Archive for Dr. Gregory Popcak – Page 2

3 Secrets Every Parent Should Know About Teenagers

86534359My oldest child Aidan turned 15 recently.  When he was approaching the teen years some of my friends scared me.  Ah hah! Just wait! Now you’re in for trouble! was the general message.  For those of you with kids approaching the teen years, take courage.  I’ve found that the friction and hostility between parents and teens is not inevitable and it’s certainly not what God has in mind for our families.  I explored this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their Catholic radio program More2Life on Thursday, September 12th.  You can listen to the entire radio program here.

The truth is, we can continue to enjoy a thriving, healthy, loving relationship with our teenagers if we are willing to parent with our eyes and hearts open.  Philip and I certainly made our mistakes in parenting Aidan over the years.  After all he was our first and we are but imperfect human parents not robots, but he is honestly just as sweet and kind as he was ten years ago, only now he can beat me at an arm wrestling match! He’s beginning to find his way in the world, defining his path, envisioning his future.  He is learning how to articulate his opinions and views but he is never hostile or rude.  This is because he knows we value his thoughts and opinions, and that we will extend respect to him even if we disagree with him.  We haven’t made it necessary for him to hate us or reject us. 

On the radio show, I shared 3 secrets I think every parent should know about teenagers:

1.  Teenagers actually want a close relationship with us.

God created human beings from communion and connection; teens are no exception.   A teenager does need to individuate – to define herself – who she is & what she is about (her identity), and how she’ll spend her life (her personal mission).  But this individuation process does not require rudeness, contempt, or rejection from teenagers.  In fact, its critical to our teenager’s mental health that he feels safe and secure in his relationship with us.  So how do we protect our relationship with our teen while encouraging his individuation?

Maintain rapport:  It can take a lot of creativity and soul searching to maintain rapport with some teenagers, but the fact is rapport is necessary in our relationship with our teen if we want to have any kind of influence or impact on their lives.  Rapport is built through 1) respectful communication 2) a playful relationship and 3) clear expectations and boundaries.

Help her find her path:  Be the go-to person for your child as she finds her direction in life.  Be open as she searches for The Thing that matters to her, The Cause that arrests her attention.  With kindness, openness, and understanding help her define what she wants her life to be about.  Make it safe for her to share her dreams with you.

Let her make mistakes within reason:  I am not suggesting here that we let our teens go out and get drunk!  But we do need to let our teens test their sea legs before they set sail.  Teenagers have their own ideas about how things should be done – how the dishwasher should be loaded, how a geometry problem should be solved, how a conflict with a friend should be resolved.  When we are too eager to press our “perfect answer” on our teen without helping her explore her own problem solving abilities, we are depriving her of the opportunities revealed through trial and error, through honest mistakes.

2.  It is not healthy (or normal) for a teen to spend more time with peers than family

If your teenager is more attached to her peers than you, you have a giant problem.  Many parents assume that their teen’s obsession with being in constant contact with friends through email and instant messaging is normal and healthy but it is not.  While it might be natural for teenagers to be interested in friendship and deepening social bonds, we parents must still be the primary role models for our children as they seek to define their values.  This is the way it worked down through history until recent decades.  Sadly, we are parenting in a time that is unique in history:  children are looking to each other for signals about what is valuable, about what deserves their attention and respect.  They are turning to each other in times of distress or trial instead of their parents.  Basically, kids are raising kids.  Big mistake.

Your child must be more identified with your values than those of her peers, but attachments can become skewed and destructive, so that your child doesn’t give a hoot about your opinions.  When this happens, your child would rather lose your respect and trust than do anything to threaten the fragile connection she has with her peers.  We have no control over or influence on our child in these situations.

Attachment is important in the infant and early childhood years, but it’s equally important in teen years.  We have to maintain our connection and rapport with our teenager so that our family life and our parental love remain the center of influence in his life.  Make it a priority in your home to spend time together as a family playing, laughing, connecting – whatever that means to you.  Let your teenager have a say in how you spend your family time, too.

3.  A teenager’s body looks grown-up but his brain is unfinished

Neuro-imaging is shedding light on how the teenage brains works.  The brain’s pre-frontal lobe — which is involved in planning, strategizing, and organizing, in philosophizing and pondering our existence – this part of the brain is unfinished in the teen years.  This is why teenagers are prone to becoming distracted easily.  Knowing this can give us empathy for a giant teenager when he forgets to take out the garbage.  The immature teen brain also explains their tendency to be impulsive without regard for safety or consequences.  Parents often lament some of the poor choices their teens make, especially when with friends.  They do things parents can’t imagine them doing.  Teens need our firm and loving guidance in how to balance their obligations and to plan their commitments wisely.  They need our continued mentorship in the virtues as they are confronted with difficult moral choices.  They still need our intentional, loving parenting.

For further reading on raising your teenager with compassion and respect, check out these resources:

Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld.  This is a must read for parents of older kids and teens.  Warns against common lifestyle practices that result in the transferring of attachments from parents to peers in the teen years.  Powerful.

Positive Discipline for Teenagers by Jane Nelson

Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel.  This book is set for release on December 26.  I rarely recommend a book that I haven’t yet read myself, but I’ve read several of Siegel’s other books and I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the release of this one!  It promises to demystify some of the brain science that explains teen behavior so that we can turn it into something positive.

Image credit:  Jupiter Images (

Avoiding Power Struggles with Your Kids

parenting scolding child

Last week I joined Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life to talk about positive ways to deal with power struggles with our kids.  We’ve all been in situations with our kids when we are butting heads with them:  they just asked for candy for the fifth time in the store in as many minutes; they refuse to come to the dinner table; they hide from us at bedtime.

How do we deal with power struggles with our kids without weakening our relationship with them?  Here a few tips for actually strengthening your connection with your kids while addressing problem behavior.


Routines help kids know what to do and when.  Our routines create smooth grooves in the road of family life, and our kids are comforted and secure living in the certainty of those grooves.  This is as true for teens as it is for tiny ones.  However, routines are especially powerful in managing problem behavior in toddlers and preschoolers.  What’s the terrifying trio for little ones? Eating, sleeping, and toileting.  If our power struggles erupt in these areas, we have a problem because we cannot force our children to eat, sleep, or pee.  They are ultimately in control.  We can only encourage their compliance with our expectations through gentle, loving persuasion and by keeping healthy routines and rituals around the trio. 

Eating dinner together every night after a family prayer and over enjoyable conversation is both a routine and a loving ritual that gives our child positive associations about food. Having a comforting bedtime routine (bath, story, prayers) prepares a child for sleep.  Even taking a potty training toddler to the potty on the hour is the kind of routine he needs to experience success.

Clear Expectations

Ensure your children know ahead of time what you expect of them:  Have clear rules around behavior in your home; before an outing remind them of expectations regarding purchasing things, wandering off, or basic manners.  Don’t forget that small children usually need lots of patience and reminders about our rules and expectations.  We also don’t want to set kids up for failure by expecting them to be more mature than they are.  For example, we can expect our teenager to sit politely at Grandma’s dinner table for an hour, but our toddler will probably turn the napkin rings into eye glasses!

Modeling Appropriate Behavior

If a child is having a problem with an inappropriate behavior (hitting, lying, grabbing toys), instead of ignoring the behavior or punishing him for it, we can mentor him in making a better, wiser choice.  For example, if our child is taking another child’s toys, we can say gently “let’s ask Jane if we can play with the blocks when she’s done” and then we can help our child cope with his feeling of frustration and disappointment over having to wait; we can then play with him until it’s his turn.  If we have a hitter, even if the child is very small, we can model “a gentle touch” by physically placing her hand gently on the dog or the other child. 

Kids watch everything we do: How we act is a much more powerful lesson that what we have to say.  If we tell our kids to do one thing, but something different ourselves, they notice.  If we don’t want our kids to hit, yell, gossip, or lie, then we can’t do these things either.  We must model kindness, respect, and love in the way we treat our children and others.

The Peace Place

Many parents know about “time outs” –placing your child in designated area for a specific period of time as punishment for unwanted behavior – but sometimes time outs actually create power struggles in the relationship.  If the problem is disconnection between child and parent, time outs might make the problem worse.  If this is happening in your family, I suggest viewing time outs as cool offs instead.  Especially when children are very young, being isolated away from the family can feel threatening and frightening.

Designate a cool off spot where your child can go to calm down and collect himself.  This space should be very inviting and comfortable – think comfy pillows, stuffed animals, books.  The goal is not to punish the child, but to empower him to gain his composure so that it becomes a habit.  This is your Peace Place:  a special place where kids and parents alike go to find some peace and quiet.

If the problem is a disconnection between our child and ourselves, then we should take the cool off with him.  We can snuggle and read together in the Peace Place until things are calm, and then talk through what happened.


I know it seems bonkers to consider laughing with kids when they’re pressing our buttons, but it often works.  In his book Playful Parenting, Lawrence Cohen offers several strategies for defusing tense moments with our kids through play or a playful attitude.  If you struggle with bedtime, dinner time, or chore time, make a game out of it.  My husband used to tap his fingers under the table during dinner pretending to be a mouse coming to hunt for my son’s food: “Hurry take a bite! The mouse is coming to eat it!”  My son loved this game and we were able to encourage at least a few extra bites this way!

Just having a playful spirit instead of a grumpy one can defuse a tense situation.  Racing to see who can pick up the Lego the fastest instead of yelling at the kids to get them picked up, trying to put our child’s jacket on his legs when we’re trying to get out the door, even announcing that dinner will be served on the front lawn – these are playful, fun ways to reduce the tension in otherwise difficult situations.  Instead of weakening your relationship with your child through threats and fighting, you are actually strengthening your relationship.

I think the bottom line with all these suggestions is that our goal should be to mentor our child, to view him as a disciple who needs guidance, not a prisoner who needs punishment.  If we try control our child through threats or with physical force it might work in the short term to get them to do what we want, but often at the expense of their trust in us.

For more ideas for maintaining your connection with your kids while addressing problem behavior, see these awesome resources:

Parenting with Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson (see also her books specifically on preschoolers and teens)

SABC Recommends Positive Discipline Over Spanking

86510472Giant news!  The South African Bishops Conference (SABC) recently provided this report to the South African Parliament outlining its reasons for supporting positive forms of discipline and recommending against corporal punishment.

The Bishops argue for “the bodily integrity, dignity, and equality of children.”   Now most folks who spank would argue that there is nothing about spanking that dishonors children or violates their dignity:  they are children, not adults, therefore their right to bodily integrity and dignity is defined differently from an adult’s.  I would say that children have heightened rights because of their legal, physical, and developmental vulnerabilities.  I would also point out that until quite recently it was very legal for men to physically “discipline” their wives.  It was normative abuse:  Nobody thought anything of it.

The entire SABC report is worth reading, but of note are the following sections (note the Bishops’ reference to Dr. Greg Popcak’s work!):

From Section 3: The Social Teaching of the Church

There is nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which supports the right of parents to use corporal punishment. The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference asserts that “Our basic Christian teaching applies equally to children as to adults:  every person is made in the image and likeness of God and therefore has an innate dignity. We invoke this teaching in confirming our commitment to support everything that will promote the protection of children.”  Furthermore, Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Children emphasizes that “children suffer many forms of violence from grown‐ups . . . How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown‐ups.”

From Section 6: The Socialization of Children

“Healthy families help and support children and family members in their development by providing a safe space to grow and experiment with boundaries and by providing positive role models for relationships.” . . . Children learn how to be in the world by watching how the adults in their world relate to each other and to children; this is particularly the case within the home. Children brought up in an environment where any form of abuse is common (this includes ridicule and other forms of verbal abuse), may grow up to regard this as ‘normal’, as they do not have the maturity or experience to interpret this experience differently . . .

In discussing the negative consequences of corporal punishment taken from long term studies of children who were spanked as children, Catholic psychotherapist Gregory Popcak writes that “girls who are spanked show a greater risk of ending up in abusive marriages; boys who are spanked have higher than average chances of being abusive spouses. Adults who were spanked as children tend to be less happy in their marriages. Adults who were spanked as children tend to reject the religion of their parents.” There is an inter‐generational aspect to domestic violence both in terms of those who perpetrate it and those who accept it as normal.

From Section 7: The Positive Discipline Approach

Positive discipline is not only about not using corporal punishment; it is about providing a consistently nurturing and containing environment that is as predictable as possible. Children who are able to explore and experiment with boundaries within a safe, secure environment are less likely to experiment or engage in risky behaviour in adulthood, as they are ‘self‐contained’.  Again Gregory Popcak writes that “there is an important distinction to be made between discipline and punishment… discipline assumes a teacher‐student relationship, and its main objective is to teach the offender what to do instead of the offence”. He continues “discipline is less concerned with teaching compliance with the law than it is with teaching children to have deeper, more respectful and loving relationships”.

From Section 8:  What Positive Discipline Teaches Children

Positive discipline teaches children a variety of vital life skills. It teaches alternative and appropriate ways of dealing with anger, frustration and disappointment; it instils tolerance and discourages prejudice; it builds emotional intelligence; children have their feelings validated and this helps to develop a ‘feelings’ vocabulary; it fosters an ability to compromise; it encourages self reflection and the ability to anticipate consequences and make informed choices. Positive discipline promotes the capacity to cope with peer pressure. It discourages attention seeking behaviour. It engenders tolerance and a sense of human dignity, justice, and bodily integrity. It develops the patience to deal with delayed gratification as well as respect or appropriate authority and laws. Importantly, it builds self‐esteem and confidence. Positive discipline is an investment in the future.

Of course, we have to recognize that while the Church has never supported the right of parents to spank their kids, neither has it prohibited the practice.  The Church leaves matters of discipline up to the judgment of parents, but I do think we have a duty not to stick our heads in the sand.  Being knowledgeable and informed about the research on this issue is imperative in making wise choices for our families.  Just saying to ourselves, “Well the Church never said I couldn’t spank so it must be okay” is not rational.  I think, too, that any talk of banning spanking has to come from a place of support and understanding for those parents who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.  If spanking were illegal in my state, I would be a criminal even though I strongly oppose spanking.

If you would like to read more of my position on spanking, here’s a tidbit.  Dr. Greg also wrote a great article responding to the SABC’s report.  Also, stay tuned this weekend for my interview with Robbyn Peters Bennet from Stop!

The Hidden Oneness of the Family

Dr. Greg recently wrote a great article on “unity” and what it takes to achieve authentic connection with others.  He uses the acronym COAL to describe the 4 qualities that enable people to feel connection with others: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and loving. 

  • Curiosity: the genuine and honest desire to know another person; their story, thoughts, feelings, and heart.
  • Openness: the  willingness to leave my comfort zone for sake of connection with the other.
  • Acceptance:  willingness to hear the other person’s thoughts, feelings, ideas and life story without judgment.  Acceptance doesn’t mean we agree with their viewpoint; only that we understand they are making an authentic attempt to meet a need.
  • Love: a  genuine commitment to working for the good of other, even when we disagree with them.

I appreciate how clearly Dr. Greg sets out these human qualities in his article and I hope you’ll read it.  I would add to this discussion, however, the significance of EMPATHY in experiencing connection and union.  It’s implied in the quality of “acceptance” but without empathy we will never understand the viewpoint of another person.  We will tend to project our own viewpoint onto others or reject anybody who is remotely different from us because we can’t tolerate those differences without feeling threatened on some level.

So what is empathy anyway?  Empathy is the gift empathywe use to know the “other,” to understand their perspective, and even to allow their perspective to change us.  Empathy is one of CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks:  Science confirms the essential role that empathy plays in the moral and emotional development of children.  Why is it so important?  Well, because without fully developed empathy, children will never fulfill their human potential, let alone experience real love or friendship.  Human beings are made for connection and connection requires empathy.

In his book Born for Love:  Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered, Bruce Perry explains that the human brain is wired from birth to seek intimate connection with another person — a bond specifically made possible by empathy, “the ability to love and to share the feelings of others.”  Well, Catholic theology is way ahead of Perry on this one.  We have long held that all human beings are created with a longing for connection to the Great Other — God.  We are all seeking unity with the Divine.  This is the fundamental sameness in each of us — not just Catholics, not just Christians, but all of humanity shares this same eternal longing.  Part of our path to that union includes our connection with each other as children of God.  Connecting with other humans isn’t “second best” to connection with God — it’s actually part of our path to Divine connection.

In her discussion of empathy, St. Edith Stein discerned a “hidden oneness” within small, intimate communities like the family that prepared us for a more encompassing connection to society and eventually even to humanity and God Himself.  We parents recognize this “hidden oneness” in our families:  Even though each of us is so very different, with differing talents, struggles, personalities, and appearances, we experience a quiet knowing that makes us, well, An Us.    I love this idea of “hidden oneness,” but I also recognize that that sense of oneness doesn’t necessarily mean children will develop empathy, and they will therefore never experience a true sense of community, communion, or connection.  People who lack empathy perceive others emotionally as objects to be used to meet their own needs.  Without an ability to experience empathy for others our children will never truly know themselves or their Savior, let alone experience authentic connection with their friends and loved ones.  In order to become empathic, our children must have particular formative experiences in the hidden oneness of the family.  The shared oneness of a family can be destructive and chaotic — it isn’t necessarily a positive kind of oneness.  In order to become fully alive, empathic adults, our children must 1) trust us, 2) feel we understand them, and 3) feel we respect them.  When one of these elements is lacking in the parent-child relationship, our child’s path to empathy will be hindered.


Our children obviously must trust that we are reliable enough to meet their basic human needs for food, shelter, and clothing.  To develop empathy, our children must trust that we won’t harm them emotionally or physically.  When children fear us, they don’t trust us.  Children also need to believe we are honest.  If they witness us lying to others, they will not trust that we’re being honest with them.  Without a sense that we’re sharing our real thoughts, feelings, and experiences, our kids won’t be willing to trust us with their own.  This is especially true as kids become teens.  I’m not suggesting you have to reveal the entire truth about your life or your adult experiences, but I am suggesting that our children should believe that truthfulness is important to us and that we try to live out that virtue.

Understanding & Recognition

We all long to feel known and understood, especially children.  Recognize your child’s feelings and fears and respond to them with acceptance and compassion.  Even if you think your child is wrong or is being irrational about something, you can still honor her experience by putting yourself in her shoes and expressing your understanding.  As Dr. Greg emphasized, acceptance doesn’t mean agreement.  The PERSON needs to feel loved and accepted, even if we don’t agree with his point of view.   If your child is having a hard time sleeping, is she worried about something?  What’s on her mind?  If your child falls down and skins her knee, you can say “that must have really surprised you!”  By mirroring your child’s feelings in this way you are helping her feel more comfortable with them and you are demonstrating that you “get” her.


Respecting our children doesn’t mean we let them pick their noses or let them eat chocolate for dinner.  They are children and need our guidance and protection.  However, in guiding and protecting them we must recognize and affirm their dignity.  Children possess full personhood just as adults do — they don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Affirming their dignity means we don’t scare them or hit them; it means we sometimes put aside our own needs in order to meet those needs which they are unable to meet themselves; it means that we empower them over time to care for themselves, to manage their emotions, to manage their time & friendships; it means that we recognize that they are unique and unrepeatable, with their own way of feeling loved, their own talents and tastes, their own unique gifts to bring to the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about empathy, unity, and connection, why they are important, and how to understand your children better, I recommend:

Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered by Bruce Perry

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland

The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman



Keeping Your Kids Catholic


Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi

Well this article is just fascinating.  As usual, Dr. Greg Popcak boils down the theoretical mumbo-jumbo to its boney core and gives us the basic information we need about what keeps our kids Catholic.

This is an issue that concerns all of us and I know it crosses the mind of every Catholic parent.  How do we best ensure our children will remain Catholic into adulthood?  How do we ensure they not only remain faithful to the Church, but that they also continue to grow in their faith throughout life?  What makes people leave the faith or end up in that common category of adults who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” even when they’ve grown up in traditional Catholic homes?

Dr. Popcak explains that

If a child is securely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult.

If a child is insecurely attached to religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult  (there is also a fair number in this group who fall into the “spiritual but not religious category.  Mostly because their attachment issues make them suspicious of what researchers call, “social religion”  [i.e., organized religion]).

In the research I’ve done on this issue, it’s very clear that a securely attached child is far more likely to internalize the values of his parents in adulthood, for better or ill.  Dr. Greg asserts that “children who are securely attached to highly religious parents are the most religiously attached of all groups as adults” and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Living an attached, gentle lifestyle with our children appears more difficult on the surface sometimes, but this is an illusion.  The love we give, the time we spend, the bonds we forge benefit our children now as they are beginning to visualize and experience themselves in relation to others and to the Great Other, and these efforts certainly benefit them much later when they are loving their own children and living out their Christian calling.

I encourage you to check out Dr. Greg’s whole article and the links he provides!

Sibling Rivalry (or “when’s that baby going back to her real house?”)

90056894When I was eight-months pregnant with my second child (my daughter Claire), my oldest child Aidan announced, “I don’t really want a sister.”

Now, why wouldn’t any child want a sibling?  Why wouldn’t he want somebody to ride bikes with, somebody to dig in the dirt with, somebody to open presents with on Christmas morning?  Well, because he was a normal four-year-old for one thing.  We’re looking at sibling rivalry here.  What is sibling rivalry really and how do we deal with it effectively?  This is the topic I explored today with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life, produced by Ave Maria Radio.   (If you missed the show you can find the entire program in Ave Maria’s archives!)

Every parent I know who has more than one child has faced sibling rivalry.  Sibling rivalry is the competition and fighting between siblings brought on by a child’s jealousy or insecurity about how his parents feel about him compared to his siblings.  It’s easy to ignore sibling rivalry as just part of a normal childhood, but true sibling rivalry is very different from squabbling.  This kind of jealousy can become poisonous and painful if left to fester.


Let’s begin at the beginning, because sibling rivalry most often begins before the second child is even born, just as it did for Aidan nearly ten years ago.  These feelings of ambivalence about a new child coming into the family are very normal.  But if parents ignore those feelings or if they shame the child for having them, it can set up a dangerous dynamic between the two children.  I think it’s imperative that we recognize how authentically threatened little children are by the arrival of a new baby.  Before the baby arrives, they hear Mommy and Daddy talking “the baby” a LOT ( and what’s a baby? who is it? where is it coming from? what’s it gonna say or do?).  They watch Mommy rubbing her baby belly, witness the joy in the faces of strangers when they talk to Mommy about the baby coming, and watch Mommy and Daddy shopping for cool stuff for the baby.  Then the baby comes.  Well, goodness.  Now they see Mom gazing into the baby’s eyes, cooing at her, nursing her.  What’s to like about that when you’re a little kid?

CAPC’s second Building Block to a Joyful Catholic Home™ is empathy.  Empathy requires us to put ourselves in our child’s shoes so we can understand things from his perspective.  Empathy allows us to respond to our child with more awareness of what they need from us.  Quite simply, our kids are not us!  They have their own thoughts, temperament, and ideas.  If I had considered Aidan’s struggle only from my own perspective, I would have told him to knock it off and get with the program – we were having a baby whether he liked it or not.  However, when I looked at Aidan’s problem from his perspective – the perspective of a preschool only-child with health issues and two overwhelmed parents (I was in law school and Philip was a post-doctoral researcher) — no wonder he was freaked out thinking about a new family member coming.  He felt unsettled, threatened, and unsure where he would fit into the picture after the baby arrived.

Aidan is no different from any other small child facing the arrival of a new baby in the family.  All of us can acknowledge our older child’s feelings and do what we can to give them the reassurance and love they need to help through this transition. Here a few tips to help your little ones cope with their anxiety when you are expecting and welcoming a new baby into your family:

  • Include big siblings in preparations:  When we were expecting new babies, Philip and I got in the habit of calling the baby “our baby” or even “your baby” when talking to our older kids about the baby.  (“When your baby is crying, she might be hungry or uncomfortable.”)  This gave our children the feeling that they were included in the giant excitement ahead.
  • Gentle first introductions:  When baby finally arrived, when my older children came to the hospital the first time to meet baby, I asked my husband to phone me when he was on his way up so that I could put the baby in the hospital bassinet.  This way, my arms were free to hug my older children and I could introduce them to the new baby gently.   I also had “big sibling” gifts waiting for my kids when they arrived at the hospital.
  • Involve big siblings in baby care:  Older siblings will bond better with the baby if they are permitted to hold the baby, help with diapering and bathing, etc.  They feel less sidelined and more important.
  • One-on-one time:  It really helps older siblings feel special when we make an effort to spend “just you” time with them after baby arrives.  When I was recovering from my 3rd c-section, I made the mistake of ensuring my older kids had lots of special time with Dad and Grandma, but failed to take that time myself.  Two-year-old Claire was very jealous of Dominic for several months. I had to heal my relationship with her first before she was able to open her heart to Dominic.  (Now they’re great pals!)

Older Children

Beyond the baby years, older children can struggle with sibling rivalry, too.  My discussion with Greg & Lisa was part of their broader presentation of the problem of resentment – specifically the ways in which we can become mired in our anger and sense of powerlessness about certain relationships and circumstances.  When sibling rivalry is a problem in the relationship of two older siblings, this element of anger and powerlessness is very clear.  The siblings can actually feel hatred toward their sibling, exaggerate affronts, and react to small annoyances with emotional hostility and even violence.  I think this irrationality comes partly from a place of fear and powerlessness.

Older children are striving to demonstrate how they are special and unique.  They are trying to define themselves apart from their siblings.  Siblings can become jealous, angry, and competitive with one another when we fail to affirm them for the unique children of God that they are.  Here are a few tips for quieting the rioting between your big ‘uns!

  • Don’t compare or label your kids:  Never compare your children! (“Why can’t you be a good ball player like your brother?”)   This is a no-brainer.  Most parents I know have risen above this terrible habit because it was one that their parents haunted them with in their own childhoods, but I must make this declaration anyway in case there are few stragglers out there:  Comparing children – their talents, faults, attractiveness – is toxic!  Similarly, labeling your kids is very limiting.  Were you called “the clumsy one,” “the smart one,” “the pretty one,” or “the black sheep” in your family of origin?  Labels like this can hurt feelings and constrain potential.  I think parents get in the habit of labeling kids because they’re trying to create a family identity and sense of cohesion (however strange).  But these labels can create stagnancy and bitterness in family dynamics.  Yuck.  So avoid labels and be open to whatever your kids have to teach you about who they are and where God is leading them.
  • Help your kids discover their talents:  God has a special plan for each of us.  When we help our children see that they are unique and unrepeatable, with talents and gifts of their very own, they won’t feel like they have to live up to their siblings achievements.
  • Have plenty of family fun time:  Reserving special time for the whole family to play together fosters connection and family identity.  When your children regularly laugh together, they are better able to handle their conflicts later.   
  • Don’t forget one-on-one time:  Just like younger kids, older children benefit from me-and-you time when they can experience your love and recognition apart from their siblings.
  • Require and model kindness in your home:  Cruelty and sibling abuse is a reality and it can lead to life-long psychological harm.  We must never accept or tolerate violence or bullying in our homes.  This means we parents have to model the behavior we expect to see in our children.  We have to treat our children and our spouse with respect and love if we expect our children to internalize those values.

None of us wants to see our kids fighting or bickering, especially when it’s motivated by a lack of confidence in our love for them.  Sibling rivalry is avoidable!  Understand where your kids are coming from, meet their needs tenderly and mercifully, and reassure them that everyone’s needs will be met to the best of your ability.  Love your kids without limits, every day, at every opportunity.

Image credit: Arne Thayson (

The Family & The New Evangelization

year of faith photo

Today is the Feast of the Ascension.  At the Ascension, Christ announced the Church’s mission to the Apostles:

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.  Matthew 28: 19 and 20.

Christians aren’t meant to sit back and cheer on the Church as she tries to spread the Good News of salvation and Christ’s love.  (Way to go guys!  Convert those lost souls! Woo-hoo!   . . .  Okay, where’s my remote?)  All Christians are called to the task of evangelization.  This truth is evident in the Vatican’s efforts to promote “The New Evangelization” at every level of society.  Ordinary Christian men and women are critical in transforming not only non-Christianized nations, but the de-Christianization of previously rich Christian communities.

But what about parents?  How can we be useful in the serious work of conversion when we have a family to care for?  Today my toddler decided to run the hose in our unlandscaped yard, creating a mud pile; she then rolled around in it until she was covered in mud from head to toe.  This morning, my teenager was having a hard time deciding whether he felt comfortable riding his bike to the middle of town to meet some pals for a movie.  He needed my attention and my ear all morning.  And I will not  mention (okay, I’m mentioning it) my nine-year-old daughter who needs gentle lessons in why growing girls need to wear clothes around the house.

Gee whiz!  I know I’m not alone.  We are busy raising our children and keeping our homes running smoothly.  How do we become part of the Church’s work of conversion?  I explored this question with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life today.  The fact is, not only are we called to participate in The New Evangelization, but we have a special role to play.

Our first disciples are very near

The Church has identified the family has particularly critical to the Church’s work of evangelization.  However, you don’t need to go off to distant lands to obey Christ’s call to convert the world.  We heed the call by evangelizing our own children:  our first disciples are our children.  We can spend lots of time in Church ministries, packing care packages for the poor, and raising money for missions, but let’s not kid ourselves:  If we fail our children, we fail the call.  Our culture tells us that what we do at home in the private sphere of the family is insignificant especially socially and politically.  But family is everything. It is always and everywhere.  Every human being begins as part of a family.

ConnectionThe family is the first school of love.  Christ said we are to teach and convert our children, so what are our children learning in our families?  Are they learning fear, hate, and rebellion or joy, love, and communion?   Lisa Popcak mentioned her concern that many of her homeschooling friends assume that because they are using a Catholic homeschool curriculum, their children will grow up to become faithful, fulfilled Catholics, but the evidence does not bear this out.  One study I looked at claimed that Catholic children are more likely than not to fall away from the faith in adulthood.  We cannot assume that because we form our child’s mind with good Catholic information that she’ll remain Catholic.  We must win her heart first.  To carry our values into adulthood, our child must see us as credible authorities and care about our values.  By attending to the quality of the attachment and connection between our children and ourselves, we are tending their hearts, and drawing them to Christ.

Studies consistently show that children who are raised in harsh, negative environments are less likely to internalize their parents’ values than children raised by firm but kind parents. Quite simply, we impact the world in the way we love our children.

See those Christians, how they love

The New Evangelization calls us to reach out not only to non-Christians, but also Christians who have lost the faith.  We can do this work comfortably within the vocation of parenting.  You don’t have to stand on a street corner with a Bible to fulfill this call.  The world will see the witness of our lives and wonder what we have that they don’t have!  (See those Christians how they love!) Just in our love, neighborliness, and hospitality toward others, we can evangelize the world.  Inviting acquaintances to your home to share a meal and to experience the love of a healthy, thriving family is a powerful way to participate in the Church’s mission.

Sharing the comfort and warmth of our families in this way will impact others in more ways than we can imagine.  I believe American culture in particular is starving for the kindness and warmth that can be found in strong, loving Catholic homes.  So, invite a work acquaintance home for dinner; bring a widowed or sick neighbor cards made by your children and bring your children along to deliver them; invite a fallen Catholic to share in your Easter dinner.  You don’t have to lean into their faces and ask, are you saved, in order to spread Christ’s Good News.  Your love is the Good News.  As one of the Popcaks’ callers put it, sometimes it’s most compelling to allow others to meet Christ in us, in our merciful actions, instead of through our words.

He is with us always

As we live this noble, sacramental life of parenting our children, of evangelizing world through our families, we will struggle, we will fall, we will suffer.  Christ promised he would be with us always in this work.   Especially through the sacraments, Christ will strengthen us and give us wisdom for the journey.  We must not only attend Mass faithfully in order to take the Eucharist, but we parents benefit from the healing and direction available through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We can also meet Christ in prayer.   Each family has a unique path, a special mission within the larger mission of the Church, but we will never know what that is unless we are willing to cultivate our prayer life, both personally and as a family.  If you can’t imagine how you can fit in family prayer in a schedule that is already jammed, start small.  Perhaps you can just pray the Morning Offering together before you all leave for the day, pray at dinner, and then pray again with your children when they’re going to bed.  Praying the rosary is a great way to introduce family prayer even with small children.  With lots of littlies, it’s okay to just pray one decade of the rosary.  Once you have made a commitment to prayer and it becomes family habit, you will notice real changes in the emotional and spiritual environment of your home.

Christ is also with us through the fellowship of other Christians.  I can become isolated in my large parish because I’m so shy, but when I make the effort to get involved in parish activities and events, I am always glad.  I especially appreciate how my children benefit from feeling part of our parish community: they love knowing the special, pretty places on the parish grounds, the names of our deacons (and where they eat lunch after Mass!), and those small seemingly mundane details that often give us all a comfortable sense of belonging.

He is with us always as we lead our domestic church, as we convert the world one moment at a time, one conversation at a time, despite muddied toddlers and teen angst — no, it’s through those things that our evangelical work thrives!

Different Types of Attachment and What It Means to You

Wanted to share this article by Dr. Greg Popcak commenting on a study on the consequences of the cry-it-out sleep method.  He writes:

[A] new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships highlights the long term psychological and relational consequences of the cry-it-out method.  In particular, the new study looks at the tendency of insecurely attached adults to feel threatened by otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.   The study is one of hundreds that look at the effects of insecure attachment in childhood on adult relationships.

Dr. Popcak explains very clearly the different “attachment styles” and how they influence outcomes for children when they grow up.  There are three attachment categories identified by attachment scientists:  secure, ambivalent, and avoidant.  The securely attached child is confident in interpersonal relationships and knows how to be vulnerable “without losing himself”.  He also feels confident enough to explore the world, knowing his 123172048safe harbor (mom or dad) is nearby.  The child is nervous when mom or dad leave, often crying, but when mom or dad return, the child cuddles for a while then is fine.  The ambivalent-attached child is not secure, tends to be clingy and nervous about being abandoned.  This child is hesitant in exploring the world and becomes distraught when a parent leaves, but when the parent returns he will act ambivalent about the parent.   The avoidant-attached child is the least securely attached — they act as if they don’t care about their parents.  They don’t behave in a distressed manner when the parent leaves and don’t seem to care when the parent returns.

Unless something significant happens to change the child’s world, the child’s attachment category tends to be stable into adulthood.  But it can change. For example, the securely attached child will tend to grow into a securely attached adult, enjoying intimate, close friendships, capable of joy and empathy.  However, if the child experiences some serious setback in life — the death of a parent, divorce, abuse, etc. — his attachment category can change.  Similarly, a child who lacks a secure attachment as young child can learn to trust the world again through intervention and consistent, warm parenting.  Adopted children often experience some attachment difficulty early on, but with loving parents, they grow up to become thriving, happy adults.  I just want to make clear that the childhood attachment category isn’t carved into our brains, forever unchangeable.

Why does this matter to you, to me?  As Dr. Greg explains, which category a child falls into is determined by how responsive her parent is in infancy and toddlerhood.  He specifically says that:

Children whose cries are responded to promptly develop secure attachment.  Children whose cries are responded to inconsistently (i.e, time to response or consistency of responding at all varies) develop anxious-ambivalent attachment.  Children whose cries are consistently ignored develop avoidant attachment.  This it not a theory.  These findings (both how a child comes by their attachment style and the long term relationship effects) have been established by hundreds of studies conducted over decades and, in some cases for decades (as with some of the 30year + longitudinal research done on attachment styles and adult relationships.)

Poorly attached children do not fare well in interpersonal relationships in adulthood.  They are guarded, suspicious, and have a hard time opening their hearts to anyone.  They also often lack empathy and are more vulnerable to depression and addiction.

Dr. Greg urges parents to look at the evidence before they make up their minds about the cry it out method.  I would also add that the attachment or bond is started in infancy, but we have to nourish the bond throughout childhood.  Harsh parenting styles will weaken the basic trust between the child and parent even if that child was responded to with sensitivity as an infant. CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks work together to create a connection-rich environment in your home not only during infancy but throughout childhood.

As Catholic parents, we have to use wisdom in discerning which cultural norms we should accept or reject.  God made our child’s body a particular way, and scientists are revealing the way our parenting choices impact our child’s emotional and moral development.  Every child deserves to be treated with dignity; every child deserves a fighting chance to grow up to become a joyful, exuberant adult.  I hope you’ll check out Dr. Greg’s article and the links he provides.

I also recommend these awesome books on attachment science if you want to dive deeper into this topic:

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland.  A great, accessible book on how parenting choices influence brain development and attachment outcomes.

The Attachment Connection: Parenting a Secure and Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory by Ruth Newton. Presents a clear history of attachment theory and how to foster attachment especially in babies and very young children.

Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love by Robert Karen.  This book traces the emergence of attachment theory in the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  This might be more detail than some readers want, but I couldn’t put it down!

The Domestic Church Images the Last Supper

The Last Supper, Duccio

The Last Supper, Duccio

I was scheduled to be on “More2Life” with Dr. Greg & Lisa Popcak this  morning, but Dr. Greg is sick and has lost his voice!  Prayers for you, Dr. Greg.  We all hope you recover quickly.  I  thought I would briefly explore the topic we were going to discuss on the show:  “The Domestic Church Images the Last Supper.”

Today is Holy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum, and the day we recall the Last Supper.  At the Last Supper, Christ instituted the Eucharist as a supernatural banquet that nourishes believers spiritually. He also washed the feet of the 12 Apostles in an act of profound humility.  How do we, as Catholic parents, live in concrete ways the significance of the Last Supper in our own homes?

The Domestic Church Images the Eucharist 

The Second Vatican Council called our families “the domestic church” because we image and participate in the work of the Universal Church.  In fact, families are critical to the mission of the church.  Just as the Universal Church repeats Christ’s sacrifice on the altar at every Mass for the benefit and unity of all believers, so we parents as heads of our domestic church feed our families spiritually through the sacrifices we make as parents.

Parents have the grave duty to form their children’s spiritual lives.  It takes time and planning, but as heads of our domestic church, we have to recognize our supreme role in leading our children to Heaven.  Our families need to pray together and live a Christ-centered life within our homes.  In addition, we feed our children spiritually when we treat them with dignity and respect.  Children are made in the image and likeness of God: they have the capacity for self-giving, selfless love.  But when their parents scare them, hit them, ignore them, or focus only on their external achievements, children are distanced from that capacity within themselves.  John Paul II exhorted the domestic church to become “communities of love” as witnesses to the world.  When we take that extra moment and go that extra mile to understand things from our child’s perspective, to discern their true needs not just what we assume they need, to guard their hearts, we are building up our communities of love.

Gathering our little flock at family dinners is one of the most beautiful ways we image The Last Supper in our homes.  As we sacrifice our time and energy to present a beautiful meal to our children, and often extended family and friends, we are providing an opportunity for communion. Communion is an exchange of gifts, not just mom or dad doing all the sharing and giving.  We can provide opportunities for our children to share their ideas and talents at the table, and to work with us to present the family meal.

The Washing of Feet: We Kneel Down to Exalt Our Children

At the Last Supper, Christ kneeled down and washed the feet of the disciples in an act of humility that has reverberated through history.  If you attend Mass tonight you will see your priest imitating this same action on the altar:  He will wash the feet of 12 men (sometimes men and women).  Well we parents imitate this action daily in our parenting vocation.  Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that in this moment of the feet washing, Christ was taking on the task of a slave.  It shows that “God doesn’t want to trample on us, but kneels down before us to exalt us.  The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be so small.”  He kneels down before to exalt us.  Wow.

We parents image this action every day.  We literally wash our children’s feet.  We wipe their dirty bottoms, clean their boogery noses, and clip their toenails.  Parents are willing to make themselves small in order to keep their children clean and healthy.  But this extends to our child’s emotional health as well.  Creating an atmosphere in our homes that fosters strong bonding and connection usually means parents have to make themselves small in some way: Dad has to do the dishes so Mom can nurse the baby, both parents have to sacrifice achievement outside the home in order to do what’s right for their family, we let our kids put capes and wigs on us so they can be in charge of play sometimes.  Making ourselves small in these ways raises up our children in dignity.

When we’re having a tough day, I hope we can remember Benedict’s wisdom.  When we kneel down in order to exalt our children, we are imaging Christ at the Last Supper.  We all hope our homes will become holy and peaceful; we all hope we will have the wisdom and charity to create an atmosphere that reflects what the Holy Family’s home might have looked like.  But we’re dealing daily with the effects of sin and the hand of the Devil trying to muck up everything we do.  We move toward conversion through grace, with our families resting in the hand of God.  Conversion in our homes doesn’t happen all at once.  God offers us small opportunities for conversion as we walk our path together as a family. When we make sacrifices and surrender our own needs in order to help our children become stronger emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I think we are participating in a very real way Christ’s work of conversion.

Have a blessed Holy Thursday with your families, the domestic church.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Giving hands

If you’re having a hard day today and wondering what the point is of all this gentle, responsive parenting stuff, please read this chilling article about RAD or Reactive Attachment Disorder by a therapist who treats children who have it.  Children with RAD are very poorly attached to their parents, “show contempt for adults and authority, a terror of abandonment, and hatred for siblings and anyone who compete with them for mom’s affections.”  How we treat our children from the first days of their lives matters.

Children need warm, loving care from their mothers in infancy.  They deserve it.  Infants deserve their mother’s arms more than their mothers deserve a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the back.  This view is unpopular.  In fact, I should probably check my tires in the morning especially given the political climate I inhabit in the San Francisco Bay Area.  But I’m doing to say, damn it.  Babies have rights!  Their rights take precedence over the rights of the adults who have been blessed with their births.  This is called being a grown up and taking care of the people who have been placed in your care.

The author of the article, Dr. Faye Snyder, writes that:

RAD children were not born RAD. They were born to love and be loved. Every child I ever met with a propensity for violence was the natural product of extremely painful treatment, usually beginning with being left in daycare too young (perhaps as newborns) and too long (daily, throughout their first years).  It was so painful the child drew a conclusion that they were alone in the world, and they gave up on the deepest drive and hope of all, love. They gave up on loving and being loved and cherished. They were not loveable. They decided they were on their own and there was no adult in the world they could trust. They decided never to be vulnerable again, because it hurts too much.

Dr. Greg Popcak commented on RAD in this blog post.  Dr. Snyder and Dr. Popcak are not suggesting that if you work outside the home when you have an infant your child will grow up to be a murderer.  What they are trying to push back against is the message in our culture that what babies experience early on doesn’t matter because they’re brainless blobs who don’t notice anything.  They notice and it goes right to their hearts.  They are pushing back against the societal pressures on parents to neglect their children in the name of “success”.  How could any parent really feel self-fulfilled when their children are suffering?

Why is it okay for women to give 100 percent to their careers, but not to their children?  Why is the latter looked upon with suspicion, like we’ve been brainwashed into it by evil patriarchal forces?  The force that moves a mother to respond to her baby with tenderness and availability isn’t patriarchy but love.  Love is the force that moves and animates mothers in those early months, but some moms aren’t given permission to name it, to honor it, to live it.  When they sense it, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking, “What’s that?  I think that’s oppression.  Can somebody take this baby while I go to the office to save myself?”

Now, I know some moms have to work.  This is understandable and gentle parenting isn’t only for stay at home parents.  However, I am angry with the view in our culture that a mother is “weak” if she doesn’t return to work two weeks after delivering her baby.  That’s not only stupid, it’s inhumane.  For the sake of all of us — not just the family in question, but our entire population — if it’s at all possible, in the first months of an infant’s life it’s much better that Mommy is there for that baby.  I didn’t say Mommy can’t have people caring for her or helping her care for baby, but babies want their mommies. Even in cultures with extended support systems for infant care, the mothers are still the primary caregiver for their infants.  Mommies, take all the leave you can get from work, even unpaid leave.  When you have to return to work, can you return part-time?  If you’re returning before your baby is two or three years old, a single caregiver is usually preferable to commercial daycare where the staff turnover is high. (I know there are exceptions.)  Babies thrive better with a consistent primary caregiver who is warm and open than a whole staff of people who come and go.  And if you work, when you’re with your baby, strengthen that bond through play, nursing, and co-sleeping.

As Catholic parents we are always seeking to love our children “mercifully”.  Mercy requires us to identify what it is our children actually need, then to meet those needs as best we can.  Science is clear that little babies need consistent, warm, nurturing love.   Is it hard sometimes?  Yes.  But it’s a lot easier than dealing with the fall out of a child who is emotionally scarred or even psychotic because of our choices.

Thank you for loving your children even when it’s uncomfortable and even unpopular.  Not only does it help your children, but it’s a way of loving every human being your child will ever encounter!

Living Lent with Children

Family life is by nature chaotic.  Kids are messy, poopy, boogery, and sometimes moody.  We love ’em, but they don’t make life neat and orderly.  In contrast, for some us, our perfect vision of Lent is very quiet, serene, contemplative, even monastic.   Are we parents left outside the gates during Lent, merely admiring the transformation going on inside where the “real” spiritual people are?  Of course not.  Even amidst the chaos of parenting, not only can we fall more in love with Christ during Lent, but so can our children.  I explored this topic today with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their wonderful radio show More2Life on Ave Maria Radio.

Daffodils, the Lent Lily

Daffodils, the Lent Lily

I so appreciated the Popcaks’ immediate focus on the primary purpose of Lent.  They have a way of cutting to the chase, don’t they?  They stated that the primary purpose of Lent for us isn’t suffering and sacrifice; it’s growing in our love for God.  This issue has really bothered me lately.  When I asked the kids in my CCD class “what is Lent” most of them didn’t know what it was.  Unfortunate.  But it’s equally unfortunate that the few who did recognize the word “Lent” described it as something like “oh, that’s when we can’t eat candy” or “that’s when we have to give stuff away”.

I’m going to be frank here.  I believe that if we focus with our kids on sacrifice and suffering during Lent without leading them to a deeper knowledge of Christ’s love, without a deeper knowledge of the blessings awaiting them in friendship with Christ, the sacrifices are pretty pointless.  And if the sacrifices are too painful for children, they will develop a resentment for the faith.  Lent is about responding to God’s call for transformation, not seeing how tough we are and how long we can go without protein.  I mean, our sacrifices can be incredible signs of commitment, but they’re only holy if they are grounded in love.

We can lead our kids through Lent so that their eyes are trained on the beauty of our Faith.  Let’s consider the 3 Pillars of Lent (fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) and how we can live them out with children in a way that draws us into closer relationship and kinship to Christ, our Savior.  I love the framework that the 3 Pillars provides us, because it reminds us that we need to be open to Christ’s love (prayer) and we need to be capable of mercy for others (almsgiving) if we want to live fully the Easter message.  If we live out the 3 Pillars with the goal of connecting with our children so that they can in turn connect with Christ, I think they’ll look forward to Lent every year!


By sacrificing food and things we find pleasurable during Lent, we are participating in Christ’s sacrifice so that we can understand him better and be a better friend to him.   Explain to your kids that the Church isn’t trying to punish us!  Older children comprehend this point, but younger kids will have a hard time with it.  The kids in my CCD class were a little perplexed by this.  What?!  Why would we give up our toys for anyone?  For little ones, we can explain to them that during Lent we all give up something in order to remember what Jesus gave up for us.  They still may not get it this year, but as we return to our family rituals and Lenten traditions each year, rituals & traditions that our grounded in love and joy, they will get it eventually.

Making a family sacrifice:  If your family is new to observing Lent, you can start with making a family sacrifice.  Talk about which pleasure you’d like to give up.  T.V. at least one day a week?  Your Saturday night pizza?  Even if you make individual sacrifices in your family, you can still have one family sacrifice.   This year my family is giving up all technology one day a week.  Sharing a commitment that is challenging shapes the character of your whole family as a unit, not just the individual members.  It’s also a lot easier to give up something you like when you have a team supporting you!

Individual sacrifices:  If your children are old enough, you can begin helping them decide on a sacrifice for Jesus during Lent.   I personally always let my children decide what they want to sacrifice, if anything.  For the littlies, this sacrifice business can be so hard.  Really they’re just practicing a bit at sacrifice, right?  If they’re too little to understand what it’s all about, the sacrifice might be plain torment.  They might fear their special toy will never return or that they’ll never get to eat ice cream ever again.  Having a Lenten calendar or bean counter can be helpful at this age, because they can see clearly that there’s an end to their sacrifice.  Lacy over at Catholic Icing has a nice Lenten calendar that the kids can color each day of Lent.  Lisa Popcak shared how she makes a dough crown with 42 toothpicks inserted at the beginning of Lent, then each day her child pulls out a toothpick for a sacrifice he or she made.  At the end of Lent, they paint the crown gold!  Love that!  Lisa is connecting with her child as a mom, connecting her child’s heart to Christ’s story, and helping her child see the progress she’s made during Lent.


Our sacrifices must always be grounded in prayer, otherwise they can just make us feel smug about our self-control.  If sacrifice is meant to draw us into kinship with Christ, then we need to talk to him, not only alone but as a family.  Make a Lenten family prayer plan.  Praying together regularly will deepen the faith of each family member, and will strengthen your family identity.  Decide where, when, and what you’ll pray.   If you don’t have a plan, family prayer may not happen.

Small children love to have visual aids during prayer. Pretty prayer cards or homemade prayer books are a great way to help children feel connected to what they’re saying.   A few years ago my family began praying the Stations of the Cross in our home during Lent.  The Stations lead us reverantly and rhythmically through the last hours of Christ’s life.  Praying the Stations as a family has been a potent lesson for us in humility and self-giving love.  I have the lovely picture book The Story of the Cross:  The Stations of the Cross for Children by Mary Joslin, which leads children through each station with accompanying prayers.  The images in Joslin’s book bring home the message of Christ’s journey to the Christ, but I’d love to snag this gorgeous Stations of the Cross Tree handcrafted by the talented ladies at Jesse Tree Treasures.

stations of the cross ornaments


Last year during Lent, my teenager also reads The Way of the Cross by the great Catholic mystic Caryll Houselander.  Houselander provides a meditative essay for each Station that draws you into each scene along The Way of the Cross.

Again, our goal is to help our children love Jesus through the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.  So, I try to ensure my kids recall the full Gospel narrative as much as possible — the entire story of Christ’s birth and ministry — as it’s set against the crucifixion and resurrection, so that they understand, or may come to understand, his Story on a visceral, more profound level.


Making a family giving plan for Lent is the third pillar of our family Lenten practice.  Helping the needy is a seems to be a natural impulse for children:  If we present the opportunity they are almost always eager to do something to help the sick or poor.   You can donate money to a charity, but why not raise the money together by having a garage sale – get rid of your excess so you can bless others?  You can donate your time to some cause that’s important to your whole family.

Don’t forget opportunities for “almsgiving” within your own family.  The needy live at your address!  Lisa Popcak pointed out on the show that each day ordinary family life presents us with opportunities to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Invite your school aged child to practice the works of mercy by feeding her baby sister (feeding the hungry) or bringing soup to her sick brother (caring for the sick) or teaching her little brother his catechism (instructing the ignorant).  This is all Lenten almsgiving, all acts of love.

So there we go, we can live Lent for Real with Our Little Ones, even amidst the gooey diapers and mushy cereal!

When Your Kids Lie

We all want to have a loving and trusting relationship with our children, so what should we do when our child lies to us?  Why do children lie and how can we help them value truthfulness?  Gregory and Lisa Popcak and I explored this topic today on their radio show More2Life on Ave Maria Radio.  The Popcaks’ show was on the general issue of trust.  Trust is, of course, a good thing.  We should trust others, but we also need to be prudent.  We parents can get freaked out when our child lies to us or somebody else.  But I think if we consider why it is that children lie, it can defuse difficult situations and help us handle them more effectively.

Why Children Lie:

  1. IMMATURITY:  Toddlers and preschoolers often blur the line between fantasy and reality:  they tell you what they155688779 wish was the truth.  They say, “My Grandma is coming to bring me a bike” or “I saw a pink elephant in my closet eating my lunch” because they wish these things were true.  These lies are not acts of deception.
  2. AVOIDANCE:  Children frequently lie to avoid doing something they dislike, like completing their homework or eating broccoli.
  3. FEAR:  Children often lie because they’re afraid of the consequences of the truth.  They lie about hitting their sibling or about crossing the street to get a ball because they know Mom or Dad will be unhappy, angry, or may even punish them.  A child with low self-esteem may lie to friends about his accomplishments because he fears he won’t be accepted.
  4. FRUSTRATION:  Older children and teens sometimes lie because they feel misunderstood or they feel our rules are unfair.  This frustration weakens the connection between parent and child, and the child looks for ways to take care of himself because he feels the parent is misguided.  He stays out late and doesn’t call home, then lies and tells his parents his cellphone ran out of batteries.

What to Do About Lying:

  1. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY:  Most children aren’t out to hurt us; they’re just trying to meet their needs however feckless their efforts.  Basically, they’re trying to avoid the broccoli.  They’re unlikely thinking about the larger consequences of their actions or that they might actually hurt somebody with their lie. It’s hard for adults to accept this because we have a more mature perspective (I hope!) and can think through our actions more clearly, but put yourself in the mind of your child and it can help you have empathy for him.  I’m not suggesting you excuse the lie, but only that you understand the reason for it.
  2. PROBLEM SOLVE:  For kids who are old enough to reason through things, it’s crucial to talk about why they lied, then try to come up with solutions to their problem together. Try to help them identify the actual motivation for the lie.  If a child is lying because she doesn’t want to do her homework, we can help her manage her anxiety about doing the work.  If a child is lying because he feels we don’t understand him, then work the relationship.  The lie is just a symptom of a connection issue.
  3. MENTOR YOUR CHILD IN HONESTY:  Use the lie as an opportunity to learn together about the virtue of honesty and how important it is to have trust for one another.  My 9 year-old daughter recently lied to me about something and I told her that I love her whether or not she tells me the truth, but that if she lies to me a lot I will have a hard time trusting her. We’ve been talking since then about trust and the virtue of honesty: how it fosters harmony and fidelity between people.

While lying is a normal part of childhood, it’s something we parents should take seriously.  Lying isn’t a sign your child is headed to prison, but it is a sign that you’ve been given a chance to disciple her in the virtues of honesty, fidelity, and loyalty.  Keep it in perspective, pay attention, but most of all, love your kids.  That’ll take you far.