Archive for 7 Building Blocks to a Joyful Family – Page 2

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.

When Your Two-Year-Old Crawls Like a Dog Down the Communion Aisle (and Other Pathways to Holiness)

Christmas Eve Mass was a disaster this year. At least it seemed that way. With my husband and two oldest children involved with the music at Mass, I was left on my own to manage a six-year-old, four-year-old, and two-year-old.

I should have known that things would get messy when, upon pulling into the church parking lot, my two-year-old promptly got out of the van and climbed to the very top of the nearby school play equipment. She may have been able to shimmy up a climbing wall in her Christmas finery, but her mischievous smile and gleeful chortles mocked the limitations of my high heels and slim-skirted dress. Fortunately, by the grace of God, she decided to come down on her own and walk with us to the church.

The pews were crowded and the air was stuffy, but the altar was beautiful and a sacred joy was present. We settled in and, aside from the expected wiggles of excitement, we did pretty well for awhile. But, of course, the wiggles escalated and so did my children’s voices. I finally had to take the four-year-old and two-year-old out, and the rest of Mass was a blur.

I know that at some point I had to convince my four-year-old to stop using a stair railing as a tightrope, but the most horrifying moment was when it came time to receive Communion. Sandwiched into the line, we started creeping down the aisle when suddenly, out of nowhere, my two-year-old decided she was a dog. She dropped to all fours and started scurrying down the middle of the aisle. I managed to grab her, and she went from dog to limp noodle instantly. Trying not to injure anyone around me, and still making our way down the aisle, I tried whispering to her and I tried distracting her, but she was firmly set on being impossible. If I held her, it was either acrobat or limp noodle. If I put her down, it was dog.

Acrobat. Limp noodle. Dog. Acrobat. Limp noodle. Dog.

She was a force to be reckoned with.

I had no other choice. I picked her up and held her (very) firmly, and we finally approached the Eucharistic minister. And then, in the soft glow of candles and Christmas tree lights with the beauty of the creche at my side, I received Jesus on His birthday–while my 40 pound two-year-old yelled “Ow! Ow! Ow!” in my aching arms.

We made it back to the cry room (by now I was practically crying), and I wiped the sweat from my brow. We made it through the rest of Mass, and as we exited the church, our priest looked at me, smiled, and said, “You are earning so many points in heaven! Let me give your whole family a special Christmas blessing.” And right there, on the front steps of the church, we bowed our heads and received the blessing.

I’ve heard it explained that growing in holiness doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop sinning, or that life suddenly goes more smoothly, or that you are the picture of perfection to others. Rather, holiness is a deepening desire, a burning love, a longing for God and God alone–and a willingness to continue to try to overcome sin for the sake of our Beloved. But, as parents, we are still humans trying to raise other humans. There will be trials. There will be mistakes. There will be dogs and limp noodles. These are our exiles to Egypt; these are our “no rooms at the inn”; these are our swords that pierce our hearts. But if those swords pierce a heart that is full of love, then only love can flow out.

Life is messy. Parenting is messy. But a foundation of love is where real holiness lies.

I was cleaning up our Christmas mess the other day, and underneath bits of wrapping paper, toys, and new markers that had already lost their caps, I found a piece of artwork made by my six-year-old that simply said, “God I Love You.”

God I Love You by Hazel

Maybe Christmas Eve Mass wasn’t such a disaster. Maybe the blessings of that sacred day did take effect. Maybe we’re doing something right. Because in the midst of all the messiness, I continue to find love.

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

The Mom and the Sacristan: A Lesson in Mercy

year-of-mercyI’m in the narthex of the church again, trying to pay attention to Mass while G stumbles around stacking and unstacking the brochures on the display table. Pretty much the same place I am every Sunday, at one point or another. I’m cool with it.

But this Sunday, about 20 minutes into Mass (yeah, we didn’t make it that long in the pew this week. Sigh.), I glanced out the window to see a woman crossing the street, holding the hands of two small children, pulling them along, looking determined and in a rush. She made her way across the street and into the church. But she camped out in the back with me and a few of the other parents of young kids. I gave her a quick, sympathetic smile. I tried to imagine the circumstances that culminated in her pulling her two boys into church 20 minutes late, the hustling and frustration and finding shoes and making sure everyone had breakfast. I noticed her boys, the younger probably around 2 or 3, and the older boy, who was 4 or 5, who had Downs’ Syndrome. She gently took off their coats, found a spot against the wall, and then started to attempt to calm the boys down.

They were being very . . . how shall I say? Well, very much like YOUNG BOYS. They were running back and forth, hand-in-hand at times, but not being so loud that they could be heard within the church. She was doing her best to get them to behave, be still, pay attention. I could see her frustration mounting. She was having one of those days. But she was trying. She was there! In that moment, I prayed for her and her boys, thanking God for wonderful moms like her that showed up on Sundays despite all the reasons it would be so much easier to stay home. I prayed for graces for her, who so clearly had her hands full, but was soldiering on valiantly.

No sooner had I finished this prayer than a female sacristan, intent on some task that brought her across the narthex, gave this poor woman a withering look, shaking her head in disapproval. I saw this mother’s face fall, and she looked like she might burst into tears. And then, I heard her say, “You guys, if you can’t behave yourself, we’re leaving.” She quickly gathered up their coats, bundled them up, and walked out the door.

I’ll admit, my first reaction was anger. Anger that this unkind sacristan had driven this woman out of our church. That when faced with an opportunity to welcome or to chasten, she chose the latter. How unkind! How very unlike Christ! This mom, who had dragged her kids to church on this cold, windy day, was “turned away” before being able to receive communion. “Is this how we welcome people to our family of faith?!” I fumed.

As I sat and prayed through the rest of the Mass, I realized that being angry at that sacristan was not only pointless, but it was also as unkind as what she did to that mother. I don’t know what pain or anger or frustration was in her heart. Who knows what she overcame to be there today. Maybe it was more than any of us. That’s between her and God.

But I did keep thinking about it, and the more I reflected, the more I questioned where in my life I had been the sacristan in that situation. Where had I met an annoyance with condescension or impatience? When had I put myself at the center of the proverbial room, caring little for the hearts of others? When I thought about it this way, I realized we are all guilty of this. We all fail in charity at one time or another. And while this experience today was so poignant because this women literally walked out the doors of the church, we do this all the time on a broader level. When we demonstrate a lack of gentleness, kindess, or peace, while professing to be Christians, we are indeed driving people away from the Church. Maybe not literally, but certainly just as effectively.

Instead of judging ourselves or others harshly when we fall short, let’s call on God to give us the grace to fill in the gaps for us. Where we are impatient, He is forbearing. Where we are quick to anger, He is tranquil. Where we are unkind, He is merciful.

I wish I knew this woman’s name and had her phone number. I wish I could tell her, “Hey, great job today! I could see you were really trying to do something important for your boys. Come back next week and our kids can trash the children’s chapel together? Yeah?” I know I can’t do that. But I can be more mindful of where in my life I’m drawing people into God’s love, and where I’m driving them away.

Live Like a Saint: Saint Nicholas!

Note from the editor: Charisse put together this lovely spread for our winter issue of Tender Tidings, but we are still putting together the issue and St. Nicholas’ feast day is on Sunday. So we wanted to release her spread here so you would have time to use her ideas. God bless!

st nick

St. Nicholas, the patron and protector of children, is known for his generous spirit, compassionate heart, and natural humility. Born during the third century on what is now the southern coast of Turkey, Nicholas spent the early years of his life enjoying the temporal and spiritual blessings of his wealthy and devoutly Christian parents. After his parents’ death, the young Nicholas took Jesus’ words “sell what you own and give the money to the poor” to heart and used his whole inheritance to help the poor and suffering. Create a St. Nicholas gift box and mail it to a grandchild or godchild — or place some of the suggested items in your own children’s shoes to be found on the morning of December 6, St. Nicholas’ feast day.

Here are some ways your family can honor St. Nicholas in your home:

1. St. Nicholas card with candy “crozier” and hot chocolate

While still a young man, Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra. As bishop, he was known for his concern for children, the poor and needy, and sailors. He also suffered for his faith under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Stir up a cup of hot chocolate with Bishop Nicholas’ candy cane “crozier” and reflect on the love and sacrifice of this heroic saint. Card image found at www.catholictradition.org.

2. Small toy and virtue card

Many legends surround St. Nicholas that attest to his love for children. Miraculous stories of boys being restored to life after a brutal attack, a kidnapped child being whisked back home, and children saved from an evil butcher highlight Nicholas’ concern for these small souls. Present each of your children with a small toy and corresponding “virtue card” to help care for their souls. (e.g. a small toy airplane with a card that reads “Charity: May you always lift others up with your words. ‘Your words have upheld the stumbler; you have strengthened his faltering knees.’ Job 4:4”)

3. Gold coins and/or orange

One story attributed to St. Nicholas’ generous heart tells of a man with three daughters. Unable to afford dowries for his daughters, the man worried that they would never marry. But, mysteriously, three bags of gold (or three gold balls) appeared, apparently tossed through an open window during the night. They landed inside shoes that were drying by the fire. Place oranges or chocolate coins in your children’s shoes to remind them of St. Nicholas’ secret and humble generosity.

Visit www.stnicholascenter.org for more ideas for celebrating St Nicholas Day.

What Adolescents Want (and How Attachment Parenting Gives It to Them)

teensMy 11-year-old always seems to be hanging around lately. Peering over my shoulder as I pay the bills, following me around as I search for a quiet room to sneak in a few minutes of prayer, and shuffling around the corner with a bored, middle school expression on his face right in the middle of a good conversation with my husband.

This is a kid who loves spending time with his friends. And there are times when I wish he was around a little more. But when he is home, I can’t seem to get rid of him. Most of the time, I love this. I want to spend time with him. I miss him when he’s gone. And I can’t help but feel a little worried that, one of these days, he’ll suddenly turn into the stereotypical teen and retreat into his bedroom or head out with his friends, never to be seen again.

So during those times that I really need to get bills paid, or I’m trying to concentrate on a Skype meeting with some fellow writers, I don’t put up too much of a fuss. I let him look over my shoulder. I let him sit next to me and invade my personal space. Because I’m not raising him to be a stereotypical teen.

I’m raising my son to look to my husband and me first as he figures out who he is in this world. When he was little, I taught him that he could trust me by responding promptly to his needs and always being there for him. He believed that I cared, and he believed that I understood him. I gave him a lap that was always ready to hold him, a bed that was always open to his presence, and a home where faith and love welcomed him with open arms. He knew he had a place where he belonged. By showing empathy towards his needs and responding to his cries, he learned that I am someone with whom he can always share his feelings. I am someone with whom he can be himself without fear of judgement or criticism. And, as a baby and toddler, he usually tagged along on most of my grocery shopping trips, social outings, and church activities. He learned to enjoy and absorb the world, while following my guidance as he learned how to live in it. These were all needs that my young son had, and they were fulfilled through intentional parenting. And as he grows up into a young man, I’m realizing that those needs haven’t changed.

The YDisciple parish youth group program outlines the five driving needs of adolescents in this way:

1. THE NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD

The need to be understood is a great psychological need for us as human beings. Unfortunately, the majority of teenagers do not believe that adults understand them. When an adult takes a genuine interest in a teenager and seeks first to understand, that adult earns the right to be heard. If adults want to hand on the faith to teenagers, they must seek first to understand what is going on in their minds and hearts. Teenagers don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.

2. THE NEED TO BELONG

Teenagers are driven to meet the “need to belong” before higher growth needs like understanding and living the Christian faith. In fact, it is often the case that teenagers will compromise the morals in which they have been raised in order to belong somewhere. If adults don’t help teenagers build healthy, life-giving relationships with one another, then teens will find a way to meet that need themselves. On the other hand, if adults create an environment where teens are known, loved, and cared for, they create an ideal environment for discipleship.

3. THE NEED TO BE TRANSPARENT

Teenagers rarely have the freedom to be transparent today, especially with one another. It is too dangerous to be vulnerable in a peer-dominated world focused on image and popularity. Teens long for the opportunity to be transparent about their doubts, concerns, fears, insecurities, hopes, and dreams, and to have the confidence of knowing they will not be judged, but loved and supported. In fact, this is necessary in order for them to grow in self-awareness and self-esteem.

4. THE NEED TO ENGAGE IN CRITICAL THINKING ABOUT FAITH AND LIFE

Teens are transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking and are able to conceptualize ideas such as love, justice, fairness, and truth. They are also capable of pondering the big questions in life such as: Is there a God? Do I need religion? Can I know God’s plan for my life? In addition, they are in the process of establishing independence and becoming their own person. Deep down they desire to be treated as adults and no longer want to be told what to do or what to believe. They are critically evaluating what they have been raised to believe and are not that interested in answers to questions they are not asking. Thought-provoking questions, lively discussion, dialogue, and freedom of expression engage teenagers in critical thinking.

5. THE NEED FOR GUIDANCE

Teenagers need dialogue, collaboration, and friendship with adults in order to become adults themselves. Relationships with adults help them answer deep fundamental questions like: Am I lovable? Am I capable? What difference does my life make? They are naturally idealistic and desire to be challenged to greatness through the direction, encouragement, and support of caring adults. It is a well-known educational principle that young people will rise to the level of our expectations of them. Teenagers will give their lives to Jesus through the witness and encouragement of loving, faith-filled adults.

While the YDisciple program is designed for parish youth groups to carry out in small group settings, the five driving needs of our adolescents are still there when they return home from their church activities. In fact, adolescents especially depend on their parents to fulfill these needs in the home and help them create peer groups that do the same. Meg Meeker points out in her book Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets To Raising Healthy Boys that “in one survey, 21 percent of kids said that they needed more time with their parents. But when the parents of these kids were polled, only 8 percent responded that they needed more time with their children. We become so absorbed with keeping up with our daily lives that we miss seeing what our [kids] really need, which is simply more of us: our time and our attention.”

When we spend more time with our kids, whether that be by taking them out for ice cream, playing a game with them, going on a bike ride together, or simply working side by side on a household project, we send the message that we understand them, they belong somewhere, they can be who God created them to be around us, we’re willing to converse with them about whatever is on their mind, and we care enough to guide them through our Christian witness.

And so I allow my son to breathe down my neck while I sort the mail. I answer his questions while I balance the checkbook. And my husband and I continue our in-depth conversation about our faith even after he walks into the room.

Because he’s growing up, but he’s still learning. He knows that my husband is the one who can teach him how to be a man, and that I’m the one who can teach him what to look for in a wife. His parents are still the people who he trusts to answer his questions and help him navigate the world, and this trust is what keeps us honest and shapes us into better people.

Our son depends on us to grow into the person God created him to be, and we depend on him to do the same for us. This is the beauty of family, of relationship, and of a firm foundation of trust and love.

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.”

It’s Okay to “Just” Be a Mom

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Every so often, it seems I am compelled to test my limits–to see how much I can cram into my schedule before I break. And, before I know it, I’m a harried mess, wondering why my household, and my mind, are falling apart.

As moms, we feel so much pressure. And not just from the local news anchor who’s back on the job after six weeks of maternity leave or from the working mom next door who appears to “do it all”. It’s so easy to start comparing myself to other stay-at-home moms–to feel like I’m the only mom in the whole school who’s never been a room mother or volunteered for recess duty or served on the PTO board. And so I take on a little more. I try to do anything that will make people see that I’m doing something. Pride threatens to take over, I forget who I am, and I place too much value on human esteem.

We all have different talents, different temperaments, and different thresholds for the various stressors in life. I’m not the working mom next door. I’m not the ten o’clock news anchor. I’m not even the PTO board member. I don’t have to save the world, but I am responsible for raising a part of the future of the world. And so it’s up to me to know myself–to realize what is required of me as the heart of my home and keep that as my primary focus.

As an introvert, I need time alone to recharge. I need quality prayer time every day. I need time to breathe in the sanctuary of my own home, or my stress level quickly elevates and radiates out to my family. As the heart of the home, everyone I live with has a finger on my pulse. Whether I like it or not, even my most subtle mood changes have drastic effects on the atmosphere in my home. Staying healthy, both physically and mentally, is never just about me. My state of being directly affects my husband and all five of my children. My state of being is the example around which our family life revolves. My state of being is my family’s guidepost, for better or for worse.

My children are only young once. I have a very small window of time to guide them in the direction that I hope they will go. They need a mother who is present and unharried (at least most of the time), a household that is free of chaos, and a schedule that is centered on family bonds and the love of Christ.

It’s okay to “just” be a mom. It’s okay to spend days doing laundry, baking, and jumping in leaf piles with my children. It’s okay to say no to most outside activities so I’ll have time to waste time with my family.

Making choices that support these values is not always easy. Sometimes we meet people who don’t understand, who think we spoil our children, or who think we simply aren’t “doing” much. But “what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15)

God sees every load of laundry, every diaper changed, every wound caressed. He sees us organizing the snow boots, baking banana bread, and making snowmen out of play dough. He knows that the moments we take to breathe and care for ourselves are moments that will allow us to give more love to our family. And He knows we’re doing something. He knows we’re doing the most important thing. And, in His eyes, we are esteemed.

Image credit: Vlado (freedigitalphotos.com)

Who Mothers Mommy?

Maternal Kiss (Mary Cassatt)Motherhood is a profound blessing and should be deep source of meaning for women, but a mom also faces sleepless nights, strained schedules, and the competing needs of her kids, her spouse, her extended family, her community, and finally HERSELF! What allows some moms to thrive and to find deep satisfaction in motherhood despite the inevitable challenges while others do not thrive emotionally?

Two researchers at Arizona State University asked this question and in a newly-released study they cite 4 key factors that protect mom’s well-being and sense of satisfaction:

1.  Unconditional Acceptance

Moms who can say, “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core” do better in motherhood than moms who feel their value depends on their performance or appearance.  Every mom needs people who will allow them to be honest about their failures, make amends, find new hope and direction, and still be cherished for the unique, unrepeatable persons they are. And this happens to be the model of the love, mercy, and reconciliation that Christ offers us.

2.  Feeling Comforted When Needed

Moms need to be able to say, “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.”  When you are a mom and you feel distressed it is very scary. You have these little people in your care and their very lives depend on you. We all need somebody who will really listen to us and then comfort us in the way WE need when we are struggling so we can get a little perspective on the problem. Sometimes that means somebody will just listen to us without trying to fix the problem — we just need emotional comfort.  At other times we need them to fix it in some way – perhaps through physical relief (a nap, a chance to get out of the house for an hour to clear our head).  Only somebody with some level of empathy will be capable of tuning into a mother’s real need. Without this capacity for attunement, the other person will tend to do what they think we need or what they would want themselves.

3.  Authenticity in Relationships

Feeling like you have to put on a show all the time is really depressing — literally. All mothers will have moments when her ideal for herself as a mom does not match up with what’s on her mind. You love your children but at some point you will probably feel depleted or desperate or even downright irrational. When mothers feel like they have to be perfect around their friends and family, when they can’t be honest with anyone about what they are feeling and thinking, they are at a much higher risk for depression. When you can’t be authentic, you cannot thrive.

Once when my third child was a newborn and my two older kids were still very young, my husband went on an extended work trip. At one point I was talking to him on the phone and I had not slept in two days because my older kids would not go to bed and the baby was still waking every 2 to 3 hours. I felt desperate and helpless! Well, I told him how I was really feeling not what I thought he wanted to hear. I was starting to feel a little kooky and I was not coping well. I was at the if-these-kids-don’t-go-to-sleep-I’m-going-to-smack-them point. When I shared with my husband how I felt, he cut his meeting short, got on an airplane, and came home. He didn’t shame me or say “what the heck is wrong with you?” or pat me on the head with a “you are so strong you can handle anything.”  He came home and I went to bed and then I felt better. I am grateful that I could be honest with him about my REAL feelings even though they fell short of what I hoped for myself as a mom. Because I had that freedom, it allowed him to comfort me in the way I most needed — physical relief (see number 2 above).

4. Friendship Satisfaction

Moms do better emotionally in motherhood when they have a few friends in their lives who can give and receive love.  I think particularly for women, the quality of our friendships has a deep impact on our well-being.

The bottom line: nurturing adult relationships keeps a mom “happy, healthy, and able to give or herself.” And you will notice that all four factors are essential for a child’s flourishing as well!  Children need unconditional acceptance, they need to know they will be comforted when distressed, they need to know they can be authentic in their relationship with their parents, and they need people in their lives who are emotionally free enough to give and receive love. In many ways, we cannot give to our children what we don’t have. So, if our adults relationships are impoverished, we need to find a way to build up the love and support we need in order to love and support our children.

Not the Whole Story . . .

I think this research is very important and reminds us that God created us for community. I would add, though, that clearly we can identity other factors that set satisfied mothers apart from those who suffer.  In particular, many times our perception of ourselves as mothers impacts our ability to experience joy and satisfaction. Our culture doesn’t value mothering in the way it deserves. If we feel we need to live up to the world’s definition of success, we can struggle with our identity and sense of meaning. If we perceive motherhood as a drudgery, a drag, then we will bring that perception with us into the inevitable demands of motherhood. The first factor in the study sort of hints at this – we need unconditional acceptance. But I think we need people in our lives who value us not only as unique, unrepeatable persons, but also as mothers in particular — who recognize the unique gifts that mothers bring to their families that nobody else can give.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day Remind Us to Be Saints, Not Stars

“What if we took all the money and time we put into tutors and coaches and private lessons, and invested instead in making our children holy? Not well-known and praised and celebrated for what they do, but humble and meek and truly holy in who they are?”

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The other day, after volunteering in our son’s kindergarten classroom, my husband came home more anxious than when he’d left.

I expected to hear about the challenging craft he’d been directed to help with, or about the stress of leading five kindergarteners at once, or even about scissors or glue mishaps. But, no. My husband’s unease stemmed from none of this. It was, rather, the result of reading.

As a high school English teacher, leading a reading center should have been in my husband’s wheelhouse. And it was. What left him perturbed was what he witnessed.

“Did you know how well some of the kids in that class can read?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Well, they can, some of them,” he answered.

I saw where this was going. It was headed down the road of concern about the fact that other kids were succeeding at something and our son was lagging slightly behind. It was aiming in the direction of talks we’d had about the successes our son’s peers had enjoyed in a variety of sports while we’d not yet signed our child up for even a single organized activity (because he didn’t want to).

The worry my husband was experiencing wasn’t unique to him. It is, I fear, an anxiety most parents today share: the need to have our kids succeed. And not just to succeed but to stand out in even the most successful crowds. To be stars.

We see it in the flourishing tutoring industry, with education centers popping up on nearly every street corner. We see it in the need for more sports centers, recreational teams, and travel leagues, increasingly sought out when our kids are still at remarkably young ages. We see it in the popularity of reality entertainment shows like American Idol and The Voice, where contestants give up nearly everything in their lives for a chance at fame and financial freedom.

But, while we see and hear a lot about encouraging our kids’ academic, athletic and artistic prowess, we hardly hear much about their spiritual growth. While we hear a lot of concern for our children’s bodily wellness and financial security, we hear very little about the wellness and security of their souls.

Oh, sure, we say, of course I want that, too. But, it comes as an afterthought. As a runner-up desire to the first place hope of forming our kids in the way of fame and fortune.

And that’s what worries me. I am deeply concerned about the tremendous importance we, as a society, place on our children’s earthly glory and what little importance we place on their eternal glory. The priorities we have for our children couldn’t be more backwards, and for me this came to light as I participated in the Halloween weekend.

For the past two years, my parish has hosted a Back from the Dead cemetery walk. Along the graveyard path, attendees “meet” saints like Edith Stein, St. Gianna and St. Therese of Lisieux. They also “meet” souls who are in Purgatory. This single walk brings together Halloween (graveyards, the dead), All Saints’ Day (the saints we meet on the walk), and All Souls’ Day (the stories of the souls in Purgatory). And this year, on the walk, I met the faults of my own soul and began to think deeply (or more deeply than usual) about the souls of my children.

Because I’d been slowly starting to veer from the narrow way. The start of my son’s elementary school years saw me stepping out on the popular path of worrying about earthly gain and successes. (My husband wasn’t the only one sizing our son’s skills up to those of his peers). We were in danger, I realized as I listened to the stories of saints and sinners, of taking our kids along for this ride.

As I meandered through the graveyard, I pondered more deeply on a question my pastor had just posed in the day’s homily: what would happen if we sacrificed and suffered for our children’s eternal glory instead of their earthly glory? If we took all the money and time we put into tutors and coaches and private lessons, and invested instead in making our children holy? Not well-known and praised and celebrated for what they do, but humble and meek and truly holy in who they are?

I left the walk grateful that we have a time of year such as Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to remind us of our mortality and the afterlife. To call us to meditate not on the things of this world but to meditate on those of another, more permanent world. For by thinking of the next world, we can better live in this one.

Would You Boycott Christmas? Why Catholic families should celebrate Halloween!

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I raised my nine children in the shadow of  other dedicated Catholic mothers, mostly homeschoolers, who thought Halloween was evil, dedicated to witches. Their children were not allowed to celebrate with their neighbors but went to a church basement to celebrate All Saints Eve.

This church was an hour away from us. More importantly, I felt my children suffered enough  because of a perceived alienation from their peers. At our tiny, Catholic, country school, everyone dressed up for the day and often joined friends afterward to go door to door. I did not want to deny my kids the joy and creative fun which surrounded this cultural, childhood tradition.

If you have any concerns about observing Halloween with your children, please read It’s Time for Catholics to Embrace Halloween by Father Steve Grunow over at Word on Fire. I wish I had been able to read Father Steve Grunow’s research and commentary thirty years ago. He would have saved me a lot of grief because, although I let my kids celebrate Halloween, often dressed as a saint, I felt guilty.  I learned something new, something liberating, which freed me from decades of guilt.

GUESS WHAT? HALLOWEEN IS CATHOLIC!  

October 31st,  November 1st and 2nd, are the “Days of the Dead” because Catholics pray for, or remember, those who have passed through the thin veil which separates life from death.  All Hallows’ Eve, on the evening of October 31 is the night before All Saints’ Day on  November 1st. Then, on the day after All Hallows’, we remember souls who are in Purgatory.

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The  True Origins of Halloween

We often hear that Halloween is a pagan holiday but this is not true.

All Souls Day originated with the Bishop of Cluny, who in A.D. 1048, decreed that the Benedictines of Cluny pray for the souls in Purgatory on this day. The practice spread until Pope Sylvester II recommended it for the entire Latin Church.

In Irish popular piety, the evening before, Halloween (All Hallows or “Hallows’ Eve”) became a day of remembering the dead who are damned. These customs spread, starting the popular focus of Halloween on evil, scary characters and the fate of damned souls.

The customs of Halloween are a mixture of Catholic popular devotions and regional French, Irish, and English customs. Dressing up comes from the French. Carved Jack-o-lanterns come from the Irish. English Catholics initiated the custom of begging from door to door. Children would go door to door begging their neighbors for a “Soul Cake.” In turn, they would say a prayer for those neighbors’ dead saying, “A Soul Cake, a Soul Cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake!” Customary foods for Halloween include cider, nuts, popcorn, and apples.

Just as Christmas is still Christmas  despite our culture’s attempt to ruin it, Halloween is still a holy day for Catholics despite our culture’s desire to make it something ugly. As Catholics, when we boycott Halloween, we pull back from our own festival. Rather than withdraw or label Halloween as evil, let’s reclaim our Catholic roots and celebrate Halloween with joy.