Category: Family Activities

Christmas Past – A Gift of Charity

I wrote this true short story many decades ago for my parents, for Christmas. I was working on letting them know how much I appreciated all they had given me despite the lacks in my family of origin. Isn’t that how it is in most families. Our parents can only bring to their parenting what they have and they add to their skills as they go. Being the first child, I experienced some of those lacks but as I grew, I also saw my parents grow. Anyway, I wanted them to know how grateful I was.

I posted it on my old website way back in 2011. I can’t believe that ten years have gone by! I wouldn’t have thought to repost it this year except for an unusual happening.  I was asked to submit a Christmas story for an anthology, which I did. I submitted this story.

I have to say that it doesn’t match most of the stories in  Tis the Season: A Christmas Survival Guide. The stories are not the magical kind we usually read about but are filled with tales of the chaos and sometimes hurt that accompanies the holiday for many. I don’t know why my story was chosen as it is peaceful and loving. It is also the final story in the book. I suppose it was becuase I ended it with ‘Merry Christmas.’ : )

At any rate, it caused me to think again about this family happening and my parents who were doing their very best for me and my siblings. I thought it might bring some treasured Christmas memories to your mind at this season of family and Christ. I hope you enjoy the read, the heart, and the generosity of both parent and child.

Christmas Past – A Gift of Charity

A true short story, written by Mary Ann Johnson years ago when her children were young, and she was remembering.

black and white photo of little girl smiling
Mary Ann, almost five, see the buttons!

THE HEATER MADE a steady hum as it singed the small bits of pine I had placed on top. I’d never seen a heater like it until we moved into the new house. It was brown, shiny, and huge. It wasn’t as homey as Grandma’s Ben Franklin, but it was warm and didn’t create clinkers, for which I was grateful. The pine was Mother’s idea. She liked the smell the needles gave off as they slowly turned brown.

I was five years old, and Idaho Falls was cold and windy. Inside, it was warm and cozy. There were six of us, and the house was small. I saw it years later and small was a generous word for it. At the time, it seemed perfect.

Christmas was coming, and as always during that season, the sewing machine was humming away. Pieces of black velvet and red taffeta littered the floor. I noticed the buttons first, the most beautiful buttons in the world, shiny white with rhinestone centers. Those buttons were a treasure sewn on a cardboard square. I would have paid at least a quarter for them, a vast sum hidden away in my bank.

But the buttons weren’t for sale. They were going onto elegant dresses that my sisters and I watched take shape until I could hold back my curiosity no longer.

woman smiling picture
NaVon, our mom, a mere 23 years old.

“Mom, are the dresses for us? Can we wear them?”

“No,” she replied.

Who else would they be for?

With patience, mom explained that there was a family who needed help making Christmas special. We had so much, she said. She ticked our blessings off on her fingers. I remember the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had never had a beautiful dress like that, never a dress with buttons that shone like stars.

As the days passed, the emptiness in my stomach was being filled, for as my mother sewed, she poured into me a feeling of gratitude for blessings received and a spirit of giving. She made me a co-conspirator. I cared for the baby, played quietly, and picked up those lovely scraps so she could continue to sew.

Soon the dresses were finished and gone. The gifts of love had been delivered. Then my mother began pouring charity into the empty place that the actual departure of the dresses left.

“Now girls, when we go to church, you’ll see those dresses on three other little girls. Don’t say a word. We want them to feel happy and proud. This is our special Christmas secret. Remember that it’s important for people to have dignity and be happy.”

We three, Cindy, Shirley, and I, turned our young faces to her and beamed. We trusted the words of our mother. We knew we could keep the secret. I had a feeling of joy in my stomach. Emptiness no longer lingered there.

Christmas night was torture. Every child has felt the pangs of anxiety: will the doll be there, the train, the blocks? Every child has felt the excitement. How can I wait? How can I sleep? Sleep stayed away for a long time.

It was still dark when we raced to Mom and Dad’s room. They arose slowly—too slowly! — finding slippers and waking the baby. Then there was the interminable wait as Dad lit the tree and turned up the heat. Finally, we were free to run pell-mell into an ecstasy that would last all day.

three sisters smiling picture
Shirley Kay, Cindy Lu, Mary Ann

What? I stopped short. There they were among the gifts: those buttons attached to black velvet and red taffeta dresses. What a surprise and joy.

As I sailed into church later that day, I was wearing a prized gift, but the most precious Christmas gift I received that season was carried in my heart: gratitude for what I had, the love of sharing, and charity for others. This gift, given to me by my mother so many Christmases ago, has made all the difference in the quality of my life. Thanks, Mom!

Also, a thank you to my dad, who is now gone. He made wonderful toys with his own hands. We had them for many, many years, and they delighted all nine of us children.

baby cribs picture                  cupboard pictures                 toy horse picture

Merry Christmas!

What Makes a Memory That Matters?

What Makes a Great Memory

My adult children stay very connected via a video chat app. They talk about all kinds of things, health, work, kids, weather, holidays, etc. But, just this week, they were discussing a topic that blew me away – a jar of buttons and books of stickers. This conversation blew me away because I had no knowledge that these two items from our home had such a significant impact on all of them, from the oldest to the youngest.

When I was a young mom, stickers became a thing. You could buy stickers in the store that depicted animals, cartoon characters, flowers, etc. Before that, it was primarily stickers to use on charts in school, for chores, and garage sales.

I was fascinated with the stickers and created a couple of sticker books over the next few years. My kids would look at them for hours. However, when I moved, all the kids had gone from home except Kate, so I let them go. Some years later, Seth asked me if he could have them because he had enjoyed them so much. But alas, they were gone. I didn’t know until this sibling conversation that Seth has been collecting stickers ever since, and some are well over 20 years old.

What began the conversation was Kate, my youngest, telling me that my granddaughter, Tessa, is into stickers. Kate was hoping that I still had the books and that Tessa could have them. Marie, my middle daughter, reminded me that she had also asked for the books some years ago.

WHAT! Who would have thought that something as simple as sticker books created by me and shared by my children would have touched the hearts of all my kids enough that three of them asked if they could have them?

Then someone mentioned the gallon of buttons that we had. They all said that they loved dumping them out on the carpet and sorting the buttons. I can recall Kate and Barry pouring over the pile as they worked together. Who has a gallon of buttons anyway? Well, I did because my grandmother had one, and I loved sorting the buttons. But, unfortunately, that went during our move to Utah too.

A couple of years ago, Marie told me that Matilda loved buttons and hoped I still had that gallon jar of them. I didn’t, so I created her a jar, but a gallon of buttons is hard to find, so it was a quart. Then, her older brother, Parker, fell in love with buttons, and I made him a quart.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT MEMORY?

The world is filled with things we can buy for our kids—toys, technology, clothes, and gadgets. There are many places that we can take them—theme parks, water parks, grand vacations. We live in a world influenced by media, which says that good parents give their kids ___________.

There isn’t anything wrong with taking our children on cool trips or buying them a special toy or piece of clothing, but in the final analysis, no matter what we think, it won’t be any of those things that our children will remember with the most fondness. Instead, it will be the simple, family things.

When I was writing my book, Becoming a Present Parent: Connecting with your children in five minutes or less, I did some unscientific research on this very thing. I asked my adult children and their spouses what their fondest memories were from childhood. Here are a few shortened responses:

Jenny—“Playing with the big jar of buttons!”
Marie—“I remember loving to look at your sticker books.
Barry—“I loved sitting in the dark with the Christmas lights on in the living room.”
Seth—“I loved New Year’s Eve and the cheese and meat tray that we ate while sitting on the floor watching a movie.
Jodie—“My most cherished memories are of the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. I loved all the little traditions we had, from the way we decorated to making gingerbread houses to what we ate.”
Kate—“I remember when you stood up, not saying a word when I fell during a cheer contest. I knew you were silently saying, ‘Get up. You can do it.’”
Andrew—“I remember working with Dad in the crawl space. I don’t think either of us actually liked going down there, but we did like working together.”

I also put the question of fond memories to my daughter-in-law, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Here are a few of their responses:

Cindy (a sister)—“I remember mom reading us a chapter each night from Old Yeller. I loved the inflections in her voice, that undivided time with her, and the comfort of our warm bed.”
Deidra (a niece)—“My mom used to sell Avon, and she would keep all the big boxes her orders came in. We used the boxes to make houses to play in. It was so fun!”
Nanette (a sister)—“Mom helped me sew a dress for 4H. It was so cool and had pom poms on the hem. I was constantly breaking the sewing machine, and she would always get it working again. I won 1st place and went to state. To this day, I sew because she taught me.”

Are you getting the picture? It’s interesting to note that most of these happy and pleasant memories are of events that happened in the course of daily living. Not one respondent mentioned a fancy toy, a fancy vacation to a memorable place, name-brand clothes, a cool car the family had, the size of their home, or where their home was. No one mentioned the great lessons or classes they took. No one said Little League or other teams they played on. Not one.

Memories Come from simple Things at Home

It isn’t just little kids who love being at home whose memories and happiness hinge on simple everyday things. In a study of thirteen to twenty-four-year-olds conducted by the Associated Press and MTV, more than 100 questions were asked of 1,280 young people. The questions were all centered on determining what made these youth happy. Can you guess the number one answer? Spending time with family! Yup, that’s right, spending time with family. These kids and young adults were ages thirteen to twenty-four ((Associated Press, “Youth Happiness Study,” 2).

My favorite response to my question about memories that mattered came from my sweet daughter-in-law, Kendra. She said, “Something I’ll always cherish from my childhood was the time my parents spent with me outdoors, going to the beach, hiking, fishing, swimming, and letting me be a kid. It was something we often did because it didn’t cost much, but to me, it was the greatest thing ever. In fact, one time, my dad took me to Disneyland, and I asked him if we could leave and go to the beach. I look back on that now and think that must have both surprised him and probably made him wish he had saved all that money.”

A Gallon of Buttons and Sticker Books. Amazingly enough, these things said ‘family’ to my children. They said, “You are part of something bigger than yourself, and you belong here.”

Tips for Lasting Memories

If you want your kids to have wonderful and lasting memories that they will talk about decades from now:

    • Stay home more
    • Spend less money
    • Be on screens less
    • Keep life simpler

All these items are a challenge in today’s world but will be worth the effort in the long run and will bless your children and their children.

Let your friends know that memories come from the simple things

we do in our family. 

With Kids, Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew!!

Keep It Simple

I know about this and I work to keep things simple. However, being at home for an extended period of time has been wreaking havoc on my brain. : )

The other day I decided to help the grands, all four of them, make cookies. Now that isn’t a big deal except, I decided to let each one make their own kind. And let’s not forget that Maggie is special needs and must have constant help to participate.

I know, I was out of my mind! : ) I asked Don to help. I reasoned that he could help the two boys, one 12 and one 6. The 12-year-old wouldn’t need much help. I would help the girls, one 10 and one 14, with special needs. The 10-year-old is creative and fairly independent. That should work out alright.

NOT! Don couldn’t manage two at a time and was totally involved with the six-year-old. That left me with three. As for the twelve-year-old, I discovered that when it comes to cooking, he needed a lot of help. And as far as the 10-year-old goes, she couldn’t read my cursive. Of course, her recipe card was in my cursive. Sigh. It was like trying to wrangle chickens. You’ve never done that. Well, trust me, it’s tiring!! And here is another thing. I am perfectly aware that expectations can do a good project in. I teach that. I am an expert.

BUT I forgot my own advice.

Here is what I thought. Each one will be able to measure the ingredients. All but Ben will be able to cream the sugar and shortening, no problem. Then they will cook their cookies, we will eat some and each will clean up their spot on the table. WHAT WAS I THINKING!!!

Here is how it went. No one knew that you had to pack shortening or brown sugar into the cups and had to be shown. No one could cream the sugar and shortening without significant help. They struggled to even find the correct measuring cup. After one pan of cookies, they were done and had flown the coop, so to speak. As for gathering them back to clean up, GET REAL!

I have to say, that I remained CALM while I was working with the kids. During the baking, I felt myself begin to slip. That is when I should have STOPPED, thought it out, and packaged a ton of dough in plastic wrap and utilized the freezer. But when we are brain-fried we stop thinking. LOL

It took me three hours to cook and put all those cookies away and I had two ovens going. We began at 1:30. The kids were done in by 2:30. I finished at 5:30. Then I was grumpy the rest of the evening. Fortunately, I live in a different part of the house and they never even knew. Poor Don, he lives with me!

When we work with children there are ways to keep it happy for us, as well as them. There are ways to remain energetic to the end and spend the evening cheerful. That is useful because unlike me, you do live in the same house with your kids.

Five Tips For Happy Times With Kids

1. Remember that kids are process-driven. They like the process of whatever the activity is and when that part is done, they are done. They are not concerned with the outcome – in other words baking the cookies or cleaning up, for that matter.
2. Watch your expectations. Link your satisfaction to your ability to enjoy what is even when it falls short of your expectations.
3. Mentally prepare for a mess. There will be one. There is NO way around it!
4. If you keep things simple you will manage better. Only make one batch of cookies at a time, not four!
5. Think through the time needed for the whole project so you don’t find yourself giving more than you planned. The present example is perfect – making cookies from 1:30 to 5:30. To long!

Working with children is so rewarding if we manage our adult way of thinking, have realistic expectations, keep it simple and stay present.

I appreciate it when you share and so do your friends. Thank you!

5 Tips To Put Family First in a World of Distractions

I saw an insurance commercial in which the adults (portrayed by kids) were being treated like children by the insurance company. They felt helpless, undervalued, and frustrated. When I saw this commercial, I, like most of you, could relate to those feelings. At the end of the commercial, a rival insurance company helped a woman (portrayed by a child) with her needs. She stood there smiling, feeling good.

Then I had a second thought. Why would they use children to illustrate what all of us have felt as adults? It’s because this IS how children are frequently treated. They are not seen, heard. They don’t feel they matter.

What Does Being on the List Look Like

Let me give you an example of what it looks like when we treat our children in a way that leaves them feeling like the adults in this commercial, helpless, undervalued and frustrated.

One day I was sewing, and the project had a deadline. I’m pretty good but sewing would be on the bottom  of my relaxing and fun things to-do list. I was feeling some pressure. My 3-year-old daughter, Marie, kept coming into the sewing room and interrupting me. This and the sewing were wearing on my nerves. I was ready to spank her. After all, she was bugging me, and she could see perfectly well that I was busy! I decided if she interrupted me again, I was going to swat her.

Of course, you know what happened. She came in again and I was ready to carry out my intention. Then I had a thought, “Why not hug her instead!” It wasn’t my thought! Remember, I had a firm intention to swat her. It took me by such surprise that I STOPPED what I was doing.

I turned my chair away from the sewing machine and I looked at my daughter. I picked her up and I hugged her tight. I hugged her for 15-20 seconds. I said, “Marie I LOVE you!” Then I put her down and off she went as happy as a clam.

She didn’t come back. Why! Think about that insurance commercial I described and it will be clear. When they were being ignored the people in the commercial were frustrated and feeling undervalued. The woman at the end of the commercial was smiling and feeling good because someone cared. She was on the list.  She felt valued.

This is what happened to Marie. All she wanted was to be on the list, to be valued. Our children want to be on our list, and in our busy lives we sometimes erase them off. Oh, we cook meals, clean and maintain order and manage our family, but our children and our relationship with them are not on the list. We often don’t make time to let them know that we see them, hear them, and that they matter.

5 tips to help you let your kids know they have a place on your list.

1. Take a hard look at your calendar – We all have good things on our calendar. However, are there so many goods that there isn’t room for the best – time with our children? Can you pare down the classes, lessons, team activities, and community and church responsibilities? Time at home matters to kids. Ask yourself, “What happens if I/we don’t do this?” If you’re doing a task out of guilt or habit, take it off your calendar. Figure out what your priorities are and pursue those. Something must give.

2. Involve the kids – I know, I know, it’s simply easier, faster, and more efficient to do things by yourself. But there are advantages to including your children a few times a week. Gardening together, folding laundry as a group, and tidying up the yard as a unit are ways to kill two birds with one stone. If you make it fun it won’t seem like work, it will seem like a family activity.

3. Turn off your digital devices, ditch technology – just for a while. Have technology-free moments every day. For example, have a TV, computer or no phone hour just before bed or while eating dinner. When you’re willing to let go of technology for even short amounts of time, you’ll be surprised at how much time you can open up for the family.

4. Make a date with your family and then keep it. When things are planned, they tend to happen. When they aren’t the world crowds in, and they get put off. If you have a family evening once a week then consider that sacred time. If you decide to have a game night, don’t let anything else interfere. If you plan to walk one evening a week, make sure it happens. It doesn’t have to cost money, take a lot of time or preparation but you do need to be consistent. That will go a long way to saying, “You are on my list.”

5. Realize you won’t get everything done. A to-do list is unending. It will never get done. Laundry is forever, so is cleaning and cooking. The yard always needs to be mowed and snow must be shoveled. So, lighten up a bit. Let some things go, short term, and make space for your family. 

Please share 

Help Kids Give Christmas from the Heart

Kids LOVE making Christmas gifts. Helping them can seem overwhelming during this very busy season. However, with a bit of thought and time, you can help your children give gifts from the heart.

When I had two children left at home, ages five and eleven, we decided to make Christmas gifts. We had set some guidelines:

 

  • They had to be usable and worth giving
  • They couldn’t cost a lot of money
  • The child had to be able to make it with minimal help

This was before every home had a computer! What I had instead was a butter-colored, six drawer file cabinet which was filled with things I had collected over a lifetime of teaching children. We searched through files marked Christmas, gifts, sewing, patterns, and so forth until we found the perfect items.

My son, who was eleven, chose to make footstools for his grandparents and dad. I took him to the lumber yard, and he asked scraps and they gave them to him. I took him to the local upholstery shop, and he asked for scraps which they gave to him. In other words, I let my children choose the gifts, helped them gather the supplies for the gifts and then assisted when they needed me in making the gifts. But these gifts really did come from them.

The following ideas are simple, inexpensive and your children will need minimal help. But the satisfaction of giving a gift from the heart will be priceless.

Gifts Kids Can Make for Christmas

1. Make a book for a toddler. Get a small photo album and have your older child print pictures from the Internet or they can draw simple objects. Glue the picture to a piece of heavy paper or poster board which has been cut to fit. Label the item, write a short sentence or paragraph for a story.
2. Write a story for a parent or grandparent. Buy a small notebook with unlined paper or put some plain paper into a folder. Have your child write a story and then illustrate it. If your child is new to writing, you can write their story for them on the pages they have illustrated. Part of the fun with younger children is helping them come up with a story while you write. This can make for wonderfully funny and warm moments together. My Kate, when she was small, wrote two stories that I still have. One was called The Golden Tear and was a fantasy. The other was called “Glass Is Not Cement” a hilarious story of a real experience that she had. (She used an aquarium for a step stool!)
3. Another great gift idea that an older child can make is a Quiet Book. We have made these, and they are just plain fun. This also works well as a project for a whole family. Each member of the family makes one page for the book. Here is a wonderful site that has some darling free templates.
4. Bookmarks. Over the years we have made many, many bookmarks. If you google bookmarks for kids to make and hit images, you will find more ideas than you can shake a stick at! Here is one easy idea.
5. Decorated Wooden Spoon. Here is a gift that I saw on TJEDMUSE, suggested by Debbie. I thought it was a wonderful idea. When I was young, about 11 or 12, I got a wood-burning kit for Christmas and I loved it. Choose a wooden kitchen implement such as a spoon or rolling pin. Use the wood burner to inscribe an inspirational word or picture. If you choose something like a spoon you can turn it into a great wall decoration by adding ribbon and silk flowers to the handle and then hot gluing a hanger on the back of the handle.

6. One year we made corn/rice warmers for our friends. I still have mine. I store it under the head of my bed for cold nights. I just pop it into the microwave for a minute and voila warmth. Because I had children making these, they were very simple. We cut squares from flannel about 9X9. We sewed up three and ½ sides filled them with feed corn which I bought. Rice works just as well. Then we hand sewed the opening shut. I was able to teach my kids how to use the sewing machine and how to sew with a needle and thread. Just a note – When I was teaching my 5-year-old to use the sewing machine I stood behind her and ran the pedal with my foot. I helped her push the material through the feed dog and keep it straight. It worked well and as far as she was concerned, she had done the sewing!


7. Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies. I know, I know, everyone gets cookied to death at Christmas. However, my children loved making them. This is a whole afternoon project or two short afternoons. Kids make the cookie dough, roll it out, bake the cookies and then decorate them. The recipe that I am giving you is very old and uses far more flour than sugar, so they are perfect for frosting. When kids are frosting cookies, it is a messy business and never looks beautiful the way you would do it. But please, don’t help them too much or fix their cookies. What we like to do is let the cookies sit for a couple of hours uncovered so the frosting crusts up a bit. Then we put them in freezer bags and write “A Christmas Gift for New Year’s Eve – please freeze” on the bag. Add a bow and maybe a couple of hot chocolate packets. What a great gift!

Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies
2 c sugar 7 c flour
1 c shortening ½ tsp salt
2 eggs 1 tsp soda
1 tsp vanilla ½ c evaporated milk (plain milk works but canned makes the flavor so yummy!)

Cream the sugar and shortening. Add eggs, vanilla, salt, and soda. Mix well. Add flour and milk alternately. I always end up mixing with my hands. It works so much better! The dough must be just stiff enough to roll out and handle nicely. Flour your table before you roll it out. It also helps to dip your cutter into the flour before cutting the dough. Bake at 375 degrees for about 8-10 minutes. The longer baked, the crisper, the shorter baked, softer.

Merry Christmas and

happy gift making. : )

By the way, if you love candy, frosting and graham crackers why not tackle a village of small gingerbread houses. It is a fabulous family activity? It’s fun and the way I help kids do it, it’s as easy as pie!! Sounds too hard? Try making a passel of old fashioned gingerbread men. They are delicious and simple.

Why not share this with someone

you care about. : ) 

Do you HATE Legos!

Payton loves Legos so much he signed a contract

Recently, while mentoring a busy mom, the topic of Legos came up. I laugh because the topic of Legos comes up often. Such an innocuous toy to cause so much trouble.

The problem is that Legos are small and seem to be always underfoot. Many moms and dads reach a point of exasperation and want to pitch them out! I understand because I had kids and they had Legos. My grandkids have Legos.

In 2011, a dear friend of mine, Leah Spencer and her son Miles, co-wrote an article detailing their system for keeping Lego order. I have given it a rewrite and share it again because Miles told what he, his siblings, and cousins learned while playing the Lego Game. It will surprise and delight you.

The Lego Dilemma

Lego’s are my nemesis. We have tried many things to keep a handle on them. We’ve assigned drawers, organizing Legos by color and type. We’ve moved them to nearly every room in our house. We’ve put blankets down every time the Legos were used and then dumped them back into one enormous bucket. I’ve been frustrated but continued to try and balance my boys love for them with my intolerance for them.

Finally, I got a large table for the Legos. It was in a room with plenty of floor space for the kids to create. We only have one rule during Lego play. After they’re finished all Lego’s are to be put on top of the play table or under it.

Time after time they forgot. Finally, I was done. I wasn’t mean; I simply and dramatically put the Legos in a big bucket and stored the bucket away. I didn’t take care to keep any of their detailed structures intact. Tears were streaming down little boy faces as everyone sat and watched. I felt terrible. They felt terrible.

At that moment a scripture came to mind which I shared with the boys. “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” All they had to do was follow my one rule and they would have the freedom to play with the Legos. But when they forgot they had no promise, no reward, no freedom. It was an amazing lesson.

After that tearful incident, something changed inside me. I remembered what I had learned from Mary Ann. The thing that bugs you the most may be the spark that ignites your child. I realized that the boys learned so much through their Lego adventures. I knew that I wanted them to be able to play with the Legos. That’s why I had tried so hard to figure out the best place or best way to store them, how to make them manageable.

I told the kids that if they wanted to reopen the Lego Game, they would each have to write a letter indicating why they liked playing with Legos and vow to keep the one rule. The letters were so cute, and they understood them to be contracts. We reopened the Lego game (as they proudly refer to it). I asked my sweet son Miles (age 9) to write what he is learning from playing with the Legos.

WHAT CHILDREN LEARN FROM LEGOS BY MILES SPENCER

  • We learn about money – The kids have designed a monetary system with values for gems,
    Miles, who co-authored this guest blog, and his Legos

    pennies, gold, etc. As a family, we’ve talked about what people did before gold came into society, how money has inflated, etc.

  • We build structures/infrastructure – I have talked to the children about architecture. I’m trying to inspire them to take the next step and design it on paper before they build it.
  • We have implemented punishment – They have set up capital punishment! I couldn’t believe it. There are police and arrests made, but if you do something really bad, they have three choices of death! I didn’t even know they knew about capital punishment. But this has caused our family to discuss ethical issues, why it’s important to follow laws, the job of policemen, what it’s like to be in jail, how being obedient is freeing, etc.
  • We trade, buy, and sell – They trade commodities, put a value on items, share, etc. We’ve briefly discussed capitalism and entrepreneurship.
  • We have governments and there are rules – They have kings or queens, presidents and VP’s, Lords and ladies. They have had coups and impeachments. As you can imagine there have been many disagreements in Lego Game policy. They have had so much experience in negotiation and compromise. It’s been incredible! I could not teach these types of lessons as well. What fantastic leaders they’re learning to become from these small plastic pieces.
  • We host live auctions – Eventually, one cousin decided to host an art auction.
  • We have many jobs in the Lego Game – There are so many different types of jobs their Lego guys apply for. There are firemen, police, mailmen, and so many more. I love that they’re seeing the variety of work that is available.
  • We use math – Even the three-year-old understands their nicknames – pass me a “twoer” or a “fourby”. They’re learning symmetry.

These are just some lessons my son mentioned and some that I have seen. I know there are more that I don’t see. Every time I describe the things the kids have been doing with the Lego Game people inevitably respond, “My kids would never be that creative!” If the environment is right I think any child left to himself will be more creative than you think.

SUGGESTIONS FOR INSPIRING LEARNING WITH LEGOS

  • Make it a safe, relaxed environment.

    Even a 3-year-old can creatively play with Legos.

  • Let them play – Don’t do it for them. The 3-year-old comes up with horse and buggy carriages or spaceships on his own
  • Playing Lego’s is a reward after chores and such. It also acts as an incentive to get up in the morning. They can play Legos until it’s time for breakfast. But if they sleep in there’s no time for Lego’s before breakfast.
  • It’s their free time stuff and since they learn so much, I could not be more thrilled.
  • Occasionally be Present. Sit and read in the same room while they play. This gives you an opportunity to see what sparks them and ways that you can inspire them. It’s also just a joy to see what they come up with. It’s a marvelous opportunity to be Present!
  • Don’t make them take their creations apart every night. Find a way they can keep their city, or whatever they are building put together so they can add on and play again later rather than having to start all over. That is when the real creativity begins. My son said he
    The lego shelf to store the boy’s creations for tomorrow

    loves the Lego game not only because he enjoys building with his hands, but also because he loves to see his accomplishments when he’s done. He likes to continue to add to it day after day. We leave their structures intact on a shelf.

  • Allow time. It takes time to get into presidential elections or auctions, etc…. they can’t get much done in 15 minutes. Allow time for Lego play.
  • Have a huge variety of Lego’s. Buy pieces at yard sales, thrift stores, hand me downs from college kids, etc. Big Lego sets that show you step by step how to put them together are great, but kids lose interest quickly. The creativity is in the maker of the Lego’s not in the child.

I’m inspired and motivated by my children’s ability to learn and their level of creativity. I could have never imagined, and I can barely even think of what we would be missing out on if I hadn’t gotten over my negative thought patterns of “Lego’s are a mess” and “Lego’s are a waste of time”! Thank you, Mary Ann!

Leah Spencer is the mother of three boys and a girl. Miles is now 17. Here are two more articles about the Spencer family that you will enjoy. How being able to see what sparks your child can bring a lot of joy.  The Spencer Sparks is all about different learning styles in children.

Give other parents a hand up with their Lego mess by

sharing this article. : ) 

Rolling Stones, the Fourth of July, and Family Traditions

Happy Fourth of July from Laurel, Montana

I grew up with a rolling stone, my dad. He liked to move and was forever looking for new ideas and new opportunities. He and my mom had nine children but until they hit number 9 they moved around quite a bit. I went to half a dozen grade schools and three high schools. I finished my high school career in a new school, in a new state. Who in the heck does that!!! Well, those were the days when if mom and dad moved ALL the kids moved too.

My husband grew up in the same town, Aurora, CO, all his life. He did live in two homes and that was a BIG move for his family. When we married my rolling stone nature rubbed off I guess and for the first ten years of our married life we moved alot; to college, to work, to college,  to work, to college…you get the picture.

Then we moved to Montana and lived in three different homes until we landed in Laurel. That was a turning point for us, and we found ourselves planted for twenty-one years. For me, that was an amazing experience, to be in one place for twenty-one years. I liked the feeling of having roots, of belonging someplace.

Laurel, MT. a railroad town filled with refineries.

Laurel was a small town and while we lived there it grew to 10,000. You could cross it from one side to the other in about five minutes.

There are some real advantages to small town living. One day I got a call from the bank. “Mary Ann, we have a check here from a casino in _______ and we’re pretty sure that you didn’t write it.” My checkbook had been stolen. That call saved me lots of money and frustration.

As a girl, I had never learned how to balance a checkbook. So, one day when I was in a huge mess I visited the bank with a stack of about 12 check registers and asked for some help. The sweet woman that I talked with took my stack of check registers home, balanced the whole thing and then taught me how to do it every month. Cost, exactly zip!!!

I had seven children and they caught lots of illness over the years. Ear infections were common, as were sore throats. I would call my trusty general practitioner (there are no specialists in small towns) and say, “Robert, Marie isn’t feeling well and has a green runny nose. I’m sure she has an ear infection. Will you call something in?” “Sure Mary. You’ve seen enough ear infections to know”.  As I said, small town living has its advantages!

Laurel swells from 10,000 to 30,000 on July 4th.

Here’s something else quite unique about this small town. They have a firework display to DIE for. I am not kidding. The Laurel fireworks display is so magnificent that on the Fourth of July the population swells to 30,000 people. This is not an exaggeration! They all want to see the most spectacular fireworks display in the state of Montana. About two weeks before the big day the fire engine rolls through town stopping on every street and the firemen knock on doors collecting money for the display. On the Fourth of July, the firemen stand at the freeway exit into Laurel with black rubber boots and collect money to pay for the show.

Our family loved and really celebrated on the Fourth of July. It became one of our treasured traditions. We would pack up a large cooler of watermelon, fried chicken, potato salad and treats and head to the park at about 2:00 pm. We staked out our space with blankets and then just chilled out while the kids ran all over the park meeting friends, watching the parade and blowing off fireworks. Neighbors and friends would walk by and we’d have a good chat. I loved it.

You’re probably asking yourself, “Good grief, when was this, 1950? How old is this woman anyway!!!” Well, this is how it was right up until we left in 2003, bank, doctor, fireworks and all.

My adult children, half in their 40’s, still talk about those good old days and the 4th of July. One year we all went back to Laurel just to take it in one last time. More recently they all came to our home in Utah and we made a great effort to recreate it.

Traditions, no matter how homely, hold families together. They are the fodder of great reminiscent conversations. Be sure that in all the busyness of life you’re creating some family traditions. When your kids are in their 40’s you will be glad you did!

Happy Fourth of July!

Screen Free for a Month! WHAT?

What if you went Screen-Free, as a family, for a WHOLE MONTH!! Do you think you could do it? Would your family go nuts? Would everyone crack up? Would the fighting increase? Yikes!! A whole month!!

One of the main tips I give to help families connect better and more often, is to manage technology better. Turn off your digital devices, ditch technology – just for a while. Have technology free moments every day. For example, you could have a TV, computer and no phone hour just before bed. When you’re willing to let go of technology for even short amounts of time you will be surprised at how much time you can open up for your family. Finding a few moments each day to turn technology off is a good idea.

A few years ago, I met a family that goes screen-free for a whole month, once a year. I got all the details from the mom, Courtney, and I want to share them with you because I think you will be so impressed that you might consider making this a tradition in your home.

So, what is screen-free you ask? No TV, no movies on TV, no computer time, no games on the phone or TV, no screens!

HOW TO MAKE GOING SCREEN-FREE WORK

Here is how the Smith family makes it work:
1. Prepare your kids ahead of time. This family goes screen free in June, every year. However, one year they didn’t begin talking about it early enough. They usually begin talking about it and making plans about a month in advance. So, for the sake of having a successful Screen-Free Month, they moved it to July that year.

2. Presentation is everything. That’s my phrase and you’ve probably heard me say it before, but it is what they do. They talk it up. They talk about all the great things they’re going to be able to do as a family, how much fun they’re going to have together, and the family reward at the end of the month.

3. Get everyone to buy in. As Courtney was telling me how they get their kids to cooperate I said, “Oh you get them to buy in.” She smiled and said, “Well I didn’t have a term for it but yup, that’s what we do.” They get their kids to buy in by allowing them to pick a reward they would like to have at the end of the month. It could be swimming, camping, eating out, going to the movie theater, visiting grandparents, a road trip, whatever the parents want to throw out there. When the kids pick it, plan it and talk about it – they are IN.

Here is their families one caveat concerning rewards – They don’t use screen time as the reward. They don’t want to reward ‘no screen’ time with ‘screen’ time. : )

4. Parent’s have to be honest! It isn’t the kids who struggle the most, it’s the parents. They really do have to commit. Courtney told me that the hard part for her is at lunch. She usually has lunch when the big kids are at school and her little one is taking a nap. She likes to read Facebook, watch a show, catch up on the news, whatever, as she eats lunch. It’s a challenge to read instead or call a friend.

It is also challenging for her and her husband in the evening when everyone is in bed. They usually veg out a bit in front of the TV, just the two of them but – YIKES – it’s their screen-free month. She told me that they have learned to play games together or read to each other. It’s become really fun.

The one adult caveat – They do occasionally check email, pay bills online or prepare church lessons. Just no screens for entertainment purposes.

5. Plan ahead. Get the games out. Check some great books out of the library. Stock up on popcorn. Know in your mind what you’re going to say to your kids, how are you going to direct them when they come and ask to watch a movie or use technology. Get mentally and physically prepared.

This family goes screen free in the summer months because they feel that in the winter you’re shut in and it’s more difficult to disengage from TV, videos, games, etc. In the summer you can get out, walk, go swimming, go to the mountains, etc.

THE RESULTS

Courtney said that it’s challenging the first few days because it’s a serious transition, but then they settle right in. They have a lot of fun. They play together, they talk, and they laugh. She said that it’s something they all really look forward to each year.

They feel more connected at the end of their Screen-Free Month. It takes a while for screen time to become important to them again. The break feels good – after the first few days. : )

In fact, Courtney shared this with me, “Last time we did it our kids wanted to continue for more than a month! And they hardly ever asked when it would be over.”

So why not consider it and give it a try. You just might find out how much your family likes to read, play games, hike or swim.

Who else out there goes screen free for a day, a week, a month? What is your experience?

Your shares are the best compliment!

Process vs Outcome. Which brings joy?

Recently, I posted a photo on Facebook of my twelve-year-old granddaughter making cupcakes. She has cerebral palsy and so it requires some special accommodation to cook with her. We’ve been cooking together now, for many years.

It’s also coming up on April 2, which is my oldest daughter’s birthday. That recalled to my mind a memory which I wrote about and want to share because the message is timeless and priceless as it applies to creating a relationship with our children and in allowing us to enjoy working and playing with them. Enjoy!

3-18-2010
Three of my grandchildren live just a couple of blocks away. Maggie is almost four and Jack just turned two. Mary is brand new. Maggie has cerebral palsy. Working her arms and legs is a real challenge. These children belong to my oldest daughter, Jodie. Today is her birthday. I had planned to make her a cake and then decided to have Jack and Maggie help me.

My intention was to allow them to experience new things, really help make a cake, and have a lot of fun. I knew that there would be a huge mess, something unexpected might happen and I would be worn out when we were through. That knowledge has come from working with hundreds of children, of all ages.

Because of Maggie’s condition she has a special chair. It isn’t high enough to reach the table, so I put her and the chair on the table. Jack, of course, took his position on one of the kitchen chairs.

I opened the cake mix and allowed each one to pour half of the contents into the bowl. Some made its way to the table top and some to the floor. Next, I filled three measuring cups with liquid, 1 cup water, ¼ cup water, and 1/3 cup water. I helped Maggie get hold of the large cup and pour it into the bowl.

Because this isn’t the first time that I’ve cooked with them I wanted to see if Jack could pour the cup himself so I said, “Pour it in Jack.” He took hold of the 1/3 cup and gently tipped it to one side, onto the table. Ok…he still needs help. So, we tried again with my help.

Next came the eggs. I showed Jack and Maggie how to break one and get the contents out. Woohoo!! Whacking eggs suited Jack just fine. He gave it a whack and voila! egg all over the table. Not to worry. We just picked out the eggshells and scraped the egg into the bowl. Good thing we started with a clean table.

Next, I helped Maggie get hold of her egg and smack it against the cup edge. That was necessary to make it pliable enough for her to squeeze out the contents, and squeeze she did. Some was dripping down the front of her shirt, there was a small stream running down her knee and the rest was oozing out her fingers. We did get all the egg out of the shell, the shell pried out of her little fist and hands wiped clean. Whew!

My sister had come to visit just as we began and was observing what we were doing. As I got a cloth to wipe up the egg mess, Maggie, who was just desperate to “do it herself”, reached down and plunged her arm into the batter. I turned around at that same moment. It was perfect. I took hold of the bowl and said, “Stir Maggie, stir.” She really had a tremendous time stirring that batter. It’s very difficult for her to hold a spoon and when she does, I have to help her. For a 4-year-old that’s so lame. But stirring on your own, now that’s living! I would never have come up with the solution she found. I glad my sister was there because she was able to video that small moment of magnificent success and joy for Maggie. You can see Maggie stir the cake here.

Of course, being unable to control her limbs, her hand and arm went in and out of the batter a couple of times, so we had cake mix on her, Jack and the table. Not to worry, there was enough left to bake!

I put the bowl on the mixer and turned it to stir. Watching them learn to cook was fun. Each time I accelerated the mixer the change in sound would make Maggie jump. She’s very sensitive to sound. I would pat her knee and say, “It’s OK Maggie.” After a few times, Jack reached over, patted her little knee with his smaller hand, and said, “It’s loud.”

Soon the cake was in the oven, all hands were wiped, and the table cleaned. Then I put on Winnie the Pooh and made the frosting myself.

When the cakes were cooled, I invited the kids back in and we got to work. Maggie, like any 4-year-old, wanted to lick the beater. I gave her the rubber spatula instead. She held it in place on her knee, bent her head down low (ah, the flexibility of children) and got busy. For the next half hour, we didn’t see her face once, but we heard lots of smacks and slurps. She cleaned that spatula.

While I was frosting the cake and Maggie was smacking her lips on the spatula, Jack was sucking frosting out of the decorating bag. It was a grand sight, grandma letting her little friends experience new and enjoyable things. There was no nagging about being neat, quiet or being patient. We just did our thing however it happened to happen.

The cake turned out great and I suspect, despite the fact that it didn’t get its full measure of egg, it will taste just fine. On the way home, Jack almost fell asleep. He was totally worn out from a fabulous day at grandma’s house. Maggie cried because she knew we were going home, and it’s so much fun at grandmas!

I shared this cake baking experience with you because there are some important things that I want to point out that will help many of you.

1. When you work with children, no matter the age, your intent, and your expectation really do matter.
This experience with my grandchildren would have been very different if I had worried about keeping my kitchen clean or making sure that everything was in order and done a certain way or trying to keep clothing clean. It wouldn’t have been as much fun if I had said, “Don’t be so messy”, “Don’t spill”, or “Look at your clothes”. You know what I mean. We all do it. That’s because our expectation is that it will be a well-run project, go smoothly, and the end product will be perfect.

2. As we begin to feel the tiredness that comes from working on a project with children, we can begin to feel impatient, frustrated, and possibly, even angry. That’s because we expected to have this perfect time with our kids and it wasn’t perfect, at least not in our eyes.

But let’s think about that. When we work with children whose eyes matter, whose interpretation of what should happen matters. I’ve learned that for most children it isn’t the result that they care about, it’s the process. They like doing. They like experimenting. Sometimes things don’t turn out, cookies are crumbly, plaster of paris is runny, paint is too thick, etc. It doesn’t matter to kids.

3. Is the project, chores or activity about me or the kids? For decades I would go to my children’s school and help children make gingerbread houses. I was VERY well organized, so it was a smooth project. I could help 25-30 kids by myself. But I’m going to be honest here. It went so smoothly because the project was about me and not about the children.

When I first started it mattered to me how the houses looked when they were done. I knew they were going home, and I wanted those parents to be amazed, to see what a great teacher I was. So, when the kids were doing their thing I would go around and make sure that the entire milk carton was covered and that candies were evenly spread on the house. In short, I meddled with everyone’s creation.

As I got older and wiser, I stopped doing that. I made it about the children! I learned that kids don’t always care if the milk carton shows. Sometimes all the candy will be on one side of the roof and nowhere else. I learned that not everyone wants icicles that look like icicles. Some kids would rather do it themselves even if they are just bumps on the side of the house. And you know what; I’ve never talked to a parent yet who didn’t think their child’s house was great, no matter what it looked like.

I suspect that is true for a lot of you if you’re honest. It’s your expectations you think about. It’s your outcome that matters. It isn’t about just being with your kids and letting them learn and enjoy. Be honest.

4. When we’re honest we will approach projects and activities with a different set of expectations and a very different intent.

5. If being Present with our children is our ultimate goal, whether we’re playing, doing chores, homework, or any other activity, we will have a better result.

6. When we’re Present we’re better able to remember this huge difference in adults and children: adults are project driven and kids are process driven.

As we adjust our expectations to include these differences it will increase our enjoyment in working, playing and being with our children.

Your shares are the best compliment! : ) 

 

Want to Bond Your Family? READ!

March 4th was the birthday of Dr. Seuss. So of course, that got me thinking about family reading time. I’ve shared the idea that when we read to our children, we create a feeling that kids and teens need and want, that sense of family that feels warm and safe. BUT there are other reasons for reading with our children.

1. Reading as a family is a magnificent way to not only bond and enjoy each other’s company, it’s a way to teach core values without the lecture.

This is especially true when we read classics. And here’s another thing about reading the classics that I find fascinating – they’re worth reading more than once because we learn new things every time. They have some depth to them.

There are classics in each field from history, math, science, literature, the digital age, and even surfing, cycling, dancing, gardening, etc. There are classics for every age group.

One classic that my children loved was The Little Red Hen. Yup, it’s a classic. I know that we think of classics as dry and boring, but they aren’t. Here’s a link to a wonderful list of classic books I put together that kids and families will love.

Now back to the Little Red Hen. A family I know was reading The Little Red Hen together one morning. Then they all went grocery shopping. When they arrived home the car was full of groceries which needed to be carried into the house. Now, normally everyone would scatter off to do the next important thing but not on this day. The classic they had read just that morning had sunk into the hearts of the children. All the children began carrying in groceries without being asked. AMAZING, right!

A mother I attended a class with told this story. She and her boys were reading Little Britches. Set in the early 1900s this story is told from the point of view of a young boy who moves from New Hampshire to Colorado with his family because his father is ill and cannot work the coal mines any longer. Through the eyes of this young boy, we experience the perils and pleasures of ranching life from picnics to hay season, tornadoes to cattle roundups. Some of the main story themes are hard work, honesty, character, perseverance, and the simple life.

While they were reading this book the younger of the boys shared some information about his brother which he knew he shouldn’t share, and which caused his older brother some embarrassment. Later in a private moment, the younger boy said to his mom, “I guess I have taken some of the boards off of my house”, in reference to a comment by Ralph, the lead character in the book. Ralph was referring to doing something that was destroying his house of character.

Reading regularly as a family, from the classics, can be some of the most enduring and meaningful times we have with our kids. One of my daughters who is in her forty’s mentioned how wonderful it was, the way I read to them all the time. Amazing! I really didn’t read to them all the time. I read to them, but it wasn’t consistent. Even so, it had a powerful effect on her.

2. Another reason to read as a family is the shared memories that are forged.

I always anticipated being a grandparent and one of the things that I thought about was reading to my grandchildren. So, I made a plan. The whole experiment turned out pretty well. I had to explain to one family of grandkids, a couple of times, that this was a quiet time, but all in all, it was fun. We read a half dozen one-page stories from a big book that I had. I noticed that they went off to sleep with less noise and quarreling than usual.

When they came the next time, I had picked a couple of books that I thought were more interesting and livelier. Guess what? My 10-year-old granddaughter insisted that we read from the book we used our first time. That book held the memory of that first reading experience. They requested it every time. So, we always had to read at least one story from its pages.

3. Another perk that comes from reading as a family is the terrific conversations you can have together.

When Maggie was nine her school had an assembly and kicked off a month-long reading contest. Everyone wanted to win the contest. Maggie’s class had won the year before and wanted to win again. I was Maggie’s class aid at the time (she has cerebral palsy) and so I was able to observe how it went.

On one day they had five books read to them by participating adults. Some of the readers were very interesting and some read in a monotone and were soooooo boring. Some readers obviously liked what they were reading, and some felt uncomfortable. Some were good readers and some adults stumbled while reading all those rhymey words. The children enjoyed the books even if the readers weren’t comfortable or if they were a bit boring.

But here is what I noticed the most. There was virtually no interaction between the reader and the children, about the content of the books. A couple of the readers said something like this: isn’t that funny, wouldn’t you be scared, or what do you think of that. But these were rhetorical questions because time wasn’t given to the children to answer. If a child did try to answer they were asked to not interrupt so that the reading could go on. This is how most of us read to children. We are all about getting through the material. It’s so adult of us!

But there is a better way! And this better way is what creates that sense of family that can happen during family reading time. Talk about what you are reading. That’s why reading the Little Red Hen was so powerful for one family and why reading Little Britches was powerful for another. They talked about it.

If you need a tutorial on how it looks to have an enjoyable reading conversation with your family check out this article called Creating That Family Feeling

Take the time on a regular basis to gather your kids around you and read to them. You’ll be glad you did and so will your whole family!

Your Shares are the Best Compliment : )