Thursday, April 10, 2014

Improving family relationships

I love my sister Amy. In our family, she is number 7 of 10 children, while I am the caboose. Since
Here are our kids with cousins Rachel and Dara,
during one of Amy's family's recent visits.
there are a few years between us, some of my earliest memories with Amy revolve around her “coaching” me about basketball outside our home in south Texas. While there are many good memories, I don’t know that I felt very close to her or many of the siblings older than her due to the age difference. (The oldest is a different story, but that’s because she was like a second mother to me.)
For many years, due to distance and our involvement in separate pursuits, our relationship never really got any stronger. I still loved her; I just didn’t really know her that well.

Over the last four years, I feel like we have grown closer and developed a better relationship. We still live more than 200 miles apart and see each other only half a dozen times a year, but I know her better than I ever did before. I’ve learned a few things in the process that I think can be applied to all relationships to make them stronger.  

Make an effort
One of the funny things about family relationships is that we spend so much time around each other that we can get on each other’s nerves and see the worst side of each other. We’re on our best behavior in front of friends and coworkers, but don’t hold back around our family. I think we need a place to go and not worry about status or social pretenses, but I also don’t think we need to lash out at our family. We can be good to our family and this may take effort … a herculean effort for some. It’s worth it though.

Think about it this way, sometimes we treat our family badly because we feel they are stuck with us. We feel like we can say anything because they can’t leave us. Our family can leave us, but usually it’s a little bit at a time. If we make an effort to build a relationship of love and respect, we will receive dividends from that relationship for a long time to come. It all starts with commitment. Are you committed to a strong family unit? If so be ready to put in the effort.

Give them time
I don’t know of any lasting relationships that don’t take time. There may be love at first site, but lasting love takes time. I was immediately enamored the first time I saw my wife, but my love grew with each date, conversation and decision that we made together. Now that we have kids and lots of responsibilities, we have to make time for us. When we don’t our relationship gets strained.

When we moved to Kansas City, the three-hour drive to see Amy was long and it didn’t happen very often. But we made good use of opportunities to see her when we could and each visit showed a commitment of time in the relationship, which she has returned by visiting us. It’s hard to know someone you don’t visit or talk to.

A song I like by Josh Groban says, “Time is love. Gotta Run. Love to hang out longer, but I got someone who waits for me, and right now she’s where I need to be. Time is love. Gotta run. Gotta fly, before one more moment gets by.” How we spend our time, is an expression of what’s important to us. Are you giving your family some of your time?

Be interested in what they do
I ran my first half marathon because of my sister Barbara. I ran my first marathon because of my sister Amy. She was training for a marathon and asked if I wanted to run with her. I wasn’t willing to spend $80 on registration and then invest more in shoes and running gear on my own. But when she wanted me to run with her, I thought it would be fun and worthwhile to do something with my sister.

When I try to get the kids to play what I want to play, it’s not as fun as when I follow their lead and play what they want to play. Conversely, it meant a lot to me to have my dad become my basketball coach in second grade, especially because I knew he didn’t have a lot of time. Basketball was my idea (as far as I can recall) and he wanted to support me in it. Do you know what your kids/parents are excited about?

Listen with love
A family therapist I just heard speak at a convention said, “Have a meal with your family at least once a week, and don’t try to lecture or preach to them. Just talk to them about your day, and let them feel safe and comfortable to share about their day. Tell them about the things that you’re excited about and listen to them when they talk.”

Dinner can include meaningful conversations, but don’t stress if your kids don’t want to have deep conversations or have a therapy session at the dinner table. We are trying to teach our kids to take turns and not interrupt. Each gets a turn to share their “guess what’s” and other silly stories … as long as there is some eating going on. I think eating together once a week is not good enough to establish good strong lines of communication and love, but it’s a start. Daily conversation about simple things will make difficult conversations easier. They know you will listen and you will understand them better because you have been listening. Can you listen to a full story without butting in or multitasking?

Next week: What makes a healthy home?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Putting Christ in Christmas

When we try to follow the Wonderful Counselor, we learn
the wisdom of His ways.
I love Christmas. I loved it as a child and I love it now.  There was a time when I was a teenager that Christmas was not very exciting or magical. I needed to rediscover what Christmas meant.

I’m not sure exactly the age when I started to feel empty at Christmas, but I know it was when most of my siblings were gone and Santa was a distant memory. I didn’t have anything to look forward to, and my Christmas list became more and more expensive, therefore, less and less of my list appeared on Christmas morning. It’s not that I didn’t like Christmas, I just wasn’t looking forward to it like I once had. I felt empty.

I remember asking myself, ‘what’s wrong with me? I should be happy at Christmas.’ As the years passed and I matured, I started to understand the problem wasn’t that my desires weren’t being met. It’s that my desires were completely selfish. It’s not that my parents weren’t providing for me or loving me. The problem was that I was not loving others or helping others like I should. I was so focused on me that I forgot Christ in Christmas. I was celebrating “MEmas!”

I never stopped believing in Christ. So it’s not that I forgot the story behind Christmas and its origins. I knew Luke 2 well and could tell anyone what happened that incredible night in Bethlehem. So why was I not finding joy at Christmas?

A Son is Given
Like I said, the problem was that I was self-centered, not Christ-centered. And part of the problem was that I only looked forward to the presents. As a child, it seemed like anything was possible on Christmas. I could get anything. (I’m not sure why we don’t have that same feeling on our birthdays, but I think it might be because a magical man in a red suit isn’t giving us birthday presents, but I digress.)

I was missing the fact that the best gift ever given was the Christ child. I did not appreciate what his life and resurrection meant for mankind and our eternal salvation. I still don’t fully appreciate it, but if I understand it a little better each year, Christmas will always bring me joy.

Now I try to figure out something I can give to Him. He doesn’t need gold or precious oils. Christ wants a humble heart and willing mind.

Wonderful Counselor
Christmas no longer felt empty when I focused on making Christmas special for others. I think that’s part of why Christmas is fun for parents, because we are focused on doing something special for our kids. Because we are celebrating the Saviors birth and life, we should spend time doing what he would do; serving others, visiting the sick and helping those in need.

For the last couple years, we have put up a small manger in our living room. We tell the kids a story about a family that tries to make the manger soft for Jesus through service. In the story, the family would draw a family member’s name and try to do an act of service for that person. Each act of service let them put a straw in the manger. Then by Christmas, Jesus will have a soft bed to sleep in. We practice a modified version of this tradition. Our kids are still small, so we have to help them recognize opportunities to serve, so Catie and I just try to point out service opportunities. They are excited about making a soft bed for Jesus and now the service is natural. They forget to put in the straw most of the time.

The funny thing about helping others is that it helps the giver as well as the receiver. When I spend a couple hours at the food bank, I feel more grateful for what I have and more compassionate for those who need the food bank. When I take time to shovel someone’s driveway, I feel love joy in helping someone. When I call up someone I know is sick and ask how they are doing, I feel more gratitude for my health and compassion for a friend.

These acts and feelings bring us closer to Christ. When we try to follow the Wonderful Counselor’s example, we learn the wisdom of His ways.

The Prince of Peace
Now that I have peace and joy at Christmas (most of the time), I am trying to teach this to my kids. It’s not that Santa is a bad thing, we just try to downplay his role. We try to emphasis Christ’s story and why it’s important. We try to learn from his life and what he did. We spend time talking about the symbols of Christmas and how they can remind us of Christ.

I don’t want my kids to feel empty on Christmas. I believe the best way to do that is fill them with the best news the world has ever received.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

His life and love can fill us and our families with peace if we will learn of Him and follow Him. How you reach that goal in your family is up to you, but I do hope you make that the goal this year and every year.

Merry Christmas!

Next week: Improving family relationships

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Family Traditions

What makes holidays, birthdays and any other significant day on your calendar different from the other days of the week? Traditions.
The Christmas tree can be a beautiful tradition,
especially when you teach the symbolism
behind it and the various decorations.

This was particularly clear to me when I lived in Korea for two years. Korea had been a Buddhist dominant culture for many centuries. Christianity had only become a significant part of their civilization in the last fifty years or so. To this day, I think only half of the people consider themselves Christian. So as you can imagine, Christmas was not as big a holiday as it was here in the US. Easter was the same way.

The Fourth of July, the fourth Thursday in November and many other holidays were understandably not celebrated because they hold no significance for the Korean people.

They do have a Chinese New Year, and their own Day of Harvest celebration, which were big holidays. Each was complete with special foods prepared just for the occasion. They would have games, songs, and stories they tell on those days. And best of all, they would spend the day with their families. Sound familiar?

Why are Traditions Important?
No matter where you live, traditions play an important part in our lives. For example:

·         With all the changes a new college student goes through, their first Thanksgiving or Christmas back is usually really special. It reminds them of years before and reestablishes a familiar element in their world of change and often instability.
·         For newlyweds trying to figure out their own traditions, they can decide together what traditions they will keep. It can be a union of the best concepts and practices from both families. They can create their own traditions that are important to them. This is part of establishing their own identity as a new family.
·         For more established families, traditions offer an opportunity to teach. Parents can discuss how they observe that holiday and the reasons behind the traditions. Traditions help teach kids about reverence, honor and beliefs.

The traditions I remember best were centered around family. I would run with my dad on Thanksgiving morning. I loved the noisy conversation around our Thanksgiving feast. I cherished singing Christmas songs around the piano with my family. I looked forward to playing games through the night with my family on New Year’s Eve.

These events and many others helped develop strong family ties that continue to be strong today. I want those ties to be equally strong for the next generation, so Catie and I are creating or continuing family centered traditions for our family.

Traditions are a great way to teach our family. When we take time to discuss why we celebrate Thanksgiving and then discuss what we are thankful for, we help teach our kids to be grateful. When we focus our Christmas traditions around Christ, we teach our kids to focus on Christ and not on Santa. When we focus on Christ at Easter, we teach our kids to hope for Salvation because the Tomb was empty.
The opposite is true too. If we center all of our traditions on whimsical ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised when our kids are disappointed by those traditions in the future. (Just wanted to throw that out as food for thought.)

Everyday Traditions
Traditions don’t just apply to holidays. Sabbath observance can be a tradition in a way. In the Ten Commandments, the Lord said to keep the Sabbath holy. The Jews then created a long list of laws and rules for the Sabbath. Nowadays, what we do on the Sabbath each week is largely up to us. For my family growing up, we went to church, spent time together as a family and mostly kept the TV off. We often wore our “Sunday best” all day to help us remember what day it was. We also had a tradition of reading the scriptures and praying together as a family each day. The overriding lesson I learned through all of this was that God and family are so important we set aside time each day and then a whole day each week to spend with them.

Now Catie and I are trying to establish our own traditions. We travel to see family. We tell the story of Pilgrims at Thanksgiving and count our blessings. We focus on Christ and emphasis that Santa’s giving is a symbol of the gifts the wise men brought to the Christ Child. We read the scriptures and pray together every day. We want the traditions we keep to reflect our values.

What traditions do you remember best from your youth? What are your favorite traditions now?

Next week: Christ in Christmas

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Little Prayers of Gratitude

Our oldest absolutely adores the new addition to our family.
The boys love her too. We say little prayers of gratitude for
all of them every day.

Catie was pregnant with our fourth child. This would be the fourth child in 6 years (all planned and loved, but a handful none-the-less). This pregnancy has been harder than the other three. The sickness lasting longer, sleep eluding her more frequently towards the end and energy almost nonexistent at times.

All of this was taking a toll physically and mentally. Her apprehension growing as the due date drew nearer. She dreaded the pain she knew was coming, and even began questioning whether she was prepared to go through it all and the sleepless nights that would follow.

This buildup of stress, tension and worry not only affected Catie, but how she treated others. Her relationships with the kids were strained and not as full as normal. She was irritated quickly; no patience for young energetic boys prone to be loud and slightly destructive.

Two weeks before our little girl came into our family, Catie bravely faced the situation and decided she needed to change. She prayed for help, for something she could do to gain control and find happiness in the new life that would be joining our family. As is often the case, God answered her prayer through small and simple means.

Catie read a blog post by a woman that gave little prayers of gratitude throughout the day, which helped her see the blessings more easily. This helped the woman stay positive and happier. So Catie decided to give it a try. She would offer her normal prayers, but added little prayers of gratitude throughout the day. She noticed the sunshine and thanked God for it. She watched our kids laugh with each other, and offered a prayer of thanks. She quietly thanked God for the kind words of a friend.

What she realized after a few weeks was that her capacity to deal with her struggles was enlarged. She felt loved. She felt stronger because she was recognizing all the times God was helping her. Catie was feeling happiness because she was taking the time to see and acknowledge the joy already in her life. Now that our baby is born, Catie continues to say little prayers of gratitude, even for a three hour stretch of sleep during the night.

I recently read a very good book by Jeff Goins called The In-Betweens. He chronicles some of the experiences in his life that taught him this important principle. He encourages the reader to slow down, live in the moment and enjoy what God has already done in your life. Instead of waiting to be happy when you get to the next big thing, he suggests you embrace life as it’s happening. Often this means slowing down, and enjoying the people around you. Waiting isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it’s in those times when you must wait, that you should offer up a little prayer of gratitude.

Next week: Importance of Family Traditions

I don’t receive any compensation for this mention of Jeff’s book. I did get to meet him once in Tennessee and have enjoyed his blog. It’s an insightful book and worth your time and money if you are intrigued by what I have shared. He is a very good writer.