On School Shootings, 9/11, and a Generation Born Into Mortality

What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort. Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives.

– Originally published in The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner

I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened.
I was in college on 9/11.

But I had my first significant brush with death when I was about 13 and a childhood friend was hit by a car and killed. So while both September 11th and Columbine were sufficiently traumatic for most of us, by the time I was introduced to the world of mass casualties I was at least already aware of my mortality.

Did you know that children today (as in, everyone under the age of 18), have never known an America that wasn’t at war?

Think about that for a moment and then think about your own childhood. There are a lot of things about my childhood that I don’t remember. But I do remember my fears. They were normal childhood fears like house fires and not being invited to a popular girl’s birthday party.

Because I was born in 1982, I belong to that tiny little micro-generation of kids who graduated from high school before cell phones, email, and social media had really infiltrated our daily lives. The nightly news was on tv and in the daily paper, for sure, but not on a newsfeed updated every thirty seconds and fed to an electronic device that was always turned on in my pocket. Big news was communicated slowly, person to person.

When that friend died, my grandfather broke the news to me while I stood at a payphone in the school lobby. Someone had called the house to tell me and he’d taken the call. If the same thing happened today, I’d probably see it pop up in a mutual friend’s Facebook feed before I ever heard the news from another real person.

Even though I’m only a few short years removed from being an official “Millennial,” the Millennial Generation feels foreign to me. And it’s partially because they were raised with a digital dimension to their world and relationships that I did not have as a child. With all of its other issues, part of what came with the infiltration of this digital dimension is the omnipresent weight of mortality that it brings. They are surrounded by a constant newsfeed that reminds them of a world a war, a shooting across the country, and every potential danger in their own neighborhood. (In addition to the social pressures created by social media.)

“Kids these days” get a lot of crap for being the way they are. But I wonder how this ever-present reminder of their mortality has affected them. I wonder if what we’re seeing is an effect similar to what we already see manifested in kids raised in vulnerable situations, in violent families, or in poverty. I wonder if the kind of hope-killing trauma that used to be reserved for “those people” is now present in even the most privileged American childhoods.

One of the promises of “the American Dream” born after WWII was a certain national impenetrability and the promise that hard work, financial security, and dutiful community service would provide a sense of security for us and our progeny. But young people today look at their parents and grandparents and feel that this promise of stability and security was a lie. They have swam their entire lives in a sea of national and personal vulnerability.

It’s no wonder younger generations don’t feel the same sense of duty or loyalty to their country. The social contract of mutual protection has failed them.

I would argue that, whether conscious of it or not, young people today (and I will include myself in this) are in fact more aware of their mortality. Because of that, they are less willing to spend their lives fulfilling obligations to others, attending to social constructs, and delaying gratification etc. It’s like a child who has been told he has a terminal illness. He either clings to the familiar and never leaves the house or he sells everything, moves to California, and starts skydiving.

In addition to their general distaste for previous generations’ social norms, the post-9/11 generation is less tolerant of violence and offense in daily interactions, even in the way they communicate with each other. They have a stronger self-defense mechanism and have really spearheaded the “ally” movement that seeks to protect the vulnerable among them. They literally create Safe Spaces for themselves where they believe they can escape the danger lurking around every corner.

My parents raised me in the age of “stranger danger,” which produced a few generational quirks (like a fear of unmarked white vans). But parents who sent their kids off to high school after the Columbine shooting were afraid on a different level entirely. Parenting in this new, scary world meant keeping a close watch, keeping a tight leash, and applying lots of pressure toward the kinds of professional and personal achievements that could provide future security. But although helicopter parenting kept these kids alive, it produced the anxious and dependent young adults that are now creeping toward their 30’s and are struggling to build healthy, long-lasting marriages, afraid to commit to parenting, and cannot find (or do not want) consistent employment.

Those young people who do settle into parenthood today are parenting very differently than their parents or grandparents did. In addition to their shirking of any harsh discipline, they are highly protective of their children’s egos and independence. And in trying to raise children who will not injure others, they steer clear of ideological commitments that lend themselves to hard and fast rules. Rather than pressure their children to conform to their desires, young parents are letting their young children forge their own paths in the hope that a generation unrestrained can finally build a better world.

It should also be said that, in this “better world,” attraction to Old Time Religion has waned because Old Time Religion did not make good on its promise to keep us from killing each other.

It’s no wonder that fertility rates are declining. Often listed among reasons why people don’t want to have kids: the world is too scary. The generation raised after 9/11 has been taught that an attack–whether by a foreign terrorist or a fellow high school student–is not just possible, but imminent. Why would you bring a child into a world like that?

Yes, young people today get a lot of crap for the way they are. But I think we all–collectively, as a society–have some important questions to ask regarding the world our children live in today and how it got this way. And I don’t mean policy questions about guns and airport security and whether or not our preteens should be allowed at home alone. Those questions should be asked because reasonable laws can keep danger at bay, but they cannot truly make us “safe.” We need to also ask questions about our mental/spiritual health and our relationships, about the hopelessness and insecurity our children feel in places that used be produce stability and and peace: our homes, our schools, churches, etc.

Have things really changed in the past 30 years?
Are we really less safe or more vulnerable than we were before, either as a country or personally?

Maybe; maybe not.

In some ways, I’d say that the perception of constant danger, which is perpetuated by fast, digital news media and social media, is mostly “fake news.” We are all far more “safe” than we’ve ever been in some regards. But any statistics that measure our security can only tell part of the story. More now than ever, we are aware of the dangers that do exist and feel more vulnerable because of it. And, the nature of the dangers have changed so, with them, our ability to reconcile with and prepare for those dangers has changed, as well.

We are less likely to die in a plane crash, of pneumonia, or of a random act of violence than we’ve ever been; we are more likely to die of a premeditated terror attack or of cancer.

Has the post-9/11 generation responded to their mortality differently than their predecessors?

This is not the first time that American citizens have, collectively, had a sense of imminent danger lurking nearby. My parents may not have rehearsed for active shooter scenarios, but they probably had regular bomb drills. And I’m sure every wartime since the dawn of time has reinforced a sense of mortality among both young and old. Heck, there are kids in our country’s most dangerous neighborhoods who have never known a “safe” day in their lives.

What can we learn from the wisdom and experience of those who survive and thrive through dangerous times?

Another important question is: how is the American reaction to mortality different than the reaction elsewhere?

One of the benefits of our digital age is a new awareness of what goes on around the county and around the world. We know that the presence of danger and the nearness of violence and war may be new to American children, but not to children elsewhere. How are those children coping? What are their parents doing to help them cope?

What makes some children more resilient to trauma than others?

I worry that, though American children today are more sensitive and more empathetic toward each other and the evils of the world, they may be less resilient to that evil. And that leaves a generation that is not only frightened, but also helpless and hopeless.

I often think of the entire generation of European children whose parents sent them off during WWII to live with strangers or distant relatives in places they had never been. They did not know how long they would be gone, how long the war would last. They did not know if they’d ever see their parents again.

I think about entire nations of refugee children fleeing war-torn nations today, right now, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and memories of shell-shocked homes and dead neighbors.

Could American children survive that trauma?
Could mine?

It’s easy to poke fun at “snowflake” Millennials, to call them weak and to roll our eyes at their ambivalence about all the things they’re “supposed to” care about. But then I think about what it must be like to grow up believing that someone is always standing on the other side of the door, ready to shoot. Or that every airplane is destined to end up lodged in the side of a building.

I can remember, as a young child, lying awake at night convinced my house was going to burn down. But I never worried that I would be blown up in a mall or shot by a classmate in the lunchroom.

Kids today are growing up in a scary world and they are afraid. They are afraid so they are grasping for security. And because they can’t find security, they are surviving with new axioms that many of us simply don’t understand. Among them: sometimes the easiest thing to do at the end of the world is to throw caution to the wind and try and enjoy your life until the bomb falls.

Instead of bemoaning the ways they’ve learned to cope, what are we doing to help?

How I’m Surviving This Year Of Homeschooling

Have you heard the joke about cleaning with kids in the house?

It goes like this: Cleaning with young kids under foot is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth.

Well if that’s true, then homeschooling with young kids around is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth while holding a baby and reciting poetry.

Translation: it ain’t easy.

If you count the year I “started preschool” with my eldest child, then this is my fifth year homeschooling. I’m currently teaching third grade, first grade, and something akin to preschool with a one year old baby along for the ride.

In some ways, this year has been far easier than years past. I know my kids a lot better, I’ve learned a lot of teaching tricks, have an ever-growing inventory of tools and books at my disposal, and I’m more confident in what I’m trying to do (even if I’m still learning as I go).

Logistically and emotionally, though, this year has been rough. At the most base level, I’m struggling with the 24/7 presence of four children in my home (though that struggle is nothing new for me). And, with a young toddler in the house, the chaos is over the top. It seems like as soon as we get started with a lesson, the baby falls off a chair. (Literally, he falls about a dozen times a day.)

Some days I can take the chaos with good humor, but other days leave me exhausted and overwhelmed. These past few months, there has been a lot of (both me and them) crying and hiding in the bathroom, counting down the minutes until I can get the baby to sleep so we can focus or the hours until my husband comes home.

Not all days are that hard. Most weeks, we have about one or two awesome school days that make me feel like a superhero teacher/mom/housekeeper/wife and make me want to shower my kids with candy and cupcakes all day and then publish a book about how awesome my family is. We also have one or two days a weeks that feel only marginally successful but (thankfully) go along without too much drama. And then there are always the one or two days that seem absolutely impossible until the day is finally over and I take a deep breath and honestly can’t believe we survived.

But we do survive.
We’ve survived 22 weeks of the school year, in fact. And I’m certain we’ll survive the next 14.

For anyone else in a similar overwhelmed-but-hopeful situation with homeschooling, I’d like to share how I’m surviving.

I’m slowing things down and doing less. I am saying “no” to invitations I’d really rather accept. I am ignoring cool events around town that I would normally love to bring my kids to. We are staying home more and not feeling bad about it and, while at home, I am keeping lessons quick, simple, and not forcing things that aren’t working. I’m not letting myself feel guilty for not enrolling the kids in sports or swimming lessons or art classes. I’ve also been taking one morning a week (like today!) to get away from the house, work on some writing, take care of personal/family business, run errands, etc. Even three hours a week makes a huge difference in my mental stability. I leave two or three easy, independent tasks for the two school-aged kids to do while I’m gone so they don’t completely waste the time and so we can jump back into “school” when I get back. It’s a life saver.

I’m adjusting my daily expectations for my kids and myself. The bulk of my school planning is done at the end of the previous year when I assess the work we’ve done and make lists of goals and attainments for the next year. The specifics come together over the summer as I research and purchase new materials and then it’s all re-calibrated as we near the end of each term. My planning documents for each term are not organized by day. Instead, I have a subject-based lesson checklist for each week. This means I have a lot of wiggle room on a daily basis to adjust my schedule and our content based on the needs of the day. In a season like ours, this is the only way to keep on track without getting constantly discouraged about not meeting goals like how many chapters we’ve read today or how many math facts my kid has memorized this week.

I’m learning to turn on a dime. Thriving in a season like ours requires being able to change course quickly. If something is not working, if the baby never fell asleep, if the weather is suddenly sunny, sometimes the best thing we can do is change the plan for the day. With so much to do and so many moving parts in a big family, I don’t waste time making myself or my kids miserable. Instead, I’m learning to stop the train before it derails and redirect quickly.

I’m trying not to compare my family to any other homeschooling families or myself to other homeschool moms. Maybe it’s a symptom of the social media age or maybe just a symptom of womanhood, but I’m constantly looking over my shoulder at how we compare to other families. It’s unhealthly and emotionally taxing. It’s a distraction. And I’m learning to stop it before it steals the joy from homeschooling and parenting. So what if my school room isn’t as beautiful as yours? Who cares if I don’t look photo-ready while taking my kids on a walk to the library? And is it really a big deal if my 6 year-old is still working to differentiate between “b,” “d,” and “p?” No. It’s not.

I’m putting the kids to work. This is admittedly one of the hardest parts of parenting for me but something I’m working on. Teaching kids to clean and cook and take care of themselves takes patience that I don’t always have to spare. But the investment in teaching my kids now will pay off in a huge way as they grow. One of my favorite new things to remind the kids, when telling them for the fifth time (or sixth time or seventh time) to clean up after themselves is: “This is not a punishment; this is your responsibility.” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, as adults, understood this for ourselves?

I’m reminding myself the “why” and keeping it in the front of my mind. People homeschool for many different reasons. Some, for example, have children with special needs or gifted children who require special attention or direction. I wrote a post a few years ago, when my son was in the first grade, about why I’m choosing to homeschool our kids and I re-read it every so often to keep myself focused. (While some of that post is outdated, it’s still mostly true. Check it out if you’re interested.) Keeping the reasons why I’m doing this in the front of my mind help me keep my priorities straight and make better value judgments about the work we’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be).

I’m keeping my head in the game. I keep reading, researching, and refining my beliefs about child development, parenting, and education. I don’t want to follow a method of schooling blindly or without thoughtfulness. Part of my responsibility as a mother and educator is working at it like a job, like it matters as much as any other career or vocation. That requires focus and energy in developing my skills so I can serve my family well. As I adopt an educational philosophy and method that excites me to teach, it makes walking through a difficult season a lot easier.

I’m leaning on community. Making “girlfriends” is not easy for me, but I’m trying to stretch myself. Some of this involves presence on social media and using it be inspired and encouraged by other homeschooling families. Some of this involves inviting myself into the lives of other women who are further along in the journey than I am. And some of this involves making time for friendships with women of all ages and life stages that hold me up through a difficult season and vice versa.

(Sidebar: Please, if you know me in real life and feel like we should be friends, let’s make it happen.)

And, lastly, I’m reminding myself that this is just a season. Kids grow fast and the one year-old who is driving me crazy today will be talking tomorrow and then riding a bike and, someday, driving a car. (WHAT!?)

This year is hard. But this too shall pass. And I’d rather make the most of the luxury of keeping these kids around the house all day than wish them gone.

Some Suggestions for #GivingTuesday and Beyond

When the holiday season rolls around and minds wander to gift lists and shopping trips, I know a lot of us also consider an extra boost in our charitable giving. I worked in the non-profit sector for 11 years. My husband has worked in the sector for over 9. My parents are on a missionary salary. And one of my brothers is a pastor. So, heck, I don’t care if the only reason you’re giving is for a tax deduction. I know that nonprofits depend on your giving and I’d like to encourage you to give more this season.

Tomorrow (November 28) is #GivingTuesday, a global day of charitable giving organized in response to Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc. Nonprofits all over the world are making a push for your donations and, if the projections are correct, giving tomorrow will be enormous.

Whether you donate tomorrow or not, I’d like to offer a few organizations that my family loves, supports, and would suggest for your end-of-year donation.

Local (Cincinnati) and National Organizations-

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati a non-profit Christian housing ministry that seeks to eliminate substandard housing locally and globally by building and renovating simple, decent, affordable homes to sell to low-income families in need.

Imago an ecological education organization that is rooted in the concept that living in harmony with the natural world is not only good for the planet, but good for ourselves, our families and our communities. They work for the preservation of urban nature, and provide hands-on green workshops and education programs for youth.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful “KCB’s education, revitalization and environmental initiatives build community and foster pride in the places where we live, work and play. Our grassroots network of neighbors, sponsors and volunteers put passion to work across all 52 neighborhoods, creating safer, cleaner spaces and a higher quality of life for all Cincinnatians.”

Koinonia Farm– this intentional Christian farm community in Americus, GA is “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” It is the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.

Life Forward Cincinnati provides free, confidential, and comprehensive prenatal and parenting services to women in crisis.

MORTAR“Our mission is to enable under-served entrepreneurs and businesses to succeed; creating opportunities to build communities through entrepreneurship”

The Play Librarya library, but for toys!

Point Perk a full-service coffeeshop in Covington, KY, that provides job training and community interaction for adults with disabilities.

United Ministries of Northern Kentucky- a Christian ministry assisting families by establishing a comprehensive system of response to the emergency needs of persons in Southern Kenton County and Boone County.

Woven Oak Initiatives– providing small programs focused on education, mentorship, and community-building in Norwood, Ohio.

Internationally-

Aruna Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- “We free, empower and employ those from the brothel system and bring them into an environment marked by holistic care to help build a bright future.

Leadership Resources, Chicago, IL/worldwide- training indigenous pastors worldwide, especially in places where a seminary education is unavailable or unattainable.

The Parative Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- Designing and selling “products made by businesses that are bringing fair wages, stability, and healing to those who have been freed from human trafficking and poverty.”

Restaurants on Mission, Columbia, South America- “Our goal is to create a global chain of non-profit restaurants that will hire and train individuals from reformation and reintegration programs and provide a step towards a better life. All profits from each restaurant go back into the neighborhoods in which they are located to improve quality of life.”

Real Good For Free: the creative process, fame, and my once-upon-a-time music career

Before I was Liz McEwan, I was Liz Bowater. And, back when I was Liz Bowater, I fancied myself a songwriter. And it’s true that I was a songwriter if all it took to call yourself “a songwriter” was, literally, writing songs. But that’s not enough, is it? Part of the creative process requires not only creating and releasing the product of our creativity, but also having an audience to receive it and (hopefully) appreciate it.

For ten years or so, I spent every extra moment writing and playing music. And those years were a lot of fun. I played some fantastic shows, met some amazing musicians and music lovers, traveled a bit and learned the joys (and loneliness) of days on the road.

When I moved to Cincinnati, my music was a first point of contact for me and was how I met many of my first friends. Cincinnati gave me a warm reception but my “career,” for what is was worth, was short-lived.

The truth is, I was never cut out for a music career. I don’t deal well with criticism and am really uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I’m a decent writer but a poor guitar player. And I don’t collaborate well. I didn’t know the first thing about promoting myself and I guess I simply “didn’t want it badly enough” to push and push and push.

So I self-released one last (mediocre) album back in 2011 and, when it didn’t really get any attention, I just sort of walked away. It was painful but not crushing. Realizing my music was never going to be a big deal was more of a slow acceptance than a moment of shocking realization.

At the height of my songwriting, I was deeply embedded in a crisis of my faith. I was having a hard time connecting with people. I was processing confusing thoughts and relationships and music became an outlet for expression and connection that I didn’t really have anywhere else. It was a bridge from me to other people. (For a taste of my greatest inspiration during this season of my life, read this quote by Frederick Buechner.)

When I stopped writing music about six years ago, it wasn’t on purpose. I tried and tried to put words on paper and to music and it just didn’t work. The proverbial well was just dried up. I think it was a mixture of a) embracing a new season of life that I hadn’t yet figured out how to process creatively and b) lifestyle changes that no longer allowed the same late-night-alone-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-a-cigarette writing method. I was now married with two young kids and things were just different now.

Somewhere along the line, I started pouring my creative, late night energy into blogging and then freelance journalism. These days, my writing gravitates more toward the cerebral. I’m writing more about other people. More about ideas. My own emotional processes, I suppose, are being handled differently.

It’s kind of embarrassing to think back on all the time and energy (and money) I spent trying to build a career from a few dozen decent songs. (And, oh Lord, the promo photos! What a joke, right?) Some of the songs themselves are worth forgetting altogether, to be honest. But I really do miss it. I miss the manic writing sessions. I miss the performing.

Most of all, I think I miss being able to package myself into a song and deliver it to friends and strangers so easily.

When I consider the future of my writing, I do a lot of self-evaluation. I ask myself why I feel so compelled to do this. Why am I willing to stay awake until 2am after a long day of taking care of four young kids just to get the words down? What is so important about these words (musical or not) that I absolutely must get them out of my head and out to someone else? What are my intentions?

I guess the answer to “why” is that it’s complicated. (For a peek inside the introvert writer’s head, read this.) I have sometimes written for selfish reasons and sometimes for idealistic reasons. Sometimes it’s just because I love language and I love ideas and I love engaging with other people about those ideas. Sometimes, especially in the past, it’s because I’m hurting or confused and I don’t know how else to reach out.

I don’t think I can stop writing. But I’m never sure what I’ll write next.

I have ideas for blogs and children’s books and non-fiction books and all sorts of exciting writing projects, including some church music if I can ever find my way back around to that sort of thing.

But one of the things I’ve learned from my experience of trying (and failing, I guess) at building a career at songwriting is that it’s never really just about the music. It’s about the connection. It’s about the bridge that music builds between people and the community those bridges shape.

I’ve also learned that our greatest artistic contributions to the world are only as great as our motives in producing and sharing them. The world can sniff a rat a mile away and can tell in an instant if we’re just one more clanging cymbal, dying to be heard at all costs.

And, lastly, this:

Some people love the things I write. Some people hate them. Most people simply don’t care who I am or what I have to say. A failed music career taught me that. (And taught me to be okay with it.) My job is just to speak the truth as it is and let things fall where they may.

Sidenote: Have you hear this song?

Real Good For Free– Joni Mitchell

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green*
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.

Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money

Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free**.

* This is the namesake of my blog, by the way.

** Part of what inspired this post was my decision to dig up all of my recordings and release most of my songs online for free. You can find them here. I kept the most embarrassing ones for myself and those who were there the first time around and have the original hard copies. If you take a listen, let me know which is your favorite. It’s always fun to know.

Protecting Our Kids from Sexual Abuse

I guess I knew it happened sometimes to some people, but I didn’t understand the pervasiveness of sexual abuse among my peers until I was a young adult and the stories started coming out in deeper conversations. The thought of so much abuse going on around me felt a bit scandalizing at first. But now, 35 years old and a mother of four young children, the statistics are maddening and make me flat-out pissed.

How is this even possible?
Why have we been pretending for so long?

As a kid, sex was not something I spoke about openly with my parents or my peers. And things like molestation and rape were like a plane crash–the chances are so slim that you can’t lay awake worrying about them.

But it turns out we were wrong.

Abuse is everywhere.
It’s in the Church, in our families, in sports and schools and the entertainment industry. (I read this article this morning, which is why I decided it was time to write this.)

We can certainly mince words about what, exactly, qualifies as “sexual abuse.” If I’m totally honest, I’m not really comfortable accepting the most extreme definitions of “abuse” because I do believe there is a difference between an abuser/predator and a confused kid (or an honest misunderstanding about intentions). Human sexuality is more complicated than most of us give it credit for being and the ins and outs of sexual relationships between people are not always cut and dry.

But, that said, nearly every woman I know has a story of sexual misconduct, whether it’s flat-out abuse, molestation, and rape or less overt indiscretions like sexual pressure from a partner, come-ons from a superior at work, or ugly cat-calls on the street.

When I take an honest look back at my life, the picture becomes pretty clear. I have my own share of stories, too.

The flasher who showed up at my 6th grade birthday party. The flasher in the church lobby (!!). The note from a friend (in 7th grade) that said her boyfriend kept pressuring her for oral sex (of course, she didn’t use the word “pressure”). The stories in high school about people having sex just to keep a boyfriend (or girlfriend) but him leaving anyway. The first time I heard someone openly profess to being molested as a child. (And other stories I’d rather not share here.)

Our culture has a sex problem.
And I could write and write and write my thoughts about what the problem is, where it comes from, and how to change it. But I don’t have time for that right now.

Instead, I want to share how I am protecting my children from sexual abuse. And I want to hear your ideas, too. Because even though I can’t keep every danger from our doorstep, I can at least teach my kids what to do when they see it and how to overcome it.

These are some of the steps we are taking as a family:

We talk openly and frequently with our kids about sex and sexual abuse. From a very young age, we teach our kids about sex and anatomy, what their body parts are called and what they do. We encourage them to ask questions when the questions come up, not only when we are having an official “sex talk.” But we do have official lessons about sexuality as a part of our school curriculum because sometimes it feels awkward to bring it up out of nowhere. Our kids are encouraged to use us (not peers) as a first resource and, if at any point they don’t want to talk to us about sex, we have promised to find another adult they can talk to instead of us.

We choose friends and a church community that takes sex and sexual abuse seriously. Because we know that most people who are abused are abused by people close to them, we surround our children with people we trust. It can’t guarantee that they will escape abuse, but it will guarantee a community that will act on abuse and support them rather than an abuser. (We are proud to be members of a denomination that has a firm stance on and policies for protecting its children from sexual abuse.) We teach our kids to look out for each other and for others.

We teach our kids to have boundaries with peers and adults. We teach them to respect the words “stop” and “no.” Once they are bodily-aware (which kicks in somewhere around 3-5 yrs old), we talk about the need for respecting privacy and for expecting the same from others. We tell them that, unless they need help dressing or using the bathroom, it is not appropriate for someone else (adult or child, even family members) to see them naked or touch them in their genital areas. If someone insists on seeing or touching them inappropriately, they need to tell us immediately. (We’ve taught a few “poke their eye out or kick them in their groin” lessons, as well.)

We don’t keep secrets and we teach them that there is never a good reason to keep secrets from us or to keep secrets with other people. (This is one part of the “tricky people” concept, which is a great safety skill for kids and much preferred to the “stranger danger” of my youth.)

We teach them to keep all physical affection and sexual activity in its place. From birth, we work to establish proper attachment with our kids and show consistent, physical affection within our family to help them develop healthy expressions of love and affection. When they are young, we teach them the role of sex in a marriage and reinforce married sex as the standard for behavior. As they get older, this conversation will develop more nuance as we talk about all expressions of sexuality and help them navigate dating and courtship, love and lust and desire.

We introduce the dangers of pornography early and, as they age, will teach them to recognize objectification and sexual idolatry and how they contribute to sexual exploitation and abuse. We will help them avoid sexually explicit materials and images by cultivating a healthy attitude toward the human body and an appetite for better expressions of love and devotion.

We will encourage them to avoid abusing drugs and alcohol, especially in mixed company and with people they don’t know. We will be honest about the connection between intoxication and negligent behavior/abuse.

We encourage immediate, judgement-free conversations about sex. We promise to listen and to answer honestly. We will believe them when they are victimized. We will help them navigate confusing/frustrating situations that arise as they age. Nothing will be a taboo in our house.

 

I’m sure this doesn’t cover everything.
What are you doing to protect your kids from sexual abuse?

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, and (some thoughts on) Religious Syncretism

It’s Halloween!
Or All Hallow’s Eve!
Or Sahmain!
Or whatever.

“Happy Holidays.”

My earliest memories of Halloween are of me donning my older brother’s football uniform so I could do the absolute bare minimum for the school costume parade in the third grade.

When I was young, our family’s participation (or lack of participation) evolved over time but, in general, we did not celebrate Halloween. By the time I was in middle school, I sometimes went out looking for candy with my friends, but my mom had adopted a full-on boycott. No candy for visitors. Front porch lights out.

I didn’t quite understand it then. But it makes more and more sense to me now.

Most of us don’t think too seriously about the finer points of syncretism and how it manifests itself in culture and in our religious traditions. Either we take for granted that all our favorite traditions are purely ours or we take for granted that no tradition can be pure. And, either way, we don’t really care too much.

Whether we admit it or not, much of what we do in church (and in life) is influenced by our own culture and the world around us. And some of us fight this influence more strongly than others. In the context of Christian worship, some churches follow a Regulative Principle of worship that says “whatever is not explicitly commanded/affirmed in the Bible has no place in Christian worship,” but most of us are not in this camp. So most will admit that many traditions are a matter of cultural preference–like the difference between an organ and an acoustic guitar–and most of these preferences are really benign. They may have theological implications, but they are not theological prescriptions.

The farther back we go in church history or the more we develop “new” traditions, the more they tend toward two extremes–either the church develops it’s own symbols and traditions based on their distinct Christian-ness or it adopts symbols and traditions of other religions/cultures and “christianizes” them for their own use (aka syncretism).

In 2017 America, since we seem so far removed from First Century paganism and Eastern religions, most Christians don’t give two thoughts about where their traditions came from. It’s assumed that, at this point, the potentially worldly roots of our traditions don’t matter anymore. We are, after all, a culture primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. And everyone else understand the Christian-ness of our symbols and traditions. Right? Well, maybe sorta. Or maybe not.

For most of America, today is Halloween. It’s an excuse to dress your kid up in funny or scary or ridiculously adorable costumes, visit with neighbors, and collect candy to get you through the long, cold nights until Thanksgiving (our next gluttonous holiday).

But for some people–primarily Catholics and some other Christians who fancy Catholicism–it’s All Hallow’s Eve. In some way or another, it’s a day to revel in the reign of Christ over evil and to mock the devil. (Some Catholics fast today in preparation for tomorrow’s Feast Day of All Saint’s Day so they save their candy for tomorrow. Bummer, right?)

 

 

People think I’m all kinds of crazy when I tell them we don’t celebrate Halloween. Apparently, it means I a) hate talking to my neighbors and giving them things; b) don’t want my kids to enjoy life; c) am just a stodgy old coot. In actuality, none of these things are true about me, I am a reasonable woman, and I have thought this through quite a bit.

Though my level of commitment to abstaining is still evolving–Will I hand out candy? Will we buy a pumpkin for the front stoop because it’s fall and pumpkins are cute? etc.–I am perfectly comfortable saying that, as a family, we don’t do Halloween. I believe this is a matter of personal conscience. It’s not something important enough for me to fight with friends over and it’s not something I’d draw a line about between myself and people I love. But it’s something I’m pretty committed to and I’m going to try and quickly explain my reasoning about the issue because, every year, someone seems surprised that I actually care enough to think about it.

So, here.
Reason with me now.

No one seems to agree about the exact origins of Halloween. Did the Catholic Church institute All Hallow’s Eve as a distinctly Christian holiday, or was it an attempt to christianize the ancient Celtic festival of Sahmain by slapping a Christian name on the same tradition? Were you there? Me neither. All you need is a quick Google search to prove that the jury is still out on this one. And this is true for many of our other holidays, too.

Young in our family life, we decided to try and focus on as many distinctly Christian traditions as possible and avoid pagan, secular, and Eastern traditions if we could. We downplayed Christmas (in the secular Santa sense) and embraced the season of Advent. We skipped the Easter Bunny entirely and focused on Resurrection Day. We tried to “purify” our family expressions of these great holidays as much as possible while admitting that it’s simply impossible to avoid all syncretism. The truth is that even our best intentions have left us with half-baked American traditions like Easter egg hunts and Christmas stockings. Whatever. Imperfect is better than nothing.

One of the biggest questions in my mind has always been about what, exactly, is the nature or intent of the thing we’re appropriating into our expression of our faith? Is this a purely cultural expression? Or is it a religious expression? Can the two every be truly separated?

Take for example Indian culture and the practice of yoga.
A few months ago, I asked my friends on Facebook whether they believed the practice of yoga was a) inherently spiritual, b) imputed with spirituality by those participating in it, or c) purely secular. Responses were mixed. But it has always seemed clear to me that a practice created specifically as a spiritual practice for another religion cannot be stripped of its spiritual element and simply secularized or christianized by another user. We are not dualists; nothing done with our spiritual bodies is purely biological.

But, wait! I eat Indian food! Isn’t some Indian food somewhere prepared by Hindus (potentially) offered to a Hindu god? Well, sure. And if someone came to my table and offered a prayer to Vishnu over my food, I could still eat it (Biblically speaking), but it might make me feel a little weird about it. But knowing someone next door in the YMCA may be doing yoga isn’t the same as actually doing yoga myself, is it? So I see eating Indian food as less like doing yoga and more like wearing yoga pants. Which might be wrong, but for different reasons. (That was a joke. Maybe.)

So, back to Halloween.

Some of my friends seem to think that the only people still celebrating pagan Celtic festivals like Samhain are the 12 Druids living on a commune in New Hampshire. But I can tell you for a fact that pagan Druid spirituality (along with Wicca and actual Satanism) are real. They exist in 21st Century America. And if I had not once stood in a room of a few hundred totally normal American citizens worshiping the planet Earth, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. (Ask me and I’ll tell you the story sometime.)

And this is not even to mention the absurd world of horror movies and haunted houses that capitalize on the scary sentiment of Halloween just to scare the crap out of you and your children. And I won’t even talk about actual spiritual warfare. Ugh.

Okay.
So you’ve decided that Halloween is still no big deal because you want to meet some neighbors and your kid looks really cute as Elsa from Frozen (you returned the Moana costume because it’s culturally insensitive).

Well, my Halloween loving friends, you’re not alone. And I don’t think you’re a terrible person or a devil worshiper. I just think you need to ask yourself some questions about how you’ll celebrate the holiday well.

First: if you are going to use the “All Hallow’s Eve” excuse/clause, you have to ask whether your observance of Halloween really resembles the Christian tradition at all. If you want to know the truth about your family traditions, ask your kids. What do they believe they are celebrating? What do the symbols mean to them?

If I ask your kids can say to me “Oh! We’re mocking the devil because Jesus is King!” I might say, “Well, heck. Right on!”

Second: are you neglecting some of the distinctly Christian traditions in place of the more “fun” ones? If you are a Protestant, did you even tell your kids about Reformation Day today? If you are a Catholic, did you take the opportunity to throw eggs at my car? (Joking again.)

And how should you celebrate? Well, consider how much your family and children miss out on the Christmas story when the entire Advent season is not observed. The same goes for the season of Lent and Easter. If you really believe Halloween is a Christian tradition, then express it as one and go all out. Slip some Testamints into those candy buckets. (Joking. Don’t do that. They taste gross.)

But, here’s the thing about celebrating Halloween: you might think that it’s totally cool and in good fun for Christians to go around the neighborhood merrily mocking the devil by wearing cute superhero costumes, but your neighbors are probably not in on the joke. They might be watching a movie about serial killers to commemorate the occasion or could be waiting in a bloody clown costume to scare the crap out of your kid when she rings the doorbell or could be standing around a tree in the woods chanting about their sacred mother.

Or maybe they’re all in superhero costumes, too, and it’s really no big deal. I’m willing to admit that kids in superhero costumes are really cute.

The short story is this: participating in Halloween just seems really confusing to me–less like wearing yoga pants and more like sniffing the yoga mat. (Gross, I know. Sorry about that picture.) And if I’m not going to do yoga, I’m not gonna sniff the mat. (Most you probably do yoga, so you just realized I wasted all your time.)

Okay, so that was a lot to say about something that, at the end of the day, isn’t really a big deal. Like I said, it’s not a line in the sand for me.

But I do kind of take Halloween seriously. At least seriously enough to think more about it than just what candy I’ll buy.

For the record, I bought kit-kats and fruit snacks. Because we don’t celebrate but we also don’t ever turn away a stranger who knocks on our door, no matter how they’re dressed.

 

 

What a Children’s Library is Good For

Earlier this summer, it was announced that the Cincinnati Public Library is pursuing selling off a part of their downtown branch’s facility and consolidating services into their main building. Under normal circumstances, consolidating services sounds like a grand idea. Save space. Save time. Save resources. Right?

The situation at the library is a bit more complicated than that for two reasons.

First, the word on the street is that the library’s facility could be sold off to a private developer, transferring an entire city block of beloved public amenities into private investors’ hands. Our community (OTR) is already burdened under the heavy hand of big investments from people who seem to think they know what we need better than we know ourselves and we’re tired of it. So this is not a welcome option.

Second, most of the services that will need to be moved and consolidated are geared toward youth: the children’s library and garden, the teenspace, etc. (plus the makerspace!). The threat of losing the entire building is scary for parents (and kids) like us who make frequent use of it and its kid-friendly services.

So what can we do about it?

Well, we’ve seen how these things work. By the time the public hears rumors of this sort of thing, backroom dealings have already occurred. So I understand that it’s probably too late to do anything at all.

Plus, maybe the experts are right. Maybe the library can consolidate and still offer the same quality of service. So maybe it doesn’t even make sense to fight it.

But, for those willing to hear, there’s a lot that needs to be said in favor of the library as it is. And there are certainly a few words left to be spoken about the Children’s library, in particular.

 

Here goes:

  • The public library is one of the only free, indoor public spaces downtown. It provides public restrooms, comfortable chairs, internet access, water fountains, shelter from the rain and cold, etc. It is impossible to quantify the public good a library does by its very presence, in addition to any actual literary contribution to society. Losing any square footage, honestly, is a huge loss.
  • Because it is a completely free public amenity, it attracts a diverse group of patrons. So long as you follow the rules (which are few), all are welcome. This kind of inclusive space exists almost nowhere. It is worth protecting. While attending storytime, public programs, or just browsing for books, my kids and I have felt part of a truly diverse community. This is one of my favorite things about living downtown and one of the best things about the library.
  • The children’s garden is one of the city’s only public, enclosed outdoor spaces for kids. Washington Park’s playground is fenced in, as well, but the library’s garden is different. It feels like a natural escape in an otherwise concrete jungle. We’ve had picnics in the garden, school lessons, played tag, practiced bird watching, and more. There is another, very nice, walled garden at the library’s south building, but it is open to all patrons. Adding the natural chaos of children to such a dignified garden may be tricky for both parties.
  • The children’s library is heavy on books and lite on media. There are a handful of computers and iPads available for use (and, yes, my kids use them and love them), but the majority of the space is still occupied by books. Real books. The kind of books many libraries don’t even keep on public floors anymore. Consolidating the children’s library, I fear, means hiding all those lovely books behind closed doors. Which means we’ll now have to request a book from a librarian at the desk. Which means fewer children experiencing the pleasure of browsing through shelves of unfamiliar books to find literary treasure which is, honestly, one of the greatest joys of reading.
  • Because of the way the building is currently laid out, the children’s library seems isolated from the rest of the library. I understand how it’s likely a logistical nightmare for staff and management because, I will admit, I don’t often make my way over to “my books” anymore because it’s so inconvenient. But this kind of set-apart “kid space” is a dream for my kids. We walk into the building and they instantly feel at home. They roam within the confines of their own library without me hovering over. And it’s not really about “safety”; it’s about ownership and comfort. They can wander and browse and enjoy their pint-sized library world with their own librarians, their own kids-sized bathrooms, their own computers to use, their own garden, their own public events and summers camps and storytimes. Babies even have their own toys. My fear is that moving the children’s library to the other building means surrendering their domain and being grandfathered into a building where–like everywhere else in their world–everything is made for adults. This is nowhere more evident than the computer labs in the south building where most of the adults are busy watching music videos, playing video games, and (I’m sure) some are watching porn. What adults do with their free time is their decision, but that’s not exactly the cultural experience I’m hoping to provide for my children when I visit the library. So, it’s nice to let kids have their own space to be kids.

 

A few weeks ago, I thought I might gather some friends to stage a “read-in” in solidarity for the Children’s library and garden. In my mind, I was going to be a big hero and I was going to save the library and we’d all live happily ever after in our safe, spacious, kid-sized literary wonderland. But, like I said, I think it’s probably too late to actually do anything about this. So, I am relegated to writing instead so I can at least feel like “I said something.”

My hope is that, no matter what decision is made about the fate of our library, those in power are able to design the new children’s space to be as beneficial to the community as the current one is.

We love the children’s library. And, if/when it’s gone some day soon, we will damn sure miss it.

Even if we love the new one, too.

 

 

“The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading.” – Charlotte Mason

Camping With Kids: Advice From The Semi-Experienced

Back in May, after we survived our first camping trip after the addition of a fourth child, a few friends asked if I’d share some tips for camping with kids.

Well, first of all, it feels a little silly to even write this. I am not an expert. I am not a “professional.” I’m not even super experienced. Since our oldest child was born, we’ve only been camping about 15 or 20 nights. (That’s not many.) And we’ve still never done any legit backcountry camping (hike in / hike out) with the kids.

But, though I’m not an expert, I’m a fairly confident and competent outdoors(wo)man. The outdoors bug was planted in me at a family summer cottage on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. Then, between summers at summer camp in Northern Wisconsin, volunteering at summer camp every year in high school, working in youth ministry in college, teaching environmental education post-college, and now having four kids of my own, getting kids outside and into the woods is now second nature for me. And since I did a bit of camping before we had kids, camping with kids doesn’t intimidate me.

A lot of my peers say they’re afraid to try camping with their kids, especially the really little ones. And I’m sympathetic. If I’m honest, getting my kids out and into the woods isn’t always comfortable for me, especially with my ongoing battles with anxiety (poisonous snakes, surprise bee allergies, falling limbs, creepy strangers in the tent nextdoor, etc.). But I’ve discovered that the right kind of physical and mental preparation can make a big difference for me. And I have found that the pay off is always worth the time and energy it takes to make it happen.

 

So, here are my top 12 (+1) tips for camping with kids:

Go with friends. My kids get along really well, but they get tired of each other. The past few times we’ve camped, we’ve gone with another family. It gives the adults some quality time together (while the kids occupy themselves with friends). And it means there are more adults to trade things like bathroom breaks and tending the fire.

Stay two nights because waking up and immediately packing up camp sucks. Give yourself a day between arriving and leaving to enjoy yourselves, take a hike, explore the woods, go fishing, etc. If things go really badly the first night, you can always call it a loss and go home early.

Do your research about campgrounds and, unless you’re desperate, steer clear of sparse, open field-style places. We like campgrounds with woods between rows of sites (bonus points for creeks). The trees provide shade and privacy. And the woods will give your kids a place to play within earshot of the campsite. My only caveat is that, at campgrounds with public bathrooms, try to camp near (but not next to) the bathroom. With children (especially girls), camping too far from the facilities means lots and lots of walking back and forth to the toilet. Pro tip: with toddlers and other little ones, consider bringing a travel potty to keep at the campsite to save yourself the walk in the middle of the night.

Cold isn’t fun, but wet is worse. Learn how to keep your tent dry. Trust me.

“Two is one and one is none.” This is a basic survival concept. Don’t rely on only one of anything you can’t do without: one pair of socks, one cutting tool, one fire-starter, etc. For example: I find cooking over an open fire tedious and frustrating. For the past few years, I have packed a simple cooking stove along with the rest of our supplies so that if the fire is taking too long and our bellies are starting to rumble, I can fire up the stove and get dinner (or morning coffee!) started in the meantime. I follow the same rule for headlamps and lanterns. I always have one more than we need, just in case.

Keep it simple, especially cooking. If campfire cooking is new to you, start small. Pre-cook things so you’ll only need to reheat them in the fire. Or eat primarily foods that require minimal or no cooking (summer sausage, peanut butter and jelly, etc.) and supplement simple “add water”-only hot items like soup or noodle mixes, oatmeal, etc. Don’t be ashamed to admit you need coffee (and beer). And bring a waterproof table cloth because it’s so much easier to clean and sweep off than an old campsite picnic table (I learned this trick from a friend!).

Skip the sleeping bags (especially with babies). Sleeping bags are impossible for really young kids. I even find my 3 year old struggles to get comfortable. Consider building a family bed with blankets instead. And, as always, bring a jacket, socks and a hat for every member in the family. Sleeping outdoors can be surprisingly cold, even during the summer. A pair of socks under the blankets can work wonders for conserving body heat. Use a basic camping mattress (you can use a yoga/exercise mat instead if you have one) for insulating the space between you and the ground.

Introduce gear (especially tents) beforehand and practice at home. A few days before the trip, take them outside and each kids the proper way to pitch the tent. Older kids will love testing their skills at helping set up camp, so give them jobs. This will limit the novelty of new gear and make it easier to get down to business once you’re at the campsite.

Bring headlamps or lights, and a safety whistle to keep track of the kids. During the day, we let our kids wander (together) a bit away from the campsite. They stay within earshot, but not always within eyesight. If you’re uneasy about it, teach your kids to carry and how to use a safety whistle if they get lost. At dusk, I make my kids stay nearer to camp and wear their headlamps so I can keep an eye on them. For really little kids, headlamps and flashlights can be cumbersome. Try glowsticks on a lanyard or those cheap neon necklaces instead.

Keep it low-tech. When camping or hiking, our phones are with us but not in our hands. Taking an occasional photo or video is cool, but we keep it minimal. The only other electronics we bring camping are a set of walkie-talkies (with weather radio!). These came in handy the last time we went camping since we had no service on our phones and there was a storm rolling in. I know some friends who bring bluetooth speakers to play music at the campsite, which is kind of nice sometimes. We bring low-tech toys, games, and books for rainy days or nap/quiet time (if the kids need it).

Embrace the mud and dirt. Be okay with your kids getting their clothes dirty (almost immediately). I kind of like a “dirty clothes to play in; clean clothes at bedtime” philosophy. Choose easy on/off shoes for you and for your kids, preferably waterproof ones. It will make getting in and out of the tent easier (and cleaner), but don’t expect to keep a perfectly tidy tent. And since you can expect to get dirty, just take some extra time when you get home to wipe down, clean, and air out your gear before you pack it up for next time.

Store your gear so it’s easier to use next time. Getting serious about camping means curating your gear like you would the gear for any other beloved hobby (fishing, running, birdwatching, cooking, etc.). Our family has a lot of gear, but it is not expensive, high end stuff. We’ve been collecting it for upwards of 15-20 years and it hasn’t cost us a lot of money when you prorate the cost over time. I like to keep things organized (rather than just tossing it all in a single bin) because if I know what I already have, I’ll know what I still need and I can pick it up when I see it (and can afford it). We keep all of our outdoor gear together on one single industrial-grade rack. Things are organized and stacked and packed in a way that makes anything easy to grab and use when needed. (This also keeps things accessible in an emergency situation at home when we may need our sleeping bags, flashlights, etc.)

 

 

And, lastly, as with all parenting:

Attitude is everything.

Your kids will take cues from you. If they are already uncomfortable outside or in the rain or away from their iPad, you will need to encourage a good attitude about camping. If you cannot keep your cool when the fire won’t start or when you can’t read the trailmap, your kids will mirror your frustration. Laugh a little. Have reasonable expectations. Look for opportunities to learn and explore and be okay with things taking longer than you’d hoped. Part of the joy of camping is having the time and space to stop and, literally, smell the flowers.

Enjoy it and they will, too.