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Are You Protecting Your Kids From Reality or Preparing Them For Life?

November 15, 2018
By Tim Elmore
By Tim Elmore, Used by Permission from Focus on the Family--

When my son Jonathan was young, we did what many dads and sons do. We played Wiffle ball in our yard. My son has a number of talents, but we soon discovered that swinging a bat in such a way that it would make contact with a ball is not one of them. But I've always loved baseball, and I desperately wanted my son to succeed at the sport. I found myself making it easier and easier. I moved closer, threw the ball slower.

Eventually, Jonathan hit the ball. I'm pretty sure it was an accident, but we both celebrated anyway. Of course, then he wanted to keep hitting, and since we had a good thing going, I didn't want to let him down, didn't want to see him fail. I made hitting the ball so easy, it was almost T-ball.

Later, we actually did sign him up for T-ball. He stood in the outfield, staring at his mitt or into space. It just wasn't his thing. But I couldn't let Jonathan fail at the game I loved so much. And I really didn't want him to believe that he was failing.

Eventually, my attempts to avoid the reality of my son's limitations caught up with me — and with Jonathan. All the steps I'd taken to make baseball easy for him were appropriate when he was 5 years old. They were not as appropriate as he entered fourth grade. By not allowing him to experience reality, I'd given him some false expectations and assumptions. He believed he was pretty good at baseball — and drew laughter from peers when they saw him play. And so one day we had a little heart-to-heart talk. I confessed my long desire to protect him from failing at the sport.

We all want to see our kids succeed in school, in sports and in life. But we often parent in ways that can stunt maturity. We remove failure and disappointment, pain and heartbreak, believing we will ruin our children's self-esteem if they experience these things.

Now, I agree that kids need to feel special and believe they can be successful. But this doesn't mean we shield them from reality. The opposite is true. Genuine, healthy self-esteem develops when caring adults identify children's strengths but also allow them the satisfaction and maturity that come from persevering through failure, pain and disappointment. This authentic triumph builds tough emerging adults.

Allowing kids to face reality creates resilience, strength and confidence. Here are four well-intentioned yet misguided ways that parents often shield their kids from the realities of life. By avoiding these parenting mistakes, we can help our kids gain the strength they need to thrive no matter what comes their way: 

We won't let kids fail

This was probably my main mistake with my son and his experiences in baseball. I couldn't stand to see him fail.

Think of how our culture has changed. In the past, when a student got in trouble in school, maybe got a bad grade or failed a class, parents reinforced the teacher's decisions and insisted the student work harder. Too many parents today side with their child, blaming the teacher for the poor report. They've made their children their trophies — a reflection of the parents' success. So every kid must be a winner or get the great grade, even if they didn't learn a subject or win a championship. Obviously, this is not how life works after childhood.

Life teaches lessons in a way that parenting sometimes cannot. As parents, we must embrace the reality that character, faith and resilience are often developed through failure. Identify opportunities to allow your children to take calculated risks, to experience outright failure on a project or in a class, a hobby or a sport.

Coach them, yes, but don't intervene and do it for them. Let them build emotional muscle that is capable of enduring a failure and seeing that they can live through it — that there really is life afterward.

We value removing all pain

When our daughter, Bethany, was in middle school, her school hosted a dance. Our daughter's middle school years were like many girls': She didn't look like the beautiful young woman that she would someday become. So she waited and waited for a boy to ask her to the dance. My wife and I began hearing about other parents intervening. They called friends and requested that their sons ask their little girls to the dance. They gave suggestions on where to eat and what flowers to buy. They even offered to pay. We considered this. It would have ended the painful waiting, might even have boosted Bethany's self-esteem. But we knew this might be a good time for our daughter to learn how to navigate a painful situation. We had many conversations with her, reminiscing about difficult social events in our day. We then suggested that she could go with a group of friends. She grew satisfied with that solution, even appearing content.

And then, at the last minute, a friend did ask her to the dance. Ugh — middle school boys!

Discover Your Strengths and Weaknesses as a Parent

Good parents aren't perfect. And that's okay. There's no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. 

We live in a world that believes in removing all pain from our children's lives. But my wife and I wondered: Is a life really better if it has less pain but fails to prepare a child for the unavoidable pain later in adulthood?

Do not mistake the role of comforter as being one who removes all discomfort. Pain is often a valuable gift from God, a lesson in how to avoid harmful situations. Real harm only results if we fail to heed what the pain is telling us to do. We need to collaborate with our children to help them navigate through the pain, empower them to deal with the heartache that accompanies life, and encourage them to remain grateful and content. This equips our future adults to stand strong in difficult moments.

We prioritize happiness

My son's fifth-grade year was tough. His best friend moved away, leaving him without a classmate who shared his interests. Our fun-loving son grew quiet and reserved. He wasn't gifted at sports, so recess became a lonely time. He never complained, but my wife and I could tell he was miserable. When we asked what he did on the playground, he replied, "Oh, I just walk around by myself." I cringed. And I began trying to "fix" the problem. What steps could we take to make recess more fun?

"It's OK, Dad," my son interrupted. "Recess gives me time to think."

I was proud of Jonathan that he never whined or expected us to fix things. And we did work together on solutions that enabled him to move beyond his misery. Things really turned around when he got involved with community theater. Here our son encountered a new circle of friends and was able to use his growing gifts in a meaningful way. In the end, the answer did not lie in him pursuing fun and happiness, but in finding a place where he could discover and develop his gifts.

We're living in a different culture than the one we grew up in — one where happiness is a goal instead of a byproduct. Who doesn't want their children to be happy? Especially when it comes to the big decisions in their lives — whom they marry, their career path, their faith and values. Yet we as parents often don't know how to balance wise counsel with our yearning for our kids to be happy.

We mustn't pursue happiness itself as a selfish pleasure. Life is quite a paradox. If happiness is the goal for our kids, we will create consumers who want more and more to make them happy. But if the goal is loftier — giving, serving, participating in the grand plans God has for us — happiness is often a nice side effect.

We take away the fight

I recently read an article about the parenting habits among certain groups of wealthy parents. Some of these were truly bizarre. Did you know that, if your pockets are deep enough, you can hire "recreation experts" to help your kids play with each other, to learn about sharing, cooperating and managing conflict? Few parents can afford such parenting aids, but I wonder if many of us aren't guilty (to a lesser extent) of the same principle: We seek to remove adversity from our kids' lives. We make games easier, rush to fix boredom, jump in to help with difficult assignments.

Life requires struggle in order for kids to mature. Facing and overcoming adversity conditions us to be strong enough to handle what's ahead. Opposition and hardship force us to reach down and pull out the very best that lies within us. As parents, we must pause before we provide direction or assistance for our children. It's normal to want to remove hardship, but it's not in their best interests. They need us to be responsive to them and demanding of them at the same time. Encourage them that they have what it takes to overcome adversity. Brainstorm a plan to beat it.

I remember finding a chrysalis in a backyard tree when I was kid. I laid it on our driveway and waited for the butterfly to spring out. But it wasn't happening. Of course, I'd heard that you shouldn't help a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, but wouldn't just a little help be OK? I pried open the chrysalis a tiny bit, and finally a leg poked out. After waiting and watching awhile, I helped some more. I continued to pry the chrysalis open until the opening was big enough for the creature to emerge. But it wasn't a butterfly that crawled out. The creature was dark and deformed and never flew. It died by the end of the day.

My help really wasn't help. When I removed the struggle, I took away the butterfly's opportunity to build enough strength to push its way out. In the end, I actually removed its ability to fly.

When we give kids the freedom to fight and fail and find their way through the pain of life, we are not hurting them. We are helping them build the strength they need to fly. 

Tim Elmore is the president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps develop young leaders.

Raising Flexible Thinkers

April 05, 2018
By Todd Cartmell

By Todd Cartmell, Used by Permission Focus on the Family.  

"Steven gets upset whenever something is difficult."

"Zoe threw a fit at her brother's birthday party because she couldn't go on the trampoline with the older kids."

"Jose argues about everything. It's a major battle when I ask him to turn off a video game."

As a parent, you may recognize these situations. They're common experiences among families, and they're part of my daily work as a child psychologist. And even though these kids can throw mountain-sized tantrums at the drop of a hat, I believe there is much for their parents to be hopeful about. They can significantly improve their kids' behavior when they recognize two truths:

Kids need to learn a certain important skill, and if they learn this skill, it will help them respond in a much better way to the ups and downs of life.

Moms and dads can help their kids learn this skill.

The skill I am referring to is called flexible thinking — the ability to view life from another point of view. This skill allows children to cognitively flex when life's circumstances don't go the way they had hoped.

Roots of behavior

Most parents respond to disrespectful behavior with discipline. We put kids in a timeout or give some logical consequence. On a good day, we may take the time to help kids understand how their behavior made others feel, encouraging them to make better choices next time.

Discipline is good and necessary, but it's often not enough. When kids are confronted with the brutal reality that they cannot have a brownie right now or they have to turn off the video game and do homework, their negative thinking habit kicks in. This thinking drives their emotional and behavioral response. Negative, inflexible thinking leads to unhealthy emotions and poor behavior. But the reverse is also true: Positive, flexible thinking leads to healthy emotions and a better behavioral response.

"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). This proverb has always been helpful to me in my parenting. Kids need more than discipline; they need training. They need parents who will teach them how to do the right thing so they don't have to experience what happens when they do the wrong thing — or at least not as often. Discipline tells your kids what to stop doing. Flexible thinking is what we want them to start doing.

Introducing flexible thinking

Step one is helping our kids understand that there are two possible types of thoughts when things don't go their way: flexible thoughts, which help them stay calm and make a good choice; and angry, inflexible thoughts, which often lead to bad choices and unpleasant consequences.

There are many situations every day that don't go the way kids want: losing a game, having to get ready for bed, not being allowed a snack before dinner. Choose a few situations, and have your kids think of angry or negative thoughts that might pop into their minds:

I always lose!

I don't want to stop playing!

It's not fair!

Explain to your kids that when they let angry thoughts into their minds, they end up feeling angry and acting angry. Anger makes it easier to act in disrespectful ways, which is not how God wants us to treat each other.

Now brainstorm flexible thoughts for these same situations:

You win some; you lose some.

There will be time to play tomorrow.

I'll have a snack later.

Ask your kids how they would feel and behave if their first response was one of these flexible thoughts instead of an angry thought. They might feel a little disappointed or frustrated, or they might feel just fine. That is the power of flexible thinking: It affects the corresponding emotions immediately, making it much easier to make good choices and treat others with respect.

Encouraging flexible thinking

Like with any skill, time and practice are needed to replace negative thinking habits with flexible responses. Continue to brainstorm scenarios that allow your kids to practice this skill. Scenarios can include home, school and relationships, or any situation that doesn't go the way kids were expecting. Add age-appropriate scenarios as your kids get older and experience new challenges.

Parents can also create an environment that intentionally encourages flexible thinking and provides quick and effective consequences for disrespectful behavior. Be on the lookout for any signs that your child has chosen flexible thoughts over mad thoughts. When you see your kids respond respectfully in a situation that didn't go their way, let them know you noticed their positive choice by giving them a compliment, a high-five or a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. By pointing out their positive words and actions on a daily basis, you help them see that flexible thinking pays off.

When kids behave disrespectfully, you need to respond calmly and encourage them to make a good choice or use respectful words. Offer to help them think of a flexible thought if they can't seem to do so on their own. If they choose poorly, implement an appropriate consequence in a calm and respectful way. Of course, any situation that your kids handle poorly can be used later as a practice scenario to help them think of flexible thoughts more quickly next time.

Flexible thinking is a skill that all kids need to learn. The good news is that they can learn it. But parents need to introduce this valuable skill, practice it with their children over time and create an environment that encourages flexible thinking and discourages angry thoughts and the disrespectful behavior that those thoughts bring.

I know hundreds of kids who have learned to be flexible. Your kids can think this way, too.

Dr. Todd Cartmell is a child psychologist and author who lives in Wheaton, Illinois. His most recent book is 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids.

Does God Teach Flexible Thinking?

While you don't see the term "flexible thinking" in the Bible, the idea of flexibility is easy to see in the pages of Scripture. When the apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, those traits include patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — traits that work together for a calm, positive and flexible response to life's challenges. Likewise, in Ephesians 4:31-32, Paul exhorts us to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger — and instead, treat each other with kindness and compassion. And in Philippians 2:3-4, we're encouraged to humbly consider others as better than ourselves, to look out not only for our own interests, but also for the interests of others.

These choices — to act in a way that is gentle, kind, self-controlled, compassionate and considerate of others — require the ability to put things into perspective, look at situations from another point of view, and consider and evaluate various options. In addition to the willing submission of one's life and will to God, they require the skill of cognitive flexibility, a trait that God wants to grow in each one of us.


Flexible Brains

There is a battle taking place in your child's brain between negative thoughts and flexible thoughts. To win this battle, I recommend that kids memorize a few flexible thoughts to be prepared for challenging situations. You can add to and customize this list for various situations.

I should just do it. This flexible thought is designed for what your child should think when given a basic parental directive.

Scenario: You ask your child to turn off the TV and come to the dinner table.

It's no big deal. This one applies to many situations. Most things that don't go the way we want are not a big deal, and this flexible thought reminds your kids of that important truth.

Scenario: You tell your child there is not enough time to watch a movie tonight.

It won't take long. Many of the tasks, chores and requests that come your child's way really don't take that long to do — sometimes just a few seconds or minutes.

Scenario: You ask your child to empty the dishwasher.

The sooner I start, the sooner I'm done. This one is especially helpful for older kids as they experience more situations where a task or chore may take a longer time.

Scenario: Your child needs to mow the lawn, study for a test, do a lot of homework or clean a particularly messy room.

That's OK. I can do it later. This flexible thought applies to situations where a child wants to do something fun but is not able to do it right now. Your kids will use this one a lot.

Scenario: Your child wants to go to Bobby's house to play Xbox, but you say there is not enough time today. Take time to help your child practice putting his list of flexible thoughts to use. Think of realistic life scenarios where something doesn't go the way your child was hoping or expecting. Then see if your child can respond with a flexible thought that will help him make a good choice in that situation.


Flex or Break!

To illustrate the concept of flexible thinking for younger kids, you will need a rubber band and a pencil. Find a quiet place to sit down with your child, free from distractions.

PARENT: (pick up a rubber band and stretch it) What is this?

CHILD: A rubber band.

PARENT: Right. (Continue to stretch and twist the rubber band). And a rubber band is very ... ?

CHILD: Stretchy?

PARENT: That's right. There's another word that means the same thing as stretchy: flexible. A rubber band is very flexible. It can be small or stretch over something big. But how about this pencil? Is it very flexible?" (Start to gently bend the pencil, showing how it is not very flexible).

CHILD: Nope.

PARENT: Right. What will happen if I flex it too much?

CHILD: It will break.

PARENT: Let's see. (Continue to bend the pencil until it breaks.) This shows what happens when we get mad and are not flexible. We break — we talk rudely, argue or throw a fit. So the rubber band stands for being flexible, and the broken pencil stands for getting mad. Which one do you want to be like?

CHILD: The rubber band.

PARENT: So, when something doesn't go the way we want, we can think flexible thoughts in our brain or we can think angry thoughts. Flexible thoughts will help you make a good choice. Angry thoughts trick you into making a bad choice. Remember: Flexible thinking helps us make good choices!


This article first appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

© 2017 by Todd Cartmell. Used by permission of Focus on the Family.

Wanted: Good Friends

March 22, 2018
By Shaunti Feldhahn
Note:  Students photographed are not associated with the Focus on the Family article.
[Copyright © 2013 by Shaunti Feldhahn. Used by permission. Focus on the Family] 

Alice's heart dropped as her daughter ran into the house, dumped her backpack on her bedroom floor and started sobbing on her bed. Sixth-graders could be so cruel.

Alice walked into the bedroom, and her daughter said, between sobs, "Don't make me go back to school. Everyone hates me!"

Alice gave her girl a tight hug. "They don't hate you, sweetheart."

"But I don't have any friends," the girl wailed.

"Sure you do. Debbie was just over here the other day."

The young girl sniffed. "Yes, Debbie." She looked hopelessly at her mother and asked, "Who else?"

Alice felt uncomfortable. "Well . . . how about Angie?"

"Angie hasn't talked to me in months, Mom. Neither has Patty or Lara." She started crying again. "All the kids from youth group make excuses to avoid inviting me to things. I don't have any friends!"

Alice hugged her again, wondering what she could possibly say. Her daughter was right — she was the kid nobody liked. How could she help her daughter find friends? She was a sweet child but didn't understand that she was turning people off by talking too much, being oversensitive and not knowing how to approach others in an appropriate way.

Alice understood that the only way to help her daughter find a friend was to teach her how to be a friend. So the effort began.

That little girl eventually learned how to be a good friend and grew up to be someone who has many great friends.

How do I know? I was that young girl.

Over time, I learned some life-changing principles that continue to help me build friendships today. Here are three basic habits you can teach your children to help them thrive during the critical years of learning about friendship.

Friendship habit No. 1: Ask others about themselves

One of the most eye-opening facts I learned about friendship was this: To be a good friend, you don't tell people about yourself. You ask them about themselves. Until then, my conversations had been of the "Me, too!" variety as I desperately tried to fit in. But I learned that when you ask, "What does your family do for summer vacation?" and urge another kid to talk about herself, she just might think you're pretty cool.

Children are often seen as easier to be around when they stop talking about themselves (unless asked) and try to learn things about other people.

Gradually coach your kids to learn at least one or two things a week that they didn't know about a friend — or someone they want as a friend. Teach them to ask questions like: "What was your favorite vacation?" "What are your favorite video games?" (My son's favorite "friend topic" has to do with what level of a certain video game each boy is on. I must confess I don't understand a word of it, but it sure gets them energized!

Friendship habit No. 2: Make others comfortable

Another prerequisite for being a good friend is observing how others feel and setting them at ease. 
Young children can be naturally self-focused, not realizing, for example, that the buddy they've invited over is watching instead of helping build the LEGO tower. Instead of simply instructing your child to include his friend in playing, pull him aside for a moment and ask, "Joey, what do you think Bobby feels like when you're doing all the building and not letting him play?"

Teaching sensitivity becomes especially important during the middle school years when kids aren't as accepting of one another and are much more aware of the social pecking order. Kids need to know that they don't have to be close buddies with everyone, but they do have to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Teach a confident child to put himself in the shoes of an insecure classmate, and help an insecure child understand that even kids who look confident often are not.

Friendship habit No. 3: Reach out

Ultimately, the only way for children to become friends is to spend time together. That means someone has to take the initiative, and someone has to facilitate the plan. Before kids can drive, a lot of their success as a friend will depend on you. Your daughter can say she wants to have Jennie over to visit, but she'll need your help to make that happen.

As children get into the preteen years, a huge part of being a good friend includes taking the risk of reaching out and inviting someone over to your house. This key friendship skill can start with you prompting your kids by asking, "Who do you want to get together with? OK, good. Why don't you ask her if she'd like to come over this Saturday?"

These habits take practice. As your child sees that these relational habits actually work, this progress will be the best possible incentive to continue trying. 

Shaunti Feldhahn is a social researcher and the author of For Parents Only.

The Purpose of Christmas

December 15, 2017
By Alex McFarland
Elementary Christmas Musical 2017
Article has been posted by permission from Focus on the Family. 

One of my family's favorite Christmas traditions is setting up the manger scene, which has been in my family for generations. My niece Allie eagerly helps us arrange the different pieces. She studies the placement of every angel and shepherd.

Allie loves to ask questions, and our manger scene usually prompts a few. "Did Jesus get cold?" she will ask. "Did Mary have a blanket to cover Him, or were the swaddling clothes warm enough?" One Christmas, my niece asked a more profound question: "Uncle Alex, why did baby Jesus come?"

"That's a great question, Allie," I said. "A very important one." My mind began cycling through the different possible responses. He came to fulfill prophecy. To display the power of God, yet identify with humanity. To conquer death, defeat Satan and demonstrate that He loves us all.

But before I could answer, Allie asked another question, one that paved the way for the best answer to her first one: "Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross?"

Why did Jesus come? Why did He die? I've always loved the inquisitive minds of children, but my niece asking these questions at the same time presented an interesting mix of innocence and insight. Those two questions really are inseparable. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth to die. And when we help our children understand the reasons behind this mission, Christmas becomes all the more meaningful.

The bigger Christmas story

Every Christmas, families around the world read the story of Christ's birth found in the Gospel of Luke. It's a great tradition, but it's important that we help our children understand the backstory to the events in Luke 2. The full Christmas story begins thousands of years earlier in the Garden of Eden, with the temptation and fall of the first two human beings.

In Genesis 2:16-17, God gave Adam a single command: "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." We soon learn that Adam and Eve, deceived by the Serpent, did eat the forbidden fruit, and God evicted them from the garden. While Adam and Eve did not keel over dead that instant, God told them that physical degradation and death had now become part of the human experience.

By disobeying God, Adam and Eve brought sin into our world. And as a result, a sin nature — or a bent toward evil — was passed on to the rest of humanity. Every human being — from Adam to all of us — is hardwired to follow his or her own will instead of God's.

We are all part of the Fall

Do your children recognize that they share in this sin nature, that they have their own bent toward evil? I think many children (and probably many adults) think of sin and evil as terms that describe someone like Hitler, a drug dealer or their Uncle Leroy who divorced six wives. Help your children recognize that their personal sin nature is not measured against the evils they see on television or in history books, but against the perfect goodness of the Creator. Not one of us matches His righteousness.

God defines sin as selfishness, anger, untruthfulness, and so on. These "minor" sins are as incompatible with His glory and presence as the things that most of us would say are "major" sins, such as murder, robbery, adultery. And when we choose to sin — when we choose our way instead of God's way — we face the same consequences as Adam and Eve: physical and spiritual death and an eternal separation from God.

Our job as parents is to help our kids recognize the simple truth of Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." When your children begin to recognize their own sin nature, that they themselves fall short of God's glory when they disobey or speak with disrespect or don't tell the truth, then the need for God's grace through Jesus becomes more apparent.

Younger children may need a concrete example of how much higher God's standard for righteousness and purity is than ours. One way to illustrate this is with a cup of sugar. Show your children the sugar as you measure it out, and then pour it into a bowl. Let them dip their fingers in the sugar and taste it. Now add a tiny pinch of salt. Mix it in and let your children taste again. The amount of salt won't affect what they taste, but they still know it's not pure sugar anymore. Explain that, like the salt, our sins — even "tiny" ones that don't seem to be that big a deal — may not be detectible to us, but they are still there, making us impure in God's sight.

Our sin nature is unacceptable to God. But He loves us so much that He wants to help us fix our problem. And that, ultimately, is why Jesus came. God sent His Son as a gift to rescue humankind from sinfulness.

The cost of the gift

One question always seems to surface whenever young children or teenagers begin to grasp the reality of sin: If God really loves us and wants to fix our sin nature, why doesn't He just forgive us? Why did Jesus have to die?

I always tell young people that God takes sin very seriously. As you read and discuss different Bible stories as a family, keep that point at the front of your discussions: God takes sin seriously. Sin is always a serious act against God that requires a consequence.

Hebrews 9:22 puts this in stark terms: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." Before Jesus came, God established a sacrificial system of animals so that people could offer payment for their sins. But these sacrifices were a temporary and incomplete payment. While they symbolically pointed toward the need for Jesus, there could be no final, perfect sacrifice until One came who had no sin nature.

When our kids ask why Jesus died, we can tell them that there was no better option available to God. It was either this or destroying every sinner. But because of His great love for us, God took all of our deserved punishment upon himself.

All of this is probably a longer conversation than what you'll have as your kids set up the manger scene or decorate the tree. But understanding why Jesus came and died is the cornerstone of our faith. It needs to continue to be the foundation of our faith conversations.

Jesus Christ was born for a purpose.

Alex McFarland is the director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University and the author of  The 21 Toughest Questions Your Kids Will Ask About Christianity.

Fewer Toys More Christmas Joys

November 29, 2016
By Amber Van Schooeveld

As the mom of daughters, ages 2 and 4, I see the life-size playhouses and 5-foot teddy bears and wonder if I need to buy more for my children, and I'm not alone. According to a poll, parents spend an average of $271 per child for Christmas.

But parents of young children don't need to spend a lot to make the holidays merry. One mom I know wraps photos and artwork in Christmas paper as decorations and lets her toddlers unwrap them on Christmas morning. Another has a box of holiday books they only take out in December. And my brother-in-law's family has a yearly outing to look at Christmas lights and drink hot cocoa.

That is what they do to enjoy a less materialistic Christmas. Here is how I curtail my holiday spending:

Consider the age

One of my girls' favorite activities on Christmas morning is not playing with the presents, but crawling through the wrapping paper. Toddlers don't yet have the expectation of dozens of presents, so these early years provide us with a great opportunity to make Christmas more about Jesus than things.

Set priorities

Before my husband and I rush into holiday spending, we decide whether we want to focus on gifts under the tree or family experiences. Then we plan accordingly.

Consolidate spending

My girls are young and receive gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles. So my husband and I give each girl a single gift. Whether you go with one gift or 10, setting a limit and putting thought into those presents reins in spending.

Resisting the urge to spend at Christmas can be difficult, but doing so helps create lasting memories and sparks new traditions aligned with your family's priorities.

Posted by written permission from Focus on the Family; this permission does not equate to endorsement of New Covenant Academy, Springfield, MO.

This article first appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.

Why Social Media Shouldn't Define Your Teen

November 16, 2016
By Dannah Gresh

Posted with written permission from Focus on the Family, and in no way signifies endorsement of New Covenant Academy, Springfield, MO.

Our culture’s obsession with self-esteem has a new vehicle, and it fits in your teen’s pocket: That’s right, their phone. Today’s adolescents prefer to watch Vine videos and YouTube over their parents’ former obsession with MTV. On average, teens spend a mindboggling nine hours a day using technology, most of which is sharing every detail of their lives on apps like Instagram and SnapChat. Their quest is to be affirmed.

Forget 15 minutes of fame. They’re only looking for six seconds — that’s the maximum length of a video on Vine, the app that claims personalities get “really big, really fast.” And they have the stories to prove it.

In 2013, two teens became famous for nerd-style vandalism, when they dressed the part and used a Sharpie to write “=16” after the “4x4” on their family’s SUV. They became overnight celebrities, canceled their college plans and parlayed their fame into a pop-rap act with sold-out tours nationwide.

Although watching that creative video is fun and harmless, hanging out online isn’t without risks. We already know that teens give away every detail of their lives — which can lure stalkers, provide bullies with potential fodder and affect how future colleges and employers view them. But there’s also a serious issue that is a growing problem with teens: technology and smartphone addiction. New research shows that half of American teens believe they are addicted to their smartphones.

Researchers believe that as teens become hooked on social-media apps, they are less able to regulate emotions, manage impulses and make good decisions. Social-media addiction also creates lower self-esteem — the direct opposite of what teens use social media for. This addiction has also resulted in the nation’s first cellphone addiction rehab center for teens.

The bottom line is that when our teens spend an excessive amount of time online, they are on a quest to find their identity by comparing themselves to others. The fame, beauty, wit, status and so-called identity of other online teens become the measuring stick by which they judge their value. And because they can never measure up, they are susceptible to anxiety and depression.

A parent’s greatest error could possibly be turning a blind eye to how much time teens spend online and what they’re doing there and why. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to help our teens appropriately navigate technology and avoid becoming addicted to its allure and promises of identity, fame and celebrity status.

Set limits on what they can view

The biggest problem with a teen’s value being formed by media is that teens are often being lied to. (How many of those Instagram photos of your daughter’s friends aren’t perfected beyond reality? Is Kanye’s newest music video really an expression of the art of love as he claims, or could it be mild porn?)

One reason we set limits is so that our children can live in the real world with real relationships — friends who have zits and, gasp, pores and love relationships built on serving each other, not lusting after each other. What can you do? Limit the exposure and boycott the bad stuff. It’s OK to say no. I’m the parent. It’s my job to discipline and correct them when their tastes and desires run counter to God’s best for them.

Set limits on how long they can view

Almost a quarter of all teens admit to being online “almost constantly.” You’ve seen it — you go out to eat with your family and you notice teens at other tables who have no interaction with the people they’re with because they’re busily attending to their smartphones. It’s OK in these situations, too, to say no to your kids.

Limits on social media are a small cross to bear, but will feel like one nonetheless to a teen. Yet just as we set curfews because we love our teens and want to keep them safe, we can set time boundaries on how much our teens can use technology, and when they definitely should not, such as while eating or during other specified times of the day.

Remind them of their identity in Christ

Christ offers a real and lasting sense of worth. Instagram doesn’t. Self-denial, not self-esteem, is actually the solution to our insecurity as we find our value in Christ. Despite what the culture tells your teen, that’s the way to overcome their insecurity, not another follower on her Instagram profile.

Dannah Gresh is author of The 20 Hardest Questions Every Mom Faces. 

This article first appeared on

Copyright © 2016 by Dannah Gresh. Used by permission.

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