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…
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.
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?
“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!
As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a love for and time in nature.
Since moving to Japan, we’ve become attuned to the seasons based around the things we can gather and catch. Summer is long-awaited, and despite the abundance of mosquitoes, we look forward to the season as a time of beetle and cicada catching. In the fall, we look forward to gathering acorns and gingko leaves to turn into crafts and toys to proudly display on our shelves. In spring we go crabbing and in late summer we look for crayfish. And of course, in winter we dream of the advent of spring, all the while hoping for a rare glimpse of snow.
In nature, we see the natural rhythms and patterns of life. There are no “social constructs” or of “conditioning.” Nature is what it is; nature makes no excuses, there is no room for debate.
It is this kind of classroom that we want our children to learn the “bigger picture” and to see, experience and interact with the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It is in the natural world that we can seek out facets of the “Divine image” and to understand that we are a part of a larger ecosystem. In nature, everything has its place and role. It is where we might learn that the most harmful behavior is the kind that does not understand its place. The “invasive species” that live and eat without regard to its surrounding environment creates a blight that must be addressed. We can also see how it’s in the spaces where air and water aren’t able to flow and bring in change that things grow rotten.
Change and movement allow for growth. And, there is beauty in knowing how the smallest mosquitoes and even the microscopic bacteria underfoot contribute to the entire ecosystem.
It is because of this understanding that many of the FPA programs are designed in God’s greatest classroom, nature. It is here that things are not directly taught but rather become understood through observation and experience.
Whatever the season, parents can cultivate a love of nature in their children, through books, songs, stories but above all, through giving them the gift of experiences in nature.
Creating Healthy Family Habits: Seeking Truth in Nature
The steps to this activity are really very simple.
- First, plan out time for your family to take some time in nature. The setting doesn’t matter so long as it is in nature – the forest, a beach, a field – somewhere you can ‘study’ nature. The purpose of this time is one in which we seek out reflections of the “Divine Image” in nature.
- Take something for each person to take personal notes, questions, sketches, etc. While it’s fine to talk as you go along, you want to make sure that you don’t lose focus on the activity of investigating.
- Some general themes to observe:
What does nature need to grow?
- What limits growth?
- What are the different stages of growth?
- What is the general dynamic of life in an ecosystem?
- Did you observe important roles each species plays in the ecosystem?
- Did you observe instances where the energy did not flow (air, water) – what did that look like?
- If or when you observe “invasive species” – what are the qualities that make them invasive in that ecosystem?
- Then, to wrap up you want to take some time to share with one another your observations and questions. What patterns did you see?
This might be a bit awkward in the beginning and we encourage you to try it in different ways until it starts to feel more natural. For some people, it is like training a muscle and we need time and consistency to see or feel results.
It will also take time to be able to draw lines of connection between observations made about nature and the laws that govern nature and the laws that govern the human world. These types of shared experiences together as a family are important as they set a basis for which to later explain lessons from the natural world to our spiritual lives. The more we engage and learn to share and explore with one another about life, universal laws, growth and nature the easier it becomes to share on anything and everything else. We encourage you to treasure these moments and make efforts to make it a central part of your lives together as a family.
For all these reasons and more, this is an activity that can be repeated without end. In fact, all of the activities we include in this book is of that nature. And every time the activity is done, a new layer of knowledge, consciousness, skill, etc. is added – we ourselves have become different. In that way, every time we do an activity, in some sense we are different people from those who did the activity before!
This activity can be applied to many ages, including teens and older. Experience in nature can help detach from the distractions of life and connect to the divine.
Discussion Part 1: Who am I?
- Do you know who you are?
- Why would knowing “who I am” be important to how we live our lives?
Consider this shoehorn.
Some of you may not know what a shoehorn is. It is simply a stick that helps you get your shoes on more smoothly. In some places, this is a household staple and many people appreciate having it very much. If you’ve ever had a little trouble getting that last bit of the heel of your shoe on just right, this is just the thing you need.
Now, if you didn’t know what it was, you might still find a use for it – a slide for your kids’ marbles or to clumsily swat hapless bugs or others but you might be annoyed at the way it is shaped and wish it was shaped more like a flyswatter so you could actually swat flies…
But one day, someone tells you, “That’s a shoehorn. It’s for when you’re wearing your shoes so your foot slips right in and doesn’t ruin the heel of the shoe.” And you might look at the shoehorn in wonder – now you know why it’s the length that it is, and it explains the reason for the way it curves inward. Now, the little thoughtful addition of a hook curved perfectly for a person to comfortably grasp the shoehorn as they slip on their shoes makes perfect sense. From then on, the shoehorn has a little place of honor next to wherever it is that you keep your shoes.
This is – yet another of many more to come – a silly little story to suggest the more serious idea that – if we know our purpose in life, we can meaningfully make the choices and take actions in a way that allow us to fulfill our fullest potential. We are no longer swatting flies with a shoehorn. We might even imagine that, after we knew the purpose of the shoehorn, the shoehorn itself is much happier now assisting people on get their shoes on because – it was made for that purpose.
It may be a curious metaphor to use but consider an often used but the little discussed phrase “I was born for this!” of “I was made to do this.” When is this phrase used? What do people mean when they say this?
Discussion Part 2: Life, Meaning and Purpose?
- Do you feel you know your life’s purpose?
- What do you need to know to know your life’s purpose?
- Do you live in a way that connects to your life’s purpose?
- Would you live differently if you knew your life’s purpose?
So how does one determine one’s life’s purpose? We come back to the shoehorn story to say – that perhaps the best way to know our purpose, we need to know what we were made for. I.e., we need to know our Creator.
And in fact, in a not-so-secret secret, the spiritual traditions have long taught humanity through the ages of a global interconnectedness between all people, rooted in our common origins in a Divine Creator. Read the following quotes from below:
- Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? (Malachi 2:10)
- O, mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you might know each other. (Quran 49:13)
- All the people of the whole world are equally brothers and sisters. There is no one who is an utter stranger. There is no one who has known the truth of this origin. It is the very cause of the regret of God. The souls of all people are equal, whether they live on the high mountains or at the bottoms of the valleys. (Ofudesaki 13:43-45) Tenrikyo
- But a single man [Adam] was created for the sake of peace among mankind, that none should say to his fellow, “my father was greater than your father.” (Misnah, Sanhedrin 4.5) Judaism
- I look upon all creature equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear. (Bhagavad Gita 9:29) Hinduism
- Even science has begun to show this, calling the fact of a “Genetic Adam and Eve” and recording the birthplace of all humanity in Africa.
If we all share a common origin from one man and one woman – and we are one family it might make us then think – If we’re to live as One Family Under God, what should my family, as my personal template for other social relations, look like?
We ask these things not expecting people with perfect families to answer them perfectly and we don’t need to come from or have perfect families to work towards healthy, happy families. In fact, if we come from less happy homes we might know all the better the reasons we would want a healthy, happy family for ourselves.
CRAFT ACTIVITY & LESSON
Age Group: 12 & Under
As kids, we’re oftentimes told “no” “wait” and “later” and, for some, it might be one of the most frustrating things about being a kid. You’re not allowed to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Yet as parents, we know we must set these limits and expectations in order that our children can, someday, set these limits for themselves.
This is an activity we might use to help kids think about these small frustrations differently. Rather than looking at each frustration individually, we might redirect kids to think about them as taking small steps towards self-mastery. We usually associate strength with invincibility, superhuman capacities but in reality, we want to associate strength with strength of character and virtue because it is in this much more difficult but worthwhile endeavor that we’re able to manifest our fullest potential as sons and daughters of God.
Materials: paper, coloring materials and stickers
- We start first with a simple discussion about seeds. How do seeds grow? What do they need? (Sunlight, air, water, nutrients)
- Today we’re planting some seeds. Seeds start out very small and by looking at a seed, we don’t necessarily know what kind of plant it is going to be. Our seeds will become trees – but what kind of tree will it be? You can decide – it can be a pine tree or an orange or apple tree or even a tree that doesn’t exist – a tree that grows cars or the like. Decide what kind of tree you want to plant! Draw the outline of this tree on a piece of paper and don’t forget to outline some of the “fruits” of the tree so you can remember what kind of tree it will be.
- Talk about how sometimes we get frustrated about things – we aren’t allowed to do things, we have to wait for things. But when we’re able to overcome these feelings and still be grateful for all the things we do have, we grow our own seeds of character. We’ll use this chart to track our progress. Every time we have a little victory – we can take a sticker to fill up the outlines our trees.
- Display the picture somewhere to serve as a reminder. You might want to ask your child/children if they had a little victory that day and if they want to share it with the rest of the family. Celebrate the little victories with a sticker to add to the picture. Even if he or she wasn’t able to get a victory that day, gently nudge and encourage them towards the good.
- Once the tree is filled, consider making a special time during family time for the person to receive recognition for his or her accomplishment. It is also a great way to encourage him or her to reflect on their progress and make new determinations going forward.
As a parent, you might consider making your own tree and sharing your own ups and downs. Most times we focus on teaching our children but the best way to teach them is to become the kind of people we hope they might also strive to be. Sharing – appropriately – our own challenges helps them see growth as a meaningful, lifelong process.
Also, we want to think of this entire activity as a fun, visual way to hone a positive habit in our everyday lives. Like training wheels, we want to use this concept of “seeds of strength” as a way to cultivate the habits of self-mastery in ourselves and in our families.