Monday, December 19, 2016

Creating Grateful Kids at Christmastime

Buy them a Hatchimal, the end.


I am absolutely, 100% kidding. Hatchimals are not the answer, people.  

I remember being a kid and coming down the stairs and seeing the Christmas lights reflecting off the wrapping paper. There's nothing quite like the feeling of seeing that tree transform into a crowning, glorious king standing over boxes containing all things possible. What's in those packages? What might I get? It could be anything in there. I loved that feeling. I want my kids to feel that feeling.

So I buy them Christmas presents. I often spend more than I should. I am similar to many other imperfect parents out there - I want nothing more than a joyful, exceptional, educational childhood for my two daughters. I spend money I should really be putting toward my credit card bill, or waterproof boots, or truck repairs, or my student loans, because in my Christmas head, my kids' happiness is more important. And presents = happiness, right?

It takes me hours to pick out their gifts. I open maybe 4-5 Amazon windows at once and compare what's on sale to what's on their wish lists and price check with other vendors and calculate shipping costs and timetable delivery windows and compare how much I've spent on each kid and then, finally, I'm ready to order.

The boxes arrive and I stash them away, checking beforehand to ensure everything was delivered, again calculating who will get what and did I get enough for it to look equal for each girl and which present should be from Santa and which from me?

Then comes wrapping time. I spend hours upon hours wrapping things perfectly, signing Santa's name just so, picking out the perfect bows and making each package look as pretty as I can with these goshdang dull ass scissors, why haven't I replaced them yet, is this glue on my scissors? Am I seriously out of scotch tape again?

Hiding wrapped gifts is always a challenge. Shove them under the bed this year? What about that one cat who loves to eat shiny things? Is there room in the closet? What about when your youngest wants to grab your yoga mat "for you" out of there? Do I have enough clothes to hide them? How about the basement? The mice aren't active yet, right?

Finally, the day arrives. Christmas Eve. The kids get into bed and fall asleep late because they are so excited and you are also excited because it's time to play Santa. Time to arrange the presents just so, carefully stacking them so each and every label faces out, each package manipulated so it fits perfectly and every last present can be seen. I prop them up and rearrange and shift low-hanging ornaments around and tuck and balance and finally, finally, it is done. I pour myself a drink and sit there on the couch, smiling and glowing at my accomplishment in the colorful, dim light given off by the tree. They are going to be so happy, I say. And then I go to sleep.

Christmas morning breaks and the sound of hurried little feet wakes the whole house and soon it is present time. Ripping, paper, plastic, ribbons in pieces.

And, inevitably, smiles. But then, like a pin to a balloon, you catch a glimpse of downturned eyes. Maybe even tears. I asked Santa for _____ and it's not here or I was really hoping for _____, but I guess this is ok too. Or, and this is the most gut-wrenching reaction in my humble opinion, no smiles at all, just a whooshing sound as the gift you worked so hard to pick out is tossed into a pile of forever forgotten and unappreciated.

Sometimes, dear readers, kids are straight asshats.

I've tried very hard to teach my children to find joy in the little things. To be grateful for the big things. To keep the perspective....but truth be told, it's hard for me to accomplish those things. I get just as excited when I buy things I really want. I get just as disappointed when someone spends money on something I didn't really need. I'm just better at hiding it.

But there is something to be said about learning gratuity at an early age. Maybe if I'd learned to practice being happy in the moment a few years earlier, I wouldn't be so gosh-awful at it right now. Maybe if I'd learned to ween off my attachment to things when I was younger, I wouldn't be so stuck in a traditional American lifestyle today. Maybe there are things I can do to help create a sense of gratefulness and joy in my kids regardless of what's under the tree. Practice makes perfect, amirite?

Teach manners
The very first thing a kid should say after getting a present is thank you. I don't care if they love it or not, I don't care if they just started talking last year, that kid should know and understand "thank you" as an automatic response to getting anything. It's basic manners and believe me, kids are capable of executing this one.

I didn't insist on this enough with my oldest and she still, at ten years old, needs to be reminded to say thank you. My four year old, however, was taught at a very young age that if Mama gets something for her, she needs to say thank you before that object is handed over to her. Kid training, manipulation, white lies, call it what you need to say thank you. Letting this one slide opens up a world of ungrateful behavior possibilities in the future.

Teach privilege
Show them what underprivileged looks like. When you visit the city to go Christmas shopping explain on the ride over about people on the streets who have no homes, no food, no money, and no closets full of toys. Show them videos and pictures of kids from other areas of the world. Show them how one dirty teddy bear is a most treasured possession in some families.

There's a vast number of people who believe this type of awareness is "too mature" for kids. Let them keep their innocence, this group tells me...and to that I argue, if a child's "innocence" leads to selfishness and a warped sense of entitlement, egocentrism, and ignorance, then perhaps a little loss of "innocence" is a necessary and needed component of parenting. We can, being parents after all, select which images to show them, how to explain it to them, and how best to teach them about the realities of life. What a precious and important opportunity to move our young and beautiful minds in a more productive, empathetic, and gracious direction.

Teach hardship
Make them go without. Kid complaining about not having the same motorized scooter as that kid next door? Take their bike away. Kid not capable of following your very specific and repeated instructions about brushing their teeth? Make them mix up the next batch of homemade toothpaste instead of having free time. Kid not wanting to eat what you make for dinner? Send their butt to bed 'till you're done enjoying your meal. Kid not wanting to help fold laundry? Stop washing their clothes for a week and tell them to solve their own problems when they're getting ready for school and they have no underwear.

This can be done for younger kids too. I am not as extreme with my youngest yet, she is still at that beautiful age where she pretty much appreciates her food and listens to my instructions. But that doesn't mean I get to slack on teaching her how things come to be. I talk to her about where the water comes from. I show her how hard it is to grow something from a seed. She understands the sacrifice involved in standing outside in the cold and scraping the truck down so we can drive into town. You can teach hardship without it being a punishment. The point is to highlight the secret, hidden efforts that hum in the background of everything we're blessed to have in this country.

Teach wonder
Joy lives in the small things! The best part about this particular point? It already comes natural to your kids. Children live in the minute, moment-to-moment, and truly find magic in the smallest places. Encourage and support this by allowing them to explore, get dirty, and be independent. Show them wonder in your own way - do a quick science experiment. Do a cooking lesson. Do some crafts. Do some magic shows. Do some puppet shows. Do some writing. Do some art. Do some hiking.

Do you get the picture? heh heh heh seewhatididthere! Kids who find wonder in the small things are the same kids who get a Christmas present, pop the bow off, hold it to their little hearts, and exclaim "thank you!" with tears in their eyes, thinking the bow is the present. That kind of mentality is hard to keep as expectations crowd around them....but with some encouragement and modeling at home, magic can be found everywhere.

Teach generosity
It's better to give than to receive, eh? Tell that to my empty bank account. That is what my evil Kermit tells me each time I see a red bucket, a Toys for Tots box, or another GoFundMe link. Thankfully I've learned to tune out my evil Kermit years ago.

Once you start giving you realize it really isn't the money and stuff that makes you happy - it's getting rid of it that frees your soul. Spending on others is ridiculously rewarding, especially when done regularly. I often let fear get in the way of giving. I'm afraid - I need to feed my own kids, or get my own kids presents, or have enough to pay our own bills.....but over the years as I've spontaneously given to people who I believe truly need it, I've learned the money, in all of its irrelevant glory, always finds a way back to me. I gave more this year, the year of my divorce and single-mama-starting point, than I ever did when married....and guess what, I've not been shoved out of my house or stranded in the gutter or forced to eat moldy bread.

Teach the lesson of trust and responsible giving to kiddos. Teach them to give whenever they can. Give money. Give time. Give love. A generous heart is a grateful and thankful heart. Give often.

Teach value
Money has no value other than that which we place on it ourselves. And guess what...the same can be said about every other thing in our lives. We get to choose what has value and what does not. It's our decision as smart, brainy lil humans. And it's a skill we can teach to our kids.

Materialism is constantly calling to me. Buy the nicest car, have the cutest curtains, make sure the kids are dressed in the best clothes. These desires often capitalize on deep-seeded insecurities about acceptance....I want to be liked....I want to be viewed a certain way. It's a losing battle that even kids feel, especially on the playground when the ever-present love and acceptance of mama and home is dulled by distance. Teach kids to value themselves over their possessions. Teach kids how to value the food instead of the plates the food sits on. Teach them to place value on relationships, human interactions, words, music, art, animals, and nature. Teach them the riches in the soil and the riches around the dinner table. Those are the things that hold value - and the sooner they learn that, the sooner their Christmas lists will detail things that fill their hearts and minds and souls instead of toy closets.

Now I know what you might be thinking. And I agree. These lessons are a mite unrealistic, aren't they? I mean, I love presents. How can I expect my kids not to? And the answer is that this isn't about not wanting presents - it's about truly appreciating the ones you get.

And, my dear readers, these lessons don't mean a thing when they're not exemplified at home. It is critical to not only point out and teach manners, privilege, hardship, wonder, generosity, and value, but to lead by example. Half the reason my kid loves the snow is because I giggle like a schoolgirl when it falls from the sky. I'll wake them up just to show them a full moon and hold them in my arms and sing them soft songs before returning them to bed. I'll jump up and down when I find our first pumpkin of the season. I try and sing loudly even when I'm sad. Kids are watching you - and that is perhaps the most important part of teaching, being aware of what you actions and your responses say to your students.

Kids are kids. They will make mistakes and behave like jerks and test patience and they won't learn any of these lessons overnight. The point, however, is to give them the chance. A book is useless until it's picked up. A message is irrelevant until it's heard. And presents don't mean a thing until they are received by a grateful heart.

What do you do to teach your kiddos generosity? If you're not a parent, what types of challenges do you endure when dealing with the kids around you at Christmastime? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading! Merry Christmas :)


Monday, December 12, 2016

Gift Guide for the Not-So-Wealthy

Twelve and a half more days until Christmas, dear readers! Time is flying so parties are in full swing, lights are twinkling everywhere we look, and my money is basically just kissing my bank account and waving goodbye at this point. 

Now I'm not a frivolous spender; every dime counts these days. I'm also not really into material things because they make clutter and clutter makes me crazy (unless we're talking books....or chickens. Can never too many chickens). But with the big day less than two weeks away, I can't help but focus on money way more than someone should when trying to celebrate what is supposed to be a season of peace, love, and birth. 

It seems inevitable that every year we're bombarded with a never-ending slew of grab bag gifts, book exchanges, teacher gifts (both of my children have 3 teachers!), appetizers, drinks, presents for the kids, presents for family members, tipping the garbage service and the mailpeople and anyone else who delivers stuff to you....all the added costs of the holiday season can make me feel a little less-than-joyous.

But never fear. Jen's gift guide for the not-so-wealthy is here. 

Find Freebies
  • Raid a special someone's basement/garage/closet. The best way to make this happen is by offering to assist with holiday decorations. I recently received 3 matching ornaments for free from one very special woman in my life while my kids trimmed her tree - and those ornaments are going straight to 3 of the 6 teachers I need to thank this holiday. 
  • Keep an eye on Craigslist and those Facebook garage sale sites. This is especially important after the holidays, when people are sick of it all and starting a new year and looking to just get rid of stuff.
  • Cruise around on garbage day. A lot of parents try and "clean up" right before Santa comes. You can find bikes, cabinets, bookshelves, chairs, playground equipment, and all sorts of other stuff by hitting the streets before the garbage trucks do.
Offer Your Services
  • Shoveling is horrific. Nobody likes it. It makes the perfect gift because literally everyone, man, woman, or child, tears up when they step outside to an unexpectedly clean driveway.
  • Watch things. Watch homes while friends and family are on vacation. Bring in the mail, roll out the trash bins, water the plants. Take it up a notch by offering to watch pets. Take it up four hundred notches by offering to watch kids. Best. Gift. Ever. 
  • Cleaning and prepping for a party is the hardest part of every event....unless of course you consider the clean up after the event. Offer to arrive ahead of the crowd and help the host or hostess in lieu of bringing a gift. Stay late and help clean things up. I promise it is so incredibly appreciated. 
Handmade is Your Friend
  • Churches, libraries, and park district are constantly offering classes and advent activities throughout the holiday season. You can typically make a handful of beautiful, handmade presents for friends and family at a quarter of the cost of buying new. 
  • Bake, cook, can. People love to eat. Cookies are fantastic. Everyone loves cookies, even people who try not to love cookies. Sweet breads that can be frozen make great gifts, too. So do easily-reheated meals like casseroles and pasta dishes. Canned goods, I'm finding, are a huge hit. And I don't mean like Campbells' soup canned goods, I mean like the 'maters I canned this summer, the salsa verde I made, the bone broth I cooked up - people love it. 
  • If you have any talent in anything....knitting, welding, carving, photography, writing, hammering, designing, sewing, coloring.....use it. Make something pretty for someone. I know it takes a ton of time. I know it's easier to buy. But we're trying to be frugal, readers. Your handmade item made from supplies you readily keep on hand to support your hobby is worth so much more to the recipient than something purchased in the store. Use your supplies and your talents and get cracking! A variation of this idea would be to sell your talents - like a "I'll carve your kid a sign that you can give her for Christmas" type thing. 
Regifting is the New Gifting
  • Save gift cards and certificates instead of using them. We've all received a gift card to a store we don't typically frequent. Instead of trekking out there and buying way more stuff than you ever would've normally, save the card. Give it to someone later, someone who maybe likes the store a little more or would make better use of the card. Check expiration dates, they can be tricky. 
  • All those grab bag gifts you participated in last year? And the year before that? Save the stuff you aren't in love with. I have a huge tote in the basement with items I've collected over the years from work parties, friend parties, and family parties. Regift the gift to a completely different group of people and wal-lah, no money spent and nobody's the wiser. 
  • Enhancing stuff is a real thing. Take those Christmas towels you never used and turn them into a blanket. Redesign that wine glass set that's just chillin in your basement into personalized glasses. Scour your shelves for books you've read once or twice and send them out into the world to be enjoyed by someone else. 
Just Say No
  • You're not required to participate in work-related Christmas festivities. You can say no to the work grab bag, the potluck, and getting presents for bosses and coworkers. A handwritten note to those who really made your year is likely better appreciated anyways.
  • You're not required to send Christmas cards. Those suckers are expensive, especially for something that sits around for a couple days then gets tossed in the recycling. You can buy a box of non-photo Christmas cards for like $5 in the off-season and send them out with a 4x6 picture if you really just have to send cards. You'd get the same effect for half the cost. 
  • You do not need to serve a full dinner for your family. If you host the holidays, consider taking it down a notch and doing appetizers and finger foods only. Family members who want more can always volunteer to prepare, bring, and clean up the dinner themselves ;) 
My favorite Christmas gifts are those given out of love and true thought for the recipient. I absolutely love giving gifts because I love making those I care about happy. Watching someone smile because of something I've given them, or done for them, is one of the best feelings in the world. Presents don't need to be expensive, they don't need to be things, and they don't need to drain your wallet. You don't need expensive, flashy objects to prove how much you love someone, and likewise, you don't need a ton of money to be rich. I think Clarence said it best when he wrote:

Do you have a favorite, frugal go-to gift, readers? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)


Monday, December 5, 2016

When It's Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I'm a Christmas girl. I love winter, I love snow, I love blankets and cocoa and Christmas movies and pretty lights. Christmastime is one of my favorite times of the year. Everything sparkles and shimmers with celebration and the anticipation of a new year, a fresh start.

But even this Christmas-lovin' lady is hearing faint little whispers of pain this year. They're not loud, and they're not overtaking my immense dedication to making this the Best Christmas Ever, but they're trying to consume my moments of stillness. These doubts are gnawing at me, gently, while I go about my holiday preparations. It's my first year as an "official" single mama, my first year having to split holidays, my first year needing to actually deal with my ex-husband's girlfriends, all out in the open like this, whew! What a new concept for me. I am struggling to stay positive.

I am extremely blessed, dear readers. I wake every day in a beautiful bed, to the kisses of two beautiful and healthy girls, with animals I love needing to be cared for, and a yoga mat begging me to come, practice, let it fall away for a minute. I talk to incredible people throughout my day, one particularly amazing bearded man with an affinity for providing light into the dark corners of my heart I'd long ago thought hopelessly abandoned, and I am loved on by the best family and friends this world has ever seen.

But sometimes, during those tiny, fleeting, infrequent spaces of quiet, the ones where I am supposed to be sleeping or writing or reading or thinking happy thoughts, I instead find my mind pushing against a soft, gray sense of grief, doubt, and disappointment. How did I get here? Alone, after all that work, what an idiot you were to carry on like that for so long. And what a tiny woman you are, feeling lonely. You're supposed to be strong and independent. Don't you know it's weak to want someone beside you? Can't figure out how to do this on your own, hm? Better buck up before someone sees. 

Pretty ugly, yes? Most moments of pure, unfiltered, raw truth are.

Your pain might not be about the empty seat beside you. Your pain might be about the person sitting beside you. Or the people you'll need to deal with this holiday. Your pain might be about the things in your life that are not in your control and seem so unequivocally unfair, especially among tinsel and garland. It's a season of extreme juxtaposition - unavoidable darkness sitting next to a string of colorful lights. Sometimes it's not the most wonderful time of the year.

The good news? We have the power to change that.

How, Jen? How? 

Find delicious ways to move.
I love to eat and I also love to look sexy. Sometimes I manage to look sexy while eating, but more often than not when the holidays come around, my jeans are covered in flour and my face in crumbs. I look in the mirror and see changes to my body that may or may not exist and I panic. I shame myself, feel guilty, and vow not to eat like crap the next day. Then the next day comes and holymotherofgosh are those christmas-colored donuts??

I can tell you as a Grade A Lounger that moving, in any sense of the word, helps. You don't need to leave your house. You don't even need to get out of bed if you don't want to. Just move. Stretch. Rub your own feet. Play with your pets and kids. Organize something and move boxes around. Do yoga. Have lots of sex, with someone or with yourself, it doesn't matter. Just move, deliciously.

Get spiritual.
This one might not go over well but Imma say it anyways cuz this is my blog. I'm a Christian - don't run away! Hear me out. I am a Christian with agnostic and atheist friends. I am a Christian who loves, identifies with, and fights for gays. I am a Christian who accepts other faiths and prays for everyone I can because that's what God wants me to do. Christmas in my faith is all about dear sweet lil baby Jesus and I love it. I recognize many people do not follow this belief system and I accept and love 'em regardless. And that huge long disclaimer is all leading up to this: If you're reading this and you're hurting this holiday season....crash a church service.

I'm not kidding. You don't need to talk to anyone. You don't need to look at anyone. You don't need to do anything but step inside and sit down. If you're lonely, if you're sad, if you feel like you are going to die if you sit in your house one more second, just pull up to that church you've driven past 100 times and go inside. My church has a special service called "Blue Christmas," and it's designed to comfort and soothe and redirect your perspective to the positive elements of the holiday season. Sometimes the best things in life happen when you try something incredibly uncomfortable and new...the impossible happens when you let your guard down.

Find delicious people to consume your time.
There's a line in one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes, where Idgie Threadgoode says, "I guess you already know that there are angels masquerading as people walking around this planet..." 

People make the world turn. Life is breathtakingly beautiful, but there is something incredibly necessary to the human experience in sharing that beauty with those around you. The angels in your life can be strangers, they can be family members, they can be friends, they can be the parents of friends. Distant relations, distant loves, distant acquaintances...or the lady who works at your favorite gas station down the street.

I've talked about this in previous posts - when you need to deal with painful people, surround yourself with those who bring light. Let them shine on you and love on you and make the effort to stand beside them and be with them when you can. Instead of spending all your time rushing from one plan to another, pause and enjoy the random people that stumble into your life. Let yourself be a little late. Let yourself be a little vulnerable, even while hurting. The risk is almost always worth the reward.

Bake, sculpt, pound, fold, hammer, type, thread, stir, weld, twist, and carve. Weave and sway and sing and strum and pour. What sets us apart as humans is our insane ability to creatively create. Animals can create structures and rhythms and webs, but always for a purpose, always for a biological need. We as humans can create magic, pure magic, simply because we want to. What an incredible gift.

There's no time for chaos and tears when you're busy wrapping up 3 dozen Christmas cookies. There's little room for doubt when you finally find that perfect note to complete your song, that perfect sentence to open your book's 4th chapter, that perfect blue for your cascading waterfall. If you don't currently create, you're lucky. You are a blank canvas with the potential to make anything you want. Check out a book from the library on anything, literally anything, and try your hand at it. If you hate it, give it up and try something else. The goal is to immerse yourself in the task of creating something made purely of you.

Find delicious ways to compliment yourself.
You're not gonna be happy all the time. You might feel extreme disappointment or anger at your current circumstances. If you're anything like me, you're likely more upset at your feelings of disappointment and anger than the actual cause of the disappointment and anger....almost like why can't you get over this and snap out of it and deal with your current situation with grace and strength and force yourself to live in the moment and just be freaking happy right now. 

Don't do that. Don't talk to yourself like that. It hurts. Don't think about how far you have to go, or how little has changed, or how little you can control. Those are not productive thoughts. They won't lead you anywhere good and they won't change anything about your pain. Instead think of what you have done. You've made it another month. You've smiled twice today. Your bed is made perfectly. There are men and women who would beg for your pretty little heart. You will make it through this day. You make a mean cup of tea. Your eyes are astoundingly beautiful. Your soul shimmers. Tell yourself. Go on. Do it.

Make it about the kids.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just feel crummy. You could do all those other things I talked about above and still feel crummy. This is where kids come in handy. You don't need to have any. They don't even need to be human, fur babies work too. When you're not feeling the joy of Christmas, the excitement of the end of a year, the peace of a restful season, look to the innocent. They will be dancing.

My girls have contagious smiles. My puppy has contagious energy. My chickens have contagious simplicity. Head out and find kids and animals to play with or watch. Don't let your thoughts get pessimistic, just watch them. Watch them run and leap and bound and make noises and live life in the moment. Kids are perfect at doing that. Watch them and learn.

We can't make those we miss materialize in front of us. We can't wave a wand over those we love and make them healthy. We can't pretend like the people who break our heart and disrespect us and cut us off in the parking lot don't exist. We can, however, own our perspectives. We can bookmark kind words and reminders. We can approach our moments of darkness with purpose and the courage to accept that life ain't easy, not even at Christmastime. And that's ok. Those moments of imperfection are wonderful...perhaps the most wonderful times of our lives.

How do you beat the holiday blues, dear readers? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below. As always, thank you for reading :)