July 10, 2018

Legitimate Pride

Human nature is a funny thing.

I haven’t looked into the research studies I’m sure exist, but we can all agree anecdotally, based on what we’ve seen all around us and inside ourselves as well, that it’s generally far easier to see the negative about ourselves than the positive. Maybe we all carry a sort of “historical memory” – something within, reminding us we’re descended from Adam and Eve and are, thus, prone to mess things up. Or maybe it’s the result of the sorting and stacking sadly inherent in our culture, where a person learns to rate himself horizontally – comparing himself to others – instead of thinking vertically and tracking his own unique, individual growth over time. I think, too, that as Christ-followers we aim (appropriately) to guard against sinful pride. But we can go too far and end up believing – and teaching our kids – that any pride is bad.

Of course, we all know parents who act as if their kids can do no wrong, a practice fraught with its own serious perils. But, generally speaking, the fact remains that most of us probably need to be more intentional about letting our kids know we believe in them and are proud of them.

One way to work on that is to decide to stop seeing our kids as the culture does. Specifically, we must choose to avoid comparing one child to another – whether at home or in school or community groups – and, instead, embrace each one’s unique, God-ordained personality, strengths and weaknesses, interests and talents. When we compare children against each other, the focus is on “better” or “worse,” and it often becomes impossible for a child – or her parent – to see her for who she really is. But when we choose a different focus – evaluating how a child is doing today in math or truth-telling or archery skills in relation to how she was doing last week, month, or year – growth and improvement becomes far clearer. And then we can more easily encourage the child.

Another way to be intentional is to be specific. Kids have a hard time embracing generalized statements – “I believe in you!” or “I’m proud of you!” In fact, when I’ve said that to my kids on the fly, they dismiss it with, “You have to say that; you’re our mom.” But when we choose specificity – “That was a tough situation. I’m really proud of you for speaking up firmly but kindly just now,” or “I’ve heard you at every lesson and as you practice every day, so I believe you can nail the solo at tomorrow’s recital.” – we let our kids know we’re paying close attention to their efforts, which enables them to more readily internalize what we say.

Because we do seem so prone to accept the negative about ourselves, criticism sticks much more readily than praise; when I scold or even appropriately critique one of my kids, I can see in her eyes that it cuts her to the quick. Conversely, it seems I must offer a dozen legitimate, specific praises before a child “owns” a compliment. We obviously need to correct our kids as necessary, but they desperately need us as their parents to point them to their strengths via specific, intentional praise. Building that sort of pride is healthy and good, ultimately leading a child to proclaim, “Look at the blessings God has built into me! I’m going to do my best to use them for Him.” They need our legitimate affirmation to get there.


June 26, 2018

Choosing Intentionality

One of my deepest hurts in life was not knowing if my mother liked me, let alone loved me. I eventually came to understand at least some of the reasons for her apparent indifference towards me – it sprouted from a complicated tangle of dysfunction in both her family of origin and her relationship with my father – and getting a grip on that erased my anger toward her and eased some of my heartache. But the void left by her lack of affection caused emotional damage and left inevitable scars.

When I chose as a young adult to follow Christ, I honed in on what has become one of my favorite verses:

“…We know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

This verse taught me that, while God hates situations that cause harm to children (Luke 17.2), He uses the unavoidable sin inherent in this fallen world for ultimate good. And one good fruit He brought to bear from my childhood pain was a core belief that my kids deserve to know – without a shadow of a doubt – that I both love and like them.

Of course, I’ve not been a perfect parent; I’ve had my share of angry moments, illogical outbursts, and conclusion-jumping. And sometimes I simply don’t like a child’s behavior or choices. That’s to be expected; in fact, we’re called to guide our kids away from bad and sinful decisions and actions. But it’s imperative that we do whatever it takes to differentiate between a child’s behavior and his identity so that he can honestly know we love him even as we appropriately dislike – and perhaps mete out discipline in response to – a particular choice he’s made.

One way we can do that is to choose intentionality. So, for example, when I’ve had to punish one of my kids, I make no assumptions about what she understands and believes about the situation. Instead, I set aside time to thoroughly talk things through with her – via a conversation, not a lecture. I aim to help her understand which behavior was problematic and why, and we discuss and choose together an appropriate consequence. And I never assume she knows I love her anyway; I tell her so directly, backing up my words with hugs and prayer over her in the moment.

Intentionality takes time and effort. Recently it took three hours to work through a seriously dangerous decision one of my kids had made, completely upending our initial plans for the day. But that’s how long we needed to make initial repairs to the damage and for me to assure her that she can rest securely in my love for her no matter what.

How are you doing when it comes to choosing intentionality with your kids?

June 12, 2018

A Game-Changer

After my fourth year of teaching English to middle school-aged kids, I transferred to the neighboring high school. On my first day, I discovered that several students who'd been in my classes as eighth graders were on my rosters at the high school. One such student was Roberto.

Though he didn’t love school, Roberto was bright and energetic. His English skills were strong, and in middle school he regularly participated in group discussions and readily smiled and joked appropriately with his classmates and me. I looked forward to seeing him again.

But Roberto was different in the fall. He seemed naturally petrified on the first day – as did all the freshmen. Unlike his same-aged peers, though, he didn’t settle in. Within a couple of weeks – in complete contrast to the good rapport we’d previously enjoyed – he refused to do any of the work I assigned and devolved into disrupting my class with surliness or inappropriate commentary every day. Confused and a little hurt, I reluctantly sent him to the principal’s office a couple of times, but that didn’t seem like a real solution – and the more he was sent out, the further behind he fell. I finally chose a different course of action and set one desk at the back of the room, away from all the others. Privately, I told Roberto the desk was his – that he couldn’t join the rest of the class until he agreed to participate appropriately but that I wouldn’t send him out again if he didn’t cause disruption.

Every day for three straight weeks, he went right to his new desk without complaint, and promptly put his head down. When the bell rang, he left without a word. Though it was an improvement – and I knew he was listening to our class discussions even as he feigned sleep – I was still worried. I finally asked him to come after school to talk.

To my surprise, he showed up. But he stomped in, scraped chair legs across the floor as he sat down among the regular desks, and looked as if he wanted to punch something. As I finished a conversation with another student, anger rose within me. Who did this kid think he was? He’d been “my bud” before; I didn’t deserve this behavior from him. It was about time he knew it!

And then… I “heard” what I know to be the Holy Spirit’s still small voice in my soul, prompting me down a different path. The other student left, and I let out a deep sigh, then gently pulled out the chair next to Roberto. I put a hand on his shoulder and said as calmly as I could muster, “Roberto, what’s wrong? How can I help?”

And then – to my utter astonishment – his shoulders shuddered and he began sobbing. Not knowing what else to do, I simply kept my hand on his back and just let him cry.

After 10 minutes, he calmed down enough to talk. Turns out, he was completely overwhelmed by absolutely every aspect of high school, and the pressure he felt built up more and more every day. His disruptions were a cover for deep anxiety.

I reassured him that I – for one – was on his side and would help however I could. At the end of the conversation, he finally flashed a big grin, and I almost cried, realizing how much I’d missed that smile. When he walked into class the next day, he went right past his “detention seat” to his previous spot among his classmates and never disrupted again.

Sometimes kids do need discipline, consequences, and punishment. But sometimes they actually need us - our presence and an authentic listening ear. I couldn’t change Roberto’s overall circumstances. But because I listened, he knew he wasn’t alone. And just that simple act was a game-changer.


May 29, 2018

Clarity Communicates Love

I recently found a service for digitizing old photos and just received the files containing the first batch of images I’d submitted for conversion. These pictures – and the others I’ll eventually convert – mainly feature my daughters as babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, in the years before my husband or I owned a digital camera. I hadn’t seen many of the images in years so I naturally spent time browsing through them and reminiscing.

I found myself reliving specific incidents we’d captured on film, which then led – via the rabbit trails on which our minds so often take us – to remembrances of other events and activities. And before long, I was mentally transported back 10 or 15 years to the season of life when I was in the very busy throes of parenting our active “Irish twin” girls as well as caring for several other children via the in-home childcare business I owned.

At the time – and still now if the topic comes up – people asked how I wrangled so many children all the time. Of course, my life wasn’t really that unusual, as plenty of moms have a handful of their own children and in-home childcare businesses are common. And I definitely had my fair share of hard days. But when things were going well, I truly believe it boiled down – on a human level – to communication. Clear and positive communication.

For example, I remember consciously choosing to avoid asking questions of the children when I intended to give direct instruction. Thus, I didn’t say, “Would you like to come to lunch now?” when coming really wasn’t optional. Instead, I calmly but firmly said, “I need you to come to lunch now, kids.” Likewise, I determined not to say things like, “You want to come here for story time, right?” That sentence combines a command with an odd question and confuses children (i.e., making them wonder if I was telling or asking) and opens the door for unnecessary conflict. So I’d say something like, “It’s story time, kids. I need you to come over and cuddle up now.” Just that simple shift in word and “tone” – from asking to calmly telling – made a world of difference because the kids were able to clearly discern my expectations.

I believe many parents struggle with the notion of telling versus asking. Because we love our kids, we want to help them feel completely accepted by us, which is, of course, a wholly laudable goal! And giving kids realistic choice whenever reasonably possible – i.e., “Would you like to wear the red dress or the blue, Sally?” – is a very good thing. But we must remember that our children are immature by virtue of their youth and, thus, need (and subconsciously crave) clear direction. Commands delivered in love – firmly but positively – are not bad. In fact, just like the fences we have around our yards, purposing to communicate without ambiguity in the early years keeps kids physically safe and emotionally secure, and lays the foundation for a beautiful lifelong parent-child relationship.


May 16, 2018

What Are Your Ambitions, Dear?

Because of my teen daughters’ social circles, I know more kids every year – my girls’ friends, others in our local homeschool association, relatives, kids at church – who are graduating high school. And, just as when I was a classroom teacher at the high school level, I enjoy talking with these young people about their hopes and dreams.

I’ve learned not to ask a very common but extremely presumptuous question – “Where are you going to college?” – because I’ve been witnessing how many of today’s youth, after having given very careful consideration to all the options set before them, have wisely decided upon totally viable, alternative paths. So, I used to default to another, broader and more inclusive question: “What are you doing after graduation?”

But I recently heard an even better query – a simple but profound semantic twist that shows how much words matter in setting a tone. In the exchange I observed, a wise older woman asked a teen girl, "So, what are your ambitions, dear?"

This wording was incredible! First, it was optimistic, communicating the woman’s belief that the teen did, indeed, have life goals. Second, it was open-ended, creating an opportunity for the teen to expound upon her real hopes and dreams instead of feeling boxed in by preconceived expectations. Third, it opened the door to real relationship – an authentic conversation where the teen could feel safe being transparent, knowing the adult was genuinely interested and not just making “small talk.”

I don’t put teenagers on a pedestal; I know they have very real struggles, individually and as a social cohort. But I discovered long ago – even before I had my own children – that kids almost always respond well to positive feedback. In other words, if they sense that we believe in them, they’ll usually attempt to rise to the occasion. And when they try, they almost always make it.

They also need to know that we see and accept each one’s individuality. That we don’t view them as cookie-cutter products on an assembly line, all required to do the same things in the same way. That we celebrate the diversity of paths to happy, functional adulthood this generation is discovering.

Some of the teens I know aren’t quite sure of their post-high school ambitions. But those who have ideas are gloriously all over the map – as wannabe missionaries, graphic artists, nurses, interior designers, professional nannies, homeschool moms, music producers, small business owners, and computer programmers, just to name a few. And they’ve thought through the ways – some conventional and some very “out of the box” – in which they can reach their goals. I believe we need to encourage them to pursue those ambitions, providing enough guidance and support on the one hand while letting them freely explore their options on the other.

What are the ambitions of the kids in your life?

Photo Credit: theilr

May 1, 2018

Graduated Technology “Licensing”

Both of my daughters recently completed 30 hours of online driver education instruction and then passed permit tests at the local DMV. Thus, according to the rules in my state, each is now legally allowed to get behind the wheel of a vehicle to begin learning how to drive. But in order to receive an actual license, each must now spend no less than six months practicing, and during that time she must log at least 30 hours of driving with a parent, spend at least six hours of both observation and actual behind-the-wheel time with a certified driving instructor, take another written exam, and pass a driving skills test at the DMV. And even after all of that, each will be issued a mere probationary license for at least nine more months before finally becoming eligible for a regular license.

All the steps and rules might seem overbearing, and we might think our kids can learn to drive safely without such micromanaging. In fact, though I believe these driving rules have been developed with the best of intentions and with kids’ safety in mind, I’m generally a fan of “less is more” when it comes to governmental regulation. Yet these rules don’t violate scriptural principles, so I’m bound to obey them (Romans 13.1), like it or not.

I’m old enough to remember life without the internet and all the technology that’s come along with it. I also remember that the internet was commonly referred to as the “information superhighway” when it took off in the 1990s. And I think the term provides a very useful analogy when it comes to our kids’ cyber-safety.

Being able to drive – at any age – brings with it an enormous sense of freedom. It exponentially expands the locations a person can reasonably explore and opens many doors of opportunity. However, it’s also a serious responsibility fraught with peril of many kinds. And the same can be said for “driving” on the information superhighway. The advent of internet technology has opened up innumerable opportunities for all of us, but – from cyberbullying to online child predators to phishing scams, identity theft, and internet addiction – it’s also greatly increased the potential harms our kids face, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

As I watched each of my daughters get behind the wheel to take her first drive under my husband’s guidance, I was thankful for the graduated licensing procedure my state requires. I want my girls to gain the freedom and independence a license affords, but, of course, I want just as much for them to be safe. I don’t think we need a government policy on technology use for children – but I do think it’s imperative that each parent purpose to create and enforce a policy of “graduated licensing” for his or her kids’ use of technology. In fact, if we fail to set guidelines and rules – even when our kids don’t like them – we endanger them just as much as if we were to give our car keys to a three-year old.

Your graduated licensing policy will be different than mine; in fact, the rules may vary even among children in the same family, depending on each one’s demonstrated readiness for levels of freedom and independence. The important thing is to design and uphold some sort of graduated “licensing” policy to keep your kids safe on the information superhighway.


April 17, 2018

The Death of the Monologue

“Mom, you’re monologuing.”

Said in love, I hear variations of this comment from time to time from either of my teen daughters. “Monologuing” is their term for when a person rambles on with commentary far beyond the scope of an original question or statement. I think monologuing is a sort of “occupational hazard” for parents…but it’s something we should work to avoid.

But why? Most of the time when I jump onto the monologuing bandwagon, I’m not upset. In fact, my daughters and I are usually involved in a meaningful, positive discussion when it happens, and I’m merely trying to contribute useful insight based on having lived more of life than they. But, even though they know my ultimate good intentions, monologuing inevitably comes across as “lecturing.” And lecturing shifts the dynamic of a mutually engaging, two-way conversation into interrogation-mode, which unintentionally stifles the growth of real relationship.

My pastors recently preached through the Book of James and spent significant time during one sermon on James 1.19, which says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” To emphasize the importance of the verse, the pastor preaching that week said, “We have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. It means we should listen twice as much as we speak!”

If we want to truly connect with our kids, we’ll seek the development of authentic relationship with them. In order for that to happen, they need to believe they are truly “heard.” And in order for them to be heard, we need to truly listen. We can only do that when our own mouths are shut.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t impart lessons we’ve learned from our own life experiences and also share wisdom from Scripture; a responsible parent will, indeed, do both. But in order to discern the most important insights to share at any given time, we must first purpose to actively and fully listen.

I have to regularly remind myself of this; monologuing comes all too naturally, while consciously choosing selective input takes work. But it’s worth the effort. I want my kids to be secure in the fact that they can talk with me – really talk, as opposed to being interrogated. Monologuing might make me feel competent and important – and it’s a great dramatic tool in Shakespearean plays. But it damages my kids’ security and my relationships with them. So real life calls for the death of the monologue, to be replaced by real, authentic dialogue.

Photo Credit: Steve James

April 3, 2018

Walking the Tightrope

With my kids now only a couple of years from graduating high school and launching into their adult lives, I’ve been thinking a lot about their childhoods. My girls are only eleven and a half months apart – so I was essentially pregnant for two straight years, and then spent several years burning the proverbial candle at both ends in order to meet the many and varied needs of my almost-twins. I cherish the memories of my daughters as little girls, but that was definitely a physically exhausting season of life, and I’ve generally welcomed the self-sufficiency they’ve gained with maturity.

I’m seeing, though, that this current season has its own challenges. When my kids were little, I was definitely exhausted…but I literally controlled everything in their lives – what they ate, where they went, what they watched and listened to, who and what they played with – and I found comfort knowing I was doing everything I could to keep them safe and healthy. It wasn’t about being a helicopter parent; it was simply appropriate at the time. And I’ve always known that the ultimate goal of parenting is to work one’s self out of a job. But it’s one thing to know that in my head and another thing entirely to live it. Thus, there are days now when I’d give my eye-teeth to go back to what seems in hindsight to have been a more-tired-but-simpler time, in order to quell my admitted anxiety about the “what-ifs” of my kids’ next few years.

Of course, that’s impossible. Yet – just as I couldn’t let go of their bike seats too quickly when they were learning to ride without training wheels – I can’t just leave them alone to fend for themselves either, whether that’s in real life or the Wild West world of technology. They do still need guidance, albeit in different ways than before. And – by God’s grace – they’ll still want my feedback even when they’re fully independent. So I’m trying every day to walk the tightrope of balance – being as hands-on as necessary without treating my young adults like children – and continually aiming to discern when to hold on and when to let go.  

And I’m seeing that walking that tightrope is actually what it means to “be fully present” at this stage of my kids’ lives. It’s no longer about having them with me every minute of every day. It’s no longer about me orchestrating every element of their daily schedules. It’s no longer about my husband and me being the only ones speaking into their lives. But neither is it about backing away entirely, as too many parents seem to do with their teens. Rather, it’s about a choice to remain mentally and emotionally engaged in order to accurately discern when to step back and when to step in.

This balancing act is exhausting in its own way. And right now it feels even scarier than fearing many years ago that one of my newborns would succumb to SIDS. But I purposed back then – even in my fear – to trust my girls to the Lord so I could get some rest each night. And no matter how precarious the tightrope feels, that’s what I’m trying to do now, too.

Photo Credit: Geoff

March 6, 2018

The Hammer of Competition

Is competition good or bad?

The answer – in a word – is “yes.”

As with many parenting issues, this topic isn’t black and white. At times – for some kids in some circumstances – competition is helpful and motivating. At other times, though, it’s harmful and might even be soul-crushing. Thus, we shouldn’t blindly accept cultural norms about competition or expect all of our children to engage in the same level of competitive activity. Instead, our role as parents is to understand each child inside and out and to discern – with input from the children themselves – what’s best for each in regards to competition. There isn’t one “best way” for every child; figuring out the preferred path for each one is an on-going, trial-and-error process. We must be willing to set aside the notion of a one-size-fits-all approach to this topic – and so many others.

As a former public school teacher – for nine years at the secondary level – I believe the most harmful use of competition occurs in classrooms around academic learning. I actually don’t see any reason why we should compare one child against another, ranking and sorting them when it comes to their academic education. I know some who claim to thrive on competing with peers for good grades; I was actually one of those kids growing up, but I realized too late that I lost sight of actual learning in favor of high performance. The two are not synonymous and I grieve the opportunities I lost to really learn out of fear that my grades would suffer if I tried. Conversely, I could name dozens and dozens of classmates and former students who’ve spent years feeling “stupid” simply because they couldn’t be “top dog” in terms of class rank. It would be so much better if we employed a different model – not academically comparing one child to any others but, rather, letting a child “compete” against herself by comparing where she was last month and last year to where she is today, and letting each one progress in learning at whatever pace works for the individual.

One of the main reasons competition with academic learning needs to change is that school is compulsory. Kids are required to attend somewhere – either in an institutional school of some sort or at home in compliance with homeschool laws – so they have no viable escape if destructive competition prevails. In contrast, I’d suggest that competition in voluntary activities – sports teams, music and drama, dance, etc. – can be good and can provide a way for kids to develop a healthy understanding of competition. When an activity is voluntary, a child can opt-out if he discovers he lacks interest or skill or – even if he continues – the pressure is lower when he knows he could leave if he chose to. As parents, it’s not always easy to discern whether or not to allow a child to step away from such activities – sometimes making a child keep going is good and other times it’s fine to leave – but when the activity itself isn’t compulsory, at least we can choose.

Competition as a concept is actually neutral. Like a hammer, it can be used for good or ill. Our job is to avoid allowing its use to pound holes in the “walls” of our kids’ lives but to, instead, insure its use for truly building them up.


February 20, 2018

The Olympics: Taking it Further

As you read this, the Winter Olympics are just days away from wrapping up for another four years. Perhaps you’ve watched the medal rounds for a few favorite sports. Or maybe you’re a diehard fan who’s streamed coverage during all your waking hours. As Kathy and I have discussed in the last few newsletters, the Olympic spectacle is a great object lesson for imparting to our kids inspiring lessons about important character traits like perseverance and graciousness. It can also be a tool – even as it wraps up – to help our kids expand their understanding of the world.

I have some friends who’ve jettisoned their usual homeschool lessons for the past month in favor of an in-depth Olympic-themed unit study. In the process, they’ve used the Olympics as a portal for learning in all content areas – language arts, science, history, geography, health, and even math, art, and music. But one needn’t be a homeschooler – or a homeschooler who dropped everything else in February – to use the Olympics in this way.

Because the Olympics showcases athletes from many countries, it presents a perfect opportunity to introduce our kids to other nations and people groups with – for Christians – a special emphasis on the missional mind of our God.

So here’s an assignment for you: Even if you haven’t watched any events up till now, set aside Sundaynight, February 25 – beginning at 8PM EST – as family time, and watch the closing ceremony together. Pray together first, that God would show you which particular nations He would like your family to be mindful of this year. Then, as the ceremony starts and you enjoy the pomp and celebration, ask each family member to make note of which flags and teams stand out, and keep a running tally, no matter how long. Choose to trust that the countries which your kids and you notice are the ones the Lord has for your family, and then use that list for weekly or monthly family study. 

Your activities can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like. Perhaps you merely use a wall map or atlas and a resource like Operation World or You Can Change the World  to read about and pray over the needs in one country once a week or once a month; even “just” that will begin to awaken your kids’ minds and hearts to the world and God’s plan for it. Or maybe you and your kids love to cook so you work together to research and then make a meal related to each country when you have a devotional time.

You could extend activities throughout the week by gathering picture books for each country in turn – most libraries have a good selection for many countries – to use as daily read-alouds with your young children. You could also research country-specific crafts and projects. And – no matter where they attend school – you might encourage older kids to find related books to use with literature assignments and during free-reading time. Additionally, as your school-aged children and teens get various assignments through the year – for research and writing, in particular – suggest using the Olympic country list for topic ideas.

When it comes to using an event like the Olympics for learning about the world, the sky’s the limit. Use the list you create during the closing ceremony all throughout the year to take it further in whatever ways strike you as you go. A year from now, you’ll all know a lot more about several countries and their people than you do today. And that can only be a good thing.


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