A Family Constitution

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Sienna came running out the backdoor with a paper in her hand: “Mommy, you need to read this and sign it!”  I had been sitting in the backyard watching the sunset and initially thought it was her daily binder reminder that required my signature.  Instead, she handed me a contract she’d just drafted for our family.

The “Family Constitution” included the following rules:

No hitting. No pushing. No snatching. No saying someone is mean. No name calling. No rudeness. Always share. Be kind. Say please and thank you.

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Dennis had already signed the constitution, and I later teased him that he must be Hamilton, which is appropriate as the head of our family.

“Sienna, this is great!  I’m happy to sign.”  I told her.  “Did you do a class constitution in school today?”

“Yep!” she replied as she went to collect Mateo’s “signature” and add her own, before posting it on the refrigerator.

This morning, she added our return address stamp to make it “official” and declared that she was the President of the family.  Teo proudly announced that Sienna had installed him as the police officer.  I thought it was a brilliant move to give him responsibility for policing these rules as he’s one of the biggest offenders.  Specifically of calling his mommy “mean” when she doesn’t let him do what he wants to do!

“Who decides on the punishment?”  Teo asked.

“Well, you’re the police so you’ll arrest someone and then they’ll go in front of the judge,” I replied.

“Who’s the judge?”

“I am!” Sienna declared.

“You’re the President and the judge?  Sounds like a concentration of power to me!”

When we returned home from work and school this evening, Teo and I had a conversation about these family rules.  He was feeling tired and overwhelmed and wanted to toss out the constitution because it was too challenging.

“Teo, you don’t have to keep these rules perfectly.  No one expects you to do that,” I calmly explained.

“But, I do!” he responded.

I went on to explain that these family rules are in the spirit of God’s law for us.  We can never keep God’s perfect law.  We’re sinners and will always fall short of God’s standard of perfection.  Jesus lived without sin and paid the price for our sins with his death and resurrection.  We’re washed in his righteousness through Baptism.  Therefore, we’re forgiven each time we fall short.  Similarly, in our family, we’ll break these rules, say we’re sorry, ask for forgiveness, and be forgiven.

Wow, that’s reassuring news whether you’re a kid, parent, President, police officer, or judge.

Struggling with Control… Again.

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The little story of letting go that I recently shared was just the tip of the iceberg.  Turns out, I had a lot more letting go to do.

Several weeks ago, I had the sudden realization that I was an “Upholder” based on my tendency to meet all internal and external expectations.  Okay, that’s true and fine.  Then, I decided – “Why not embrace my Upholder Tendency and focus on establishing more concrete habits?  I can monitor them and stop spending so much mental energy deciding what to do.  I’ll decide once and then not think about it!”

Two new apps were downloaded – one for logging my blood sugars, meals, etc. and another to track my habits.  For the past few weeks, I’ve been monitoring my activities, eating fewer and fewer carbohydrates, and generally zeroing in on the habits I wanted to cultivate.  At first, I felt really awesome!  Look at my self-discipline!

But, all along there’s been this slightly nagging feeling that these behaviors were starting to trigger a desire for control.  But, I brushed it away.  Through prayer and surrendering, I’ve come to see that this episode is very much like the time I threw my planner away.  Less dramatically, I just deleted the habits app from my phone this morning.

There is a part of me that LOVES structure, discipline, and self-control.  However, that’s the part of me that, when nurtured, pulls away from the present moment, resides in my head, seeks to control myself and those around me, and generally feels that my little world is subject to my command.  I find myself feeling frustrated and short tempered when my children don’t behave the way they “should”.  I don’t feel my emotions deeply because I’m busy thinking about what “should” happen next, what I “should” be doing.

butterflyTracking and monitoring daily habits reinforces the idea that each day can be mastered by my choices and actions.  This directly contradicts the sense of curiosity that being present and accepting the moment fosters.  Rather than freedom, focusing on these habits started to make me feel agitated and distant from what really matters.

For me, the opposite of being in “control” is a state of surrendering, accepting, and trusting God.  He’s in control and will put in front of me what I “should” be doing at any given moment.  When I consider the fact that I don’t know what the day ahead holds, instead of feeling fear, I feel hopeful and excited.  My prayer becomes: “Lord, show me how I can love your people today.”  And then I stop focusing on my thoughts and instead look around me at my family, friends, coworkers, and strangers that cross my path.  That’s what I’m here to do, to love and serve others.  Not to track how much water I’ve consumed or whether I snacked too close to bedtime.

I have a reminder on my phone that pops up every few days. It says: “The thinking self struggles with control, but the observing self doesn’t.”  This was one of the great insights from The Happiness Trap.  At any given time, we can either be thinking or observing our direct experience with the world, but not both.  While thoughts and feelings come and go, we can actively choose where to place our attention.  Did that passing thought need my full attention, or should I look around me and notice the present moment?  We get to make that decision hundreds of times each day.

The struggle with control comes from the fact that our thoughts are largely out of our control.  When we get hooked by our thoughts, it’s typically because there’s something about them we want to change.  We make judgments, criticisms, or assumptions that cause us discomfort, so we engage our thoughts with other information, in hopes of changing our thoughts to be more positive or comforting.  I’ve learned (time and again!) that recognizing my thoughts are just words running through my head, which often don’t require my full attention, I’m much more peaceful.

When I trust that God will guide my actions through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, instead of relying on my very fallible thoughts, I feel immensely more fulfilled and at peace.

Lifting the Veil

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This week my kids began the fourth and first grades.  It’s cliché, but true: they grow up so fast!  I’ve was home with them for several days before they went back, getting ready for the school routine to start up again.

Teo first day of 1st gradeLast week, I found myself struggling, specifically with Teo’s rejection of every healthy meal I placed in front of him.  I’d been trying to get them to embrace the whole foods diet that I follow.  Teo isn’t particularly picky, but he’s accustomed to the foods he typically eats and isn’t big on change.

At the YMCA pool on Thursday afternoon, I could feel myself struggling with wanting to control his diet and feeling so frustrated that he wouldn’t even try these new foods. The thoughts running through my mind we’re variations of “How do I make him try these foods?!”  I told Sienna what I was feeling:  “I need to let it go, don’t I?”

“Yeah, I think you do, Mom,” she lovingly replied.

Sometimes I can literally feel myself accepting reality and surrendering my illusion of control.  It usually sounds like a deep, cleansing exhale from deep in my body.  I imagine my “struggle switch” literally switching off.

027 (2)The next few days, I felt so much more present and connected to the moment.  Soaking in my children and this particular phase of life felt joyous.  They are at a very fun stage of being more self-reliant and therefore “easier” but also very interested in mom and dad’s attention and praise.  I hear “Mom, mom, I need you!” dozens of times per day.  But now, instead of needing me to do something for them, they’re asking to talk or show me something they’ve accomplished. They’re growing and conquering fears on a daily basis, and it’s so much fun to witness.

When I let go of a need to control, it instantly lifts a veil over my eyes and helps me to see my loved ones more clearly.  I see that they are their own person with tastes, interests, talents, fears, and perspectives that are different from my own. I see that they are imperfect and growing.  They’re God’s little children that have been placed in my care to nurture, teach, support, and love.

With some patience and understanding, a situation that I found frustrating or aggravating can be transformed into one of growth and learning. For both of us.

 

 

Teaching Kids to Face Their Fears and Do it Anyway

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This morning, before dropping Sienna and her best friend off for their first day of Broadway/Disney singing camp, we headed to the park by our house to bring Teo to his first day of P.E. in the Park.  The P.E. teacher at school is our neighbor and he’s been running this activity a few days a week throughout the summer.

When we arrived, about ten kids were already out on the field, kicking a soccer ball or tossing a football around.  I had to hurry to pay the Coach and get back in the car to get the girls to camp on time.  Teo slowly climbed out of the car with his water bottle.

“Lovie, I’m going to go.  Have fun!” I said.

“Okay…. but, wait Mom,” came his tentative reply.

I gave Teo a hug and kiss and encouraged him, “Go on out to the field with the kids.”

He slowly made his way toward the field.  As Sienna and I got in the car, I watched Teo from the rearview mirror.  Oh, my heart.  It was tough to see him surveying the field and trying to find an opening to join the group of kids already engaged in games together.  I knew the Coach would soon get them organized into a group game. Also, it’s good for him to face these moments.  I was so proud of him bravely joining the group and could totally relate to that feeling of being on the outside looking for a way to join the fun.

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This moment reminded me of something I’ve been learning this summer.  As parents, our job isn’t to protect and shield our children from the troubles, disappointments, and challenges of life.  Rather, we are here to guide and equip them to face their fears and struggles so they can learn and grow.

During the kids’ summer program at school, they went on a field trip to the movie theater each Monday.  At this particular theater, Teo recalled that the advertisement for concessions involves a roller coaster ride and the popcorn “pops” really loud and startles him.  He was pretty concerned about going on the fieldtrip the first week and begged me to keep him home.  At first, I actually said, “Seriously, Teo – you’re scared of the popcorn?!”  But, then I realized that I needed to work with him through this fear.  (I think the real emotion came from last year when he accidentally misplaced his fieldtrip t-shirt at the pool and was embarrassed by the way they tried to decipher whose shirt it was.)

When we got to school that morning, I asked him “What would make you less scared of the popcorn?”  He suggested that he could sit with one of the teachers.  So, after signing them in, Miss Rose was nearby and I encouraged Teo to tell her about his concerns.  He did and she said she’d try to sit with him.

Turns out, they were able to leave the theater for the thirty seconds or so that the startling popcorn was on the screen.  The following week, he asked Miss Rose to sit with him again.  She replied, “Yes, Mateo.  Just be sure to find me when we’re at the theater.”

On the third consecutive week, Miss Rose was on the phone as I dropped the kids off.  Teo wanted me to stay so he could ask her to sit with him again.  I told him, “I have to get to work, Lovie.  You can ask her, I have faith in you.”  He nodded confidentially and I left.  Walking to the car, I felt such peace.  He had a fear that was bothering him a lot.  But, rather than saving him from the source of his anxiety by keeping him home or telling the teacher what he needed, I’d encouraged him to express his feelings and ask for the help he needed.  He’d learned to face his fears and do it anyway, a lesson that I’d recently been learning too!  Teo’s confidence to handle the situation grew each week, even if his fear of popcorn hadn’t receded.

 

Graceful Teachable Moments

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Rushing kids to get ready and out the door in time to make it to work by 8:15 a.m. feels like a fate worse than death. Fortunately, I don’t have to do it often, but this week I did.  Adding to the equation that they have been going to bed late, sleeping in, and generally in the slothful mode of kids in summertime, just about pushed me over the edge.

When we finally left the house to head to their summer program, Sienna realized that we’d forgotten to apply sunscreen. No, correct that… I had forgotten to apply sunscreen to her and Mateo.

“Mom! You forgot our sunscreen!” she accusingly cried.

“You’ll be okay,” I passively replied.

“No, we’ll get sunburned! Why didn’t you put sunscreen on us?” my persistent daughter asked.

“Because I’m a bad mom! What do you want me to say, Sienna?” was my lovingly maternal response.

I sighed, already regretting my comment. “Breathe,” I told myself.  For the next few blocks, I just drove and took deep breaths.  Gazing in the rearview mirror, which is always pointed toward my kids when they’re in the car, I noted the sad expressions on both their faces.

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Pulling the car over to the curb, I turned around to face them.

“I’m sorry. Mommy has a lot of responsibilities and today I was anxious to get to work on time to make sure a room was setup in time for a meeting.  You two are my most cherished and important responsibilities and I love you so much.  Work is important too because it provides money for our family.  Sometimes mommy gets overwhelmed, but I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

“It’s okay, Mom” Sienna replied.  Teo smiled at me as he patted my hand.

We parted with big hugs and kisses a few minutes later. On the drive to the office, I could have beaten myself up for responding harshly and sarcastically instead of patiently and lovingly.  But, instead, I prayed and remembered that God is gracious and forgiving.  This was yet another opportunity to demonstrate that love and grace to Sienna and Teo.

Recently, Sienna has begun telling me she’s sorry for talking rudely or unkindly. She’s started reflecting on why she chose to behave a certain way and expresses regret when she hurts her loved one’s feelings.  In these moments, it seems like she’s mimicking me.  I’ve made it a point to ask for forgiveness when my words and behavior don’t match my loving intentions.

We all get frustrated and short-tempered from time to time and say things that hurt others. We try to do better, but we’re sinners and we’ll inevitably fall back into wanting things to go our way and getting frustrated with the people around us when they don’t do what we want them to do.  Being quick to acknowledge when we sin against those we love and seeking their forgiveness is what I hope our kids are seeing and learning.

I guess it’s fortunate we have so many good teachable moments.

 

Reminding Myself to Keep a Growth Mindset

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One of the traps I continue to fall into is thinking that situations, people, ideas, or feelings are fixed and unchanging.  Years ago I started digging into the field of emotional intelligence and discovered that “black and white” and “all or nothing” thinking is pretty much the hallmark of poor emotional intelligence.  From then on, I tried consciously to change this thought pattern, but it’s been a slow journey of growth over about a decade!

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As the amazing book Mindset revealed so powerfully, the growth mindset is the best anecdote to a fixed mindset. Embracing that our abilities, skills, and behaviors can grow and change is so freeing!  It’s also a wonderful way to accept other people for where they are and who they are.  Just like you’re growing and changing, the people you love are too.  One comment or one exchange does not characterize a person or a relationship between two people.

When there are bumps in the road of life, I often console myself by remembering that there will be “growing pains”. Learning and growth are not going to happen without some effort, struggle, and usually a dose of pain.  Seeing that pain as something that’s temporarily serving a purpose rather than fearing it, has been my focus of growth the past few years.

In my mind, growth and God are completely intertwined. God is actively growing and nurturing my soul and he knows what’s best for me, even (especially!) when I don’t want to deal with something painful.  When I remember to maintain a growth mindset it helps me surrender to God’s plan for my life and glimpse a clearer view of my vocation in His Kingdom.

Musing on Expectations and Being an Upholder

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I’ve followed the work and blog of Gretchen Rubin for probably a decade now… wow!  She’s the writer behind The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and most recently Better Than Before.  She has created a framework that’s the subject of her next book: The Four Tendencies.  Gretchen has been blogging and talking about this framework on her podcast for a few years now.

The Four Tendencies framework divides all people into one of four categories, based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations.  Here’s Gretchen’s explanation of the tendencies:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

When I first started reading about this framework, I knew that I was either an Upholder or an Obliger.  So, I took the quiz to get a definite answer!  Upholder, indeed.

For years I’ve followed Gretchen’s discussion and explanation of the tendencies with minimal interest, especially after I went through my awakening.  I liken the Upholder tendency to an A-type personality, where you need things to be a certain way.  As I strove to be more present in the moment, let things go, and not plan excessively, I tried to turn away from my Upholderness.

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Then, last week, my Team at work held one of our weekly huddles to discuss The Speed of Trust, a program that my firm has been working through the past few years.  The behavior for that day was one I struggle with: Clarify Expectations.  Generally, I’d been thinking about the concept of expectations and how to be better at identifying when an expectation had been set.  Later that same day, I was walking and talking with a friend at work when I noted this issue of expectations and explained that inner expectations hold such power over me.  I gave as an example my weekend long runs.  If I run less than the 10 miles I had planned (i.e. expected), I feel like I failed.  Nine miles?  Not enough because it’s less than what I had set out to do.

Suddenly, a thought popped into my mind: “Because you’re an Upholder.”  Oh yeah.

Re-reading through the material on her blog and listening to Gretchen’s podcast on The Four Tendencies, a lot of aspects of this expectation issue became clear to me.

As I had identified during my awakening, my tendency leads to a high risk that I will be too conscientious at following an expectation once I set it.  That’s why keeping a planner doesn’t help me stay organized, but instead feels like a task master and tends to pull me into my mind and out of the moment. Planners are a great tool for some people, but not for me.

Also, I’d recently focused on being more intentional about my actions.  I realized that what I called “being intentional” was synonymous with clarifying expectations.  As an Upholder, I was setting inner expectations ALL THE TIME, but without consciously being aware of them.  For example, I would have a passing thought that we could go to the library to return books tomorrow, and then it would become an expectation that I needed to meet.  The trouble arises later when something else derails that “plan” and I feel like I’ve failed to do something that I set out to do.

By the way, I recognize how neurotic this post makes me sound!  But, it’s actually very freeing to label this tendency and be able to recognize it’s virtues and drawbacks.

In terms of positives, I can readily set goals and met them without much external accountability.  When I set decided to run a marathon last year, I did it.  I trained and focused, and was able to cross that goal off.  When I started running with the club, I had several folks comment that they’d never be able to run 20 miles on their own, as I had recently done. That surprised me, but now I recognize that those folks were Obligers. They could meet an external expectations but not necessarily an inner one.

Also, I love tracking things and keeping logs to reinforce good habits.  When I’m focusing on low carb and a whole foods diet, there’s nothing that brings me more satisfaction that logging my blood sugars!

The major pitfall is the one I describe above, inner expectations can take over and make me feel chained to my to do list.  But, I believe the key is being mindful and aware of when an inner expectation has been set.  Because the great trick is, I can always set another expectation instead!  This is why the mantra “Why don’t I wait and see how I feel…?” works so effectively for me.  When my mind starts spinning on the various options of what I could prepare for dinner that evening, I can stop and think “I’ll wait and see when we get home” and the expectation becomes “wait and decide later” instead of trying to make a decision now.

This insight also made it clearer why I struggle to Clarify Expectations with others.  I have so many unconscious inner expectations, that it’s challenging for me to identify them as such.  This is where mindfulness and being intentional helps me so much.  When I can identify an expectation, it becomes much easier to clarify it with others.

In hindsight, I realize that my push/pull relationship with following Gretchen’s work was a reflection of our shared Upholderness.  A lot of her habits, tricks, and insights really resonate with me.  However, when I was learning to be more present and less “in my head” I would pull back and revolt against her suggestions.  The thing I now see is that a tendency is fairly hardwired and you can’t really turn it off.  Instead, by embracing my Upholder tendency, I can figure out how to avoid the pitfalls and therefore struggle with myself less.

Now I’m excited to have my husband take the quiz – though I’m pretty sure I know which tendency he is!  That’s where this framework can be so helpful, in identifying more effective techniques within relationships where two different tendencies meet.

Take the quiz and let me know what you think about your tendency!