Archive for Playing Together

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

Saintly Peg Dolls

halloween image

Our peg dolls are smiling from the table. Little hands reach up to collect a few. Then we chat about who this saint was and is. Have you heard about the rage of saint dolls for Catholic children?

Meet some of our peg dolls.

peg doll3

peg doll2

peg doll1

I’ve been painting small pegs of wood for many years. Sometimes I do a few at a time.   Imagine the simplicity of having a small image of a saint that mom would allow a child to carry around! The thrill of having your own likeness of a saint for your very own! My young children love it! I hear them play in the voice and character of each saint. It’s an awesome way to work out the understanding of what you have learned about a saint. We are encouraged to grow in faith and virtue as we learn about someone who strived before us.

Last summer I painted 20 of the same saint and traded dolls with some other moms. I began with a gentle sanding of the wood with fine grit sand paper. Then a gentle buffing with a cloth. Next required some study and imagination to translate 2D images depicting a saint into a 3D simple drawing. Each layer of paint was given to the wood with adequate time to draw.   I wondered if it was similar to how an icon is written. There was much time waiting for the paint to dry. When I had finished with all the paint, I gave three coats of protectant to the dolls. Again this required a waiting for the paint to dry between each layer. I was learning patience and so were my children!

Now these saints grace our children’s tables and move throughout the house as reminders. These saints are showing us how to be more like Jesus whether in our work or in our play.


Would you like to make your own saintly peg dolls? Here are some resources:

Paint a Peg Saint Tutorial. This is a great step-by-step tutorial for getting started on your saintly peg collection.

Easy Peg Dolls. Lacy at Catholic Icing has made it easy for anybody to make saint peg dolls. She offers patterns of the saint’s body to decoupage onto your peg, then you only need to paint the head.

Giving Your Baby a Language Boost

reading to babyGwen Dewar over at the Urban Child Institute has a terrific article on “6 Tips for Boosting Your Baby’s Language Skills.”  Read her whole article here.

Here’s a summary of  her tips with my own thoughts:

1.  Take a cue from your baby’s curiosity.

When babies reach for or gaze at objects they are interested in, we can view these as our cues to engage them in conversation.  We can name the objects or just talk to them about what they’re looking at.  When we’re playing with or reading to our child, we can pause and allow them to lead us in conversation in this way.  When their curiosity drives our time with them, they not only develop increased language skills, but she becomes more comfortable exploring the unfamiliar.

2.  Tune into your baby. 

Think about how you interact with adults, the way you affirm their presence in often subtle ways.  We respond to their questions, acknowledge their entry into the room, etc.  Dewar says, “Babies – even babies who can’t speak yet – look for the same message from us. They want to know that we will respond contingently to their signals, and when they perceive us doing it, their brains seem to flip a switch. Studies indicate that babies learn language faster when we talk with them, not at them.”  I think this is related to her first tip.  Being attuned to our child includes noticing the things she cares about, even when she’s a little baby.  This early attunement creates a strong foundation for great communication throughout the toddler and preschool years when our kids are gaining skills in communicating their needs, feelings, and interests.

3.  Be flexible and spontaneous.

Dewar says, “It’s easy to get bogged down with routines, but when it comes to family communication, we need to be ready to improvise. For instance, if your toddler interrupts your bedtime story because he wants to talk about the chair that Goldilocks smashed, go with it. Insisting that you stick to the narrative isn’t going to help your child build better verbal skills. On the contrary, it’s likely that kids learn more when the conversation veers off-text. Besides, forced bedtime reading is neither fun nor soothing. Your child might end up having more trouble falling asleep!”

This is a great tip! We grown-ups get fixated on doing things the right way, but following our child’s lead on occasion not only provides opportunities for communication, but allows our child to feel respected and affirmed.

4.  Supplement verbal messages with expressive emotions, gestures, and movements.

There’s a reason adults tend to act a little goofier when they are interacting with a baby!  Babies actually learn better when we couple our words with exaggerated gestures and a heightened tone of voice.  When we show our baby a stuffed monkey, we can name the object “monkey”, but we can also make funny monkey sounds and animate the stuffed object for our baby.  Dewar explains,  “When babies are learning to talk, they don’t just listen to our words. They also notice our tone of voice, and pay particular attention when we speak with exaggerated emotion: It helps them figure out our meaning.”

5.  Don’t worry about being perfect.

You don’t have to be a seasoned public speaker or possess perfect grammar to pass on strong language skills to your baby.  Dewar suggests that when parents stumble to find the right word, it actually engages the child even more — they pay even more attention to what we are saying.

6.  Shake things up.

Dewar encourages us to speak to our babies and young children like we would with anybody else.  She cautions that if we dumb down our conversations with our babies too much, they will have access to a more limited vocabulary.  It’s okay to simplify things when you are actually naming objects for your baby, but otherwise feel free to speak to them with words far more sophisticated than you imagine they can comprehend.  One great tip Dewar offers is to repeat back what our child says, but expand upon it with more words.  So if your child says, “FIRE TRUCK!,” you can talk about how loud it is or what it looks like.

I can’t help but notice that all these tips are easier to implement when we are using the parenting tools associated with attachment parenting — particularly babywearing, breastfeeding, and sleeping near your baby.  These tools help us keep our baby calm and close by, and they help us tune into our babies more easily.   Attached, responsive parents also enhance their child’s language development by giving her confidence that she will actually be heard.  I think a baby’s cries are really her first words.  When she is ignored or made to cry increasingly fretfully in order to get a response, then she’s not spending that time listening to and learning about other sounds in her world.


Boredom Is Good for You

Kim's daughter Claire when she's bored

Kim’s daughter Claire when she’s bored

See!  I’ve been telling my kids for years that boredom is a gift!  The next time your kids say “I’m bored, I have nothing to do”, you can reply cheerily, “FANTASTIC!”

From the British Psychological Society and the journal Psychologist:

“Boredom can make us more creative, an expert says.  [Dr. Sandi Mann] has researched the suppression of emotions, including boredom, at work. In one experiment she found participants who had been asked to complete a boring writing task were more creative afterwards than a control group who had done more interesting work.”

“Mann also believes it is important for children to be bored. ‘Unlike so many parents today, I am quite happy when my kids whine that they are bored! Finding ways to amuse themselves is an important skill.’ This idea was explored by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in a 1993 essay, exploring the developmental merits of allowing children to form their own sense of purpose or self through being bored . . . How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him – as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.”

Read the rest here.

Mary Moments

Michaelyn quoteIf you’re like me (and I think most moms are), you’re always doing. Doing laundry. Doing dishes. Doing dinner. It’s our vocation, and it’s beautiful. Because, by its very nature, it requires us to serve. And while serving certainly demonstrates love, there are times we need to stop the doing. There are times we need to show our love by doing something else.

Like last week, when I was smack in the middle of washing the bathroom sink. I’d only just begun – right after the baby finally fell asleep. There were still a toilet, bathtub and tile floor in need of scrubbing, so I worked quickly but diligently. Who knows how long a baby will sleep? So, I cleaned with an ear waiting to be interrupted, which I was. Only, it wasn’t by the baby. It was by my five year-old.

“Mommy, play with me.” Inside, I groaned. Not that I didn’t want to, but this bathroom had been neglected for too long, and I was sure I didn’t have much time to give it the attention it sorely needed.

“In a minute,” I responded, rinsing a bit more quickly now.

“Mommy, you always say in a minute.” My son waited in the doorway, but I kept scrubbing. Sink done. Onto the tub. Might as well get the big job done before the baby wakes. In the mirror, I saw my son, his hopeful smile quickly disintegrating into a frustrated frown.

“Fine, I’ll play by myself.” I watched the superheroes in his hands droop and then hang, nearly slipping from his grasp as he walked away.

Oh, to be Mary. To neglect the housework in order to love by simply being with the one desiring our attention. But, today I was Martha. Too much to do.

Yet, I couldn’t get those falling heroes out of my mind. ‘Which is the worse to neglect,’ I thought, ‘the housework or my son?

With a sigh, I put down the rag and shut off the bathroom light. “Honey,” I called, “I can do the bathroom later. Let’s play superheroes now.”

When I was a teacher, before becoming a stay-at-home mom, we called such moments “teachable moments”. It was some of the most valuable time in a classroom. It was the time when you, the teacher, stopped your planned lesson to instead teach something you hadn’t intended. Something that interrupted your lesson, something a student brought up that you realized was more important to address or clarify at that moment than what it was you had planned. Sure, the lesson you’d stayed up late drafting last night might not get done, but your students would learn something they needed to know, something you weren’t aware last night they would need to know.

As a mom, I see these as lovable moments. They’re the moments that interrupt our plans of cleaning or cooking, that make us stop the things we need to get done in order to tend to what we hadn’t anticipated our kids or husband would need more.

They’re Mary moments, the times when you know that the house needs tending to, but so do the people you love. They need your undivided attention, your focus to be solely on them. And though the work calls, their voices ring more loudly in your ears.

So, you put down the rag and pick up a superhero. Or a doll. Or you take a seat by your husband on the sofa while the dishes stay piled in the sink. Because the work will always be there, but this precise opportunity to give yourself fully to the people you love won’t.

It took me a while to be okay with a pretty regularly messy house. But once I noticed that my relationships with my kids and my husband were what stayed in good shape, my home’s untidiness suddenly wasn’t so noticeable.

3 Benefits of Family Movie Night

movie night


On more than one occasion our Holy Father has urged parents to “waste time with your children.” I think we need his wise guidance.  Some of us may be sacrificing family time because we worry or assume that if our kids aren’t busy with extra-curricular activities or our own calendars aren’t filled every hour of the day, we’ll all be left behind. We need to give ourselves permission to leave whole days open for “doin’ nothin’” with our kids.

In the Cameron-Smith home, one of our favorite ways to waste time together is with a family movie night!  I talked about this recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life.  Their show was about ways to connect meaningfully with our children and movie night was my 2 cents.  Nothing signals my brain that it’s time to relax than when my 8-year-old grabs the popcorn maker and the other kids start dragging out their pillows and blankets so they can get cozy in front of the television. Aside from movie night being just good ol’ fun, here are three practical benefits:

1.  Fosters communication between kids and parents

Laughing and joking around together during and after a movie builds rapport and a sense of solidarity. Movies also provide opportunities to communicate with our kids about morality and the consequences of our choices. Every story, including the story in a movie, has a basic conflict that the main character must face or resolve. After the movie, ask your kids what they think the main problem was in the story. How did the protagonist try to solve their problem? Was she/he successful? Ask your child how she might have done things differently.  We ask these questions in a non-judgmental, casual way so that everyone feels comfortable joining in the conversation.

2.  Provides an opportunity for us to train our children in compassion and empathy

Human beings are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity: children need particular experiences in childhood in order for that capacity to unfold.  One of these experiences is gentle mentoring from parents about what other people are thinking and feeling. Movies provide an easy, fun way to do this mentoring. When a person in the movie is frightened, sad, or angry we can talk to our kids about that character’s perspective and experience.  We can ask questions like, “What do you think John was feeling when he couldn’t find his dog?”, “I wonder if Jane was sad or frustrated when her friend called her a name?”  This gives kids an opportunity to exercise their empathy muscles in a non-threatening way.

3.  Requires us to define our family values (if we want to use media intentionally)

Did you know that the Church has actually affirmed that movies are “a gift from God springing from human intelligence and industry” (Miranda Prorsus)?  Like any gift, movie making is a talent that can be used for good or for destruction. Some movies are clearly inappropriate for family viewing, but beyond the clear stinkers, we have to practice prudence to discern which movies are right for our particular family.

If we can define clearly what our family values are – even write them out formally in a mission statement – we will be way ahead of the game when trying to pick out good movies.  When you know “what you are about” it helps guide discussions about which movies to watch.   Are the movies we want to watch strengthening or weakening our shared values? Every movie has a “bad guy” or some struggle: what is the underlying message in the movie about the dignity of human beings, how we should treat one another in conflict, how we respond to those who are weaker than ourselves?   After you watch a particular movie, talk with your kids about which Christian virtues were present or lacking in particular characters and their choices.

Don’t feel limited to watching only Christian movies. Some movies we might have dismissed on the surface have proven to be very meaningful and surprisingly edifying for my family. For us, old classic movies often have timeless stories about the struggle between good and evil, the little guy struggling to rise above bad circumstances, or an outsider proving his value to his new community. Ty Burr’s book Best Old Movies for Families is absolutely essential for every movie-loving family.

Because we have a wide age-range of kids in our home, we try to pick things that appeal to everyone, which is a challenge. In addition to classic movies, we’ve enjoyed all the Wallace and Grommit movies by Nick Park, Benji, and the original Herbie the Love Bug movies. If you’re looking for good movie suggestions, check out – it’s hosted by a Catholic film critic.

Let us know some of your favorite family-friendly films!

If you’d like to listen to my segment with Dr. Greg and Lisa, here is the audio file for “Family Connections Jan 30, 2015”.  My bit is about 25 minutes into the show, but the whole show was great!


You Might As Well Laugh . . .


she laughs

No matter how organized I tried to be as a mother of a large family, some days ended up chaotic,  filled with clingy babies, messy toddlers, sick kids, mud baths, snarky teens, funny faces, too many shoes,  barely edible meals,  kid stunt men,  endless laundry, unpaired socks and frozen water pipes. I decided early in my mothering career that I might as well laugh because living as a stressed, angry mum was simply too hard on me and everyone else.


When Your Child Asks You to Do It Again (and Again and Again!)

openWe’ve been pretty quiet here at CAPC!  We generally put up a CLOSED sign during the last few weeks of December, but I had to share this little nugget.

Every kid asks their parents to read them the same book over and over or to play the same game until her parents can’t see straight.  Well, somebody passed on to me this marvelous quote by Chesterton:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Children want to do it again and again not because they are monotonous, but because they are fierce and have their own unique kind of patience.  God tells the sun to get up every day, just the same, because he has the eternal appetite of infancy for delight, beauty, play.   I will remember this the next time my youngest asks me to read “Go Dog Go” for the millionth time!   It must be four million because it first belonged to my teenager and all four of the children loved it.  But maybe for a brief moment my children draw me into their youthful vibrancy, their wonder, so that God can draw me into his divine wonder a little.  This is a deeper, sacramental reality beneath ordinary moments with our children.

Happy New Year!

Traditions: A Pleasant Tie that Binds Us by Kassie Ritman

“After our faith, tradition is one of the greatest gift we can share with our children. They tether our memories and comfort us alongside the liturgical waymarks of our years together.”

As Christians, we are bound together as believers in Jesus. As Catholics, our faith holds us up with the everlasting grace and providence of the sacraments. Within our own homes, traditions are a pleasant tie binding us together as a family unit. We all have our own rich family traditions; belonging to us in whole or borrowed from others and refashioned into something we’ve made our own. After our faith, tradition is one of the greatest gift we can share with our children. They tether our memories and comfort us alongside the liturgical waymarks of our years together.

In my regular blog posts I alternate between writing about writing, and writing specifically to preserve family stories. One of the ways I’ve found to be most useful for gleaning stories for my readers and from my own relatives is to start conversations about traditions.

*Why do we always have Cherry Delight on the holiday table?

*Remember when we all had to leave our ties on until Dad got the perfect family photo in front of the bushes at St Agnes after Easter?

*When I was a kid, the littlest one got to lead the way down the stairs each Christmas morning, we nearly trampled poor Joe every year!

advent 2013 pic 1Think about your own family and the traditions that were either planned or developed in a more “organic” manner. How precious are these memories to you? As an icebreaker, how many of them can you share with relatives you haven’t seen for a long time? The years melt away once the beautiful repetition we call tradition begins.

I believe it is within our nature as Catholics to crave and seek the comfort of an ordered way of looking upon our lives. We cross ourselves with fingers dipped lightly into holy water as we enter into a room anywhere across the globe, look past a large table and up to see a crucifix and know, because of these symbols and traditions, that we are home. The language may be foreign, the setting unfamiliar, but we are assured there will be an order to this time, a set pattern of expectations and actions. A shower of graces is at hand.

Recently, I’ve run into a couple of bloggers who are doing something cool. I’m talking about preserving family stories. These clever authors are doing it “as it happens,” starting with babyhood for their grandbaby or own little one!

Longtime blogger Locksands welcomed her new grandchild with a round of thoughts describing the world, and the day, and the people she was being born into the arms of in contrast to her own years here. It was fabulous! What a terrific idea, certainly a way to go over and above presenting a blank and perfunctory “Baby’s 1st Year” album.

Dorian and her Mama are doing a bang-up job of documenting her little, adorable, wanna-smoosh-and-kiss-those-fleshy-baby-cheeks days via blogging as a team.

Here in “Mom-land,” I have a long standing tradition (let’s count here…my oldest is now in the 22nd grade…yes…I’ve done it now for 23 years). Annually, on the first day of school, I’ve made my Sweeties stand in front of the same bush at the front of our house to have a photo taken. For the sake of identifying the grade level, they’ve been directed to hold up enough fingers to correspond with the grade they were about to start… that part didn’t always work. Kindergarten was a zero made with their fingers to look like an “okay” sign. Freshman year of high school, we reverted back to one and worked our way back up to a four finger showing for senior year. As college started, again, the single finger for freshman year and so on. Siblings were added and absent from the photos as they aged in and out of the school years.

One summer we moved to a new house just before school started. Along with the excitement of their new rooms, the kids thought they would also be gifted with an end to the annual “photos and fingers” ritual. Sorry kids, a new crop of photo-shrubs came with the new home!

Some years the group was excited and compliant. Other years they were surly and down right grouchy. In many shots they seem to be cringing with embarrassment because cars were passing by on the street.

“What if someone sees us?!” they growled into my camera. But, kid after kid–year after year–Mom won. I got my photo!

My goddaughter’s parents came up with an exceptional idea for photos. Recently, we all enjoyed the fruits their dedication at their daughter’s wedding. Brit was born on the 22nd of the month. Starting in the first moments of her arrival and continuing monthly then, on each subsequent 22nd through her second birthday they filmed her for a few minutes. With imperfect (at times they missed by a week or so) but amazing amount of diligence, they were able to select a quick little 15-30 second snippet of video showcasing who she was on that particular day and what she was doing. First Communion, birthday candles on big pony princess cakes, Christmas mornings by the tree ringed knee deep in gifts we all cleverly edited in. Sort of like the bush in our “first day of school” photo shoots, their backdrops changed over the years. So did the video recording equipment and format. Eventually siblings started to appear in “cameos” on the “22nd” video clips– not to worry though, each of the younger brothers and sisters also had their own day of the month for “stardom.

They stuck with the task, keeping up with the giant (and often expensive) leaps technology took over the years. They had to constantly upgrade and transfer their precious moments from 8mm to Beta to VHS to digital and on to the “Cloud” and YouTube. The payoff came when we were all teared up seeing this near 30 year compilation roll by on a special screen at the newlywed’s reception. Certainly an awesome payoff for the proud in-house paparazzi.

My beautiful bride of a goddaughter was truly moved. I don’t think she ever considered that Mom and Dad were constantly organizing and preserving all those silly film clips into a larger work.

It’s never too early or too late to try something new or to revive a treasured custom from times long past. You can use these examples with your own talents to keep the memories alive via the loving ties of tradition . Whether you write, blog, take photos, share recipes and the stories behind them, or choose something completely different it will be appreciated (eventually). The real treasure here is in showing a connection from our past and then helping usher it into the future–as effortlessly as fingers blessed by gliding through holy water.

About Kassie

kassie ritmanKassie Ritman is a writer who happens to love family history. She authors a how-to blog and hosts workshops for others interested in recording life events and personal histories of family. Kassie lives with her husband, 3 kids, a granddaughter and a ridiculously unaware-of-his canine-condition Golden Retriever named Levi. She is also a regular columnist for the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors, a reviewer for Tuscany Press, and holds membership in The Catholic Writer’s Guild, and Indiana Genealogist’s Society. Her work has appeared on True Words Journal, Story Circle Network, and will soon be on Flying Island and the 2014 SCN Anthology (releasing January). See her blog at Maybe someone should write that down…

The Art of Table Talk (with Kids)

“Too often we have a hard time with real dialogue, because we aren’t really very interested in what the other person is saying or who they are. We’re waiting for them shut up so we can get our point in.”

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this is perhaps a good time to review the art of making conversation at the dinner table.  I talked about this last week with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life.  The topic of the show was “Talk to Me”:  the Popcaks offered listeners some great tips on communicating effectively.  If you want to listen to the whole show here it is; my bit starts about twenty minutes into the show.

I’ll focus on grown-ups making conversation with children or teenagers, but these tips apply equally to conversations with just about anybody.  Here are three things you’ll need if you want to become (or if you want your child to become) a great “deipnosophist” (somebody skilled in table talk):

1.  Take an interest in the other person in your table conversation (yes, even if it’s a kid!)

Listen: The most important element in great table conversation isn’t the talking; it’s the listening. Too often we have a hard time with real dialogue, because we aren’t really very interested in what the other person is saying or who they are. table talkWe’re waiting for them shut up so we can get our point in.  I know this only because I am guilty of doing it all the time!

Ask questions: Be curious about what your child or young guest is saying at the table. Repeat back to them what you’re hearing them say, even if you think you disagree with them.  You may discover something new and fascinating about your young conversation partner!

Let a problem simmer: When a child or teen is struggling aloud with a problem over dinner, we often have an urge to announce a solution immediately. When we do this, the conversation ends. Foster a child’s problem solving and speaking skills by guiding them through potential options or points of view, allowing them to explore and weigh solutions.

Becoming more attuned in our conversations at the dinner table not only makes the meal more pleasant, but helps us become better Christians, too.  Theology of the Body affirms that we are made for communion and self-giving love, and this requires the ability to both reveal ourselves and really see the other person.  The dinner table is the perfect place for families to practice this together, especially with kiddos.

2.  Allow time for real conversation to unfold

You (or your child) won’t learn the art of conversation by taking a class. You learn it by doing it with real people, and kids will learn it by doing it with people they love and trust.

When I first met my husband, one of the things I loved about him was the way he could talk about just about any subject – politics, literature, religion – in depth, respectfully, and with passion. When I visited his family in New Zealand it all made sense. His family not only talks a lot while they are eating, but the sit around after dinner talking – sometimes for hours. I am grateful Barb & Ric prioritized table talk, because now I’m married to somebody who is helping our children enjoy it too.

We are all busy these days, often for good reason, but perhaps we can prioritize table talk at least one day a week. Ensure you aren’t rushed during dinner and allow time for debates and deep conversations to linger.

3.  Have something to talk about:  conversation starters

Some families have tons to talk about, but if you’re a quiet family and need some help getting started, plan conversation starters ahead of time. Have a basket of questions in the middle of the table. You can find conversation starter questions on-line or buy them (“Chat Packs” and “Table Topics” are bundled cards you can purchase), but you can also just make them up yourself. We featured conversations in two issues of Tender Tidings last year. You can find them here and here. The basic idea is to ask very open-ended questions: “What do you like to smell and why?”; “If you could have dinner with anybody in history, who would it be and why?”.

Another idea: If your children are older, read a newspaper column aloud at the beginning of dinner and then get their opinions about it. You can do something similar with poems. I’ve read a poem or saints story aloud to my children at lunch for many years.  Sometimes they just think about it, and, to be frank, occasionally they seem distracted, but often they want to know more about what the poem or story means.  A conversation begins.

Happy chatting!

Image credit:  Monkey Business Images (

Play Ball

“And it was simple. For my son, his love of t-ball wasn’t about the performance or the competition. It wasn’t even about playing with friends. It was about simply spending time with his father.”

Ever since we heard the words, “It’s a boy,” my husband has had a dream. It’s a dream most fathers share, I think. I imagine that just as we mothers envision one day helping our daughters choose a wedding dress, fathers envision themselves on the field, coaching their son’s sports team. At least, that seems to be the going dream in my household.

baseballWe started to realize this dream as the long-awaited spring weather began to reveal itself. Baseball gradually filled our television screen and thoughts of summer plans began to fill the mouths of the moms at my son’s preschool. “Are you putting your child in anything this summer?” they questioned as we waited for our kids to come to the narthex at the end of the school morning. “Are we signing him up for anything this spring?” my husband asked me as he pondered the launch of our four-year-old’s athletic career.

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to these kinds of plans. My plans included enjoying the warm weather in lighter clothes and imagining our family road trip down South in a few months. Signing up our son for organized activities wasn’t a thought that had crossed my mind. That part of his life, I imagined, would come when he was old enough to share with us his desire to participate in some activity.

So, the idea that we, his parents, would enroll him in something he had not asked for was a foreign one. Given how often I ran into this conversation, though, I began to believe that by neglecting to put my son in an organized sport, I was neglecting some significant aspect of the stage of life he’s in. I began to buy into the idea that my husband and I had to sign him up for something.

“Honey, do you want to play t-ball with other kids on a team?” I asked our son one day. Considering his love of playing t-ball in the backyard with his dad, I was actually surprised when he wailed, “Nooo, I don’t want to!”

Soon, though, I began to see images on Facebook of friends’ preschoolers happily donning their own baseball and soccer uniforms, or friends’ daughters proudly showing off their dance recital costumes and gymnastics leotards, and I panicked. My husband and I really were holding our son back from his full potential! Why had we waited so long to join the activity bandwagon?

So, ignoring my son’s voice (and a voice inside me that knew better), I registered him for t-ball. My husband and I took him to our local Little League’s outing to a nearby minor league baseball game, and we all had a great time. My husband took him out back for extra t-ball time in the yard, and they both had a blast.

We took him to his first t-ball practice, and it was a disaster.

Our son refused to walk onto the field. He cried. He begged us to go home. Ultimately, he found me in the bleachers, clung to my lap and wouldn’t budge from it. My husband and I argued over me coddling him too much, and we went home frustrated, while my son, once we left, went home relieved.

My sister, I realized, has dealt with similar issues with her eldest daughter. A similar personality to my son, my eight-year-old niece has long been more of an introvert. She’s been content to hang back as other kids run forward.

Recently, however, that seemed like it might change. My niece fell in love with Irish step-dancing, and my sister signed her up for weekly classes. Soon enough, my niece was hopping all over the house, any house, eager to show her family and relatives the latest moves she’d learned. She seemed to have turned a corner in her shyness. It appeared that she’d finally broken out of her shell.

And then, with the onset of spring, came recital season. My niece’s costumes came in, and my sister took her daughter to her first performance at a nearby nursing home.

And her daughter refused to dance.

It was baffling. My niece had become a constant step-dancer these days. We joked that she danced from place to place more than she walked. So, why the sudden refusal? Hadn’t she spent months getting ready for these performances, especially the big recital, which she also, ultimately, decided not to do?

My sister and her husband found themselves in a discussion similar to the one my husband and I were having. Should we force our children onto the stage or the field? Are we inhibiting them by allowing them to choose not to participate?

As I pondered these questions, my son enlightened me one day as we drove form one errand to another.

“I thought you love to play t-ball,” I said to him.

“I do,” he answered.

“So, why don’t you want to play on a team?” I continued.

“I don’t like a team,” he responded. “I don’t like people watching me.”

“But…”I cut in, and my son cut me off with an explanation that quieted my words and got me thinking.

“Mommy, I just like to play in the yard with Daddy,” he said simply.

And it was simple. For my son, his love of t-ball wasn’t about the performance or the competition. It wasn’t even about playing with friends. It was about simply spending time with his father.

I realized something, too, about my niece. For her, dancing wasn’t about the recital or the stage. It wasn’t about an audience. Her love of step-dancing was simply about the dance.

While most of us engage in activities with an end goal in mind (a competition, a recital, a game), my son and my niece wanted to engage in something for the sheer love of doing it.

After that realization, I began to look at this rush to put our kids in organized activities in a whole new light. I wondered if, perhaps, we as parents might do our children a disservice by taking them out of the yard and putting them on the field too soon. Or by placing them in organized activities where they interact with peers and other adults instead of nurturing their love for an activity with us, their parents, the people they really want to share their love with the most.

But, I think the greatest lesson God wants me to take from this is a reminder that our children are individuals. Indeed, as Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” As individual personalities. As unique human beings. He doesn’t view us as a collective whole but as distinct and very separate souls from one another.

Likewise, our children shouldn’t be treated as carbon copies of each other. Some of our children can’t wait to get on stage or be a part of a team. Others will never want an audience and are content to play just because it’s fun, or to dance just because they can.

So, as I watch my son play t-ball in the backyard with his father and hear his laughter as he runs imaginary bases, I’m glad I’m not sitting on bleachers, his laughter drowned out by other voices. I’m content to just sit here, right now, watching my son play with his dad.

5 Signs of a Successful Family

Last week my husband and I attended a workshop led by a couple who had once been on the brink of divorce.  They had everything the world told them a successful family should have:  two children, a giant house, a vacation house on the beach, and nice cars.  Yet they success.jpgwere miserable.  Their message: the world’s definition of success is a lie.  For them, saving their family required them to leave their stressful jobs and focus on raising their children.  We can all benefit from reflecting on the true nature of a successful family.  So, what is a successful family?  How do we achieve that vision?  I explored this issue with Greg and Lisa Popcak on Thursday, March 27, on their radio program More2Life.  If you missed the show (“Parenting Success”), you can access it in the Ava Maria Radio archives here.

Anyone interested in our website probably knows already that success has nothing to do with the size of your bank account or the square footage of your house.  A successful family is one that lives out God’s plan for the family, which is to build a community of life and love.  The successful family nourishes the well-being of the family as a whole and each individual member as unique, unrepeatable persons.   Our culture tells us that certain things will make us happy or nourish our families when they don’t.  Having a vacation house isn’t wrong, but it cannot bring the kind of meaning and joy to our families that God’s plan for our family will.

Anyone interested in reading this probably also knows already that successful families should pray together, attend holy days of obligation, and fulfill their sacramental promises.  But here are five signs of a successful family many of us forget on occasion.  They form the acronym GRAILGenerosity, Resilience, Acceptance, a clear Identity, and Laughter.


The parents and children in successful families think in terms of WE instead of ME.  The couple we heard speak admitted they had both been entirely focused on their own need for external approval – to be the best, the richest, the most admired in their circle of friends.  They decided instead to prioritize the needs of the other spouse and their children.  They began asking each other, “What do you need from me today” instead of “What have you done for me lately?”.   They also opened their hearts and arms to five more babies!  The most radical choice we can make as Christian families is to live for each other instead of ourselves, to practice self-donative, generous love.  Children learn this kind of self-donative love through the modeling of their parents – how parents treat their children and one another.


Every family will face hardship and setbacks.  Oftentimes, this is where the rubber hits the road, when we find out how strong our family connection really is.  How do we treat one another during those times?  How do we get through them?  Successful families know they are not alone:  they have a strong enough rapport to come together during crises to face the road ahead together with the assistance of God.  Rather than coming apart at the seams, successful families are actually strengthened in adversity through a shared sense of determination and unity when faced with setbacks.  Studies show that families who already have strong communication skills and a respect for one another develop resilience.


We all makes mistakes; we are all sinners.  Successful families learn to forgive, to embrace one another even in our ‘not-finished-yet’ state.  When our children make a mistake, we don’t have to pretend like it didn’t happen, but we can lovingly and gently show them a better way to handle big feelings or frustrations in the future.  Instead of hurting or scaring our child with a harsh punishment, we can empathize with her experience while at the same time giving her the skills she needs to succeed in the future.  When we foster this kind of loving acceptance in the home, families serve as a sign to the Church and to unbelievers of the mercy of God.

A Clear Identity

Successful families make it clear up front what they’re about – which virtues and values are most important to them.  Then they can see more clearly how they want to spend their time and money.  Coming up with a family mission statement is a fun and effective way to concretize your family vision.


We too often forget how important laughter is for creating a joyful, vibrant home.  In our achievement-oriented culture it’s easy to get caught up in pushing our kids to work night and day to become successful academically or in sports.  Good grades and sports are fine, but not at the expense of our child’s heart or our family’s sense of mirth.  Jesus surely laughed with his disciples when he gathered with them around a table for a meal.  Becoming a family that laughs together doesn’t take any extra time:  it’s an attitude, a way of making ordinary moments of connection light-hearted and fun.

So there we have it:  GRAIL.  Hopefully we can all remember to foster the GRAIL in our families this week!