Parenting

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.

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.

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.

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.

Loving When You Don’t Like

Mornings can be an adventure at our house. We have a bunch of non-morning people, which is a polite way of saying "cranky before 8am." And, at times, one of my cranky little ducklings will do something one of the other cranky little ducklings.  I've been known to say any of the following: "Stop kicking your sister" or "You may not hit your brother" and once even "Biting is not OK in our family!" But when I'm saying this for the second or third or millionth time in a morning, I always want to try to make it clear to my kids that although I don't LIKE what they're doing, it doesn't mean I don't love them.

Who we are and what we do are two different things.  This tends to get blended together often.  I've had parents in my office tell me that their children say, "If you don't accept my choices, you aren't accepting me." I'd disagree with this. There is a difference between the person and the action. True, our actions can say a lot about who we are, and those actions do impact us over time. Virtues are just an ingrained pattern of making the good choice. Bad habits form over many instances of choosing something bad, and don't just set in after one mistake. 

So with this in mind, it's possible to love our children (or anyone in our life) without condoning every decision they make. By extension, we can disagree with a person's action and not have that be a rejection of the person.

Part of parenting is being able to say, - clearly, calmly, and compassionately - I love you but the choice you’re making or the behavior you’re engaging in, is not OK. By separating the person from the behavior, we can guide and encourage our kids in the most loving way possible.

Today take the opportunity to let your children know that they are always good, even when the decisions they make aren't.

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?