Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween?

My wife shared with me a recent discussion on a Catholic homeschooling forum that she follows. The conversation was about whether it is okay to celebrate Halloween. This was a more heated discussion than you would think with opinions ranging from "Celebrating Halloween is a sin!" to "It's just costumes and candy, stop being such a killjoy!" Most parents online were just looking for guidance on what was best for their kids.

 

We're in an unusual position. Due to a ferocious number of dietary issues, our kids are off sugars. Let me tell you, nothing puts a damper on trick-or-treat'ing like the realization you can’t have any of the stuff being handed out. It's even less fun than being given paper clips as a treat. At least you can do something with a paper clip. When you remove "eat the candy" as an option, the other uses for fun-size chocolate bars is surprisingly limited.

 

Our kids have also told us they don't like Halloween because the costumes are scary. Our youngest duckling (the 3 year old) used the word "creepy" to describe Halloween decorations in our neighborhood. I'm not sure where she got "creepy" from, but I'm glad she's letting us know how she's feeling.

 

But it is an interesting point - what are we celebrating? I won't go so far as to say that it's wrong to celebrate Halloween, but what message are we trying to teach our kids?  Is it the candy that's the main attraction? There are plenty of ways outside of Halloween to increase our children's sugar intake.  Is it the dressing up in costumes?  Again, we can let our kids dress up as knights or princesses or cats when they're playing at home. Having a dress up box with lots of versatile items for costumes is a great way for children to exercise their imagination. So is the appeal of Halloween the opportunity to dress up in different or morbid costumes? Letting them to pretend to be ghosts, zombies, vampires or other monsters roaming the neighborhood. I would ask again - why? What is it that we want our kids to gain and learn from this experience?

 

We want our children to be exposed to that which is beautiful and draws us closer to God. Anything that is neither beautiful or strengthening our relationship with, and understanding of, God isn't worth pursuing.

For Halloween, as with dozens of other regular opportunities, rather than automatically going with the crowd, ask yourself what it is that you hope your child will take away from participating in this activity. Then see if that outcome lines up with the other parenting decisions you've made and if this specific activity is the best option for your child to gain those desired experiences. If it is not, consider other alternative options that do a better job of providing the beautiful experiences to grow and learn that we want our children to have.

Opioids

Virginia, like the rest of the country, has an opioid problem.  I participated in a conference hosted by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, led by Bishop Burbidge, over the weekend to discuss just how much of a problem, and why it’s a big deal.

Most people, when they hear “opioid addiction” tend to think street drugs – heroin and opium.  But one of the main problems are prescription opioid painkillers.  I’ve talked to a lot of doctors about this recently, and they agree that until about five years ago, the medical community didn’t realize just how addictive opioid painkillers (things like oxycodone and codeine) can be.  Let me give you some stats on prescription opioids…

·         1 in 5 people develops an increased risk of opioid addiction after just 10 days of being on a opioid prescription.

·         20% to 30% of people with opioid prescriptions for chronic pain misuse them.

·         80% of people who use heroin first misused a prescription opioid.

·         In 2016, 11.5 million Americans aged 12 and older misused a prescription pain medication.

With opioids, it’s not just the addiction that’s the problem – though that in itself can be devastating to individuals and families.  At high enough doses, opioids can be lethal – causing a dangerous drop in heart rate and breathing.  This has increased as synthetic opioids like fentanyl have started to become more prevalent.  Fentanyl, basically a super opioid, is highly lethal, and is used by gangs to cut heroin because it makes the drug stronger, but also cheaper to produce since fentanyl is inexpensive to make.

So why am I writing this, on my otherwise family friendly blog?  Because the one long term study that looked at successfully preventing the abuse of prescription meds involved strengthening families during or before children are in junior high.

This is not just a street drug issue.  This is not just a poor family or rough neighborhood issue.  With legally obtained prescription opioids being the gateway, this is an issue that impacts middle and upper middle class families just as much as those financially struggling.  And the problems are starting at a young age.

Based on the research, kids as young as 12 are getting their hands on pills that they should not have.  As parents, we need to do a couple of things:

1)      Medication management.  Don’t keep old prescriptions around the house.  If you have a legally obtained painkiller, use it as your doctor directs and then get rid of it if there is any extra.

2)      Build relationships.  We need to be able to have serious conversations with our kids.  And rather than think this means that we, as parents, need to talk to (or at) our kids more, it really means that we need to build relationships where our kids feel comfortable enough to come and share their serious concerns with us.  If our kids think we can’t (or won’t) hear them, how can they ask us for help?

We need to respond better as a community to the reality of the opioid crisis.  This means first responding better at home.

Hope

I find myself talking about hope often. Sometimes with clients, sometimes with friends and loved ones. A good friend from work asked me a great question a few days ago - what is hope? Not "what gives you hope?" (Meaning optimism) or "in what do you place our hope?" (Meaning trust) or even "for what do you hope? (Meaning desire for an outcome) but a deep look at hope itself. How do we define and understand hope?

Hope is confidence that our desire for some future good will be fulfilled, no matter how messy things get or how difficult it will be to reach that good.

The Christian has hope that he or she will be united with God in heaven. If we follow God's call in our lives faithfully, no matter how weird things get, we'll land well.

Parenting requires a healthy amount of hope. But often feels more like whiteknuckling - holding on for dear life as we cross our fingers and wish that we're not screwing up our kids too badly. But hope, in its fullest form, also needs faith. As parents we want to have hope that the good we desire for our kids is attainable, and we need faith in our decision making that the paths we travel with our children don't lead us off a cliff.

But what if I don't trust my own parenting judgment? What if I have zero confidence in my parenting in general?! What if I really am the worst parent ever?!?!!

Stop.

Slow down.

Breathe.

If you WERE the worst parent ever, you wouldn't be so worried that you might be the worst or that you were unintentionally screwing up you kids royally.  Sure, there are things we can do differently and better (See pretty much every other blog entry on this site) but panicking that we're dreadful parents so much that we spend more time freaking out and less time making positive changes makes no sense.

Have hope.

Take a deep breath. Or three.

Know that you aren't alone. So go find someone to talk to and figure out what are the 1 or 2 things that need to change and what are the 2 or 3 things that are going well.

What are some specific ways we can increase hope?  You can think of think of a time that things went better than you expected.  You can try to identify something, even if its tiny, that made you feel proud.  You can ask someone who you trust to help you think of ways that you’ve grown as a parent or a person.  You can pray.

This week, find your reason for hope, no matter how small, and think of ways to strengthen that hope.

Guide Or Punish

A colleague told me recently about a difficult situation where a parent was trying to discipline their rambunctious child. Discipline is a good thing, it's a part of helping our children grow in virtue. There are clear expectations of behavior that all children must learn, such as always look both ways before crossing the street, speak respectfully toward others, and tell the truth at all times. Discipline is the art of teaching children to live virtuously while instilling a clear sense and understanding of the rules, codes, and standard operating procedures that our children will encounter every day they're living in the world.

If our children are more docile in temperament, it may be easier to encourage these behaviors. Certainly not "easy" but easier. Not every kid is docile. The Ducklings, for example, all have strong personalities and have no problem letting you know what they think. They come by it honestly.

So how do we respond to a child that has a big personality? Especially when that child may not do things exactly as you want them done. The answer cannot be forcing compliance through fear and violence. My colleague shared that the parents of the rambunctious child had resorted to hitting and washing the kid's mouth with soap. Sadly, this won't end well. Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. A child who is spanked or hit doesn't learn what the expectations are, or why they matter. Instead, the child learns to avoid being punished rather than internalize the message or lesson. There are lots of ways to avoid being punished. Not getting caught is one of the easiest. When we resort to punishing, what we're teaching our kids are the merits of being sneaky. A focus on avoiding being in trouble at all costs (by lying or deceit) can carry on from childhood into adolescence and adulthood.  So while there might be a surface change in behavior, we wouldn't say this is an example of a child growing in virtue.

Equally problematic is how a punishing approach weakens the relationship between parent and child. Kids become resentful of the intervention ("I don't like that you yell at me all the time but if nothing I do is ever good enough for you then why should I even bother."). Parents can feel equally resentful ("I feel guilty for what I did and I wouldn't have had to do it if you would just behave better"). So an intervention that leaves both parent and child more upset with themselves and the other person while not actually making any positive changes needs to be reconsidered.

When I present this idea, parents often ask me if I think kids should just be left to run wild.  No, but I think we can guide our children without resorting to punishment - the parental nuclear option. Instead, we can clearly explain, in age appropriate terms, what behavior is expected and why.  We can help our children understand cause and effect by seeing the consequences of their choices, both good and bad.  Here’s an example.  Let’s say one of the Ducklings wants me to read them a story before bed, and I want her to pick up her toys first.  If I ask this at 7pm and bedtime is at 7:30pm, the sooner she picks up, the more time we have to read.  If she pokes around until 7:28pm, we won’t have a lot of time for reading.  There’s a clearly stated expectation (please clean up your room) and a clearly understood consequence (stories can’t happen until the room is clean, and bedtime is in 30 minutes).  So if she zips right through and cleans everything in 5 minutes, she gets lots of reading time. Hooray for her!  She made a decision that has positive consequences.  If she dawdles, she might not have time for a story.  Sorry, but we’ll try it again tomorrow.

Three important notes here for parents.  One, all directions must be reasonable and achievable.  It’s fine to give your kid 5 minutes to get in pajamas and brush teeth but it’s no fair giving a kid a 5 minute window to mow the entire yard.  Two, stay positive and calm.  If you send the message that you believe a kid will fail, they probably will.  And if they don’t meet their goal, be encouraging that they can achieve it next time.  Three, you MUST be consistent and follow through.  If you say bedtime is at 7:30, stick to that.  If you say you’re going to read if they get things done, be true to your word.  Kids are more likely to follow through when they see their parents doing the same.

This week, when an opportunity comes up to guide your child, think about what is the true lesson you want him or her to learn, and how to teach that lesson in the most positive way possible.

Laugh More

I was making dinner tonight when one of the ducklings had an idea. "Daddy," said Duckling #1 "Let's play a game. We want you to be a friendly dragon that we trained. And you live with us. And we taught you to cook. And you're friendly but in a cranky sort of way. And your name is Matt." Yup, Matt the friendly but slightly cranky dragon that cooks. That's me.

I wasn't sure I wanted to pretend to be a dragon. Certainly not one named Matt. And why are my kids making ME the cranky dragon? Couldn't I be the cool dragon. Why cranky? I could feel myself getting slightly cranky about being asked to pretend to be a slightly cranky dragon. Ahoy there, irony!

But the ducklings weren't fussing at me. They weren't whining or complaining. They wanted to engage and have some fun.  OK, I can do that. So for 30 minutes tonight I pretended to be Matt the slightly cranking dragon who was cooking egg fried rice for dinner. It was great. We had a lot of fun, and we enjoyed a much calmer and more enjoyable, albeit sillier, dinner than we had in a while.

Sometimes being present to our kids means being willing to be silly. Sure, there's a time and a place, but there are far more times and places where it's OK to be silly with our kids than not. So what holds us back? Are we distracted? Too tired? Self conscious? (adults aren't supposed to be silly!) Whatever the reason, how can we overcome those roadblocks and be present to our children in the way that they're asking us to be?

When we enter into the imaginary worlds our kids create, it shows them that we are willing to meet them where they are. We're willing to get down on the floor with them (figuratively or literally) and share in their delight.

This week, find an opportunity to join with our kids, even if it means being silly.

Video Game Addiction

Following the World Health Organization's decision to include "Gaming Disorder" as a diagnosis, the Catholic News Agency contacted me for a comment.  You can read the article here.  In short (and as I've said before on this site) video games can cause significant problems for individuals and families, and I'm glad to see the increased attention from the medical community.

Later that week, I was invited back on Morning Air to discuss video game addition with Jon and Glenn.  You can hear the interview here about 45 minutes into the segment.

Video game addiction may only effect a small percentage of players, but it speaks to a larger underlying issue of isolation and loneliness - both of which continue to increase among children and adults.

 

One Hundred Princesses

Duckling #2 was sitting at the table eating breakfast the other morning. She was quiet and I could tell she had something on her mind. Then, out of the blue, she asked me this question:

"Daddy, if there were 100 princesses in a row and me, who would you pick to be your daughter?"

I immediately said that I would choose her to be my little girl, which pleased Duckling #2 greatly. But it got me thinking - am I telling the Ducklings that I love them enough? Or, more specifically, am I telling them that I love them for who they are?

In clinical terms, "unconditional positive regard" means that clinicians are trained to accept their clients no matter what. This does not mean that clinicians need to accept everything their clients DO unconditionally, but that's a topic for another blog.

As parents, we don't choose our kids. We have who we have. We see our own qualities and characteristics (good and bad) reflected back in them. Our kids will have gifts and talents. They will also have crosses to bear.

Our kids may have strong personalities. They may be independent or clingy. They may be awkward or rambunctious. They may be thoughtful or impulsive. But do they know we'd choose them out of a lineup of all the other princes and princesses in the world?

A friend of mind once said it was up to the parents to help their children know that they are cherished. I love that. Parents aren't just called to help their kid feel accepted or appreciated, but truly cherished and valued as a pearl without price. Sometimes this is easy, we feel incredible pride in our children or share in their innocent joys.  But sometimes showing that we cherish our kids may be tricky. How do you convey "cherished" to the child who just dumped yogurt down an AC vent or dropkicked the cat? In those moments we have to dig deep and find the positive things that we sincerely love about our kids. When we get in the habit of actively looking for things that are going well in our relationships with our kids, it becomes easier to see those positive elements. Not that we become naive to the challenges and struggles in our family, but if we make a commitment to look for the positive, we're less likely to overlook the dozens of small blessings that occur throughout the day.

This week, try to help your child feel cherished by sharing one thing you love about your child every night when you tuck them into bed.

Upcoming Events - June

Well, so much for April and the first half of May...

Between family life and work, Spring has been keeping us busy here at the Duck Effect.  The garden is starting to grow and the Ducklings have been busy with backyard baseball and ballet.

But after a brief hiatus, Michael is back out on the road.  He'll be speaking in Toronto at the Birthright International Convention on Saturday June 9.

And the blog will resume being updated regularly.

Video Games

A few weeks ago, I was on The Kyle Heimann Show talking about video games. If you don't know Kyle's stuff, I highly recommend checking him out at Kyle Heimann

Anyway, Kyle asked me about whether I thought that video games were becoming a crisis in today's world. I told him I didn't think it was a crisis, not in the same way pornography or the breakdown of families or opioid addiction is a crisis, but I don't think I did a great job highlighting that video games can be a serious issue.  

Playing video games, specifically violent video games, can cause problems for some kids. There's a significant body of research that suggests that playing video games can increase aggressive thoughts and feelings, while decreasing positive desires such as the desire to help others or feeling compassionate. Full disclosure - I wrote my dissertation on violent video games and my findings echoed the research mentioned above.  I picked this as my dissertation topic not because I played video games much - I rarely did - but because 1) I thought they were an interesting advancement in storytelling and 2) if I had to spend 3 years working on a project, I wanted to be able to talk about it at parties without people totally losing interest. There is some debate still among researchers about how much of a problem video games are, but the argument tends to be "big problem vs no big deal" rather than "bad for you vs good for you." Not a lot of people are saying playing violent video games is really helpful in developing virtues.

When it comes to kids, how kids are impacted by video games varies kid-by-kid.  For some kids, it's no big deal. For others, they really struggle - getting spun up or angry or obsessive. This is no different than kids eating cake. For most, cake in moderation is fine.  But for a kid with gluten allergies or one who has a problem with sugar, that same piece of cake could be the worst thing for him.

Is this fair for kids who are more sensitive to video games or are more easily thrown off by screen time? No, but that's life. It's not really a question of fair, it's just the reality of the situation.

Video games aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, the popularity of video games continues to grow, just look at the rise of ESports and competitive video game play.  It's already possible to watch professional gamers play online, this has become more mainstream over the last 3 years with ESPN covering ESports and groups like the NBA teams funding groups of professional gamers. This is a trend that will continue to grow and it is not unlikely that 30 years from now people will follow ESports teams and players the same way NFL teams and star quarterbacks are followed now.

Upcoming Events - March/April

It's been a busy month at The Duck Effect.  Lots of great opportunities to discuss The Tech Talk and meet a bunch of people.  I'm currently in Steubenville, OH getting ready to give a few presentations at Franciscan University.  Here are a few things coming up...

Monday March 26 - Michael will record an episode for the Diocese of Arlington's new podcast - Searching For More.

Wednesday March 28 - Michael will be on The Busted Halo Show discussing The Tech Talk.

Wednesday April 11 - Michael will be presenting on Parenting and Social Media at St Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia.

We hope you'll tune in/show up!