Love is never wasted

Some time ago, I came across an anguished post by a devoted mom. She had spent an entire week teaching her kids an in-depth, hands-on, cross-curricular lesson on the major watercolorists of western art. Her kids were enthralled, and seemed to really internalize not only the beauty of the work, but also some of the history, the technical side, and even the biographies of the artists they studied.

Next week? They said, “Watercolor? What’s watercolor?”

Poor mom. Kids are crumbs, and that’s just a fact. But the thing that struck me is that the woman berated herself over having wasted so much time with the lesson.

How wrong she was! There is no such thing as wasted time with your children. There is such a thing as time spent badly — time you spend belittling them, for instance. But there is no such thing as loving, attentive time that is wasted. This is true even if the kids have no conscious memory of the event, even if it’s only five minutes later (see: Kids are crumbs).

As I’ve said before, kids are “not empty mason jars waiting to be filled up with the perfect combination of ingredients. We’re making people, here, not soup.”

There are two related mistakes we can make when we’re raising children. One is that we can imagine that it’s all within our control, and that if we simply add in all the right elements, we’re guaranteed to end up with a happy, confident, faithful, moral, self-sufficient, grounded, hard-working, honest human being. (It doesn’t help that a lot of self-styled experts make a tidy living by all but promising success if you just follow their guidelines.)  The truth is, we can do ev-ry-thing-right and guess what? Kid still has free will. Kid still has specific brain chemistry. Kid still runs into a unique set of experiences, and kid processes them in a unique way according to ten thousand unpredictable variables.

So the first thing to remember is that, when we make parenting choices, we’re not putting in a customized order. It’s a much more delicate and artful and hazardous and beautiful process than that, because it is an act of love, and love can’t be reduced to supply and demand.

The second mistake is to imagine that, if we don’t see the immediate, expected results, it was a wasted effort. This is the folly the mom above fell prey to. She thought, when she was teaching her kids about Winslow Homer, that she was just teaching them about Winslow Homer. I love me some Winslow Homer, but I know that it’s much more important for the kids to learn about other things — things like, “Beauty is important and worth spending time on.” “Your mother loves you and thinks you are worth spending time on.”

Please note that these are things that you can teach by following an intensive Montessori-based course on the history of watercolor, or you can teach it by hanging around on a trampoline telling stupid jokes, or you can teach it by driving the kid to all his hideously tedious T-ball games all weekend long, or you can teach it by . . . well, you get the idea. Time and attention. These are the two things that kids need, and there are a million different ways you can provide them. This is also because time and attention are acts of love, and you cannot count all the ways that love can be expressed.

The child may be the kind of person who accepts and recognizes your love and attention immediately, saying things like, “I had a nice day with you, Mama.” Or he may be the other kind of kid, who doesn’t seem to care at all.  He may not think twice about these things until he has children of his own. He may be the kind of kid who thinks you’re a terrible parent, until one day, at age 50, he had a sudden recollection of a thing you did, and realizes, “She loved me so much!”

There is so much mystery in the human psyche and how it develops. We can work ourselves into a panic fretting that we haven’t given properly, and that our children aren’t receiving properly; and half the time, we’ll be right. Truly, the only way we can be at peace is if, along with doing our best, we remember to turn our children’s lives over to God, over and over again. God’s generosity works both ways: He is generous in what He gives us, and He is generous in how He receives, as well. When we turn our children over to God, He will not let our efforts go to waste. This is because God is love, and when we show love to the people in our care, God will not let that love go to waste. 

***

This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2016.

Five Catholic books for littlest kids (and also for their parents)

The books we read as young kids stay with us for a lifetime, so I’m always on the lookout for books that not only have attractive and engaging illustrations, but convey powerful and lasting truths.

I’m especially careful when those books are explicitly about our Faith. Here are a few of my current favorites in that category. They not only tell my kids things I want them to know about God, but I’ve found them moving and engaging myself.

Read my list at The Catholic Weekly

17 ways to make confession easier for your kids

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate anxiety and help kids even learn to look forward to confession . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.  

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)

50+ Gifts our ten kids loved: The 2018 list

It’s fina-lully here! My Christmas gift suggestion list for 2018. These are all (with a few exceptions, which are noted) gifts our own kids received and enjoyed. They are in no particular order, and they are almost all from Amazon. Hoping to get an Etsy/handmade list up soon.

I’ll add links to lists from previous years as soon as I can. I have to remove a bunch of defunct links, boo.

Okay, here we go!

Cosmic shock phaser light spinner

It has pulsing, multicolored lights and makes space laser noises. Everybody loves this gun, not just the three-year-old. Sometimes we sit around at night and talk about why it’s not more annoying than it is. It’s a space laser mystery!

Metallic paint markers

Satisfyin’. Paint markers draw on just about any surface, including shell, rock, glass, ceramic, and metal. These are bright and shiny and would be great for making ornaments or personalizing gifts.

Tales from Grimm book

Every household should have a copy. Wanda Ga’g’s storytelling and illustrations together are the fairy tales everyone should know. Includes a few head scratchers and all the classics.

Lightweight Brother sewing machine

A real sewing machine, not a toy, but lightweight and compact. Nice and simple for beginners. I’m a complete moron and I can use this machine.

Dragon wall decals

The instructions are kind of baffling, so we couldn’t figure out how to make them three-dimensional like in the picture, but they’re pretty neat as plain silhouettes. They stick well.

Animal print hoodies

If you are thirteen, this hoodie will give your life meaning. It’s a lightweight nylon, so not thick or warm, but look at that fricken lion!

Body board

A good board for the price. Lots more patterns available.

Galaxy skater dress

We’ve bought many CowCow dresses in the past, and this one may be the coolest. It flares wonderfully, and the colors hold up after years of washing. CowCow dresses come in a bewildering number of patterns, some of them truly bizarre. The material is a thick, stretchy synthetic fabric, almost like swim suit material.

Totoro crossbody coin/phone  purse

Just plain cute, and pretty sturdy. My kid uses it as a change purse. It has a good long strap.

Turntable with software for recording, editing and converting your vinyl Audio in MP3 format

Decent turntable for the price. Doesn’t need constant rekajiggering like some.

Flower headbands

More of a party favor than a present, but if you have a lot of daughters, won’t you please buy a set of these headbands and have them wear them to Christmas Mass? Do it for the little old ladies.

Spinner ring

An excellent ring for a fidgeter. The gold part spins noiselessly around the silver part. Sturdy!

Thor Ragnarok standup

Look, I dunno. Sometimes we just buy what’s on the wish list. It is life-sized, hooray!

Bricky blocks hat

I think this was on previous lists. We’ve bought more than one. Take your Legos with you!

cardboard screws for building

I bought a bag of these on a whim over the summer, but my kids did not actually end up using them, to my surprise. They are plastic screws designed for attaching cardboard together, so you can build all kinds of awesome things, with moving parts if you like. If you have a kid who’s always building stuff and getting frustrated with the limitations of tape, this could be awesome.

Sandart moving picture

Note “Wonderful Homelife” book in the background, so you know it’s good! Just a pretty thing to play with. Tilt the frame to change the landscape. It’s soothing and pleasant. Choice of several colors.

Hellboy

I guess we’re going to just keep buying these on request.  The art is fab and the story is good and weird. Hellboy seems to be Catholic, by the way.

King of Tokyo board game

Again, we haven’t gotten around to playing this yet, but I bought it because it was recommended by so many friends. It’s supposed to be easy to learn, suitable for people who aren’t super into gaming and fun for all ages, even little guys. We’ll crack it open over vacation and report back!

Archangel metal keepsake box

Good and heavy. This makes a nice First Communion present, too.

Animal Crossing

Cute, kinda weird. Easy enough for my six-year-old to play. You don’t absolutely have to know how to read, but it helps. Not terribly noisy, but the creatures make strange twittering noises instead of talking.

The Art of Spirited Away

Purty!

Lightning earrings

As advertised! Girls just wanna have pink lightening earrings.

Walkie talkies

Okay, we have bought a lot of walkie talkie sets in our day. A lot. These have held up the best. They are on the small side, but they are not toys. They’re easy to use, stand up to a lot of abuse, and don’t gobble batteries. We haven’t tested the limits of the range, but the reviews say 16 miles.

Mini arcade machine

*sigh* This is not a good toy. It’s a bad toy. But oh, do they love it. It has dozens, maybe hundreds of terrible, pointless little games with squalid little graphics and meandering, senseless tunes. THEY LOVE IT.

Godzilla t-shirt

SKREEEONK!

The Art of Over the Garden Wall

I feel REALLY OKAY about my kids being into Over the Garden Wall. One of the better additions to our family culture. And it is the prettiest damn thing I have ever seen on a TV screen.

Doodling tablet

This is not razzle dazzle, but for the price, it’s a fine little digital sketch pad. Press the button and the lines disappear in a wink, which is satisfying. Good for car trips, waiting rooms, etc. It feels very flimsy but is surprisingly long-lived.

Stuffed anteater

One of our kids got in an anteater groove, or whatever you’d call it, for a while. So we know our plush anteaters. This one is a fine specimen. Very plushy and huggable.

Crocheted mermaid tail blanket

Cozy and super soft. Comes in several colors, and it has a little mermaid charm on a chain as a bonus gift. For that one kid, it’s perfect.

Sacred Heart painted tin wall ornament

This is actually mine. I got it with my birfday money. It’s way bigger than I was expecting. It always makes me think of the Flannery O’Connor line: “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Chronograph watch

A solid and handsome watch. Lights up.

Tea set in a basket

Cute and durable. Note: This is not a full-sized tea set. The cloth it’s sitting on is the size of a kerchief. The kid we got this for saw that as a bonus, luckily, because smaller is cuter; just know what you’re getting!

Moon shoes

YAAAASSSSS! YES YES YES! These are just as awesome as I remember from my childhood. Little trampolines for your feet.

Lace-up ballet shoes

Silky and pretty. They have little leather pads on the sole, and you can wind the ribbons around your ankles and tie bows, just like a real ballerina.

Stranger Things Eleven plushie

Wish list is wish list.

Butterfly flower tea set

So, this one is an actual full-sized tea set. It’s plastic, but not flimsy. Melissa and Doug really hits that sweet spot of bright and appealing without shading into, you know, Lisa Frank fever dream.

Celtic knot earrings

Just an attractive pair of earrings. This is from one of Amazon’s handmade shops, which I don’t fully understand, but there it is.

Koala and baby

Take if from parents who looked at an awful lot of plush koalas: this is a nice one. It’s not huge, but it’s soft and reasonably hefty.

Sculpey

Always a favorite. Every so often, all through the year, I find another little batch of tiny little octopuses, lollipops, and bowls of miniscule fruit and whatnot baking in the oven.

Pair it with:

sculpting tools

To make all kinds of details and textures in your clay. Real tools, not toys.

Bath fountain rocket

OH THE BABY. Ahem. This is a neat toy. Fill it up and it empties itself in a dome of water. Fascinating for the little guys. We’ve found that TOMY toys hold up very, very well to hard use, and don’t get moldy easily, either.

Oversized tiger plush

The time was finally right. The time for that kid to get a giant tiger to lounge on.

Betrayal at House on the Hill game

A cooperative strategy game, unpredictable and spooky. Kind of like Scooby Doo with better graphics. You gradually build the map of the house as you explore it, but can you really trust everyone? (NO.) Doesn’t drag on too, too long. Good party game.

Fairytale spinner game

This is the best game for little kids I’ve ever seen. Suitable for pre-readers. You spin the spinner to collect different elements of a story (a scene, a hero, a magical helper, a rival, a magical object, transportation, and a treasure), and the first one who collects them all gets to tell a story using them all. It’s adorable. The pieces are very stout and durable cardboard, and they are just lovely. Just lovely. Of all the games they want me to play, I’m least unwilling to play this one. 2-4 players

LOTR Boxed set

Not illustrated or luxurious, but a great price for the set. Nothing like a boxed set.

Wedding Traditions from Around the World coloring book

I hope you know about Dover coloring books. There is one for every conceivable interest, and they’re all done in that same blandly reassuring style, with tons of carefully-researched detail. Dover is awesome.

Hearts and Butterflies wooden beading set (two pack)

Can I just pause a moment and express my delight at the nice little wooden boxes that Melissa and Doug sets come in? They really hold up. You can’t depend on anyone, but you can depend on Melissa and Doug wooden boxes. *sniff* Anyway, these are pleasant wooden beads painted carefully with a good gloss for that kid who loves to string beads.

Avatar: The Last Airbender DVD set

My cabbages!!!

Sequin backpack

Most popular backpack in the whole school.

Hats By Charlotte

We actually have the Samus one. These are soft and strong and comfortable, and I enjoyed communicating with the knitter.

Be Not Afraid temporary tattoo in JPII’s handwriting

In JP II’s own handwriting. So much better than “mung bean” or whatever it is you planned to tattoo on your unsuspecting dermis, isn’t it?

Wall-mounted speed bag set

Pretty good. I don’t know how this would stand up to someone serious about boxing, but for a kid who just needs to hit stuff from time to time, it’s been doing the job.

 

And that’s it for this year! Hope you find something good.

Parenting strategies I’ve changed … because I’ve changed

My children range in age from 20 to three – almost a big enough span to comprise two generations. Naturally, the older kids think the younger ones get away with murder. The love to talk about how strict I used to be, how inflexible, how unreasonable.

And they’re right. It’s not just that I had more energy to hold the reins tightly when I was a young mom; it’s that I had a very different idea of how kids should be treated. I was wrong about a lot of things, and much of that wrongness stemmed from wrong ideas I had about myself – about my self-worth, about my value, about my capabilities.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Five pieces of advice for pastors (and a thank-you)

Last week, a priest responded to the article “Five Rules for a Royal Bride” with a humble request: “I wish Catholics in the pews would write us new pastors and new ordained priests advices like these! Y’all help us to be men of God, men for others, and men that have joy in their lives! Send me your five advices before I become pastor . . .”

Can do.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by photographer Matthew Lomanno, part of his visual essay North Country Priest. Used with permission.

. . . and they’ll never let me forget it

Whenever my daughter Irene isn’t where we expect her to be, someone says darkly, “She’s probably sitting on the floor, playing with blocks.”

This is because, several years ago, she insisted on being the one to run into the city library and fetch the middle school kid while the rest of us waited in the car. And waited.  And waited.

And waited.

It was punishingly hot, everyone was hungry and angry, the baby was screaming, and I was too low on gas to run the air conditioner. I didn’t have enough big kids in the car to stay with the little kids while I went in myself, and I didn’t have a quarter for the parking meter anyway, so we had to wait. And wait. And wait. No kid. Eventually I sent a second kid in to find the kid I had sent in to find the other kid; and when that didn’t work I sent a third — no, a fourth kid in. We had all read the story about Clever Elsie, and nobody liked where this was headed.

But no, just a few minutes after he had gone in, that last kid emerged with all the others in tow. He reported indignantly that he had found Irene just sitting on the floor playing with blocks. Just playing with blocks, while we waited!

Irene, of course, defended herself. There was a very good reason! She couldn’t find the first kid, and she looked in the computer alcoves, in the manga section, by the fish tanks, everywhere a boy might be. Having done her due diligence, she then sensibly wondered if maybe he was in the bathroom in the children’s room upstairs. But the bathroom door was locked, and no one answered when she knocked — a telltale sign that it must be her brother inside, because he never answers when you knock. So she plopped herself down on the floor outside the bathroom and passed the time by playing with blocks until the unreliable crumb would decide to stroll himself out and stop inconveniencing everyone.

What she didn’t know was that the children’s bathroom is always locked, and you have to go ask the librarian for a key. No one answered her knock because no one was in there. So there she was, blissfully building little castles outside an empty bathroom, while the rest of us steamed our brains out in the car while the baby screamed and screamed. And we’ll never let her forget it.

We cherish memories of abject failure by our loves ones, even more than memories of perfect birthday cakes, golden hours reading fairy tales, or happy meals with laughter and song. Why? Because twisting the knife is fun! I don’t know. I can only imagine how many happy evenings Adam whiled away, reminding Eve of that one tiny little mistake she made that one time, years and years and years ago. Never mind all the good times, all the hard work and dedication, all the nice loincloths she made for the family. No one wants to reminisce about the day she invented lentils. Nope, it’s always, “Hey, remember that time you doomed mankind?”

Parents, especially, are popular targets of this selective memory. My kids, Irene included, live for the chance to remind me that I once picked up the kids at school and drove all the way into the next town before I even noticed I forgot Sophia. On Valentine’s Day! They always forget that I was nine months pregnant and it was a certifiable miracle I could remember how to use a steering wheel, much less count heads, and I did go back and get her. It’s not as if I just washed my hands of her and got on with my life without Sophia like some kind of bad parent. Nope, it’s just The Day Mama Forgot Sophia . . . On Valentine’s Day. And they’ll never let me forget it.

Then there was the time when my own parents went into what I remember as a long and completely unreasonable tirade about careless children who knock over their cups at meals, causing untold frustration and inconvenience for everyone else at the table, who just want to sit down at the end of a long day and enjoy a meal without having to jump up and clean something every five minutes, if people would just be a little bit more considerate and take the extra two seconds it takes to move their cup out of the way of their elbow so it doesn’t get knoc–

and then, of course, my father knocked over his cup, and my mother knocked over her cup. It was glorious. Glorious. And we’ll never let them forget it.

Now you tell me about your public shame. I want to know what they’ll never forget about you!

6 Life lessons from cooking for kids

1. Sometimes, when you open a package of pork, it stinks like rotten eggs. You will think at first that it’s gone bad, but just let it sit for several minutes while the gas dissipates, and then smell it again. If it smells fine, then you’ve just witnessed “off-gassing,” which you get when pork is vacuum packed. You can also rinse the pork off, and that should get rid of the smell so you can go ahead and cook your dinner.

Lesson: Sometimes, all it takes for a crisis to become manageable is a little time …

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op? God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them – not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them.

Read the rest of my latest in my new marriage and family life column for Parable Magazine.

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)

What does it mean to be present at Mass?

The great revelation: Whoever we are, whatever we’ve got, it’s still not enough. Whatever preparation we’ve done, it’s not enough. However attentive we are, it’s not enough. There is great peace in letting that knowledge sink into your heart: We’re not enough, and never can be — no, not even if we’re a shoeless Nigerian toiling through the Mangrove to get to Mass.

But Christ is all.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: “Church Pew with Worshipers” by Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons