Monday, July 30, 2012

"I'm Sorry"

As I've said before, I'm a Catholic Answers Live radio show podcast junkie.  I can't get enough of that show!  If you've never listened before, consider tuning in.  Even though I was born and raised Catholic and went to 12 years of Catholic school, I still learn something new every time I listen.  You need Catholic Answers Live in your life!

The podcast I listened to the other day was called "Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards" with guest Dr. Ray Guarendi.  The show riffed off of Dr. Ray's latest book Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards.  I haven't read it, but I'm adding it to my "To Read" list after listening to the show!  Amazon sums up the book like this:
This book offers straightforward advice from Dr. Ray that requires no grand alterations in lifestyle, no fancy communication strategies, and no psychobabble. Each chapters offers: one simple step to a better marriage; resistance rationales -- common excuses for disregarding that step; scenarios for each step illustrating the real-life dynamics of a marriage interspersed with commentary from a therapist's viewpoint; and a final word about the step under consideration. Offers simple strategies to get you to your goal: a happier, more rewarding marriage.  
Caller Tells Dr. Ray His Wife Won't Accept His Apologies

Dr. Ray took a call from a guest who was fed up with his wife not accepting his apologies.  The caller said, "When apologies get turned around, it's like, 'Don't tell me you're sorry.  Show me you're going to act differently.'  Apologies start to be rejected and not even accepted.  How do you get through that one, because that's a barrier that I'm working to try and work through."

Having attended a talk by Dr. Ray and having listened to his radio show, I knew he'd give an honest (and perhaps biting) answer, but his blunt delivery always catches me off guard.  Without hesitating, he offered keen insight into what's really bothering the husband about the scenario and what's keeping his wife from accepting his apologies or saying she's sorry.

2 Suggestions from Dr. Ray

1.  "One will probably blow up in your face, but it's probably the more accurate comeback, which is, 'Honey, I hope the priest doesn't tell you that every time you go to confession.'  Okay?  That one could get you stabbed.  I suggest you don't do that unless she's in a really, really, really good mood, and you're somewhere, probably in the next state, calling her."

When a comment like that takes your breath away, you know it's true.  We walk into the confessional and we expect the unquestioning forgiveness of God so long as we give a sincere apology.  Yet, how often are we willing to extend this same model of forgiveness to others the moment they ask for it?

2.  "Now, the second thing I would say is, two things.  You look and you say, 'You're absolutely right.  It is easier for me to say 'I'm sorry' than to change my behavior.  However, I can commit to you that I am trying to change my behavior, and it's an inch by inch process.'  You ever notice, there's an old saying when I was in the Evangelical world that we want justice for everybody else and mercy for ourselves.  You ever notice I'm not going to give you much tolerance when you say you're sorry because I noticed you haven't changed quick enough.  I would say to her, I'd say something like, 'I commit to you I'm going to change,' and then the other thing you've got to do, most people shut down after they say 'I'm sorry' two or three times and it doesn't work for whatever the reason, they stop doing it.  No, I think you've got to keep doing it anyway, to more or less say 'I'm sorry, I regret what I did, and I will try to do better,' but I can't flip a switch and all of a sudden become a saint.

"I always tell people, unless you're living with Satan or Satan's sister, when you apologize to somebody, it
does soften them over time.  Initially, they react with vehemence, vile, whatever, but you really gotta be hardcore to keep throwing 'I'm sorry' back at somebody."

I had to keep rewinding this part of the podcast to hear these words again.  Again, I knew I was listening to truth.  It's so tempting to stop asking for forgiveness when apologies keep getting thrown back in your face.  It's equally tempting to stop offering forgiveness when someone asks forgiveness for the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again.  We seem to equate the words 'I'm sorry' with an immediate promise of change in behavior.  We take for granted that it's going to take the person seeking forgiveness several attempts (or even a lifetime) to overcome what they're asking your forgiveness for. 

When Catholic Answers host, Patrick Coffin, asked the caller if Dr. Ray's two tips were helpful, the caller said that they were, but that it doesn't make it any easier to have his apologies thrown back in his face or not accepted when they are offered sincerely.  I love what Dr. Ray had to say next.

"Keeping 'I'm Sorry' Score"

"Don't keep 'I'm sorry' score.  If you say to yourself, 'Man, in this marriage, I offer 96% of the apologies.  Every once in awhile I'd like to hear one!'  The only thing I can say about that, and I'll tell you this, and you keep this under your hat, and do not say this to your wife because I don't know if it's true.  One of the prime reasons people don't say 'I'm sorry' is insecurity.  They are afraid of what it means.  'I'm inept.  I'm inadequate.  I'm a sinner.  I'm nasty.'  They can't.  More secure people can say 'I'm sorry' more easily than insecure people.  That's just a rule of life." 

Of course!  It takes a secure person in a secure marriage to be able to: (1) admit that they did something wrong, and (2) to ask for the other person's forgiveness.  If they don't feel that the relationship is secure enough for their spouse to either (1) hear their fault or (2) be willing enough to extend forgiveness, they aren't even going to ask for it.    

Making Small Steps (With Big Rewards) in Our Marriage

Before the days of babies and Philip's residency, we took time for granted.  When conflict arose, we had the "luxury" (if you can call it that) of holding grudges for an entire evening, not speaking to each other during dinner, or going to sleep still upset with each other.  When our sweet babies and Philip's demanding schedule as a resident entered the picture, our time together became so limited that we had to learn how to move through conflict much faster.  It's tough to give the silent treatment when you're feeding two little ones or are getting them ready for bed. 

An hour into an argument last fall, Philip and I were both tired of fighting.  Bedtime was approaching, we were both exhausted, and we just wanted to spend time together.  After a long week of Philip's grueling schedule and in the midst of adjusting to two children under two, I remember saying, "I know we're still upset with each other, and nothing you or I say will change that.  So, can we just summarize how the other person is feeling, have them correct us if we're wrong, and ask how we can fix it for the future?" 

It was one of those lightbulb moments for us.  Ah, yes!  Rather than duke it out for hours on end, why don't we just figure out what the underlying feelings are that keep fueling the fire?  So, that means a little introspection and empathy for both of us.  We have to try to figure out what's really upsetting us and be willing to accept the other person's feelings.  Period.

Dr. Ray spoke to this later in the program.  When a caller said they didn't always feel the need to apologize, Dr. Ray told them, "Remember that you are apologizing for your proportion of the problem--even if it's just 1%.  Don't wait for the other person to apologize first.  Identify your role in the problem, and initiate asking for forgiveness."

Unsurprisingly, when I asked Philip what he thinks helps us to move faster through conflict, he agrees with Dr. Ray that taking accountability is key.  Philip says, "It's helpful if both people are willing to say they're sorry because usually both people contributed to the problem.  Even if you don't feel like you're wrong, saying you're sorry doesn't mean that you're wrong, but that the way you approached making your point might have been the issue rather than what you were saying.  Saying 'I'm sorry' doesn't mean 'I was wrong.'"

He had this to add:  "Show the other person that you understand where they are coming from and show them that you understand their reaction.  Keeping the focus on their feelings and not just on the problem helps you both to move on.

When you get to a standstill, focus on understanding where the other person is coming from rather than trying to make them understand your point of view.  That helps us to move on faster and spend more time together." 

I wish I could say that Philip and I have become conflict resolution experts, but we're getting better and better.  Like developing any habit, it takes a lot of practice to fight fairly with your spouse.  Since discovering our new strategy, most times we are able to work through conflict and be hugging within a few minutes.  Knowing that your spouse loves you enough to validate your feelings and say they are sorry, even if you are responsible for 99.9% of the problem, removes any temptation from holding a grudge or withholding forgiveness.

"The Happiest Toddler" to "The Happiest Couple"

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm a big fan of Dr. Harvey Karp and his book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block.  To help a toddler to move through a tantrum, Dr. Karp introduces what he calls the "Fast Food Rule" (FFR).  The gist is this:  Fast food restaurants are successful because the person who is hungriest talks first.  Only after the order is placed, the cashier repeats back the order to make sure they heard it correctly. 

Dr. Karp adopts this business model to how we can move through tantrums with toddlers: 
  • The person who is most upset talks first.  The other person listens and repeats back what they're told.  Only then do they take their turn to talk.
    • When it's their turn:
      • be physical (give a hug, put a hand on their shoulder, sit quietly together)
      • whisper
      • give options
      • explain your point of view--briefly
      • teach how to express feelings
      • talk about how emotions feel, physically
      • grant your child a fantasy
      • give a "You-I" message
  • Find the person's "sweet spot" by remembering what you say to the upset person isn't nearly as important as how you say it.  Mirror back about one-third of their emotional intensity in your tone, facial expression, and gestures.  You return to a more normal way of talking as they calm.
  • Use the FFR instead of words that hurt, compare, distract, and rush to squelch feelings.  
Philip and I learned very quickly that we could apply the FFR to our marriage to help us move through conflict faster.  When the more upset person has a chance to talk first, the listener sums up what they said, the listener offers a hug, and the listener remembers to find the "sweet spot" by using the right tone, we move through conflict much faster.  When we keep in mind that the goal is helping the more upset person to feel understood rather than making a point or "winning," there's no need to hold on to grudges.

When we know that the other person loves us enough to fight fairly, it's easier to say "I'm sorry" and move on so that we can spend the limited time we have together enjoying one another's company.  It's much more fun to apologize, hug, and move on together than fighting the night away!         

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Getting into the Olympic Spirit

We've been getting into the Olympic Spirit around here!

I found this blog post with activities called "Fun With The Olympic Rings" and stole a few of their activities.

First, I put pieces of paper into a muffin tin with colored rings on them. 

Then, I showed Janie how to sort the M&M's by color into the tin.

Of course, we may have eaten a few during the sorting process!

To work more on her color recognition and hand/eye coordination, I created this Olympic Ring inspired worksheet on Microsoft PowerPoint.  My PowerPoint making skills from teaching are still coming in handy at home!  (Comment below with your e-mail address if you'd like a copy.)

I put one of each M&M color on the 5 rings and showed her how to position them on the circles.

Janie counted the M&M's as she put them onto the small circles.

I just finished reading Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman.  The author talks about how French children learn the important lessons of patience and following directions by baking in the kitchen with their mothers.  I thought I'd put this into practice with Janie and make some Olympic-inspired cupcakes.  We made some Betty Crocker "Party Rainbow Chip" cupcakes with butter cream frosting.  We topped them with the M&M's that we sorted for our color recognition activities.  It's safe to say that trying our cupcakes was Janie's favorite part of the day!

Go, USA!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Happy National NFP Awareness Week!

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (and I) would like you wish you a Happy National NFP Awareness Week!

What is National Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week for anyway?

It's going to look different in the various dioceses across the country, but the gist is this:
The dates of Natural Family Planning Awareness Week highlight the anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25) which articulates Catholic beliefs about human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood.  The dates also mark the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne (July 26), the parents of the Blessed Mother.  For further information, contact
This week is an opportunity for folks like me to get rid of the idea that NFP is:
  • the same as the rhythm method
  • too time-consuming
  • too difficult
  • unreliable
  • the same as using contraceptives
Today is the 44th anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae, the prophetic encyclical written by Pope Paul VI.  Simply put, Humanae Vitae is an articulation of how the Church faithful can have the best sex of their lives--by keeping it in the context of a lifelong, faithful, and fruitful marriage.  To riff off and iusenfp (two groups promoting NFP), the Church, in all Her wisdom, knows that sexuality is a gift and wants to "bring sexy back."  

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is an opportunity for couples to "go green" and use their sexuality exactly how it was intended--no barriers, no pills, nothing but the complete gift of self for the good of the other.  

Assuming the husband and wife have no health problems, the gist of Natural Family Planning is this:  A man is always fertile, but a woman's monthly cycle has times of fertility and infertility.  By learning about God's design for her body, a woman is able to discover the natural pattern of when she is and is not fertile.  There are various methods for determining this information: Creighton, Billings, Sympto-thermal, and the Marquette Model.  (Philip and I use the Creighton Model.)

The USCCB website sums up the benefits of using NFP very well:
What are the benefits of using NFP?
In NFP both spouses are taught to understand the nature of fertility and work with it, either to plan a pregnancy or to avoid a pregnancy. Couples who use NFP soon learn that they have a shared responsibility for family planning. Husbands are encouraged to "tune into" their wives' cycles and both spouses are encouraged to speak openly and frankly about their sexual desires and their ideas on family size.

Other benefits include
  • Low cost
  • No harmful side effects
  • Effectiveness for achieving, spacing, or limiting pregnancy
  • Can be used throughout the reproductive life cycle
  • Marriage enrichment and mutual understanding
  • Appreciation for the value of children
  • Fosters respect for and acceptance of the total person
  • Moral acceptability
Philip and I first learned about NFP during our marriage preparation.  We took classes to learn about the gift of our combined fertility in the year leading up to our wedding so that we would be confident in our ability to use NFP effectively.  NFP has been a tremendous blessing to our marriage, and we encourage other married couples to seek out the fantastic resources available to learn more about NFP.  

  1. Pope Paul VI Institute Internationally recognized Institute helping couples "in the field of natural fertility regulation and reproductive medicine"
  2. Creighton Model
  4. The NaProTechnology Revolution
  5. (founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute)
  6. Fertility Care Centers of America
  7. Sex Au Naturel: What it is and why it's good for your marriage (By Patrick Coffin)
  8. One More Soul (How I found an NFP-only doctor in my area)
  9. All of the documents on Catholic Teaching of Sexuality
  10. Find An NFP Class

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about NFP.  Leave a comment below!


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Paper Towel Roll Bird Feeders

It's been soooooooooo hot outside!  The forecast for next week isn't looking much better.

Since it's too out for the little guys to be outside for very long, we've been trying to get in touch with our creative selves indoors.  We did a few crafts this week to keep us busy.  

One of our crafts this week was making a paper towel roll bird feeder.  If I were a really good blogger, I would have taken pictures of every step along the way, but I'm not, and I just snapped a few pictures when we were pretty much done.  

Here's how we made them:

1.  Gather materials:
  • Paper towel rolls
  • Scissors
  • Creamy peanut butter
  • Knife
  • bird seed
  • string
2.  Put wax paper over a jelly roll pan 
3.  Pour birdseed on top of the wax paper and even it out with your hand
4.  Cut paper towel rolls into thirds
5.  Spread creamy peanut butter onto rolls
6.  Roll peanut butter covered rolls into the birdseed (This, of course, was Janie's favorite part!)
7.  Put the string through the rolls to hang in the branches.  (Otherwise, you can slide them over a small branch.)

Good news:  They turned out exactly how we thought they would, and Janie loved making them.

Bad news:  Our feathered friends never came around to find them the first day.  Then came the second day, and we found this...

This squirrel found a feeder in one of the burning bushes outside of the family room window, pulled it off of the branch, and brought it onto the deck.  He took his sweet time eating off all of the peanut butter and the seeds, leaving behind the cardboard and string.  I'm glad someone enjoyed it!

The remaining feeders are still in our bushes, waiting for Mr. Squirrel or a feathered friend to find them.

Friday, July 20, 2012


Across the country this morning, people read, heard, or watched coverage of the tragic Dark Knight Rises movie massacre in Aurora, Colorado.  As we process the news and learn more about the victims as well as the assailant, the same tropes of mass shootings pop up:  there's blame on gun access, similar venues amp up security for fear of copycats, there's blame on the venue itself for allowing this kind of thing to happen, those who know the assailant often say they never saw it coming, people are moved to create a memorial for the victims, people try to move on with their lives as best they can, and most people not linked to the story forget until the next "random" act of violence occurs.  

I propose that we place the blame on one thing: instability.  A blog post I read by Msgr. Charles Pope, A Reflection on the Benedictine Vow of Stability, started this thought in my head when I read it a week ago.  Now, in the face of the movie massacre, I find Msgr. Pope's words to be prophetic.  Hear me out...

Benedictine monks and religious sisters take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience like most religious orders, and they add the fourth vow of stability.  Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a monastery of Trappist nuns, sums up their vow of stability very eloquently:
We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one's own offensive behavior, giving up one's preferences, forgiving.
In other words, when the religious men and women take a vow to live, pray, work, and relax together forever, they are humbly submitting to being a part of the community.  There is no isolation.  When there is conflict, it is worked through quickly for the greater good of the community.  Living in such an intimate environment is an exercise in humility, as the individual's vices and temptations are more likely to be exposed.  There is no anonymity or ability to hide in the crowd.  

To most, this sounds like some kind of a terrible prison.  I propose that the men and women who humbly submit to a vow of stability are more liberated than most of us will ever be.  When they live in that kind of an environment, where their weaknesses and sins are on display for the community, there's incentive to change.  In such a tight-knit community, the ripple effect of personal sin is magnified.  When your anger, your greed, your pride, your other sin of the month is out in the open and everyone knows about it, there's no reason to hide it.  The logical person chooses to work through it and change.  The illogical person (that's most of us when we're trapped in a pattern of sin) chooses to persist in the sin.  It's the persistence of charitable neighbors affected by that sin who encourage the change--whether through prayer, word, or action.  What's more liberating than living in a stable environment where you learn to break free from the patterns that your sins keep you in?

The rest of us Americans living outside of the monastery walls are experiencing what Msgr. Pope calls a "pandemic" of instability.
Instability is pandemic in our culture and it has harmed our families, our communities, our parishes, and likely our nation. Almost no one stays anywhere for long. The idea of a “hometown” is more of an abstraction or a mere euphemism for the “town of one's birth.”       
When an individual creates a Facebook account, the user can choose to include his or her hometown (From) as well as their current city (Lives In).  More often than not, the two are not synonymous.  When meeting someone, a routine question is, "Where are you from?"  Now, people have to decide if this person is asking where they grew up or where they currently live.  Msgr. Pope observes this kind of instability within neighborhoods.
The layers of extended family that once existed were stripped away by the migration to the suburbs and the seeming desire to get as far apart from each other as possible. Old city neighborhoods that for generations nourished ethnic groups and identities emptied out, and now, most neighborhoods, cities or suburban, are filled with people who barely know each other and who seldom stay long in one place anyway. (emphasis mine)
People aren't staying in one place for very long, so the logic seems to be that there's no incentive to know your neighbor.  There's even less incentive to start a friendship with a neighbor and become emotionally intimate.  Why tell them my life story if they're going to move when they get a new job anyway?  Msgr. Pope argues that "the economy both feeds and reflects this instability."
Gone are the days when most people worked for the same company or even in the same career all their life. Accepting a new job or promotion often means moving to a new city....The American scene and culture has become largely ephemeral (i.e. passing and trendy).
Many young people who were given the promise of the American dream work through college to find that there are no jobs available for them after graduation.  Unfortunately, as Msgr. Pope says, the instability is not confined to the economy or the neighborhoods.  We "reinforce this attitude" of instability in our personal lives. 
1. Marriages – Spiritually everyone who enters into a marriage takes a vow of stability to be true and faithful to their spouse in good times and bad, in sickness and health, in riches or in poverty till death. And yet more than half of marriages fail to realize this vow. Many want their marriage to be ideal and if there is any ordeal, most want a new deal. And, frankly most who divorce and remarry  are the most likely to divorce again. As the Benedictine statement above says, Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion.
Growing up with divorced or single parents continues to increase with each generation, fueling the instability that children feel during their formative years. 

Msgr. Pope goes on to identify other areas of instability:
2. People do this with faith too, often moving from faith to faith, or at least from parish to parish in search of a more perfect experience of church. And while some are actually following a path deeper into and toward the truth, most who church-hop are looking for that illusive community where the sermons are all good, the people friendly, the moral teachings affirm them, and the liturgy perfectly executed according to their liking. It is a kind of “designer church” phenomenon. And yet again, the problem is often as much within as without: Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. 
Instead of accepting God for who and what He is, we try to domesticate Him and mold him to our fleeting feelings.  The realization that He knows us more intimately than anyone else ever will causes people church hop so frequently.  It must be scary being so vulnerable to God and allowing Him to rule your faith when many are not used to living this intimately with anyone else.  Like Adam and Eve in Eden, becoming aware of our sin makes us want to hide from Him.  So, when confronted with the truth of our shortcomings, it's easier to seek out a church that affirms our choices rather than remain in one that encourages change. 

Msgr. Pope goes on to describe how the older practice of buying a home is out of fashion.  Instead of settling in one neighborhood for a lifetime, families treat homes as stepping stones as their careers advance and they are able to move into bigger homes in more affluent neighborhoods.  The focus is less on the relationships built in the neighborhoods and more on the physical surroundings.  

Msgr. Pope briefly mentions the practice of retirees leaving behind friends, family, faith communities, and all that is familiar to move south.
Why is this so popular,  and does it also bespeak a kind of great divorce where family and obligations to friends and communities are seem more as burdens and part of the work that one retires from?
Like a good Catholic priest, Msgr. Pope prepared us for last week's Gospel reading:
In the gospel for this coming Sunday Jesus counsels: Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. In other words, settle down and don’t go from house to house looking for a better deal or a better meal. Pick a house and stay there, set down roots in the community where you minister, eat what is set before you and develop the deep relationships that are necessary for evangelization and the proclamation of the gospel.
Stability, though difficult to find in our times is very important to cultivate wherever possible and to the extent possible. In particular, the gift to seek is the kind of stability that is content with what God has given and is not always restlessly seeking a more ideal setting. For again, as we have noted: Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion.
We may be "a pilgrim people," but that doesn't mean we are to pick up and move every time something is not to our liking.  We are "a pilgrim people," because our ultimate destination is not enjoying the fruits of our 401K and hopping from every person and place to make sure that happens.   

So, whenever possible, let's work toward increasing stability for ourselves, our children, and the other people in our circles.  Here are a few practical ways we can do that:

  • Meet your neighbors and introduce yourself to new ones.  Organize a neighborhood association to encourage neighborhood activities, safety watches, and accountability in keeping the neighborhood aesthetically pleasing.  Deliver cookies at Christmas, baskets on May Day, meals to new parents, those grieving, the sick, or the homebound.  Offer to babysit, shovel driveways, rake lawns, or run errands.  Be a neighbor!
  • Get involved in your church.  Join a Bible study, group for young parents, etc.
  • Visit extended family members as much as possible.  Communicate via snail mail when physical presence is not possible. 
  • Make it a point to learn the name of each person you routinely come into contact with, and whenever possible, strike up a conversation that will help you to learn meaningful details about that person.
  • Be a stable adult in the life of a child who may not have a stable home.  
Instead of playing the blame game when these tragic acts of violence occur, stop to consider three things:
  1. What kind of deep hurt and instability must have occurred in the assailant's life to lead them to this kind of thing?
  2. Is there someone in my life who might be hurting enough to do something similar?
  3. What specific things can I do to prevent something similar from happening?
The Benedictine monastery with the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability works.  Stability thrives in a world where we are committed to living and working together toward the common good.  May we strive to adopt this model in the larger world and within our circle of influence.  When we examine the stories like Columbine or the Dark Knight Rises movie massacre, we begin to see how isolated and unstable the assailants' lives were.  When we break the cycle of isolation and instability in the lives of others, we give them a chance at freedom.  We give them a chance to fix the brokenness and to get the help they need.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Janie's Sticker Chart Update

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was introducing a sticker chart as a tool to encourage good behavior for Janie.  Here's what the original chart looked like:

The gist of the sticker chart is this:  I choose 3 behaviors--2 that Janie is already doing well, and 1 that I want her to work on.  When I observe Janie doing the behavior, I praise her and announce that I am putting a sticker on her chart.  (We put ours on the refrigerator.)  When she asks, I let her put the sticker on the chart.  

This version of catching her being good is working extremely well.  After the first week of completing the chart, I printed off the exact same one.  Dr. Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (the book where I got this idea), recommends working on the same skills for two weeks at a time before introducing new skills.  

The skill that I wanted Janie to work on the first two weeks was waiting.  We practiced this skill as much as possible.  If she asked for something, I'd start to do it and say, "Oh!  Mommy almost forgot!  Mommy has to __________.  Wait, please."  Then, I'd do something like use the restroom, empty the trash, put a few dishes into the dishwasher, etc. before giving her something or helping her.  

If I was in the middle of doing something that would take longer to finish before I could give her my attention, I introduced the kitchen timer.  I would say, "Mommy's busy right now.  You need to wait.  When the timer goes 'beep, beep, beep' I can help you."  By the end of the first week, I was setting the timer for 5 minutes, and I have been able to stretch her waiting to much longer.  By the time she hears the "beep, beep, beep" of the timer, she's usually so absorbed with her new activity that she's forgotten about her request.  As tempting as it is to act as though I forgot, I make it a point to show her that the timer has gone off and that I can help her with what she asked for.  This way, she learns that waiting is something that is rewarded--even if it's just praise and she decides that she doesn't want to color anymore after all.

We're on week 4 of the sticker chart, and I've kept "waiting" and "eye drops" on there.  The new skill is "getting into carseat."  

Miss Daredevil Janie has decided that it's funny to try to get into the front seat of the van while I am buckling Walt into his carseat.  She climbs up there, pushing the buttons and giggling because she knows she's not supposed to do that and that it's dangerous.   She knows because as she's doing it, she says, "Janie, no get in front seat!  It's daaaaaaaaaaangerous!"

During week 3, the first week of introducing "getting into carseat" as a skill, she continued to resist.  For whatever reason, two days ago Janie decided that she's on board with getting into her carseat.  When I was putting the kids into the van to go grocery shopping, Janie even said with a big grin, "Look, Mama!  I buckle myself in carseat!  All by myself!"  Since we had been giving her over-the-top praise for getting in her carseat, she wanted me to fall all over myself seeing how she had gone above and beyond, trying to even buckle herself in.  Later in the day, hours after we got home from the grocery store, Janie asked, "Mama, go in carseat again?  You so proud of me?"  

Of course, we'll cut back on the over-the-top praise as each skill becomes a habit, and we'll switch out those skills for new ones on the sticker chart.  Janie relishes nothing more than knowing that Mommy and Daddy are proud of her.  Hearing me tell Daddy about her good (or bad) behavior at the dinner table and how it made me feel has a big effect.  When she sees Philip's reaction to the day's report, she'll chime in with, "I made Mommy so happy!  I got in carseat all by myself!" or, "I hit Walter.  Mommy was sad."  

When I "gossip" about her good behavior to the stuffed animals or pretend to call Grandma on the phone to tell her all about it, she looks like she's going to burst with pride.  If I "gossip" about something bad that she's doing, she almost instantly corrects it.  For example, if Janie starts to act like she's going to jump into the front seat instead of her carseat, I'll say to Walt as I buckle him in, "Walt, I wish Janie got into her big girl carseat like you do.  You are good at getting into your carseat!"  When she hears this, she almost always starts climbing into her carseat on her own.  When she sees my smile and I say, "Wow!  Good choice.  Thank you for getting into your carseat.  When we get home, you can put a sticker on your sticker chart!" she beams.  

So, 4 weeks into the sticker chart, we're still loving it and we're still reaping the rewards.  At the end of each week, I present Janie with a very small surprise (a special treat or something $1 in value or less that I picked up at the store).  I say, "Janie, let's look at your sticker chart.  You did such a good job of getting into your carseat, waiting, and putting in your eyedrops.  Mommy and Daddy are very proud of you.  Since you did such a good job, here is a special surprise."  Then, I present her with the little surprise.  Last week, I gave her a small $.99 spiral-bound Abby (from Sesame Street) notebook.  You'd think it was worth a million dollars!  Once the excitement of the little surprise stops distracting her, I show her the new sticker chart for the week and say, "This week, we are going to work on _______, ________, and _________.  When you _______, ________, or __________, we'll put a sticker on your chart."  Then, I ask her in my best cheerleader voice, "Can you do it?"  She gives me a big, "Yea!" and we put it up on the fridge.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Dad's 60th Birthday Present

Dad turned 60 on the Fourth of July.  My five siblings, our spouses, and I wanted to do something really special for him.  After reading this blog post, I decided we could adapt that blogger's idea.  The blogger mailed all of her dad's friends and family members a letter asking them to contribute a nostalgic memory about her dad.  She compiled the letters and stuck them into separate envelopes for her dad to open and read. 

While very cute, I thought this idea would be more tedious than necessary.  The Type-A personality in me instantly thought, "Well, what do you do with all of those letters when they're opened?  Don't you want to contain them?  And, is Dad actually going to open every single envelope and read them at the party?"  Instead, we decided we would collect letters into a scrapbook for Dad to flip through at the party and read through later on his own.

Here's the text of the letter we sent out.  I've omitted certain information for privacy's sake:


If you're receiving this letter, you probably already know that our Dad, __________, is turning 60 this Fourth of July.  To commemorate this milestone birthday, we would like to put together a surprise to let him know that all of his friends and family are thinking of him.  We are going to create a "Sixty Years of Memories" book full of your memories, well wishes, and photographs.

This is where you come in!

If you have a spare moment in the next few days, we would be so grateful if you could please write about a memory you have of our dad.  Please don't labor over this!  Feel free to mention anything you like -- although the more nostalgic the better!  If you struggle to come up with a memory, a simple happy birthday wish would be very much appreciated.

Please keep 3 things in mind:  
1.     Please keep your note on one side of the enclosed paper.  
2.     Don’t forget to sign your full name!
3.     Please submit your letter by June 30th if you would like your note to be included in the book.

All of the notes will be compiled and placed into a scrapbook.  By following the above instructions, Dad will know who wrote the note and be able to read it without pulling the note out to see the other side.  Feel free to include any photos or mementos to go into the book with your written message.  Younger family members and friends can contribute drawings of Dad if they'd like.  Please ask the young artists to sign their masterpieces, too!    

Please use the stationery (or your own paper, no larger than 8.5” x 11”) and the enclosed envelope to send your written memories, photos, and mementos to:
(My mailing address)
or e-mail them to:
(My e-mail address) 
If you know of anyone who would like to participate, please pass along this information to them, and ask them to also send their letters to Catherine.

Thank you so much for participating.  We know you're all very busy, and we appreciate your taking the time to help make Dad's birthday special.  Shhhhhhhhh!!!  It’s a surprise!

With love and gratitude,
_______'s Children

Before sending out the letters, we had to compile our list of mailing addresses.  Without having access to Dad's electronic address book, some addresses took some serious detective work!  With the help of and several phone calls, we were able to track down everyone.  I didn't get a single "Return to Sender" letter back!  

Some of you are probably thinking, "That's crazy!  Why don't you just e-mail all of these people and ask them for a response?"  Well, sure, that would have been easy, but there are a few reasons we didn't.  We liked the idea of handwritten notes to add to the nostalgia and character of the book.  We also knew we'd struggle to get e-mail addresses of a lot of these people--many of whom don't e-mail.  Also, experience told us that a group e-mail wouldn't receive as many or responses of high quality.  The added bonus of sending an actual letter was that people would respond with tangible photos and mementos.    

After finding the addresses, we stuffed the envelopes with:
  1. The letter explaining our "60 Years of Memories" book
  2. Stationery for the person to write their note on
  3. Another envelope with my address and the postage paid to increase the likelihood of a response

Here are all of the envelopes before we took them to the post office.

The fun began a few days later when I started receiving responses.  For a few weeks, I was receiving as many as six letters a day!  As I received the letters, I spent the kids' naptime mounting the letters, photographs, and other mementos into the scrapbook.  

Unfortunately, I'm a dingaling, and I forgot to get a picture of the finished book before I wrapped it.  Maybe I'll take a few pictures of the book next time I'm at Mom and Dad's house.

Here's the sequence of Dad opening the book and taking it all in at our family party for him.

Opening the present.

The book is about 3 inches thick.  I had to put 5 refill packs of pages in there!  I inserted the letter we sent out on the front page so that Dad could see it, and I explained what the book was.

Still absorbing that he was holding a book full of notes from so many people for him.

We made the man cry!  Success!

Overwhelmed looking at all of the kind notes from his friends and family.

The colorful drawings are from the grandbabies.  The oldest grandchild drew a picture of Dad on the sideline of his soccer game, cheering him on.

Look at that smile!

I sat next to him so that I could point out a few things in the book.  His godmother sent a newspaper clipping of him from the '50s!

A letter from Dad's best friend and pictures from his wedding (when Dad was his best man)

Telling all of us that he "can't believe it" as he got to the last page.
It was so much fun receiving the letters everyday and seeing my Dad through the lenses of his friends and our family.  The contributors to the book identified different memories and things that they loved about Dad.  The letters ranged from sentimental to downright hysterical.  I especially loved reading my mom's 2-page bullet-point list of favorite memories.  Some, she told us, will "remain in code because we're allowed to have some inside jokes."

To all of the contributors--childhood neighbors, classmates, fraternity brothers, coworkers, hunting buddies, lifelong buddies, and family--a VERY big thank you to each and every one of you for taking the time to make Dad's 60th birthday one that he'll never forget!    

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Photographer's Observations

When I was younger, I didn't really understand what was so stressful about a family photo shoot for my parents.  What's the big deal?  We just showed up, smiled, and the photographer got the pictures back to us, right?  

Oh, how naive I was!  There's a lot behind a successful family photo shoot--especially when little ones are involved.  First, there are the individual family members' outfits to consider.  Then, there is the question of scheduling.  Absolutely no scheduling a photo shoot too close to a meal or nap.  Scheduling newborn photo shoots was the most stressful because of my struggles with nursing and having perpetually hungry babies.  Hungry babies are not happy babies at a photo shoot!  Then, you have to make sure that everyone has had a recent haircut so that they're not looking too shaggy.  In the bag, you have to include waters for the little guys, snacks for the little ones that won't stain or leave crumbs all over the place, a brush, a lint roller, and emergency toys that will bring a smile to the little guys' faces.  

Despite all of the planning, something is bound to go wrong.  If a baby hasn't spit up or had a diaper blow out on their outfit, a toddler might refuse to smile, a button on your husband's oxford might be unbuttoned, or your hair might be doing something crazy.  The time and money invested into your one-hour photo shoot puts the pressure on all of you to get that perfect family photo of everyone.  There's something about the pressure cooker environment of a family photo shoot that makes the best of us lose our minds.

When we scheduled our last family photo shoot a few months ago, we went into it wiser having already survived a few shoots together.  To prepare for this shoot, Philip and I promised each other we would do two things:
  1. Do anything and everything we could to plan ahead and avoid stressful day-of problems 
    • This included things like making a list of what we need to bring, double checking the bag's contents before we left, and doing a quick head to toe check for each family member.
  2. Talk about how we are going to handle those inevitable problems ahead of time together  
    • Clearly and politely give suggestions if you see a problem.  
    • Don't be afraid to communicate problems in front of the photographer. 
    • No blaming.  Only problem-solving and helping.   
    • Divide and conquer.  With 2 kiddos, it was easy playing man-to-man defense in taking care of the kids.
    • Switch jobs and ask for help if you need to switch.  Throughout the shoot, we said we would switch roles of helping to position kids, getting them to smile, fetching toys/snacks/brushes, etc.   
    • Take a break if a kid (or adult!) needs it.
    • Remember that:
      • We're on the same team
      • The goal is to capture our family at this moment in time 
      • "At this moment in time" we have a 2 and a 1-year-old
      • Therefore, tears and meltdowns are likely, and we'll be ready for them  
So, the day for our shoot rolled around.  We arrived on time, we didn't forget anything at home, and the kids were in good moods.  Hooray!

Ten minutes into the shoot, as we were switching the backdrop, the photographer made a few observations that stuck with me.  She thanked me and Philip for "being so nice to each other."  She said that it can be really awkward as a photographer when the shoots get stressful and the family members lose their cool.  We had been to this photographer a few times, so her next remark was a big compliment.  "You've always been so sweet to each other.  I remember that.  It's refreshing, so thanks."  

For a woman who has only been around our family three times for a few hours during stressful family photo shoots to remember how we talk to each other and to feel the need to thank us for it meant a lot to us.  It was a good reminder that how we talk to one another, especially in stressful situations, affects our children and speaks volumes about our marriage to those around us.  If we treat each other well, even in the stressful times, it will encourage others to do the same.  

I recently told a friend that one of the many blessings of having children is that they force your communication skills with your spouse to be fine-tuned.  "There's no time to hold grudges!  You work through your problems faster than ever because you have to, and because your one-on-one time becomes so limited, you work more than you ever have on your communication skills." 

I suppose our photographer's assumption was that if we are patient, forgiving, encouraging, gentle, and helpful with one another in a stressful photo shoot, then we must treat each other equally well during the non-stressful times.  I wish I could say that that's always the case, but Philip and I still have our moments like any couple.  Throw in Philip's work schedule as a resident, my hormones, two children ages 2 and 1, and you have the potential for disaster.   The good news is that we're able to work through any problems faster than ever because our limited time together has forced us to really work on our communication skills.
When we got into the minivan after our photoshoot, we thanked the kids for being so good, and Philip gave me a big high five.  "Good job, team!"  Sure, Walt had a big meltdown toward the end and Janie forgot how to smile for most of the pictures, but Philip and I never lost our cool with each other, and we were actually laughing throughout most of the shoot.  It was a far cry from our first family photo shoot with two-week-old Janie and me breaking down in tears once we reached the car.  We talked about our photographer's kind words and what they meant to us.  We made a promise to one another as we pulled away to always do our best to treat one another in a way that makes others want to do the same for their spouses.  

After all, it's not just about us.  Our marriage is to set an example, especially for our children, on how to love one another.  It's not always easy to be gentle, loving, and forgiving.  That's where sacramental grace comes in!  Love is our "duty," as Blessed Pope John Paul II says, and we pray for the sacramental grace to be loving--especially when we don't feel like it.  When you know that your spouse genuinely wants what is best for you and your family, it's much easier to give the benefit of the doubt, forgive them for the things that upset you, ask for forgiveness when you've wronged them, and work through your problems together.   
"Love then is not a utopia: it is given to mankind as a task to be carried out with the help of divine grace. It is entrusted to man and woman, in the Sacrament of Matrimony, as the basic principle of their 'duty,' and it becomes the foundation of their mutual responsibility: first as spouses, then as father and mother. In the celebration of the Sacrament, the spouses give and receive each other, declaring their willingness to welcome children and to educate them. On this hinges human civilization, which cannot be defined as anything other than a 'civilization of love.'"  - Blessed Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, no. 15.  
 Here are some of the shots from our successful shoot.