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Why I make time for reading in my life

I’m a wife and a mom with a three year old and a one year old. Both children are very active and inquisitive, and enjoy actively inquiring into my cabinets and the fridge, experimenting to see what happens if they pour water on the floor, and if they hit each other. They keep me on my toes. 

I also cook pretty much every meal from scratch–what exactly is scratch anyway? Does anyone know? I bake my own bread, and don’t own a dishwasher. I do the grocery shopping, keep track of endless piles of laundry–or try– and I go on playdates, by which I mean that I try to hang out with other moms while my kids hang out with other kids.

I have a lot on my plate. 

But I make time for reading. I have read at least 2 dozen books since the beginning of the year. Sometimes I use audiobooks, some ebooks, but mostly I check out print books from the library. 

So with so much on my plate, why do I prioritize reading? 

It Keeps Me Sane

When I was pregnant with my first child, I quit my intellectually stimulating job as a middle school history and literature teacher to stay home and take care of the baby. I need intellectual stimulation, and babies, delightful as they are, don’t provide much of that. Reading gives me new things to think about, and is, incidentally, amazingly compatible with breastfeeding. It’s also easier to do with jumping toddlers next to you than just about any other hobby. So basically, reading is a major part of my self care and self-development routine. 

It Gives Me Something to Talk About

There was a period of a few weeks where I had stopped reading, because I thought I was “too busy.” Not only did my brain feel dead, I also discovered that the quality of the conversations I was having with my husband was declining. I had nothing to bring to the table except stories about the kids’ naughtiness, or what I found at the grocery store. I decided this was not ok, and resolved to read something every day, just so that I would have something to bring to the conversation. My husband married a woman who was interested in all sorts of things, presumably because he liked me that way, and I think I should try to keep being that person. 

It’s an Example I Want to Set

When I prioritize reading, this shows my children, young as they are, that books are interesting, and that reading is something that people do. This will make them more likely to be readers and learners when they are old enough. 

I also want them to see that I am a separate person and not just their mom/servant. I think it’s important for my kids to see me doing things that interest me. And for them to see me continuing to learn as an adult. 

How do you fit reading into your life? If you don’t have a lot of time, here’s five books every woman should read. 

Otherwise, here are some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. I hope you enjoy some of them too.

 A guide to natural childbirth inspired by Catholic principles and illustrated with stories of Catholic moms giving birth. Good information, good stories. I was glad I read this one.

 Why yes, I do love science fiction. Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors, and this is quite the series. I just re-read it recently.

This is a new one from one of my fellow authors over at Catholicteenbooks.com (Which you should totally check out if you have teenage kids or students, are a teen yourself, or just enjoy YA fiction.) It’s a hard-to-put-down dystopian story about faith, love, martyrdom, and a bunch of other stuff. A lot of fun.

Yes, it’s a kid’s picture book. I thoroughly enjoyed it though. It’s a story about how some young students protect some Jewish children their age during WWII.

Sort of like grown-up Narnia. This is the third book in the series, and I haven’t gotten around to reading the first two, but I did enjoy this one.

The best book on taking control of your digital life that I’ve seen.

Yes, I love science fiction. This is an exciting story of pursuit, compulsion and conversion.

Editing counts as reading, right? I hope you’ll consider checking my book out as well!

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Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

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Letter to my future self

Dear future self,

I’ve been seeing parents dealing with their teenage and middle school children lately, and sometimes it makes me cringe. Based on my own memories of being a teenager, and my experiences teaching teens for three years, it seems like a lot of people go about it all wrong.

Here’s a few things I want to be very careful to remember in ten years, because I can only assume that the parents I see have forgotten these things, and their children suffer for it.

Teenagers aren’t scary monsters

Teenagers are not horrible monsters that come and replace your sweet babies after a few short years and do their best to ruin your life. Based on the reactions I get when I tell people I like teaching middle school, and the self-pitying comments I hear from parents, I get the impression many people think this.

Adolescence is just the next stage in a child’s development, and while it will be difficult because of hormones, mood swings, and potential personality clashes, it can be a wonderful time if managed properly. Young adolescents have the energy and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with a budding adult intelligence, which makes them a lot of fun if managed properly.

Teenagers need respect

Just because you are someone’s parent doesn’t mean that you can disrespect them and their ideas and still expect them to respect you. Respect is a two way street, even in parenting.

Teens and preteens are if probably more sensitive about their personal dignity than you are. If you demean your child you are placing him in an impossible situation: either he must accept it and see himself as worthless, or, if he wishes to see himself as redeemable, he must see you as wrong.

Teenagers are neither adults nor children

They are not adults, of course, and they need to be guided towards good choices and guarded from bad ones. Internet filters and rules about technology are necessary. Just as you wouldn’t give a fourteen year old a car, a credit card, and a full liquor cabinet with no guidance, a full-function smart phone is too much for a teen to handle without guidance.

However, this does not mean they can or should be treated like two year old olds.  They must be given opportunities to learn responsibility. And this means no more and no less than giving them responsibility. They need to be treated as competent if they are ever to become so. And they have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes. The great thing about giving a teenager limited responsibilities is that they can learn about making mistakes while the consequences are manageable.

A twelve year old should be able to do all of these things:

  • Keep track of their own school work. (It’s not your job as a parent to pack your fifth grader’s backpack–don’t let anyone tell you different. If they forget something at home, the consequences will be relatively small, and should be felt by the child.)
  • Decide what appropriate winter wear for the day is. (If you’re doing something unusual, guidance can still be helpful)
  • Plan and cook a simple meal for the family
  • Babysit younger siblings (maybe not for days at a time, but certainly for an evening out).
  • Do their own laundry. This doesn’t mean they have to do all their laundry, but you shouldn’t have to hunt down their dirty clothes, or did their clean ones.
  • Earn money working for people (they will need help connecting with people to work for)
  • Respectfully and intelligently discuss their own rules and discipline. (Teach your child how to respectfully ask for exceptions or modifications to the rules)
  • Set personal goals (with help)
  • Start budgeting and tracking their expenses
  • Go to the store, ride bikes, or take walks in a reasonably safe neighborhood without a hovering adult.
  • Order their own food at restaurants without your help. (Giving them a budget is reasonable)
  • Start using power tools under supervision
  • Mow the lawn
  • Take care of their own garden plot
  • Remember to bring their own things to routine events. Church books, school supplies, etc.
  • Understand that they are a contributing member of the household with responsibilities in making everything run smoothly.

Depression is not just a bad attitude

A lot of teenagers suffer from more or less severe depression. If your kid has consistently bad moods, low energy, poor sleep, or general lack of motivation, it’s likely not just a bad attitude. You won’t solve it by yelling at them. It’s probably not their fault.

If your kid has these problems, look for simple solutions first.

  • Trauma: if the behavior came on suddenly, figure out if there was a trauma of some kind. Gently try to get your kid to tell you what happened and work through their feelings in a positive way. Having a good, respectful relationship with your kid is invaluable for this. (Depression-causing trauma doesn’t have to be something serious like sexual assault. Even something as trivial as being called a “baby” by an authority figure can cause long term issues if not sorted out. Trust me.)
  • Exercise: Make sure your kids are getting enough strenuous activity. Outdoors is best. If a person is already depressed, they will almost definitely need company to help them exercise.
  • Nutrition: a good multivitamin can do wonders, especially for girls. And almost everyone who doesn’t live in the tropics can benefit from taking vitamin D3.
  • Social life: does your kid get out and spend time with good friends often enough? Healthy social interactions can keep you break the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
  • Responsibility: if you have nothing in your life that is your responsibility and of which you can take ownership, minor depression can quickly develop into feelings of worthlessness. It’s important for everyone to feel that they have a role to play and that they would be missed.

Depression is sometimes a physical condition that doesn’t respond to normal methods like those above. Antidepressants can help in extreme cases, but alternative medicine usually has fewer side effects and can sometimes yield very good results.

At the moment, dealing with a two-year-old, I look forward to the day when I can have an intelligent conversation with my own child. I look forward to being able to start having a friendship with my child, to trusting her, to learning things from her, to watching her mind grow and develop as she becomes a woman.

I know it can be hard to share a house–and especially a kitchen–with another woman, and this is probably part of why so many mothers struggle with their teenage daughters. And I know it’s hard to watch a child struggle and learn things the hard way, and that this is what growing up looks like. And I am sure I will have my share of arguments and disagreements with my children as they grow up.

But hopefully this letter will remind me that my children are people and that they want to be treated like people. And that adolescents can be very enjoyable.

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The Trouble with Survival Mode

You’ve probably been there. You want to clean, but you have to rescue the crying baby from the over-exuberant toddler. Once you get the baby asleep, though, it’s time to make supper. You’re almost done making supper–fighting off the toddler who is  grabbing knives or emptying the dish soap and screaming–and you’re about to sit down to eat when the baby wakes up screaming again…After supper–which adds to your pile of unwashed dishes–you think about cleaning again, but the toddler finds a previously unexplored cabinet and empties its relatively dangerous contents into the floor next to the baby…. At which point you give up…. For a few minutes. Then you realize that giving up doesn’t actually do you any good.

You’re miserable because there’s so much stuff to do, and it just seems like no matter how hard you work you never get ahead. It’s like bailing out a boat that has a hole in it and you keep bailing and you stay just ahead of the leak so you don’t quite sink. But all you have to look forward to is more bailing because the hole never gets smaller and the water never stops coming in.

What happened?

When you first got into the boat you probably had a destination in mind. You noticed landmarks, or measured your progress by looking at charts, and mapping out a course. But you’ve been bailing for so long that your life has shrunken to an endless cycle of filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge, filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge. It’s gotten so bad that you don’t even notice that you’re drifting off course. Or that you have the tools to patch your leak, if you would just stop for five minutes.

If fact, you don’t even notice that you’ve forgotten why you got into the boat in the first place.

Now of course in real life it’s not dumping buckets of water out of your boat. It’s working to pay bills, fixing things that get broken, pulling the toddler off the crying baby (I assume that’s not just me), getting dinner on the table, packing school lunches, mediating disputes, checking emails, worrying about money, worrying about kids…. And it goes on. You feel like if you just keep your head down and keep working, maybe there will someday be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe when the kids are old enough for school. Wait…. Then there will be even more bills to pay… So, maybe when the kids move out? (You can survive another twenty years of this, right?)

That’s just the trouble though: keeping your head down. You have to look up sometimes.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of busy workers clearing a jungle. They are working so hard, getting so much done, hacking up trees and vines as well as they can. Suddenly the leader tells them, “Wait, stop, you’re cutting down the wrong jungle!”

This is how we can end up if we let the tunnel vision of survival mode run our lives. The tunnel vision is good when you’re putting out a fire. It’s great not to be worrying about what you’ll be doing in ten years if you are busy saving the town from burning up. But life isn’t supposed to be a constant series of putting out fires. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.

The point that Stephen Covey was making with his jungle story, was, as he put it, you have to “begin with the end in mind.” You have to be able to break free of crisis-mode tunnel vision so that you can remember what your goal is, and think about what it will take to reach it. Maybe if you look up from bailing out your boat for just a moment you’ll realize that you can just swim to shore. Maybe you’ll realize that someone threw you a rope or that someone’s willing to throw you a rope if you just ask.

This sort of crisis mood can come into just about any aspect of life.

Financial

Financial survival mode looks like this: You try to at least pay the minimum payment on your credit cards, you’re probably renting, and you run out of money by the time the next paycheck comes. You aren’t quite sure what you spent the money on, but you’re too busy to find out and you definitely don’t have an emergency fund so even if you do succeed in paying your credit cards off, if you have to call the plumber, you’re right back where you started: paying interest on credit card loans.

The first step is to choose to believe that you don’t have to live that way. The second step is to sit down with your spouse if you’re married or if you’re single by yourself with a friend who knows about money or a financial advisor if you can get one, and figure out what your goal is. Your goals will depend on who you are. It could be anything from, “we will be debt free by next Christmas” or “we will be in position to open our own home in three years,” to “I want to start a business that provides all the income we need in five years.”

Then, once you’ve determined what your goal is, make a plan to reach it. Divide it up into actionable steps. Schedule them. And most importantly, plan how you will keep checking your progress. It could be as simply as putting a monthly reminder on your calendar to see if you are making the progress you want.

This book could get you started in the right direction: Why smart people do stupid things with money.

Marriage

Working with your goals in mind is particularly important in a relationship. It’s easy to end up going through the motions of married life, if you don’t remind yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Presumably you got married so that you could help each other be happy together. Maybe you didn’t think it out quite like that beforehand, but that’s generally why people want to get married. And so if you start taking each other for granted, bickering over chores, or just feeling unappreciated or upset in general, it’s likely that the real problem is that you’ve lost sight of your goal.

The steps for this are the same:

First, recognize that you don’t have to live that way. Assuming that you and your spouse are sane, decent human adults, you should be able to work out a plan together to help each other be happy, and then execute that plan.

Secondly, block out some time to be alone and sit down together and discuss the things that are bothering you. Seriously, do it. If you need a babysitter get one. (If you can’t afford it, do it anyway, and add money goals to your discussion. It’s that important.) If the kids have to eat junk food and watch cartoons one night, or if you have to call in three favors from your sister in law, just do it. And then drink some wine, eat some chocolate, listen to some music, whatever it takes to be in a good mood, and talk it out with your spouse.

I highly recommend the marriage meeting format. It’s simple and really helps the conversation be productive. (My husband and I have been doing them every week for at least a year now, and we recommend it to all our friends.)

And finally, come up with a plan to reach your goal. Set up actionable steps, schedule them. One good step might be scheduling time for intentional communication, like a weekly marriage meeting. Or scheduling fun things to do together–dates don’t have to be expensive. Or getting the kitchen sink fixed… whatever you decide will help you make each other happy.

And then follow through on your plan.

Parenting:

Survival mode parenting, also known as reactive parenting, looks like lots of stress, yelling, and chaos. The kids are always doing something unacceptable, and you’re always tearing your hair out and yelling at them. You probably resort to screens frequently to keep them quiet, and if you don’t, you’re likely constantly sending one or more of them to their rooms. You can’t stand their behavior, but they don’t seem to change no matter what you do. You yell and punish and cry, but they never seem to get any better. If anything they get worse and worse.

Parenting will always be stressful. Children are difficult– that’s just the way it is, but there’s no reason why it has to be absolute misery all day every day. There is no virtue in being miserable. American parents seem to feel that they have to be stressed and overworked or else they’re just not doing their jobs. Which is completely baloney. Following a vocation, like marriage and parenting, should make us happier. If we’re constantly miserable, we’re likely doing something wrong.

So first of all, tell yourself that you don’t have to be miserable. Sleep deprivation might be inevitable at certain stages in your children’s development, but long-term misery should never be required.

Then, sit down (with your spouse if possible) and figure out two things: what kind of people you are trying to raise your children into, and what exactly is making you miserable.

As far as the first question goes, you might think that you already know the answer: well, obviously I want my kids to be good people. But that’s not specific enough. There’s a lot of ways of being good people. You have to choose a few traits that are extra important to you. My husband and I want to raise children who are confident, resourceful, and truth-seeking. Some people prioritize kindness or generosity above everything else and tailor their parenting techniques for those goals. There is no one right answer.

As far as the second question goes, you might be surprised when you figure out what the underlying problem really is. Maybe the whole issue is that you’re not getting enough sleep. If you could get enough sleep, everything else would fall into place. Or maybe the trouble is your children scream too much and it’s stressful for everyone. Or perhaps you just need a system for everyone to get some chores done every day so that the house is not always a mess. Maybe you’re really just lonely, and some company would solve your worst problems. Or you could just be working with an ineffective philosophy of parenting, and just changing a few of your assumptions will make everything easier.

Then form a plan to achieve your newly clarified goals. For example, you’ve determined that you want your children to be independent, so what changes are you going to make to your discipline system to encourage personal responsibility?

You figured out that you need some time to yourself every week so that you can feel like a human? How are you going to get it? Hire a babysitter? Trade off time with your spouse? Trade off time with other parents? Teach your kids to entertain themselves? Get your kids some new activities they can do independently? The answer will depend on you, your kids’ ages and personalities, and your other circumstances.

And finally, once you’ve made your plan, figure out how you’re going to ensure that it happens. Are you going to reassess your progress every week? Every month?

Getting out of survival mode is less about working hard and more about working smart. You have to figure out what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and what’s stopping you so that you can formulate a plan to fix it.

Resources

Here are a few books that should help: (Affiliate links: I earn a small commission if you buy through these links. There is no extra cost to you, and I heartily recommend all of these books)

This is a book recommended to me by a financial advisor. It’s a great basic roadmap to why you have money troubles, and how to get out of them.


This book is a good overview of the ways of thinking that will make you happier and more effective.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in a relationship or is planning on being in one. It explains a lot of the misunderstandings that arise between spouses and how to solve them and have a happy and satisfying relationship.

I’ve read a lot of Catholic books on marriage, and many of them tend to be discouraging. This one is not. It shows a balanced view of marriage–admitting the struggles, but pointing out the graces and joys. It also has a balanced idea of the roles of husband and wife–sticking to what the Church actually says, not personal opinions or outdated stereotypes. Every 21st century Catholic married couple should read this book.

This is one of the best books on parenting that I have ever read. It gives practical tips and makes good parenting seem possible and achievable.

Pamela Druckerman, an American who lives in France, points out some of the odd habits of American parents, and contrasts them with how French parents raise their children. She combines the best of both worlds, and tells entertaining stories. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months. It also helped me de-stress my parenting style a bit.

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5 Tips for Better Dinner Conversations

You’ve just put the finishing touches on supper. It’s nutritious, delicious, and artistically presented in attractive dishes. Your spouse and all the kids are ready to share another wonderful family meal. You know how important family meals are, after all, and you want the best for your children. So, you sit down to dinner ready for wonderful conversation and family bonding time.

“So Johnny, how was school today?” You ask your son brightly.

“Ok.” Johnny says, shoveling another mouthful of mashed potatoes into his face.

Not a very interesting answer, but you try to take comfort in the fact that at least he obviously likes the meal you prepared.

“How did your classes go, Jenny?” You ask your teenage daughter.

“I have a paper due tomorrow. Can I go?”

You nod, sighing internally.

Finally, you turn to your husband. “How was work?”

“It was fine.” He says. “Can you pass the salt?”

“Mom,” your younger daughter interrupts, just as you’re about to pick up the salt. “Johnny just kicked me under the table. Can you make him stop?”

You sigh… family dinners are supposed to be great bonding time…after all, studies show that more family dinners means healthier, more successful, happier children and teens. But aside from good healthy home cooked food, what really makes or breaks the family dinner is the conversation that goes with it. If the conversation goes well, you will likely have a happy family experience overall. If the conversation is a disaster, you likely have other problems in your family.

Here are five tips that should make your family meal conversations more satisfying and enjoyable.

Ask open ended questions

Yes or no questions are good for some things, but dinner conversation is not one of them. If you want to get a conversation going, you have to ask a question that requires your conversation partner to bring some information to the table. If you ask, “How was school today?” “Fine” is a perfectly legitimate answer, but it gives you nothing to talk about.

Instead of asking how school went, or if it was ok, try asking questions like, “What was something interesting that happened at school/work/home today?” Then your conversation partner has to actually introduce some information into the conversation.

Ask followup questions

You sit down to dinner. “Johnny, what was something interesting that happened at school today?”

“We played a new game at recess.” Johnny says.

“That’s interesting.” You say…and the conversation dies.

Conversation is like a game of tennis. You serve the ball to get in into play–this is like the preliminary question. Your partner returns it, by adding something new. And you need to return it again, once again by adding something of your own, or by asking a follow up question.

If Johnny tells you he played a new game at recess, you should ask, “What game was it?”

Then, when he tells you what game it is, you now have a real topic of conversation. Your whole family could get involved. You could share stories of when you played that game, discuss the rules, and eventually end up going on glorious tangents about ball manufacture, game theory, and the Olympics… which brings me to the next tip.

Bring up interesting topics.

You are probably very busy, but try to spend at least a few minutes each week learning  or doing something interesting just so that you can share it with your family and broaden your and their horizons a little. I think most of what I learned as a child, and much of my joy in learning, came from conversations around the dining room table. My parents read, my brother read, I read; and we discussed all of it over our meals. We almost always had something new and interesting to talk about.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is–as long as you are interested in it, you can probably get your family interested too… with a few exceptions.

Avoid depressing topics.

Many families have some topics that are banned for discussion during meals. Common forbidden topics include snakes, worms, and anything gross or gory. Besides your own family’s forbidden topics, I would suggest avoiding any topic that is likely to result in a sense of hopelessness or fear. This would include conspiracy theories, the end of the world, the three days of darkness, and probably about half of what was in the latest newspaper…

Conspiracy theories are sort of fun–you get a perverse sort of thrill from discussing how “they” –depending on your political affiliation and interests, “they” might stand for the Illuminati, Big Business, The Government, the Communists, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Left, the Right, the Far Left, or the Far Right–are controlling everything, and have been controlling everything for the last few decades/centuries. Discussing conspiracy theories gives you the feeling that you are special, you are not deceived like the rest of men, you have the secret knowledge that will make you powerful–except that in practice it does nothing but make you fearful and hopeless.

If “they,” whoever they might be, really have as much power as your theory says they do, then there isn’t really much point in trying to make the world a better place–and that is the message your children will imbibe with their spaghetti and meatballs.

It is good to discuss politics and history and sociology with your family. But these conversations will form your child’s world view possibly more than anything else, and so be sure that the world you show them is the one you want them to see.

Any since it is important to discuss different topics, it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, which brings me to my last point.

Practice good manners

Talking to people is one of the most important skills you can teach your children. And being polite is a vital part of that skill. So a few ground rules are in order. Here’s a sample list of rules that will help your conversations stay respectful and enjoyable.

  1. Listen to the other person’s full thought before answering.
  2. Swallow before talking.
  3. Make sure other people get a turn to talk.
  4. Stay on topic, unless everyone is okay with changing the subject.
  5. If you disagree, respectfully explain your reasons for disagreeing, rather than insulting the other person.
  6. Keep voices at an appropriate indoor volume.

Hopefully these five tips will give you what you need to make meal time with your family a relaxing and stimulating experience.