Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In God We Trust

Jesus Loves the Little Children

So it's Christmas, all over, again.  While I would argue that Christmas has essentially become a full fledged secular holiday, it obviously does have some religious roots.  It's also that time of year when churches that might otherwise be half-full on your average Sunday have to bust out the metal folding chairs to accommodate all of the prodigal sons & daughters who tend to return on a biannual basis - sometimes to referred to as the C & E Christians.  It's also the time when we can all get bent out of shape about whether it's more appropriate to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or "Festivus for the rest of us!"  If you're worried about offending someone, you can just wish everyone you see a "Happy Gus' Birthday".  Just please, no gifts.  Seriously.

The most recent data I could find (based on my 10 second google search) found that in 2015, 75% of Americans identified as Christian.  While still a relatively high number, that percentage has been on the steady decline since the 50s, when nearly 90% of Americans identified as Christian.  As the article points out, in a very easy to read chart, the age groups with the lowest percentage of people who identify as Christian are the youngest demographics - the 18-34 range.  Not surprisingly, this demographic also has the highest percentage of people who don't claim a religious identity.  It may not seem like it based on my boyish good looks, but I am soon to be at the very top of that age demographic.

I grew up Presbyterian, just like the President-Elect apparently.  Ours was a pretty religious household in that we went to church every Sunday.  My parents weren't fanatics, but they valued the importance of instilling Christian morals in us.  They were involved in the church community and encouraged/forced my sister and I to be active members too.  We went to Sunday School and Bible School, participated in the Youth Group, even sang in the choir when Mom was really mad at us.  Believers definitely weren't in short supply in our community either, as our small town of 1,500 people had six churches available to its residents, with the neighboring smaller towns boasting a comparable person/church ratio.  Growing up we went to the same church that my Dad attended as a kid, the one my 95 year old Grandma still goes to today (when the roads aren't too dicey).  A small church country church just outside of town where every Sunday used to be an extended family reunion*.

Like a lot of young adults who have recently left the daily supervision of their parents, I pretty much stopped going to church when I went off to college.  I went to a Catholic college, but certainly not because it was a religious institution.  I liked the community feel of the school, which in hindsight, was probably fostered because of the religious nature of the school and the monastic community that supported the school.  There is no way I had the intellectual capacity to understand that at the time.  Even though it was a Catholic school, they welcomed heathens like me, along with various other religions and those who claimed no religious affiliation - I met both my first Jew and my first actual Atheist there.  I did have to take a required religious course or two, but no one was dragging me to chapel on Sunday morning.  I even went to mass on my own volition a few times, usually when my weekend behavior was highly suspect.

I did my fair share of questioning of my religious beliefs during my college years, like your typically obligation-free 18-22 year-old who is searching for the meaning of life.  I hadn't done so before because it never occurred to me that I could.  I went to church because my parents told me to, and for the most part, I did what my parents said.  I followed the Ten Commandments (to the best of my adolescent ability) because I had to memorize them, along with the books of the bible, the 23rd Psalm and the Apostles Creed, in Sunday School.  I didn't contemplate the pastor's sermon or the words of scripture because was I spent most of my in church fantasizing about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models.  Like I said, best of my adolescent ability - that tenth one is tough.

During college I did take a philosophy class, in which one of the topics was discussing the existence of God.  As I started to critically think, I began to consider the somewhat arbitrary nature in which we become socialized, or not, into a religious belief.  For a large swath of people, myself included, we do what our parents did, who likely did what their parents did, and further on down the line.  While "religion switching" is becoming more common, if you were raised in a certain faith, you are more likely than not to practice that faith as an adult.  Currently, I consider myself to be a Christian unaffiliated with any particular denomination.  I have some personal beef with some of the religious doctrinal interpretation and implementation by some of the more mainline Christian denominations.  However, as I wrote in a paper for that philosophy class 12 years ago, I believe in God because having faith in something is a way to help me explain things I lack an ability to explain, particular the good things.  Jesus also seems pretty cool in my view - nonjudgmental, accepting of everyone despite their flaws, a make-love-not-war pacifist, etc.  I seem to have heeded Macklemore's advice to, "find God, but leave the dogma."      

If you get married it would serve you well to consider the religious beliefs of your spouse, especially if you decide to start a family.  My wife is Catholic, and luckily, the overall resistance to interfaith marriage is not what it was of the good old days pre-Vatican II.  Nor did we have any relatives boycott our ceremony because it took place at a Catholic Church and included a Lutheran minister^.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan, himself a practicing Catholic, has said that "kids and disease are the true gateways to faith."  I can't really recall my wife and I ever having a conversation about what our approach to religion would be with our kids.  It seemed well understood by both of us that they would be raised Catholic, my wife would be taking them to church, and I was welcome to join them.  If I had any strong opinions about a different course of action (which I didn't and still don't) then I would have to make a case for it and take the responsibility to follow through.  Seemed like a lot of work to me.  In her book Til Faith Do Us Part, Naomi Schaefer Riley points out that mothers are typically the ones in charge of a family's religious practices, and children of interfaith marriages are twice as likely to adopt the faith of their mother over their father.  

So we go to church, all of us.  Not every Sunday, but most Sundays - typically always on the Sundays when they have donuts after.  We also sit in the front pew, or as close to the front as we can, as we were once told by another family with small children that your kids pay better attention up front because they can actually see.  It's not true 100% of the time, but it certainly has helped.  Plus the front pews are usually open anyway when we come strolling in midway through the opening hymn.  I go because my wife appreciates the fact that I go, and trying to wrangle three kids at a Catholic Mass can probably draw similarities to purgatory at times.  I guess I'll find out when I get there.  I've likened taking small children to church like walking on ice.  You can be doing just fine, until you, or someone, falls flat on their ass, or backside, I should say.  Fortunately the church that we go to has a fairly young congregation, so the frequent child screams tend to blend into the joyful noise being made to God by the rest of attendees.  I did have to remove one our children (who will remain nameless) after he/she sucker punched my wife in the face in a fit of rage.

I've found that I've come to appreciate these weekly doses of religion that my kids are getting.  I figure for the abundance of secularism that they get everywhere else, it's nice to have them be exposed to the Bible and the tenets of Christianity, because in the aggregate, they are pretty good things.  Havi even goes to the preschool at elementary school run by the parish, and Isla did as well for two years.  Less because it is a religious school, and more because it is two blocks from our house and we adore the teacher.  But any place that has; care deeply, share generously, serve willingly, and speak kindly as their core values is a great community to be a part of.  Yes, these values are not exclusive to Christianity, or any religion, but essentially all religions have, at their core, messages of love, peace and service to one another.  If exposing them to a religion is going to help them better understand how to be a kind and thoughtful person, then I'm willing to surrender an hour on Sunday mornings.  We're up anyway.

From a parental perspective, there can be a sheer superficiality to it all.  It's cute when our kids make the sign of the cross and fold their hands to pray before dinner, even when Gus adamantly refuses to join us.  It's heart-warming when Havi sings and signs "Away in the Manager" after learning it in preschool.  Or when Isla sings along with the songs in church that she has heard multiple times or tries to recite the Lord's Prayer.  It's reassuring when an elderly couple come up to you after church to inform you that your kids were "just little angels" during the service - since they're a little hard of hearing, they weren't privy to all of the empty threats.  Certainly this is all a titch vain, but a silver-lining nonetheless.  And then there is the convenience of using Christian teachings as parenting tools.  When Havi was having a hard time dealing with the fact that she couldn't be first for everything, I evoked Matthew 20:16 (yes I had to google it), where Jesus says that the "last will be first, and the first will be last."  Obviously she doesn't get it, but it has averted a meltdown or two.              

As I've aged I've realized more and more things in hindsight that I'm glad my parents did, like make me go to church.  While I very much disliked it at the time, I certainly see its value now, especially since I have kids.  Even though I'm not necessarily practicing the faith I was brought up in, having been exposed to a religion like Christianity has helped me understand the benefits of exposing my kids to it, with major assistance from my wife of course.  They are too young now to question, and typically they are eager to go to church or read one of the bible story books at bedtime.  There will probably come a point when they will do their own questioning of their faith and beliefs, and I look forward to having in depth and thought provoking conversations with them on the subject.  While my own skepticism on organized religion will likely persist, I'm glad that they will have been exposed to religion and the virtues it can teach.  Whatever they ultimately decide to believe in, or not, is fine by me, as long as they use what they've learned along the way to bring more joy, peace and love to the world.  Based on most of the Christmas cards we've gotten this year, that seems to be the consensus pick for the reason for the season.

Sorry, dude, you have to wear this dress for baptism.  It's tradition.
But mom made you this delicious cake.  You just can't have any.


*A few years ago, I went back to the church Christmas Pageant with my Grandma, an event I played a variety of lead and supporting roles in during my tenure at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church.  She proceeded to point out every kid in the program and explain to me how I was related to them in some form.

^If they had any reason to boycott our wedding it would have been because we got married in January in Minnesota.      


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

'Tis a Gift

"You'll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid."

My wife and I were having a discussion^ a few weeks ago about the things our children put on their Christmas Lists.  The Holiday Season tends to become a complex web of gift giving arrangements for us, as all three of our kids have birthdays within about a month of Christmas, with a lucky one having a birthday on the holiest of consumer holidays.  It also seems like we've begun to associate solely with people who's kids also have birthdays during that time frame.  The last six weekends of the year for us have become an interesting rotation of Thanksgiving gatherings, kid's birthday parties, and Christmas celebrations.  I've gotten into the habit of always asking for a gift receipt whenever I make any purchases these days, just in case.

I've commented before on how the exorbitant consumerism around the Christmas season, which can turn the most wonderful time of the year excessively stressful, has a tendency to get under my skin.  The paragraphs below will not make me seem like any less of a curmudgeon-y, self righteous cheap-ass, but I'll opine nonetheless.  You may vehemently disagree with my point of view or you may find pieces of it insightful and thought provoking.  It's not that I don't want to buy gifts for my kids or other kids, or for people not to buy gifts for my kids.  I just think we can all be a little more intentional about the process, and consider what impact those gifts might have on the kids they are bought for and the people who frequently interact with those kids.  As someone who frequently interacts with those kids, it's probably something that I'm hypersensitive to, as I live with the chaos that tends to follow the vast amount of stuff that small children accumulate.

A few months ago I did a pretty sizable reduction of our kid's toy collection.  I had just finished the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne, and one of his instructions was to take you kid's toy collection and half it, and then half it again.  I've long been a fan of the "simplicity ethos" and decided to take a week to assess the things they actually played with.  When I realized that at least 75% of the time they weren't even playing with "toys"*, I figured we could part with some of ours.  So one day while the two older ones were at school, I took advantage of the van's excessive storage space (seriously, there is so much), and hauled a bunch of stuff to one of the local thrift stores.  Gus may have been aware of my conniving deeds, but he kept quiet - he didn't have the vocabulary to describe such heinous crimes yet.      

When it became readily apparent a few weeks ago that new toys will be undoubtedly be entering our house, it certainly gave me a little hesitation.  One of my main goals as a parent is to raise kind-hearted kids who don't feel the need to amass a bunch of stuff to try and make them happy.  As Michelle Borba points out in her book Unselfie, "a preoccupation with possessions is associated with decreased happiness as well as increased anxiety."  This doesn't mean that I don't want them to get presents for their birthday or Christmas, but I don't want them to expect that they will get them or get everything that they ask for.  Of course getting them a few (or most) things off their list for Santa won't immediately turn them into greedy, self-centered little shits, but it is a little concerning to me when I see them flipping through a toy catalog pointing out everything they want, which happens to be everything in the catalog.  I do have to reconcile this though with the fact that I did the same thing when I was young.  I showed a little more restraint and humbleness as I aged by limiting myself to only selecting one item per catalog page.   

Fortunately, as Borba writes, empathy and selflessness can be taught, but the earlier you can instill those virtues in a child, the more likely he/she will embody those traits as they grow through adolescence and into adulthood.  Consequently, they will also be happier, more popular, and more successful, according to the scientific data.  To me, it runs parallel to setting limits for your kids now, and being fine saying "no" to their requests at times just because.  If your kid isn't taught empathy and how to put other's needs in front of their own at a young age, it will become increasing challenging to do so as they age and become more ingrained in their opinions and biases from the experiences that they have.  To me, it seems like the Christmas season provides a fantastic opportunity to try and nurture the notion of selfless giving, considering what the "spirit of the season" is all about.  Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most challenging times considering what the season has really become.

This past weekend, we attend one of the aforementioned birthday parties for the daughters of some good friends.  The instructions on the invite specifically indicated not to bring gifts.  Of course, nearly everyone brought gifts, ourselves included.  Our friend decided to institute a rule for the next party that if you brought a gift when directed not to, you would also need to bring your own food, cake, silverware and beer.  He was joking of course, but he really had a point.  Despite people telling us not to bring gifts, we still feel obligated.  Even when we genuinely know that they'd really prefer not to have one more thing that will ultimately serve as an additional tripping hazard.  We don't want to be that family that shows up to eat the cake without bringing something.  It's like Halloween when we gripe about how much candy our kids get, but yet can never bring ourselves to be the house that gives out baby cut carrots and dental floss, even though we would totally love it if someone did.

The kids were not impressed with my suggestion of dressing oranges
up as pumpkins for their Halloween treats for their classmates.

As I've alluded to before, a big frustrating part of it for me, is the feeling of overwhelm that I get when I look at the state of my house, as it currently is right now - a mess of toys, kid's clothes, half-completed craft projects and children's books strewn about like a piece of (very) abstract 3D art.  And because I'm home all day, it is a constant lived experience for me, and something I feel I can never stay on top of.  The other day I wondered how many books I could have read to my kids in the total amount of time I've spent picking their books up off the floor and putting them away.  Of course you could suggest that I should do a better job of teaching my kids to be responsible for their stuff, but as Payne suggests, when they have so much stuff, nothing can really hold that much value for them.  I'd also rather not have others spend seemingly unnecessary resources (time and money) on something my kids may or may not play with.  It just seems a little simpler for all involved to limit the amount of things that can be potentially thrown on the floor.

Now I can't reasonably expect that I will eliminate all of the "junk" from my kid's life.  It would also be hypocritical for me to attempt to do so, as I had my fair share of "junk" growing up - some of which has been returned to my possession.  As a kid, I definitely wanted material things, and for the most part, my parents provided me with those things when they were able to and felt like my behavior warranted it.  As I've grayed, I've become much more conscious of how I feel I can live a more fulfilling life with a simpler existence, and it's something I hope to impart on to my kids.  But this will also have to be a growing process for them.  No doubt they will put some excessive things on their Christmas list, and sometimes they might get them and sometimes they might not.  Hopefully, at an age early than I did, they'll be able to understand what is truly important about the Christmas season - that making it bright for others can make it brighter for you than any wrapped package you'll ever receive.

As a parent of young kids who dislikes having excessive clutter in the house, and believes that too many toys (even the "educational ones") and too much stuff can have an adverse effect on a child's ability to see beyond their own perceived wants and needs, I'm going to offer up some gift suggestions for Holidays and Birthdays.  Most of these will probably be considered boring and practical, and you may be concerned about the level of excitement the gift receiver has when opening a gift like this.  But I think if you start at a young age, the more likely the kid will begin to grasp the concept with less protest.  Little kids also have incredibly short attention spans, and no matter how cool of a gift you think you got them, the excitement will wear off as soon as they tear into that next gift.  If you need proof, ask your kid if they remember what you got them (or anyone else for that matter) for their last birthday/Christmas.

Get Them an Adventure/Outing
Give a gift of something the kid can do, with their family or their friends - movie passes, a gift certificate to the indoor trampoline park or their favorite restaurant, admission to the zoo or local water park, etc.  Yes, gift cards and certificates are not very exciting to open.  Even more so if you are little kid and don't know how to read.  This has definitely become one of my go-to options though for birthday presents for my kid's friends.  Instead of getting them something to be played with and then put in the toy box, you're giving them an opportunity to get out of the house and make some memories having an adventure - something they'll likely recount with more excitement then the time they spent cutting off all of Barbie's hair.

If it is logistically feasible, I suggest making it so you are the one taking them on this outing/adventure if you are giving to a niece/nephew/child of a friend, etc.  This has a doubled impact, as it gives you the opportunity to make some fun memories with them and can provide the parents a probably much needed break.  We got this idea from some friends of ours, who in lieu of birthday gifts for their nieces and nephews, would designate a day around their birthday when they would take that child out for a day filled with adventure - amusement park, ice cream, baseball game, etc.  When our friends relocated for work a few years ago, one of the nieces expressed serious concern about what would happen to "Gracie Day".

For parents, this approach can also serve as a gift to be given to others.  My Mom always says she doesn't want anything for Christmas, but can never seem to spend enough time with her grandkids.  This year, I'm seriously considering getting her a "coupon" redeemable for a whole weekend of uninterrupted quality grandkid time.  I'd even leave her the van with a full tank of gas.  Shh, don't tell her.

Put Money in the College Fund
If you think a kid would have a hard time getting excited about opening a gift card or certificate for something, you can imagine that a kid opening a note that you put some money into a college fund would get an even glossier blank stare.  But, we are all likely aware of the importance of investing in our kid's future.  This also hopefully helps the child understand, at a young age, the importance of saving and delayed gratification, which are more traits that lead to happier, better adjusted and more successful kids.  A gift like this can even be coupled with a gift that the child finds a little more exciting.  If you going to get a kid a cheap plastic toy made in China, why not get them a cheaper plastic toy and put the remaining money in a college or educational fund where it can grow with interest over time to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Make a Donation in the Kid's Name
Again, something that will likely be a lost concept on kids that are pretty young, but as they grow older, they would hopefully understand the significance behind it at an earlier age than most.  If you want a kid to be altruistic, it's much easier to teach them ways to be altruistic when they are young.  Try to make it something the kid can connect to.  If they are really into sports, maybe a donation to the Special Olympics.  If someone in your family or social circle has or has had cancer, a donation to the American Cancer Society or the Ronald McDonald House.  Like giving money to a college fund, they probably won't get it at first, but hopefully the importance of it will resonate as they get older.  Especially if giving back is something that your family values.  Christmas and Birthdays can be an excellent time to help teach kids about the things they are fortunate to have, and that some kids may not be as fortunate as they are.

Invest in an Activity or Hobby
Kids are more active than ever these days, and with those various activities (swimming, dance, tae kwon do) comes the expense of participation.  While I don't think you should try to deter a kid from wanting to participate in various activities by pointing out how much you think they are a drain on the family resources, you can make your child aware that these things are not free and require some investment.  If you help them grasp the magnitude of how those activities effect your daily routine, and how it isn't feasible from a time or monetary stand point (for us at least) to participate in everything, they might develop an increased level of commitment to the activity.  It makes it seem like participating in the activity or being able to pursue a hobby is a privilege, just like getting a gift, and not something they should have the expectation of being able to do.

With any of these somewhat "non-typical" gifts, the effect will probably not be realized right away, and will likely need to be continued for a few years for a tradition to set in.  Like the special days our friends set aside for their nieces and nephews for their birthdays.  Of course the kids were skeptical at first, but over the years, they've really come to look forward to this fun tradition.  As kids get older, these traditions can morph into really valuable life lessons that help kids understand the importance of giving and being empathetic.  Ones that can at times be initiated by the kid's themselves.  We all love hearing stories about kids who started a coat drive at their school or donated all of the toys they got for Christmas to a Toys for Tots drive.  But the desire to do those actions of altruism don't just appear out of nowhere.  They come from kids being exposed to and educated on the importance of those values.  If we want those kids to be our kids, we have to make a conscious effort to help them understand the things that we really think are important.  I think how we approach addressing their list from Santa can be a very challenging, but good place to start.  

Straight cash, homey.

^You maybe could have called this an argument, but both my wife and I are much too passive aggressive to argue about anything.

*Sharp knives actually came in at the top spot.