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.

Dinner Time

I've had the opportunity to speak at a number of different events in February and March, mainly talking about families and relationships. Last weekend, I was speaking at a parish men's group on creating genuine encounters within the family. At the end of the talk, I opened up for some Q & A and got a great question. One of the men asked "How important is it really to have dinner together as a family?"

Before I get into my answer, a little context. This was a parish in Northern Virginia.  I've lived and practiced all over the country and I've never seen an area more demanding on family time than Northern Virginia. Everybody is overworked, over-scheduled, and overtired.  Traffic is a mess (the stretch of I-95 that I take to get home was recently named the most congested in the country. Great job, everyone!), cost of living is high, and the pressures and expectations are higher still.

So when this gentleman was asking how important is it for us to eat together as a family, what he was likely saying was, "My kids have some activity every single night of the week and with my commute, I don't get home until 7pm if I’m lucky. Family time is very much more aspirational than a reality. Is that a problem for my family?"

Yes, eating dinner together matters and is extremely important. Even if it's the only 30 minutes of the day that the family is able to be together in one place. Dinner time is a key opportunity for us to connect with all the other members of the family. We can share about our day or discuss opinions. Most importantly, we can listen to what the other people around the table have to say. This shows them how much we respect their dignity and value their perspective.

What does not show that we respect the perspective of others is allowing ourselves to be intentionally distracted. To that end, keep phones and tablets away from the table. They're too distracting. Keep the TV off.  It can be hard enough as it is to connect as a family, so why invite things that make it more challenging by added extra obstacles and distractions.

Given how busy we all are between work and the demands of dozens of different activities, there seems to be less time available for families to be together. So why wouldn't we take the low hanging fruits and make dinner time a priority for our families so we can reconnect everyday.

This week, commit to having at least one undistracted family dinner as a family. Afterward discuss the experience with every member of the family.

Flu Season

It seems like every few years somebody at the CDC declares that we're in the worst flu session in recent memory. This year, at least where we live in Virginia, it seems true. The ducklings and Mama Duck have been sick on and off for a few weeks.

Parenting sick kids can ratchet up our stress levels above the normal threshold. Not only do we worry about all the usual things, but we have the additional concerns of whether it's somehow our fault that they got sick to begin with (Why did I let them go out without a scarf?!?) or whether we're taking care of our kids well enough that they'll get better soon (Am I giving them the right medicine and are they resting enough!?!). Usually, it's the stress of being stuck at home with kids who may have a slight temperature and a wicked cough but otherwise are running around like crazy as if nothing is wrong.

I tried taking a different view on the kids being sick this time. Rather than look at all the things that may have gone wrong or could still go wrong, can I look at taking care of the kids as a new way to love them? When one of the ducklings throws up (oh joy) can I take the opportunity, when I'm helping them clean off, to see this as me meeting them where they are?

Our kids will always have needs; some we can predict and some we can't. Every time we help them get their needs met, we're taking another step closer to them and assisting them in moving toward flourishing. This is true for little things (my kid has a cold or needs help with math homework) and large (my kid had a serious illness or is struggling with significant depression). It's our willingness as parents to get our hands dirty when our kids need our help that shows them how greatly we love them and see their dignity. The deliberate decision to be present in the moment when they need us is worth far more than being stuck overthinking the past or hyper-fixated on the future and what comes next. Since we can't change the past or control the future, all we can focus on is helping our kids meet their needs in the present moment to the best of our ability.

This week, notice the area where it's hard to stay in the present moment where our kids’ needs are concerned. Then try to take a positive step on meeting one of the needs of your child.

Make The Change

My job with Catholic Charities takes me all over the Diocese of Arlington. The running joke is that my office is a Toyota Corolla moving at variable speeds along I-95. So I spend a lot of time in the car. I schedule phone meetings, listen to audiobooks, and try to say my rosary. I also think. A lot.

Because I'm part Irish (and by default a pessimist) I tend to think about things that didn't go well. I'm not a brooder by nature, but I do find myself thinking about the ways I didn't do an awesome job in a number of areas. Parenting screw ups are often high on that list.

I had one of those moments earlier today when I realized that I hadn't had any one-on-one time with my son in a few days. It wasn't intentional; I just didn't have the opportunity for him and I to spend time together just the two of us. We'd planned on watching a little bit of football together Sunday but it didn't work out (stomach flu making the rounds among the other ducklings). He was disappointed and got frustrated. I responded to the frustration (with much less patience than I wanted) but never empathized with his disappointment.

As I realized this today in my office-on-wheels, my first thought was "Nice job, you jerk. Way to not be patient with your son AND not even find another way to make up that time you were going to spend together."

Introspection can be a good thing. It helps us understand ourselves better, and as part of that, can help us see the areas of our life where we're doing well, and where we need to make improvements. Introspection without a willingness to make changes isn't helpful. It just becomes internal griping or a pity party for one.  If we see things that could have gone better, address them. If you see you've done something that requires an apology, apologize. And if you see you missed an opportunity for something good, don't spend all your time kicking yourself, go try to create a new opportunity instead.

My son and I couldn't watch football together tonight, but we could watch highlights and read a story together. And I had the chance to tell him how grateful I was to have the opportunity to spend time with him.

This week, what changes can you make to create opportunities for connection with your kids?

'Tis The Season

Somewhere around December 15th, Christmas stops seeming fun.  There’s more to do than we have hours in the day.  Fight the crowds. Purchase the gifts.  Wrap the gifts.  Spend an hour in line at the post office trying to mail the gifts.  Address cards.  Bake cookies. Send treats.  And that’s just to take care of the people outside of your house.  There’s still a frantic rush to make sure we have everything for the kids (let alone our spouse).  Did you get the bleeping-blorping robot hovercraft your son wanted?  Did you get it in the right color?  What about the E-Z homecraft stained glass window kit your daughter is really hoping for?  The one that has the converted lightbulb powered oven that melts the glass right there in your kitchen?  No?!?  ARGGGGH! I QUIT.  I’m going to bed. Let me know when the New Year is here.

Sound familiar?  Does your heart rate start steadily increasing from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day?  If so, take five minutes and just sit down quietly.  Preferably with a cup of tea.  Christmas shouldn’t be driven by stuff. The obvious point is that Christmas is, first and foremost, a celebration of Christ’s birth and the tremendous joy which that brings.  Christmas is also a time to come together as a family. 

Sure, kids like stuff.  I think most of us can remember the excitement of opening presents on Christmas morning.  But what kids remember best are the family activities and traditions that surround Christmas.  I can’t tell you exactly what presents I got as a kid on a year-by-year basis.  There were some Transformers and GI Joe in there during the mid ‘80s, and I definitely got a sweet New Orleans Saints football when I was 10.   But what I remember most clearly and fondly is how my family celebrated together.

I’d be lying if I told you that I’m doing this perfectly.  I’m not. I still try to hustle the kids to bed early these days to try to squeeze out a few more minutes of pre-Christmas prep.  But I don’t want those efforts to come at the expense of my wife and children.  We want to do what’s reasonable, rather than over-extend ourselves so much that we’re miserable and cranky with each other starting on December 23rd.

This week, think about the things you can do as a family this holiday season and make a plan to directly connect with each person in your home for at least five minutes every day.

Merry Christmas from all of us at The Duck Effect.

Being Present

Oftentimes I find myself thinking about the future. I imagine watching my kids graduate from high school, or dancing with my daughters at their weddings. I think about Christmases and grandkids and a million different variations on what life might look like. It's human nature to be curious about what comes next.

But sometimes, thinking about the future is less about what God has in store for us, and is more a focus on the laundry list of tasks that need to get done. Wash the dishes, clean the bathroom, mow the yard. I caught myself doing this a few weeks ago. I was reading a bedtime story to one of my kids, but my mind was on the projects I needed to get done around the house that night. I realized that I was rushing through the story without meaning to. Worse, I was treating time with my kid as just another item to cross off my list as I plowed through the end of the day.  I was so caught up in my self imposed to-do list, that I was missing a chance to be present to my child. I was passing up an opportunity to genuinely encounter a person that I love.

Being present doesn't cost us anything.  If I spend five distracted minutes reading Goodnight Moon out loud but am really thinking of how I need to mop the kitchen, the kitchen will still need to be mopped.  And the time it takes me to mop will be the same if, rather than dwell on the chores, I allow myself to focus on being engaged with my child for those five minutes of story time instead. We want to actively choose to tune into our kids, rather than just go through the motions.  When we focus too much on what comes next, we might miss what's right in front of us.  

Today, pay attention to the times when it's difficult to truly pay attention to your kids, and gently refocus yourself back to them when you feel distracted.

How To Spend Time With Your Kids

Spending time with our kids is important.  We get that.  We all understand that, just like we understand that we need to eat vegetables or turn off the stove before leaving the house.  The question is – how?  What is “time with my kids” supposed to look like?  Here are three things you can try.

1)      Meet your kids where they are.  As adults, we tend to think about meeting people half way; compromising with both sides being willing to move toward the other.  With kids, we need to be all in.  Dive right into our kids’ worlds.  Learn what they like, try to understand what they like best about those things.

2)      Show interest.  Does your son like dinosaurs?  Great, try to develop an interest in dinosaurs.  Does your daughter enjoy mermaids?  Fantastic, see if you can find a mermaid story at the library to read with her.  When we show our kids that we are interested in their interests, what we’re really demonstrating is that we’re interested in them, and their thoughts.  By moving toward our kids, we’re showing them that they’re worth the effort.

3)      Make them a priority.  Quality time matters for kids, but quantity is important too.  As parents, we all have a zillion things we need to do, and that’s not even counting the stuff that we want to do.  So where are our priorities?  Yes, the dishes need to get cleaned and the lawn needs to be mowed.  But can we find 15 minutes to spend with our kids before we start the housework?  Otherwise, we run the risk of putting off that connection time while we take care of that one chore, and then just finishing up that other chore, and finally that one last chore while we’re thinking about it and then… You get my point.  It’s too easy to put off the important things, because we always think we have the opportunity to come back and do it later.  But our kids must take priority because otherwise they start to believe that they’re less important to us than a sink of dirty dishes or a slightly overgrown yard.

I heard someone once say that it isn’t enough to let our kids know that they’re loved.  We want our kids to feel treasured.  What a great image.  We want our kids to know that they are precious in our eyes.  This is how they learn that they have dignity and are worthy of being loved by others. 

Today try to spend 15 minutes with your kids, engaging in their world, before getting caught up in the day-to-day tasks.