Kids and Politics

I’ve heard a fair number of people wondering what to tell their kids about Trump and current events. As someone with kids ranging from 21 down to 6, I thought I’d share how we do thing in our house. I’m not saying that this is the “right” way to deal with the issue, just that this is what my husband and I are personally comfortable with.

First of all, turn off the news. We do not have the news on either the TV or the radio in our home. If you absolutely must listen or watch, do it when the kids are in bed or at school. Most of the news is garbage anyways. Local news is racist and consumeristic garbage. Cable news is distorting and evil. NPR isn’t so bad, but it can be pretty emotional which is hard for some kids to deal with. You can access all the news you need to know online without your kids being exposed to it.

To the extent that my kids are exposed to the news and politics, it’s through dinner conversations between my husband and I with the older kids joining in. We tend to avoid subject that would cause serious anxiety, unless we can talk about them at a high enough level that it will be hard for the younger kids to follow. For example, we might say that Trump’s behaving like a fascist, but we’re not going to go into what fascism actually entails. Mostly we stick to inside ball – there was an executive order signed, this person spoke out on this issue, Trump’s approval ratings. Things like that.

With younger kids, it is my opinion that they don’t need to know what’s going on unless it’s coming right to your door. Children need to be able to focus on their own lives and don’t benefit from the anxiety of watching the goings on of the grown folks. To the extent that you do talk about it with them, keep it vague. All my 7 year old knows is that Trump is president (she doesn’t like his face) and that I don’t think he’s a good man. We also had a discussion about the fact that we’ve had other presidents who weren’t good people before so she’d know that we’ve survived bad men before. (I used George Washington keeping slaves and his relationship with Oney Judge as an example.) Frankly, if your young child is asking a lot of questions about politics and the news, they may be being exposed to too much of it.

If you live in an urban area where there are protests going on, are going to one or will take them to one, telling them that people are upset with the direction the country is going and are making themselves heard should be sufficient. Maybe add in that you’re protesting in order to speak up for the people who get mistreated. Personally, I avoid using the social issues of the day as jumping off points for discussions about serious issues such as equality, empathy, free speech and the like. If you’re raising them right, those are ideas that you are already teaching them in word, action and deed already. (Again, these are my opinions, not me pontificating at you about the right way to handle these things.)

Tweens are still pretty self-absorbed (as they should be) but they are starting to be more aware of the wider goings on in the world. This is the age when they typically start paying some attention to dinner table conversations. So they are gaining some feel for how things work and the general tenor of what’s happening and are usually satisfied with that. With my tweens, I asked them every week or two what kids at school are talking about in regard to the news and/or the president. Obviously not everyone is refraining from discussing politics in front of their kids and kids do have a tendency to parrot what their parents are saying. So things do get said. I’ll ask them what the general opinion among their friends/classmates are (apparently all the 6th grade girls turned on Trump when the news about how he talked about women came out). Then I’ll ask what they think about things being said. Often that’s enough, but if there’s a problem or some misinformation, I’ll counter it. I also try to offer a bit of context to what they are hearing. Like when the pussy grabbing recording came out, I told my daughter that Trump has a bad history with women, so this is the sort of thing that we can expect from him.

Once the kids get into their teenaged years, they tend to be spending a fair amount of time online where politics is ubiquitous. Because they’re growing up in a home where the news and politics is dinnertime conversation, they typically start at least glancing at the news on their own. Both my 17 and 21 year olds keep up with the news fairly well, although not nearly as obsessively as I do. But this is usually the age at which they will start piping up during dinner time conversations or bring it up at other times with us, as they know it’s an area of interest. At that age, I generally try to give them room to tell me what they think, rather than just spouting off at them with my opinions. I’ll gently challenge points of disagreement or bring up ideas, information and perspectives that I can see that they are missing.

As they get older I will sometimes run my own ideas and opinions past them and ask for their opinion. When you’re old enough to have children who are young adults, you’re old enough to be in danger of getting stuck in your thinking and shutting yourself off from new ideas. Asking your kids what they think gives them a chance to think more deeply themselves while potentially exposing yourself to a different perspective. I also like to ask them about the opinions of their more politically aware friends for the same reasons. This is the age where I’ll start arguing more forcefully with them about things we disagree on. But I never let it get too serious. We can agree to disagree, even majorly. But since we’ve been training them in morality, empathy, care of the least and the like as core values, their politics tends to wind up not too far from my own. Although they’re not nearly as radical as their dad and I tend to be. At first anyways.

In writing this, I am aware that although we are a mixed race family and we’ve had more than our fair share of problems, I’m writing this from a very privileged position of being middle class, well educated and largely protected from the wider goings on in the world. Like I said, I’m not saying that our approach is the right approach, but it’s what works for us. I don’t want my kids to be ignoramuses, of course. But I also don’t want politics to become a dominant feature of their lives unless they develop their own fascination with it independent of me. What I really don’t want, however, is to wind up with a young child who is anxious, angry or scared about the state of the world. Nor do I want my arrogant cocksure adolescent who has little to no real life experience spouting off ideology and opinions on the internet like they know every damn thing.

So there you have it. Some thoughts for those of you wonder what to tell the kids. Do with it what you will

What Every Parent Needs To Know About Spanking

If you’re ever at a loss for how to piss a lot of people off in one fell swoop, criticize parents for spanking. That will do it every time. I don’t exactly understand it, but there are a lot of people who are really, really attached to the idea that spanking is a good thing and no amount of research, data or reasoning will convince them otherwise. Because “I was spanked and I turned out OK!”*

I should say upfront that I’m not an anti-spanking purist. I have swatted a child on the bum a time or two myself and don’t anticipate that being what they end up seeking counseling for. However, over the last couple of decades we’ve learned an enormous amount about how our neural system operates that we were not aware of before. And whatever your current ideas about spanking are, we now know things that our parents and grandparents didn’t about the design of the human body which every parent should be aware of before they decide to use spanking as a discipline method with their children.

The first thing you need to know is that when you spank a child, you trigger their autonomic fight or flight reaction. It’s automatic and the child has no control over it. You can train them to suppress signs of this neurological state such as crying, pulling away or facial expressions of distress, but the underlying physiological reaction will remain the same. The thing to understand about the fight or flight response is that it is the same whether you’re facing off with a deadly viper or a large adult with a belt in hand. Whether you think that a fight or flight response is an appropriate reaction to spanking or not makes not one whit of difference. It’s the way our fearfully and wonderfully made neurological system works and is not under a child’s control.

What happens in a fight or flight state is that our bodies are flooded with stress hormones which increase respiration and heart rates. We often begin to sweat. Hormones stimulate energy to be released to the muscles. When a person’s fight or flight response has been triggered, their hippocampus – the part of their brain responsible for rational thought, decision making and learning – is no longer fully connected to the rest of the brain. The primitive, reptilian part of the brain takes over, allowing us to take in more information through our senses and respond quickly, without having to stop and think. All of this is designed to give us the best chance of surviving in a dangerous situation.

This fight or flight response is programmed and we do not control it. And it activates just the same regardless of the threat being faced is real or not. The fact that you’re spanking a child and not trying to hunt and eat them doesn’t make a great deal of difference to your child’s neurological system, which is, like the rest of their body, more delicate and less fully developed than in an adult. So although it’s likely not your intention, when you threaten or spank your child, you are putting them into a neurological state designed to protect them in the event of a saber tooth lion attack. Which may not actually be the relationship dynamic you want to foster.

But even if you are one of those parents who believe that making your child afraid of you is a good thing, there’s the practical implication of sending your child into a fight or flight state to consider. As I mentioned above, one of the things that happens in this state is that the thinking, learning, reasoning part of your brain goes off line. Obviously this is completely counter-productive for parents hoping to teach a child something. To the extent that you are teaching them, you are creating an aversion response. So the child may develop an aversion to whatever it is which triggered the punishment but it will not actually teach them anything deeper than that.

The other problem is that triggering this fight or flight response excessively will cause the response to be activated more easily. Which makes sense on two levels. One is that because of brain plasticity, every time you activate a specific neural pathway, you make it stronger. The stronger a neural pathways is, the more easily the brain defaults to it. And if you’re living in an environment in which your life is regularly endangered, responding to danger quickly gives you the best chance of survival. But when it’s a parent triggering this response, this adjustment is maladaptive. Children who experience it are going to be more fearful, more anxious, more hyper-vigilant, etc. If it’s happening often enough or over a long enough period of time, a process called kindling starts in which the neural pathways become so excitable that they will engage even in the absence of any perceived threat. All of this increases the likelyhood that the child will go on to suffer from disorders like anxiety, OCD and depression because their brains slip into fight or flight mode too easily.

Those people who advocate to spank until the child is fully compliant and repentant, as certain “Christian” teachers claim should be the end result of a spanking, are actually engaging the next step of the body’s autonomic response to danger: collapse/freeze. Collapse is what happens after the fight or flight response fails to resolve the dangerous situation. You see this in animals when they are cornered by a predator and they respond by playing dead. The collapse response is meant to be a deterrent (most predators won’t eat already dead animals). It also provides some psychic protection to the animal from the experience of being cornered and eaten.

The way collapse works in the body is this: as I mentioned above, when in a fight or flight state, our body is flooded with hormones which cause a surge of energy. When we cross over to collapse, the body essentially turns off its responsiveness to those hormones and shuts the system down. At this point, the hypocampus as well as the parts of the brain responsible for memory creation are almost fully disengaged. Cellular metabolism and responsiveness to hormonal signals slows. The child is working on auto pilot. This is a normal, protective response designed to protect us from traumatic situations. Dealing with your own parents isn’t supposed to be a traumatic situation. Even if the kid’s mouthed off first.

If collapse works and the danger passes, the body then sets about returning its neurological system to a normal state. Remember, a collapse state is characterized by the disengagement of significant parts of the brain which now need to be brought back online. There’s also the issue of all those energy producing hormones and the energy itself which are still coursing through the body. And at the cellular level, metabolic functioning is greatly reduced in a collapse state as the brain has signaled the muscles not to use the excessive energy created in the fight or flight state.So all that energy needs to be discharged, mental focus needs to be regained, and normal cellular functioning needs to resume.

In animals this neurological reset process looks like shaking, running in circles, jumping around and engage in other behaviors to work off the energy producing hormones created in the fight or flight state. In humans, this discharge will often look like sobbing hysterically, shaking, moving, screaming, throwing or slamming objects and doing other things that parents generally don’t let their children do after a spanking. This means that the child’s nervous system never has the chance to return to a normal state. Stress hormones remain in their bloodstream long after the event has passed, focusing and learning takes more effort and cellular use of energy and response to hormonal signals remains muted.

As is the case when a child’s fight or flight response is triggered excessively, when a child is pushed to the point of collapse, that strengthens the neural pathways responsible for executing the collapse state, causing it to happen more quickly in response to lower and lower levels of stimulation. Children who are brought to the point of collapse repeatedly may enter into a persistent state of collapse where all of their reactions are muted and they are no longer fully engaging with the world around them. Parents who discipline this way will often believe that because their children are quiet, compliant and still, these are signs that the “discipline” is working. Children who experience this are at high risk for Complex (Developmental) PTSD and dissociative disorders.

Now, some of you are protesting that this all sounds rather alarmist and cataclysmic in light of the fact that we’re talking about spanking a child. It’s not like parents are holding their children over a pit of hungry hyenas and threatening to drop them in or beating them with baseball bats, after all. (Hopefully) But we must not forget that just like children’s bodies are more delicate than adults and require special care, their nervous system are also more delicate and require special care.

At any rate, like I said, I’m not an anti-spanking purist. I have swatted my kids on the bum now and again. But people who are strong proponents of spanking generally don’t understand what it is they are actually doing to their children. Yes, you can get a quiet, compliant, still child by spanking if that’s your goal. However it comes at the cost of doing often permanent damage to this amazing nervous system which God gave us. There are many, many other discipline methods that parents can use to actually teach their children, help them develop self-control and proper behavior without running the risk of messing up the functioning of their neurology.

If you are a parent who would like to learn about alternatives to spanking, below is a list of resources compiled by Tricia Wilson that you can use:

Websites

Books

  • Conscious Discipline by BeckyBailey, https://consciousdiscipline.com/?sT…
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish https://goo.gl/9U9cHl
  • Scream Free Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Runkel https://goo.gl/gW6SVB
  • Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Collected by Susan Stiffelman goo.gl/qnCOeK
  • Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids by Susan Stiffelman goo.gl/Mc7VTx
  • Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn goo.gl/n57O2D
  • Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Laura Markham goo.gl/RwPgFM
  • Heaven on Earth by Sharifa Oppenheimer goo.gl/8YYK6m
  • Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Nurturing Our Children From Birth to Seven by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley goo.gl/BLJfMU
  • Time In When Time Out Doesn’t Work by Jean Illsey Clarke goo.gl/Z4OAqj
  • Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers by Deborah McNamara and Gordon Neufeld goo.gl/z7DOsY
  • 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan goo.gl/k30E45
  • The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis goo.gl/WecbdJ
  • No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson goo.gl/HYYROi
  • Parenting From the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Daniel Siegel goo.gl/3QAITW
  • Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence by Lawrence Cohen goo.gl/lUibDP
  • The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behaviour Without Whining, Tantrums, and Tears by Elizabeth Pantley goo.gl/FK0tPb

*My 21 year old son has the perfect snarky response to the people who the “I turned out OK” argument in favor of spanking: “you think it’s ok for full grown adults to hit small children. Clearly you didn’t turn out that ok.”

 

Trump’s Responsibility to Avoid the Appearance of All Kinds of Evil

16143192_1277634628970695_4412907211557642267_nA few years back, I looked out the window and saw my then 6 year old daughter riding her bike in the driveway while my tweenaged son ran after her, swinging a baseball bat at the back tire of her bike. My daughter was laughing while my son wore an angry scowl on his face as he just missed the back tire of her bike. Since this isn’t actually the sort of behavior we encourage in the Trotter household, I immediately called to my son to stop and come explain himself to me.

He came over and assured me that they were just playing and he was being very careful not to actually hit his sister or her bike. He explained the he had worked out the timing of his swings so that he could make his fake baseball bat attack look realistic without running the risk of actually hitting her. Being a tweenager, the possibility of error or accident hardly existed in his mind, of course. So far as he was concerned, there was nothing to worry about because he was actually being very careful as he staged his faux “I’m going to beat my sister with a baseball bat attack”.

Rather than focusing on the safety issue, I pointed out something rather obvious to him: if he is deliberately creating the false impression that he is trying to beat his sister with a baseball bat, how does he suppose anyone who sees him will react? Will they say, “hey, look at that kid with amazing timing and gross motor skills playing harmlessly with that little girl”? Or will they say, “oh my gosh, it looks like that kid’s trying to kill that little girl with a baseball bat!”

I could see a little light bulb going off in his head. I pointed out that his father, who has PTSD from growing up in a violent home where people actually had been hit with baseball bats from time to time, would have had an automatic, unthinking and extreme reaction to the sight of his son swinging at baseball bat at his sister. Which was unlikely to turn out well for any of us. More lightbulbs.

I pointed out to him that being safe is important, of course, but it’s not the only issue for him to concern himself with. He needed to be aware of how he appeared to people who may not even know him. You can’t expect people to see someone engaged in behavior which has every appearance of being dangerous, aggressive and violent and not react as if that person was dangerous, aggressive and violent. In fact, it would be irresponsible for someone who witnessed an adolescent kid swinging a baseball bat at a 6 year old to assume the best about the situation or wait to evaluate what’s going on before responding. It was his responsibility, I explained, not just to be safe, but also not to engage in behaviors which will cause alarm and panic in people who witness them.

Obviously this issue hadn’t been on his radar, but as I explained it to him, he caught on because even a tweenager can understand this pretty simple basic idea. Don’t create the impression that you are dangerous or people will respond to you as if you are dangerous and when they do, it will be your error, not theirs.

Unfortunately, it seems that many Trump supporters are no more aware of this concept than my son was prior to our conversation. They believe that the onus is on Trump’s critics to give him a chance and view those of us who are responding to Trump as if he is dangerous as paranoid and overreacting. They think it’s ridiculous that we won’t just wait and see what happens before jumping to the conclusion that Trump is dangerous. They are certain that Trump isn’t dangerous so, like my son who knew that he wasn’t actually going to hit my daughter or her bike with a baseball bat, it seems not to have occurred to them that this isn’t the only thing that matters about the situation.

There’s a reason the bible says to avoid the appearances of all kinds of evil. People aren’t required to wait for definitive proof to respond to the appearance of evil. If you aren’t dangerous and evil, it shouldn’t be that hard to take some responsibility for not creating the impression that you are dangerous and evil. Unfortunately, Trump seems to be going out of his way to create the appearance of all kinds of evil while his supporters act incredulous that anyone would think the man is actually dangerous.

But of course, in the real world, if you’re not racist, you don’t choose the leader of a flagrantly racist white nationalist movement to be your closest adviser and you don’t appoint a man known for his racism and opposition to civil rights to run the department charged with enforcing civil rights. If you’re not a tyrant in the making, you don’t continually threaten to sue and shut down the press when their reporting doesn’t please you. If you’re not a wealthy leach looking to enrich himself, you don’t refuse to release your tax records or take appropriate measures to eliminate conflicts of interest. If you are ethical, you don’t refuse to cooperate with the ethics oversight or threaten the person in charge of ethics oversight with investigation if he criticizes you. If you’re not a conman you don’t deny saying things you literally just said and lie continually.

I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on, but I think you get the point. Even if Trump really and truly is a good guy who wants to do right by the country, the fact remains that at every step of the way, Trump has been behaving exactly the way a dangerous, racist, unethical, despot rising to power behaves. It is not the responsibility of the public to withhold judgment when they witness something which appears dangerous. It is the responsibility of Trump to avoid creating the impression that he is dangerous. And it is both wrong and ridiculous for Trump supporters to continue to insist otherwise. Just because they are fools doesn’t mean the rest of us are obliged to follow suit.

Jesus Saved Our Christmas Dinner

We have a seating problem in our home. Well, two of them actually. The first is that our chairs don’t match and the folding chairs have all lost their stuffing. It’s not very Martha Stewart-ish. Or comfortable. The second is that I have 3 girls under the age of 8. Who all have very strong opinions about where they ought to sit at dinner. And those opinions change nightly. (Yes, yes, I know – each person should have their own seat that they sit in every night. Please, feel free to show up at my house for dinner each night to execute that plan. I’d be mighty appreciative and the best of luck to ya.)

I almost had the whole thing fixed this summer when I got the idea to have the kids basically draw straws. I marked the tips of 5 sticks with a color. Each color corresponded to a spot at the table. The color of the stick you drew told you which spot you would sit in. The only trouble was the 2 year old hadn’t actually agreed to and didn’t care to understand this plan. So if she wanted to sit in a spot one of her sisters had pulled a stick for, all hell broke lose. If I managed to get the baby to chose a spot first, she would often simply change her mind part-way through. So whatever. We’re back to our nightly game of “who’s going to sit where and who’s going to be upset about it?” It doesn’t happen every night, but often enough. In fact, on occasion a child will even storm off and refuse to eat when a settlement to their liking is not reached. Depending on what we’re having for dinner that night this can be a good thing because, you know – more for me. But not for Christmas dinner. So when my most emotional, dramatic daughter stormed off right before Christmas dinner due to a seating dispute, I figured I ought to go and fetch her.

One of the things which I am keenly aware of during the holidays is how easy it is for special occasions to be ruined by conflict between parents and kids. The kids are wound-up and hyper and probably a little overwhelmed and the parents are stressed and busy and feeling insufficiently appreciated. It’s very easy for both parents and children to end up behaving worse than usual. Which is clearly all the kid’s fault but I suppose someone has to be the grown-up, so it might as well be the parents. As much as I wanted to go upstairs and yell and rant and drag my daughter downstairs to sit and sulk in her seat at the table, I don’t particularly care to have this remembered as the Christmas mom ruined. So I want up to her room where she was calming down by doing math problems (seriously – this is one of the ways she calms herself down – by doing math problems). I sat on her bed near her and thought for a minute. Finally I asked her, “do you love God?”

A nod.

“Do you want to make him happy?”

Another nod.

“Do you know that Jesus is God?”

Hesitation and then a nod.

“Did you know that Jesus once talked about picking which spot to sit at when you go to dinner?”

She looked up from her math, gave me a slightly dubious look and a head shake.

“He did – seriously. He said that when you go to a meal, you shouldn’t try to sit in the best spot. You should sit in the worst spot. Because if you pick the best spot, someone else might come along who is supposed to sit in that spot and they’ll make you move. And then you’ll feel bad. But if you pick the worst spot, then if you ever have to move it will be because it’s your turn to sit in a better spot and then you’ll be happy.”

“Yeah, well – no one else does that.”

“Your brothers do. You don’t see them getting upset over where they sit, do you?”

Head shake. She switched from math problems to writing random words.

“Besides, you want to be loving don’t you?”

Nod.

“You have to actually do things to be loving. It’s not enough just to feel it. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us – how to actually be loving. Like he said that we should put ourselves last because people always try to put themselves first and then we’re always mad at each other and fighting. We keep doing it because we want our way and keep trying to fight to get it. But it doesn’t work, does it? Besides, fighting’s no fun and it makes people feel bad. You like playing with your sisters when you’re not fighting, right? But you guys spend an awful lot of time fighting with each other. You can’t do anything about what your sister does – no matter how mad you get or how hard you try. You might as well decide for yourself that you’ll do it the way Jesus said to do it. I mean, God made this whole life we’re living – he might have a pretty good idea about how to do it right, don’t ya think?”

Sheepish nod.

“Heck, wouldn’t it be nice if after a while you didn’t feel like you had to fight all the time? Besides, I have a secret – it turns out that the last spot is usually the best spot. You get to see and learn a lot of interesting things and meet interesting people when you go last. If you go last and just pay attention, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

She stopped her writing, sat looking thoughtful for minute and then agreed to come back down to eat with us. As we left her room she grabbed on to my waist.

“It’s hard. Doing things the way God says. It’s really hard. But just at the beginning. After a while you figure out that God’s ways actually are better. And then it’s really easy. Much easier than doing things your own way ever was. It’s only hard for a little while.”

So drama girl and I went back to Christmas dinner, hand in hand. And I made her brother move so she could sit next to me.

(Now before anyone is tempted to be impressed, y’all ought to know that last week my almost 8 year old picked baby Jesus up from the nativity set and said, “I forget – who is this baby supposed to be?” Jeeze.)

*This is a repeat from a few years back. The kids don’t fight nearly as fiercely about seating arrangements anymore. But our chair situation is still all jacked up. Kitchen chairs are expensive, yo.

Explaining God to a Child

A lot of Christians have a strong desire to ensure that their children follow them in the faith. And to that end, a great deal of energy is expended in teaching them what to believe. Which, to a certain extent is OK. Our faith is not endlessly malleable and there are core beliefs that have been carefully passed down through the millennia for a reason. Yet knowing what to believe about God is very different from actually knowing God. And ultimately, it is knowing God that makes a person’s faith stick. So that’s what I want for my kids and what I focus my attention on when it comes to passing on the faith.

Of course, anyone who has tried explaining God to a child knows that there’s a very good reason we tend to fall back on explaining doctrines and telling stories. God is not very easily put into words. So, as someone with a bit of a way with words and a couple decades of experience trying to explain God to children, allow me to share what’s worked for me. Feel free to steal as you see fit. 😉

What is God?

God is not a thing. Usually we say that God is spirit. Can you imagine what a person would be without their body? That’s a bit like what it means to be a spirit. Except God is much more than just one person. Try to imagine if you could take the spirit of every person and put it together to make one spirit that included every person’s spirit in it. God’s like that, except with the spirit of everything that exists added in. And then a bit more because God is bigger and more than everything that exists even.

The bible says that God is love. So you love me and I love you. Here – let’s look into each other’s eyes and you think how much you love me and I’ll think about how much I love you. Do you feel that? That’s God right there between us.

On God’s Omnipresence

God is like air. Air is all around you and it’s all around me and every other person alive. In the bible is says that “in God we live and move and exist”, just like we live and move and exist in the air that’s everywhere. I breathe air in so there’s air inside of me. And you have air inside of you. But the air in me doesn’t take air away from you. It’s all the same air, but there’s still plenty of air for all of us. And that’s what it’s like with God as well.

Sometimes we notice air. When it moves we feel it. Most often, we don’t even think about it. But it’s always there. And it’s always keeping us alive. In fact, it was keeping people alive for a long time before people knew what it was or why we needed it. And God is the same way.

On God’s Omnipotence

Now, air is a thing. It’s made of little bitty atoms and molecules. But air isn’t alive. So far as we can tell, it doesn’t feel or think or know what it’s doing. God, on the other hand, is alive. God does think and feel and know what he’s doing. So imagine if the air was able to know and feel and watch everything it touched. It would know what was happening on the outside and on the inside of everything. That’s kind of what it’s like to be God.

On Prayer

Even though God is everywhere and knows everything, God isn’t rude. God’s not going to come barging into your head without a very good reason. Instead, God waits for an invitation. And that’s what happens when you pray – you invite God in to hear what you have to say and think. And then if you get quiet and listen, sometimes you’ll even hear something back from God. It’s a little weird and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re just talking to yourself. And that’s OK. God made you to be an awful lot like him, so talking to God isn’t always going to be all that different from talking to yourself. But sometimes, you will know that God is speaking to you. Usually because what you hear touches your heart or surprises you or even takes your breath away. And when that happens, try to remember it. Because sometimes God is pretty quiet and when that happens, it helps to remember what was said before.

Who is Jesus?

Remember how I said that God is spirit? That’s kind of confusing, isn’t it? Even if we pray and think about these things, it’s still awfully hard to understand. God knows this. So, when the time was right, Jesus was born. Jesus was a human being just like us with a body and a family and a mind that worked just like ours. But his spirit – what we are when we don’t have a body – was God. Jesus shows us what it looks like when God lives as a human being. So we can see what God looks like, acts like and cares about when he exists not as air or spirit, but as a human being.

Jesus shows us the truth about God. Because of him, we have a way to examine God. Let’s say that you tell me that you prayed and found God to be mean, harsh and angry. And I say that I pray and found God to be kind, gentle and loving. How can we know which is right? Well, we can look at Jesus. Sometimes Jesus was angry and harsh. But mostly he was kind, gentle and loving. So maybe there are times when God seems angry and harsh, but mostly we can expect him to be kind, gentle and loving.

Or let’s say that someone tells you that it’s really important to God that we dress a certain way or not listen to certain music or not spend time with people who aren’t like us. And they even have a bunch of bible verses to show you that this is true. Well, you can look at Jesus and see that he never showed any interest in how people dressed or what they did for fun and he spent time with all sorts of people. So even though someone might have a bunch of bible verses that they are using to tell you these things, you can be pretty sure that they are confused. Because of Jesus.

Not only that, but have you ever thought that maybe God didn’t really understand what you are dealing with? Like maybe God’s on the outside looking in but doesn’t really get how hard life is sometimes or what it’s like to really struggle? I think that sometimes. But Jesus went through all the things that we go through. He was called names and got sick to his stomach and felt alone and misunderstood. He got hungry and crabby and was treated unfairly and wasn’t always allowed to do what he wanted. So we know that God actually does know what it’s like. He really can understand what we go through. And now we know that because we know that Jesus went through all those things as well.

Being Passive is a Discipline

Passivity is a discipline. In fact, sometimes I think it is the hardest discipline – particularly in a culture like ours. We humans like to DO things. We like to build. We like to invent. We like to build relationships and parse them out when they breakdown. We like to plant and grow and make. We like to talk and write and sing. We like to be masters of our fate, captains of our ships, directors of our plays. We seek, we strive, we fight, we climb mountains simply because they are there. We admire those who do it well and follow those who champion the cause of doing. Which is good and well. It is as it should be in most ways. And yet . . .

Here in the great Northern Tundra of the Upper Midwestern United States, there will be a reduced apple harvest this year, although fortunately it’s not as bad as some had feared. You see, as in much of the country, winter was mild and warm weather showed up early. The apple trees woke early from their winter doze and sent out their blossoms into the warmth. However, March and April had merely traded places. The warmth of March that tricked the trees into releasing their blossoms too soon gave way to frosts of April that threatened the delicate apple blossoms before they had time to set fruit. So now, this fall when the trees produce the fruit of a long summer of growing in warmth and rain, their harvest will be inferior. All because the trees were tricked into think their passive winter wait was over and their time to shine and begin the work of making fruit was at hand. But the conditions that made them think their time had come were not sustainable.

We humans are not trees. We don’t have to be tricked into acting outside of our proper time. But it requires great discipline to refrain from action when conditions seem ripe even when we know it’s not sustainable. We tell ourselves we’ll work it out later. But this is a lesson to learn. To be passive. To wait. And most of all to allow God time enough to work in us and on us. Continue reading

Allow Me to Share the Holy Grail of Parenting

209750_1846076945281_1961977_oAfter 5 kids and 19 years of parenting, I have finally discovered the Holy Grail of parenting. The one thing you need to know in order to lighten your load and teach them to be responsible, thinking, healthy people with good judgment. As early and as often as is safe and feasible, start repeating these words to yourself: “meh. I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually.”

Seriously. Try it. It’s a long term strategy, but it works. And it’s much, much, much easier than continually forcing your will on another human being who is clearly lacking in judgment. I know it’s hard to believe, but kids are capable of learning on their own. They do think about things. And it’s much easier for them to admit when they are wrong when they don’t have someone standing over them demanding that they do so.

If there’s one mistake I made as a mother, it’s that I have a tendency to over-teach. I’m a good teacher and I know a lot, so I mostly missed the downside to this habit. While me providing in-depth, detailed instructions on everything makes it easy for my kids to learn, it also means that they view me as a walking instruction/information dispenser and so have no responsibility to figure anything out on their own. If I’m not available to provide the required instructions, might as well just wait until I am available to deal with the issue.

Shockingly, the one thing they did figure out for themselves was how to use my teacherly impulses to manipulate me. They all know that I have a Pavlovian response to the sound of a question being asked and will automatically launch into a long-winded (but interesting) answer or story when asked one. Which comes in handy at bedtime, chore time or whenever they want attention from me. It’s entertainment and a diversion tactic all in one! But in the meantime, my 16 year old would claim that the kitchen was a mess because he wasn’t sure where anything went and the world will fall apart if he puts the cake pan in the wrong cabinet.

I’m still susceptible to “ask mom a question” tactic, but I figure that at worst they’ll end up being good listeners and there aren’t nearly enough of those. However the one thing I wish I would have understood better 19 years ago is how to use a lighter touch in instructing my kids. If I had it to do over again, I would leave more room for my kids to reach their own conclusions, do dumb things and take time to learn some of life’s lessons for themselves.

I think we underestimate how competent our kids actually are at this process learning how to be human. We forget that they think about what we say and they want to be good so long as it doesn’t mean giving up on having fun. They are capable of self-correction. Maybe not in the moment, but over time. They want to find solutions to their problems. And if you can learn to refrain from stepping in to correct and direct them at every turn, they will figure it out . . . eventually.

Seriously. My teen even started wearing a jacket to the bus stop. Eventually.

When Parents Disagree

What I’m about to say flies in the face of nearly everything you’ve ever heard on the subject of how to handle disagreements between parents. But it’s my blog and my life and I can do that when I see fit, right? And on the topic of how parents should handle disagreements between them, I have no problem saying that the standard advice is horrid and wrong.

So, no doubt you have heard many times that while you and your partner may have disagreements when it comes to parenting, it is important that you present a unified front to your kids. Which is, if I may be so bold as to say this, utter bullshit. And if you take it too far, it can be damaging to your kids to boot. Allow I to explain.

No two people will ever agree on everything. And inevitably when dealing with something as challenging and complex as parenting, sharp disagreements will arise. This is reality. And unless reality is so ugly that it would traumatize your children, you are never doing any favors to your kids when you hide reality from them. At some point they are going to have to head out into the world and find their way. So they need to have some idea of what they will be dealing with and some idea of how they can manage.

Pretending that you and your spouse are in total agreement when it comes to parenting is nothing more than hiding reality from your children. And it’s totally unnecessary. Continue reading

Why the White Dude Crossed the Tracks

Back when I did prison ministry, we used to have this crazy old white dude who would come in to talk with the boys. He had a ministry working with gangs on the streets of Chicago. He had occasionally even managed to bring high up people representing large, dangerous gangs together to reach agreements which would reduce the levels of conflict, and therefore the levels of violence between them.

Youth for Christ, a national organization which includes Campus Life, City Life, and Juvenile Justice Mission, provided funding for his ministry by employing him between 1982 through 2008. Which is a really long, long time to be a youth minister. Most burnout within their first decade.

At the time I was involved with prison ministry, crime had just reached a 20 year high, and the problem was most acute in urban areas like Chicago with high density, segregated housing. There were some places that police avoided patrolling out of fear of being targeted by violence, so his ability to develop relationships and gain trust among the gangs was the subject of a lot of interest.

He was invited to speak to kids in prisons all over Northern Illinois and served as a youth chaplain for the Cook County Sheriff’s department. He made sure that at every step along the path a vulnerable kid was taking, he was there to tell them about Christ’s love.

The man’s name was Gordon and he looked like a comedy version of a used car sales man. Wore ill fitting and mismatched business clothes. Had a BAD comb over. He was in his late fifties when I met him. But I was 18 at the time, so he could have been my grandpa. If my grandpa were a used car sales man in the early 80s. Gordon had a way of talking that was slightly disjointed, but jokey enough that he kept his audience engaged. He came off as a bit of a fool, really.

But it was all very deliberate. Continue reading

Raising Moral Kids Pt. 3

Let’s say that you take your young child to a friend’s house and while she is there, she breaks a toy. Would you prefer that she:

A. Bring you the toy, ask for help fixing it and apologize for breaking the toy.

Or

B. Hide the toy so no one will know that she broke it?

Let me give you a minute to think about this one . . . . OK, I’m psychic so I already know that your answer is A. You’d rather have a kid who admits her error, apologizes, tries to correct her error and will ask for help to do so. You’d also rather have a kid who didn’t lie to you, didn’t hide from you and was able to admit when she is wrong. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

It just so happens that we know what the difference is between a kid who hides a toy they broke and one who takes responsibility for it:

Parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and guilt at home. The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the experimenter, and explain what happened. The ashamed toddlers were avoiders; the guilty toddlers were amenders. ~ Raising a Moral Child, NYT

The difference between a kid who admits error and a kid who avoids it is the difference between guilt and shame. While sometimes you will hear people talking about healthy shame, the truth is that shame is often really toxic. We will do just about anything to avoid it. Including hiding our errors, lying, engaging in destructive self-soothing behaviors, mistreating others and ourselves. People will go to their graves never knowing a moment of real peace or love rather than facing their shame.

Clearly shame is part of the normal repertoire of human emotions, but way more often than not, we experience it in really unhealthy ways. Too many parents encourage shame in their kids as a way to control them. Even parents who know better will unknowingly create shame in their children. According to current thinking, based on pretty much every human’s experience, shame is what you get when a caregiver uses anger, fear, ridicule or contempt in an attempt to control their child’s behavior. Continue reading