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.

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?

A Brand New Year

Happy 2018!

About now, the shine has come off our New Year’s Resolutions.  Grand plans of eating better, getting to the gym, not staying up too late watching Netflix or cruising Pintrest have fallen by the wayside.  The most successful resolution I ever made was in college when I told a friend on New Year’s Eve that I planned on eating more marzipan.  I then polished off a box of marzipan fruit while watching a Texas football game on New Year’s Day.  Mission accomplished!

Most of our resolutions never stick.  We try to change too many things at once (This year, I’m going to learn Spanish, and read a new book every two weeks, and organize the garage, and participate in a Bible study, and…) or try to make too large of a change (I’ve never really tried running, but this year, I’m going to qualify for the Boston Marathon!).  Or we don’t have a solid plan or structure in place to sustain the changes we want to make.  One of the biggest challenges is motivation.  What are we hoping to achieve from making a change?  Are we working toward something positive or are we trying to avoid something negative? 

Avoiding a negative is a much harder motivation to maintain.  For example, let’s say (hypothetically) that I need to lose 20 lbs because my doctor says I’m carrying too much weight and my knees may start giving me trouble and my pants don’t fit quite right.  I could take up jogging.  Or I can buy new pants.  There’s no positive motivation for me to make a change, just reducing the chance of a bad thing happening.  But if losing 20 lbs helps give me more energy so I can play longer with my kids, or helps me feel less tired at night so I can spend a little more time with my wife rather than pass out, then that’s a clear positive for me to work toward.

So what do I want to achieve this year?  Since I’m fresh out of marzipan, I want to work on being more present to my wife and the ducklings.  I need to answer a few questions in making this a success.

1)       Why am I doing this? (What is the good I’m trying to pursue?)

2)       How will I get there?  (What changes or actions need to take place?)

3)       What will my response be the first time I fail? (How will I keep my motivation?)

This week, think about what you want to achieve this year and create a plan on how to make that a reality.