A Story of Thanksgiving in Nature

A Story of Thanksgiving in Nature

I bet that if people spent a little time each day, just a minute staring at the stars at night or looking out across forests, mountains, or sparkling water, they would live a lot differently.

I was trudging up a rocky trail, a worn path up a rather steep little mountain, my breath outlined in the crisp autumn air as I thought, “Why did I decide to spend my day off hiking?” I’d gone on the trail before and knew the workout I was up for. Not to mention the clouds looked a little dark and there was a layer of frost on the leaves in the yard when I got up in the morning.

Like many of us, I had been too caught up in work, family, life to slow down enough for some quiet time in nature. But after growing up in a nature-rich state full of pristine hiking spots, I consistently get an urge to take to the outdoors even after moving to a bigger city for a new job. So, today was another day I knew I would have to put on my boots, layer up, and get my dose of sweat and fresh air.

Usually, on the way up a mountain I don’t think about much. I think about the way the trail curves here and there and how strong gravity is, always aware of the temperature. It isn’t until I reach the top, sitting on the ledge of giant rocks overlooking tree lines and peaks with the warm sun on my face, that a whole flood of emotions and thoughts about life overtake me. The two hours of quiet hiking distilled into ten minutes of gratitude at the summit that I would not have experienced if I had just stayed home in front of a screen or dozing.

Those ten minutes at the top, feeling sweaty and accomplished, a thought came to me. What would I say at the Thanksgiving table this year? What was I grateful for?

There were so many things I could think of, but the quiet up there gave me a rare gift of clarity. I could allow myself to be vulnerable, recalling the happiest and the most painful experiences of my year and how I changed and grew. But I knew I couldn’t have grown without the help of some people who I didn’t actually take the time to truly express my gratitude towards. And maybe I didn’t have to tell all of them. Maybe it was enough to acknowledge within myself. But I thought I could thank at least one person and what better time than Thanksgiving?

Admittingly, on the way down from the mountain my thoughts were again preoccupied by making sure I took the right turns and the protest of my knees on the steep decline. But when I got back, a thank you note was carefully written, placed in an addressed envelope and mailed off to the recipient.

Spend a little quiet time in nature. Whether it is two hours or two minutes, the realizations you receive may not change your life overnight, but no one summits a mountain in one step.

Who is helping you climb the summits in your life? Don’t forget to tell them thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Alternatives to Screen Time

Alternatives to Screen Time

Ah, the convenience of technology. Smartphones, tablets, entertainment subscriptions, and online video streaming is making it easier to keep kids busy when mom and dad are working hard running to work, taking care of other siblings, cooking meals, or anything else on the endless task of keeping the family healthy, wealthy and wise.

In an age where some jokingly refer to the TV as “the babysitter,” it’s beginning to become difficult to remember a time without our modern conveniences. Some may furrow their brows at the idea of the access children have to technology and entertainment. “Kids these days!” they exclaim as they see an oblivious teen almost crash head on to a street pole on the sidewalk with their eyes on their phone.

Kids these days…

Parents and children playing video games together

What about kids these days? Kids these days are great! In a world that sometimes likes to take the pessimistic view of modern technology, let us take a different approach.

The truth is, technology itself is value-neutral. There are great ways and absolutely terrible ways to utilize it, depending on the values developed by each person within their family. Technology itself is not bad. We can talk with and even see loved ones from halfway around the world and have an endless library of knowledge at our fingertips thanks to modern technology!

However, it is also important to recognize that too much screen time can adversely affect our children’s appreciation of the world they live in. Instead of focusing on what limitations we can set on children when it comes to technology, we can think about alternatives to screen time that you can participate in as a family.

Here are some things you can encourage as an alternative to screen time. Some activities don’t even require more than the child herself. Encouraging kids to find creativity and contentment in unaccompanied activities (that don’t involve a screen) will help them be self-motivated to mature and expand their skills, knowledge, and creativity.

  • Family game night: board games, card games, charades— nothing like some friendly competition to spark some energy.
  • Exercise, teambuilding, fun… what’s not to like? Parents can teach kids how to play or encourage them to sign up in a community team.
  • Go to the park: from playgrounds to National Parks, parks get the family outdoors for some fresh air and exercise
  • Kids saying they’re bored? Tell them to take a hike… and go with them of course. Don’t forget to dress for the weather and bring some tasty snacks. For younger kids, go on a simple nature walk to a more level-ground trail.
  • Arts and crafts: There is an endless array of possibilities online, including holiday and educational themed activities. Need a creativity “renaissance”? You can sit down with your child and draw or paint a portrait of each other.
  • Toys that build: Blocks, logs, gears, you name it— stackable/buildable toys promote creativity and problem-solving, not to mention it’s cool to just build the tallest tower ever.
  • Baking together with mom and daughter

    Cook together. Have a picky eater? Learn more about your child’s taste (while helping them build an essential life skill) by picking a recipe and cooking together. Involving them in the process might also help them appreciate the hard work others put into their own meals and make them more likely to finish what’s on their plate. They were the master chef after all.

  • Read. Read. (Okay, maybe this one will have a screen— looking at you, tablet owners) There are SO many fantastic reasons to read together with young children and to encourage silent reading for older children.
  • Have multiple children at your house? Whether they are all yours or their friends as well, you do not have to resort to a movie to please the masses. Here’s something fun. Encourage them to create a skit to be performed in front of a prestigious audience (that’s you, mom and dad). Let them borrow clothes and create props with arts and crafts supplies… or their sibling’s favorite stuffed animal, with permission of course.
  • Puzzles! From jigsaws to sodoku, puzzles are nice, usually calm, activities to stimulate the brain and give you a little piece (get it?) and quiet.
  • Have a jam session. If you have a little musician in the house, practice some songs together and perform for the rest of the family. Music has so many benefits for children of all ages. Even if you don’t want to risk an expensive instrument quite yet, for little fingers you can create homemade music makers at home.
  • Got a green thumb? Get out in the garden. Some kids love getting in the dirt and watching life grow day by day with the seed they got to plant themselves. Bonus: harvesting vegetables or fruits is a wonderful experience itself and provides delicious, fresh produce for the whole family.

There’s a big, wide world of adventure outside your screen. What’s on your list?

One Step at a Time – Oh, and Focus on Your Breathing

One Step at a Time – Oh, and Focus on Your Breathing

The summit looked so far as it played peek-a-boo through the morning mist.

It always did at the start of the journey.

But Ken was experienced enough to know that if you kept looking up at the summit, it was easy to get discouraged.

The point was to start, one step at a time.

So, he took a deep breath of the crisp morning air. It filled his lungs. He could almost feel the clean oxygen moving into his muscles, invigorating them as he took his first steps of the day. He breathed out, making room to take in whatever lay before him.

He wasn’t starting blind. He knew the day would be hard. That peak was high, and he’d scaled enough mountains to know that it would be no easy ride. But his mind was set, he and his team had decided that they would reach the summit today.

With that resolve he set out towards the goal, step by step.

Some steps were harder than others.

Starting out on level ground, the steps came easy. Placing one foot in front of the other, he had enough extra energy to look around, appreciate the grass, the trees, the occasional small critter that scurried by, even exchange a few words with his teammates.

As the incline grew, he could feel the strain on his muscles.

At times, even placing one foot in front of the other pushed his limits. He enlisted extra support from his arms as they pushed against his walking sticks to pull his weight up against the pull of gravity. Sweat drenched the collar of his jacket and the rim of his cap. No one was talking anymore.

When you are going up, it only gets harder as you get closer to your goal.

As his body cried for relief, and even his mind tried to break free from the commitment of reaching the top, he found focus in a surprising place: his breathing.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Even when everything wanted to give in and give up, he could focus on keeping up this small, consistent act.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Just as his first deep breath in the morning, he could feel his breathing keep the rest of his struggling system oxygenated.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

As he kept control of his breathing, the rest of his body fell into rhythm with his breath, almost like cruise control.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

His mind calmed down and also fell into the rhythm of taking in, and giving out. He began again to see the world around him, the fresh air, the small vegetation, the shale on the side of the mountain. Only now he saw them clearer, he saw the relationships that tied everything together, including his presence.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He heart began to swell with gratitude and wonderment of God’s design of the world as he witnessed how everything was created to thrive in relationship to each other, giving and receiving, just like his breath. This gratitude energized him, opened new sources of energy as he picked up the pace on the final stretch.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He put his final steps down as they reached the top of the mountain and the valley opened below.

Ironically, the view revealed all the other peaks that they could challenge if they decided to.

He took another deep breath, taking in the beauty of the scene. As he released his breath, smile broke his face. They had done it, one step at a time, sustained by his breathing.

Back from the mountain, his experience remains as a powerful reminder that he can take on any peak. But when things get tough, or look intimidating from ground level, he knows to start with the first steps forward – and focus on his breathing.

Leading My Pack

Leading My Pack

Dad was away a lot this summer.

He had a number of very large projects that took him away to the other side of the world for months at a time.

When he was away from home, he missed his wife and baby badly. His son was not quite a year old. He missed the feel of baby’s weight in his arms at night. He missed the drool and toothless grins that greeted him when he walked through the door at night. He missed his wife’s voice and smiles.

This year was difficult. Things that he usually could count on, things he thought would already be worked out by this time in the game, were still up in the air.

There was a point where even he, the perpetual optimist, wondered if he would be able to pull off this year’s programs.

On one such evening, after a hard and seemingly fruitless day, he called home to check in. His wife talked about baby’s latest milestones. Baby was trying solids now, and finally learning to move forward when he crawled. It was good to hear baby’s squeal and gurgles in the background. “Thanks dad, for all that you do,” his wife said before saying goodbye.

Before he clicked off his phone, Dad saw the wallpaper of his wife and son smiling out at him. “My son is depending on me,” dad thought.

He was being asked to trailblaze unknown territory, just as the leader of a pack at the turn of the season. In the front of the pack, dad was being asked to face his insecurities and fears. At times he felt lost, inside and out. But it was up to him to embrace his fear, overcome his uncertainty, and try every route in order to find new opportunities. Someday, baby would have to do the same when he led his own pack in an uncertain world.

Right now, baby’s trailblazing consisted of moving two feet forward and trying to swallow butternut squash. But soon, he would need to learn self-control and self-sacrifice, build strong relationships and eventually tackle social issues in school, his community, his world. At those times, dad’s advice and example would be critical.

Dad took a deep breath, “I can do this,” he whispered. “If I can, so will you.” He flipped off the light for the night, his heart full of resolve and optimism that no matter what faced him the next day, he would find a way to make success, even if it seemed impossible.

He would lead the pack to greener pastures.

Baby was watching him.

Reading Aloud in the Family is a Values-Strengthening Activity

Reading Aloud in the Family is a Values-Strengthening Activity

“In order to grow good vegetables, you need good soil with lots of various nutrients. Likewise, we have to think about the kind of “soil” we’re providing for our own education” – Teacher Tami (92-year old Japanese author and cooking teacher)

The importance of reading aloud

In our common quest for ways to strengthen our relationships with one another and support personal growth and development, reading aloud together as a family is one of the best and easiest ways to get started.

In The Read-aloud Handbook, author Jim Trelease outlines the academic and social benefits of reading aloud to your children. Above all, he sternly reminds us that we simply cannot expect schools to be the primary place of education for our children.

Put in numbers, the average U.S. student will spend about 900 hours in school in contrast to the 7,800 hours they will spend outside of it. The habits and activities determined by the family (i.e., parents) need to be considered more primary to a child’s education than what they might acquire in the classroom. Trelease cites conclusions from the U.S. Department of Education’s 1983 Commission on Reading to support his claims: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”

But the truth is, success in reading is not our goal – although it is a nice perk we can acquire along the way!

Raising families of shared understanding

Closer to our own endeavors, podcaster, author, and mother of six, Sarah Mackenzie, offers the benefits of building a shared understanding with your family by reading books aloud, together. While she draws inspiration from The Read-Aloud Handbook, her goals and her own experiences, are perhaps closer to our own. She confesses her own hopes for her own first child:

I had high hopes for Audrey right out of the gate. I knew that I wanted her to grow up to love God with all of her heart, mind, and soul. I wanted her to do well in school. I wanted a warm relationship with her, always. I wanted her to be kind and compassionate, to do what was right even when no one was looking.

We, as parents, might mirror these same sorts of hopes for our own children. Fortunately for us, Mackenzie reinterprets the educational practices touted in The Read-Aloud Handbook in a way that might be even more meaningful for us as parents. In Mackenzie’s recently published, The Read-Aloud Family, she recounts the ways through reading aloud together with her children has helped her children develop what we might label as a character and a healthy, active family culture of learning and growth.

In exploring books across a range of genres and cultures, her children began to explore moral questions about right and wrong, aspirations and values. In short, the family is able to build experiences, moral resources and a shared sense of certainty about the most important things, together.

In our own families

As Mackenzie recommends, in our own families we can use adventure stories, novels, picture books, nonfiction books, to explore moral values while deepening familial bonds. Reading aloud with the whole family or one-on-one with a child, parents are able to build bridges between the minds and hearts of their children.

Knowing and being able to share thoughts, feelings, and understandings about the same characters, situations, and storylines equip us later with ways to reinforce lessons or to turn difficult moments and decisions into moments for growth and development.

Humanity has always told stories to one another and this has often been the primary way through which they communicated the most important values of one generation to the next. For this reason, the stories we tell or read to our children are perhaps the most important ones to might ever tell.

If we furnish our children’s minds with stories, characters, and understandings of important truths and understandings, we may be equipping them with the strength of character to get them through the hardest times and decisions. We can’t always be with our children and we can’t always protect them. We need to nurture them in the mindset and habits that allow them to become good and strong. In this, they can both withstand the difficulties they will inevitably face as well as to gives them the room to grow into their own unique destinies.

Reading to older kids

Mackenzie also recommends different questions to open up conversations with your kids about the books that you read together. In this, the acting of reading aloud to your children begin to take on magical dimensions – it builds another pathway to open one mind or heart to the other, utilizing questions and conversation to become more fully connected with one another. Imagine the implications of having such a habit and what it would mean for your relationship with your children as they get older!

To this point, while many parents are enthusiastic about the general idea of reading aloud to kids, but most would see it as an activity primarily for the very young and those who have yet to read. Many might feel more awkward to read aloud to older children. But both Trelease and McKenzie are adamant that those children who already know how to read and older should consciously and intentionally be included in this sacred family ritual. Trellis notes that in the aforementioned 1983 Commission on Reading that “[reading aloud to children] is a practice that should continue throughout the grades.”

Perhaps it is in the most confusing time of adolescence that we want to have space for the family to continually engage with each other as well as to have a common language, understanding, and values to keep the channels of communication open between teens, their parents, and siblings.

How to start?

For obvious reasons, we are concerned just as much about what one might read aloud as with the act. Many families may choose a mix of devotional scripture or faith-based stories for a younger audience. Both The Read-Aloud Handbook and The Read-Aloud Family have a great list of book recommendations. The Read-Aloud Family also includes a few good audiobook recommendations and some simple crafts or quiet activities to keep little hands busy while parents read!

In this specific handbook, we’ve provided one story that we found to be particularly interesting and useful in teaching good values to families. While the story featured here is from the Korean tradition, the discussion questions and pieces exploring different themes in the story is something that can be done with any story.

As part of this, we will go into the elements of a good story and ways to understand how to bring out the important lessons that lay within the best stories. Many of the most beloved children’s stories have within them important lessons for us in our day-to-day lives. Being able to uncover these lessons in stories can also make us more well-attuned to the lessons that lie in our own stories.

While our efforts are still in its infancy, we hope to develop a wide range of recommendations for just this kind of activity with the mindset of building God-centered families. Please feel free to share your own efforts and discoveries!