Archive for 7 Building Blocks to a Joyful Family

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!

Let Me Do It

child hand and cookies

 

It’s a desire that is expressed in many ways.  “I want to help.”  “I do it myself.”  “Let me do it.”  When these words come from my three-year-old, I have to admit that I usually feel a sense of dread.  Because these words, if I indulge them, are usually followed by splattered brownie batter, laundry that requires refolding, or a simple task that takes ten times longer to complete than I had anticipated.

But I read something recently that changed my entire perception of these words:

“You may hear Jesus a hundred times a day, saying to you, ‘Let me do it.’  In your difficulties, in your problems, in all those things in your daily life which are sometimes so difficult, so distressing, when you ask yourself, ‘What shall I do? How shall I do it?’  listen to Him saying to you, ‘Let me do it.’  And then answer Him, ‘O Jesus, I thank you for all things.’  And it will be the most beautiful dialogue of love between a soul and the all-powerful and all-loving God.”  –Fr. Jean C.J. D’Elbee, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux 

St. Therese’s theology is so applicable to us mothers!  It’s easy to feel that our lives don’t live up to the worldview of “success.”  Maybe they don’t.  But when we forget what type of success we’re supposed to be striving for, all we have to do is see Jesus in our children, hear Him in their voices, and surrender ourselves to Him through their hearts.

Our days can be overwhelming.  The messes, the piles, the crying, the tantrums, the exclamations of “Look at me!” and the drawn out “Mooooooommy!” that seems to come every 30 seconds.  There are many days when we want to just get everything done, get the kids to bed, and sit down!

But Jesus isn’t calling us to only get the laundry done, do the dishes, and resolve arguments and tantrums.  He’s calling us to grow in patience, kindness, and gentleness.  He’s calling us to greater love and unity with our family and with Him.  He’s calling us to heaven.

So when I start to have thoughts of “What shall I do?  How shall I do it?” as I list off my seemingly insurmountable tasks for the day, I try to hear Jesus when my three-year-old says “Let me do it.”

When I surrender my laundry, my cooking, and my cleaning, it is the first step in surrendering my heart.  When I favor relationships over chores, Jesus steps in and takes over.  He multiplies my time.  He makes little miracles happen within the humble walls of my home.  Like my three-year-old spinning an elaborate story about a dream she had.  Or my eleven-year-old sharing his hopes and dreams for the future.  Or my seven-year-old finally opening up about a worry that has been weighing on her mind.  I build my relationships, and somehow the truly necessary work still gets done.  I let Jesus in, and He does it.

It is when we hear Jesus in the simple conversations of our day that the dialogue between us and our children becomes that beautiful dialogue between us and our all-merciful, all-loving, all-powerful God.  And there is no sweeter success than that.

Photo credit: mccartyv via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain

How Theology of the Body Impacted My Life

large family

My husband and I read a life-changing article thirty-two years ago when we were on a rare date night for our sixth wedding anniversary. Parents of four, we really wanted to remain faithful to Church teaching by refusing to use artificial birth control, but we already felt stretched to our limits financially, emotionally and physically. I am tiny and had never even held a baby before my first. Growing up in a Protestant home with only one sister, it had never even occurred to me that I would one day mother a large family.

After my conversion to Catholicism at nineteen, I earned a degree in English Literature at a Catholic College. Everyone thought I was called to the religious life, especially the Jesuit priest I worked with as a student chaplain. Everyone was shocked with my sudden vocation change, especially me.

I had moved east with Michael after our first baby was born which cut me off from daily contact with friends and family. Although I enjoyed living in the country, raising our own vegetables and later even all our own meat, it was an isolated existence. I felt like Ruth in a foreign land but without family support because Michael’s mother was busy with a huge extended family. In addition, my husband struggled with depression. Worldly opinion screamed that we should not have any more children.

Natural Family Planning

The question we had struggled with for years was, “How could we remain faithful to Church teaching when Natural Family Planning did not seem to work for us?” Intuitively, I already knew a call to trust in God could not just be an intellectual assent but included entrusting my fertility to God. Catholic teaching stated couples should space their children with abstinence but we slowly discovered I was one of those rare people who could conceive long before ovulation.

Of course, we did our best to remain faithful to NFP. However, each successive child after our third was conceived on the second, third, fourth and fifth day before ovulation. A couple of babies were created before I even had a first cycle when we thought I was still infertile. As my doctor said once, “Ah, I remember reading about a woman in New Zealand, two years ago, who conceived five days before ovulation.” I raised my hand and chirped, “Well, you can add me to that list!”

Theology of the Body

Then on our sixth wedding anniversary, sitting in a busy pizza place, I was flipping through our local diocesan paper when an article jumped out at me. I was excited as I read a statement by Pope John Paul II which stated that using contraceptives not only damaged a couple’s intimacy but also harmed their spirituality. We were both struck dumb, sensing a powerful Presence of God as this truth pierced our hearts.

Michael and I try never to let anything hinder our journey into God’s heart, so this truth now meant artificial contraception was definitely not an option. Of course, I cannot find the exact quotes we read that day but the following is close enough:

In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act…Therefore, in such a case, the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.

It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, as real bodily union is carried out in the conjugal act, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion – communion of person. This communion demands that the language of the body be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning. If this truth be lacking, one cannot speak either of the truth of self-mastery, or of the truth of the reciprocal gift and of the reciprocal acceptance of self on the part of the person. Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union, which is rooted in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act. (Theology of the Body, Aug. 22, 1984, 398)

Love…is therefore the power given to man in order to participate in that love with which God himself loves in the mystery of creation and redemption. It is that love which “rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:6) (Theology of the Body, Oct. 10, 1984, 406)

Although we could not imagine how large our family would become, the words of John Paul II , quoted in that newspaper article, resonated within both my husband and me. Guilt lifted off us and a surge of excitement, a sense of purpose welled up from within. It took time to really believe that none of our children were simply a failure of the NFP method. Many small experiences kept reinforcing the truth for us that God called each of our children into being with our co-operation. We’d stumbled blindly at times and then a burst of clarity would shine light on our purpose.

This Is Your Call

For example, twenty-five years ago, I once again slipped into panic mode, worrying if I was pregnant with my fifth child. Suddenly my whole body relaxed and I heard these words within me: This is your call. This is your vocation. This is your witness to the world.

All sorts of objections rushed into my head. “What on earth do you mean a witness, a witness to what? Stupidity? People don’t understand. They just think we are irresponsible or idiots.” Then unexpected joy bubbled within me and I sensed these words in my spirit, “I am with you.” Once again peace wrapped like a blanket around me. It was an actual physical sensation. My mind was calm and my spirit felt strong. That was it for me; I understood and I said, “Yes.” Though I still cringed under disapproval from society, I always understood my children were saving me by compelling me to dive deeper into my spirit, discovering the power of eternal Love at my core, a love that can stand strong against all opposition.

We have lived through years of suffering, surviving and even thriving thanks to the gifts of humor and faith. I can honestly say we are joyful because we answered a particular call to parent a large family. Thanks to Theology of the Body, I can proclaim with confidence that mothering a large family is my call, my vocation and my witness to the world.

Why I Let My Kids Fight

And no, it’s not because I’m starting a baby fight club. Or because I’m lazy. Or because I think I need to “toughen them up.”

This title might surprise those of you who know me. I’m a pretty gentle parent. I take my kids’ feelings and thoughts seriously. I strive for kindness and peace in my relationship with them and try to foster that in their relationship with each other. So why do I let them whale on each other sometimes? It’s all about forgiveness, baby.

dreamstime_xs_64981365I kind of came upon this concept accidentally. I had a quick, important phone call to make, and left the kids peacefully playing Legos in the living room while I stepped into the bathroom. (What, isn’t this where you go to make important phone calls?) Obviously, as soon as I began this important conversation, I heard shrieks coming from the living room. Yelling. Screaming. Your average toddler and preschooler brawl over the Lego they both want. But I was somewhat stuck — I had to finish this phone call and hope that when I emerged, things would still be salvageable. A minute later, my call ended and I unlocked the bathroom, ready to admonish someone (whoever looked guiltier? whoever wasn’t bleeding?) for being unkind and kiss any booboos, emotional or physical, of the innocent party. But what I saw when I opened the door stopped me in my tracks.

My 4 year old was kneeling on the ground, hugging his little sister, saying in a soothing, quiet voice, “I’m sorry, baby. I know you wanted that Lego. I’m sorry I hit you.” And to my surprise, she replied, “I fine. I fine.” As they sensed my presence, they both turned and looked at me like nothing had transpired. They returned to playing happily until the next argument broke out, as they inevitably do.

But it got me thinking. As a parent, I am constantly putting myself in the position of referee. The moment I hear someone cry, I spring to attention and ask, maybe for the 20th time that day, “WHAT happened?!” I then try to figure out who did what to whom (not an easy task), tend to the victim, chastise the aggressor, and basically, in the end, everyone is angry and crying. But what I witnessed that day gave me an alternate view of how it could be. When I don’t jump in to punish (or even gently admonish them to “be kind”), it takes away the immediate defensiveness of the one committing the error. It leaves room for genuine regret that they hurt and upset someone they love. It gives them an opportunity to make it right of their own accord. It allows them the chance to take responsibility for their actions, without me having to guess exactly what those actions were and respond accordingly.

And maybe most importantly, it gives the one who’s been hurt a chance to forgive. Because when I step in and deal with the aggressor in these fights, I rob both kids of the chance to be the forgiver and the forgiven. I insert myself in the middle and act as both. And that’s not fair. Because it’s not nice to fight, but there is joy in being merciful and showing mercy. This might seem like a stretch when talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, but so often, when given the chance, our kids will surprise us when given the opportunity to forgo parental justice in favor of sibling forbearance. And doesn’t it follow that if we give our kids practice in being merciful that they will grow up to appreciate mercy as a very real and vital virtue?

Since I had this epiphany, I’ve tested this theory many times, and the results have been pretty consistent: my kids want to forgive each other. They want to make it right. And I can’t help but notice the other effects it has on them. When they are playing together and my little one gets hurt, instead of immediately turning to me, she will often cry her brother’s name and turn to him for a consoling hug before quickly getting back to their game. Sure, I still kiss my fair share of booboos and break up some fights before they get ugly. Some days it feels like that’s all I do. But giving my kids some space in their arguments and disagreements has been fruitful in a surprisingly real and glorious way. No referee whistle necessary.

Image credit: Dmitry Naumov, Dreamstime.com

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!

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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!

The Domestic Confessional

domestic confessional

I dropped to my knees and began mopping up the mess, grumbling as I worked.  “You have to be more careful!  Especially when it’s a full gallon of milk!  Ask Mommy for help next time so you won’t make a mess!”

I looked up at my daughter and stopped.  A look of surprise mingled with remorse was fixed on her face.

“Sorry,” she whispered with downcast eyes.

My heart dropped to my feet and my tone softened.  I tried to salvage the mess I had poured on top of hers. “It’s okay. Just ask me for help next time.”  She walked away, and I finished cleaning, by now more frustrated with myself than with the spill.

The image of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son flashed through my mind.   The father who didn’t scold.  The father who didn’t ask any questions.  The son who leaned with relief into a loving embrace of perfect mercy.  And this was a son who had intentionally spent his father’s inheritance on gambling and prostitutes!

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Yet his father greeted him with genuine love and joy.

The father must have seen instantly the remorse on his son’s face.  He must have recognized the hardships his son had already endured, and understood that his son was disappointed with himself.

Their exchange wasn’t as much about the words that were spoken, as it was about the tone of their encounter.

One of the most healing moments I’ve experienced after a recent miscarriage was in the confessional.  A flood of emotions had been washing over me since the day I lost my baby: anger, despair, bitterness, envy, resentment, self-doubt, longing, and even a little joy.  I had never experienced a loss like this before, and wasn’t sure what to do with all of those feelings.  As I prayed and asked God to show me the way, I felt pulled to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And as I knelt in church, trying to decipher my sins through a cloud of grief, I knew God wanted me to receive the sacrament face-to-face–to experience the mercy of confession in a way that I hadn’t in many years.

After confessing my sins through a screen for so long, it was a surprising relief to sit down and visit with our parish priest like I would a friend.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to confess; I just laid bare how I’d been feeling, and the most wonderful thing happened.  I can’t remember exactly what he said, but my priest made me feel as if all of my shortcomings, all of my confusion, and all of my worries were no big deal.  Because, at that point, they weren’t.  I was there, I was sorry, and I was open to guidance.  I was the prodigal son returning, and God not only had mercy on my sins, but mercy on my grief as well.

I realized that this is real mercy: a guiding hand as gentle as our tenderest desires, eyes that recognize our remorse before our mistakes, ears that are open to our perspective rather than closed by judgement, and a heart that is so overcome with joy by our return that it instantly forgets our transgressions.

As my children go about their days, making mistakes and learning to follow God’s will, I hope that our domestic confessional can be as merciful as the church confessional–that the tone of every teaching moment is one of gentle guidance and joy in the return.  And that as I drop to my knees to clean up their messes, I take the time to look at them before the mess and say, “You are loved.”

Image credit: Baby in parent’s arms, Rotaru Florin (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

Jesus Is a Baby Whisperer

Let the Children Come to Me, Fritz von Uhde (1884)

Let the Children Come to Me, Fritz von Uhde, 1884

The best way to communicate with preverbal little people is to connect with their inner spirits, in with, and through the Holy Spirit because Jesus was an infant Himself.  However, unlike human adults, I do not think Jesus has forgotten what it was like to be a preverbal little being. In this sense, God could be called the perfect baby whisperer because He is in tune with how baby’s think and feel.

If an adult wants to learn how to become a baby whisperer, it is a good idea to approach infants and toddlers in the presence of the Trinity.  Our heavenly Father is not only our Father, He is a Father to our infant’s as well; He has a real and vital relationship with them.  Jesus and His gentle Spirit will teach us if we stop and listen by approaching our baby in a spirit of prayer, yes, but most of all with a spirit of mutual respect because we are in the presence of a fellow sister or brother in Christ. If a mere horse whisperer can learn how to read a horse’s cues and respond in a way a horse can understand, using body language and voice tones, how much more can humans learn how to relate to an infant’s mind, emotions but also to their inner spirits. In fact, we can become holy baby whisperers who actually nurture our infants inner spirit.

Infants are complex little people who see, hear, touch, communicate, receive information and who above all, remember. Of course, we can readily see babies react to loud, sharp or deep voices but a newborn will even turn to look at a voice he remembers hearing in the womb. It was amazing to watch my first granddaughter turn towards her mom and dad’s voices in recognition. When her parents cuddled her, she calmed down immediately because she was constantly reassured of their love and devotion while she was still in the womb. Now out in the world, she knew she is safe and protected especially in their arms. This is why all babies are sensitive to the approach of a stranger.

The most obvious personal example of a stranger /infant situation  I can recall is my six-month-old daughter. I was holding her when a tall, slender, older priest, dressed all in black, gently reached out to hold her. He smiled and patiently waited while Mary tensed her little body, drew back and looked him up and down very suspiciously. She drew back a second time, even further, and once again glanced from his head to his feet and slowly looked back at his face again. A third time Mary repeated the process. Suddenly she relaxed, broke out into a wonderful smile and reached her own arms out to lean forward so Father could pick her up.

My baby was receiving unspoken messages from Father’s facial expression, his tone of voice, body language and emotional and spiritual ‘vibes’ which radiated from his inner spirit. In short, even though Mary was not talking yet, she was not an idiot. We tend to forget.

Michael and I were lucky because we somehow understood, right from the start, that we were relating to another human being when we communicated with our babies. I stopped and listened when they cooed and then I answered them when they finished cooing. It might sound foolish but I believe this attitude instilled respect for themselves and others. I tried to treat them as people, albeit little people.

Sometimes family and friends were critical of my inefficient way of mothering. I just couldn’t make myself mother my babies any other way. Perhaps it was because I was not used to children. Basically, I just included the kids into our life as intelligent little people with feelings, opinions, tastes and preferences. If we respected each child’s preferences, they cooperated and worked alongside us better. In the end, this impractical, slow way of doing things made our home life run smoother. It was a way of relating which began on the baby’s first day in our family.

Some people are intimidated by babies and little children. Just remember, babies are not idiots but smart little people who just can’t talk yet. However, babies are in tune with the Holy Spirit. Babies spirits are alive in god. So, the best way to communicate with preverbal little people is to connect with their inner spirits, in with and through God.

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.

Meeting Christ in Our Mess

adoration2

Last Friday at noon, I finally accomplished the unthinkable: I sat with Jesus for an hour at Adoration.

Now, it wasn’t the peaceful hour I’d hoped for. I’d envisioned that my one-year-old daughter, who had to accompany me, would take her nap during that hour. That I would be able to hold my sleeping baby girl in my arms as I gazed at Jesus and did nothing but contemplate him. That, as sometimes happened at visits I made to Adoration before I had children, I would feel graces pour upon me in that hour.

Maybe grace did fall upon me, but if so, I surely didn’t have a chance to feel it. Because my daughter didn’t sleep. At all. Despite being tired, and despite it being her normal naptime, she stayed awake. Wide awake. And I entered the chapel wide-eyed myself. Only my wide eyes were from fear. Instead of contemplating thoughts of our Lord, I contemplated a more pressing thought at that moment: How would we get through this hour?

Maybe you’re wondering why I decided we had to stay a full hour. Couldn’t I have put less pressure on myself? Commit to staying only as long as my daughter could last? Jesus would understand, after all, if I had to exit the room with a screaming toddler in tow.

What led up to that moment of entering the chapel was another unthinkable act I’d done a few days prior. In making a move toward Perpetual Adoration, my parish increased its hours of Eucharistic Adoration and was looking for people to help out by dedicating an hour each week to sit with the Lord. When I saw the notice in the bulletin, I felt called. Ludicrously (since I’d have to take my daughter with me), I called the parish and committed myself to an entire hour…every week.

“How will you do it?” family members asked. My mother offered to send my dad to relieve me for the second half hour. I thought, however, of my sister-in-law, who has five kids and who, with her husband, has towed all of them to an hour of Adoration on more than one occasion.

“I can do this,” I answered those concerned. After all, if other moms could do it with half a dozen kids, I surely could do it with one.

So, as I approached the chapel with a wide-awake toddler, I prayed, “Dear Jesus, I want lots of people to spend time with you in the Blessed Sacrament, but, umm, today, could it just be me? Please?” I was sure he’d be so grateful for my commitment to be with him, that he’d answer my prayer.

And then I opened the door to a room full of adorers. People kneeling in deep, silent prayer. People sitting quietly, reading. And me, pushing in a stroller full of books and dolls and coloring pages and markers, and one eager, bright-eyed (and potentially loud) little girl.

I took a deep breath and pushed forward, making my way to the back corner of the room, where I could unload my daughter onto the floor with a slew of items I hoped would keep her quietly entertained for an entire sixty minutes.

The amazing thing is that though my request for an empty room wasn’t granted, another, unspoken prayer was. My daughter was good. Really good. Sure, I had to color with her (so much for cracking open my copy of Divine Intimacy), and silently play dolls with her, and show her pictures in books, and fill her with food and drinks when she began to get noisy, but we did it. We lasted our full hour until the next committed adorer arrived.

My pride in making it through, however, waned when an hour after arriving I packed up and looked around the room. People were still kneeling in silence. They were still reading. They were still sitting, engaged in silent conversation with our Lord.

I’m sorry, I silently told Jesus on my way out. I came to be with you but spent the entire time engaged with my daughter. Did this do any good?

See, in my plan, this was a time to draw closer to my Savior. In my plan, I would do all the things that my busy life as a mom didn’t allow me to do. I would read books I had chosen to bring along, books that would inspire me in my faith. I would talk to Jesus about all sorts of things that had been on my mind. I would pray a rosary, or at least a decade. I would do so much to show Jesus just how much I love him because, often, in the busy-ness of life, I feel like I don’t get to prove that to him. And I would be able to do this because, in my plan, my daughter would nap and I would make the time fruitful.

Instead, I did none of that. The thought crossed my mind that once again I’d neglected to really make strides in my relationship with Christ.

But then another thought came to me. You did nurture this relationship. After all, though I didn’t busy myself with doing for Jesus, I did busy myself with being in his real presence. And in his presence, I busied myself with caring for the child he gifted me. He did tell us to “let the little ones come to” him, which I assuredly did that day (Mt 19:14).

I thought, too, about the fact that Jesus longs to be intimate with us, even more intimate than we are with our spouse and children. And some of the most intimate moments in my relationship with my husband occur when we don’t talk. When we just exist together, side by side, living our daily lives. When doing things like playing with our children, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner beside each other. There’s a comfort in being at a point in a relationship where you don’t have to talk, where you can just be content existing in the same space.

And if our familial relationships are meant to image our relationship with God, then surely being directly in Jesus’ presence was enough to draw us closer. A shared experience of witnessing the beauty of my daughter playing, coloring and, at times, looking up at the monstrance and gleefully saying, “Jee-suh!”

And perhaps there existed the greatest fruit of my hour with Christ: that I’d exposed my daughter to her exposed Lord. Right there in the middle of her mess. The way he wants us all to come to him.

Image courtesy of catholicireland.net

My Kid Is a Special Snowflake . . . and So Is Yours

ID-10023106I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you’ve almost certainly encountered the following attitude, whether it’s a post on Facebook, a self-righteous HuffPost article, or even in conversation on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game: The world would not be such a screwed up place if everyone stopped telling their kids that’s they’re such unique, special little snowflakes.  Basically, the world would be nicer if we just told our kids they’re just the same as everybody else — no better, no worse — and that they can’t actually do whatever they want with their lives just because they want it.

It’s true; there does seem to be an upcoming generation of children and young people (ok, and plenty of adults) who think that the world revolves around their desires and worldviews.  And I completely agree that it’s a disturbing trend. However, is the answer to stop singing our children’s praises?  To stop telling them that they are unique and *gasp* special? I just don’t think so.  Not for any studied or developmental reason, but simply because it wouldn’t be true.

My kids are special.  So are yours.  So are the kids down the block. But here’s the key: we can’t stop there.  I think we should be telling our kids ceaselessly about the beauty that is each person’s uniqueness – not just theirs’.  We have to go on to tell them about how people are special in other ways- that each person has been given beautiful gifts, talents, flaws, and quirks by God.  Special doesn’t mean better- it means being wonderfully, terrifyingly, challengingly, and beautifully who you were made to be.

I know what you’re thinking: This is all just a nicer way of saying your kid is a special snowflake, worthy of being protected from the big, bad world.  Not at all.  In fact, it’s the opposite. If we are teaching our children that each person has their own special dignity and unique purpose on earth, we will raise children who recognize this dignity in all of the people around them and who will be willing to put their own comfort aside to protect the dignity of others.

From the time they are babies, children are able to make assumptions about the world around them based on their own experiences.  When a child is made to understand that they are special, they are loved, they are a beautiful part of a larger plan for this world, just as each person living is special, loved, and part of a bigger plan, they will grow up with a more outward-looking, compassionate, and selfless view of the world.

Having an understanding of their gifts should go hand-in-hand of the responsibility they have to use these gifts in the service of God’s plan. Because that’s the point.  On the other hand, if a child doesn’t have this understanding, they will look to the world for things to set them apart, like money, prestige, or material possessions.  And we’ve all seen where that’s gotten us.

Of course, as with everything we try to teach our children, we have to live it. We have to honor the human dignity of the people around us, as well as the people in the world who are “hidden” in our society. We cannot tell our kids about all the wonderful ways in which God crafted their souls to be unique and special and then avert our eyes from the homeless man standing on the street corner.  Or the handicapped child playing next to them at the library.  Or the relative who we just have such a hard time getting along with.  Our children need to see us loving these people in concrete ways, and hear us talking about the ways in which they are unique and vital to God’s plan for the world.

Some would have us believe that we are creating a generation of spoiled, self-indulgent children because of the way we talk to them about their gifts and talents.  This might even be true in some cases.  What it really comes down to is the way we show them what we value in them and in others.  It’s up to us as our children’s caretakers to show the next generation that everyone is deserving of the dignity of being uniquely, specially created by God.