Sunday, April 13, 2014

Time to End the Lie

"God won't give you more than you can handle."
I'm tired of hearing that.  Aren't you?

Don't get me wrong. Well-meaning, believing, folks say this to people who are struggling under some weight or difficulty in an effort to help them cope. You've probably said it. I know I have. We say it so much it becomes trite, like a greeting card message.  Our goal is to diminish the challenge, build up the person, and in the process lay out a path to overcoming the trial or difficulty. It's the equivalent of saying: “YOU can do it because God has measured this trial and found your strength just barely adequate.  You are only being stretched and challenged right now. That’s all."

The Truth
What's the truth? 
As I have become convinced of it, when God allows trials into our lives, He often gives us more than we can handle. Most of us need only look around to find the evidence of this: the family member struggling under the crushing weight of a medical diagnosis; the friend challenged by financial ruin; the young child caught in the grips of his parents' contentious divorce.

Can we honestly say that no problem is too great for us to handle? 

The Good News
This is the good news! When we realize that there will be problems too great for us to deal with on our own, t
hen and only then are we brought to the point of utter dependence upon God's grace, mercy, love, and power to sustain us in the face of these pressures and difficulties-- and that’s precisely what He wants from us!  Cease the struggling, the striving, the restless seeking for an answer or solution . . . and trust Him. His “grace is sufficient.” St. Paul would say this is when we can “boast gladly” of our weakness, so that Christ’s power “may dwell” with us. (2 Cor. 12: 9) We have access to a power source that will never be found lacking!

We, our friends, our school parents and our students need to hear this message: that their true power comes not from their own struggling, but from Christ. YES, we must keep living and working. We have to do our part. But, while we push on through the difficulties, our internal condition must be one of peace and the absence of struggle or fear because of the confidence that comes from knowing Christ’s power is with us. 

Doesn't that sound like fertile ground for facing the different challenges that might come into our lives? Saying that God won't give us more than we can handle is a lie that is poisonous to the kind of true faith that can actually help us overcome the most difficult problems we'll face.

Remember: The truth is that God loves each and every one of us, and He therefore provides us with His grace to endure even the most crushing blows.  Let's share this truth!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Happy Children

"Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery - the preconditions of all true freedom." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223)
One phrase stands out for me in paragraph 2223 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "self-denial." 15 minutes of television is all you need to know that there's not a lot of self-denial preached by mainstream society. Seems to me that the commercials might be right-- after all, I know how unhappy I am when I desire a Double-Double from In 'N Out and can't have it. I also think about how happy I would be if I had that Double-Double . . . and some fries . . . animal style.  

In teaching self-denial, does the Church have it wrong here?

Of course not. Like so many things, Church teaching as found in the Catechism, seems backwards only when viewed through the fallen perspective of the world. In reality, my reaching out for that Double-Double brings only temporary, sensory-based happiness, but it damages the true, lasting happiness that comes from being healthy, eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, etc.

Happy Children
I think that's what we really need to distinguish for our children-- the difference between temporary, sensual or sensory-based happiness, and true, lasting happiness, particularly through the kind of education we provide them.  

Please, don't get me wrong-- our senses are gifts from God, and it's okay to enjoy them! However, the Catechism is pointing us toward an education that prepares our children for something much deeper than success or the fulfillment of the material desires of their hearts. In fact, I'd go so far as to propose that if the education we provide as parents and teachers leaves our children bound by their own desires seeking only to satisfy their wants, instead of able to control them through self-denial and self-mastery, we will have failed in teaching our children one of the most important lessons prescribed to us by the Church.

Let's begin teaching self-denial and self-mastery during this Lenten season by setting realistic and virtuous limits on our children's expectations, and by emphasizing charity and generosity before wants and desires. Though successful careers and material things are definitely blessings granted by God, they are not the ultimate purpose of our existence, and they don't bring us the true freedom achieved through the virtue of self-denial.

After all, true happiness is not being bound by the desire for something (and thus frustration when not able to possess it).  True happiness is found in the peace that comes from being able to master these binding, overpowering desires.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Internet Safety for the Children in Your Home

As a school administrator, I'm having an increasing number of conversations with parents regarding problems they're having with their children and the Internet at home. Social websites have impacted many students' emotional well-being and/or social development by exposing children to around-the-clock access to their friends. Video and image sharing websites have negatively affected many students' developing sense of beauty or purity.

After so many of these conversations, the realization struck me-- students are well-protected while using the Internet on our school grounds, but so few of our families are aware that they can provide this same kind of protection at home, free of charge.

In my mind, there's no good reason not to set up a content filter (a means of controlling which websites can be accessed) at home-- I have one on my home network, and I'd recommend that every parent, regardless of the age of their children, thoughtfully use at least one form of Internet safety tool. Though the Internet is a powerful tool for education, communication, and entertainment, the reality is that it is just as powerfully capable of causing intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual harm to our children. 

This recommendation is not about censorship. It's about protecting our children from exposure to images, ideas and experiences before they have the tools to deal with that exposure. Unrestrained, the Internet is clearly having an impact on our children's moral development. I think it's time we stopped playing "catch up" with the fast-paced spread of the Internet into every corner of our family life, and we start to make thoughtful, informed, effective decisions about what role it will play in the growth and development of our children. As a parent, it's our right and duty to be the primary educators of our children.

Offering these thoughts, I'm fully aware that I could be accused of advocating Big Brother-esque control, or censorship. Although I assure you this is not the case, I encourage anyone with concerns or counter-arguments to leave comments below so that we can have a civil discussion. As I've said to parents on many occasions, "I believe that our children must develop the tools to integrate the Internet into their lives properly, and this comes from experience with these tools. However, there's a reason why we don't give drivers licenses to kids under 16!"

Tools for Content Filtering at Home
I have personal experience with two specific tools, which I'd recommend any parent looking into. They're free, simple to set up, and effective for protecting your children. Please note-- these recommendations are not the result of exhaustive research and comparison. I'm sure a simple Google search will reveal sites that have done this. I simply offer these two tools to exemplify what is possible.

Before implementing either of these tools, I recommend you set up your child on a limited user account. (I apologize to Mac users for my lack of experience with OSX-- this first recommendation is PC-centric.) Allowing your child full "administrator" access to a computer enables them to bypass any security restrictions set up. If this recommendation isn't familiar to you, or you need help setting it up, visit this link: "How to Teenager-Proof a Windows 7 PC."

Tool #1: Microsoft Family Safety
http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/set-up-family-safety#set-up-family-safety=windows-7 
If your child uses a PC that runs Windows 7 or later, setting up Microsoft Family Safety is simple. It does require that you have a Microsoft email account (i.e., Hotmail, Live, or MSN). Once set up, Microsoft Family Safety enables you to implement an Internet "whitelist" or "blacklist" on your child's limited computer user account. With a whitelist, your child will only be able to access the sites you specifically clear for him or her. I have this set up for my 6 year old's account on our home PC. He's currently whitelisted to visit our school's math practice website, National Geographic Kids, and PBS Kids. If he tries to visit any other site, Microsoft Family Safety blocks it.

Even better is the weekly report I receive via email from Microsoft Family Safety. Each Sunday I get an email that charts out how much time my son spent on the Internet each day, which websites he visited and for how long, and which websites were blocked (if any). I haven't found anything that is this easy to set up and maintain, and is this useful.

Tool #2: OpenDNS
http://www.opendns.com/
Where Microsoft Family Safety only filters the activity that takes place on the particular PC on which it has been configured, OpenDNS has the ability to filter Internet activity on every device that connects to the Internet at your home. This is key with so many mobile devices in the home today (iPads, iPods, laptops, cell phones, etc.). You'll need a little more technical know-how to set this up, but OpenDNS provides clear, step-by-step instructions here: https://store.opendns.com/setup/router/ and a video introduction on this page: https://store.opendns.com/setup/

When you create a free OpenDNS account and set up a content-filtering profile, you'll be able to block websites by category (weapons, alcohol, pornography, etc.), or by setting up whitelists or blacklists of sites. My school used OpenDNS successfully for about six years, and we never experienced any problems. If you're unsure about any of the technical aspects at the links above, it's best to seek out the help of someone who can assist you. 

I offer these as examples of two simple, quick steps parents can take to provide safety and security for their children. If we are to grow faith-filled kids, should we do any less?

Image:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/75/Internet1.jpg

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Kids We Have
















I'd like to riff off Dr. Maxwell's now famous quote, meant for teachers, for the purpose of relating an idea that I admit to finding difficult to accept at times:

Our calling is parent the children God gave us.  Not the children we would like to have. Not the children we were when we were little. The children we have right now.

Perfect Children
My kids aren't perfect. 

Yes, they make messes everywhere. (I actually cleaned spaghetti sauce off the ceiling once . . . and before you ask, I have no idea.) 

They whine. ("Shall I call the 'waaaaaambulance' for you?") 

They fight. (I swear there are two cushions on the couch, but they both seem to see only one . . . and each must possess it.) 

Ironically, Sunday Mass seems to bring out the worst in them. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

And yet, my kids are small-- my youngest only about to turn two. I'm not complaining. These misbehaviors are normal, routine, and entirely understandable. 

So, why do  I sometimes wish they behaved even better? I believe it's because I've fallen into the trap of wanting to parent the children I wish I had, and not the children I actually have.

To use the classroom metaphor, it is ineffective for a teacher to approach his or her class with the expectation that the students will "be" precisely what he or she expects them to be, sight unseen. Teachers can't direct and orient their teaching to the "ideal" student or to past students. They must adapt to and address the needs of the students sitting before them at the moment.

The same goes for those of us parenting imperfect children. (Yeah . . . that's all of us.) We can lament the fact that they don't behave a certain way, or that they aren't as good as we were when we were kids (or as good as a brother/sister). Ultimately, this does our children no good, and it creates a harsh environment for learning and growing.

I'm not suggesting we do away with standards of behavior and accept misbehavior as the norm, just like I wouldn't suggest that a teacher forget the subject area standards or codes of conduct.  What I am suggesting is that we focus less on the "wishes" and "wants," and more on embracing the children God gave us, faults and all. Their flaws are opportunities for growth. Their sins are doors to God's grace. 

The fact is, I love my kids more than my own life. I owe it to them to parent the children God gave me.

Image: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BbE55bzIAAESgJD.jpg

Not "Shy" at All!

Odds are that one of every three people (or so) who reads this blog post will feel like the following bullet points describe him or her (they definitely describe me):
  • Large crowds and loud noises are tiresome, even overwhelming.
  • Hearing the words, "Now turn to the person next to you and make a new friend!" while sitting in a class or conference is a source of panic and/or simple frustration.
  • Being put on the spot to "share" thoughts or feelings actually freezes brain function and/or halts thought processes.
  • A quiet lunch and good conversation with one close friend is preferred over a party or gathering of many people.
You may not be familiar with the characteristics of introverts because extroverts are so much more common in our society, and in many cases even more prized-- "He's so outgoing!" or "She's so friendly!" being common refrains. Introverts are typically (and mistakenly) characterized as shy, withdrawn, or even brooding. In reality, being an introvert means that one's energy comes from being alone (whereas extroverts are energized by being around people). Read more about the differences here: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/09/11/7-persistent-myths-about-introverts-extroverts/

In her fantastic TED talk on the power of introversion, Susan Cain describes how our society has come to prize extroversion over introversion, and how this hurts people and ultimately damages our world.  (See it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html)

Introverts in the Classroom
As a parent and educator, my primary concern is that my own children and my students are learning and growing to their fullest potential, especially in their faith. There are introverts in our classrooms who need quiet time to think, ponder, and assimilate new ideas. If you're an extrovert, this may not make much sense to you since you think aloud, by talking out your ideas with others. 

As an introvert, however, my process is very different. The best illustration I can offer is what a college professor once told me. She said that she could actually see me process new ideas during her class, "It's visible," she said.  "You wrestle with the ideas, taking them inside of you, turning them over and over, and making the connections needed for that idea to have meaning to you." This is how introverts make meaning-- by taking ideas in and bouncing them off of prior knowledge, challenging preconceived notions, and fitting the ideas in with existing knowledge.

If 1/3 of our students need time to make meaning like this, then silent time for reflection would seem to be essential to the classroom environment. Even more so, silent time in faith formation classes is an absolute necessity, as we strive to help young people develop a personal relationship with Christ.

How to Care for Introverts
Following some great educators and Catholics on Twitter, I came across this recent image through a tweet, and hosted here: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BbUKtVLIYAABxaN.jpg.


It's easy to see how this list can be applied to classroom or work environments. For students who are introverts (who process ideas internally), constantly forcing them into group activities can be detrimental to their learning and even lead to their frustration with the classroom. It's in the best interest of students to give them time to process, quiet time to think, and periods of peacefulness. These 12 guidelines are a great start.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ready for Christmas


Not Quite Ready?
The tree is decorated. The lights are twinkling. Even the little snowman who counts down the days to Christmas has taken up residence in his normal spot by the fireplace. With only 11 days to go before Christmas, all but a few of the presents have been purchased. All indications are that we are ready for the holiday.

But, I keep thinking about my Nativity set.

Two years ago, on Thanksgiving weekend, I had one of my brilliant ideas. Our house needed a large nativity scene for our Christmas decorations out front. We always go all out on our lights, but the light up reindeer who eerily moved its head back and forth was starting to seem too gaudy. The candy canes and snowmen were looking tired. Instead of replacing them with more stuff that pointed to the North Pole, I thought it time that our house point folks to true north, Christ.

Like a man on a mission, I dove into the internet, only to find that outdoor nativity sets are a difficult find-- either too cheap to look really nice, or too expensive for my budget. Then it hit me: I could make my own! I had a few weekends before Christmas. Making my own nativity set would be a snap, and I'd be offering the gift of my own talents in glory of the King.

That was two years ago. As those two Christmases came and went, I got a little bit closer to completing my Nativity scene, but I never could get it finished.  Just as I could never quite complete the Nativity scene, I also felt like I'd never really entered into the spiritual aspects of Advent and Christmas either. Sure, I prayed a little extra, but the joy of waiting for Christ's birth on Christmas Day just didn't seem to be complete. 



Ready Now

The drawing I sketched out on my iPad (top) two years ago didn't actually become a reality until this evening, when I finally finished the Nativity set and placed it in front of my house (above). Granted, I didn't work on it at all from January to mid-November over the last two years, but there was something inside me that was ready, willing, and able to get it done this year. Something that said, "This Christmas won't pass without that Nativity getting finished!"

What's left now is to get my heart in this same place to be ready for Christmas Day.  To be in a place where I can say, "This Advent won't pass without me being ready for Christ's birth!" Funny thing is, even the desire to be fully prepared is increasing my joy and expectation of what Christmas morning will bring-- the birth of Jesus.

Who knew it was that simple?  At least, way more simple than building a Nativity set!

Blessings of Advent and Merry Christmas to you!

Images copyright Joseph A. Ciccoianni 2013


Saturday, November 16, 2013

That's Where the Day Went

My last post, Parents: Where Did the Day Go?, ended with a question: How do we slow down and reclaim some of the time that seems to have been lost in the last few years' race to constant "busy-ness"?

Well, a few days after posting this question, I received an answer in the form of a blog post written by Matthew Warner over at his site The Radical Life

I've come to realize that there's no such thing as coincidence because things like this happen all too frequently.  This is God, using one of His creatures, to answer a question. I invite you to read Matthew's most recent post "What's your idle?" (Click HERE)  

Although not all of the "idles" he cites are problems of mine, I can certainly learn to put down my smartphone, among others. How about you?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Parents: Where Did the Day Go?

Did you notice when it happened to you?  I didn't.

All I know is that, at some point in the last ten years or so, the time it takes for the earth to make one rotation on its axis shrank. This is the only thing that can possibly explain why it seems like I have so much less time in my day. You're with me on this, right?

Seriously though, I talk with a great number of parents at school, and it seems like this is the general consensus. We just don't seem to have the same amount of time anymore. The reality is that so many things are demanding of a parent's time: work, school, homework, sports, dance, instruments, Tae Kwon Do, family, friends. We just don't seem to have much free time left over.

As adults, I think most of us can agree that our jobs are demanding more of us now than they did even five years ago. Call it a symptom of the hard economic times our country has been through. I know many of you who work a full day and then take work home in the evening to complete once the kids are in bed. Trust me, you're not alone.

At the same time, we try to provide developmental opportunities for our kids, like sports or the arts, and this takes time, too. Although mine are still too young to be in club sports, I've heard from many of you that the tournaments are a killer, and keep you at the ball field all day on a Saturday or Sunday.

For our children, this "busy-ness" has become part of their daily lives, too. First and foremost, the curriculum is accelerating. If you doubt the rigor of recent curriculum changes, you only have to look at a first grade math book to see what I mean. You and I were not doing "algebra readiness" at the age of six like our children are doing! Throw technology into the mix, and our kids not only have more challenging content to learn at an earlier age, but they have an added modality or method for learning to which they must adjust. On top of that, many of our kids have intricate nightly schedules that juggle things like dance, softball, and piano-- all of this adds up to a child who is constantly on the go (and by extension, parents who start to feel like taxi drivers).

Casualties of "Busy-ness"
Lately, the casualties of all of this acceleration have really been haunting me. I worry that the constant go-go-go nature of this kind of life is warping my sense of reality and causing collateral damage.

I remember driver's ed in high school. The teacher warned us about "velocitization." The concept was simple: the longer you drive at high speeds, the more accustomed your body becomes to those high speeds. The teacher warned us that we had to be careful after we exited the freeway to surface streets because we were velocitized, and might end up getting a ticket for driving much faster than we thought we were going.

The velocitization of a parent's daily life has some pretty clear casualties:

  • time with God
  • time with spouse
  • time with children
  • time alone
If you thought this was where I offered a neat and tidy solution to the problem, I'm sorry to disappoint. This is really all about commiseration! I'm with you on this. Hopefully you're with me. Perhaps we can crowd-source a solution to the problem? 

In the meantime, I'm going to pray that we're all able to slow down and figure out how to reclaim that lost time. God Bless.

Photo credit: mao_lini via photopin cc

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Toddlers and Mass

To all my brothers and sisters in the faith who have the courage to put those two together week in and week out, I applaud you! 

From the time our first child was born, my wife and I drew a line in the sand . . . We would not make use of the crying room during Mass. "Hey," we reasoned, "we're both educators and lifelong Catholics. We've got this under control. Besides, how is our child going to learn to behave in the church if he's never actually in the church?"

I think that decision was made under the influence of a lack of sleep from all of those nighttime feedings!

Somehow, we trudged through my son's infant and toddler years. We made a lot of mid-Mass trips outside the church when he got rowdy, and we avoided upsetting any of our fellow parishioners-- at least not to the point where they said anything to us. Now, at age six, he's pretty much got the behavior thing down, and we're working on getting him to actively participate in the Mass.

Unfortunately, we're now in the middle of Round 2-- my daughter. Don't get me wrong, she's a sweet kiddo. I think something happens when kids get inside the church, though. Suddenly they're tired-- even though they just napped; hungry-- even though they just snacked, and so on. And, isn't it great how churches naturally amplify and echo sound?

My wife and I are personally grateful for the two older couples who sit behind us most weekends (because Catholics sit in the same pew each week, like Mass has a seating chart, you know!). They're friendly when we arrive with our backpack full of books and snacks.  They're patient when my daughter lights into one of her tantrums and has to be taken out.  They're even understanding, like the one particular weekend we ended up sitting behind them, and my daughter kicked one of the gentlemen in the head as I was trying to remove her from the pew before her tantrum hit glass-shattering decibels.

Despite it all, we somehow manage to grab that moment of prayer, those few words from the homily that transcend the stream of interruptions, or that connection with the greatest gift of the Mass-- Christ in the Eucharist. 

I know both of us are looking forward to the time when we can once again bring our full and undivided attention to Mass. But, in the meantime, we feel like God's teaching us another, maybe even more valuable lesson-- "Enjoy your current circumstances. Appreciate the gifts I've given you . . . no matter how distracting. Learn to make the most of even the smallest moment with me." 

And we're okay with that.

Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Boy . . . Was I Wrong!

It hit me recently . . . I've been dead-wrong. 

Here I thought I knew a little something about raising kids. After all, I am second-oldest of eight and was babysitting since age 10; I worked in a group home and a youth shelter during college;  I had 16+ years of experience in elementary school teaching and administration; and I had one child of my own along with numerous nieces and nephews. I figured, "Hey, I know a little something about this stuff. I can share some of what I've figured out over the years."

Then my second child came along, a daughter, now about 18 months old, and I've spent the last 18 months coming to terms with just how little I actually know. This beautiful little girl has defeated all my usual approaches and defied my most tried and true methods. 

Like an old western stand-off, she matches my "angry daddy" face with her own "angry toddler" version. She can go from joyfully giddy to terribly unhappy in under 0.2 seconds for no apparent reason. She doesn't even laugh at my silly faces. I used to keep my son in stitches with that routine, but it produces the opposite result with her. She makes me feel like I've been doing this whole raising kids thing flat wrong!

Yet, she's got the most infectious smile (when she feels like it). After a long day at work, I am still turning the key in the front door when I can already hear her screaming "Daddy!" on the other side. She's a hugger . . . and they are truly the best hugs.

Of course, I attribute all the good stuff to my wife's influence, but maybe I had a little something to do with it. I guess what I'm saying if you've read this far is-- if I know one thing, it's that I don't know it all. Kids have a funny way of showing you this.

So I'll continue to share what has worked and what hasn't. I'd love to hear your stories in the comments or via email (mrc@stpius5school.net), especially if you've got a few stories of parenting "fails" like mine . . . I could use the company!

God Bless.

Photo credit: CarbonNYC via photopin cc