The Greatest Bedtime Story of All

Luke Ch. 3; Matthew Ch. 1 and 2.

Now, this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright man unwilling to expose her to the law, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention, when suddenly the angel of the lord appeared in a dream and said to him: “Joseph, son of David, have no fear about taking Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this happened to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,” a name which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him and received her into his home as his wife.

In those days, Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world. This first census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to register each to his own town. And so, Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem – because he was of the house and lineage of David – to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child.

While they were there, the days of her confinement were completed. She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.

There were shepherds in that region, living in the fields and keeping night watch by turns over their flocks. The angel of the Lord appeared to them as the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very much afraid. The angel said to them: “You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day, in David’s city, a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.”

Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.” They went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the bay lying in the manger; once they saw, they understood what had been told them concerning this child. All who heard of it were astonished at the report given them by the shepherds.

After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod, astrologers from the east arrived one day in Jerusalem inquiring, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” At this news, King Herod became greatly disturbed, and with him all Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them: “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report it to me so that I may go and offer him homage too.”

After their audience with the king, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them, until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

They received a message in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, in accord with what had been told them.

From the Life Tools Tutoring family to yours, we wish you a blessed, joyful and peaceful Christmas season.

Career Exploration

There are few conversations more uncomfortable to witness than a well-meaning uncle or family friend asking a junior or senior in high school what they intend to do when they graduate. The vast majority of the answers are vague and impressive sounding: “My plan is to head off to Madison, but I’m not sure what I will be studying yet,” or, “For sure something in the medical field because I took a crime scene forensics class that I really liked.” Most of these answers involved very little research or introspection and were crafted for the benefit of the asker.

To be sure, some 17-year-olds know exactly what career they would like to pursue, and some have known from a young age. A percentage of these students have a very straight path from high school, through college or trade school, and into a successful livelihood. Even for these ‘lucky’ students, however, many of them find that the career field they knew they wanted was not everything they had hoped it would be, and they eventually decide to take a different path.

How strange that we, as a society, do very little to expose our young people to the ‘options’ that exist in the working world and yet stare at them expectantly when we ask them, “What’s your plan?”

This process can be a time of anxiety and confusion for many students, especially if we advise them to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans in order to figure out where they fit. In addition, a major reason that students are unmotivated in the classroom is that they have not identified what careers they might be interested in, and, as a result, are unable to connect the dots between high school academics and pursuing their career goals.

So how can we, as local communities, assist our high school students (and even our middle school students), to experience what career fields and specific positions the world has to offer? As a starting point, we need to avoid the temptation to put this urgent obligation on the shoulders of the schools. Most teachers and administrators would be very willing to be a strong collaborating partner in this effort, but as I wrote in a previous blog, the schools are already overwhelmed with mission creep, which is destroying proficiency scores. This effort should be led by the business community and parents and will ultimately provide many benefits for local community in the long run.

What might this Career Exploration program look like specifically? The first step in this process is to prioritize Career Exploration on-par with reading, math, physical fitness, and financial literacy. Career Exploration needs to be a significant part of a student’s ‘education’, even if it is not driven directly by the teachers. But what classes or activities would be sacrificed to make room for this addition? If we, as parents, have learned anything through the virtual leaning experience brought on by Covid, we are clear that there is ‘underutilized’ and in some cases ‘wasted’ time in our students’ school day.

Perhaps we can learn from some local communities who already have programs in place to give students first-hand exposure to work options. Many high schools provide hybrid school / work opportunities that allow students to learn in school in the morning and then investigate a trade by working part-time in the afternoons. The Kimberly School District has an innovative program that introduces students as young as elementary school to guest speakers from ‘the real world’, as well as comprehensive software programs that assist students in exploring their interests and abilities in the context of specific career fields.

Additionally, could we have our Sophomores and Juniors commit an afternoon a week to Career Exploration field trips that provide generic exposure to job opportunities or specific exposure to a targeted industry? What if every student was required to tour a local manufacturing facility to learn about operations, accounting, quality control, purchasing, logistics, management, and office administration? What if we provide our students with the chance to visit a local hospital or nursing home to visit with a nurse, a doctor, a lab technician, or an insurance administrator? What if we created a database of professional people who were willing to meet one-on-one for 30 minutes with a student who has narrowed his / her career search and is interested in asking specific questions to learn more? Even if this Career Exploration process only assists our young people to check the ‘No’ boxes (I’m not interested in that), how much further ahead would they be when the time came to choose a path forward.

I challenge community leaders, business leaders, parents, and school administrators to get the ball rolling by organizing a brain-storming session. As there have been some successes around this concept locally and nationally, let’s review best-practices and implement what works. The future of our country, the future of our businesses, and the future of our students are depending on us.

Love Your Kids by Loving Your Spouse

Over the past 40 years or so, the institution of marriage has had a tough road.  Nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce; many young people are opting out of marriage altogether, choosing instead to cohabitate indefinitely or to simply move from one relationship to another when things get tough; Hollywood and big media have made a mockery of marriage, viewing it as temporary or completely irrelevant.

Many families very close to us have gone through the trauma and heartbreak of divorce.  Lives are uprooted, blame is placed, relationships are bruised, trust is lost, and home becomes a moving target.  In many broken families, parents are forced to cooperate in the raising of the children, which can result in many years of frustration, resentment, and scheduling chaos.  The divorced parents we talk with struggle daily to insulate their children from these repercussions.  In far too many cases, one parent decides to opt out of the marriage, leaving the spouse no choice but to sign the papers and attempt to rebuild his / her life.

The data is clear that with the breakdown of the family unit comes real struggles for so many of our young people. Poverty, increased anxiety and mental health issues (including suicide), and sexual promiscuity are just a few of the challenges that face children that grow up in chaotic family structures.

That having been said, some of the strongest and most courageous people we know are single parents, many of whom have raised / are raising some of the most determined, bright, and self-assured young people that we know.  These parents are committed and selfless, every day, no matter what, with no spouse to lean on when the storms come.  These single moms and dads are generally tough on their kids because they know life is hard and being successful personally and professionally requires strength of mind and character.  Although they seldom complain, most would not wish the challenges and loneliness of single parenting or co-parenting on anyone.

Strong marriages are the core of strong families, and strong families are the foundation upon which strong societies flourish.

As we raise our young people, we need to educate them on the importance and challenges of married life both in word and example.  As Mike and I made our way through the marriage prep classes offered by our church years ago, the seasoned married couples that lead the instruction made it clear to us that being married is hard and takes daily commitment.  Our young people need to know that entering into a marriage covenant means self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence.  A Deacon shared with us that our responsibility as a married couple first and foremost is to get our spouse to heaven. 

Give God a Try

Parenting is not easy.  There is no handbook.  The moment you feel comfortable and have everything figured out, your next child will throw a whole new set of complexities into the equation, causing you to stagger back a few steps.  Our children are susceptible to all types of challenges, including cuts and broken bones, sickness, anxiety, learning challenges, bullying, loneliness, and broken hearts, and our job as parents is to protect them from those hurts as best we can.  Our young people are faced with hundreds of small and large decisions every day from what to wear, to what to eat, to who to spend time with, to what to do with that time, and they look to their parents for guidance and example in making those decisions. 

As Mike and I are working our way through raising five children and running a tutoring company for over 10 years, we have commiserated with many parents who were in the midst of a struggle with one or more of their children.  In sitting with these parents and walking with them through their heartbreak, and then sharing similar experiences we may have had with our own children, we realized that there is generally not a one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. 

Every family unit is so unique, personalities are so diverse, and individual struggles are so complex, that in many cases we could only listen and assure the parents of our prayers and support through those challenges. 

In dealing with these challenges, parents are often desperate and look to all sort of remedies.  Some parents look to self-help parenting books, some choose therapy for their children, others choose medications, some take a hands-off approach, and some take a helicopter-parent approach.  What most of these parents have in common, regardless of their approach, is that they live with constant doubt and are regularly second-guessing themselves; they often switch from one remedy to the next, as new suggestions or quick-fixes come their way. 

As our children dealt with those same struggles over the years, and as they deal with struggles yet to come, we have and will continue to depend on God to walk with us and to guide us through those challenges.  To be clear, God is not a vending machine, where you can pay with prayer or tithing and then receive the answer or the result you are looking for.  God is far too wonderful and in love with us to make our relationship purely transactional.  Our experience with God has been a friendship crafted in heaven; it is a friendship with Truth and Love Himself. 

As God loves our children even more than we do, we know that His direction and guidance will ultimately result in what’s best for them, even if that direction is difficult or requires patience. 

So how does one develop that relationship with God?  Unfortunately, there is no 5-step program or pill to take.  The good news is that you can begin today, simply by having a conversation with God.  Share your fears and your frustrations and do not be afraid to ask God for what you want.  Share your joys and your blessings, your triumphs, and your failures.  Then be still.  Be quiet.  Listen.  God is there, God is here, and he will answer your prayers.  Pray for the grace to be open to God’s guidance and the strength to do what he asks.  He has not failed us.  This does not mean that our lives and the lives of our children are perfect; however, in those challenges we are full of peace and confidence that we are guiding our children as God would. 

Allow your children to see you praying.  Share with them why you are praying and what your relationship with God means to you.  Encourage them to create their own relationship with God and to walk with Him during the good times and the struggles.  Find other parents and a church community who will support you as you walk with God and will witness to you how He has impacted their lives.  In a world that is full of uncertainty and chaos, give your children the constancy and the sure mooring that only God can provide.  Your children will still have their challenges and they will still suffer, but they will have the assurance that God is a friend that is bigger than all the world.  After all is said and done, your job is to get your children to heaven. 

If you have tried all the solutions the world has to offer, but are still feeling unsettled, give God a try.  He’s been waiting for you.

Reading, ‘Riting, & ‘Rithmetic

While watching the local or national news over the past ten plus years, one cannot help but notice that school boards and administrators have been front and center dealing with a whole host of controversial issues.  Those issues include:

  • “How much sex / lifestyle choices / gender issues should be included in health class?”
  • “Is the school district offering sufficient mental health support for children as the suicide rates continue to rise?”
  • “Should BLM posters be hung in classrooms or is that supporting a political ideology?”
  • “Will the local elementary school be providing the expanded federally-funded breakfast / lunch / dinner program?”
  • “Should ‘school’ include full-day childcare for my three-year-old?”
  • “Does forcing my child to urinate in a cup for mandatory drug tests infringe on her first amendment rights?”
  • “Should we spend $60 million on the new high school building with a pool and an indoor workout facility, or just $55 million with no pool?”

As the education professionals will tell you, the list goes on and on and on. 

All of these issues have one thing in common: they have nothing to do with the original mission of the public school system which is to assist parents in teaching our children reading, writing, arithmetic, and the ability to reason.

To say that the public school system in the United States has been forced into mission creep is the understatement of the past 150 years.  The reason mission creep should be avoided at all costs is that as each new area of focus is added, organizations take their eyes off their primary purpose.  The data is frighteningly clear that math and reading proficiency in the United States has been steadily declining and our young people will surely suffer as a result.  Administrators, teachers, and parents can all agree that school system personnel are pulled in far too many directions and as a result are unable to do any of it well.

So who is responsible for this mission creep and how do we reclaim the lofty and unique calling of the public school system?  As with most national problems, there is a complex matrix of causes and players, and many of those involved had the best of intentions in mind.  Over the past 30 years, as various problems affecting our students have been identified, elected officials have defaulted to the school systems to fix all of these ills for the simple fact that the schools already had many of the kids in their buildings.  But it does take two to tango, and the schools chose to dance.  Because billions of federal, state, and local dollars chase all of these issues, school administrators, school boards, and teachers unions viewed these dollars as an easy way to pad budgets and increase salaries.  In addition, some teachers who possibly should have chosen social work or community activism as their career choice prefer these causes to ‘just teaching’.  Lastly, and probably most importantly, many parents are far too willing to place all of the responsibility of raising their children onto the schools and the professionals who work there.

We as parents have the primary responsibility to rectify this steadily worsening situation; firstly, we must take back and own our duty as parents as the primary educators and caretakers of our children. 

The village can certainly provide a helping hand, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with the parent(s).  We need to do better. 

We need to re-learn algebra if necessary; we need to feed our kids a healthy breakfast before they leave in the morning and have them pack a healthy lunch to take with them; we need to shut off our electronic devices and talk with our children about their friends, their fears, their challenges and their dreams; we need to teach our children respect for and tolerance for all people and all opinions whether or not that view is popular or supported by the latest YouTube star or Hollywood actor; we need to choose schools based on the strength of their academic offerings and not on the number of state basketball championships. 

Politicians and communities need to encourage (and fund) innovative solutions to the challenges young people are experiencing; this will allow new organizations (governmental, non-profit, and for-profit) with separate teams and targeted missions to be charged with those responsibilities.  School administrators and teacher unions and school boards must also advocate for their teachers and refocus on their primary mission – education.  They must have the courage to say ‘no’ to mission creep, even if that means sacrificing the dollars that come with the ask.

Certainly, collaboration and mutual support are critical to achieve success for our young people, but the days of placing all the world’s problems on the front mat of our local schools need to be behind us.  This system is failing our kids.

Will You Let Me Answer Prayers in You

Every high school student that is aspiring to one day attend college understands the importance of community service on his / her resume.  Organizations like Key Club and National Honor Society have community service at the core of their missions and provide a variety of events and activities for students to positively impact their school and/or their local community.  Having been members of both of these organizations, our older children have been able to participate in ringing bells for the Salvation Army, volunteering for blood drives, teaching younger students local history at the Grignon Mansion and collecting food to feed families that are facing financial challenges.  Through these experiences, our children have learned to look beyond themselves and their daily wants and needs and to focus on the needs of others.

Many other religious and service organizations including local church groups, service organizations like Rotary and Lions, and not-for-profits also provide much-needed dollars and resources to struggling populations throughout the country and the world.  In addition, the United States is by far the most generous nation in the world, sending billions of dollars to countries and families that have been stricken with drought, natural disasters, war, or disease.  Let us stay focused to ensure that these wonderful philanthropic efforts continue and expand over time.

Although much good is being accomplished locally, nationally, and internationally, there is an aspect of ‘serving thy neighbor’ that is being swallowed up by the institutionalization of community service.  Specifically, what has been lost in this new idea of group service is the act of being present, one-to-one, to a person in need. 

Many of us can remember a neighbor lady bringing over some warm meat loaf or chicken noodle soup when a loved one had passed.  Or perhaps a team of family and friends worked together to make meals for a family with young children whose mother went through a difficult delivery and was home with a new baby.  Sometimes it was just a telephone call, or an old friend stopping for coffee to ‘see how we were doing’ during a difficult time in our lives. 

None of these acts of being present to another were news worthy.  Huge amounts of money were not raised through a crowd-funding site; no families were given a new house to live in; the Mayor did not give out any humanitarian awards for these simple deeds; and the Earth was not saved from utter destruction.  However, just the same, these acts of loving thy neighbor were, and are, extraordinary.  They are so easy to do, but so difficult, somehow, in our mail-a-check-for-poverty society. 

A friend of mine once said, “I don’t go to funerals because I don’t like them, and I’d rather celebrate a person while they are alive.  Another friend responded, “Funerals are not about you.”  Being present to others does require us to think outside of ourselves; however, the encouraging part of these tremendously valuable experiences is that you do not have to worry about what to say or what to wear or what to bring.  Generally, if you just show up, the heavy lifting has already been done.  Thinking back to the funeral or to that difficult time in our lives, do we even remember what that person said to us when they came to us, or what they were wearing, or what food they brought?  Probably not, but we do remember who was there to sit with us, to listen, to be present to us.

Many of us are praying to God for some sort of miracle in our own lives or in the lives of people we love.  Do you suppose that you might be God’s answer to some of these prayers? 

We may not be able to cure someone of cancer or bring a loved one back to life, but we can do even more wonderous things than these for the hearts of those we touch.  If all of us, when we wake up in the morning, would say ‘Yes!’ to God’s question of, “Will you let me answer prayers in you?”, what a different world we would be living in.  Maybe cut out the words below from the Servant Song and tape them to your bathroom mirror.  Your kids will learn through your example the true meaning of community service.

The Servant Song

We are pilgrims on the journey
We are travelers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load

I will hold the Christ light for you
In the nighttime of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through

Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant too

Tell the Truth

What a simple concept, really.  Whenever you speak, whatever you write, or however you communicate, always tell the truth.  Although this is a simple concept, humanity has been struggling with telling the truth for millennia.  Why is telling the truth sometimes so difficult, and why is it so important?

A doctorate in human psychology is not required to understand how lying became part of the human condition.  At the heart of it, lying is about self-preservation or self-glorification. 

At a base level, we have a need to feel safe and a need to be accepted; sometimes, in the moment, a lie seems to be the shortest path to achieve those goals.    

Over the centuries, as civilizations have developed, the lie has also evolved.  Instead of making a statement that is entirely untrue, some have learned that intentionally omitting certain facts from a narrative will achieve the same ends.  In addition, we all have a friend or family member that exaggerates to the point that their statements ‘lose some truth’ along the way.  Perhaps they feel that their reality will not meet with the approval of those around them, or maybe they enjoy being the center of attention as the ‘great storyteller’. 

History tells us that lies can be devastating both on a personal and on a global level.  The vast majority of human heartache has, as a root cause, a lie.  Marriages and families have been torn apart and kingdoms have been destroyed.  Hitler and the Nazis tried to perfect the art of the lie during WWII and were very successful using the lie to advance their maniacal plans to conquer the world.   Paul Goebbels was the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.  Goebbels and Hitler believed that if you tell a lie often enough and loud enough, people will believe it; this is especially true if the lie involves demonizing another person or a group of people.

Many politicians and most of the media have taken this strategy to heart in an effort to gain influence, power, and control.  Much of popular culture (Hollywood, politicians, media) is promoting lies consistently, ubiquitously, and with intimidation, that fly directly in the face of truth as we know it in our hearts and minds; nevertheless, those lies are slowly becoming truths for a significant segment of the population because the lie is easier than the truth in the short term.

So why tell the truth if lying has become so prevalent and beneficial? 

Simply because if you avoid the truth consistently enough, you will literally lose yourself in the lies.  As Jesus himself states in John Chapter 8 verse 32, “The Truth will set you free”.  God is Truth and Love, and running from truth is running from God, love, and the best version of yourself. 

Truth develops integrity and trust.  Truth allows us to be people who say what they mean and mean what they say.  When we mess up or do something we are not proud of, as we all do, being truthful requires us to admit that mistake to others, which can be a very painful process; the pain will make you think twice about making that same mistake again in the future and telling the truth will renew your faith in yourself and cleanse your soul.

Kids lie.  This fact can be very frustrating and confusing for parents.  Even very young children will deny hitting their sister or ‘messing’ their diaper in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Teenagers will lie about friend groups, reasons for missing curfew, or being too sick to go to school. 

Much of this is normal kid behavior; however, we as parents must teach our children that although a lie might provide short-term benefits, lies always cause long-term damage and hurt. 

In some cases, you can explain to your kids why lying is dangerous and how it will negatively impact them as they grow older; in some cases, punishments like ‘no phone for a month’ need to be implemented to give them a taste for how lies will create pain and suffering for them when they are older; in all cases, your children are watching to see if you value the truth over lies, even when it hurts. 

So tell the truth.  All the time.  Especially when it’s hard.

Hobbies

When I was growing up, most of the kids that I knew in my neighborhood and in my school had some sort of hobby.  I enjoyed riding and caring for horses; some of my close friends enjoyed gymnastics, some were into the exercise craze that was brand new back then, and others were amateur DJs who spent hours making ‘mixed tapes’ or buying the newest album.  Guy friends played the guitar/were in a garage band, some enjoyed hunting and fishing with friends, and others were ‘car guys’. 

Back then it seemed like everyone was into something outside of school and school sports, and most of my peers pursued their own interests outside of their parents’ involvement.

As Mike and I have raised our own children over the past 20+ years, we have noticed that young people are less able or willing to pursue hobbies unique to their passions.  Is that because video games and social media have sucked all of the oxygen out of our children’s world to the point that they do not have any free time/down time to investigate or imagine other possibilities?  Or are organized sports so ubiquitous and all-encompassing that our children can not see past this ‘hobby’ which has now become a money-making behemoth? 

Whatever the reason, we as parents need to be more proactive and intentional in helping our students learn about and experiment with different hobbies, even those that do not match perfectly with our own interests.

One example that we have experienced in our home relates to one of our sons and his interest in ice fishing.  Mike does like to fish, but ice fishing was not on his top 10 list.  I do not really like fishing and I hate being cold, so I had no interest.  In spite of that, we spent some time and effort and a little of bit of money to help our son get started.  He now has a group of friends that share his passion for the outdoors and we think this may be a life-long interest of his. 

Similarly, we had all of our children take piano lessons for a few years.  Two of our adult children still play, while our other three children have not touched a piano key since their final lesson.  All of our children have been taught how to cook for themselves; one of our children could make a month of tasty meals, two of our children could “make-do”, and two of our children would eat a lot of frozen pizza.  They all have been introduced to cooking, but only one had the passion to pursue it.

The key to assisting your child to develop interests outside of school and sports is to spread a wide net without spending a lot of money. 

When a hobby ‘sticks’, you can then invest more dollars into the activity or guide your student to spend wisely on the equipment or materials needed.  Try to get them comfortable with many different types of activities including sports, music, outdoor activities, reading, building things, etc.  Remember to include those hobbies (like ice fishing) that may not be in your wheel-house.  The challenge will be to do your research and to show the same amount of passion that you would show if it were a hobby that is interesting to you.

Now more than ever, our young people need to find pastimes that they can be passionate about and that move them away from social media and video games.  At the very least, these hobbies will provide them with a stress-management tool and a lifetime of enjoyment; ultimately, these hobbies may be a gateway to building a successful career in a related field.  Either way, we as parents may need to be the key that opens these doors.  

Don’t Wish Away the Early Years

As I watched a young couple in the front pew at church today in constant motion attempting to contend with their four young children, I couldn’t help but smile at the innocence of the scene.  The parents certainly were not sharing my smile, and if I had asked them after mass how they were feeling, their feedback may not have been entirely positive. 

Caring for young children is not easy.  Babies and toddlers require constant attention and parenting can be very physically and emotionally draining. 

As children that age cannot articulate what they need and often don’t know themselves what they need, parenting can be very frustrating.  Young children do not travel well and generally are on very fixed napping schedules, so parents can feel isolated; some new parents have a sense that life on the ‘outside’ is passing them by.  New families often have limited budgets, and with diapers, formula, and rent/mortgage there is often little left for spontaneous vacations or even dinner out on a regular basis.

Mike and I have experienced all of those challenges when our children were young.  We often felt overwhelmed by the daily grind and unqualified to take on such an intimidating responsibility.  I chose to stay home with our children for some years, and there definitely were days that I would have submitted my resignation if that were a possibility.  Mike will remind me of days when he would return from work and I would meet him at the door, place a baby in his arms, and then drive off in the car without saying a word.  He knew that my day must have been rough and that I need some time (at least a few hours) ‘away’.

For a number of years, our focus was almost entirely on raising our children and there was little time for a thriving social life.  Mike and I leaned on each other to get through the difficult days; we understood the awesomeness of our vocation and we invested much of ourselves into our family. 

We were very tired, but we were very happy.

Now that our children are older, our memories of those years are entirely positive.  We remember little people in footie pajamas, carrying a special blanket, snuggling in to read “Ten Little Bears” and falling asleep in our arms.  We remember big-eyed babies smiling a fat-faced smile, ‘talking’ without using words, or sucking on our fingers between meals.  We remember first steps, band-aids on bloody knees, and walks in the woods.  We remember bubbles in the tub, tiny fingers grabbing Cheerios off the tray, and warm bottles. 

If you are fortunate enough to have one or more little people in your home, try to be as present as you can be to this season in your life.  There is nothing in your life that you will do that will be as significant or as meaningful as what you are doing today.  Do not wish it away.  Parenting will require everything you have to give, but know that you alone are uniquely crafted for this role.  Trust us when we tell you that life goes fast, and that you will be sending your baby off to college before you know it. 

Life after little ones is great, but life with little ones is truly awesome. 

Give Your Student the Gift of Joy

When discussing the malaise that many of us are feeling, an associate of mine recently observed, “The world feels heavy all over”.  Many factors have contributed to this mental fog, including the Covid virus, the lockdowns, extreme political and ideological division in every aspect of our daily lives, the caustic and partisan media on both sides of the aisle, and our general feeling of disconnectedness.

Although many of us as adults are experiencing the discomfort that comes with this current reality, most of us have the necessary coping skills and the benefit of a lifetime of challenges to navigate our way through these troubling times.  Our young people may not have these life skills and may well be suffering far more than we realize.

So how do we assist our children to develop a lasting sense of joy, in spite of the negativity and hardships they may be facing from the outside world.  Before we answer that question, we need to discuss the difference between happiness and joy.  By definition, happiness is a response to happenstance, contentment, good luck, prosperity, or good fortune. Happiness is also a reaction to pleasure.  In other words, happiness is a response to worldly influences.

Joy, on the other hand, is a personal fullness or sense of completeness in one’s entire life; or, a deep peace which comes from the indwelling of God within a person, and lasts despite hardship.  Happiness comes and goes, but joy lasts and cannot be taken from us once we have it.

Unfortunately, we cannot share what we do not have.  Do we have a sense of joy in our lives (ie: personal fullness / sense of completeness / deep peace) that is not dependent on what the world throws at us?  Or are we consumed and overwhelmed by outside influences and the negativity of others?  Perhaps an important first step in developing a sense of joy is to turn our attention inward versus outward.  Not inward in the secular sense of selfishness or narcissism, but rather a self-analysis of what aspects of our lives may be working against that joy.  Are we overly focused on what others think, or what others have, or events in the world that are out of our control?  Do we count our blessings and realize that in the whole of human history, including 2020, we are the most fortunate human beings in regard to personal freedom and opportunity for self-fulfillment?  Do we see the good in others despite the fact that all of us will disappoint one another on a fairly regular basis?

As that sense of joy begins to build, some of our anxiety, frustrations, and anger will begin to dissipate.  Joy will not make the challenges of our lives go away; however, joy will provide us with a new sense of perspective that will allow us to view those hardships through a more positive and grounded lens.  Eventually we will be able to share that joy with others as it will become a part of who we are.  We can be more present to those around us instead of being self-consumed and pre-occupied.  As joy becomes a habit, we will naturally navigate away from those influences (people, social media, ‘news’) that steals or disrupts our joy.

This joy should direct every aspect of our lives, from how we greet each other in the morning to how we deal with difficulties or personal conflicts within our homes.  If our kids come to us stressed or obsessing on a negative aspect of their lives, we can provide them perspective on the issue and assure them that they are good.  We can celebrate the little things in life and focus on the joy of being together.  We can complement our children daily and limit the negative comments.  We can shut down our screens and laugh more as a family.

Focusing on today will become our priority and we will worry less about the future.

We will then model that joy to our children.  We will be able to guide our children in accepting / rejecting various inputs in their life to create their own sense of inner peace and contentment.  They will see our joy and that joy will be contagious.

This Christmas season, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 13: 15)