Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Perspective and "The Nest"

Having babies close together creates unusual situations in families. When Benjamin was born, we lived at Trinity in a two-bedroom residence director apartment. Surrounded by college students on nearly every side, sleep came hard to my sweet boys. Only 19 months apart, we had two babies in that small room and while they learned well to sleep in the chaos of college, it was the chatter and play they shared with one another that interrupted sleep the most.

Whether Noah was teaching Benjamin to talk or Benjamin was playing peek-a-boo over the side of the crib, sleep was not always timely for my boys. Mark and I intentionally made some space for this raucous-relationship-building, but the time came when bedtime was bedtime and nap time was nap time and the time for brotherly banter had passed.

Looking for a creative way to separate the boys for sleep, Mark and I decided to lure Noah out of his own room with a treat. Keep in mind, he was less than two and easily swayed. Using our bed to nap him in a location further than arm's reach from his sweet baby brother seemed the perfect solution. We put pillows in a circle in the middle of our queen sized bed, draped a blanket over the circle and told Noah he could take a nap in "the nest", if he would like.

The draw of sleeping like a baby bird in the softest of circles worked like a charm. Off he would toddle into our room and happily climb into our bed, drifting quickly to sleep surrounded on all sides. Benjamin being less likely to sleep at all waited years before "the nest" offer came his way, too.

We did not plan on renaming our bed and we did not know what a privilege it would become but somewhere along the way, the name stuck. To have a chance to sleep "in the nest" was the greatest of opportunities and one that all four kids came to understand as something nearly sacred in our home. Before long, it was not just the bed that was called "the nest", but the whole room itself.

Because language we use often is rarely listened to deeply, we really didn't know that the name had become permanent or that we had come to use it with the same regularity as "stove" or "bathtub" until we accidentally mentioned it outside of family ties. We we were asked, "What's the nest?". And then, we heard it differently and realized that something that once had a function became a word that was a part of us... a reminder to us of an earlier time that kept a foot-hold in today.

In having a bed that holds warm memories for our children, our reality is that on occasion it is shared. We were told, as young parents, to never allow a child to sleep with you in your bed. We were told, as young parents, that a child who is allowed to sleep with their parents will never, ever sleep alone. But, Mark and I long ago decided that we would not parent out of fear. Our decisions will not be based in what we are afraid might come someday. No, our decisions, our choices as parents will be based instead on what we feel is right for our children. So, when we brought our babies home, they came to bed with us. When they were very young, we gently transitioned them to their cribs over time. When they woke up frightened or lonely or sad, we welcomed them happily back. They know where we are and we know they will come our way if they feel the need.

Most nights, Mark and I have the bed to ourselves but when someone wanders in, I seek some perspective on our over-crowded bed. A few nights ago, one of the boys came to sleep with us in the middle of the night. I woke to find his head inches from my face. Laying in the dark, I could remember when the length of him reached from my shoulders to my waist. I remembered nursing him to sleep one early morning and looking at all his baby hair... seeing white blond everywhere except one or two brown hairs on the very top of his sweet head. I remembered sleeping with him on my chest, nearly upright, as he struggled with an ear infection. It was night and in the darkness, the whole of his life circled around me. Soft and warm, cozy and whole, I was cradled in a nest of memories of my boy.

These moments, even in the night, offer me a perspective that can be lost in the shuffle from day to day. These moments, yes even in the night, help me to see the big picture. And in that picture, I know that I will have years and years of uninterrupted sleep. I know that someday the bed will seem too big and the children will be all gone. I know that someday, lanky legs and humongous shoes will make the sweetness of a baby who fits himself to me an impossible memory, faded and dim. So, for tonight I will take what I can. I will embrace the minutes I have, crowded as they may be, and use them to see the whole of it. My babies are growing up.

So c'mon kiddos! The nest is open and you are welcome. Years of deep sleep lay before me. But, tonight, I will take a crowded bed and a view of you that makes me thankful for where we are--and where we've been.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Goals and Plans and Things to do... "Sticks" Included!

I have this thing about goals. There are two sides to this coin and both are very real to me. I love the feeling that comes with having a purpose, an end in view that spurs you onward-learning and growing along the way. On the other hand, there is something to be said about guilt-free relaxing that does not carry with it the stress of an opportunity missed. I have moments where these sides balance perfectly and I feel a calm sense of forward movement. In summer, I seek that balance for my children and myself.

With three months spread out before us, the thinking through possible goals seems like a natural fit. A month or two before school gets out, I start thinking through things I would like my kids to learn. I dream about experiences I would like to share with them, places to go, things to do. I process through whatever is upcoming for them in the next school year and think of ways they might accomplish some of that over the summer. I add to that list enticing books to read and activities that will help my children connect to one another. On top of all this, I wonder about what they need to learn... what life skills might they need as they grow from children to adults. It is three long months and I like to look at that time as a gift... a chance to give them, teach them, things I know will matter for a long, long time to come.

Some of you read this blog because somewhere over the years you have heard me speak to your group or to a conference you have attended. If you have heard me speak or know my family in any way, you have heard me mention "Sticks". This is a program originally created for use in our house to increase organization, help my children internalize (age-appropriate) daily tasks, minimize parental nagging, reduce materialism, develop independence and generally help our home run in a way that is far less stressful. I had NO idea when I developed the program that it would take on a life of its own! I am now writing a book on it all that I hope to complete by next fall. I am asked to speak on "Sticks" all the time and there are now many, many people who are using the system in their own homes. "Sticks" is a big part of our summer planning and while I cannot post the whole "Sticks" system here on my blog (Who would buy the book?), I can tell you some of the things that we do everyday to help my kids find structure in the slow, relaxing days of summer.

Here are some things that we are doing-

Everyday all the kids: read for 30 minutes, play outside (at least twice), practice a sport (usually soccer or baseball), have a healthy snack, play with a sibling, do a workbook page (That commercial where the child at the pool is losing all his knowledge from the previous year haunts me!), clean after meals, assist with our big garden, feed and brush and walk our dogs, and help with simple housework.

The older boys: learn to do laundry (gotta love that!), practice an instrument and develop leadership skills by teaching a younger sibling a sport outside.

The younger kids: help haul laundry, do flashcards in reading or math, help with setting and clearing the table and learn a sport.

In a given week: all the kids memorize a memory verse from the Bible.

Over the summer: Elizabeth (5) will learn some pre-reading and reading skills, Josiah (6)will work on math skills in addition and subtraction, Benjamin (10) will fight his urge to play all instruments by ear and work on reading music and Noah (12) is working on some school lessons that will be important for him next year. All the kids will read books from the library that our school recommends. These books are found on the Caudill List and the Monarch Book List.

In addition to all this, the kids will either participate in or help run our church's VBS program and take swimming lessons for two weeks. Sometimes we can add a camp or two but VBS and swimming are things not to be missed.

It may seem like an awful lot but the truth is that our daily routine is really quite laid back. Because the kids know what they are working on and Sticks eliminates nagging, they move from activity to activity, from task to task, with little pushing from me. There is TONS of time for free play, though most of that will happen outdoors. When they come inside, Legos are a draw and the younger kids still love our old Imaginext set. They make up games, play with lots of water and interestingly all the boys have chosen to "write a book" on the computer. We watch very little tv and have not yet started video games, and so time is not spent there. We encourage "screen-free" time and for the most part, the days are full and relaxing enough that screens get pushed out without notice.

Mark and I dream of things we would love to do with our kids... most of which will not find a place in the next three months. Spending over two years with two houses and two mortgages makes many things impossible but we dream nonetheless.

We dream about:
-Camping vacations to places that we long to show our children before they are grown and gone. We would love to go to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, Yosemite. We have long since outgrown our tent and wish we could afford a pop-up that we could pull from place to place and sleep up off the ground.

-Being able to afford overnight camps and bigger summer experiences for our four kids. With camp a part of both of our backgrounds, we know how important that time can be but our goals and wishes and budget must match.

-Taking all the kids on mission trips out of the country to teach them more about their part in the Kingdom and to help them see our blessed life in fuller perspective. With friends who live in various countries, the locations would be easy to choose, the plane fare much harder to come by.

For now, we dream --but someday we will do! While we wait, the summer is full of simple pleasures and quiet moments that intertwine with the chipping away at goals and tasks and new lessons learned. The goals offer us a structure from which we hang our lazy days and for us, the fit is good.

What about you? What would you like to see your children learn over the next three months? What experiences can you offer, what lessons are important for your little ones at home? What do you want your days to look like and how might you facilitate that happening for them? It has taken many years for our family to learn and build the system that we use but this level of detail is not necessary to maximize your many summer days. Finding a few minutes to be intentional about what they will learn and do can save your sanity when the walls begin to feel like they are closing in.

It is cloudy and cold in Chicago today. After chipping away at some daily tasks, we made a big bowl of popcorn and cuddled up with blankets to watch a silly movie. Even with goals, even with structure, there is always a place for a child on my lap and the smell of popcorn on the air.

Blessings on your day!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I believe that words have power. From the time our children learned to speak, we passed this lesson on to them. Words have power to get you a snack, to make your momma smile, to hurt your brother's heart. Even though our children are much older now, it is not unusual to hear Mark or me say "Use your words, Benjamin." when his passion or impulsivity or erupting joy risk getting the best of him. We remind all the children to think things through and talk it out on a regular basis. (And I am ever grateful to my friend Denise, who first used these words within earshot of my mold-able mommy brain with her first-born, Michaela.)

Words have power to accomplish things outside of ourselves and to impact our relationship with others. And, words have power to effect great change within us, as well. When we speak our frustration in anger, that frustration has a foothold from which to expand. When we give sarcasm a place, it increases the critical eye with which we see those around us. (This is an area that is a struggle for me, especially.) And when we complain and criticize on a regular basis, it becomes exceedingly difficult to find a place of contentment. Our words send a message to our brains, but this is a message that we can seek to direct. In being kind, in being positive, in being patient, we tell ourselves all kinds of wonderful things about our family, our life, our current situation.

And so it came to be that we banned a word in our house. It goes without saying that, in reality, we have banned MANY words. But, the summer is a special time and we add to that list a word that, as a teacher, I had heard far too often. This word can be a response to a lull in activity, a request to be entertained, a complaint about the level of excitement. And yet, it is a cop-out of sorts and a criticism of situation that is often unwarranted. Have you guessed the word? The word is BORED.

As in (prepare your best whine here):
"Mom, I'm bored!"

Now, you all know we have lived on a ridiculously tight budget for the past 2.5 years. But, even in our "time of less" my children have plenty of toys and plenty of games and plenty of books, all in addition to a yard to-die-for! In addition to all these amazing things-to-do, they have another bonus! We tell them often that we have given them each three gifts that they get to play with and enjoy for the rest of their lives! Each of my sweet babies has been blessed with the gift of three other siblings! (This is how we try to help them see these other little people with whom they are forced to share most minutes of their lives... for the good and the bad found together.)

We didn't start out with a plan to ban the word bored. To be honest, when my kids were very little, it was a word they just didn't know. Mark and I do not use it and so it somehow wasn't taught. As they got older, they picked it up, tried it out and I quickly realized that hearing my curious, energetic, relational, busy children claim boredom was somehow offensive to me. It just didn't fit. With a house full of toys created and purchased to spark their little brains, with more bookshelves than space to house said shelves, with room to play and siblings to engage and general positive attitudes, where might this boredom originate? It felt to me like hearing someone say, "I do not feel like entertaining myself. Will you?" It felt like hearing, "None of these toys quite do it for me. Get me something else." It felt like hearing, "My life is not quite measuring up to my standards. Fix it for me." And, overall, I just didn't like it.

Add to this our belief that words have power to effect what we think and feel. Boredom begets boredom! We have found that when our children do not use that word, they do not see the world as something that they look at in terms of what it is offering them. They see their part in making this day good. They see that their experience today has much to do with what they put into it. Now, at 12, 10, 6 and 5, they would not put it quite that way. : ) They would say that mom does not let them say that word. They would say that when they don't know what to do, they need to think a little bit harder. They would say that the world is a pretty cool place with lots of stuff to do.

Even with the word banned, we still see signs of boredom from time-to-time. Noah has been known to say, "I feel like I want to do something, but I am not sure yet what it is." A bit more verbally cumbersome than "I am bored." but similar in meaning... and yet quite different. The focus here is on Noah needing to think of what is next for him. The focus is communication that there is a lull... with an eye to the fact that it is temporary. It is not so much complaint as comment. I can live with that.

So, for years and years, we have kindly requested that our children leave this word at the door. We have provided some structure, some direction to their long summer days and in taking out a word that sends a negative message, we have given room to their natural curiosity to look outside and see a world of opportunity, to look inside and see toys re-purposed, to look at a sibling and see an adventure waiting to unfold. It is a paradigm shift in the life of a child that empowers them to see the part they play in having a great day.

The next three months will hold nearly 100 long days. All of these days will be lived out in the wonder of creation which is anything but boring. I have a chance to help my children see the wonder in it all. I have the chance to help them learn to think, to play, to make room in their frenetic lives for momentary stillness. Banning this word and encouraging my children does not, however, let me off the hook. Behind all these opportunities for free-play lies planning and organizing that leaves less room for being bored.

Keep reading for what we are working on and playing toward this summer... I will post again soon!

Blessings on your day!

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Last Day

Years ago, when I was working at Trinity, I learned huge lessons about the importance of closure from a resident assistant who was working with me at the time. Katie was especially gifted at nurturing relationships and in her professional and private life, she always made sure to make both beginnings and endings in special ways. While I had known, in my head, how crucial it is to find ways to offer closure at appropriate times, Katie taught me how that LOOKED as she lived it out before me. This has had an impact on my life as a parent that I did not expect.

Our children attend a nearby Christian school and they adore the time they spend there. Every year, they learn so much and show such enthusiasm for these new bits of knowledge. The teachers are passionate about their work and exceedingly loving in how they treat their students. The school overall does a phenomenal job of building community and connecting students K-8 in ways that brings out the best in each child. It is exactly the educational experience I had envisioned for my children and I am so grateful that they are able to attend this school. But, the end of the year is always bittersweet. While they eagerly anticipate the free and relaxing days of summer, knowing that they will walk out of their classrooms and away from their beloved teachers for the last time brings on a sadness that is saved specifically for year-end. Yes, less time with friends is a part of this equation but it is the loss of a year well-spent that makes my children sad.

So, seeing this trend from the beginning of their school years, we have established traditions that help to take the edge off the end. Year after year, we conclude our year with carefully chosen activities that offer to them (and to me) Katie's closure.

Weeks before the school year ends, we begin to talk about making the most of our final days. We talk about ending well, working and playing hard. We try to be extra aware of academic issues, spending more time studying for tests and completing projects. In our house, the end of the year is so full, so busy, that it would be easy to let all of this slide. Paying extra attention helps a lot as the final grades are recorded and the days wind down.

The night before the school year ends, I sit with each of my kids and we talk about what they are thankful for in school. We recall the amazing experiences they shared with classmates and the special gifts that each of their teachers offered to them. And then, with all this fresh in their heads, we write thank you letters. I encourage them to do this on their own. The words and memories are theirs and, for us, it has proven to be an important experience to take a minute to not only be grateful but to express that gratitude to someone with whom they have shared this year. (And...this is top secret... after my sweet babies have all gone to bed, Mark scans these precious words into our computer leaving us with a legacy of thankfulness that is heartwarming to review.)

On the last day of school, my children choose an outfit that feels right to them. The process is much like choosing what to wear on the first day of school. For some, it feels right to dress up a bit... for others it makes more sense to choose what is comfortable and comforting to them. Then, after we pray together and they leave on the bus, I begin a lot of behind-the-scenes running and errands to help that day be all that it needs to be.

First, I run to buy flowers. It is our tradition to give each teacher a bouquet of flowers or a hanging basket as part of our thank you to them. Sometimes, we have also prepared baked goods to give them as well. (This year we packed chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies we made the day before.) It is my goal to be at school, flowers in tow, by 10:00 for the first recess of the day. With the thank you notes from the children, the baked goods and the flowers, I go from classroom to classroom giving these to the boys to give to their teachers. While I am there, I take a picture of each child with their teacher and then leave them to finish their day.

Once this is done, I run to McDonald's to buy lunch for the kids. I pack these into the van and then head back to school. Though my children ride the bus, it has been important to them to see me outside when they come out on the very last day. So there I stand, hugging my sad boys, as they say good-bye to what will always be an important time in their young lives. And then, they get on the bus for one last ride. With teachers waving from the sidewalk and parking lot and many young arms waving from bus windows, it all comes to an end. The tears do not belong to the children alone. These amazing teachers who have loved their students so well are often misty, too. It is a bittersweet moment for all... reluctantly turning from the blessing of the school year to face full on summer coming.

Now perhaps you find yourself wondering about my being at school while the bus runs my babies on home... I annually find myself wondering about this, as well! Hoping for a time-warp, I hurry to my van to beat the bus to our house. (Believe it or not, this usually works!) I then wait in my driveway til they all come home and as they step off the bus, Elizabeth and cheerfully yell "Happy summer!!". Dumping all our stuff in the house, we quickly load into the van to head off to the ultimate distraction from all things sad, a trip to the park to have lunch with friends from school!

By now, the McDonald's bought much earlier has grown a little cold but in the last 8 years, I have yet to have one complaint. Arriving at the park, the kids run off to sit at picnic tables with those to whom they have just said good-bye. Eating quickly, they then run and scream and laugh and play at a park we reserve just for this. The moms sit together and dream of days with later starts and worry a bit about filling endless days with meaningful experiences.

After a couple of hours, everyone exhausted, we pack it up to head home to relax. The intensity of emotion has waned by then and the kids are drained but content. Traditions behind us, summer begins. And it is full and it is good and we are ready.

Keep reading... the word we ban and some of our plans are coming up next...

Blessings on your day!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Since I Have Last Blogged...

May always gets away from me. I don't know about you, but I would take the hurried holidays over the mayhem of May any day. With spring comes sports and projects and the wrap up of a year well-spent... and while all of it has its upside, in the end I feel like I can barely keep up.

Since I have last blogged, Josiah and Elizabeth started baseball and have played all their games, save one. They are on the same team and both have really learned to hit the ball. Mark and I have watched in amazement as our youngest boy came to embrace a sport our older boys did not care for much at this young age. Josiah also had a chance to try soccer in a nearby town and has grown from an overwhelmed kindergartner unable to understand why he had to run around after that dumb ball, to a true competitor who has found joy in contributing to a team effort to score.

Since I have last blogged, Noah has jumped into another baseball season and another soccer season and finds himself playing side-by-side school friends on both. While we normally do not "double-sport", Noah has found that he loves the fullness of juggling school and two sports and has a great time on both teams. Soccer ends for him on Saturday but baseball has a long way to go!

Since I have last blogged, Benjamin has thought through what it means for him to play on a travel soccer team. We have spent time evaluating with him what is good and what is frustrating about this different level of play. For a boy who loves to run and laugh and compete HARD, the conversation was a tricky one... and truth be told, something we continue to process with him still.

Since I have last blogged, I have wrapped up another busy speaking season and have had some time to reflect on how blessed I am to be able to spend time connecting with women far and wide about our important roles as moms. Whether we were talking together about organizing our children or balancing our lives or organizing our home life or playing outside, that time feels like pure privilege to me. I am now busy planning next year's speaking schedule and am excited for what is yet to come.

Since I have last blogged, I have worked alongside my children completing school projects, studying for tests, memorizing Scripture and generally trying to keep us all on track through this trying time. All in all, it felt too full and yet I know I felt the same way last year... and the year before that, as well.

In the midst of all that activity, I flipped the calendar over and this week found myself standing in June. With nothing more than the change of the month, all that busyness ground to a halt and now I am in a season anew.

Tomorrow is the last day of school. Noah, Benjamin and Josiah will all go for a half-day and suddenly find themselves older, wiser and a grade ahead. Am I ready? Am I ready to be the mom to a seventh grader, a fifth grader, a first grader... and in the fall, my final kindergartner? In talking this over with a friend last week, I remarked that in many ways advancing in school starts to feel more weighty to me than the birthdays of my children. By the time my 9 year old turned 10, I was ready and had been trying that age out on him for months. But, finding my fourth grader has suddenly become a fifth grader, with all the increased responsibilities, social pressures and impending "talk" just stuns me. It feels so old and this leads me, every year, to a place of such nostalgia. How can it be that my sweet babies are getting so much older? How can it be that the same boy that I just taught to ride a bike is now looking sideways at the sweet girl who sits two rows over in homeroom? Some days it seems like it goes too fast and when the school year ends, I find myself seeing it all through a wide-angle lens... learning to walk and starting school and becoming a 'tween all in one quick pic.

And maybe that is okay... Maybe it is okay for us to have moments when the scurry of our schedule slows down and what had been rushing by in a blur becomes suddenly clear. They are growing up before our very eyes. And we get to watch. We get to help. We get to journey alongside those we love best and offer our hand as they learn to navigate the path they will soon enough own.

Tomorrow is the last day of school and but today is for remembering and seeing and smiling at what I sometimes miss. Today I have a sixth grader, a fourth grader and a kindergarten boy. Tomorrow, the world will change and I have three months to adjust to that new truth. Three months to play and learn and sleep and be with these children who will only be this age once. I know we will all miss school but I look forward to all that summer will bring.

Keep reading, friends. I will be blogging next on how we get ready for summer at our house... traditions we share, how we structure our days and normal words that we count as "swears" during June, July and August. I will write again soon! I am off now to spend time with my daughter... the last day of one-on-one time til she shares her days with her brothers all summer long. I may be lost in thought but I want to see what is in front of me while its still here.

Blessings on your day!