Raising Kids Who Launch Successfully from the Nest

In my last post, I laid out what I consider 3 fundamental developmental tasks of the late teen years:

1) moving toward interdependence

2) clarifying identity, and

3) grieving the loss of childhood.

Not all teens transition successfully into adulthood. Some fail to develop the capacity for true interdependence, which requires an ability to both give and receive loving aid and mercy. Some fail to achieve true autonomy: they remain tethered by what their peers or parents expect of them. They never figure out what it is they really want for themselves, so they drift from job to job without real focus, or they do what is expected of them but lack passion and satisfaction. Others never face their mixed feelings about growing up; they never grieve the loss of childhood so they are left with nagging sadness or dis-ease, or they do self-destructive things to keep themselves from leaving their parents.

So how do we raise kids who are able to accomplish these 3 developmental tasks? I could write a whole book answering this question (and many have been written), but for our purposes let’s focus on some basics, especially things that we can do beginning today. Most of you have kids who are much younger than mine (who range in age from 7 to 18), but this question is very relevant to you. Optimally, the seeds for a successful transition to adulthood are sowed very early.

1. Give Kids Increasing Responsibility

When our kids are tiny babies, it’s natural that we do everything for them and that our own needs are put on the back burner to attend to their more urgent needs. But as our kids mature, we actually love them more by giving them increasing responsibility around the home, including chores and caring for younger siblings. Is the picture in your home ever like it is in my home sometimes: mom and dad dusty and sweaty cleaning, pruning, and mowing while the precious children sit on the family room floor staring at a television screen? Frankly sometimes it’s just easier to do everything myself, but I know that in the long run this is an injustice to my kids. By doing everything for them, I am denying them the opportunity to exercise their interdependence muscles! Feeling a sense of responsibility to their family also increases their self-esteem – they know they are necessary and important to the smooth running of our home.

2. Build Healthy Communication

Beginning very early, it’s important to build a strong rapport and sense of trust between ourselves and our children. If teens fear their parents judgment (or loathe them like liver and onions), they will struggle to transition to adulthood. When teens feel comfortable talking to their parents about their self-doubts, their curiosities, or their anxiety about leaving home, everything will go better!  These children feel comfortable exploring their changing interests, even when their parents are surprised or caught off guard. These children know that even though their world is changing and even though they have to leave the comfort of home, there is still a net to catch them if they need it. They are able to gain perspective by leaning on their parents. This gives them confidence and courage in the face of the uncertainty of new adulthood.

Healthy communication begins early: Building a foundation of trust in the early years is essential for healthy communication in the teen years. For me, one of the key ways I built and protected trust with my very young children was dealing with their behavior issues in a gentle, respectful ways. As you all know, I believe in non-punitive forms of discipline. There are many ways that we build trust with our kids (for example, building a fun family culture and instituting clear rules and boundaries), but trust is tested most – and can be damaged – during times of struggle and disconnect in our relationships.

I know it’s easy to get sucked into a punitive mindset. Many people will tell you that you are spoiling your child by not spanking them, or that kids who are raised with gentle methods are brats. Not so. In fact, the opposite is true. Spanking and shaming children may work in the short term to get a quick result, but in the long term children will do the right thing primarily because they are FEARFUL, not because they have internalized self-control or a maturing life of virtue. Some kids who are raised by harsh, punitive parents become dependent on the parents’ approval: they never develop a sense of autonomy and self-motivation – they are only motivated by fear of disapproval or punishment. This isn’t healthy. Or they may go in the opposite direction and close themselves off from their parents, becoming secretive or even deceptive. When kids are scared of us, they are not confident in our love for them and they certainly won’t feel comfortable talking to us about their problems.

3. Create Family Traditions

To make a successful launch to adulthood, I’ve learned recently that kids need to be rooted in their families without being trapped by them. The positive memories and secure identity they develop through our family traditions and rituals, through the history they build with their parents and siblings, gives them a sense of connectedness, loyalty, and strength as they leave home.

Family history and traditions become a trap when adult children feel like they are somehow betraying the family by leaving home either physically or emotionally. Some kids never really leave home or go through the grieving process that I talked about in Part 1 because they fear their family will fall apart without them. They remain trapped emotionally or even physically at home. This isn’t good. A balance is necessary.

So, children need the freedom to go out on their own beyond their family history, but without the history and traditions they will always feel a little wobbly.

For Catholic families, including our faith in our family traditions is imperative. Making Catholicism part of every day family life is a great gift to give our children, because the world is radically secular and colleges are unapologetically anti-faith. It’s something all of our children will have to face. When faith forms a strong part of their history, identity, and sense of meaning, our kids will be strengthened against these destructive, deceptive forces.

4. Give your child the freedom to confront hard questions

Little children ask hard questions all the time: Where do babies come from? Why does Father Mark wear a dress during Mass? When are you going to die? We are taken aback, but we catch our breath and – sometimes after an intermission and some research – we attempt to address our child’s stumpers. This is excellent. As kids get older, though, they will have even bigger, harder questions.  Delicate questions with serious consequences. It’s important that they have a safe place to ask them.

As our kids mature, they will have many questions about and struggles with friendships, morality, and faith. Kids are nervous about what their friends think of them. They begin to play with their identity – they kind of try on different hats. Because their identity isn’t completely stable yet, and because they are so hyper aware of their peers’ opinions, they can easily meander down the wrong path looking to define themselves. They have natural questions and even doubts about why we do particular things in our family, or even more alarming for parents, why the Church does particular things. All this can make parents a little nervous!

You are your child’s best bet to navigate all this craziness. Giving your child the freedom to grapple with their problems  with your loving support is far better than giving the job to her 13 year old BFF. If your child trusts you, she will likely come to you before or at least in addition to her friends. Some tips:

Don’t interrupt or deny: When she does come to you, let her talk without interrupting and try to avoid the temptation to talk her out of her feelings. (“You’re not upset about that are you? Don’t be upset!”) This is what I mean by giving her permission to confront her problems. We sometimes deny that our kids have a problem altogether, so they shut down. Let her have her feelings, even if you don’t understand them.

Don’t fix her problem: When a toddler is struggling to climb into a chair, we want to pick him up and put him on the chair to save him from hardship and strife. Guess what? This parenting impulse continues even when your child is big enough to pick you up and put you in the chair!

Because we love our children so much, we want to fix their problems for them, but we all know it’s better to give them the tools to fix their own problems. This gives them a sense of mastery and self-confidence. This doesn’t mean we can’t give them advice, but it does mean we give them a chance to figure things out for themselves.

Sometimes with my two older children (aged 13 and 18), I don’t really say much when they are talking about a problem. I just listen to them and empathize. When I can tell they are looking for advice on how to solve a particular problem, I do offer it, but I try to do it in a way that allows them to develop their own judgment. For example, if they are struggling in a friendship, I won’t tell them what to do, but I will share my own experience or I will help them see things from their friend’s perspective. And I always try to include a discussion of the Christian virtues because I’ve found that practicing a virtue is always necessary when confronting every, single problem in life.

When our kids have doubts about Church teaching, we can share our own struggles and how we dealt with them rather than making them feel like they are BAD for doubting. Doubt is part of the path. We can teach our children that facing our doubts honestly will make our faith stronger in the long run, but that we should also remain respectful to the Church and we should continue to pray during our times of doubt.

Further reading:

Emptying the Nest by Brad Sachs

Parenting with Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak

Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel

The Launching Years Part 1: The Developmental Tasks of the Late Teen Years

When I first started writing about parenting, my oldest child Aidan was about 11 or 12 and I had a baby. Now that oldest child is 18 and about to launch from the nest. He begins college in the fall. As I adjust to this reality, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I have learned about the late teen years. I’ve discovered that older teens have “developmental tasks” that are very unique to them. Older teens (17-19) are very different from young teens (13-15); what they need from their parents is different.

In this post (Part 1), I will lay out 3 of the more important developmental tasks of the late teen years, then in Part 2 I’ll talk about what parents of younger kids can do to lay the groundwork for a healthy, well-adjusted transition to early adulthood.

Obviously there are more than 3 developmental tasks, but these are the 3 that have most affected my son in the last 6 months or so. For many of you, the late teen years seems very far away, but I hope you’ll find something valuable to hold on to as I share my experience of the launching process in the next year!

1. Moving Toward Interdependence

Many parents assume that the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise their child to be independent. This is surely part of it. We want our children to develop a sense of confidence that they can make it on their own. However, our culture has taken the independence thing too far. Kids (and grown-ups!) are so narcissistic and self-involved that it makes community building difficult. The age of the selfie is the age of ME. While Americans in particular admire self-starters and like to focus on the unique qualities in each person, being independent does not require you to be self-absorbed.

The Church reminds us that human beings are called to interdependence not radical independence. Interdependence requires an ability to care for others. If you are only comfortable getting your own needs met, but lack the capacity to be there when your friends and family need help, you will become a drain on everyone around you as you mature. It’s perfectly normal for an infant to be completely dependent on others without giving anything back, but by the late teen years and early adulthood, our children should begin showing signs that they possess empathy and an ability to act on it.

When you are capable of interdependence, it also means you have an ability to stand on your own two feet coupled with the emotional strength to call out for help when you need it. Feeling that you are totally on your own and that you are weak if you need somebody is actually a sign of sub-optimal emotional health. Some people are actually uncomfortable allowing others to care for them.  We want our children to feel comfortable both giving and receiving loving aid.

2. Clarifying Identity

Brad Sachs, PhD, writes that “[a]n important aspect of young adulthood is making explicit the self that the person has been sculpting and discovering since childhood. He must construct a psychic engine composed of  desire and vision that will be strong enough to carry the freight of his soul forward in the face of life’s challenges” (Emptying the Nest, 25). The child has to answer for himself what he is really about; he has to confront his own limitations in addition to recognizing his strengths. This process continues throughout our lives, but the late teen years are a critical time for laying a strong foundation for our identity. If kids continue to depend on us or their peers for a sense of identity, if they have no idea what they want to do with their lives unless their peers or parents tell them what to do, they will never feel a sense of competence and confidence.

As a Catholic parent, I know that this clarifying of identity must include my child’s ownership of his faith. When we are spiritually mature, we feel a personal stake in our faith and we possess the desire to seek out what God wants for and from us and not just what we want. Aidan has to take what his family and childhood friendships have given him and make it own, and then he needs to seek out God’s will for his life.

Aidan is currently discerning a vocation to the priesthood. When he began to consider this seriously in the last year, he seemed to have a sense of urgency about the question. He wanted to know NOW whether he has a calling. Aidan possesses a faith that I didn’t have at his age. He is willing to throw it all down for God, no matter what anybody thinks. But as a normal teenager, he is impatient! He realized through spiritual direction that the silence and ambiguity – the not knowing – is part of his path right now. He will go to college and keep these things in his heart, seeking further confirmation of his vocation.

3. Grieving

A new reality that I am confronting: the grieving process that happens when your child leaves the nest. Aidan is still at home and I have him for 8 more months, but the pain is already setting in. Every now and then, a wave of emotion comes over me as I visualize him packing his bags and walking out the door. Even when he returns home for Christmas and summer breaks, things will be different, and I know this. His childhood is ending and my role is changing. So I am learning to understand the process myself so that I’m not caught off guard!

Something I did not appreciate until recently: Aidan has to grieve as well. As he contemplates leaving home, I can see that he is both excited and scared. This ambivalence is completely normal. Kids should feel a sense of possibility and wonder about their future as they leave home, but they are also leaving something behind – the security and safety of childhood – and they need to recognize this. This loss is real and difficult.

Aidan goes through ups and downs as he faces leaving. He asks me if I will miss him. He knows the answer, but he just needs to hear me say it. He doesn’t want us to forget him! He has toyed with the idea of NOT leaving. He considered staying home and attending our local community college, but after pressing him a bit about this idea, I could see that he was thinking of staying home because he was fearful that he couldn’t make it on his own in college and not that he felt it was the best option for him. We have a great community college right in town, so if any of my kids determines that is the best path for them, I will support them without reservation. However, they should not stay home out of fear.

So I had to give Aidan a little nudge to the edge of the nest. Of course, the selfish part of me wanted to say YES YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY STAY HOME, but I am grateful for spiritual direction which helps me examine my true motivations for things. I know deep down that Aidan needs to go off to one of these great colleges that has accepted him. His intellectual and spiritual gifts will flourish in that environment and he is truly ready for it.

Aidan just needs to grieve his childhood. It is no longer appropriate for me to take care of him day in and out. It’s time for him to do his own laundry, make his own doctor’s appointments, and to keep his own schedule. It’s time for him to fly. I have to help him grieve. This is one of my big tasks as a mom of a launching young adult. If kids don’t grieve this loss, they are vulnerable to depression, addiction, underachievement, and other scary things.

Next time: how to raise kids who launch successfully from the nest!

Study: 4 Things Every Mom Needs to Thrive

moms-thriveMotherhood is a profound blessing. We moms know it. But motherhood can, at times, bring us to our knees. A mom regularly faces sleepless nights, strained schedules, and the competing needs of her kids, her spouse, her extended family, her community, and finally HERSELF!

What allows some moms to thrive and to find deep satisfaction in motherhood despite the inevitable challenges while others do not thrive emotionally?

One intriguing study identified 4 key factors that protect mom’s well-being and sense of satisfaction:

1.  Unconditional Acceptance

Moms who can say, “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core” do better in motherhood than moms who feel their value depends on their performance or appearance.  With Pinterest and HGTV blinking at us, it’s easy to forget that our children, husbands, and friends love us and cherish us no matter what color our kitchen cabinets are.  Sometimes when I’m expecting guests, I practically stage my house like a realtor before an open house!

And this extends to our “performance” as moms. The fact is, we will make mistakes on our mothering journey. When we fall short, we need to know we will still be loved and accepted. Moms need the freedom to make amends, find new hope and direction, and still be cherished for the unique, unrepeatable person they are. And this happens to be the model of the love, mercy, and reconciliation that Christ offers us.

2.  Feeling Comforted When Needed

Moms need to be able to say, “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.”  I think every mom I know has at some point felt they couldn’t go on, that they were at the limits of their ability to cope, and this feeling is very distressing for them, because they have children depending on them to “keep it together.”

We need somebody who can comfort us in the way WE need when we are struggling. This support helps us gain perspective so that we don’t dig ourselves deeper into a hole. Sometimes we just need an ear so we can vent; we don’t really need anybody to rescue us.  At other times we need a hero. We need somebody to swoop in and save us, oftentimes through physical relief (a nap, a chance to get out of the house for an hour to clear our head).

3.  Authenticity in Relationships

Moms who are drawn to gentle, responsive parenting can put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect moms. We can even judge other moms who aren’t doing the gentle thing “right.” Let’s try to get over this! Every single day our ideal for ourselves as moms doesn’t match up with reality on some level or at some moment.

Mothering is messy. When mothers feel like they have to be perfect around their friends and family, when they can’t be honest with anyone about their struggles and concerns, they are at a much higher risk for depression. When you can’t be authentic, you cannot thrive. Being authentic requires humility, surrender, and trust. Every mom needs a few people she can be authentic with.

I’m grateful that I can be authentic with my husband.  Once when my third child was a newborn and my two older kids were still very young, he went on an extended work trip. At one point I was talking to him on the phone and I had not slept in two days because my older kids would not go to bed and the baby was still waking every 2 to 3 hours. I felt desperate and helpless! Well, I told him how I was really feeling, and not merely what I thought he wanted to hear. I was starting to feel a little kooky and I was not coping well. I was at the if-these-kids-don’t-go-to-sleep-I’m-going-to-smack-them point.

When I shared with my husband how I felt, he cut his meeting short, got on an airplane, and came home. He didn’t shame me or say “what the heck is wrong with you?” or pat me on the head with a “you are so strong you can handle anything.”  He came home and I went to bed and then I felt better. I am grateful that I could be honest with him about my REAL feelings even though they fell short of what I hoped for myself as a mom. Because I had that freedom, it allowed him to comfort me in the way I most needed — physical relief (see number 2 above).

4. Friendship Satisfaction

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

You’ll notice all four of these factors are related. I need the humility to be authentic in order to allow others to accept my unconditionally. And only people fully capable of unconditional love can love us unconditionally and allow us to be authentic.

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

Not the Whole Story . . .

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

Most significant, one relationship this study doesn’t consider, but which is the most important factor to our thriving, is a mom’s relationship with God. I can see a direct link between my commitment to prayer and my satisfaction as a wife and mother!

Skeletons, Pumpkins, and Judgment, OH MY

Every year on Halloween night, one of my neighbors puts a sign in her window: “NO CANDY. We are Christians. We do not celebrate Halloween.” So far none of my kids has remarked on this sign that I can recall. In particular, they have never asked, “But aren’t we Christians? . . . Is it wrong to trick-or-treat?” I’m glad. But I admit this neighbor’s sign has left me feeling slightly guilty every year, as if I should slink away with my jacket over head.

I know that many of us Catholic parents are torn about Halloween.  Should we participate? Is Halloween intrinsically evil? What’s with the ghosts and witches? Where does all this stuff come from? Frankly, throughout my mothering, I’ve experienced very mixed feelings about Halloween. I love the harvest atmosphere of many Halloween parties and events, but the whole sub-culture around Halloween seems to become increasingly dark each year.  A few years ago I want into a Halloween costume shop to get my daughter a Wizard of Oz Dorothy costume, and I saw mechanical zombie babies with blood oozing from their eyes. Not funny or interesting; just creepy and disturbing. Young people are becoming increasingly drawn to anything related to the “undead” – zombies, vampires, etc. It’s weird.

Kim's dog in her Halloween costume

Kim’s dog in her Halloween costume

Yet, every year, I am at this place again where my kids are excited about Halloween, and the draw me into their wonder.  They begin planning and talking about their Halloween costumes in early September, sometimes earlier. They even plan costumes for our dog and take her out trick or treating. There is nothing scary or disturbing about a Labradoodle in a bumble bee costume! (At least not to  humans . . . other Labradoodles probably think it’s pretty scary.)

I love it that my children bring all their creative energy to their costumes. This year, my thirteen-year-old daughter Claire is make a German Shepherd costume (out of several yards of very fluffy fake fur that seems to be wafting through my house). Last year, my oldest son Aidan (now eighteen) went as “a knight who says NI” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. He spent a great deal of time putting his costume together from bits and pieces he found at our local craft store. He walks around with us on Halloween night, never assuming he will get candy because he’s a little old, but last year a homeowner asked him what his costume was. When Aidan told him, the homeowner’s face lit up with hope, and he said, “You’re a teenager who likes the Holy Grail? Here, take it all” and he gave Aidan his entire bucket of candy!

Five years ago or so, I nearly eliminated Halloween from our home. I have Catholic friends who, like my neighbor, believe it’s evil and to be avoided entirely. But I just couldn’t cancel Halloween, though. If I had done so, I would have missed many wonderful family memories.

So, yes, my family “celebrates” Halloween. I’m sorry my neighbor shuts her blinds and doesn’t want to say hello to my children on October 31. I wish that she knew that, in fact, Halloween  has its roots in Christianity. That’s right. Contrary to the popular belief that Halloween is rooted in paganism, it’s historically quite simply the vigil of All Saints Day, or “All Hallows Eve.” Here is a superb explanation by Scott Richert:

Pagan Origins of Halloween

Despite concerns among some Catholics and other Christians in recent years about the “pagan origins” of Halloween, there really are none. The first attempts to show some connection between the vigil of All Saints and the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain came over a thousand years after All Saints Day became a universal feast, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Gregory III or Gregory IV was even aware of Samhain.

In Celtic peasant culture, however, elements of the harvest festival survived, even among Christians, just as the Christmas tree owes its origins to pre-Christian Germanic traditions without being a pagan ritual.

Combining the Celtic and the Christian

The Celtic elements included lighting bonfires, carving turnips (and, in America, pumpkins), and going from house to house, collecting treats, as carolers do at Christmas. But the “occult” aspects of Halloween—ghosts and demons—actually have their roots in Catholic belief. Christians believed that, at certain times of the year (Christmas is another), the veil separating earth from Purgatory, Heaven, and even Hell becomes more thin, and the souls in Purgatory (ghosts) and demons can be more readily seen. Thus the tradition of Halloween costumes owes as much, if not more, to Christian belief as to Celtic tradition.

Did you catch that? Not only is Halloween a Christian observance, but even some of the scary stuff that freaks me out – specifically ghosts and demons –  has some link to Christianity. Sometimes I judge my Christian friends who spook out their houses on Halloween, and I feel quite satisfied with myself that I “only” decorate with pumpkins and cute felt fall leaves. Just as my neighbor made me feel judged, I have harbored judgment toward others, and these judgments have been unfair.

So, if you have skeleton decorations on your front door, I’m sorry I judged you. Being a Christian in the modern world is hard enough. It would be a lot easier if we loved one another better, if we approached one another with generosity rather than folded arms and a raised brow. I’m going to work on it, with God’s grace and assistance.

I think my observation about American culture around Halloween still holds: why are Americans so obsessed with vampires, zombies, and the undead?  It’s one thing to recognize the inevitability of death and to remember the dead, and quite another to idolize demons and evil creatures, to think they are even sexy. I think on some level young people who are caught up in these things know that there is something more beyond this life, that it is only one short chapter in a journey and a sliver of some greater truth. It’s  unfortunate they are not given the freedom to surrender to the whole truth and promise of salvation and God’s love. Now that’s really scary.

Back-to-School Traditions for Your Catholic Family

back to school2

Family traditions give our kids a little lifejacket in the often unsteady waters of childhood. As we approach the beginning of a new school year, it’s a great time to think of ways to honor our child’s big step in starting a new grade and offer a nod to the enormous blessings and graces of education – of books, numbers, maps, bugs, play dough, or whatever else may occupy our minds this year.

As some of you know, my family homeschools. The very first year we homeschooled, my oldest child, Aidan, was entering kindergarten. Our family was embarking on a life-changing adventure and Aidan was very proud that he was officially starting school. So, in recognition of the momentous occasion, our first day of school began not with practicing writing the letter “A” or learning about birds; it started with a celebration. We had balloons, games, and a pretty tablecloth, and we baked a cake together. Then we cracked open our perfect, crisp, new books, imagined together what the year would bring us, and talked about our hopes and fears.  

That first day of our first year of homeschooling was many years ago. This year Aidan is a high school senior, and I have three more “students” in the 8th, 4th, and 1st grades.  I’ve added a few things to our annual back-to-school celebration, but to this day we still bake a cake, play games, look at our books, and we preview and talk about our year. 

As I look back on those celebrations, I can see clearly that we weren’t just making a party, which bored and wayward frat boys do regularly. We also weren’t engaging in mere routine, like brushing our teeth or putting our shoes in the closet, as important as those habits are for my kids to learn. Our annual back-to-school tradition grounds my children, gives them a sense of shared history and identity, and perhaps alleviates some of their anxiety about facing new challenges in the coming year. Because we give it “A Moment,” my kids know that the start of the school year is no ordinary day and that no matter what the year brings, we are in it together.

Whether your kids attend traditional school or home school, starting some kind of back-to-school tradition is a great way to signal the transition from summer days to school time. Your tradition won’t look like mine. Perhaps your family will enjoy dinner out at a favorite restaurant, make a trip to a bowling alley, or stargaze on the evening before school starts. Your traditions should reflect your family’s unique identity and interests. 

If baking cakes and having parties aren’t your thing, here’s a super easy idea that might work for you, and your kids will love it. This year I’m planning to surprise my kids on our first day of school with a traditional German “Schultute” – a school cone filled with school supplies, treats, and trinkets.  This is a tradition dating back to the 1800s, and it continues to this day in Germany and Austria.  

As Lydia is entering the first grade, this is an especially significant school year because, traditionally, only children entering first grade received a Schultute in Germany, though nowadays siblings are included, too.  I’m glad I didn’t miss Lydia’s first grade Schultute and I plan to make her feel extra special on Monday morning when our new school year begins and she officially becomes a first grader. But I will definitely make cones for her siblings, too, including the high school senior! I’m sure these fun cones will become part of our annual ritual.  

Barbara at Praying for Grace has a super easy tutorial for making a Schultute out of poster board and tissue paper. 

barbara's schultute

Image courtesy of Praying for Grace

You can also just let your kids decorate the poster board like Becky did here. As we are Catholic, along with the school supplies and sweets, I’ll fill our Schultute with patron saint cards, some religious stickers for the younger kids, and a prayer book for the two older kids. You could also follow Becky’s example and make the Schultute for your child’s teacher as an act of love. Your child can practice the virtues on her very first day of school!

Whatever we choose to do to honor the Big Day, as a family we can pray for our students as they rise to a new grade and for their teachers (even if that means mom and dad). In this spirit, this weekend I will make a printable of this prayer for the beginning of the school year and I will tuck it into the Schultute:

Prayer to Begin the School Year

Blessed are you Lord God, Creator of body and mind and heart; you have sent the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge to guide your people in all their ways.

At the beginning of this new school year, we implore your mercy: bless the students, teachers and staff of [NAME OF SCHOOL], that together we may grow in faith, hope, and love as we learn from you and each other how to follow your Son Jesus.

Expand the horizons of our minds, that we grow in wisdom, understanding, and knowledge; deepen our commitment to see the truth of your ways; and enliven our faith to reach out to those in need. 

Glory and praise to you, Lord God, in the Church in in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.

Celebrating Your Child’s “Name Day”

My Lydia celebrating her very first name day.

My Lydia celebrating her very first name day.

August is “name day month” in my home, because all of my children have patron saints whose feast days fall in the month of August: Lydia (August 3), Dominic (August 8), Claire (August 11), and Aidan (August 31). Years ago, when I began researching ways to bring Catholic culture into my home, celebrating name days was one of the first things we did together. Until then, I was completely clueless that all my children had the same name day month!

If you’re not sure of the date of your child’s name day, American Catholic has a great calendar that you can search. But, hold on. If your child’s has a name day, it means you actually went to the trouble of naming him or her after a saint. Thank you! Naming children after saints or biblical figures is like naming them after our parents or revered ancestors: it honors the saint and gives our child a link to his heritage. Even more, a patron saint has a special connection with our child; I think patron saints help us raise our children. Finally, giving our a child a saint’s name affirms our belief in the communion of saints.

So, what’s not to celebrate?!

Creating a tradition of celebrating a child’s patron saint not only provides an opportunity to teach our kids a thing or two about a great soul, but we also show them the delight of our Faith. And, of course, as we gather together for these celebrations, we are strengthening our family bonds and the Catholic identity of our family.

Here are a few tips for celebrating your child’s name day:

Start with Simple and Symbolic

You don’t have to create a replica of your child’s name saint out of a cake and garden flowers in order to do something special on her name day!  Keep it simple and realistic.

Every saint has a story and particular symbols associated with them. You can draw on those symbols and use them in your celebration. For example, St. Lydia was a seller of purple cloth, so we always use a purple table cloth in Lydia’s name day celebration. She is also known for her hospitality to the early Christians, so we have a tea party and practice our best hospitality.  St. Dominic is credited with spreading the practice of praying the rosary, so we try to incorporate the rosary into our observance. St. Dominic is also associated with oranges because he planted the first orange tree at Santa Sabine (where an orange tree still grows which descends from Dominic’s tree), so we always have breakfast with orange juice in honor of St. Dominic. Incorporating these details into our name day celebrations gives them some depth and helps my kids remember little details about their patron saint.

Start with one symbol, and the ideas will flow. In fact, if you do a Pinterest search on your child’s saint and you will be flooded with ideas! Depending on your child’s age and interests, you can incorporate crafts, hikes, pilgrimages, etc. The important thing is be realistic about what you can do every year, because you are creating a family tradition that your children can count on and grow up with.

If you can, get a prayer card of the saint and pray the saint’s prayer at your celebration. If you don’t have a special prayer card for your child’s saint, you can do what I do for St. Lydia: I just print out an image of her icon and we pray this general name saint prayer which I found in Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers:

God of glory, whom we name in many ways, when we brought this child to your Church we were asked, “What name do you give this child?” We answered, “[child’s name].” May St. [saint’s name] ever pray for him/her, may he/she guard him/her so that [child’s name] may overcome evil and come at last to that place where his/her name is written in the book of life. We ask this through Christ our Lord, Amen.

You can also read a story about the saint from an age-appropriate book so your child begins to know the story of her special saint. I display the child’s saint’s image on our family altar and near the child’s plate at our celebration and/or at dinner.

Saint Lydia

Saint Lydia

After you get going, you might end up creating the cake replica of the saint after all.

Name Days for Big Kids

When kids are little, name days feel like little birthdays to them. They love the attention, goodies, and fun. This is okay and entirely normal. But as kids mature, we can remind them of the deeper significance of their name day. Giving our child a biography of her saint can give her insights into the saint’s whole story, particular gifts, and holiness so  that she has somebody to look up to as she grows up. Attending Mass together as a family and asking for our priest’s blessing over the child would be wonderful.

In the teen years, perhaps we can inspire or lead our kids to do kind acts for others on their name day, so that we transition away from the “what do I get today” toward a “how can I serve you God” mentality. This can be done even in the context of our name day celebration. The child can help prepare food or create special favors for his siblings or guests.

When Your Child Doesn’t Have a Name Saint

If your child isn’t named after a saint, you aren’t a negligent crumb! You can always adopt a patron saint for your child. Perhaps you can choose a saint with a name close to your child’s name or whose story especially inspires her or you. And don’t forget that your child will choose a saint’s name at Confirmation. You can begin talking to her about that wonderful tradition very early. There’s no St. Kim, but I took the Confirmation name “Therese” after the Little Flower.

I’m off to make pancakes and fresh orange juice for the Feast of St. Dominic!

Avoiding Distractions in Our Mothering: Tips from Pope Francis

87490642I was stuck in traffic recently so I tuned into Catholic radio.  The radio show host was discussing some advice Pope Francis gives to nuns in his apostolic constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere (“Seeking the Face of God”): he warned them about the dangers of social media and asked them to watch their hearts to ensure they weren’t using the internet to escape the demands of their vocation. How about that? Nuns struggle with overusing technology like everyone else!

I definitely struggle with it, so later I decided to take a look at that constitution. I found several helpful reminders that apply not only to nuns, but to all the faithful and I think especially to mothers.

1. Keeping Social Media in Its Proper Place in Our Mothering

Here are Pope Francis’s own words about social media:

In our society, the digital culture has a decisive influence in shaping our thoughts and the way we relate to the world and, in particular, to other people. Contemplative communities are not immune from this cultural climate. Clearly, these media can prove helpful for formation and communication. At the same time, I urge a prudent discernment aimed at ensuring that they remain truly at the service of formation to contemplative life and necessary communication, and do not become occasions for wasting time or escaping from the demands of fraternal life in community. Nor should they prove harmful for your vocation or become an obstacle to your life wholly dedicated to contemplation. Vultum Dei Quaerere, 34.

There’s nothing wrong with using email, Facebook, and Twitter to stay in touch with friends, arrange our kids’ classes, and perform household tasks, but I am guilty of using the internet to “waste time” and to “escape” the routines of family life. How many times a day (. . . hour) do I really need to check my email? How many cartoons and cat photos do I really need to see on Facebook? Technology is definitely a distraction for me. Sometimes I can’t even cook an entire dinner without checking my email!

So I want to ask myself every day:

  • Is technology helping me live out my vocation or is it distracting me from it?
  • Does technology help me in my work of forming my children and running my home?
  • Does technology help me love the people God has placed in my path? Or do I use technology to avoid loving my neighbor in person?
  • Is technology drawing me closer or farther away from God?
  • If I’m using technology to escape my mothering duties, why is that? Why do I feel bored, distracted, or lazy? How can I allow God to breathe new life into my mothering?

2. Building Our Families into a Community of Love, Not a Group of Selfish Co-Habitants

It’s easy for any family to fall into the habit of living parallel lives under the same roof, everyone doing their own thing, concerned with their own projects and goals without involving or considering anybody else, maybe even viewing other family members as a problem to be dealt with rather than treasured gifts from God given to us to help us know him and his love better. I do wonder whether this is actually becoming the norm in modern families. Kids often communicate and share more with their peers who are physically located in other houses than they do with their own parents and siblings who are located in the next room.

As Catholic mothers, we can allow God to use us like magnets to continually draw our children toward the center of our homes – sometimes literally into our family rooms and kitchens where we play, pray, and dine together, but also into relationship and mutual self-giving.

Pope Francis talks about “fraternal communion” – the building of community and companionship, and the cultivation of mutual support and a shared purpose. “[A]ll members must see themselves as builders of community and not simply recipients of its eventual benefits. A community exists inasmuch as it comes about and is built by the contribution of all, each according to his or her gifts.” Vultum Dei Quaerere, 25. Maybe we moms can remind our families about our real purpose and calling. Maybe we need to start at square one and work on understanding what that even means.

What is your family’s special, unique mission? Are you building a strong identity and mutual history? The family is a visible witness of the communion of the persons of the Trinity and the depth of God’s love, and this is most fully revealed through our deep connection and tender care for one another, through our shared good works, play, and unwavering solidarity.

Pope Francis reminds us that building strong communities, especially communities of love, requires acts of mutual self-gift. If family members are only concerned about themselves – trying to do the least possible to get by or merely avoid conflict – our shared purpose is diminished and our family identity is weakened. And guess what? Mutual self-giving means shared giving – not mom doing all the giving while everyone else sits around poking buttons on a remote. Our kids aren’t crowned royalty. Even children have gifts to contribute to the common good of the family.

According to Catholic social doctrine, we should prioritize the needs of the weaker members of our families (little children, the elderly, the ill), but weaker persons should be empowered to contribute to “the good of all” as they are able. See John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39.  Obviously a toddler can’t mow the lawn. We have to consider the limitations and special needs of very small children, but as they mature, they have an increasing capacity to contribute to the common good of the family, and we actually do our children a disservice when we don’t give them a chance to make such contributions.

Each family member, according to his or her gifts and capabilities, can be part of building up our families and not simply receiving its benefits. It’s in our care that our children will develop the capacity for self-giving love, for living fully in relationships of communion when they are adults, whether in the religious life or in marriage.

3. Cultivating Connection and Faith, Not Super-Duper Efficiency 

I appreciated this reminder from Pope Francis about balancing work and prayer:

As the great contemplative saints have warned, work must never stifle the spirit of contemplation. Your life is meant to “poor in fact and spent in hard-working moderation” – as your solemnly professed vow of evangelical poverty requires. For this reason, your work should be done carefully and faithfully, without yielding to the present-day culture and its mindset of efficiency and constant activity. The “ora et labora” of the Benedictine tradition should always be your inspiration and help you to find the right balance between seeking the Absolute and commitment to your daily chores, between the peace of contemplation and the effort expended in work. Vultum Dei Quaerere, 32

As mothers, we are very busy with work – noble, holy work that can seem like drudgery at times because some of it is repetitive and not terribly interesting. We will never really finish laundry, will we? As soon as the sink is clear, it seems another dirty plate appears. This work, for me, has led to greater humility. I’ve learned that I need this work to keep my inflated ego in check. God gives me graces through laundry and dirty plates. Because of the intensely physical nature of mothering, I’ve gained a keen awareness that work can be a form of prayer.

On the other hand, I can definitely fall into the trap of “efficiency and constant activity” that Pope Francis warns about. I have my to-do list like most moms; my calendar is front and center on my kitchen counter (my command central). Because I homeschool four children and teach classes to other homeschooled students, I have to be very organized and efficient with how I use my time. But there’s a difference between using my time wisely and being so efficient that I actually short-change my family relationships and my prayer life.

Sometimes when my husband isn’t home for dinner, I give my kids their plates and I eat dinner standing up at the counter so I can clean the kitchen while I eat. I know this isn’t a mortal sin, but I think it’s a symptom of what Pope Francis is talking about. Sometimes I have a hard time just relaxing because I’m anxious about I left to do in my day or even what’s on my agenda the next day.

On the mornings that I teach my classes, I often forgo my morning prayer because I’m frazzled – or maybe it’s a passing mutter as I race off to the shower. God loves our prayers, no matter how short, and I do know that he looks with soft eyes upon mothers who grapple with so many competing demands on their time. But I think I can be more mindful. I know that even five minutes with God can transform my anxiety and help me gain perspective about my day and my work.

If I don’t surrender everything to God –even my calendar and cleaning lists – I will never have enduring peace. Efficiency without faith is depressing. Mothering work is truly holy work – all of it – and when I surrender it to God he truly helps me recognize his own gorgeous, continual laboring in this world. So, yes I should sit down with my kids to eat when my husband isn’t home –perhaps particularly because he isn’t home. Yes, I need to watch the balance of ora et labora in my own life, especially on teaching days when I’m anxious.

Thanks for the reminders, Pope Francis. And thank you for the traffic jam, God. You always have my back.

3 Reasons Dads Are Important

dads important

My husband Philip and I were talking recently about fatherhood, not only because we just celebrated Fathers Day, but because we are on a long family road trip and I am witnessing the strength of my husband’s fatherliness every day in close quarters for many hours at a time! Philip easily outlined three specific ways dads benefit their kids and this led to fascinating discussions that I want to share with you!

1. Dads Are Not Moms Without Breasts

While our culture is barreling at breakneck speed toward neutralizing the significance of what it means to be a man and a women, copious research confirms the unique benefits that fathers bring to their kids lives. Dads are not auxiliary parents or just like a mom but with a deeper voice.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics “studies have found that older kids with involved fathers tend to have fewer depression symptoms and behavioral problems, and lower rates of teen pregnancy. When it comes to young children, fathers can have effects on language development and mental health, according to the academy. Research has shown that dads are more likely to use new words when they talk to their babies and preschoolers, for example.”

Here’s how the Witherspoon Institute puts it in their report “Marriage and the Public Good: 10 Principles“:

Fathers excel when it comes to providing discipline, ensuring safety, and challenging their children to embrace life’s opportunities and confront life’s difficulties. The greater physical size and strength of most fathers, along with the pitch and inflection of their voice and the directive character of their speaking, give them an advantage when it comes to discipline, an advantage that is particularly evident with boys, who are more likely to comply with their fathers’ than their mothers’ discipline.

Likewise, fathers are more likely than mothers to encourage their children to tackle difficult tasks, endure hardship without yielding, and seek out novel experiences. These paternal strengths also have deep biological underpinnings: Fathers typically have higher levels of testosterone—a hormone associated with dominance and assertiveness—than do mothers. Although the link between nature, nurture, and sex-specific parenting talents is undoubtedly complex, one cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence of sex differences in parenting —differences that marriage builds on to the advantage of children.

Dads also play differently with their kids than moms. They tend to rough house and wrestle more, and this is very good for kids! Roughhousing stimulates neuron growth within parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, learning, language, and logic. Roughhousing also helps kids learn their limits and how to self-regulate; basically because they’re learning how to play without hurting somebody. Here’s a whole book on the developmental benefits of roughhousing.

2. Two Parents Are Almost Always Better Than One

Aside from the obvious differences between men and women, just having two parents around instead of one benefits kids in many ways.

According to this report, children raised in intact married families are more likely to attend college, are physically and emotionally healthier, are less likely to be physically or sexually abused, less likely to use drugs or alcohol and to commit delinquent behaviors, have a decreased risk of divorcing when they get married, are less likely to become pregnant/impregnate someone as a teenager, and are less likely to be raised in poverty.

Professor Paul Amato from Pennsylvania State University examined several studies that considered the outcomes for children living two-parent v. one-parent households. He found that children who grow up in households with two continuously married parents are less likely to experience a wide range of problems, and that children from single parent families have “more behavioral problems, more emotional problems, and lower levels of school engagement (that is, caring about school and doing homework).”

My husband made an intriguing point: when a child has two parents, he will have two models to draw from when making choices that shape his personality. When a child has only parent, the child has only one model in their minds for how to do things or how to respond to challenges. While teachers and extended family certainly play an important role in this maturing process, parents influence their child’s perceptions and  personality more than any other person. With two parents to experience life with, the child may sub-consciously choose the personality and character traits that the child finds most important and useful. I think this dynamic is very complex and nuanced, but there is certainly some truth to it. Our oldest child, who will be 18 in September, clearly exhibits character traits from both his parents. Aidan is very spiritual and philosophical like me, but when in a crisis or when in engaged with somebody who is combative, he is very calm and rational like my husband. Of course, kids pick up bad personality traits from their parents, too, and sometimes a parent’s wounded personality can seriously affect his or her children on many levels. Nonetheless, I do think my husband is right: two parents give kids more to draw from when figuring out what to do in life and how to react to situations.

3. Dads Help Moms Become Their Best (or at least better) Selves

I am imagining how this road trip of ours would have gone without Philip along. It would have been much shorter and I would certainly be a lot more tired! Having him around really helps me be a better mom not just while we are traveling, but every, single day. Because of him, I’m a more calm, focused, and confident mom. When he travels on business, I find by about the third day I’m fatigued and a little cranky. I know we send women to the battle field and into the board room. No doubt, women can be fierce. They are very capable leaders, soldiers, and business owners. But thank goodness I don’t have to be everything to my children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Children need 100 percent from their parents, but we are human and limited. My 100 percent fades pretty quickly. The gifts Philip brings to our family are inseparable from his masculinity. Because he’s confident in his role as a father and husband, I’m freed to explore and enjoy my role as a mom and wife. And that is really great for my kids.

Helping Kids Cope with “Failure”

children failure

Every child faces the disappointment of not doing as well as they hoped on a test or not placing in a competition. Some kids bounce back from these “failures” and even seem to learn something from them, while other kids become so down on themselves that they want to give up. How can help our own kids build resilience in the face of life’s little setbacks?

Coping with Failure and Stress by Ray Williams. This article looks at the research on which coping strategies are the most effective for dealing with failure. What’s NOT effective: venting, self-distraction, self-blame, and denial. (I found this interesting as I tend to vent! I’ll remember that next time I experience a failure.) What is MOST effective: reframing our failures, laughing about them, and accepting the failure rather than denying it.  So, we can help our kids reframe their failures by pointing out to them what they did accomplish and what they learned. We can help them not take things too seriously, and, by all means, we can avoid the pitfall of pretending that our child’s failure was somebody else’s fault.

Keeping Failure in Perspective on Aha Parenting. In this list of ways to build your child’s self-esteem, #3 is “empower your child by helping her keep her failures in perspective.” As in the above article, this blogger recommends “reframing”: help your child see that “any given setback is temporary AND she has some control over whether things will work out next time. . . Then, give your child as much support as necessary so that she can be successful — which is very different than doing it for her. Seeing that their actions have a big impact on their success helps kids try harder next time, instead of giving up on themselves.” I agree: rigging our child’s world so that she never experiences failure is so very tempting! But it will backfire in the long run. I think perspective is important because frequently kids lack perspective on what their failure means. Getting a mediocre grade on a test does not mean their lives are over. Getting 4th place in a gymnastics competition doesn’t mean they are a bad gymnast. And let’s not forget: tests and gymnastics are not as important as the quality of our child’s character and the depth of her faith. We can remind her of that.

Failure IS an Option by Aviva Patz. Failure can actually benefit kids! “Learning to deal with setbacks helps them develop key characteristics they’ll need to succeed, such as coping skills, emotional resilience, creative thinking, and the ability to collaborate.” The author recommends that parents 1) be a guide, not a savior (help him problem solve) 2) don’t over-praise your child and 3) encourage your child to try new things – not just things they’re good at.

Helping Kids Overcome a Fear of Failure by Vicky Zakrzewski is an article written for teachers, but it’s also useful information for parents. When it comes to failure, kids fall into four categories.

  • Success-oriented kids “love learning for the sake of learning and see failure as a way to improve their ability rather than a slight on their value as a human being.” This a very healthy response to failure.
  • Over-strivers are closet achievers. They “avoid failure by succeeding—but only with herculean effort motivated solely by the fear that even one failure will confirm their greatest fear: that they’re not perfect.” These kids tend to underplay the effort they’re putting into things. They tell their friends they didn’t study for a test or they never practice their instrument even though they prepare and practice a great deal – more than could be reasonably expected.
  • Failure-avoiders don’t try to succeed at all. They refuse to participate, make excuses or lie about not doing their homework, or they take on clearly impossible tasks that they will never finish. Deep down they fear they are incapable of doing well so they save face by not doing anything.
  • Failure-accepters believe deeply that they are unskilled, dumb, or incompetent. Any failure confirms their belief. Even when they do well, they will tend to attribute their success to somebody else.

Kids in the last two categories will tend to focus on areas they are very good at and avoid anything that is difficult, while success-oriented kids are willing to try things outside their comfort zone.  Parents in the last two categories tend to punish their kids for failure while the parents of success-oriented kids tend to praise success but don’t punish failure.

As Catholic parents, let’s remember, too, the grace of failure. When I look back on my own failures, I can see the hand of God at work. Failures help us look at ourselves honestly and help us accept our human limitations. Even when I’ve followed the will of God, I have sometimes failed. This might make me wonder why God would want me to try something if I was going to be hurt in the process. I’ve learned that God calls us to try, not necessarily succeed. But when we have been motivated by love for God and neighbor, we will always learn something from failure – about ourselves, the world, and our relationships.

Intentional Links: The Anxious Child

the anxious child

An increasing number of children and teens are being diagnosed with anxiety issues. What is the reason for this trend and what can do we do to protect our kids from it?

How Big a Problem Is Anxiety by Robert Leahy over at Psychology Today.  “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s. We are getting more anxious every decade.” Note the possible reasons he offers for this increase in anxiety: a decrease in “social connectedness — we tend to move more, change jobs, participate less in civic organizations, and we are less likely to participate in religious communities. People are far less likely to get married, more likely to delay getting married, and more likely to live alone. All of these factors can contribute to worry, uncertainty, anxiety and depression.”

Normal Anxiety on  This website is a great source of information and tips. This article link explains clearly what normal anxiety looks like at each developmental stage of childhood. It points out that anxiety is actually a necessary part of growing up. Kids just need our support in confronting the source of the anxiety and learning to make sense of it. The article then distinguishes symptoms of problem anxiety: if your child is constantly “keyed up,” experiences physical suffering because of her anxiety (headaches, upset stomach, insomnia), or avoids stressful situations, then she may be experiencing a toxic level of anxiety.

Are We Modeling Anxiety?  “Children learn how to act and react significantly based on the “models” in their world (parents, teachers, peers, siblings, etc). Research has shown that some parents of anxious children, especially if they are anxious themselves, have an anxious interpretation of the world, or view it as frightening. When parents hold this view of the world as threatening, they likely will suggest that their children avoid situations rather than approach them. . . Many parents want to protect their child from anxiety, but then kids don’t have opportunities to learn new skills or practice them.”

Understanding Anxious AttachmentOne of the greatest sources of protection against chronic anxiety that we can give to our child is a secure attachment to us. The scientific literature shows a clear correlation between a weak parent-child attachment and increased anxiety. In particular, children who develop an anxious attachment style to their primary caregiver will tend to experience heightened social anxiety (fear of negative evaluation,  people pleasing, distress in new social situations).