Monday, December 10, 2012

Holiday Travels: Disorientation

My train journey started about 40 minutes behind schedule. How?!

The train started in San Antonio, and only made one stop before arriving in Austin. I, and many other passengers were impatient to begin our journey. We discussed our reservations about the train - the fact that it took five hours to get to Dallas where we could drive in just over three hours concerned us. And now we were starting behind schedule. . .

The train arrived and it felt like it took forever to board the 75 passengers waiting at the station. One by one we found our cars, stowed our luggage, and found our seats. Then we were off, and before we had gotten very far along the way, time somehow ceased to matter much at all. I didn't have a time-table, and found it relaxing not to check the time.

On to Fort Worth, then to Dallas, then on to Mineola, Longview, Marshall, and Texarkana. It was dark by the time we reached the Arkansas border. Once the sun was down, time on the train became even less important - it was impossible to tell if it was 8pm or midnight. We were far from city lights and any activity that might give a clue to the time. At some point everyone seemed to settle down to read or sleep and it grew quieter and darker as the miles passed.

By the time we reached Little Rock we were only 15 minutes behind schedule. Sleep was disrupted by a large number of passengers boarding, but only for a little while. I dozed off again just as we left the city limits. The next time I woke it was completely dark; every reading light had been extinguished and there were tall trees practically touching the windows of the train. We could have been in a tunnel. I groped for my phone and found the time, but no location. It was unsettling but I was awake enough to reason that we were someplace in Arkansas without cell phone service so I just went back to sleep. This pattern repeated throughout the night and I became as disengaged from my location as I had from time - I could have been in outer space, or on a camel, following a moving star across a desert. I was in God's hands, on God's time.

The only time I have been similarly disoriented was in the early days of each of my daughters' lives. Nursing in the middle of the night, sleeping in the middle of the day, I remember more than once looking at a clock that said 6:00 and not knowing if it was morning or evening. That phase is fairly short for most parents and children. Only a few years after nursing and before children reach driving age, the airline mode of travel becomes the rule; everything has an extremely specific schedule and location.Whether you are traveling by train, plane, or automobile with your children right now, enjoy the journey. You'll arrive at your destination before you know it!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Holiday Travels: Home for the Holidays

Join me on the train again. . .

Here's what greeted Heather when she arrived.
My first seatmate on the journey was Heather. Heather was a bubbly 18-year-old college freshman from a small town east of Dallas. This was her first trip home from San Antonio since school started in August. She was as wriggly as a preschool child in her excitement. By the time she left the train I knew all about her, her parents, her brothers and sisters, and even the names and ages of her nieces and nephews. She was heading home to her family.

I was headed away from my home, toward my daughter's home. She has a new home, one I hadn't seen yet. I was almost as excited as Heather to be spending the holiday with my family. It made me think about how children come home for the holidays, and then one day you realize they are actually going home after the holidays. Your home is no longer their home; they have been visiting.

It's not an instant thing, this switch from coming home to going home and I expect it happens as many different ways as there are people. There's no single point at which the place you live becomes your home instead of your house, but once it has happened, your childhood home, the home of your parents, is no longer your own home.

Being home for Christmas is a major wish for many people. Going home for Christmas is a major stress for others - partly because not everyone in a family agrees where home is. There are no easy answers. Still, Christmas is the celebration of Love coming to us, so whether you are in a house in Houston, a condo in Colorado, or a tent in Tanzania, whether you are going home, or staying home, I wish you Love.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Holiday Travels

Two days before Thanksgiving I began my holiday travels by boarding the Texas Eagle for a trip to the Midwest to visit my daughters for Thanksgiving. I have been longing to make this train trip for many years and was thankful for the opportunity to finally do it. Austin to Chicago takes about 28 hours each way; that is ample time for visiting, snoozing, reading, and thinking. At the end of this journey I  have lots of stories, ideas, reflections, and observations to share so beginning today, and continuing through New Year's Day I plan to share them with shorter, and more frequent posts.  All aboard - let's take a trip!

The first thing that struck me was the complete absence of responsibility I had on this trip. I wasn't in charge of the schedule, the meals, the stops along the way, fueling the engines, or making sure the staff got along. This was a very new experience for me, and seemed an exceptionally great way to start the holidays. All I had to do was board the train and the rest was up to them. I had some non-critical decisions to make: I could eat what I brought, go to the snack car, or splurge on a full meal in the dining car; I could read this book or that magazine or play games on my computer; I could talk to the person next to me, someone in the observation car, or no one at all. None of these decisions was worthy of worry.

This got me to thinking about all the things we fret about around the holidays: where to go, what to eat, whether to order it or make it, who to invite, to have a real or fake tree, to attend this or that or the other event or party. We can work ourselves into a frenzy over a lot of things that don't have watershed consequences during the holidays. We want to create Christmas memories for our kids, but much of what we remember most happily from Christmas past was not orchestrated by anyone. Maybe it was the ice storm that shut down travel in all directions and left us huddled around the fireplace with nothing but candlelight and cookies for our Christmas supper. Perhaps it was the gift we didn't even know we wanted until we received it, or the way the Christmas story flooded our hearts at the annual Christmas pageant.

I know it's counter-intuitive, but I want to suggest that you may make the best Christmas memories for your children by letting go of some control and making a few spontaneous decisions. It seems scary but the One whose birth we celebrate is the Engineer on this train. A scrap of scripture comes to mind. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (I Peter 5:7) Let the Lord know your fears and anxieties as you go into the holiday season, and then let go and enjoy the ride!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pain Relievers

This past Sunday we sang a hymn from Central America that always haunts me for days after singing it. The line that gets stuck in my brain is "The angels are not sent into our world of pain to do what we were meant to do in Jesus' name. That falls to you and me. . . ." The world around us is filled with people in pain; it usually takes effort to avoid seeing them. Often, however, that pain masquerades as anger, incompetence, impatience, superiority, or indifference. 

What would it be like, for a day, to be able to actually see people's pain? This one hurts from arthritis. That one hurts from loneliness. The guy in the car next to you at the light just lost his job. The high school kid making your pizza has an alcoholic parent. The young woman at the gym just suffered her fourth miscarriage. The person next to you in the pew is dreading Thanksgiving dinner for one. The man on the corner asking for change is a veteran who can’t sleep because he has debilitating nightmares. Every person we encounter carries some kind of pain. Would seeing all the pain around us change our expectations of how life should work? Would it change the choices we make?

If the angels are not sent to do what we were meant to do, then it is important to figure out what falls to us to do. In cartoons we see an angel on one shoulder prompting us to do good things, and on the other, a devil inciting us to be selfish. This may be truer than we realize. In the Bible angels are messengers. They announce impending conceptions and warn of coming disasters. Maybe the compassion  you feel is a message urging you to bring some relief to someone who is suffering. It seems that God has built and equipped us to help others in their pain.

What tugs at your heart? Children in pain or in need pull at my heart. Someone else may be moved by the elderly or the disabled; another person may be touched by the hungry in another land. Still others feel compassion toward homeless people or animals or those with terminal illnesses. You may feel compassion for veterans or widows or foster kids. Go with the thing that makes your heart hurt. Compassion with nowhere to go either sours into cynicism or paralyzes with guilt.

Our children also live in a world of pain. As you act on your desires to bring relief to someone’s pain, take the kids along. Explain why you help others and how it makes you feel. Don’t shelter them from the broken, hurting places in the world. Let them help you and give them the experience of making a difference somewhere. Then, when their own hearts feel compassion, they will have an idea of how to move from feeling to action.

Small acts of kindness send out ripples like a stone dropped into a pool.  When you offer a little bit of pain relief to someone, you open the door for them to do the same. What falls to you?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Winning and Losing

Winning and losing have been on everyone's mind this week. For instance, my brother-in-law, a football coach, had his 100th win as head coach in the final seconds of the game on Saturday. The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, and The X Factor all sent some losing contestants home.  Journalist Alex S. Jones has been talking about his new book Losing the News and how losing the news will affect a democratic society. And speaking of democratic societies, there was an election on Tuesday, and in most cases, for every winner there was a loser. Teaching your kids how to win and how to lose is one of the jobs you get to do as their parents.

Most of us do pretty well at teaching our kids to win. We encourage them to set goals. We help them improve on their own best times. We hire coaches or private lesson teachers. We buy them better equipment, or better clothing, depending on the contest. We cheer them on, work the concession stand, and generally support them any way we can. We also teach them how to be gracious when they win, to avoid bragging and gloating, and to give credit to those who helped them win.

When they lose, we are there for them. We analyze what they did well, coach them to improve their performance in future contests, and generally try to help them avoid feeling like a failure. We help them find the lesson in the loss. After all, losing is one of the places where we learn what really matters to us. We also try to teach them good sportsmanship - shaking the competitor's hand and not letting their disappointment show too much.

Into this internal conversation come Jesus' words from Luke: "What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" I am always taken aback by this statement. I recently read Eugene Peterson's eloquent paraphrase of that question: "What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?" Wow! What are we willing to do to win? For what would you sell your soul? Your child was created in the image of God. Your child has a true self, and that self reflects God. It is no small feat to preserve that true self in a world that tries to distort it.

None of us gets to adulthood without compromising some part of ourselves to win at something. It is unfortunate, and perhaps outside of God's plan, that competition has become such an integral part of our lives. Fortunately, that's where forgiveness comes in; it washes away the violations of true self we commit in order to win. As the psalmist says, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."  That right spirit returns us to our true selves.

You can do this parents. God has gifted you with this particular child. You have what it takes to help him win without losing his true self. You also have what it takes to help her when she loses. Sooner or later we all lose, and in that losing we find ourselves again. God is in the middle of that paradox. Keep trying!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

For All the Saints

Last week Pope Benedict designated seven new saints of the Roman Catholic Church. This announcement got a lot of attention because one of those designated is the first Native American ever chosen. The proclamation was timely; All Saints Day is this week.  

I grew up on All Saints celebrations that featured "For All the Saints" ringing the rafters. Then, when my children were small, I discovered "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," a hymn written for children in the late 1920's and still included in the Episcopal hymnal. It's fun to sing and includes some great conversation starters!

I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, 
and one was a shepherdess on the green;

It starts out so traditionally; saints are people with virtues. Kids will just love the images presented there, doctor, queen, and shepherdess, all becoming saints. And there are still more occupations included:  

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, 
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;

Yet another implication that special people get to be saints. And then, in the last verse, a twist:

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will.
Where? Where are these hundreds of thousands? I’m not seeing these exemplary, super-naturally powered people in my neighborhood.  Martin Luther, on the other hand, wrote that we are each saint and sinner simultaneously. Sometimes sainthood is best described as being a forgiven sinner. 

Being a parent truly helps us comprehend this saint-sinner concept. What parent, looking in exasperation at a mess created by playing children, hasn't gone to get a camera to record the mayhem before scolding or cleaning up?  In that moment your child is saint and sinner simultaneously. That helps this last bit make sense:

You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, 
 in church, by the sea, in the house next door;
They are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
and I mean to be one too.

Sainthood, what a wonderful goal to dangle before a child's eyes! Why not? We bring them to be baptized. We teach them right from wrong. We love them unconditionally and forgive them when they mess up. It sounds like a good environment for raising saints! And God loves them even more than we do.

Seeing people (past, present, or progeny) as saints will make us more saintly too. I'd like to be patient, brave, true, and joyously do God's will. I would most assuredly benefit from reflecting on the fact that I'm forgiven. Take some time this week to think about the saints you have heard about, known, and admired. Maybe even take the time to sing this song with your little saints. (I searched YouTube for a good rendition of the song and I am very disappointed. This one is the best I could do. You can find the complete lyrics at Wikipedia.) Celebrate the exemplary and forgiven people who inspire you. Remember those who are now gone but who once passed on the faith to you.  

For all the saints. . . Alleluia!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The School of Reformation

When I was growing up kids were occasionally threatened with "reform school." Back in those days you could be removed from the school and the home and sent away to clean up your act.  It was a scary threat -- to be sent away to a place where people would make you walk the line. Still, there was a hopeful premise underlying the threat. Those who threatened still believed that it was possible to reform a wayward child or adolescent. These days we are more cynical; at least some of us no longer believe that reform is possible.

I have been thinking about the word reform this week because this coming Sunday is designated as Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran calendar. I love the word reform. Re-form. Form again. It is a hopeful word.

In the place that I inhabit, a place where faith and parenting intersect, Reformation Sunday is a time to look around and see what needs to be reformed. There is always something. For example, I need to reform my eating habits so that I eat more fruit. Re-form. Form again. Not break a bad habit, just reform my habit. Breaking a habit sounds a bit violent when you think about it. Reforming sounds like gentle molding. I like that.

As a parent, you are continually reforming your children, yourself, your rules, and your routines. Each reformation is intended to improve things or to adjust to changed circumstances. It is a living, growing, changing, hopeful, and dynamic approach to life.  It is impossible not to reform when there are children in your day-to-day life. They are the catalysts for these changes, and our lives can be immeasurably enriched by these reformations.

Historians and theologians will tell you that the Reformation that spawned the Lutheran church was a significant point of change in Western civilization. Life would never be the same: economics, education, religion, and governance were all impacted.  Still, in the midst of the Reformation, things were retained. People still worshiped. There were changes to the form of worship. The communal language was used and everyone participated. Some things stayed the same. The object of worship, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, remained the same.

This is how reformation in the family needs to happen. Some things will change, and some will stay the same. Your family may be facing  the arrival of a new baby, a child's departure for college or military service, the fears and blessings that accompany the start of kindergarten or handing over the keys to the car. Some things will have to change. And some things will have to stay the same to keep us anchored through the change. What anchors your family? Is it bedtime blessings, breakfast rituals, Sunday worship followed by brunch with family or friends? Do those rituals need to be reformed so that they will have greater staying power?

The Reformation we celebrate and your child's first solo drive bear much in common. They are life-changing events. They cannot be undone. They both promise greater autonomy and greater opportunity. They bring relief to some who were overburdened. They are undergirded with hope.

Happy re-formation to you all!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sacred Parenting

At my church we have just started a new video course called Sacred Parenting. The premise of the course is that our children teach us to know God. Gary Thomas, the author of the course, believes that God uses our kids to change us. I can't help but reflect on the ways my children have changed me.

My children were my best teachers of grace - no contest. No matter how angry, sad, or upset they were when I put them down for a nap or tucked them into bed at night,  they loved me with their whole hearts again when they awoke. No matter how I failed them, they will still loved me. I think that children become less grace-filled as they grow up but as their parent you will continue to be forgiven and loved in spite of yourself. You may not deserve it but they will still love you. (Kind of like God!)

My children saw my authentic self - not the mask I sometimes wore for the world. They watched me so closely. They knew my habits and could predict my moods, even when I had on my best party manners. You will often hear an older child counsel a younger one: stay out of dad's way when he's (fill in the blank) because it means he's in a bad mood, or if you want her to say yes, ask her when she's (fill in the blank) because that means she's in a good mood. They know us so intimately. (Also kind of like God!)

My children's faith inspired me - and helped me to discover God again as a child. Because they had not yet learned to be skeptical, they could appreciate all that I taught them about God.  When I was worried, one of them would say "we can pray about it" which would stop me in my tracks. I COULD pray about it. Sometimes, as adults, we make things entirely too complicated. "And a little child shall lead them" is true in so many ways.

My children depended on me – and assumed that I would provide for them. With complete trust they believed that their needs would be met. They didn’t worry about tomorrow; they simply lived life one day at a time. This is how I should act with God, and I’m much closer to that place than I was before I had children!

My children are adults now, but I continue to learn from them. They are still open to the world in a way I have long since left behind. Sometimes that means they look at things I have long treasured and criticize or dismiss them. And sometimes they embrace things that I long ago dismissed or rejected. Just as a toddler's discovery of the world delights and refreshes our perspective of things we've long taken for granted, so my adult children's encounters with the adult world refresh me and cause me to see what I take for granted with new eyes. 

God's infinite wisdom and love permeate this parent-child relationship. It is a sacred relationship. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Continuing Ed for Parents?

A few years ago there was a popular quiz making the e-mail rounds: which television mom are you?  I was very happy to be aligned with Claire Huxtable of The Cosby Show. Television is far more often ridiculous than helpful or useful in its representations of families but every year or two there's one where the writing is just so perfect you stop in your tracks and wish you had said that perfect thing. Of course, we don't have the benefit of terrific writers who come up with our lines, or do we?

I think there is value in watching television shows and movies about families. Even the silly ones. Television parents have writers who craft words that say exactly the right thing when the important topics come up, can prepare you for those tough questions. If you pay attention, you can have the right words when you need them too.

Some of my favorites:
  • Glee: The parents don't appear much but Burt Hummel, father to Kurt who is gay, gives one of the best bits of advice about readiness for sex that I have ever heard. It would work for a son, a daughter, straight or gay. Brilliant writing, and really good advice.
  • Everybody Loves Raymond is built on family comedy yet often includes poignant moments that leave you with a lump in your throat and eyes welling with tears because of the truth of family they express. The episode where they decide to hold the twins back in school because one of them needs it articulates parental fears and wisdom with truth and whimsy.
  • Parenthood, my current favorite family show, hits a home run more weeks than not.  In just the last few episodes the families have tackled racism, cancer, job burnout, adoption, veterans issues, and salaries. Last week Jasmine's "Talk" with Jabar about racism is sensitive, compassionate, and way better than any parent could do on the fly.
  • Even shows that aren't actually about families, but which have families attached to them can sometimes supply words or ideas. The Suarez family of Ugly Betty shows us a remarkably functional family smack in the middle of a ridiculous industry and workplace.
Television families aren't real, but they reflect family life like a fun house mirror that makes us look a little taller, a little skinnier, maybe a little better. Comparing yourself to the Huxtables, the Barones or the Bravermans doesn't help your family in any way, but mining their experience for things you can do better or say more articulately might bless your family by making you a more prepared parent.

As with everything in life, the best preparation is prayer. And if you ask God to show you how to handle this phase of your child's life, and you get to watch Claire Huxtable or Adam Braverman do it well, then perhaps this is the answer you were seeking. Like the man on the roof in the flood who is so confident that God will save him  that he sends away two boats and a helicopter before drowning - let's recognize the answers when they appear. If I, a human parent made in the image of God, will use puppets to teach my children lessons they need to learn, why should I think that God won't use television to teach me?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

First World Problems

About a year ago I ran into the phrase "First World Problem". The first time I heard it I wasn't even sure what it meant but it kept cropping up and the meaning eventually became clear: A First World Problem is a problem only for people who live in a country with a stable economy, sufficient food, and the luxury of a lifestyle, not just a life. One clever blogger has compiled a list of examples. Here are a few youthful ones I gleaned from
  • "I went to go babysit for an hour and the kids didn't know what their own wi-fi password was."
  • "I don't have enough chips for my dip, but if I open another packet of chips, I won't have enough dip for my chips."
  • "I put a bandaid on my thumb and now I can only text with one hand."
Obviously, none of these "problems" is really a problem but each is an example of either a complete lack of awareness of the luxury we take for granted or an entitlement problem that will eventually undermine a whole generation of people.

As we teach our children about money, it is vitally important that we make sure that they understand the privileged status of their lives. What we take for granted on an average day is far beyond what billions of the people in the world can ever imagine. Wherever you may be on the American spectrum, you have significantly more than the majority of your fellow citizens of Planet Earth. Knowing this fact is essential to your children's ability to handle their money. It impacts everything from food supply to fuel consumption. It will also deeply impact their faith life. 

This is the biggest First World Problem. It is hard to learn to trust God when we have so much. Jesus comments about how wealth can be an obstacle to faith. He says that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." The wealth we enjoy in this country, even during the current "hard times," is so far removed from the poverty of the rest of the planet that we forget that life itself is a gift from God. Gratitude is lost in the midst of plenty. We fail to see the blessing of the cup of clean water that flows from our taps. We fail to see the abundance of food that fills our pantry shelves. We worry about the high cost of college while others worry about the high cost of milk. 

No matter how hard we work, or how well we manage our money, our financial status in the world has a lot to do with the fact of where we live. We have so much because we are blessed to live in the richest country in the world. We are blessed. We may be hard workers; we may be smart; we may be wise money managers but all good gifts come from God. Our life, our way of life, and life itself is a gift from God.

There are many more tactics for teaching kids about money, but this is the most important one: be grateful. Model gratitude. Encourage gratitude. Live gratitude. Spend, save, and share from a place of gratitude; we have more than we need. Thank you God!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cheap Mistakes

Money takes practice. Many parents assume that their kids will learn good money habits just by living in a house where good money habits are practiced. That is no more likely to be true than assuming that if you are a good driver your child will be one too. Like driving, handling money has to be practiced. How do you let kids "practice" with money? Let your kids make cheap mistakes.

Experience is a powerful teacher. We as parents often want to shield our kids from bad experiences, but some lessons are best learned that way. If you give your kid an allowance, teach her to set aside part for sharing, part for saving, and then let them experiment with the rest.

You already have experience. You know that cheap toy is going to disappoint. You know that it is going to break, under-perform, or wear out too fast. So you want to tell your child not to spend his  allowance on that. Did your child learn about cheap products by taking your advice? No, your child learned that you don't trust her to make her own decisions and, maybe, that it wasn't really her money. If, on the other hand, you let your child make the poor choice, it cost a few dollars you were going to give her anyway, and she learned, from experience, that not all merchandise is equal.

I think this is valuable because this is a CHEAP mistake. Far better to let a seven-year-old buy an inferior toy than to have your sixteen-year-old get taken when he buys his first used car. You can buy this lesson for $2 or you can get it for $2000 later. A disappointed child is going to be receptive to lessons about buying that you want to teach her. And you will be more willing to calmly teach from this mistake than when the $2000 used car needs a $3000 transmission. Very few lessons are learned without practice and the ones best remembered are learned by making mistakes.In the long run it makes good money sense to let them make cheap mistakes.

Other cheap mistakes without dire consequences that will teach invaluable lessons:
  • Having to pack a lunch every day for a week because your lunch money was spent on popcorn at the movies.
  • Having to settle for a less desirable birthday present for a friend because you spent your money on yourself.
  • Spending a clothing budget intended for the whole semester on one pair of jeans and some pricey shoes and then having to wear last year's now ill-fitting clothing.
  • Not putting money aside for gas and having to ride the bus to school until "payday."
Letting your kids sink or swim, when the consequences are manageable and short term, is very helpful in the long run. Handling money is just a skill to be mastered like reading or laundry. God has entrusted you with this child and it is your job, as the steward of this child, to teach this skill: to handle what they have. You can do it, because whether you've managed your money poorly or well, you know more about money than he or she does, so embrace those cheap mistakes and teach the lessons to be found in them.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

So Much More

I have known, from an early age,that you should always have some money set aside for a "rainy day." As a child, I wondered how money would help keep me dry but I did get the basic point that saving was good and not saving was risky.

The lessons learned by saving are far more extensive than simply being prepared for a rainy day. Saving also teaches the power of cumulative actions. It teaches how to break a project down into smaller pieces. It teaches delayed gratification. So how do you teach kids to save?  When is the right time to teach them? What's the best method for teaching them? Start with the child. Is this child a planner and a plodder or is this a child who flies by the seat of her pants? Planners and plodders will understand saving as easily as breathing. Your task with these children will be to teach them to let loose with their money from time to time. That is not the case with the seat-of-the-pants crowd! These children will need every lesson you can devise, and may still need some incentives before they really master the challenge of setting aside for the future.

Here are a few strategies I've tried or read about over the years:

First, teach saving as a habit. Explain that this is how we handle money, period. If they get a $1 allowance, pay it in dimes, and give them envelopes, jars, banks, wallets, whatever it takes to make them separate those dimes into the saving, giving, and spending categories. Help them count it and keep a chart of how it is growing so they can see how small amounts accumulate into larger amounts.

Say no to something they want that you are willing for them to have. Make a deal to pay half the cost of the item if they save half. Ideally the wait in weeks should about match their age: 8 years old = 8 weeks of saving. (This also assumes that they have an allowance, or chores you will pay for so that they have access to some cash each week.) If they are older, and want more expensive things, help them figure out how long it will take, and perhaps provide incentives along the way.

Model the discipline of saving. Save up for a big purchase and get the whole family involved in watching the money accumulate. The price of a new refrigerator or washing machine will be big enough to seem unattainable to the average kid. Make a chart or put up a thermometer; find some way to show your kids that you are moving toward the goal. This is a real opportunity to teach your kids an impressive lesson about what can be done when you save your money.

In the midst of all this, don't lose sight of the fact that the best habits and choices don't always guarantee smooth sailing. Remind yourself, and the kids, that God is steadfast and always at your side - able to solve problems that money cannot touch. Faith has carried far more people through a crisis than savings, but savings will nearly always make the problems simpler. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Generous Kids

Every baby with Cheerios in front of him will try to feed some to his caregiver. And most adults, even the most fastidious, will eat a squishy, sticky, Cheerio offered by a child because the purity of the child's generosity is so enchanting.

That generosity is short-lived. It is usually followed by the MINE stage of development - where the words no and mine are the most frequently used words in the child's vocabulary. What comes after that stage has a lot to do with the child's perception of the world. If the child believes the world to be abundant, filled with plenty, then he will revert to his innate generosity. If he has formed a belief that scarcity is the way of the world, he will be less generously inclined. Most of us want our child's character to include generosity. So how do we help our kids see the abundance God showers upon us each day? Pretty much the same way we teach most things. . .

Model Generosity: Be generous in front of your kids. Buy the feed-the-hungry coupons at the grocery store check-out. Bring canned goods to food drives. Offer to help your neighbor carry in the groceries. Babysit for friends. Give money at church. Give away outgrown toys and clothing. Volunteer your time. Make giving an on-going activity, and not just a Christmas season feel good exercise.

Live Gratefully:  Express gratitude whenever you are conscious of your blessings. Give thanks at mealtime and bedtime, or anytime it seems appropriate. Talk about whether you are lucky or blessed when something good happens. Mention God's goodness whenever you can.

Reinforce the quality you desire: Yes, it is ok to reward generous behavior! If you see your child behaving generously, tell her how happy it makes you feel. Give her a cuddle and some special attention. Let her tell you how she felt when she acted generously.

Diminish the undesirable behavior: Our youth group has a rule about how we treat one another. If you put someone down, you have to immediately correct yourself by saying three nice things. This is a great idea for addressing selfish behavior too: every selfish act could be corrected by three random acts of kindness. It reinforces the idea that you believe kids are capable of being unselfish while making them think twice about being self-centered.

Teach them to set money aside: Remember the 80-10-10 rule in last week's post? Teach them to calculate 10% as soon as they learn place values in math. Make setting aside 10% a non-negotiable before they ever get used to spending 90 or 100% and they won't question is when they are older. And with that, we come full circle: model setting aside 10% for the purpose of giving it away. . .

I read an interesting idea once. The writer said that God's abundance is like the blood in your body. There is exactly enough for your whole body as long as it keeps circulating and is nourished. When it gets stopped up somewhere, or cut off from some part, there is a problem. Teach your kids to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Money Toolbelt

One of my favorite sayings is "You don't know what you don't know." It comes up for me most often when I don't know what question to ask to unlock the topic at hand. This is where your kids are with money.  Most questions will not occur to them - but they still need the information. Here are a few concepts to explore with them, and a few ideas about how to do that.

Money is a multi-purpose tool. That's it. It can be a knife, a screwdriver, a cork screw, a file or a scissors.  It just depends on what you choose to do with it: provide for your basic needs, fulfill your dreams, create choices, share with others, prepare for the future. It is merely a tool, neither good nor evil. Like every tool, it requires some practice to learn to use it.

One simple way to help kids get this is to initially present them with three basic uses for money: spending, saving, giving. Lots of people live by the 80/10/10 rule and it's a very good place to start with your kids. Help them do the math on this one: out of every dollar ten cents goes to savings, ten cents is given away, and eighty cents is there for them to spend. Almost all of it! Starting this plan with a child who completely trusts you to know everything will help them form a great habit for a lifetime. Give them a piggy bank for savings so they can watch the money add up over time. Encourage them to share (give with no expectation of reciprocation - to church or charity).

A budget sharpens your money tool. If you've achieved a certain level of financial security in life you have probably learned to budget your money but it may not be obvious to your children.

A budget is nothing more than a plan for spending your money. To teach this you really have to give your kids some financial responsibility, otherwise the point will be completely lost. One good strategy you can start very early is making children responsible for their own lunches. Give them enough allowance to cover their fun plus enough to cover their school lunch. Then give them the option to buy lunch at school, or to pay you $1 for the groceries and  pack their lunch at home and take it. (If you pack it for them they have to pay more.) Let them control how they spend this money. They will most likely mess up. Don't bail them out! Lend them money against next week's allowance so they don't starve, then withhold it the next week. This kind of practice will improve their ability to plan ahead. 

When they are older, you can give them more money, less frequently, and also make them responsible for more of their needs. I love WSJ reporter Jonathan Clements method: "Every three months, I deposit $200 in my 16-year-old daughter's bank account, which is meant to cover clothing and entertainment. Our agreement is that I will pay for bigger-ticket items, like winter coats and running shoes. For everything else, Hannah either has to limit herself to the $200 or earn extra by babysitting. My daughter, of course, buys idiotic items and struggles to make ends meet. And I, of course, want to guide her decisions and bail her out. But I don't. The reason: If I bail her out now, she won't learn responsibility -- and I will end up bailing her out later."

God must smile while watching us help our kids learn about money. It probably looks very familiar!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

She's a Prince$$

The television network CNBC has a show called PRINCE$$.  I am a total sucker for this kind of program because I like to see reality TV that at least tries to change people's lives for the better. Each episode features a young woman who lives far beyond her means. She is nominated by people who have enabled her bad spending habits but who no longer want to support them. She is challenged to face reality and change her ways by Gail Vaz-Oxlade. In the first scene Gail requires that families, friends, and romantic partners commit to cutting off  all handouts and bailouts to the Prince$$. Then she issues a series of challenges to the Prince$$ to help her change her ways. If the Prince$$ rises to meet the challenges and change her habits and her attitudes Gail gives her $5000 toward paying off her debt. No changes, no money. It's intriguing.

On one recent episode I saw something new: a Prince$$ who admitted with no apparent shame that her plan was to spend her way to $100,000 in debt and then file for bankruptcy. She was 27 years old. I was appalled!  So was Gail. Now Gail almost always finds the soft spot she can poke to help a Prince$$ change her ways. This time she let the Prince$$ Tonya in on the secret that Grandma, one of Tonya's frequent bailout targets, is living on three-fourths of what the Prince$$ makes each month, yet still bails her granddaughter out when asked. Grandma says: "I would go without anything if it helped her." That was when Prince$$ Tonya began her transformation.

I was struck by the power of love to create change. Once Grandma understood that saying no to Tonya was the more loving choice, she buckled right down. And once Tonya understood that she was hurting her Grandma it was easy for her to stop asking.

It is much easier to say yes than to say no. We have to love our kids enough to say no. We are living in precarious times. We have to love them enough to make sure they know how and when to use this tool we call money - because they, and we, may have to face significant money challenges before this is all over. They may, or may not, learn about handling money from watching you; it is better if you teach them with intention.

My parents were frugal and wise and conservative with their money. I didn't follow their example until long after I became a parent. I'm still not totally there. We didn't talk about it; they assumed it was obvious. And in fairness to them, it probably was but they were up against a culture that completely undermined their example. Easy credit was rampant as I came of age, and  I learned other lessons from Madison Avenue that encouraged me to spend because "I was worth it." Guess which voice sounded more appealing?

You love your kids. That's why you read this blog. Love them enough to teach them about money. Not to love money, or to accumulate money, but to handle money. It will be like swimming upstream at times, but will benefit them greatly in the long run.

Prince$$ got me thinking a lot about how we teach our kids about money, so this is the first entry in a series about kids and parents and money. I hope you'll add your comments so we can learn from each other.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Off-to-school Blessings

Back to school is just around the corner. For some children, this will be the first day of preschool, for others it is kindergarten. Middle school and high school first days are also scary for both kids and parents, and sending them off to college is usually one of the hardest things we have to do as parents. Any first day is a great time to introduce the off-to-school blessing.

Short and sweet should be your bywords, and I recommend you try this even if  off-to-school means off-to-college.

  • Touch your child; on the head or on the shoulder is good.
  • Say a single sentence: "God watch over _____________ while we are apart. Amen." You can make up your own but short and memorable is the key.
  • Give them a kiss and send them on their way.
  • Repeat tomorrow, after Thanksgiving break, or when they leave to sleep over at a friend's house on Saturday night. Make it like saying goodnight or goodbye. Natural. Predictable.
  • Wait for the day they decide to bless you when you leave.

Rituals are powerful for children and adults. They improve the quality of our relationships by giving us common memory and a means for expressing our feelings when the words won't come. They can be internalized, and pulled out when needed. A ritual blessing like this pulls God in as a partner.

Though you may baptize your child with tears as she leaves, you can also bless her with confidence that all will be well. It is almost certain to be - and if it isn't, you will both be aware that God is there too.

In the meantime, I pray that God will watch over you as you send your child off to school.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cousins and brothers and friends, Oh My!

My daughter got married last week (lots more on that later, after I have fully processed it) but one thing I really enjoyed was meeting the groom's family and the couple's friends. Over 150 people attended the wedding and I knew less than half of
them when it all started - but a lot more by the time it ended. This was my kind of event! Lots of new people to meet, seeing lots of friends and relatives who I don't see all that often. It was fun! Still, I know that not everyone was feeling my joy. . .

School is starting soon. How do we go about teaching our kids to meet new people? What is the one thing they should know to do when meeting a new person? Just say hi and stick out their hand? Introduce themselves and offer to help with something? Wait for someone else to approach them?

I have no simple formula for doing this. You know yourself, and you know your child. If you relate to the world in the same way then model how to do this. If you don't, help your child observe someone more like himself. If meeting people is challenging for your child, then set a goal with her. On the other hand, if meeting people is like breathing for your kid, then help him or her learn to be a better friend and move beyond superficial relationships. It's a new year, and a time for re-invention.

As a natural extrovert I am always drawn toward people but I recognize that not everyone shares this inclination. I am moved by the knowledge that every person I meet is created in the image of God, and I learn to see God more clearly through other people's reflections. Some of us will have to meet a lot of people to get a fuller picture of God. Some of us will plumb the depths of a few close friends, and also get a fuller picture of God. Whichever method suits a person is fine. Just make sure that making friends is not overlooked in the busy, competitive, demanding days of school. It is one of the great blessings of going to school - just ask any family who home-schools how much intention it takes to make sure kids get enough socialization. Love your child enough to help them make friends - by the time you reach the age of parenthood you should know a trick or two.

Here's to new friends and new reflections of God all around us. Hope the new school year goes swimmingly!

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Listener

They were already at their table when I was seated a short distance away. I barely took note of them until I heard the older one say "Well good on you!" Lover of words that I am, I perked up my ears and jotted down the expression, wondering what part of the country it came from. I turned back to my coffee and list-making but repeatedly found myself eavesdropping on their conversation.

I studied them covertly. It was a young man of about twenty and an older man probably nearing his middle-forties. They didn't appear to be father and son.  Their dress seemed similar. Both were clad in denim and tee-shirts. The older guy wore a baseball cap; the younger one wore glasses and an earnest expression. They clearly didn't know each other well but something drew them together.

The older guy asked a lot of questions:  "How's that pick-up running? Who's this guy you're gonna live with this fall? How old is your little brother now? Is he still in Houston? What are you planning to do when you finish all that studying?" Every answer the young man gave received an affirming response: "That was a good move! There you go, now your mind is starting to work like it needs to. I understand. Great!" Sometimes he asked a question, either to make sure he understood, or to get more information. The young man sat up straighter under all that positive attention. His answers got longer and were punctuated with quick smiles.

I listened through their whole breakfast. I learned, from listening to their exchange, that the young man's father had recently passed away and that the older guy was his dad's friend. When the young man heard that he was getting to be "more like his old man every day" his eyes shone with tears and he grinned with pride and delight.

I don't know who the father's friend was, or how they met, or what their relationship meant to him. I don't know how much time he had spent with his friend's son or who initiated breakfast. What I do know is that when that man took a younger man to breakfast and listened and encouraged and cared about him, he made a difference in the world.

What a remarkable person. He demonstrated every listening skill I have ever been taught: he nodded as he listened, repeated what he heard in his own words to check for meaning, affirmed the speaker, and asked follow up questions. He also used great encouragement tactics: he smiled, nodded, affirmed, talked about what mattered to the other person, remembered stuff from previous situations, and said repeatedly how much confidence he had in the young man. In a final act of generosity he picked up the check. Good on him!

This should not have been a remarkable conversation.  Sadly though, a lot of conversations between people of unequal ages consist of the older one talking and the younger one listening.  When that is the case, the younger one doesn't get to hear words of encouragement and the older one doesn't hear anything new.  It was refreshing to see someone use God-given talents of listening and encouragement with a person who clearly needed it. The young man soaked in the older man's approval and encouragement and at the end he stood taller, like grass after a rain.

Is there someone younger who you could listen to and affirm today?

P.S. According to Google, "Good on you: is Urban Slang; a congratulatory expression to let someone know they have excelled at something.