Conversation about Conversations – Part 2

Resources for the Home

In my last post, I promised to share resources that help parents encourage conversation in the home.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to get back to this post, between a major milestone, demands at work, and a household of sickness.  In the midst of all that, circumstances led to private conversations with each child about an important issue in their life. Then there were the usual conversations about the minutia of life, with a few brief moments of intentional connecting with each child.  And through it all, there is me, living with the nagging feeling that I am too busy, and not spending enough time with my kids!

Still, setting the guilt aside, I realize that these moments of conversations are for me some of the most enjoyable parts of parenting. More importantly, I know my children feel cared for when I take time to really listen and engage with them.

Conversation goals with children and teens

I have always thought of conversation as a learned skill, and see honest conversation as a gift we can give our children. Scripture talks about God knowing our innermost being, of God hemming us in ‘behind and before.’ (Psalm 139). There is nowhere we can flee from a God committed to loving us, just like the bunny that is unable to escape his mother’s love, in Margaret Wise’s well-loved children’s story, The Runaway Bunny.

Scripture tells us God knows us.  And that is comforting, intellectually. But how do we come to experience ourselves as known, and loved?  For me personally, the experience of being known and loved by God has come through prayer, which is of course conversation (talking, listening, focus on mutual presence and through it all: honesty).

Most of my conversation goals with my children come from my experiences in prayer.  Also influential is a book I read by Toronto-based child and family therapist, Jennifer Kolari, called Connected Parenting.  The book describes, among other things, how to build loving bonds between you and your child through empathetic conversations.  I read it ages ago, but it continues to subtly shape my thinking and practice.

Here is a rough description of how I would like our children to feel in conversation with me.  Namely that:

  • Mum genuinely is interested in what I think and how I feel
  • Mum is willing to talk with me about hard things
  • Mum is willing to listen
  • Mum values me
  • Mum and I can heal do healing and constructive things through conversations
  • Mum is proud of me and thinks I am a cool person

My hope is that our children will not only learn how to have conversations, in general, but that experience of being loved through conversation might also open them to experiencing loving conversation with God.  Whether or not I am succeeding in any of this, I have no idea. Regardless, I am committed to trying!

As a Christian mum, another one of my goals is to introduce faith as one of the many things we talk about as a family. Just as I want my children to gain the words to talk about their feelings, about their problems and about ideas, so I want them to acquire a language of faith.  One of the way that language acquisition happens is through conversation with a parent or close mentor who already speaks the language.  And, as mentioned in the last post, learning to speak about faith is part of the acquisition and development of faith itself.

Aside from the conversations that happen organically over the course of the week, here are some of my intentional practices:

Resources:

Encouraging dinnertime conversation:

We are lucky to be able to eat all our dinners together.  Our longtime practice has been to do a simple review of the day, each person sharing the best part and hardest part of the day.  When they were younger, to get things going and to learn about emotions, I would ask the kids to pick cards that described two to three emotions they felt during the day. (You can find that post here.)  We also have conversation cards, to broaden the topics we speak about as a family, and to build bonds by learning more about one another.  Some of the sample questions we have asked are as simple as “What is your favourite food that grandma makes?” to more obviously spiritual “If you could go and witness any moment in Jesus’s life, which would it be?” to downright revelatory: “If you could ask God any question, what would it be.” If you google “conversation cards Christian parenting,” a ton of free resources will come up such as this and this.  It’s up to you as parent to figure out which questions to ask in your home.

Using guided conversations around faith:

So, Christian devotionals.  Nothing revolutionary here. And it is not always effortless. We are are 24 entries into a new one right now, and it’s just meh. Our kids have loved the Adventures in Odyssey table devotional, and we have several of those. Overall, our experience with devotionals have been really hit and miss.

What is important to me is that there is a least some time in the week when we are having a family conversation about faith, no matter how brief, or, occasionally, how bored or confused.  The scintillating discussions are awesome, but I suspect the mundane and brief ones might matter too.

And to be perfectly up front: it doesn’t happen every day.  Sometimes we have been weeks without it, especially when we are running off to other activities.  But we always come back to it, and keep trying.

Seizing ordinary opportunities for conversations about faith:

This is really just about remembering to pay attention. If your kid asks a faith related question, don’t disappoint them by failing to engage!  This might unintentionally communicate that questions about faith don’t matter.  If you don’t have time, acknowledge the importance of the question and agree to find time later to pick up the conversation.

And if, of course, your child asks a question that stumps you (happens all the time around here), try not to close the conversation before it starts by only saying: “I don’t know.”  How about: “I don’t know.  What do you think?”  Or: “I wonder who might be able to help us find the answer?”  Wondering questions are always good. And it’s okay not to have all the answers.  I sure don’t have all the answers, and I am supposed to be a Professional Religious Person!

Creating extraordinary opportunities for conversations about faith:

Is there a parent/child Christian retreat at your Church or at your child’s summer camp?  Seize it. Is there a learning event that would interest your child, that you can attend together? Grab it.  Is there an opportunity to invite your tween into a conversation with other adults on faith?  Invite them in.  Recently, I took our eldest to a convent for a spiritual retreat. I thought she would be bored to tears; instead, she really welcomed the experience of silence.

When we move outside our comfort zones during these liminal moments, God sometimes does surprising things. Certainly, I am learning not to underestimate my offspring. Or God.

This desire to create extraordinary opportunities may be more important during the teen years, as the cognitive capacity of  your child grows and there is the desire to verbally and intellectually make sense of life, the world and faith.

Inviting others into the family conversation:

This is important for teens.

This is a new idea that we are trying on in our household, so I don’t have much insight to offer!  But the research suggests that for faith to “stick”, teens benefit from 5 Christian mentors investing in their lives in some way.   That person might be a youth pastor, a godparent, a trusted friend who is a regular feature in the family.  I will share more on the research on this one in a later post.

 

Our Family’s Holy Week Practices

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As a pastor, preparations for church Holy Week services consume a lot of my time and head space right now.  As a mum, we have our own family practices that – because they are annual – we just naturally fall into.  I thought I would share some of our family practices here, in the hopes that you may gain some inspiration for your own home.

Signs and Symbols

Just like we decorate for Christmas, in our household we decorate for the other seasons in the Church Year (especially feast days and holy seasons like Advent, Lent, and Easter-tide).  I like there to be a consonance between the signs and symbols in the church, and the signs and symbols in our home.

We have an alcove that I guess you could call a home “altar” where we decorate for the Church season. Here’s what we have up for Lent:

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homealtar

I’ve collected our “signs and symbols” over the years – mostly from dollar stores and thrift stores, although some of the treasures are ones made by me and the kids.  The art is all pretty much from printable downloads from artists on Etsy.com.  I store our seasonal decorations in bins, just like we do our Christmas decorations.  Now that they are older, the kids help decorate, just like they do at Christmas.

I know my positive, affective associations with Christmas are shaped in part by the sights and smells and sounds I associate with that season.  I hope that in a very humble and gentle way, these signs and symbols from Lent and Holy week will be one more thing that ties our children’s affections to God, in that same way that the Transcendent sometimes impinges upon our consciousness through a piece of choral music, or a stained glass window, or a fiery sunset.

Food and Fellowship

As a child and teenager, I was always fascinated by the Jewish observances around food, and especially the linking of special foods with special Festivals. Once I became Chief Cook in our household, with power and authority over the menu, I began wondering about ways to tie in special foods with special season of the Church Year, noticing all of my own positive associations with special foods at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.

Turns out, there are already many historic associations with the Church year that I simply didn’t know about!

Maundy Thursday

In 10th century England, clergy used to hand out Pax cakes to their parishioners on Palm Sunday as an encouragement to extend peace to one another and to their neighbours.  I have found some traditional recipes, but they are a bit complicated for me.  So this is the one I use:

Pax Cakes Recipe

Beat one egg.
Add and beat until smooth:
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons salad oil (salad oil is any vegetable oil)
� cup whole wheat flour
� cup wheat germ
� cup white flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
� teaspoon soda
� salt

Grease a heated skillet or griddle. Pour batter from jug onto the hot griddle in 3 to 5 cm diameter dollops. Turn the pax cakes when bubbles show.

Heat on the second side until brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cinnamon may be added if desired. Makes 30-50 pax cakes.

Variation: Use 1 cup white flour, instead of combining whole wheat flour, wheat germ, and white flour.

Good Friday

On Good Friday, in the morning, we eat hot cross buns.  That is the first day we begin to enjoy them, and then continue eating the buns all through Eastertide.  One legend has it that 12th century English monk dreamed up these delicious treats as a way of honouring Good Friday, with the cross being the obvious symbol.

We also eat fish as our main meal that day.  This dates back to the the old traditions of fasting during Lent, which ranged from some kind of daily fasting, to fasting on certain days of the week, to fasting from meat on Fridays.  In some traditions, the diet for Holy week fasting (ie. one meal a day) was the xerophagiæ, which was a diet of dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables.  Fish was often allowed for the meal, as the fast excluded only flesh meat.

We haven’t practiced any kind of fast as a family, and this is mostly because I haven’t figured out how to meaningfully explain it to our children when they were younger, and because I myself get lightheaded and can’t work well without something for breakfast. But this year, our 12 year old understood the notion of “giving something up” for Lent for first time, as a meaningful spiritual exercise, so we might revisit it next year, and at least extend the practice to Fish Fridays in Lent.

Easter Sunday

A friend of mine taught me how to make pascha bread, and so that has become our Easter morning tradition. Unfortunately, since I leave the house at the crack of dawn, I don’t get to join the family in the meal; but I like that when our kids wake up, there are not just chocolate easter eggs waiting at the table for them, but a meal that is unique to the resurrection celebrations.

paschabread
Pascha bread

Lamb, a traditional food for Easter, doesn’t fit our budget, and anyways we are lucky in that my husband’s usually gathers this day, and so cooking is all taken care of.

Simnel cake is another lovely traditional food at Easter if you are baker (which I am not). It has marzipan balls representing the 12 disciples (minus Judas, which I guess makes only 11 marzipan balls!). If I felt equal to the task, we would eat Simnel cake on Easter Sunday or Monday.

Devotions and Worship

We do daily devotions at suppertime and during Lent have been doing the special devotional given out at our church.  But during Holy Week, we enter a special time of family reflections.  We have a Holy Week Egg tree devotional that we use, that I love because of the reflections and the visual reminders is offers:

eggtree

The artist is from Etsy, and is called Jesse Tree Treasures.  This was a birthday gift one year, as it is not cheap.

When the kids were younger, we used Resurrection Easter eggs, for Holy Week, which you can make or buy.

resurrections-eggs21-1024x768

Or, you can simply find a special devotional online to use in the home to mark this special week.  Here’s a simple one I found online this morning.

And, of course, worship with our faith community is an important part of this coming week.  For us, it means Palm Sunday as a family, Good Friday, the Easter Walk on Holy Saturday, and the big party on Easter Sunday.

Usually our kids go down for the kids’ program on Good Friday; just today our eldest asked if she could stay up with the adults.  She’s ready, I think.

Can’t believe how time flies!

Remember: there is no right or wrong way to mark this holy time in your home.  You know your family best!  Be creative.  And have fun with it!

St. Patrick’s Feast Day

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It’s March 17th, and bars around the world are serving green beer.

In our home, we are marking the day with our annual Irish coddle, a heart-clogging stew of potatoes, onions, bacon, sausage garlic and beef broth. It’s the only time we make it – in the hopes that the children will associate St. Patrick’s with this family meal in the same way I link turkey to Thanksgiving dinner. We are intentionally trying to build a family tradition.

coddle
It tastes and smells better than it looks.

And it’s a tradition that we are trying to create not so much because we are Irish (we are Irish in the same way that we are Scottish and English: barely).  We have made this celebration a family tradition because Patrick is a Christian saint whose story is inspiring and worth re-telling, year by year. Plus, it’s a party, and why shouldn’t religious things be associated with good food and good fun?

We celebrate the Church Year in our home, as a way of marking time other than by the school year calendar. I like the cyclical nature of the Church Year, with the holy seasons like Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter shaping our family practices, and the party days like St. Patrick’s giving us reasons for practicing hospitality and inviting over friends, and fellowshipping over a fine meal.

A feast for the eyes:

Just like we decorate our homes for Christmas, so we decorate our home for the different seasons of the Church Year.  This often includes Saints days like St. Patrick’s.

shamrock
The feast begins.

As much as possible, I like there to be consonance between the seasonal colours at church and in our home, so there is the visual carry over from worship in community, and our communal life at home.

Thrift stores and dollar stores are my best friends. Plus, small plastic bins for storing these treasures year to year.

Fun and Fellowship

When our children were younger, we would often play games associated with whatever gospel story or feast day we were celebrating. On St. Patrick’s day, for example, a very popular one was finding the dollar store plastic green coins Mike hid around the house, then exchanging them for the pot of gold (dessert).  We still eat gummy worms with our dessert in memory of the fanciful tale of St. Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, but this year we skipped the treasure hunt. Nobody complained, which is a reliable sign that the time for that game has passed. This year, the older ones were more interested in joining in adult conversations, and that is pretty wonderful too.

The key thing? I want my children to have warm associations with their faith. I want these celebrations to provide them with a treasure trove of good memories, and memories that go deep because they are rich with familiar tastes, sights, sounds and stories.

The Stories We Tell

As part of our Feast day celebrations, we always take a moment to read the bible story of the event we are remembering, or read a storybook or watch a video of the person we are recalling.

Since I left our usual St. Patrick storybook at the office, we watched this video instead.

It held the attention of the tweens in the room, and was easy enough to follow for the younger ones. It also generated some good discussion, including our youngest wondering how Patrick knew it was God who spoke, and not just a strange dream because of something he ate. This prompted a little out-loud thinking about how God guides, and some suggestions as to why Patrick drew the conclusions he did. There was also some wondering about whether we would have readily gone back to the country that had enslaved us. Our son concluded that “It would have to be from God” for him to go, but if God said “go,” then he’d go.

Then we ate green jello and worms, which is often how these things end: with laughter and too much sugar.  Just like every good celebration.

Edited to add:  this photo from five years ago just showed up on my Facebook timeline.  What ridiculously cute kids, eh?  And, I see we were still eating green jello back then.

oldays.PNG

 

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

fotorcreated

This book came recommended to me by my friend Tiffany Robinson, and it has in turn become one of my top suggestions to mums and dads looking for parenting books and for colleagues looking for resources for parenting small groups.

blessings

The author, Dr. Wendy Mogel, is an American clinical psychologist and internationally renowned writer and speaker on parenting. She also has an interesting story of faith.

Although Mogel’s parents were Jewish, they did not raise her in the tradition. Mogel discovered Judaism later in adulthood, when a friend invited her to a children’s Rosh Hashanah service. She went to the service thinking of herself as a cultural anthropologist, but left with “something stirred inside me.” That brief outing marked the first step in a journey that eventually led to her embrace of the Jewish faith.

The book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is the product of her experience as a clinical psychologist and her discovery of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, with much of the content drawn from years of teaching a Jewish parenting class at her Temple.

Mogel believes that the Torah speaks powerfully into a milieu where parents wrestle against a consumeristic and individualistic culture,  and where children are reared in a performance-oriented and anxiety-producing environment. She writes:

Judaism provides a very different kind of perspective on parenting. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, it teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements but in our small, everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don’t have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world – we can take what is valuable from it without being wholly consumed.

Three cornerstone principles of Jewish living are moderation, celebration and sanctification Through these principles we can achieve a balanced life, no matter what culture we happen to inhabit…By applying them to our family life, my husband, my children, and I have found some mooring and meaning in an unsteady world. In my professional life, I’ve seen families transformed by this new perspective on their problem in living. (34)

That quote is from the opening chapter, and in the rest of the book she delivers on her promise of a parenting approach that is both liberating and commonsense.

The table of contents offers a good picture of the kind of topics she tackles:

Capture

She touches on everything from picky-eaters to chores to discipline problems to the futility of pious lectures, to teaching children to manage boring or frightening conversations with adults, to helping your child manage their yetzer hara.  [I know.  I had never heard of yetzer hara, either. You’ll have to read the book to find out.]

As a parent, I loved this book. (I say this as the kind of person who reads a book every time she faces a parenting dilemma she has no idea how to handle. So, I’ve read a lot of parenting books.) This is one of the few parenting resources I’ve read that didn’t make me feel more inadequate or more burdened than when I started it. Hopeful, is how I would describe my mood when I finished the final chapter.

As a pastor, you can see the possibilities.  Mogel not only offers excellent clinical advice, she ties it with the Torah, modeling a way of applying the wisdom of holy scriptures to daily living. For pastors wanting a resource for a parenting small group, this book helps lay people connect their parenting with their faith.

The other bonus: the book comes with a parents’ discussion guide.  As a pastor, you don’t even have to build the questions.

My only caveat, as a pastor: not everyone loves to read.  In a large church, this is no big-deal, since if you advertise a book study, people will self select. But in a small or mid-size church, you may not have tons of families. Your small group may well be all the families in your church!  Odds are, not all those parents will love to read, or have time to read.

I have gotten around this in the past by going through a summary each week of the content of the chapter, so that people get the nuts and bolts of what Mogel discussed. The discussion questions are broad enough that everyone can still participate, but…it’s imperfect.

I had summary notes on my old laptop that died; sometime in the next year I will take time to dig around for them, and if I find them, I will post them here.

Helping families celebrate Lent: Ready resources for busy pastors

celebratingseasons2We’re heading into the season of Lent. In the Church world, this usually means a menu of adult education options and special preaching series.

But what about families?  How do we encourage parents to keep a holy Lent in their homes?

When I worked as associate in Family Ministries, I always made sure we had special seasonal events for families. We gathered over a meal – usually on a Sunday – bringing all the generations together. After a short time of teaching, families then worked together on assembling a take-home project. The idea was they would work on the devotional or service project as a family during the Holy Season. The projects weren’t wildly original (think Advent Wreaths, Lenten Trees, Prayer projects and so on) but they did offer a resource and a reminder to parents that hey, we should be doing this seasonal journey with our kids, too.  

But maybe you are not on a multi-staff team, or you serve in a small church. Your volunteers are few, your time limited.

You can still do something.

Creative Communications is my go-to resource for affordable take-home activities for families when a special seasonal family event just isn’t in the cards. It does take planning as you have to order far enough in advance to ensure the resources arrive at your doorstep in time. Nevertheless it is a do-able undertaking for the pastor of a small parish.

We have a good amount of kids in our little church, but my portfolio is large and our volunteers stretched thin. We can’t do it all, but we are doing this much: tomorrow, every family is looking forward to receiving a take-home resource for Lent.

You can find them here:  http://www.creativecommunications.com/

(And no, I didn’t get paid to write this recommendation!)

EDITED TO ADD: shipping costs add up.  I tend to order Advent, Lent and any other resources for feast days at the same time.  If you only have a a couple of families in your church, it may be worth doing a joint order with other local churches to spread the pain of shipping expenses.

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice

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About eight years ago, I began seeing a Franciscan monk for spiritual direction.

At the time I was stretched in every direction by the demands of ministry and family life and feeling increasingly spiritually beige. My former go-to tools for spiritual care, learned in the days when I was single and silence was as abundant as oxygen, now felt oppressive.

“I need to meet Jesus in my daily life,” I told my director. “I need to have my spiritual life grounded in the life I’m living – my work, my parenting,  my marriage.” I was looking for a kind of spirituality that was at home with deafening noise and dirty dishware. And Brother David helped me find it.

If you resonate with my struggles (but do not have a Franciscan monk handy), do I have just the book for you:

bookreviewcover
(Look at that tidy shoe rack!)

The author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt University. She and her husband raised three boys, both while working full-time. This book is the product of Miller-McLemore’s own dissatisfaction with traditional modes of spirituality where retreat, leisurely times of prayer and a non-screaming environment were deemed key for drawing near to God.

Miller-McLemore argues that parents do not have to wait until their children are gone and the house is quiet to tend to their spiritual lives. She argues for parenting itself to be seen as spiritual practice. “What I am trying to describe, instead, is a wisdom that somehow emerges in the chaos itself, stops us dead in our tracks and heightens our awareness. I am talking about a way of life that embraces the whole of family living in all its beauty and misery rather than individual acts of devotion, as important as they are to sustaining the whole. In other words, I am not trying to recommend a better way to pray. I am suggesting that faith takes shape in the concrete activities of the day-to-day.” (20) She calls this approach the sanctifying of “ordinary family drudgery.” (24)

The rest of the book is spent working out the how of such a spirituality. Miller-McLemore talks about how parents’ faith is shaped and grown through the discipline of parenting. She talks about “ordinary awe” as a kind of attentiveness to one’s children, as a way of helping us recognize the holy in the mundane. In later chapters, she looks at what spiritual practices might be, in mothering and fathering: reading, playing, blessing, dealing with chores, and engaging with faith practices.

In addition to the insights, I appreciate the way Miller-McLemore writes with compassion for parents, a compassion that comes from “I’ve been there” experience. Nor is the writing dense or academic, which is a mercy for sleep-deprived parents.

Since reading this book, I have recommended it to two new parents – one a newly-minted father, and another a-soon-to-be mum. And I’m recommending it now to you, with confidence that you will find at least a handful of gems to enrich your spiritual life.

Reading this book has been, in so many ways, a re-affirmation of many of the conclusions I reached during my time under Father David’s spiritual care. I only wish I had discovered it sooner.

Conversation Cards: Review of the Day

conversations

When our children were very young – babies and toddlers – I was very attuned to their emotional state and the goings-on in their day. This was because I had witnessed all of it. (The gift of maternity leaves and part-time work!)

But when they began school, much of their day happened away from me. So we began practicing a “review of the day” at suppertime.

This is much easier an exercise than it looks. Our introvert would summarize her day thusly: “It was good.” With probing, she would expand: “I don’t remember.” Our little extrovert offered an unstoppable flood of words, not touching her food, not pausing to catch her breath lest someone interrupt her.

So I went out to our local teacher’s supply store and bought a poster depicting different human emotions.  Something like this (only ours had triple the photos):

emotionsposter

Then I cut all the squares into individual cards and put them in a basket.

Here’s how it works. At supper, each child chooses 3 cards to describe the different emotions they felt during the day. If they want the same card, they share it (yeah, when they were little it sometimes took some parental direction). When it comes to their turn to review their day, they show us their cards and then explain why they felt shy, or tired, or proud etc. Mike and I participate as well. I used to pull out these cards about once a week, although it’s become less frequent of late.

This is a very simple idea that has worked well in our family. It has given our introvert a structure to encourage conversation and it has provided boundaries for our extrovert. When our kids were little, it had the added benefit of teaching them to name emotions, an important life skill in learning to respond to and manage feelings. As a mother, it gives me insight into my children’s general emotional state,  for me an invaluable gift. And as the research talks about the importance of warm, parent-child relationships in the inter-generational transmission of faith, this is easy way to nurture those kind of connected conversations.

This is a tool that is attractive to children, not tweens or teens. I would recommend it for children around the ages of 2-11. (Our twelve year old still participates, but that is most likely because she grew up with the tool and is a cooperative kind of kid.)

You don’t have to buy a poster board either. If you google “emotion for kids” and then click the Images tool, lots of printable resources turn up.  I do recommend having concrete images to work with, because the process of sorting through the pictures helps kids in reviewing their day, and readies them to share.