A St. Valentine’s Day Epiphany

fullsizerenderOccasionally, I have these parenting epiphanies. Like on Valentine’s Day a few years ago when our then middle grade sons quietly removed the little containers of candy I’d stashed in their lunch. Or later, when I offered a suggestion to a high school teacher about how to best handle our older son when he’s stressed. “Mrs. Johnson,” the teacher said, “if your son requires special treatment from me, it’s probably best he ask me himself.”



They are growing up.

No more kiddie candy or sandwiches cut into heart shapes in their lunch. And no more trying to stand between them and discomfort. Big boys must learn to navigate the world without mom trying to smooth every path.

But many moms like me don’t see it coming. We think we have more time because sometimes parenting young children feels endless. It’s not. You’re sopping up spilled juice and begging a kid not to wipe boogers on the wall and then… you’re sitting in a chair sipping coffee while your teens make their own lunch. They drive themselves to school. They navigate their own world without you–pretty well I might add. It seems the hubs and I have done a lot of things right.

But this week I had another epiphany. It’s clear that I did something not quite right when they were younger and another thing particularly well.

Here’s the deal. Our younger son, a freshman, is struggling in an honors English class. His older brother took the same class with the same teacher, and although he had similar complaints about the class, he was able to pull off a decent grade. So I question the younger, “what gives?”

His response is telling. In his example he tells about how the class read The Odyssey as part of a unit on Greek mythology. “Some kids who do well on the tests,” he said, “are those who’ve read all of the Percy Jackson books as a kid.”

If you’re unfamiliar, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan follows the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s a demigod son of Poseidon. The books are beloved by young readers who also happen to absorb a lot of foundational information about Greek mythology.

Our older son read every Percy Jackson book.

Our younger son read Batman comics.

They are both good readers who do well in school. Parents are told it doesn’t matter what kids read as long as they read. I believed that. And it’s probably true up to a point. But like adults who don’t read newspapers or many books, some people lack a depth and/or expanse of knowledge that serves as a building block for understanding other information. I now believe it does matter what children (or all people) read. And for a hot second, I thought I’d failed our younger son.

But then, I attended an art exhibition about Martin Luther and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. While there, I overheard a young boy around 8 years old ask his mother about a painting. The boy discovered this oil on canvas illustrating the decapitated head of John the Baptist and said, “Mom! Is that real? Did that really happen?”

“No,” she answered. “It’s only a painting.”

That’s the moment I was assured I’d done one thing right. You see, when our comic book loving boy was around that same age, we bought him an illustrated bible called The Action Bible. The artwork is similar to comic books but the stories are firmly biblical–and not the shortened, most loved, PG rated versions of bible stories–but the entire bible in graphic novel form. He’s read the whole thing at least twice.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Quality is as important as quantity when it comes to reading material for kids.
  • We’ve got limited time to teach the foundations of our values before our kids launch.
  • One of our kids will have to work harder to make sense of some literature.
  • But both of our kids know the bible and its precepts–that love exists, that God is love, that we are called to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That the one thing that really matters… is a faith that expresses itself through love.

Today is Valentine’s Day. The older son checked his lunch and removed the candy I’d stashed inside. But the younger one didn’t peek. So I get one more small opportunity to show love in a “goofy and embarrassing” mom way. I’ll take what I can get and thank God for helping me to not screw this whole parenting thing up completely.


How Right Do You Need to Be?

**A Repost from 2013. Seems like timely advice in an election year…

After a recent disagreement/misunderstanding with the hubs, I began to ponder the nature of conflict in all relationships. Of course, as with most disputes, I can’t recall the exact details or origin of this particular “discussion” the hubs and I were having. But it may have went something like this:

Me: “Did you check the website? All the information is on the website.”

Hubs: “I clicked the link. But there was no information.”

Me: “That’s impossible. I clicked the link yesterday. It was all there.”

Hubs: “I’m telling you, I clicked the link and there was no information.”

Me: “You must be doing it wrong.”

Hubs: “Of course you think I’m doing it wrong because you think I’m stupid.”

Me~clicking the link, seeing said information, carrying the laptop over to where he’s eating a bowl of cereal to show him it’s there and giving him a look that says, “If you’re not stupid, then why is everything right here where I said it would be?”

So here is the problem with the above interaction and possibly all conflicts in relationships, politics, religion, etc. Two or more people have two or more completely different experiences and believe that all other people have had or will have the exact same experiences. Those differing people insist that their experiences, reactions to those experiences and outcomes from those experiences should be the same for everybody else. If there is any pushback, we will go to almost any lengths to prove our version of reality is right. (Or worse, we’ll shrug off the dissenter as stupid or unimportant.)

So here’s the thing. I never intended to make the hubs feel as if I believed he is stupid. I only wanted to prove I was right. I didn’t want to consider that he could possibly have had a different experience than me. Because of course, in this case, computers are completely reliable devices upon which we should be able to bash our rightness over the heads of any dissenters, right?

What completely reliable “evidence” might you be using to bash your rightness over someone else’s head? This is a small example. But zoom out to big picture disagreements, and how many of them are mostly about who wins or who gets to be right?

So I encourage you to consider this New Year’s resolution. Before launching into any conflict, large or small, ask yourself, “How right do I need to be?” Is my rightness worth damaging the feelings of another person? Is my piled on rightness over time worth damaging entire relationships? Is our collective rightness worth boxing out the opinions of other people or other religious groups, political groups, social groups or family members? Maybe so. Or maybe not. And maybe, just maybe, we are not as right as we think we are.

Happy New Year!


A Reason to Celebrate

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Our oldest son confirmed his Christian faith last weekend along with a group of thirty-some other ninth graders. Confirmation is not a path to salvation and is by no means a requirement to being a Christian. But these kids have been on a 2 ½ year journey together. A journey that at its core is a weekly foundational religion class but also so much more.

Confirmation may be familiar to some. Here on the tundra, many folks my age and older have memories of relatives traveling countless miles to congratulate this “achievement” and deliver a gift of religious meaning or cash, which most teens still appreciate.

Since I did not grow up in the Lutheran tradition, I was unsure how to properly celebrate this rite of passage. I asked around. It seems an open house with time-honored selections of buttered buns and casseroles are typical. But like many other religious traditions, the traditional confirmation party is fading in popularity.

I considered following the lower-key crowd, opting for a dinner out with just our immediate family and the grandparents. But that felt like minimizing the importance of what we want faith to be in our son’s life. A dinner out at our son’s favorite restaurant, which vacillates between the culinary mediocrity of Dairy Queen and Applebee’s, would be no different than what we do to celebrate his birthday or a random Friday night when I don’t feel like cooking.

Heck, high school sports teams have celebratory banquets at the end of every season, even less than stellar seasons. Rah, rah, some of you tried hard. Good for you!

And most high school graduates have catered parties even though attending school is the law for minors, and in most cases, obtaining a high school diploma should probably be the very minimum standard we set for our children.

So I opted to travel the old-fashioned route; a confirmation open house with abundant food and a sheet cake. Although I did use electronic invitations. Consider that my nod to current convention and admittedly, my own laziness.

DSCN1883Getting ready to host a party for 40+ people was a lot of work. My mother watched wide-eyed as I scurried around, setting out chairs and bowls of nuts, made several trips to the grocery store and chopped veggies and sliced cheese for what seemed like days. It was indeed all a bit exhausting. BUT, worth every bit of effort and here’s why…

  • It is my prayer that our son will cherish his relationship with God, lean on Him in times of trial and trust in His goodness throughout life. A memorable celebration conveys the significance of this hope.
  • Religion class can seem tedious and time consuming in a teen’s 21st century hyper-busy life. But if we’re going to hand out participation trophies for the most minor of life’s activities, a larger celebration for staying committed to something as vital as faith development is certainly in order. (BTW, our kids see our efforts to get them to certain activities and out of others, thus internalizing what we deem important. Just sayin’.)
  • People need community. We need to know we’re not alone, that we are supported by fellow believers as we attempt to live a daily life modeled after Christ the redeemer. Our son experienced a house full of people, all here for him, and all essentially saying, “We believe as you believe and we are your family committed to helping you walk in the way of truth, not just at church on Sunday mornings and during religion class, but all the time. We love you as Christ loves you and we’re in this together.”

DSCN1873I’m thinking we should celebrate that last point even more regularly. You are loved and that is something to celebrate!


Flex Your Memory Muscles

Photo from wisconsinwatch.org

I push old people. I yell at them too. But rest assured; it’s for good reason. So you need not be alarmed. Every Thursday morning, I help gather residents at a nearby skilled nursing facility for a weekly chapel service. I push them in wheelchairs that require a rolling boost down the corridor. Many are hard of hearing or easily confused. So I’m forced to use my outdoor voice and annunciate when telling them it’s time for church. And a few will wave away any offer of the large print songbook as their eyesight has deteriorated past the point of reading the gigantic words.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

But when the service begins, an otherwise weary audience easily recalls the melodies and lyrics to traditional hymns. Rigid bodies relax and faces familiar with the daily struggles of disease and aging soften into smiles for a few moments of bliss. The pastor delivers a message, and then all are united in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer–cherished words of petition that bring comfort to those very near the end of life.

Skip ahead to the weekend and my third-grade Sunday School class. Most of my students cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer. The assigned lesson plan was to spend two weeks on this ancient prayer. It wasn’t enough. So, I made a decision. I will devote a portion of each class time to bribe my students with candy until each of them know the prayer by heart.

And then, there is my mid-week confirmation class. Confirmation is for middle schoolers, the stage in a student’s religious training where he/she learns to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. But when asked, few in my current class can recite the Apostles’ Creed, a historic and universal statement of the Christian faith. Sheesh, I wonder if I can even do it!

It seems memorization isn’t taught much anymore. Expert educators tell us that when we force kiddos to memorize text, facts or methods for solving equations, we rob them of opportunities to truly learn and understand valuable concepts. I agree to some extent. Pushing memorization without explanation or discussion simply fills minds with mumbo jumbo that we hope can be regurgitated on command. BUT, has the baby been tossed out with the bathwater? I’m convinced there are benefits to the memorization of certain words. Specifically, sacred words like prayers, creeds or songs.

Of course, it is also important that we understand where religious words come from, who said them, and what they mean. Memorization isn’t a perfect education tool. A middle-aged family member reminds me of this when telling of his astonishment to discover that the words of the Aaronic Benediction–a blessing said at the end of every church service during his entire childhood–comes directly from the bible! He would just repeat the words, not knowing their significance. So memorization and rote recitation without explanation are obviously of no use in forming a thoughtful appreciation of one’s faith.

But religious ritual has its purposes like focusing the mind, uniting believers and offering a sanctuary of comfort from a chaotic and confusing world.

And for different, but still compelling reasons, I also suggest we have kids memorize multiplication tables, poetry and how to spell the word, discipline.