Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why, God?

As I stood outside the gate at dismissal on Friday, many of you asked me one simple question: "Why?"

Events like last Friday's in Newtown, Connecticut break into our daily routines, leaving us in shock. I found out while I was actually on the phone with an I.T. guy, talking about fixing one of our school's computers. He and I both took a moment just to absorb it. Since that time, my prayer intentions have included all of those affected, but especially the parents. As a parent of two young ones, the images of their grief tug so strongly at my heart that I can barely contain the tears.

Here is an excerpt of what we wrote to our school families today: 
. . . When evil so violently and shockingly interrupts our everyday lives, we are reminded that life is fragile, our lives are temporary, and this earth is not our eternal home.  
     When the result of our first parents' sin is an incomprehensible act of evil and the loss of precious innocent life, we are shaken to the depths of our soul. For a time, we see our lives, our families-- indeed, all of the blessings that God has given us-- in a different light. It's almost as if our vision has been refocused, and so much of what seemed important melts away. We find ourselves focusing only on what is enduring: our families, our children, and most importantly, the love of a God who knows the sorrow of seeing His precious child die.
Today, I have a simple prayer, aside from those that will continue for the victims and their families. Today, I ask God to help me keep my vision focused on those things that are truly important: His love, my wife, my children, my family and friends, and each and every one of you who comes in and out of our school each day, seeking the same focus. 

We're all traveling the same road to Heaven together. May God always bless us with His loving care.

Note: If you're struggling with the difficulties of talking with your children about violence and its effects, or if you need spiritual support, you may find these links helpful.

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers, National Association of School Psychologists
Talking to Kids about Traumatic Events, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
The Mystery of Pain, The Solace of Faith, An opinion piece by Fr. James Martin, S.J.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 413-421, Read the Catechism in a Year, Day 62 @

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Thank You, Pius Parents

Dear Pius Parents:

This week's Christmas Program was truly an amazing event for all of us. The kids sang beautifully, and they had an amazing mix of reverence and joy that was infectious! We received so many compliments from you all. Some people even stopped in the traffic line the next morning to tell me how much they enjoyed it!

I especially want to thank you for the way you received the program in the true spirit it was intended-- as a tribute to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and as praise to our God, who took on human form in order to save us.

The more we worked with your children on their performance throughout the last few weeks, the more I saw how your children are hungry for meaning that goes beyond just being in the spotlight, and beyond personal attention or praise. As much as they may seem like they want to be on "Glee," they really crave something deeper. Yes (believe it or not!), our school kids have the capacity to see beyond themselves, even though I'm sure it doesn't seem like that sometimes! (Hey, I have a 5-year-old, too!)

This is a great time of year to help them develop their sense of a deeper meaning to life, one that goes beyond the latest gadget, the most popular game, or what's happening with the hottest celebrities. During Advent (which is also the beginning of the church's "New Year"), we prepare our hearts to greet the Christ child by remembering all that He has done for us, by welcoming Him into each moment of our lives, and by resolving to follow Him in the future.

A small group of our students, parents, and alumni did this just this week by visiting the Buena Park Nursing Center and singing Christmas carols for the elderly in residence. (picture above) 

Your kids long for their lives to be meaningful, and the simple truth is that they won't find lasting meaning in "things." They were created to know, love, and serve God, and by learning to do so, they will become the happy, generous, fulfilled people . . . and faithful Catholics . . . We desire them to be. We promise to keep working on this with you as we move ahead, striving to "build God's kingdom" by putting Christ first!

Thanks Everyone. Have a Blessed Advent!

Mr. Ciccoianni

According to Your Faith

The Healing of Two Blind Men
And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed [him], crying out, “Son of David, have pity on us!” When he entered the house, the blind men approached him and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I can do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they said to him. Then he touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.” And their eyes were opened. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread word of him through all that land. (Mt. 9:27-31)

This gospel passage from Friday, December 7th has been stuck in my mind since I read it. I keep going back to the words of Jesus: "Let it be done for you according to your faith." Don't get me wrong-- the healing was all Jesus, and I believe He has the power to do it. But, I can't help thinking that if the two blind men had replied, "Well, sure. I guess. Why not?", instead of a firm and confident "Yes, Lord!", that the story would have ended differently.

After all, the Gospels relate several times that Jesus isn't able to provide much needed healing for people, and it doesn't have anything to do with Jesus. It's the lack of faith of those in need that block the healing. (Mk. 6:5, for example)

With that in mind, I can't help but wonder:

  • What healing am I missing out on, or what sin am I stuck under because I think God couldn't possibly provide what I need, helpless and hopeless as I am?
  • What blessings am I missing out on because my all-too-important human mind thinks logically instead of "miraculously," and I'm unable to conceive of the amazing things God could do in my life?

It all boils down to this: How am I limiting God's action in my life through my own unbelief? My lack of confidence?

What Legacy Am I Leaving?
As usual, my thoughts naturally turn to my two kids. I wonder if I am setting an example of audacious, expectant, faith that believes in God's power to do even the impossible in my life. Or worse, am I showing them a false faith that talks a good talk, but, when the chips are down, doesn't truly believe God can provide what I need?

For my own sake and my children's, it's time to look Jesus squarely in the face when He says, "Do you believe that I can do this?" and reply a strong and faithful, "YES, LORD!"

Photo credit: Lawrence OP via photopin cc

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent & Christmas Videos for the Whole Family

If you're sick of Christmas by December 25th,

This is a great quote from one in a collection of videos currently on YouTube that can help family members of all ages understand . . .

  • WHAT Advent is.
  • WHY Advent is.
  • WHEN Advent is. And most important . . . 
  • HOW Advent can prepare us for the best Christmas we could possibly have. (HINT- It has nothing to do with gifts.) Most of these videos are no more than a few minutes long, but they each pack a punch. Enjoy.

For the Adults

Advent in 2 Minutes

Advent Conspiracy

For the Kids

Bethlehemian Rhapsody

Special thanks to my Twitter friend @nsenger who curated and posted these and more videos on Advent and Christmas at his Catholic School Chronicle website:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Daily Dose of Thanksgiving

I spent some time last week writing my thoughts on gratitude (Thanks Be to God). This week I came across an article by a psychology professor from Rutgers University who wrote about the positive impact gratitude can have on your health. Though not a faith-based article, the suggestions echoed some of the advice I gave to families in last week's post. The author, Maurice Elias, said,

Researchers . . . as well as studies . . . Have found that keeping a daily gratitude journal, showing appreciation when others give you even minor help, and delivering overdue gratitude to someone who helped you a long time ago all have beneficial effects; those expressions of gratitude that directly involve others often move them to be more appreciative of and helpful to the next people they may meet. (Elias, Maurice, Gratitude Builds Character and Health,

No surprise here . . . gratitude is good for you! 

Giving Thanks in Prayer
Many of the biblical psalms are messages of thanksgiving, like Psalm 118 that praises God's goodness and kindness: "Give thanks to The Lord, for He is good, His mercy endures forever." (118:1) At St. Pius V Catholic School, we teach the students to offer thanks as part of their prayers-- not just petitions asking God for His intervention. Our goal is not just to develop "Healthy People" (one of our Schoolwide Learning Expectations) in body, but also in mind and soul. In my own home, our family prayer begins with "Thank you, Jesus" after which we recall even the littlest things with which God has blessed us-- a call from a friend, special time with a grandparent, or a great dinner. 

A daily dose of gratitude in our children's prayer time before bed or when waking up each morning can help them develop the attitude of gratitude necessary not just to by physically and emotionally healthy, but also spiritually healthy and focused on God's will for their lives. 

Photo credit: muffintinmom via photopin cc

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanks Be to God

Examples of Thankfulness
Probably each of us knows someone who just oozes gratitude and thankfulness. I'm talking about that person in your life who never seems to focus on what he or she doesn't have, but is always grateful for the gifts and blessings of his or her life. Even in dark or difficult moments, this person has an attitude of gratitude that often surprises us and leaves us in awe. 

Although I've met many people like this in the last few years, one stands out. She came from what many people would consider humble beginnings, and she lived with energy and enthusiasm, loving life no matter what the circumstances. She'd often punctuate her sentences with a "Praise God" or "Thank you, Jesus." For her, each moment-- whether positive or negative-- was a gift from God, drawing us closer to Him. Even during a struggle with illness, she remained positive. Clearly, gratefulness was not something she put on occasionally like a jacket or hat, but it was part of the very fabric of her being.

Gratitude Genes
As I get older, I long for that same kind of gratitude to run deep into the core of my being, to be ingrained into my DNA so that I might be grateful without thinking about it. I'd love to be focused not on what is missing, what I don't have, what could be better, or what needs to change, but on the gifts God has given me, no matter how small.

I don't have all of the answers, but I think the key is what (or whom) you're looking at. As long as my eyes are focused on the gifts, it's easy to become negative and disheartened during those times when the gifts don't seem to be flowing my way. However, if my eyes are focused on the Giver of those gifts, and my heart is focused on the way He loves me, then everything becomes a gift, whether positive or negative on the surface.

Thankful Children
As for our kids, it becomes pretty obvious that giving them the "gratitude gene" isn't something that can happen during the last few days before Thanksgiving (although it's never too late to start!). Gratitude can become part of the family DNA over time through a daily focus on "thanks giving" that becomes part of the family history, and by keeping the family's focus on the "Giver" and not the "gifts."

  • What are those big family milestones with which God has blessed us?
  • In what ways has God brought healing to our family? Happiness? Sustenance? Joy?
  • How was God present during our difficulties? Where was He in the midst of the storm?
  • And most importantly, How has God promised to care for us and be faithful to His promises? How has He demonstrated His love for us?  
Bringing these reflections into family prayer time regularly just might help our children develop the gratitude gene.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and God Bless You.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Space Alien Sitting Next to Me

As I sit at my kitchen table composing this blog, something resembling a miniature human being (left) with a familiar face is sitting in a high chair next to me yelling, giggling, and gurgling "AhhhDadadadada!" 

Of course, the only logical explanation is that extra-terrestrials exist and they've invaded my home. 

Yes, I typed "logical." 

After all, she can't be my daughter (left). My daughter was just born in February. My beautiful baby girl was only a little longer than my forearm. I could carry her like a football! She could occasionally muster up a blood-curdling scream, but she spent most of her time sleeping, blinking, soiling diapers, and such.

At some point, this E.T. must have transported into the kids' bedroom in the middle of the night, replacing my little infant. (They took her brother years ago.) This creature that now lives in our home and masquerades as our daughter is over three times the weight and twice the length of my missing infant! It holds its own bottle, eats at the table with the rest of the family, pulls itself up on its knees to look over the side of its crib, and has two teeth jutting from its lower jaw.

It Happens So Fast
As a parent I don't have to tell you twice. Tempting as it is to go with the space alien/E.T. excuse (how else to justify their behavior sometimes?), they really do grow up that fast. 

So no matter how much we think about it, pray about, read blogs and books about it-- the fact that it happens so fast means that an essential ingredient in growing faith-filled kids is letting go and entrusting them to our Lord (who is beyond time . . . In other words, He can keep up with them).

Now go hug your space alien, tell 'em you love 'em, and while you're at it, tell them that God loves them, too.  

Have a great week. God Bless!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What My Garden Taught Me About Parenting

About six years ago, a certain type of weed began to crop up in my backyard. I didn't think too much about it at first. After all, there were only a few scattered throughout my lawn. At first I just mowed it with the rest of the grass and moved on to other weekend pursuits. I didn't want to take the extra time to do what was necessary to remove the weeds. As the season passed into summer, the weed seemed to disappear, and I believed the problem to be resolved.

The following year, that same weed came back . . . with a vengeance. Obviously, it hadn't gone away by itself but had actually been seeding and preparing to grow again when the weather turned warm and the soil moist. Ignoring it and just mowing over it like last year was not going to work. That approach had done nothing to rid my yard of the intruder. In fact, ignoring it like that had actually given the weed an opportunity to spread. 

My first attempt at removing it was unsuccessful-- I grabbed at the stem and pulled. Little did I realize that the base of the stems remained firmly implanted in my lawn, so within three days, the weeds had grown back. Apparently, I'd have to go after the roots. After digging down to the roots I discovered something amazing. This seemingly harmless weed had been able to infiltrate my entire lawn by shooting out stems (rhizomes, for you science-types . . . I did the research) sideways underground that then sprouted another weed a few inches away and created a subterranean network that required extensive work to remove. 

By now, you are probably questioning my gardening skills (as well you should). I'm no green thumb. I was never one for spending too much time in the yard, and I definitely learned a lesson the hard way about tending my garden. However, my gardening failure resulted in a spiritual insight: just as natural gardens require constant, regular attention to prevent them from becoming overrun by weeds, our "spiritual garden"-- our soul-- requires similar consistent, vigilant attention to keep them from being overrun by sin.

The Garden of Our Souls
Just like those few, untended weeds spread throughout my yard and almost ruined it, a single harsh thought not combated can grow and spread through our consciousness like a subterranean network of weeds. As the familiar saying, normally attributed to Charles Reade, goes:

"We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny."

That's why this warning is issued in the Book of Proverbs: "With all vigilance guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life."(4:23) Good advice for us as adults, but also a great guideline in growing faith-filled kids.

Tending Our Children's Souls
We parents and teachers can start by modeling this kind of behavior for our kids. Perhaps this means doing our best to control our temper, to refrain from saying angry words in front of our children/students, to forgive or ask forgiveness when necessary, or to be respectful toward authority.

We can then actively seek to develop vigilance within our children or students. Simply put, this means attempting to make them mindful of the spiritual implications of their daily actions. For instance, we can take the opportunity when a child has spoken out in anger to remind the child (if old enough) of a time when an angry word led to a fight with a friend or sibling. In nightly prayer (or at the end of each school day), we can guide the child in a simple examination of conscience: 

  • What did I say or do today that hurt someone's feelings? 
  • How did I not follow my parents' (or teachers') directions? 
  • Did I have any angry thoughts about someone today? 
  • How can I show that person my love/forgiveness?
Vigilance against spiritual "weeds" like anger, dishonesty, or hurtfulness is a necessary part of living a life of faithfulness to God.

Photo credit: Sergiu Bacioiu via photopin cc

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What's the Secret to Raising Faith-Filled Kids?

Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. -- James Baldwin

The Secret
In my experience, growing faith-filled kids starts with us. Being a faith-filled parent or teacher ourselves gives us a better chance at raising faith-filled kids. 

Think of it this way: I couldn't possibly teach someone to pilot an airplane. I'm not a pilot. I couldn't train someone as an opera singer. Anyone who knows me knows that I can't carry a tune with a bucket! Even if I could, it would take a lifetime of study to be able to teach someone else the art of opera.

Therefore, to grow faith-filled kids we need to be experienced and knowledgeable in the ways of our faith.

Now don't panic yet! There is good news in all of this!

The Good News
First, God does much of the work for us, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. If I had to train an opera singer, I'd be out of luck. The Holy Spirit is not going to gift me with knowledge of opera singing! On the other hand, the Holy Spirit has gifted us with faith, and the Spirit strengthens that faith when we pray.

Second, we're not just talking about head knowledge of faith, which can take time to learn. Our faith in Christ has an important, personal, heart component that each and every one of us is ready to share right now. Each of us knows how Christ has moved in our lives-- through a conversion of heart, through a special loved one's example of faith, through a difficult illness or loss, through blessings-- this personal experience of Christ's love is how God stepped into each of our lives. No one knows the story better, and no one can share it and the feelings that go along with it better!

Third, since so much of faith is the human response to the movement of God inside of us (Catechism of the Catholic Church 166)-- each of us can be learning more about our faith while we are sharing our story with our children/students. 

In fact, our timing is perfect! The pope recently declared this the "Year of Faith." (See my recent post here..) This year is a great opportunity to grow in knowledge of the faith we profess, so that we can better share it with our children.

To be sure, there is much more that goes into raising faith-filled kids, but this is an important starting point. Wherever you are right now in your personal faith journey, you have everything you need to begin!

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Suffering Servant

Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many. (Is. 53:10)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,but one who has similarly been tested in every way. (Heb. 4:15)

Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. (Mk. 10:43)

Suffering is the central idea in this Sunday's readings. More than one Catholic sitting in Mass this weekend may have thought, "Wait a minute . . . isn't being a Catholic Christian about joy, peace, and other warm, fuzzy feelings?"

Didn't See That Coming
Here at the beginning of the Year of Faith, we believers are confronted with the reality of the Christian life: that Christ calls us not only to live a life of suffering, but also to make use of that suffering.

Christ himself is referred to as the "suffering servant" in Isaiah, and our redemption was gained through his suffering and death on the cross.  Many of the apostles suffered and were martyred, and lots of saints earned the title through heroic suffering in the name of God. Along those lines, a few weeks ago I wrote about suffering and its power to shape us into the people God desires us to be. (Don't Give Up)  

Time for Reflection
If we're going to grow faith-filled kids, this is one big, important aspect of being a believer that we'd better get straight right from the start! Consider taking some time to reflect on your own suffering, and how you respond to it in your life. (If there's one thing of which I'm certain, it's that anyone reading this is suffering . . . you're human, after all.)

What is causing your suffering?
How have you responded to it in the past?
If you haven't already done so, can you offer it to Christ?

Like my elementary school principal, Sister Marianita used to say, "Offer it up!" As for the warm, fuzzy feelings . . . it's not hopeless. By making use of our suffering and drawing closer to Christ, we experience a deeper joy than anything we could have found without Him. And that, my friends, is what will translate to our children and students, setting them on fire with faith in a God who can transform suffering into joy. God Bless You!

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fall Back or Rise Up?

When struggle, battle & sacrifice are demanded the majority complain & clamor for going back to Egypt or spiritual slavery.-- Fulton Sheen

Archbishop Fulton Sheen points out how some people don't respond well to struggles and challenges. He compared us to the Israelites in the Old Testament, who when confronted with the prospect of dying in the desert, groaned and complained to Moses that they were "better off" in Egypt as pharaoh's slaves.

Parents and teachers might say they've heard similar groaning and complaining from their children and students, who back away when confronted with a challenge. Kids attempt all kinds of excuses-- 

"I can't do it."
"I'm no good at this."
"I'll never get it done."
"I'll never pass this test."
"Everyone else is better than me."
"It's too hard for me."

It's easier to fall back on old excuses and to live under the tyranny of past failures than it is to rise up to the challenge and overcome it. (I believe sometimes we adults do the same thing!) But how do we assist our children and students in overcoming this negative attitude? 

As with all things, it helps to start by casting the problem in a spiritual light. Start with prayer. Say, "Let's take a second to ask God to be a part of this challenge. With his power supporting you, anything is possible!" (Phil. 4:13)

Then, remind the child of the different ways God has provided for him or her in the past. Cite examples of God's goodness and care in the child's life.

Realize that lack of perseverance and an unwillingness to try are vices for which fortitude, the virtue that "strengthens the resolve to . . . overcome obstacles in the moral life" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808), is the answer. Assist the child in breaking the task into smaller, more achievable steps. Remember to thank God at each small success, as you build the child's sense of competency upon the foundation of his or her creation in God's image.

 Photo credit: Lawrence OP via photopin cc

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What Is the "Year of Faith"?

Something BIG is happening in our Church.

Not just our parish church, but in our global Church. 

In his apostolic letter Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict XVI announced that October 11, 2012 to November 24, 2013 would be the "Year of Faith." This kind of thing doesn't happen very often, so it's a great opportunity for all of us!

Beginning this Thursday, we have a chance to make the faith we profess an even greater reality in our lives, and in the lives of our children and/or students.

There are many ways to grow in faith, but one of the most important is to use the intellect that God gave us to learn more about our beliefs. The pope has encouraged us to open the "door of faith" by praying, reading, and studying our faith more in the upcoming year.

The bishops of the United States suggest two very important activities for the Year of Faith: reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and studying the documents of Vatican II. You also can find more about the Year of Faith here:

Year of Faith website (Vatican)
Year of Faith website (U.S.C.C.B.)
Read the Catechism in a Year
Year of Faith Resources

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Don't Give Up.

Don't give up. 

Difficult times make you stronger. 

Enduring hardships builds character. 

Like gold that is tested in fire, afflictions purify you. 

The struggles of life shape you into the person God wants you to be.

Sound familiar? Life's hard times have an enormous impact on us.  Our suffering draws us closer to God by stripping away our selfishness and by teaching us to lean fully on God's grace instead of our own strength. In other words, our trials form us in God's image. 

I know my own children and the students I teach will face difficulties in their lives (indeed, some already have). What they will need is the virtue of fortitude, or "firmness in difficulties and constancy in pursuit of the good" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808) which strengthens us, and helps us stand firm when life gets tough.  

How can our children acquire this virtue, especially when the last thing any of us would want is for them to suffer? 

One thing I've found incredibly helpful with young people is to build their character through the small experiences that come up each day. For instance, having consequences for poor behavior and lovingly following through on those consequences builds the child's resilience. Allowing a child to face the consequences of his or her choices can also boost a child's perseverance, if the adult acts with patience and love. When a child doesn't make the team or misses first place, it's an opportunity for him or her to learn perseverance

I sympathize with the desire to shield kids from consequences.  I have a five year-old, and it's hard for me to knowingly allow him to choose a path I know he might end up regretting, no matter how small the disappointment might actually be. However, he will never develop the virtue of fortitude if I shield him from even the small hardships and disappointments of life. Those disappointments will become the building blocks of virtuous behavior later in life

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

To Know, Love, and Serve God

Just a short post this week to clarify a point that should have been made prior to setting off on a discussion of the "Keys to Your Child's Success" a few weeks back . . .

After posting two different references to the "Marshmallow Test" last week, the realization dawned on me that the type of success that at least one of the videos refers to-- material success-- is not necessarily the type of success to which I refer in the posts on this blog.

Definitely, my goal is for my children and students to develop their intellects and be able to use them both for the good of our world and in support of their own material needs.  I haven't run into a single person who doesn't desire this kind of "success" for his or her child. 

Make No Mistake
However, I would never want to be mistaken for having material wealth serve as the only definition of "success" written about in the posts on this blog. When I speak of success, please think more along the lines of the Baltimore Catechism than People Magazine. In my book, a child who ends up succeeding is the one who is able to "know, love, and serve God in this world" (BC #4 & Mt. 6:19-20).

For more on this, please see my previous post, "Why I Send My Child to a Catholic School."

Photo credit: marcelo-moltedo: " En el pais de los sueƱos... via photo pin cc

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Don't Eat the Marshmallow!

I have been focusing lately on the keys to your child's success. By now it's clear where I stand: Your child's future success is directly related to their training in the virtues. One of my favorite indicators of this truth is the infamous "Marshmallow Study."

What Was the "Marshmallow Study"?
In the early 1970's at Stanford University, psychologist Walter Mischel created a simple test: place a four, five, or six-year old in a room with a marshmallow and tell him he'd receive another marshmallow if he didn't eat the one until Dr. Mischel returned 15 minutes later. Recently, Dr. David Walsh reproduced this experiment for a news program, and Joachim de Posada did the same in Colombia. The videos are quite funny and can be seen here:

What the Marshmallow Study Tells Us About Success
As Dr. Walsh says, the true genius of the study was to follow up on the kids once they reached their early 20's to determine if there was any correlation between their ability to defer the immediate gratification of eating one marshmallow in order to get two, and their future success. The results of the experiment clearly showed a link. The children who were able to defer or delay their desires to obtain an even greater reward ended up being far more successful than those who were not able, with only a few exceptions on each side.

This makes sense logically. If someone is constantly seeking his or her own gratification and pleasure, how can that person make any progress toward a goal, especially if achieving that goal involves unpleasant circumstances, hard work, or difficult tasks?

The Marshmallow Study and the Spiritual Life
The Marshmallow Study therefore reveals what is actually a spiritual principle and truth about the virtue of fortitude. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1808, fortitude "strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life." As the Marshmallow Study showed, those who learn at an early age to defer their own pleasure in order to achieve a greater good are later able to apply that ability to the challenges of the adult life, and by extension, the spiritual life.

Keep in mind, our society is not geared toward learning to defer gratification. In fact, our society says very emphatically, "Eat the marshmallow! Eat it NOW! Don't wait! You deserve the marshmallow! Who knows if you'll even be around in 15 minutes! Doesn't the marshmallow look delicious? Everyone else is eating their marshmallow . . . you should eat yours now, too!"

Don't Be a Spiritual Marshmallow
As parents and teachers, it's our job to train our children and students in the virtue of fortitude; to help them become strong in the face of temptation and able to resist the many messages of our consumeristic, materialistic society. It starts small: by building the ability to put off television in favor of studying, or play time in favor of multiplication tables, for instance. As children grow into their teen years, however, the stakes get higher, and the potential either for gain or loss becomes greater. 

Prayer is our first, best resource to assist our children/students.  However, since "the moral virtues are acquired by human effort" (CCC, #1804), young people can be guided through each situation with an eye toward their own spiritual development. With gentle, age-appropriate reminders like, "By finishing your chores before you play video games, you're learning how to be stronger than your desires.  In your life, you're going to need that kind of strength!" 

Let's raise spiritual heroes who possess the virtue of fortitude, not spiritual marshmallows!

Monday, September 3, 2012

One Key to Students' Success

     After 15 years at St. Pius V, I've seen almost 900 young people graduate. I've been closely involved with their successes and their struggles. Observation of so many students has led me to the conclusion that one key to a child's success in school (and life) is perseverance.

I Can't!
     At the Back-to-School Night parent meeting, my son's kindergarten teacher announced that a student asking for help with shoe-tying anytime after Christmas would be gently encouraged to complete the task on his or her own. In other words, as easy as Velcro is for my son (and by extension, his parents), it's time for my boy to man up and learn how to tie his shoes. 
     Unfortunately, his patience is almost nonexistent. Within a minute of trying to make the initial loop, he gives up. When encouraged to continue, he breaks into tears, and claims, "I CAN'T!" 
     He is no different that so many students I've seen over the years-- whether it be shoe-tying, prepositional phrases, or algebra. The goal is to see if an adult will rush to the rescue. After all, it's easier to get dad to tie the shoes than to learn to do it on his own. What kids often lack is perseverance.
     During childhood, the struggles requiring perseverance are often small: learning to tie shoes, dealing with an unkind student on the playground, or working through the multiplication tables.  As adults, the struggles are deeper and more difficult.

     I've seen adults suffering through cancer who persevere without complaint and without neglecting their responsibilities, believing that they'll beat the disease as long as they don't give up. I've seen adults struggling with the loss of a job who don't lose faith, trusting that they'll find something new as long as they keep trying.  I've seen adults experiencing family problems who find the strength to bring their trials to prayer day in and day out, never ceasing to believe that their prayers will be answered.
     Personally, I greatly admire people who have the ability to persevere through a struggle. This is a quality I want my children and students to have, since I know their lives will entail some kind of struggle. 

Teaching Perseverance
     For children to learn perseverance, then, requires that children experience struggle and difficulty on a small scale. Learning to carry her own backpack, or to tie his shoes, or to memorize the multiplication tables, or even learning to deal with an unkind student on the playground-- these are necessary "classrooms" for the lessons of perseverance.
     What is required of parents and teachers who desire their children/students to learn never to give up in the face of difficulty?

  • Patience: It will take time to break children of the "I Can't!" habit. 
  • Wisdom: Take the long view on the child's present struggles. Rushing to the rescue only stunts the child's growth.
  • Leadership: Break the task at hand into smaller, more manageable chunks. Say, "Today we're just going to try to make the first loop with your shoelaces and get really good at it! Maybe tomorrow we can try the next one."
  • Prayer: Often forgotten, but most important, prayer should be our first tactic when trying to help our children.  Perseverance is closely linked to the virtue of fortitude, which is "firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good." (CCC, 1808) Virtues are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that means prayer is our best hope.
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photo pin cc

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some Days You're the Pigeon . . .
Over at, I found what has recently become one of my favorite classroom posters. The image is fantastic, and it bears the saying, "Some days you're the pigeon. Some days you're the statue."

I've also heard this thought expressed: "Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you." Either way, the expression and the image relate one simple truth: life is made up of good days and bad days. As parents and teachers, we know this is a painful truth of adult life: it is made up of highs and lows, peaks and valleys. There are days filled with almost heavenly highs and there are life-altering days we'd rather forget. Both make us the person we are. Both contribute to our character and personality. But it's our ability to endure the bad days that defines us as people.

At the beginning of a new school year, parents and teachers naturally focus on the positives. We try to build our children's or students' motivation for the upcoming year by talking about the limitless possibilities of the next 10 months. We talk to them about all they can accomplish through hard work and discipline. We talk to them about soaring to the heights of success, getting all A's, not earning any detentions, winning the spelling bee, and getting the Patriot Award.

In other words, we talk to them about being the pigeon. We focus them on being the pigeon.

(I understand that some might consider labeling me a "pessimist" as a result of the thought I'm about to express, but I assure you, I am more interested in being realistic than fatalistic. Here goes!)

Be the Statue
How often do we talk to our kids about how to be the statue? How often do we share coping mechanisms for dealing with adversity? For losing the big game? For failing that spelling test? For getting caught breaking a rule, which is something we all do at some point in our school careers?  If we adults know that there are days when you're the statue, why are we only talking to our kids about being the pigeon?

Age-appropriateness must be taken into consideration, of course, but what I'm suggesting is teaching and modeling the virtue of fortitude for our children and students.  Fortitude has many different spiritual aspects, but the best explanation I can think of is that true fortitude means being the statue! 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines "fortitude" as "firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good" (CCC, 1808). Take another look at that statue in the poster above . . . has he given up standing there? Has he shrunk away, covered in pigeon droppings to sulk in a corner just because things aren't going his way? Not at all. He's still standing, still smiling, and patiently enduring his time of trial and difficulty.

Parents and teachers, I'd venture a guess that the very last thing any of us would want for our children and students is for them to grow up without the ability to endure trials or to persevere in the face of hardship, especially since we all know that the adult life that awaits our children and students will include some form of trials and hardship.

Just like we want them to be formed academically, it's important that they be formed in the virtues, particularly that of fortitude. The upcoming school year will have its good days and bad days. Your children and/or students will need your help and guidance developing the ability to endure and overcome difficulties. Let's start the conversation now!

My prayers are with everyone reading, with your families, and your loved ones. I pray for all students, teachers, and parents as we begin a new school year-- May God's loving kindness shine on us all as we seek to develop our young people's minds, hearts, and souls!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Longing to Be Free

A brief sidetrack on graduation . . .
Around graduation time each year, I tend to think of Brutus. That's him to the left. (Sorry for the quality-- the picture is quite old.)

Brutus was my family's German Shepherd when I was growing up. He was loyal. He protected us kids and our home. He loved all of us, especially my dad.  He liked kibbles and canned dog food . . . together. He didn't care much for fetching tennis balls or frisbees. You didn't mess with Brutus. 

Longing to Be Free
For all of his wonderful qualities, Brutus had one fatal flaw that could have been his undoing. You see, as much as he loved all of us, Brutus longed to be free. You didn't dare leave the gate to the backyard even slightly open because Brutus would be gone in a black and white streak. I don't remember how many times my brother, sister, and I had to chase him down the street, screaming like maniacs with the neighbors thinking we were all crazy, and then haul him back by the collar, depositing him in the backyard where he resumed his watchful post by the back gate, waiting for someone to leave it open again.

Waiting at the Gate
Spend enough time around the campus of a K-8 school, especially in June, and you'll know why I'm reminded of Brutus. In particular, our eighth graders have been proverbially "sitting at the gate," waiting for their chance at freedom. 

None of us blame them. They're simply the most recent group of awesome young people to travel the ups and downs of nine years together. After so many years sheltered within the walls of our school, they are longing to see what else is out there. Like Brutus, they couldn't wait for someone to open the gate, so strong is their desire to explore the larger world of high school and beyond. To them, so much of what they think they want is outside that gate: freedom, freedom from rules, freedom from a dress code, freedom from conduct points, freedom from . . .

I wish them all the best, and I'm going to miss them. (C/O 2012-- you know it!) But, the time for rules and restrictions hasn't ended simply because high school is beginning.

The Importance of a "Gate"
As horrible and restrictive as our graduates always think the "gate" was for so many years, consider what it provides. The "gate" that is responsible behavior rules, a dress code, morality, the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus Christ, has provided safety. It has provided order and structure. It has struggled to keep negative influences at bay, while placing the kids' focus on "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious" (Phil. 4:8). 

The gate to our backyard kept Brutus safe. The "gate" at our school did the same for our students.

Dear Parents-- 
Whether you have a graduate or not, your children need two things from you: 
  1. A gate- rules, restrictions, boundaries, a moral code, a faithful example.
  2. To know that you'll chase them down when they bolt outside of that gate, screaming their name, not caring if anyone thinks you're a crazy maniac, because you love them more than anyone else possibly could. And, because you could care less if the rest of the world thinks you're crazy-- YOU know what is best for the child God has entrusted to you.
To the families of our graduates-- you have my prayers for continued blessings and strength as each day of your future arrives with the bright promise of God's love and kindness, despite difficulties and trials. Remain strong for your children!  God Bless You!

Class of 2012- We Love You!