Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Five Tips To Help Families Ease Into School

School has been back in session for 36 hours. Although I was resistant to the return of structure and routine, I can already see how it will serve our family well.
We let it all go during the summer.

But with the return of school, I dust off some disciplines we’ve implemented to help us manage the stress of school and love each other well in the process.
Since I’m fairly certain we started school before everyone under the sun, I thought I’d share these disciplines here for you to consider as you plan for your family’s first day. You are in my prayers as you embark upon a new journey this school year!

1.      Start Each Morning With Family Devotion
We started doing family devotions after breakfast when our kids were little. That worked for years, but when all our kids began school, our devotions became less hit and more miss. For an entire year, I beat my head against the wall, wondering why we couldn’t get this right.

And then I heard a speaker talk about putting God first. Not a unique idea, but I had considered “after getting ready and after eating breakfast” to be close enough. The problem was that these activities always took more time than we budgeted, and devotion time was snuffed out.
A simple shift of the schedule changed everything.

Now, we do our devotional before we do anything else. We rarely miss! Not only does our time with the Lord bless us in the moment, but also our mornings are more peaceful, our days run more smoothly! And guess what? Everything else miraculously gets done.
2.         Do Everything Possible The Night Before

Learning the beauty and wisdom of margin has been a theme for our family the last four years. If we don’t have margin, we don’t have room to be flexible, and seemingly small things can become not so small.
If this is true for life in general, then it’s also true for families on school mornings! If we wait until the morning to pack lunches and gather belongings, then we leave no space for the unexpected, like:

“I forgot that I’m supposed to bring cookies for the band party today!”
If we’ve prepped the night before, however, there’s space for us to tackle these issues with grace and composure. Our kids know they earn the freedom to play after school by taking care of their responsibilities ahead of time.

3.      Follow An Afternoon Checklist
To help us execute Tip No. 2, we follow an afternoon checklist, which hangs on our refrigerator. It’s not Pinterest worthy (I broke up with Pinterest long ago…OK, let’s be honest…I never dated Pinterest in the first place), but it’s functional. And it saves me at least 50 million words a day. A request to go outside and play is met with a gesture towards the checklist, and everyone knows exactly what I mean:

When it’s done.
This has helped set expectations, reduce conflict, and allow the kids to take responsibility for their tasks.

4.      Create A Meal Plan
I love to cook! But last Spring, I fell into a rut. To dig me out, I discovered Prep Dish.

Prep Dish provides a menu of gluten-free and paleo meals to save time and money. Along with the menu, Prep Dish sends a printable grocery list and instructions for prep day. Two hours in the kitchen yields meals for a week that get from oven to table in minutes, with little mess!
With the help of Prep Dish, I put healthy, home-cooked meals on the table again and simplified our evening routine. In addition, we were stretching our taste buds, using ingredients outside my home-cook comfort zone.

Who knew my kids liked lamb and bok choy?
Whether it’s Prep Dish, Hello Fresh, or your own slow cooker rotation, developing a meal plan will save your family money and time, improve your health, and make evenings more enjoyable.

5.      Create Space For Downtime
We’ve implemented each tip referenced in this post with one goal in mind:

To create a life-giving home environment that includes sufficient measures of work, play,
and family time.
This is easier in the summer, much harder during the school year. Because there are days when I pick the kids up from school, drive straight to activities, and pull into our driveway near bedtime.

We do the best we can on those days.
But on slower days, these tips help us manage our home more intentionally. The result is that we have some measure of downtime to enjoy each other’s company and take deep breaths. We don’t always nail it, but we’re trying!

My prayer is that these tips might bless your family as you embark upon a new school year too!


Friday, August 11, 2017

A Prayer For Moms These Last Summer Days

I woke up this morning with butterflies in my stomach. Not the kind I used to get before performing on stage. For some strange reason, I enjoyed those.
These were of a different kind. The kind that result from the smorgasbord of emotions I’m feeling as we march ever-closer to the beginning of a new school year. We go back in five days.

I’m not ready.
And yet I am ready.

Because as much as I love having our kids at home in the nest, I know the return of structure and routine will serve us well.
On Monday, I took the kids to Hawaiian Falls, for what I was certain would be our last visit together. Watching my children play in the waves, the familiar waves of sadness began to roll over me. It happens to me every summer. Exactly one week before school starts.

I begin to regret all the things we didn’t do instead of celebrating all the things that we did. And I begin to wish for just a few more days.
And yet at the same time, the fit of my swimsuit is proof that I’ve indulged just a little too much in popsicles, kid-friendly affair, and pool-side sodas, and that I’ve been a less-than-stellar companion to my yoga mat these last few months. I don’t feel well, I’m not sleeping, and it shows.

The same can be said for the condition of our house. I’ve gotten pretty good at letting go of perfection when it comes to chores, but there’s a fine line between letting go and giving up, and I’m teetering towards the wrong side of that line.
Paperwork is stacking.

Dust is collecting.
Laundry is piling.

And my kitchen is beckoning me to prepare just one home-cooked meal.
I think the anxiety comes from standing in the middle of transition. Summer isn’t yet over. And yet school is coming. I haven’t quite figured out where to put my focus, right here in the middle of it all.

I’m sure you can relate.
And yet we know better. Regarding worry, Jesus said:

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:31-34.

A few years ago, I was particularly overwhelmed with my to-do list. This is usually not an issue for me, but my list was long, and my brain space was limited. A wise friend suggested that I use my task list to make a list of everything that had to be done that day, plus one thing I would like to get done, but wasn’t necessary.
When I engaged in this exercise, I felt the pressure release, the clouds part, and the peace come. Because I chose to focus on the day at hand, rather than worry about every nook and cranny of my entire universe, my task list became much less daunting, and my focus returned. I allowed myself to live fully in the present, and I actually had a great day!

I think that’s what God desires for us. That we live each day fully. Not that we should never look towards the future, but that we should acknowledge each day is a gift we’ve been given that should not be wasted on worry over tomorrow. That we should enjoy His presence in the present.  
So as the summer draws itself to a close and you begin planning for the return of school, my prayer is that you won’t let your mind get there too fast. Enjoy the fleeting moments of the summer glow, draw near to your Father, and savor today for today.



Thursday, August 3, 2017

Do We Need Fresh Perspective Regarding Disobedience?

By: Jennifer Knott, SkyMoms Ministry Director
Yesterday was Family Mission Day at our church. My husband and I took the day off so we could serve alongside our children at Bonton Farms, an urban farm south of Dallas that's striving to transform a community from the inside out.

I'll confess that in the dark, rainy wee hour of the morning when the alarm shook me awake, I didn't want to get up. In fact, I thought about turning it off and going back to sleep.

More than once.

But the Holy Spirit kept my mind awake as I tried desperately to send myself back into RIM sleep. Begrudgingly, I finally put my feet on the floor and began to make the rounds to wake my family.

You can imagine their reaction when I did.

Within the hour, though, we were on the road in the pouring rain, like it or not.

Fun times.

When we arrived, we met a woman named Kim who has a gift for keeping little kids busy with real work. Within five minutes, we were armed with gardening scissors and gloves and off to harvest red okra.

When we arrived at the long row of plants, Kim told us to walk up one side of the row and down the other because the okra likes to "hide" among the leaves. She assured us we'd miss some if we didn't work both sides of the row.

The boys loved harvesting! I think they felt manly handling such sharp scissors -- a far cry from anything they've ever used at home!

We made it up the row fairly quickly, but when we turned the corner and began to head back, our success rate slowed way down. Within a few minutes, the boys began to complain, telling me we'd found all the okra the first time and that this job was done!

But remembering Kim's words, I suggested that maybe we ought to change our perspective. Instead of coming down the row leaning over the bushes like we'd been doing, maybe we should squat down beneath them and look up.

Within seconds, we began to find red okra hiding among the leaves, just as she'd promised. The boys squealed with delight because their adventures in cutting with manly scissors would continue!

Perspective is everything, isn't it?

It's true in life and it's no less true in parenting.

During these last days of summer, I'd be lying if I didn't admit my children are engaged in some behaviors that are about to break my spirit.

Our boys have taken "play" in the car to a whole new level. Like a level that impedes my ability to drive responsibly and puts others on the road at risk. It's so loud, and their movement is so big, I can feel them jostling the car while doing 70 down the highway!

I've asked them to stop more times than I can count. I've separated them into their own rows and put them in seats on opposite ends to deter any physical contact. I've used my best "Ursula the Sea Witch" voice. (Ugh. I have one of those.) And yet they still manage to pull off WWF-like maneuvers strapped into their seat belts while we're driving down the road.

It hurts my head. And it makes me grouchy. It's too much chaos in too little space. But it also frustrates me because I've been living with the assumption that their inappropriate play in the car is driven by nothing but disobedience.

I read an article this morning, however, that offers a new perspective. The author explained that children have a need for "tons of movement" and "fierce play". When they're -- let's say -- putting their brother in a Figure Four in the backseat -- they're channeling these developmental needs.

Does it mean their behavior is excused?
Absolutely not.

But does it help explain their behavior in such a way that my gut reaction need not be frustration?

You bet!

The real benefit, however, is that once I've identified the catalyst for the behavior, I'm positioned to find a clear path towards a solution. Because if I'm responding to a legitimate developmental need without sourcing a more appropriate channel for the need to be met, then the problem will go unsolved.
We can't cure the symptoms if we don't identify their root cause.

So the next time you're faced with a behavior you've corrected more times than you can count, stop. Take a deep breath. Go to the Lord in prayer. And ask Him to give you new perspective. Maybe you'll see something you didn't see before. And maybe that something will lead you down a path towards a real solution.

"But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.  For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."
Matthew 13:16-17

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Mess Will Always Be There But Our Kids Will Not

By: Jennifer Knott, SkyMoms Ministry Director

“No nickel tours of the upstairs of our house tonight,” I yelled from the landing at the top of the stairs down to the bottom of the stairs where my husband was fervently sweeping the entry way.
“No nickel tours of any part of our house tonight,” he yelled back up at me.

With the kids gone for the day, we were “tidying up” in anticipation of eight dinner guests because our house looked like there’d been some sort of an explosion. And by “tidying up,” I mean throwing things behind closed doors that were not intended to be opened during our party.
These days, we just can’t keep up with it, and the dog days of summer make it so much more challenging.

This is a photo of the cleanest room on the second floor of my house. (Yes, that's a camp trunk, which has been sitting in this exact place since June 5.)

And this is a photo of the hallway our children share up there. I’m not sure how someone hasn’t broken a leg.

So many people. So much stuff. Never a respite from the foot traffic or the mess.
As we swept Legos into a pile in our living room to put them back in the “Random Lego Bin,” I expressed my love/hate relationship with those maniacal little building blocks. I love them when they’re neatly organized in the storage cubbies we bought from Ikea. I hate them when they’re anywhere else.

“Someday, we’ll miss the Legos,” my husband replied. “Just not today.”
And that’s the struggle isn’t it?

It’s a war between “someday” and today. 
We long for a house that looks like the cover of the Pottery Barn catalog, and behind every cabinet and closet door, The Container Store. We want our home to be a place of rest, where we can kick off our shoes and nestle into the sofa for mindless television without a gazillion to-dos staring us in the face.

We long for our closets to be organized, our papers to be filed, our pantries to be stocked, and the laundry to be done.
We long for the toys to be put away, for the dishwasher to be empty, for the bills to be paid, and for the dust bunnies to be under someone else’s sofa...just this once.

Some days, we just long for a clean toilet.
And yet we know that the very small people who create a very large share of all this work are the same people who bring us our greatest joy.

Our children.
We have our children today. “Someday,” we won’t.  

Today, the Lord softened my heart while I was folding the laundry, of all things. As I sat on the hearth in front of our fire place where I always tackle this task, I came across a small pair of white Minion boys underwear. I’ve sorted this pair of underwear more times than I can count, but today, I noticed how tiny they are.
"Yes, they’re tiny today," said the Lord. "But someday, they won’t be tiny anymore."

Ouch. That one hurt.

So moms, as we crawl through these last dog days of summer, may we give ourselves permission to get caught up in what is today. Let us not be discouraged by the messes or the task lists. But let us be encouraged by the joy that is our children, messes and all.

Let us be kind to ourselves regarding the condition of our homes.

Let us allow the interruptions of our children to be our ministry.

And let us release any task that isn’t mission critical, knowing that those tasks will greet us with open arms “someday.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Are We Teaching Our Kids To Enjoy The Journey?

“Enjoy the journey!”
The number of times my husband and I regurgitated this phrase in response to “Are we there yet?” during our road trip to and from Sky Ranch Family Camps in Colorado, I don’t even know. It’s a life lesson we’ve been learning ourselves the last few years, and one we chose to adopt as a theme for this summer’s family vacation.

Rather than tackling the 14-hour drive home from Lake City, Colorado in one day like we’ve done in years past, we chose to divide the trip into two days so we could visit the Great San Dunes in route. Much to our chagrin, due to heavy rains, the Dunes were too wet to sled, but that didn’t stop us from having a great time.
After a few hours of fun and some surprisingly good Mexican food at a gas station in Raton, New Mexico, we snuggled up in our beds at the Holiday Inn Express for a movie and early shut-eye.
Our plan for Day Two was to drive the remaining 9 hours home, stopping for lunch and an ice cream treat along the way. But as we pulled into Capulin, New Mexico, the same volcano that’s been the source of many family conversations as we’ve passed it on the right going to Colorado, peeked my husband’s curiosity as we passed it on the left coming home.

He wanted to hike the rim.
A resounding, “NO!” came in unison from the back seats. With shoes off, pillows perfectly positioned, snacks in hand, and a family favorite playing on the big screen, the peanut gallery wanted no part of this unexpected adventure. In fact, the amount of whining and protesting we endured on the road to that volcano was exactly what we would expect if we’d hung them by their toes outside the window of a 10-story building.

But it was no match for my husband’s determination.
This man -- who admittedly struggles to enjoy the journey when we travel -- knew there was a lesson for our family waiting on the rim.

He’s so wise.
He led us down into the crater first, which caused all whining and protesting to stop. After all, we were moving downhill, and we saw some interesting wildlife along the way. Our boys were also fascinated by the lava rocks (as later evidenced by at least half of the Capulin crater which ended up in our dryer.)

But then it came time to tackle the summit. It’s only a 1-mile hike round trip, but the incline is pretty steep. We had conquered all of 500 yards when the whining and protesting resumed, particularly from our youngest.
I stood uphill from him with my back to the summit, debating whether to push him to the top or take him to the car. It was an internal struggle, and I’ll admit the car almost won. But deep within my gut, I knew the greater lesson would be learned if I pushed him to the top.

So we hiked 200 feet and stopped. Hiked 200 feet and stopped. Hiked 200 feet and stopped, each time, distracting him with the views, the vegetation, and the wildlife as we paused.
Before I knew it, the whining had ceased.

When we caught up with the rest of our family at the top, we prayed together, thanking God for the beauty of His creation, put our hands in the huddle, and on the count of three, gave Capulin Volcano our loudest “Best Family Ever!”
Then we headed downhill, their attitudes improving with each descending step.
When we got back to the car, we shared with our kids what God has been teaching us these last few years.

Life is a series of journeys strung together by a few summit-like experiences. Some of the journeys are difficult, like our hike to the summit, and some come with more pleasure and ease, like our hike back down. But either way, the journeys are where we’ll spend most of our time. Our time on the summit is but a blip.
We can spend our journeying wishing for the next summit or we can choose to journey with joy, finding God’s gifts for us along the way. The gifts are there. They’re always there.

In Romans 5:4, Paul writes:
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

No question our children are guaranteed to face many a journey uphill as they navigate their way into adulthood under our leadership. The question is: Will we teach them to enjoy the journey? Or will we take them to the car?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Camp Hair, Don't Care!

A few weeks ago, I dropped my baby off for a full week of overnight camp.  While she hardly considers herself a “baby” (because she is 6 whole years old and has completed kindergarten, for goodness sake), to me she will always be the baby. Over her “6 whole years,” she has watched her siblings head off to Sky Ranch for weeks of awesomeness, knowing that, eventually, her day would arrive. 
As we shopped for her trunk and fun camp supplies, it suddenly dawned on me that this little cutie had never washed her hair on her own.  And now I was sending her off for 6 whole nights – swimming pools, campfires, sweat, and lake water – completely ill-equipped to manage that lovely long, dark, easily-tangled hair.

So, I decided to do what I normally do in these situations – make a plan of attack to solve the problem before it became a problem.  But somewhere in the middle of one of the many hair-washing practice sessions that week, the thought struck me loud and clear:
Who Cares? 
Why was I spending so much time concerned with whether she could wash her hair when I should have been concerned with the state of her heart?  Was she ready to receive all God had for her during the week of Bible study?  Was she equipped and confident enough to start conversations and make new friends?  Had I taught her how to lean into the Father when faced with things that seemed scary and unfamiliar? 
Immediately convicted and face-to-face with my own insecurities, I had a long conversation with my Father.   I reminded Him that I want to be a good mom. I want to teach my children all they need to know, and personal hygiene is part of that teaching. 

But He reminded me of His Word:
"Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Proverbs 31:30. 
As a team member at Sky Ranch, I have the awesome privilege and unique perspective of watching campers and counselors, day after day, in the amazing environment that is Summer Camp.  Crazy, mismatched clothes and wild hair are the norm.  Glitter, face paint, and tutus with dirty tennis shoes are standard camp attire.
When my boys were younger and packing for camp, my main concern was whether they would brush their teeth.  Gym shorts and tee shirts always go together, and I sent the ones that were about to be moved out of rotation, knowing they would get stinky and dirty and could easily be tossed out. 

With my girls, however, I became a different kind of camp mom -- buying cute matchy-matchy outfits and fun pj’s -- and making sure the bedding matched the towels that matched the trunk that was over-loaded with coordinating glitter stickers and rhinestones. 
Don’t get me wrong.
I am all about the fun that is preparing for camp, and sending kids away for a week with the “stuff” that helps them have fun and explore their uniqueness is part of the experience.  But freaking out about whether my daughter would have “camp hair” in the online photos was pushing things past what my grown-up, spiritually mature self could swallow. 
So I told her. 
In the best way that I could explain it to an incoming first grade girl, I broke down I Peter 3:3-4:
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
Camp is one of the greatest places on earth. A place where kids are free from the trappings and expectations that surround them every day. 
Camp should be a place to focus on relationships with God and others, and to spend time having crazy, wild fun, learning about what it truly means to be a child of God. 
Camp should be a place where joy overcomes the junk the world puts on our children, where space exists for our children to be who they are – "camp hair" and all.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Are We On The Road To Building Strong Family Identity?

There’s a long stretch of straight and narrow highway between Dumas, Texas and the New Mexico border. We’ve driven it at least ten times as a family on our way to and from annual summer vacations in Colorado.
Along the horizon, where the blue sky meets the green grass of farmlands, a single wind turbine sprouts out of the ground. It’s a stand out because, usually, wind turbines exist in pods.
Our kids eagerly look for the “lone windmill” every year on the second leg of our road trip. This year, they decided to name it Larry. The alliteration in their choice made their writer-mama proud!
It’s just one example of all the memories that exist for our family between Plano, Texas and Lake City, Colorado where we attend family camp each summer. To name others, there’s the hotel in Dumas where we eat pizza and swim after a long first leg of driving, the sign in Clayton where we stop for a family selfie, the Loves gas station near Alamosa that has some of the best unsweetened ice tea, and the discussion we always have about which roadside hill is Capulin Volcano (there are several, and our kids can’t ever remember).
These are simple things, but they conjure up a strong sense of something special in our car as we travel the same path year over year, recalling memories of the past and checking traditions off our list.
That something special is family identity. It’s an area in which we were encouraged to do a lot of work when we became parents. Because strong family identity will serve our kids well as they grow into the teen years when we can’t always hold their hands.
Why is it that memory-making and traditions are so powerful in shaping a family’s identity?
It turns out, there are psychological reasons for the impact they have, as confirmed by a friend of mine who is a school guidance counselor.
She explained that making memories and practicing family traditions help establish the importance of the family unit. This creates a strong sense of belonging for each member of the family and communicates to children that they are valued members of the family.
They also allow children important opportunities to observe members of the family living fully into their roles within the family. Because, let’s face it. We live in such a busy culture that, often, our children do not see their parents working as a team, but rather passing like ships in the night.
Memory making and family traditions also provide opportunities to reinforce family values and to pass down important nuggets of heritage. As a result, “Team Smith” takes on rich meaning. This serves families well as children enter the teen years, and their peers become more influential.  

But what I love most is that memory making and family traditions reinforce “home base,” no matter where we are. This helps children understand that “home” isn’t so much about where we live but about with whom we’re doing life. What a wonderful way to teach into the idea that life is about relationships rather than stuff!

Every family is different. So making memories and establishing family traditions will look different for every family. It’s not so much about how we slice the pie, but rather about whether we’re willing to pull up to the table.

Your family may not have the freedom or desire to take two-week-long road trips in the summer. But there are things that make you tick in ways that communicate the importance of family and define your family’s values and heritage. Lean into those things and help your family find its own Larry the Lone Windmill along the way!