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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Class Cupcakes Are So Last Century, Mom

Call me crazy, but as I'm planning for the new school year I'm already thinking about what I'm going to do when my kids' Birthdays roll around. Most teachers have come to dread the 22-36 batches of cupcakes they'll have to distribute throughout the year. Some have come up with lists of healthier alternative treats. Others have banned them altogether. Then, there are the few unfortunate parents who have children with special dietary concerns who have to tell them they can't have the treats when everybody else is. 

On the other side are parents of kids with Summer Birthdays who only wish they could be acknowledged with cupcakes at school. They can't even rustle up a decent party because all their friends have scattered for the holiday. And of course, like many other parents, most years we can't afford a big party with the whole class for every one of our children so we have to be selective or get creative.

Fortunately, getting creative is something we excel at. Following is a list of alternatives to treats and alternatives to big parties at a variety of different price levels. Always check with your child's teacher first to be sure your alternative treats will be welcomed. And always check with your child that they're down with this new plan and not really counting on something else. Getting them in on the plan is even better. When they're excited about the plan, the exact date of their Birthday becomes less important. A Summer Birthday treat can be planned near the opposite day of the year, or for when there's a bigger gap between other birthdays. 

Instead of Cupcakes:

While school shopping, pick up 26 (k-3rd grades) 36 (4th and up) packs of crayola crayons (50c on sale), packs of crayola fat or skinny markers or colored pencils ($1 on sale). As their Birthday approaches, have your child draw 4-8 coloring pages of their favorite characters or things. Scan and clean up in the computer if desired, then take to your local copy center to duplicate a class set.

If they're older and crafty, get 36 extra pencils or pens in the back to school sales and they can make pencil toppers or flower pens for their class. They can bring them in a big bouquet. I've observed, the joy my kids get from making and giving something special to their class is more enduring than their joy at receiving presents. I think they realize it too, now. Studies indicate that new experiences cause more joy than new things. Creating and giving are experiences. 

If you're not crafty...

For k-1 especially, get helium filled balloons for the whole class. Our local dollar store has Mylar ones that will last a little longer than regular latex, and come in fun shapes. 

Check out the dollar store, or the dollar section of your favorite store for things like regular or Chinese jump ropes, hula hoops, foam footballs, or other sports equipment they can open and use at school for a PE unit and then take home. If possible, volunteer to come in and help teach the PE unit. 

Buy an assortment of higher quality playground balls or other equipment. Wrap it and let your child open it for the class. In most schools each teacher usually supplies the playground equipment for their own class, so nice new equipment will be welcome. Even a single nice basketball, soccer ball, or sturdy playground ball will be appreciated. 

In my experience, a large fresh supply of sidewalk chalk for the class is always welcome. Add a book of ideas like "Chalk the Block". 

Large spill proof bubble buckets that have 3 wands or an electric bubble maker are wonderful for younger classes. For an older class get a book on crazy bubble science and all the supplies for the whole class to do it. 

Art supplies, stickers, new glue sticks decorated with washi tape, colored staples, anything the whole class will enjoy. Especially if the Birthday is later in the year when the newness has worn off the classroom and something has started to wear out or run out. You can check with the teacher to see what that is.  Or, in the beginning of the year buy each child their own pair of scissors and tie them each with a yard of ribbon in a loop to create a lanyard. This keeps them from getting lost on the table or desk or picked up by someone else. Most people expect the teacher to have a classroom set so they haven't bought their own, but the classroom set may be in pretty poor condition.

If their Birthday falls near the school book fair, give each child in the class a gift certificate. Find out who is in charge of the book fair at least a week before it begins to get the gift certificates made ahead of time. Be nice to them. They volunteered for a big job. There are usually at least a few books for $1, a good number for $1.99, and about half under $5. If you forgot to connect ahead of time, go find out which erasers/book marks/pens or other nick knacks by the register are making all the kids go wild and buy enough for the class. There are usually items ranging from 50c to $5. The teacher can distribute them at their convenience. Your purchase will also support more books for the school. 

If the book fair is too rich for your blood, or nowhere near your child's birthday, you can plan further ahead and start picking up cool children's books in new condition from thrift stores for a quarter. There are always an abundance of books.  Wrap a big open box inside and out to put them in and bring them on a pre-arranged day for each child to choose one. 

For $15 you can buy the class a subscription to "National Geographic". Other cool educational magazines have surprisingly low subscription prices. Once we subscribed to "National Geographic" we got even lower subscription offers for many others (they clearly sell their mailing list, but my daughter is enjoying all the junk mail that comes in her name). Try "Smithsonian", "Discover", "Popular Science", "Air & Space", "Wired", "Maker". "Time for Kids" has a classroom set deal with curriculum support for social studies. "Highlights" is still the premier magazine for kids, and now they have a magazine of just puzzles. It is a little pricier but has no ads. "NatGeo for Kids" was mostly Disney ads so my kids weren't interested. With a subscription, every month the class gets a treat in honor of your child's Birthday. It's a great option for a child with a Summer Birthday. 

Does your child have a favorite toy that you can get a class set of? One of mine loves plastic dinosaurs and other animals but isn't allowed to bring her own to school. Other toys like battle tops have been banned because there's not enough for the whole class to play. One year I picked up a set of Dinos the class can use during free choice time. Another year I bought a class Twister because it's my other daughter's favorite game. 

Instead of a Big Party:

Buy a gross of balloons for tying animals, a how to book, and then come in to teach them how to do it. This is a great activity for a younger class that has buddies from an older class. The older kids will pick it up pretty fast and can help the younger ones. I did this with a combined k/1/2 and they all figured it out within an hour. They were so proud of their new skill. 

Plan and provide for any other kind of guest project that happens to be your specialty. Model rocketry is an awesome one for older kids and Estes has classroom packs available for teachers. Look for classroom sets of whatever you're into. Those resources may be more affordable than you expect.  

Plan something healthy to eat that you can bring in and prepare with the kids. Teachers usually love to put a new face in front of the kids when it is helpful to their course of study, and can help you come up with something appropriate to their age and current curriculum. Preparing a recipe from the time and place in history that they're studying, for example. Or something that features a seasonal fruit or vegetable growing in your region or school garden. Some recipes even demonstrate cool chemical reactions. Big Bonus: the kids are more likely to try and like a healthy new food if they've made it themselves. 

Fund a field trip. This may sound crazy expensive as a party alternative, but hear me out. Five years ago I had a Planetarium party for my oldest daughter. It was a Friday evening. We had to arrange transportation for all the kids. Quite a few couldn't make it because of the date, but the majority did. In addition to admission there were invitations, decorations, favors, I planned to have a cake and drinks and a movie at home after.  It cost me well over $100.  Last year I funded a field trip to the same Planetarium for my third daughter's Birthday. It was walking distance from the school. The whole class was present and celebrated her Birthday with many a "Thank You M". This thrilled her. The Planetarium had a special lower rate for schools. No extra food/plans were needed. In the end it cost $50 even. Ask your child's teacher what's close to the school and what field trips they'd like to try. Her teacher didn't know about the Planetarium before I brought it up, but loved it and plans to take her class next year. Check out what local museums and art centers have available. Even a skating rink or bowling alley can be a good field trip that meets educational guidelines for PE. When you do this you make sure even the poorest and most unpopular children in the class get to have fun, and participate in something they might not otherwise get to do. If you've got the funds for a big party but are liking the simplicity and inclusiveness of this idea, might I suggest you see if you can fund a week of swimming lessons instead? It's an important part of every child's education that's lacking in most school districts. And the kids will definitely think of it as a BIG treat. If there's a public pool within walking distance it should be something that can be arranged. It may be more reasonable to go in with another parent on a pricier trip or a trip that requires a bus, but the class can celebrate two kids together. If they're buddies with Birthdays far apart, they might be excited to party together.  

If your child's Birthday falls on or near a regularly celebrated holiday, take charge of the class party and they can share it. A Pinterest perfect Birthday party is not what's important. Presents aren't even that important. Acknowledgment is really the key. Everyone should have their love tank filled to the brim once a year. They should know that their friends are glad they were born. When the teacher says, "Jane's Birthday is the day after St. Patrick's Day so her mom/dad is going to plan a class party for us for the holiday." Jane still gets the credit for giving something even better than cupcakes to her class. The kids will understand that this is a special treat from Jane and fill her love tank with appreciation. And you won't have to clean your house, manage invitations and RSVPs, or deal with early drop offs or late pick ups. 

Disclaimer: None of these ideas are a substitute for celebrating your child's special day outside of school as a family. We still do that every time. They are only intended as an alternative to big-invite the whole class over-parties and/or bringing junk food to school. 

All of these ideas have sprung from being invited by teachers to try something different or seeing other parents do something that fit with the things their family enjoyed. I will never forget the fitness instructor mom who brought in a class set of nice hula hoops and tape and stickers to decorate them. She taught the kids to hula hoop over the next 4 weeks and the kids brought them home when they were done with the PE unit. Her daughter was glowing as she showed her friends how to put fun tape on a hula hoop. If you can paint faces, write poetry, share something you enjoy or just share a box of good books, you have something to offer that can enrich your child's classroom and boost their self-esteem and social status. What a great substitute for cupcakes!

If you have other ideas I'd love to hear them. We can all use help on this front. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What's that lovely beverage?

Last January I gave up Coca-Cola completely. I caught myself drinking 32 oz plus two refills and another 42 oz later in the day without thinking anything of it. Then, I realized I didn't think anything of it because I was doing it almost daily. I felt bloated and I wasn't eating very much of anything with it because it was filling all my calorie needs, but without any nutritional value. I still crave Coke, and after two months of complete abstinence am allowing myself a small Coke now and then, usually when I'm out and everyone is getting treats like ice cream. I figure it's a suitable substitute for that, but not a beverage I want to be addicted to for my morning caffeine rush and my afternoon get through the day fix. 

Since a Coke was my morning grab and go drink, I needed a substitute, for the hydration and habit as much as for the caffeine and sugar rush. But what's the point of giving up Coke if I'm not reducing the caffeine and sugar significantly too. Coffee is really disgusting to me, and I don't particularly care for chocolate either, so those weren't good options to replace my morning drink. I've always liked tea, but didn't have a great way to make it, so I bought a coffeemaker just for tea and set it up to brew me a morning pot. It didn't take long for me to realize I preferred it iced. But unless you have an ice maker, keeping up with trays of ice is a pain. Also, pouring hot tea over ice dilutes the flavor of the tea significantly.  

There's also the issue of convenience. There's a reason Starbucks has so many loyal customers. And there's a certain feel to the cup that we're all subconsciously in love with. So, the mode of delivery is as important as the beverage itself. I've always liked preserving food, so when canning jars became all the rage I already had plenty stashed in my garage. Ball came out with lid inserts and straws and everything came together for me. I can make my tea ahead in canning jars with regular lids, then swap them out for the drinking insert when I'm ready to drink them and my lovely morning beverage is as easy to grab as a can of Coke. 

I get lots of people asking me what I'm drinking now, so here it is:
It's iced tea with a little milk, but brewing ahead has become what makes it awesome. 
A blob of honey goes into the bottom of the pot. 
One bag of green tea (has half the caffeine of black tea and is loaded with anti-oxidants) and one bag of a flavorful herbal tea. 
Or I'll use two bags of a green and jasmine blend (my favorite).
Strong brew for herbal teas, don't use strong brew for black teas as it makes them bitter. Ten minutes later:
Even though it looks dissolved you must stir in the honey or it will sit in the bottom because the water it has dissolved into is now denser. 
My twelve cup pot fills two quart jars to 24 oz (enough room left for ice and milk to be added later) and has a little leftover. 
I brew in bulk once a week on average, so all the little bits extra go in a glass pitcher for refills. 
Regular canning lids go on with rings and the jars go into the fridge. They will seal lightly as the tea cools, but if not bent when opening they can be reused until the seal grooves get too deep. Do not wash them in the dishwasher as it will melt the sealing rubber and make a nasty mess. 
The jars hang out here getting all chill so I don't need to use as much ice, and they don't get diluted because of all that ice. 
In the morning I'll grab a jar, add a little ice and milk and a drink insert and I'm ready to go. 
Since my family doesn't like herbal teas, I'll brew up regular sweet tea at the same time using three bags of red rose tea in the filter, and ¾ cup of sugar in the pot. 
After stirring it goes in my gallon Tupperware pitcher. 
One pot will also fill four of my favorite collectible plastic Disney Coke cups which happen to fit Tupperware's new resealable drink lids. 
These go into the fridge for my kids to grab instead of the Costco flats of soda I no longer buy. 

Yep, that's still a good bit of sugar, but not as much as they were drinking. I kept reducing the amount until they started making a fuss and begging for soda again. I still keep trying to reduce it by small increments as their taste adjusts. I can tell you that quitting Coke caused a major adjustment in my sense of taste right away. I still crave it, but don't like it as much when I do have it. Usually a sip will be enough to kill the craving and remind me I'm not wanting it because it's all that great, but because I was habituated to it before. 

Other lovely beverages you may see in my hand on a hot summer day:
Sparkling juice made from dividing concentrate into quart jars (½ or ⅓ per jar depending on taste). Put lids and rings on any you're not using right away and store in fridge. When using, add ice cubes to concentrate before adding sparkling water because the colder it is the better the bubbles will keep and the less it will foam when you add the soda. Screw on ring with drink insert and stir with straw. I don't care for any of the Soda Stream syrups as they all use fake sugar for at least part of the sweetener, so this is the primary way we use our soda maker. A good apple juice concentrate will make a sparkling version as delightful as Martinellis. I also love cranberry or grape blends and Apple Cherry. A drier mix (less concentrate) has less sugar since most juice at full strength has every bit as much as a Coke to begin with, and I find I prefer it dry now. 

Fresh or frozen berries or other fruit can be added to tea, sparkling juice, or plain ice water to up the loveliness factor. 

Adding milk to tea takes the acidic edge off if that bothers you. But it must be added to cold tea or it will not blend in well. When you drink milk with hot tea it's put in the cup first and the hot tea added to it to temper the milk and keep it from congealing. I've also seen milk added to soda for the same reason. 

On rare occasions I use Torani (or other branded) flavored syrup with ice and milk, then add soda water for a home made Italian soda.

At first that was a lot more jars going through my dishwasher, but now I insist we use just one a day for the convenience in the morning and then it's our glass for the rest of the day. I initially made jars for the kids too, but they never finished them. That's why I came up with a smaller cup option. 

I also bought a replacement carafe for my coffee maker right away so I have two that I can keep swapping out when I'm brewing in bulk, and I can brew a pot to put directly in the fridge for refills if I expect I'm going to be drinking a lot the next day. Since I was in the habit of 4x32 oz of soda or more a day, I still tend to want to drink A LOT of liquid every day. 

While I feel like I've finally got a good handle on my morning brew, I'm always looking for more variety. If you've got something you like to make for a grab and go drink, please share in the comments. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Last Backpack

There's emerged a de facto coming of age ritual in our house; the buying of the last backpack. It's the backpack she'll use through middle school, high school, and college. The high quality lifetime guaranteed one. It's always a better value than the annual purchase of a mostly plastic character backpack, usually in pink with the latest Disney or Barbie logos. It was nonetheless important to go through all those cheap variations so she'd know exactly what style of pack she likes, what pockets are essential, what colors/patterns she'll be comfortable sporting the rest of her life. It's kind of a big deal. 

A & E got their Eddie Bauer packs at the same time. They were advertised as "College Ready" and came in lavender and teal among other colors we didn't buy. I can always spot them in a crowd of students. They're classics. And they're the easiest to get fixed if you ever need to use the warranty. No receipt required, just bring it into a store or follow the online instructions to mail it in. (Not that they're showing the least bit of wear after 3 years.)

M has always been pickier, going through a much wider variety of pack styles, including a wheeled one. Today she picked out a Jansport messenger bag, loaded with tech pockets, in a rose print because her middle name is Rose and it's her thing. Like her sisters, there was not a lot of debate about which one, or concern that she wouldn't be able to change it next year. She was ready. She knows herself well enough to choose with confidence. Sure, it's a seemingly small thing, but it's a real thing. 

I recently sent in my old navy blue Jansport pack for new straps under its lifetime warranty. Their process is also simple, but you do pay shipping to send it in.  My older siblings' Eddie Bauer packs are still in use 30 years and countless trips later. The last backpack really does carry all your gear through life's adventures. At 11 years old and about to start Middle School, it makes you feel more grown up and ready for this next stage of life. 

It's amazing how sometimes you're standing in the middle of a commonplace experience and you suddenly realize that it's special. When my kids were little my husband and I discussed different ways to mark this period of transition into adulthood. There weren't any fixed traditions in our family we were aware of, and we didn't come up with anything brilliant for ourselves. But we have discovered that our lives are full of little markers, and rather than a single major event marking the transition, this string of small discovered coming of age rituals suits us very well. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

This is THAT Christmas

Dec. 25, 2014

I did some mental math as I finished wrapping presents this Christmas Eve, and I realized that we were finally going to have THAT Christmas. I've watched other close friends and family celebrate THAT Christmas and rejoiced with them, knowing our turn would come. I remember it happening for my parents when I was a kid of about seven. It took a long time for us. Much longer than I expected. We celebrated 18 years of marriage this year, and right up until October things were still looking grim. 

When I left home to marry, I naively thought that I'd be living the same quality of life I enjoyed as my parent's child. Not right away of course, but at least in a few years. That's not asking for much, I thought. Just what I'd always considered normal and somewhat average. But life knocks us all about. I don't particularly care to think of all the knocks we've taken in the last 18 years. Not all at once for sure. I actually just shuddered after typing that. No kidding.

We struggle and persevere, and one day we're wrapping Christmas presents and realize we spent way more than we thought on our kids, and it's okay. It's okay because all the credit cards are paid off. The bills are all current. The car is paid off and running well. We're three years into buying a house and it's already saving us $600-$800/month over a comparable rental. There's money in savings to cover the roof replacement that's coming up next month and other minor house things are getting fixed promptly instead of waiting for that indefinable period, "when we can afford it". The pantry is full and there's room in the budget to keep it that way and keep putting money aside every month for the next big thing. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is here. And have you noticed the price of gas plummeting!?! That's a $120 gift to my budget every month, too.

God only knows what next year will bring, but there are no looming crises. No big impossibilities hovering over us. I even started putting my change in a jar and saving it up for our dream trans-Panama or trans-Atlantic cruise vacation for our 20th Wedding Anniversary, and it seems possible. Six months ago I was scraping change together to buy bread. It's a strange feeling. The stress of last year, fed by depression, feels like the distant experience of some other person. You can bet I'm still taking vitamin D like my life depends on it, because it does.

So this is what THAT Christmas is. The first time I can give my kids what I really want to instead of what I found a good deal on. When I can throw a party for my extended family and friends and foot the whole bill with a smile. A really BIG smile because it's fun to get my turn to give. When I can let myself relax completely instead of wondering how I'm going to make ends meet with two short pay checks in a row from unpaid holidays. When I'm not worried about utilities getting shut off in January because I'm pushing my budget to the limit and one overdraft could send it over the edge. 

When I actually bought my husband what I wanted to give him, instead of writing the traditional 'this is what I'd get you if I could' love letter. Not that there was anything wrong with the love letters. They were mutual and lovely. But they were part of the making do period of our lives. The concessions we made to move forward into this new season. Where I finally feel that I'm living at the level of life I lived before I left home, and giving my kids at least as much as I received. Not just materially, though overall financial stability is a key factor, but in terms of my emotional availability, because the stress did create tension between us. Moments when I felt I was failing miserably. Moments when I wondered if we would ever get here. Then suddenly...we are.

I've watched it happen to others. Going a little overboard on gifts is typical, because it is so much better to be able to give. It's transformative in the impact it has on their life outlook. It's food for hope. It's a fat steak and potatoes dinner for hope that was starving. It will keep it going for another 18 years. I know very well that tomorrow may bring more impossibilities to try our strength. Life takes radical turns on us when we least expect it. We may only have this one moment of peace. So, I'm going to treasure it. I'm going to savor every moment of THIS Christmas in my memory. 

I'll be more practical next year. I'll read those articles I skipped about having a less materialistic holiday. We've had as much fun giving this year to the community food pantry and rescued girls in Brazil, as we have to each other. The balance is there for our kids I think. 

It doesn't really matter what our finances look like next year, or 18 more years from now. We'll never have THAT Christmas again, because it can only happen once. It's like surfacing for air after being under water for a very long time. You keep breathing after that, but no other breath will be like that first one. You won't remember those other breaths, but you'll never forget the first one. There are a lot of you who know exactly what I mean. If you're not there yet, keep going. It will happen for you too! For some people it does only take a year or two. For others it takes even more than our 18. But it happens if you persevere; if you keep trying and never give up!

To be honest, I'm still wrapping my head around this. In the past I've wondered at what point I would start to feel like a grown up. Like I'm not a teenager playing house anymore, struggling to get it right. Tonight, as I write this, I actually feel grown up. We're not suddenly weathly, but we finally have enough. I wanted to share this on my blog not to brag, but because I know I have lots of young married friends going through the same sort of struggles we endured. I know how it encouraged me to see others who had also struggled finally make it. 

I'm hoping some of my older friends, those who inspired me, will share about the year they had THAT Christmas. How many years were you married when it happened? What were the things that defined it for you? How did it change you? 

My hope is engorged right now and I'm sending out the leftovers if yours needs a little something to keep it going.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

One AM

The house is black, and if not silent, well, no noise can overcome the snore next to me. The air is still and lingers, summer heat slow to fade. A coming three am watch leaves no desire for sleep in me. My mind is running a marathon of errant thoughts that will all be forgotten in the morning. Waking dreams that mean little, yet torment me. Passing over old conflicts looking for new insights. Remembering awkward moments and thinking the things I might have said. Calculating the cost of a possible future project in both money and energy, and pondering it's relative worth. Running down my list of things to do when I have the money for such and such part. Second guessing my choices. All of my choices. Feeling accomplished and guilty and powerful and weak by turns. Pondering and praying. Considering and contemplating. I travel outside of myself and follow my thoughts to views of a future that might be, a past I can reform, and a hole that gapes up at me. Something inside of me is drawn to that hole. Feels that it is warm and comforting. A good place to curl up and forget. I resist today. I accept that "life is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something." Then, I remember "where my help comes from." And I am grateful. I wonder why my head is such a bothersome place to linger and long to leave it. To pass into whatever eternity exists and cease striving. All of these thoughts are nonsense, but they will worry someone if I let them out. There's so much talk about being ones' genuine self. But first we all want to know if our minds are common, or if we'll be diagnosed as "other." Then, we worry that our minds are common, and all our effort to "think different" is in vain. This ghastly jaunt through random edge of sleep thinking seems a likely enough reason why we are built to sleep through this quiet time of night, and seldom remember the work of our brains sorting out the twisted subconscious alleyways of our internal lives. Instead, I will rise and waken. I will bring my mind back from the edges of infinity and busy it with the present and the needful. I will smile and say that I am fine. And I will be fine. I will remember who I am and the world that I am part of. I will be brave and vulnerable and let a few more people peer inside my head today, lest my thoughts lead me to isolation. Lest I one day succumb to the lure of the hole. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

In all your getting, Get Understanding

It has occurred to me that my previous post might have confused some of my readers with regard to how it connects to my declared theme of Crafting a Family. What seems obvious to me is not always readily apparent to others, so let me explain. 

The older our kids get, the more aware of current events they become. My high school freshman has had to engage in the homosexual marriage discourse extensively in school this year. We live in a very liberal region where Christians are the minority. I can assure you that the hate speak is harsh in both directions. Repeating the sort of trite arguments the extreme religious right have made would get her crushed and ostracized in school. Therefore it became necessary to walk her through the process of seeing both sides of the argument. 

Furthermore, she needed to determine her own beliefs. I don't want my kids to believe in the God of the Bible because I do. I want them have their own reasons to believe. I have assured my kids that it's okay for them to think for themselves in ways that are contrary to the official statements of organized religions, and even my statements, and still know God. If my faith is real, there should be no reason for me to fear raising intelligent independent thinkers. They are welcome to question everything. If I don't have an answer, we can look for one together.

This is really hard for a lot of parents. They fail before they're even thinking of it in these terms. The kids go visit Grandma and she gives them candy. Mom doesn't let them have candy. Grandma doesn't even ask mom for permission before handing it to them. Then Grandma sits them down at the table for lunch and tells them they have to finish their sandwich and EAT THE CRUST before they get up again to go play. Mom never makes them finish their meal if they're full, and they didn't know people could actually eat bread-crusts. Grandma ignores their whining and they eventually eat everything, but it's triggered Mom's childhood trauma and associated weight sensitivity and she's pissed. This is even worse if Grandma was Dad's Mom and doesn't know Mom's original family culture. If Grandma isn't going to follow Mom's rules for the kids, the kids aren't going to go to Grandma's house! They leave early in a huff and the kids learn that "our rules" and "our way of doing things" are the only ones that matter and everyone else's way of doing things is inferior or downright wrong.

Kids are remarkable learners. They will pick up that lesson the first time. Fortunately, they can also easily handle the idea that there are different rules for different places. Grandmas different rules don't phase them, and won't disrupt their acceptance of differing rules at home, so long as Mom doesn't undermine them by compromising Grandma's rules at Grandma's house. They have elastic perspectives that can be taught empathy easily if we take the time to explain a situation from another point of view. Maybe Grandma insists they eat crusts because she grew up in a situation where wasting food meant going hungry. It won't hurt them to eat crust. We stunt their growth in these areas by allowing our own self righteousness and offenses to prevent them from having a diversity experiences.

It gets worse when we send them to school. We have disagreements about how our kids are being taught. I loathe homework, and research clearly indicates that it has no effect on student outcomes in the primary grades. This runs contrary to what most teachers have had drilled into them in college, and what school district policy may require. If they do embrace modern research findings and quit homework, they run into parents who insist that they had homework, therefore their kids must have homework. The teachers can't win. I make a point of discussing possible homework flexibility with each child's teacher, but ultimately back whatever the teacher assigns, because it's more beneficial to my kids that I support the authority of the teacher's position, than that I micromanage my idea of a perfect education. 

They can adapt. They will adapt. Mom will have more credibility and support from Grandma and teachers when she backs up their authority in front of her kids, and saves her objections for private respectful conversation later. My kids have great relationships with their grandparents on both sides, and have adopted a lot of extra grandparents, because they have learned that Mom respects the differing rules of other's households, even when I disagree with them, and expects them to show respect too.

This naturally flows into respecting the differing ideas, values, and viewpoints of others as they mature. Our rules are different, our homes are different, and how we see the world is different, and that's okay. We can still come to the table together and get along. Armed with these life skills they can go anywhere in the world peaceably, and still retain and defend, or reasonably adapt, their own strong personal beliefs.

Contrast that with the child who has been raised in isolation from, and/or with a critical judgmental view of, other ways of living and thinking. When they leave home they easily become confused by the discovery that people who live other ways can be successful and happy. They can't answer for why they believe a thing, or why they criticize others who believe differently, because they've never dug deeply into that question. They can only repeat Mom's answer, without any internal resource to defend it from the feeblest attacks. And the world will attack. Being unprepared for a greater world, they either open themselves to learning everything they missed as kids from scratch, out among the dangers of an adult world instead of in the relative safety of home, or retreat to a micro-culture enclave where everyone was raised in a similar manner and the questioners have mercifully all moved away.

You can raise your kids like that. You're allowed. And I know there are exceptional situations where Grandma's way is actually abusive or harmful. There are limits to what we should accept and/or expose our kids to with regard to diverse lifestyles. But we should consider carefully what those limits are for us. More often than not, we're not protecting, but passing on our small mindedness and our fears to our children. We live in micro-culture enclaves ourselves and it's hard to venture out into that big scary world that will attack our beliefs. It's HARD. And it's okay to venture out slowly. It's even better to take a friend with you so you can process all the diversity you'll find out there. 

No matter how hard it is, I recommend you begin as soon as possible. The risk of losing your adult, or even teen children is high. Who do you think they will blame when they reach their existential crisis and look back at the little ideological box they grew up in but never fully understood? I've heard the sob stories. Parents who have no idea where they went wrong, because they never connected their own isolating behavior with their child being unprepared to leave the nest. Because, "they were such good kids until they went to college." While I was growing up I heard Christians say that we shouldn't send our kids to college because it will corrupt them. This was not a whisper through the church, but a loud outcry. I'm not the least bit surprised that a common descriptor of Christians in the media today is "ignorant." 

I'm not just speaking to Christians. The desire to isolate and surround ourselves with like minds is universal. All of us tend toward it. Politicians take advantage of it. Divided we are easily conquered. It takes a deliberate decision to reach outside of our micro-culture and try to understand someone different's point of view. But every time we do, we empower ourselves. My kids have been taught in school about an emotional toolbox they have for dealing with conflict. I believe UNDERSTANDING is a power tool for those who would like to impact the world for the better. I'm equipping my kids with power tools!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thoughts on Freedom of Religion and the Right to Discriminate

A fellow Mensan posed a question at lunch today that got me thinking. I'll have to paraphrase because I don't remember her exact words, but she asked why religion is the only area in which we still allow and even protect the right to discriminate/hate. It's a fair question. There is a lot of hateful discriminatory rhetoric that gets tossed around in the name of religion. But at the end of the day, no matter how many legal challenges are presented, we all submit to the rule of law. If someone goes crazy and commits a truly violent act in the name of any religion, the leaders of that faith (residing inside our borders at least) are quick to condemn them as lunatics. 

The freedom of religion that we enjoy is one of the first inalienable rights, granted to all mankind by God, acknowledged in law for us by our nations founders. A predominantly Christian group of men who opened every meeting with prayer to God for wisdom, amazingly—given the current public view of Christians— believed their God favored religious freedom over church dominion. This is still a revolutionary idea in many parts of the world. Since the founding of our nation there has been a seemingly unending stream of religious genocides taking place outside our borders. They're still taking place today. In many places around the world, a person may only change their religion at the risk of their life. Governments enforce religions on their people, and control of democracies is fought over with religious fervor, because winning puts your religion in control. Contrary to common belief, America is not a democracy where the (potentially religious) majority rules. We are a representative republic where the law rules.

Whatever debate takes place over the outcomes of our Supreme Court rulings, I feel reasonably confident that our justices will ultimately place the law over their personal religious convictions. I feel confident that they will eventually strike down any law put forth by the legislature that seeks to suppress the free exercise of any religion. They may wish they lived in a more religious and/or moral culture, we don't know all their personal thoughts on the matter, but they understand that the level of governmental stability we enjoy is due in large part to this enforced acceptance of the religious freedoms of people we disagree with, or even vehemently oppose.

The tricky part comes when civil regulation begins to conflict with our religious beliefs. For instance, it's seems right that a religious institution be able to prefer hiring members of their religion to work within their institution. But in the general marketplace, hiring discrimination based on religion is not acceptable. More recently we are facing the question of whether a business that provides services for what they see as a religious ceremony, a wedding, must provide the same services for what a potential customer sees as a civil ceremony. You may ask what difference it makes to a business getting paid for their services, but weddings require the services of many artistic people, and artists tend to feel a connection to their craft and their clients to the degree that their willingness to provide services is tantamount to an endorsement of the event. If their religious beliefs do not allow them to endorse the event, the inability to discriminate in choosing their customers becomes a serious moral quandary for them. 

Many businesses have posted their "right to refuse service to anyone," but know they would still face serious legal consequences for denying service based on race, gender, or disability. Sexual preference seems like it shouldn't matter either. But while a baker, even one with those sort of artistic sensibilities, should have no problem selling a birthday cake to a homosexual, a wedding cake may become a sticky point with their religion. How much do we protect their right to discriminate according to their faith? Can the rule of law require them to do something that violates their personal religious beliefs? Should the government be allowed to force a person to commit what is a sin in their own eyes? Does their refusal to provide the services requested really violate the civil rights of their customer? Doesn't it seem a little different from providing equal access to bathrooms and bus seats? Is a wedding cake crafted by that particular baker an essential service to which they have a civil right? Are photographs by that particular photographer a civil right? Are vendors who hold such strong religious views so numerous that it becomes at all difficult to find another who is willing? Most of these types of vendors are allowed to discriminate based on not liking the customer, or just not wanting to work for them. But if they admit a moral quandary in making that decision, they can be sued. Does that seem reasonable to anyone? Would anyone want to enlist the services of a vendor who feels coerced by the law into providing services for their wedding?

I don't have satisfactory answers for all those questions. Answers that will satisfy everyone probably don't exist. But I don't feel overwhelmed or disgusted by religious conflict in America. I feel encouraged by the active discourse. It's amazing that we're to the point where we're having this discourse when governments in other countries, for religious reasons, still allow women to be stoned for driving a car and endorse killing a homosexual on sight. For more than 200 years religiously diverse Americans have managed to work out our differences and stay on a steady course of increasing grace toward our fellow humans. That is an immense achievement. I'm confident it will continue. 

Honestly, hateful religious rhetoric from any group doesn't offend me. Even though I'm personally Pentecostal (a branch of Protestant), and am often saddened to see people saying abhorrent things in the name of Christ, I am not offended. Firstly, the Bible denies me the right to be offended. It denies me the right to judge others in any way. I am only to keep myself holy. Secondly, the Bible is very clear that if I don't forgive others, I will not be forgiven. Thirdly, it equates hatred to murder, and as a follower of Christ, I can expect to ultimately be held accountable for my thoughts as much as my words and actions. (Non-believers, having no restrictions to your judgement, can take comfort in the knowledge that their own religion condemns the "Christian" haters.) Lastly, it makes the identification of true followers of Christ quite clear; we will be known by our love. 

Adhering to that standard keeps me quite occupied, as I am required to love my enemies as well as my friends and fellow Christians, regardless of whether or not or how they have sinned. An assignment Christ understood to be so profoundly difficult for anyone, that we are told the ability to fulfill it, that degree of love, comes as a gift from the Holy Spirit, because we couldn't do it in our own ability. And really, I don't think we can. How much peace could mankind realistically achieve without this side of the religious rhetoric? Maybe we should think more about that and ignore the hate speak. Perhaps we should take the internet mantra to heart and not feed the trolls irl.