with him, two things come to mind.  First, sometimes busy-ness is unavoidable, even the busy-ness that brings us to our knees. Parents with young babies who parent responsively and with great generosity are demonstrating extraordinary courage, patience, and fortitude. It’s hard. Sometimes we don’t sleep enough. Our bodies hurt. But we are doing the right thing. This is very different from the parent who is exhausted because they don’t know how to say “no” or they are over-committed because of pride or greed, however subtle.

Whether our exhaustion is a sign of spiritual trouble depends on several things, especially our motivations. Why are we doing what we’re doing? That’s what we need to ask ourselves if we are nearing an empty tank. Are our choices motivated by love or fear? Are our choices making it easier or harder to love God, others, and ourselves?

Second, we can encounter God’s grace and mercy even amidst the chaos and noise of a house full of kids. Hopefully we can carve out some time every day for contemplative, restful, engaged prayer, but some days that’s a tall order. For some parents, closing their eyes for ten minutes seems unthinkable because they have several little ones crawling on their lap and hugging their legs. But we can still tap into those graces. We can pay attention not just during a ten-minute quiet time on the couch in the morning, but even during our ordinary tasks, even when we are feeling drawn away from God by our busy-ness.

In many ways, God is most evident to me in these real, messy, loud moments. In ordinary exchanges with my children, through the give and take of living together, every now and then grace breaks in and I am surprised, astonished by some small truth, and I realize what a gift my life is, what a gift each moment is with my family. If I can practice looking for God in these moments and preparing my heart for such encounters, I know they will come. Even when I’m running on empty, I can feel God holding me in his hand right there while the kids are wrestling on the sofa or riding their bikes on my lawn or putting beetles on the kitchen counter. I don’t always need complete quiet in order to find rest. To find peace-amidst-chaos, I do have to pay attention, to be fully present in the moment. Sometimes we can be physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. Our kids can draw us out of this funk.

But the fact remains, we do need rest. Even the very busiest of parents. As Krzmarzick points out, we are made for rest, we do indeed find God in rest. Even Jesus rested. As I consider my Lent so far, I am looking at my calendar and I’m examining my motivations and deep desires. I think my motivations are good, but sometimes I take on tasks because I fear what somebody will think of me if I refuse a request for help. Worse, sometimes I am seeking admiration or approval when I take on a commitment. Sometimes – maybe usually – the good and bad motivations are there at the same time. This is part of my psychological makeup and it stinks. These habits are improving over time with the grace of God, but I will probably always tend to do too much for the wrong reasons at times.

This Lent, I need to breathe out and I feel I can’t quite do it. I’m stuck on inhale. Sometimes this kind of unrest occurs when we are in a state of spiritual expectation and transition. I’m trying to find a Lenten release, but whether that feels like I’m suffocating or just waiting in expectation depends entirely on my motivations and my relationship with God.  Am I avoiding him or moving toward him? Am I seeking him or self-seeking? God is working on my heart, asking me to look at my choices and my assumptions about what I need and what my family needs to thrive.

I will continue to wait, to consider these things, and to pay attention with God’s assistance. And, of course, part of that journey should include the rest that Krzmarzick is talking about.

Lenten Sacrifices: How Do We Explain Them to Our Kids?

crucifixion of jesus

As we begin Lent, I’m thinking this week about Lenten sacrifices. What is the purpose of our Lenten sacrifices and how do we communicate to our children about that purpose?

When I returned to the Church many years ago, I had very gloomy image of Lent.  I saw Lenten sacrifices as something very negative, something to dread. I am grateful that my spiritual director helped me understand Lenten sacrifices in a relational way.  He explained that quite often our attachments to things or behaviors are getting in the way of our relationship with others, including God. So we make a special effort during Lent to put aside these attachments so they don’t distract us from caring for ourselves and our relationships.  This dying to the self is a practice that we will continue for our entire lives, but Lent is a good time for a special “house cleaning”; we can pause and really look at where we are with God.

Of course, Lenten sacrifices are also a means to charitable giving.  Traditionally, Christians abstained from meat during Lent partly so that they could use the money they saved on meat to give to the poor, to those who couldn’t afford meat.  I think we’ve lost this original meaning in Catholic culture, so that others see us as a self-punishing, masochistic bunch.

So, with my own kids, I try to remind them of this deeper meaning of Lenten sacrifices. We sacrifice things that are hurting our relationships or are preventing us from growing closer to God. We can also use the money we save on desserts or toys to meet a need in our community.  If our kids are too young to understand this concept, I wonder why we are encouraging them to give up desserts or their toys.  My concern: If our primary explanation to our kids for Lenten sacrifices goes something like “Jesus suffered, so we want to suffer with him,” I wonder if we are sending an unfortunate message to them. Are we saying that Jesus wants them to suffer because he suffered? I think I had this impression as a young woman and that is why my first Lent after returning to the Church was not liberating in the way it is for some folks.

 When my friend Kathryn’s mom had cancer, Kathryn was going to shave her hair off as her mom faced chemotherapy. All her hair – gone! She was doing this to walk in solidarity with her mom when her hair began to fall out.  She was willing to suffer with her mom not for the suffering’s sake, but because she loved her mother and wanted to support her in her time of need.  She didn’t want to suffer so that she would love her mom more; she was willing to suffer because she already loved her mom so much that she couldn’t help but make this offering. Kathryn’s mom ended up seeking alternative cancer treatment and never had chemotherapy after all, but Kathryn’s love for her mom and her willingness to shave off her hair to show her mom that “we’re in this together” is very different from Kathryn wanting to suffer or to get cancer herself so that she could know and love her mom better. She already knew and loved her mom, and the offering of sacrifice was a mature and extraordinary way of showing it.

Some of you will disagree with me here, and I welcome your engagement on this issue. (But please be respectful and civil. My feelings can be hurt like everyone else’s.) Maybe Kathryn’s sacrifice is exactly like giving up candy or beer or computer games. Maybe giving up these things is precisely the kind of solidarity Kathryn wanted to show to her mother and that Jesus wants from us. But it seems different to me.  I, as a grown-up, am still moving to that place spiritually where I want to identify fully with the suffering Christ. That is at the top of the spiritual maturity ladder and I’m nowhere near that.

My goal as the spiritual director of my kids is to help them love Jesus more, to draw closer to him, to want to know him as a real person who cares about them. Yes, I hope they eventually love Jesus enough to die for him on their own cross, but they are still so young. First I need to lead them to love and to mercy, and then to a willingness to live in pain for Jesus. But I guess don’t want to start with the pain. I don’t think the pain will make them love Jesus more.  The fact is, life brings with it suffering. Ordinary life gives me plenty of opportunity to teach my kids about offering their sufferings to God. I don’t want them to seek out suffering or to think in some way that they need to want suffering in order to be a good Christian.

Perhaps I can do with my own little directees as my spiritual director did with me when I returned to the Church: I can talk to them about the things in their lives that are making it harder for them to love themselves, other people, and God. I can lead them in love, with gentleness, to practice little sacrifices in these areas. But I would still want to teach this in the context of their growing affection for Jesus.

 What do you think?

The Problem with Over-Praising Your Child

ID-100297265How dare I throw cold water on praise? Doesn’t every loving, caring parent praise her child? Yes!  And for the most part, praise is great for kids but overpraising (constant, exaggerated praise even for small efforts) can have unexpected negative consequences on our child’s well-being.

Let me say right up front, every parent probably over-praises on occasion (including yours truly), so if you have this habit, know you have plenty of company!

1.  The problem with over-praising

Overpraising can sound so phony to a child that it does little to nothing to increase her well-being. On some level, she knows that what you are saying does not correlate to what she has done.

You can inadvertently train your child to constantly seek your approval: she doesn’t feel okay unless she hears you cheer, “WOW! GREAT JOB!”  Over-praise can also give a child an unhealthy sense of entitlement – that life should be easy and everyone should admire her no matter what she does.

If a child already has a low self-esteem, over-doing the praise actually makes the problem worse. These kids interpret exaggerated praise as expectation and they end up feeling afraid to fail. So they either pick easy tasks or they don’t engage in challenges at all.

2.  How children develop self-esteem

Parents who over-praise are well-meaning, loving parents. They just want to bolster their child’s self-esteem and encourage them to succeed. Especially when a child is struggling to feel good about themselves or their abilities, it’s understandable that a parent would want to pour on the praise.  But here is how we really build our child’s self-esteem:

Love kids unconditionally. We often assume a child’s self-esteem only comes from being successful at something. But self-esteem also requires a deep sense that we are lovable and worthy no matter what we do. That’s unconditional love; love without strings attached. Self-esteem blossoms when our kids know they don’t have to do anything or even behave a particular way in order for us to love them.

Allow kids to take risks doing things they love. Help your child find his gifts and talents, and give him the freedom to do hard things with those gifts. Sometimes he will do well, sometimes not, but if he knows you will support him regardless his performance, then he will continue to strive, develop grit, and build his talents.

Be a child’s mental coach. Kids need the opportunity to do things on their own, even to make big mistakes, but they also need our guidance when faced with something that is really too much for them intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Children learn how to confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles through our guidance and gentle support. Over time, our encouragement – the messages we gave them — will become internalized and second nature to them. Eventually they will gain confidence when faced with obstacles.

3. The effective use of praise

We can nurture our child’s self-esteem through praise, too, but it should be realistic and sincere if we want to be effective. A few tips:  focus more on a child’s effort rather than the result of his efforts (“You worked hard on your painting” rather than “Your painting is incredible!”). This is called process praise. Point out specific things that you like about his project (“I love how you painted little birds landing on the house”) and ask him questions about what he’s doing (“How did you get the feathers to look so fluffy?).

This approach lets him know that what he’s doing is interesting to you, and that you are really paying attention to something he cares about. This engaged interest is far more powerful for instilling self-esteem than trumpeting accolades that are unrealistic.

The 12 Days of Christmas (Catholic Style!)

12 days of christmasHappy Christmastide! Did you know the “Christmas season” for Catholics is not the weeks prior to Christmas (as advertisements would have us believe) ending on Christmas Day? Nope, we’re just getting started with the celebration!

Christmas Season in the Church begins on Christmas Day and lasts for 40 days, ending on February 2 (“Candlemas”). “Christmastide” is the 12 days following Christmas, including the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on the Octave of January 1 and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (traditionally anyway; in some countries Epiphany is observed on the Sunday nearest to January 6). Over on our sister site, Intentional Catholic Parenting, I’ve posted some great links to help your family celebrate the Solemnity of Mary and Epiphany, so check it out.

And for those of you who love trivia, here’s a fun little key to the 18th century song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with suggestions for how the song teaches Catholic doctrine (from Ann Ball’s Catholic Sacramentals).

Partridge in a pear tree        Jesus Christ, symbolized as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from helpless nestlings.

Two turtle doves                    Old & New Testaments

Three French Hens               Faith, hope, charity

Four Calling birds                 The Four Gospels

Five Golden Rings                 The Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy)

Six geese a laying                   Six days of creation

Seven Swans a swimming     7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Eight maids a-milking           8 Beatitudes

Nine Ladies Dancing             Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

Ten Lords a-leaping              10 Commandments

Eleven pipers piping             The 11 faithful disciples

12 drummers drumming      12 articles of the Apostles Creed

TENDER TIDINGS Winter 2015 Now Available! Free!

The winter issue of our beautiful, free magazine, Tender Tidings, is now available! Our topic: grandparents!

Grateful Parent, Happy Parent

gratitude

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmastime. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” — G.K. Chesterton

All parents want to be happy and God wants that for us, too.  There are obstacles to our happiness, though.  We can fall into the trap of believing that once our baby sleeps through the night we will be happy. Or when we move into that larger home. Or when our toddler matures and stops throwing tantrums. We wait and hope for that moment when we will have the right house, the right job, the right behavior in our child. Of course this is an illusion.

One of the best ways to thrive as a parent has nothing to do with anything in our external environment. It boils down to our attitude, our perspective, our deepest beliefs about our life as parents. In particular, the happiest parents are those who cultivate gratitude, who recognize the many gifts they receive as parents – gifts they never expected, asked for, or deserved.

1. Why being grateful makes us happier

Scientists only really began to study gratitude in the last 10 to 20 years, but their findings are pretty startling. Many psychologists once believed that humans are born with a “set point” for happiness and that nothing we do can change it much. But the research on gratitude contradicts this viewpoint. People who cultivate gratitude in their lives experience measurable increased happiness, decreased depressions and anxiety, and better interpersonal relationships. Here’s a great article over at Psychology Today that provides a nice overview of gratitude research.

Apparently Americans express gratitude less readily than people in other cultures. Perhaps we struggle with gratitude because we so value independence and self-sufficiency while gratitude by definition requires us to recognize that somebody has given something to us that we have not earned, that we owe somebody a debt of thanks for a gift received. Gratitude is always other-directed. You can be proud of yourself, angry at yourself, or love yourself, but you can’t really be grateful to yourself.

I think this is why gratitude is so powerful in transforming us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. God made human beings for communion and connection, and a grateful spirit allows us to move more easily outside our little shells to acknowledge one another, to embrace some other. We, for a moment at least, acknowledge that we are better off because of another person, that we get by only because of the work, generosity, and gifts of others. Gratitude feels good and leads to a better life because it allows us to be more human.

2. Gratitude 101: Recognizing and acknowledging gifts

We all have habits that make it hard for us develop real gratitude in our parenting. One of the big ones is viewing ourselves as victims of our children’s choices and habits. We may also have an unconscious sense of entitlement: we think we deserve a particular life or child we don’t have! Or perhaps we are not willing to see our own part in the struggles we have with our children. Are we inconsistent with rules, boundaries, and expectations? Do we yell too much? Shop or drink too much?

We can change these habits. Cultivating gratitude is a choice, not just an emotion. We can choose to become more grateful parents: we can cultivate the habit of gratitude and before we know it, we will be happier parents, able to recognize the spectacular gift we have received in each of our children, more alert to the graces of God in ordinary moments with our kids.

Being grateful requires us to recognize a gift and then to acknowledge it. How does this work for parents? Here are some practical tips for becoming a more grateful parent:

Journaling: Consider keeping gratitude a journal. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to write about five that occurred during the day that you are grateful for. I think this is a great idea for developing a heightened awareness of the good things of life that might go unnoticed because we are distracted or inattentive.

Prayer: Spiritual directors often tell their directees that the first step in spiritual growth is to foster a grateful heart. When I learned about the practice of the Ignatian daily examen prayer, I was told that the first step in the prayer is simply a gesture of gratitude. Megs Blackie over at Ignatius Spirituality explains:

“Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying ‘thank you.’ Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.”

To savor and to celebrate. That is the heart of gratitude. Sin often begins with a failure to recognize God’s gifts, a failure to give thanks. So the first step of the examen prayer is to reflect back over our day almost like a movie being replayed. We pause and meditate on any interactions or struggles that really stand out. We pause and reflect on these moments, look for and acknowledge God’s grace at work.

Visual reminders: Gratitude mentors encourage us to place visual reminders of gratitude around our homes. These might be little plaques or word clouds about gratitude, or perhaps something tangible that symbolizes some gift we want to honor. My youngest daughter Lydia likes to give my wee flowers that are so tiny I can hardly place them in a bud vase without drowning them. When I place these on the window sill above our kitchen sink, it is a reminder of my gratitude for her sweet gestures of affection. I am currently planning a quilt made from some of my children’s old clothing, particularly their baby clothes. If I ever manage to finish it, it will be a visible, cuddly reminder to be grateful for the unfolding of my children’s lives. My older daughter Claire made several painted river rocks over the summer. I think placing a painted gratitude rock on a tray on a nightstand would be a simple, lovely reminder to count our blessings.

3. Gratitude even on bad days?

What about really horrible, frustrating days? Can we find gratitude on these days? Absolutely. Here’s a great reminder from Henri Nouwen:

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart responds with bitterness . . . I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and grimaces of hatred.”

The fun, sweet times with our kids are easy to spot as graces we can be grateful for, but even the crummy stuff holds special graces. Maybe you had a flat tire and your van was filled with hungry, tired kids. While inconvenient, upon reflection you may remember that the tow truck guy was pleasant and humorous and made you smile. This is a grace for which we can be grateful. An argument with a child might lead to greater understanding between the two of you or you perhaps recognize some habit in yourself that isn’t working in your relationship. We can be grateful for these insights despite the discomfort of the argument.

Our perspective shapes our experience of parenting. When you’re a parent, inevitable frustrations and challenges arise, but how you perceive the situation can change your physical and emotional reaction to your children. When you perceive yourself as a victim, as not getting something you earned or deserve as a parent, you can become resentful. Before long your whole experience of parenting has soured and you have a hard time recognizing how privileged you are to be a mom or dad.

Recognizing the many things we have to be grateful for as we raise our particular children, in our particular home, on this particular day will make us happier parents no matter the challenges we encounter. Gratitude is the greatest enemy of resentment, period. Developing a habit of looking for graces and offering our gratitude increases our awareness of the way God is always active in our lives, how he always accompanies us on our parenting journey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Resources for Your Gratitude Practice

Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons. The science of gratitude and how to practice it.

Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer by David Steindl-Rast. “Waking up to the surprise that we live in a given world means coming alive. Awareness of this surprise is the beginning of gratefulness.”

Of Medal of Honors and Saints by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM

Editors note: A reflection by Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, with permission of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

veterans day

Military heroes move me. At Baltimore–Washington International Airport I’ve cried. Once it was when I stood with others at attention as a fallen hero in a flag-draped coffin was carried to his final flight home.

Another time was when I met veterans in red tee-shirts and blue baseball caps in wheelchairs, in town to visit the World War II memorial.

Heroes came to mind most recently when I learned that five military chaplains since the Civil War awarded the Medal of Honor were Catholic priests. One of them, Fr. Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Kansas, died as a prisoner of war in Korea. Another, Fr. Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest from Staten Island, New York, died when, despite his own war injuries, he tended injured Marines during battle in Vietnam. The Navy named the USS Capodanno after him. The Church has named both “Servants of God,” a step toward becoming an officially recognized saint. That’s achievement on two fronts.

The three other Medal of Honor winners have dramatic stories too. Fr. Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest and Navy chaplain in World War II, ministered to injured sailors on a ship hit by two bombs. He worked to jettison bombs close to exploding and led a group on a dangerous mission to water down other ammunition hot enough to explode. The Navy named the USS O’Callahan after him.

Fr. Charles J. Watters, from New Jersey, served in Vietnam. He rescued wounded men at the Battle of Dak To. He ran through intense gunfire to help wounded soldiers. He carried one man to safety. Once though, injured himself, he moved about war zone to apply bandages and give food and water to other wounded. He died in the worst “friendly-fire” incident in Vietnam when he and 41 others were hit by shrapnel when a 500-pound bomb dropped by a Marine fighter hit a tree over the US command post.

Fr. Angelo Liteky, who later changed his first name to “Charles,” won his medal for carrying 20 wounded soldiers to safety during intense fighting on a search and destroy mission in Vietnam. Afterward, he became a peace activist, left the priesthood in 1975, and renounced his medal in 1986. It’s on display at the National Museum of American History.

Veterans Day, November 11, prompted me to touch base with seminarians who hope to emulate chaplain heroes.

James Hinkle, at North American College, Rome, comes from a Navy family and was Navy ROTC at the University of Notre Dame. He served in several positions in the Navy but the call to the priesthood dogged him.

“It was my absolute privilege to serve in the US Navy. Now I look forward to rejoining the fleet as a chaplain,” he said. He spoke of Fathers Kapaun and Capodanno, and the priest who baptized him as an infant, Fr. Jake Francis Laboon. “None of them lived for themselves,” he said. “Instead, in Jesus’ name, they chose to pick up not just their own crosses, but also the crosses of the men and women in their care.”

Paul Shovelain, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a prospective Army chaplain, thinks of Fr. Kapaun. “When I fast,” he said in a blog post, “I think of the small amounts of food he survived on.”

Christopher Christensen, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is a prospective Navy chaplain. He was a Navy man before, but this new position finds him “humbled by the prospect of serving God and country in such a unique ministry.”

Veterans Day is a day for heroes and saints in uniform. They do us proud.

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh was the former director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sr. Mary Ann, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and life-long contributor to Catholic media, died earlier this year on April 28, 2015, after struggling with cancer.