On Being a Yes Mom

If you’ve known me for long and if you’ve ever had a conversation about parenting with me, it’s likely that you’ve heard me say:

Parenting, at its core, is one grand experiment.

What, you say? Do you not take parenting seriously? Why yes, I say. It is precisely because I take it so seriously that I recognize how desperately uncertain I am. Much of the time.

When the children were infants, it was these questions:

  • The baby is crying. It’s 3:00 am. Do I go in to pick him up now? How about now? Now?
  • It’s 3:15 am. The baby was crying. I went in to pick him up. What now?
  • It’s 3:20 am. I’m exhausted. The baby is awake. Should I bring him to bed with me, so we can both sleep?

And then it was these questions:

  • Should the 3 year old watch TV? Any TV? If so, how much TV?
  • If school is over at 3:30 pm and Daddy doesn’t get home until 8:30 pm, should the 8 year old be allowed to watch TV after school? Before or after homework?
  • How old do they have to be to walk into Downtown with their friends?

Now it’s these questions:

  • It’s 2:00 am. The 18 year old isn’t home. I think he’s with his friends. Do I go to bed? Do I tell him to come home? When I speak to him tomorrow, do I tell him he needs to get home earlier? Or do I leave it alone and allow him to make these sorts of choices (and live with their consequences)?
  • How much ABC Family Channel is JUST TOO MUCH for one teenage girl’s one summer day?
  • It’s 5:00 am. I realize the 13 year old actually hasn’t gone to bed yet. He’s working on one of his videos. He says he’s not tired. It’s summertime. Should I tell him to go to bed, or let him do the thing he’s passionate about?
  • She wants to sew a skirt for a friend, as a gift. But she doesn’t know how to sew. Do I buy the fabric and pattern for her, knowing things may not end well? Do I help rescue her when things don’t go well?

As you can imagine, I could go on. But I won’t. I would imagine you’re grateful. I would also imagine that if you are in the midst of parenting, you ask yourself lots of questions. Maybe not exactly like the ones I ask (which somehow seem themed toward things that happen in the middle of the night). But if you’re honest with yourself, I think it’s likely that every single day, you have dilemmas. If I do this, how will this other thing turn out? If I make an exception here, what will be the impact there? If this thing becomes a habit between us, what will be the outcome?

This Spring, our youngest joined the teenagers, so we’re at 13, 15, and 18 right now. With the 18 year old, I am realizing each day how these dilemmas feel so very real, more real than ever before. The dilemmas are about money and values and priorities and commitments and following through on things you’ve said you would do. The dilemmas are about jobs and college and friendships and girls. They’re also about nutrition and sleep and healthy living. Surely, I still get a say in these things. And yet, how much of a say? And how do I say it?

Jen Hatmaker is one of my favorite writers. She’s the wife of a pastor in Austin, Texas. She’s an author and a speaker and a Mom to 5 kids. I love her love for Jesus. And I love her honesty and the way she digs down deep into the stuff of life, the really real stuff. Here’s a recent post from Jen about our yes’s and our no’s. It’s about the dilemmas that are inherent to this journey we are on with our children. I hope you enjoy her little stories and her spirit.

The thing is, I want to be really careful about my No’s. I want to err on the side of Yes’s. Well, maybe not. That’s a dilemma right there. I want to say Yes, though, where I might want to say No because it’s too late or I’m too tired or it just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes friendship and fun and family frolicking don’t make sense. Sometimes grace doesn’t make sense. But if we say Yes, sometimes we discover joy.

This summer, I am leaning into the Yes’s (or is it yeses?). This summer, I am leaning into grace and looking for joy.

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On Happy Families

I’ve always liked Leo Tolstoy’s statement, in Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Does this make sense to you? I suppose, as a generalization, I might say: well, it depends upon what you mean by “alike.” Of course, every family is unique. Every family has their own special things, their own special ways. Good. Bad. Happy. Sad. Functional. Dysfunctional. The way I’d say it is this: every family has its own story.

And yet, when you think about the building blocks of a childhood, in some ways, it takes the same set of blocks to make a happy family, no matter which way you slice it. That is, there generally need to be the same set of building blocks if the result = happy family, well-adjusted kids. And I do tend to agree that when a family is unhappy, when a family is dysfunctional, there is always a story behind it. That family is unhappy in its own special way that connects with its story and the stories of those who make up that family.

So, then, as a parent, I ask myself what those building blocks are. If there are some basic building blocks for making a happy family, and if that is something I am seeking for my own family, then what building blocks should I use and how should I work toward constructing this building?

I also might ask myself whether happiness is a reasonable thing to seek. I think so, but it’s still a question worth asking. And I might think not only about the family, but about the people in the family. Are the parents happy? What about the kids? Is it possible to build a happy family, while some of the component parts aren’t happy? And of course, happiness seems somewhat fleeting, doesn’t it? So, when I think about these things, I tend to think about broad, sweeping generalities. I’m not worried about whether you or I or we are happy TODAY. I am concerned that we are generally enjoying one another’s company, that we are getting along. I suppose if I were to sum it up, I would say that I want us to love one another well.

And the moment I bring this into the arena of love, I come back to a theme in my life and my parenting. Jesus summed up the Jewish Law in two commandments, the ones he called the Greatest Commandments:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.   (Matthew 22:37-40)

In modern English, Jesus said to “love God & love people.” At the core of my desire for my children is that they love God and love people. If our family is one of the main vehicles by which I teach my children to love God and love people, then there needs to be something about the family that is putting those things into practice.

What, then, is the most salient characteristic of this family I want to grow, one that teaches children to love God and love people?

In my reading about parenting and children and education, I often come across articles about research regarding what makes kids successful. Now “success” is one of those words like happiness. What does it actually mean? Is what I think “success” is the same thing that you think success is? However, if I think more broadly about successful kids, I really am thinking about happy kids. I’m thinking about kids who are content in their lives, who are accomplishing good and loving things. I consider those kids to be successful.

There are two notable things I’ve heard over the years about happy families with successful kids. The first was something I heard years ago. This research was specifically about what made kids successful in school. Researchers looked at kids who did well in school and those who didn’t. They found one common denominator: kids who did well in school had dinner with their families. You’ve probably heard this one. I think it’s important and we aim for that at our house. I have wondered, though, if it doesn’t quite go deep enough. As we might imagine, it’s not actually about dinner.

Another piece of research I read about more recently found that children are successful in life when they know their families stories. Here’s a cool article in the New York Times that references this research and talks about what this looks like in families.

Even more recently, I came across this post by Donald Miller, Christian author and speaker. Miller isn’t a researcher, but he is a keen observer and storyteller. And he’s not yet a parent, but he’s paying close attention to those of us who are. Miller points out something that he sees in common among great parents.

Here, I should add, I’m creating a link. I don’t have the evidence to talk about causation, but I will offer a proposal that possibly the happiness of children is linked to the success of children is linked to the happiness of families is linked to the kind of parenting that’s going on in those families. Not always in that order, of course. I think it’s more complicated and dynamic than that.

I would also assert that it is not, essentially, the responsibility of the child to create happiness or success or boundedness or all the good things we might look for in family. A child gradually becomes an agent in his or her own life, and in so doing should certainly begin to “own” his or her choices and “own” his or her attitudes. However, the genesis of all these things, it seems to be, is in the choices the parents make.

It is here that Miller’s post hits it out of the ballpark. Miller observes the one thing he says happy families have in common: the parents are vulnerable with each other and with their children. They own their own mistakes and even their own chronic flaws. They own them. They ask for forgiveness. They give forgiveness. I would summarize with one of my favorite words. In happy families, grace abounds.

Grace is, well, amazing. Grace brings together what has been apart. Grace heals where there are wounds. Grace mends where things are broken.

What do you think? Is grace a hallmark of a happy family? Is grace necessary for a family to be happy? Is grace an important goal for parents and children and families? If grace is valuable, what can we as parents do to build more grace into our homes? And what, exactly, does grace look like? Do you know it when you see it? Do you see it in your home?

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On Endgame as an Approach to Childhood

Brain, Child . . . the Magazine for Thinking Mothers

I’m not sure where I first heard of this publication, but I look at its title now and I think: yup, this is a magazine for me! I think Jennifer Grant, a friend, neighbor, and author, may have linked to an article once upon a time. I often find terrific, thought-provoking articles at Brain, Child.

I enjoyed this article for a few reasons. First of all, it’s quite funny. Dry funny. Sarcastic funny. For example:

I am a conscientious parent. To prove it, I’m setting my kids firmly on the path to mediocrity. I want them to strive for the goal of fair-to-middling in a wide range of activities. I want them to be spectacularly average.

Beyond funny, though, the article made me think. It made me think about all the stuff outside of academics that my kids have been involved in. We always used to call these things extracurriculars. That is, outside of the curricular. In our school district, these programs are called co-curricular. Interesting. There may be a clue there.

Here are some of the things my kids have done:

  • Kinder-musik
  • gymnastics classes
  • ballet classes
  • pee-wee soccer
  • league soccer
  • league basketball
  • league baseball
  • league softball
  • art classes
  • drama classes
  • magic classes
  • guitar lessons
  • piano lessons
  • travel basketball
  • cello (elementary school orchestra)
  • flute (elementary school band)
  • flute (middle school band)
  • alto saxophone (elementary school band)
  • alto saxophone (middle school band)
  • alto saxophone (middle school jazz band)
  • alto saxophone (high school concert band)
  • middle school team basketball
  • high school musical stage crew
  • high school Freshman, JV, and Varsity Volleyball

Now, keep in mind I only have three children. And I imagine I may even have forgotten a few. So, you might ask, as a mother did in the article: Jennifer, what’s your endgame with all these activities? Where are your children headed with all these teams and lessons and involvement?

And I might say: Well I’m glad you asked. My daughter is heading toward a career on the stage in New York. She will pursue an internship with a theatre company during college. Her experience on her high school musical’s stage crew is laying the groundwork for an effective internship application 4 years from now.

Or I might say: Isn’t it obvious? My son plans to play alto sax for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after he completes his doctoral work in music at Juilliard. His experience in his middle and high school bands are foundational to his undergraduate college applications.

Now, if I said these things to you, I might be telling the truth, but the fact is I’m not. Why did my daughter join the stage crew for her high school musical? Well, her friend joined. And she had fun. She learned how to use power tools. That is totally cool.

And my sons? The oldest has played saxophone for 8 years. He plays the sax my husband played in high school, which is kind of fun from a nostalgia and family heritage standpoint. My youngest has played for 3 years so far and will likely continue on into high school. Neither of them are the stars of the show when their bands perform. They both enjoy it, which is wonderful.

So, if a career on the stage or in Symphony Hall are not our endgame, then what in the world are we doing with all of these classes and activities and lessons and programs? Good question, I say.

We do these things, these co-curriculars to help develop whole children. We do them because they are interesting to our children and we want them to find things in life to do that they find interesting. We do them because music and sports and drama are wonderful and are part of being human. We want our children to be fully human to have human experiences. We do them because these activities are places to connect with others, ways to make friends, ways to learn to respect adults and to work in a group. The author, Hilary Meyerson, has this to say:

And suddenly I had an answer for the mother who wanted to know the point of all those violin lessons. This is what I want for my kids. I want them to take time away from the responsibilities of daily living, to do something that they really enjoy, without worrying if they will be the best at it, or will receive recognition or kudos for it.

Indeed. Kudos, Hilary. And thank you.

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On Practical Ways to Encourage New Mothers

Because I’m spending so much time thinking about my teenage children, I figured I’d throw in a thought about the Mama’s with the tiny people as well. I found this article years ago and thought it was a great piece on the practical ways to support and encourage new Moms. I think my friend and neighbor, Shelly Wildman, pointed me this direction:


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On the Children Who Are Almost Grown & Their Mamas Too

These summer days after the oldest’s high school graduation are strange ones. He is gone much of the time: job hunting, hanging with friends. We get a taste of the months and years to come as he gradually exits the nest. 

And yet, there are so many ways that I find myself still necessary, perhaps even more so than ever, in ways that seem daunting and life-impacting. My dear friend, and our church Deacon, Mary Baker, mentioned to me today that many people don’t recognize how much time and energy older children, even adult children, still require. Amen to that!
I came across this lovely piece, written to the Mamas, those who have birthed and raised and taught and nurtured and disciplined and loved. Those who are learning what it is to let go. Here is one of my favorite lines. I hope you enjoy the full article as well.

“We were in charge of turning small, totally dependent fledgling people into fully independent functioning humans–and we are almost to our goal! We are doing this thing, mamas!”

And to my own Austin: I love you, son. I’ve told you this so many times, with different numbers: You’ve never been 18 before, and I’ve never been the mother of an 18 year old before. We’ll have to figure this out together.


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On Little Free Libraries

Several years ago, when I served as President of the PTA at our elementary school, my Vice President, friend, and neighbor, Jeannine Kannegiesser, came to me with a terrific idea. She asked if I’d noticed the little libraries popping up around town, along sidewalks, in neighborhoods. I had. They were adorable, every one different than the next. Jeannine’s idea was to bring a Little Free Library to the front of our Little School with the Big Heart. The Library would be available all year long, including summertime, and would specialize in children’s books.

As the plans for our Little Free Library came together, we were able to dovetail its dedication with honoring our beloved Librarian, Mrs. Carol Schoon, who would retire at the end of that year. A plaque commemorates the occasion for generations of children to come.

As we were forming our plans for our Little Free Library, I told my sister, Rebecca, who lives in Los Angeles. She is a reader and lover of literature. For several years, she served as the Director of the Family Literacy Program at Jane Addams Center in Chicago. She loves working with children and families to encourage the use of literature and reading materials in the home. I don’t recall if Rebecca had heard of Little Free Libraries before I spoke with her, but I do know that she was thrilled that our little school was installing one. And she began to develop a plan to install one in front of her own home.

Last year, Rebecca and her husband, Dave Taylor, installed a Little Free Library with a wonderful twist. Theirs is for both Spanish and English books and attracts lots of interest from their diverse Echo Park (Los Angeles) neighborhood.

Little Free Libraries are popping up all over the country. The following video features several in the Los Angeles area, including my sister’s. Enjoy!


If you’d like more information on how to plan, build, and install one yourself, check out the website: http://littlefreelibrary.org

If you’d like to hear more about what a Little Free Library might look like in a school setting, coordinating with a PTA, please let me know. I’d be glad to talk to you about our experience and put you in touch with some others who might also share their stories.

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On Calendars and What They Can Do For You

My dear friend, Elaine asked a question on Facebook a few weeks ago. It went something like this:

“What are your best tips for balancing the need to be fully present in the moment with the need to plan for what’s going to happen in the future?”

I love questions like this. Thoughtful, but practical. Encouraging mindfulness and presence, and yet aware of the fact that, in life, sometimes stuff must get done.

One of my answers to Elaine was that effective calendar-ing helps me find the balance between presence and planning. If you spend much time with me, you will likely capture a glimpse of my Google Calendar. It’s color-coded by member of the family. Every single event or activity is on there. Seriously. A friend once laughed at me because I even put school on the calendar. It wasn’t too many years ago that I might have forgotten to take them, had it not been on the calendar. Well, I exaggerate.

You might say I am “tied to my calendar,” and in a sense, you might be right. The question, though, is whether that tether benefits me and my family, or if it is to our detriment. I would argue that, for me, using my calendar effectively allows me to be where I need to be, to do what I need to do, and to thereby be present in the in between spaces, to be available for the unexpected things. By scheduling effectively, I leave room for people, for people’s needs. It’s not effective 100% of the time, I should add, but for me my calendar allows there to be time for wonder and time for service.

How does your calendar work for you? How do you build in time for wonder, time for people, time for serving, time for being present?


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