To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

words to build or break a child

If you needed to lose weight, what would be most motivating?

You are fat. I’m not buying you any more clothes until you lose weight!


Let’s take a walk after dinner.
I’ll let you make the salad.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If you needed to learn how to swim, what would be most motivating?

I don’t want to hear your crying. Get in the water and swim! Don’t be a baby!


I’ll be right by your side.
You can do this. If not today, we’ll try again tomorrow.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If you needed to practice better hygiene, what would be most motivating?

What is that awful smell? It’s a wonder you have any friends.


Let’s go to the store and pick out some deodorant.
Your hair smells so good when you wash it. I think you should wash it every day.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If your table manners needed improvement, what would be most motivating?

You eat like a pig. I cannot stand to watch you eat. You are disgusting.


I am trying to put down my fork after each bite, I’d like you to join me.
Thank you for chewing with your mouth closed.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If you are a bit clumsy and disorganized, what would motivate you to be more responsible?

Can’t you do anything right? You are either losing things or making a mess!


Everyone makes mistakes. That’s how we learn.
It’s no big deal—just get a rag and clean it up.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

At times in my life I have been overweight, scared to swim, smelly, ill-mannered, and disorganized. During those times, I could have used some encouragement. So when I saw the young boy ordered to get out of the pool because he was scared to swim, I cried with him from behind my sunglasses. I saw the disappointment in the man’s eyes as he looked at his shivering son hugging his knees to his chest. The man really wanted his boy to learn to swim. He thought reprimanding him and ignoring the boy’s cries would motivate him to try harder next time.

At times in my life, I thought this too …

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Where Haters Can’t Tread

haters can't tread 3

In processing our family’s upcoming move to a new state, I’ve noticed my seven-year-old daughter is unable to think of all the people she will miss all at once. Instead, she’s been experiencing a slow awareness that highlights one person at a time. It’s sad and painful and sweeps her back to the moment she heard we were moving—when tears dotted the front of her blue GAP t-shirt.

It happened the other night as she was getting out her guitar to practice her latest Taylor Swift song. My child came flying into the kitchen—and this time it wasn’t to stall her practice session. I recognized that pitifully sad look on her face—the one that said the world as she knew it was crumbling a little more.

“I’m not going to have music lessons with Mr. Andrew anymore,” she said her lip quivering slightly. Huge tears formed in her eyes as she mumbled, “There won’t be another one like him, Mama.”

“Andrew’s been your ukulele and guitar teacher since you were itty bitty. He’s one of the kindest, most patient people we know, isn’t he? I am so glad you have all these years with him.” Without thinking, I instinctively opened my arms to my child. She nestled in and fit quite perfectly despite a significant growth spurt this spring.

I studied her smooth, round face and saw two fat tears escape from the corners of her closed eyes. My daughter stood there for a moment pressing her face against my stomach. I just held her in silence, smoothing stray hairs away from her face. I didn’t have any magic words. In fact, I didn’t have any words at all.

Within thirty seconds, my daughter stopped crying. She turned and went back to the living room and picked up her guitar. She began to sing and strum with vigor. I could tell by the passion in her voice that she was going to make the most of her remaining time with Mr. Andrew. She was going to be okay.

And I just stood there taking it all in.

Because in that moment, I felt better about myself than I had in months. And it was due to one simple fact: I bring comfort to my child. In fact, I am pretty darn good at it.

And I bet you are too.

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Today I Lived and You Did Too

today I lived

Today I was awakened by the sound of shuffling feet.
It was my early-bird riser in her big sister’s pajamas that drug across the floor.
I wanted to pull the covers over my head and feign sleep.
But instead I got up and made toaster waffles that she said tasted “divine.”
She kissed me with syrupy sweet lips.
Getting up wasn’t my first response. But I did it.
Today I lived.

Today she lost her shoes for the 37th time in two weeks.
It was right before we needed to head out the door.
I wanted to scream, to scold, to throw my hands in the air.
But instead I held her. I held her. My shoeless girl.
Together we found them wet with dew in the backyard and she whispered, “Sorry, I am forgetful, Mama.”
Being calm wasn’t my first response. But I did it.
Today I lived.

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Children Who Shine From Within

children who shine

“What’s your favorite insect?” my seven-year-old daughter asked as we took an evening walk on the first night of her spring vacation. “You can’t pick butterfly. Everyone picks the butterfly,” she quickly added before I had a chance to respond.

“Hmmmm,” I thought out loud. “I guess mine would have to be a ladybug,” I finally answered.

“Mine’s a firefly. I love the firefly,” she said wistfully.

We kept walking. Talking. Enjoying the rare treat of alone time—just my younger daughter and me.

And then:

“Am I okay? I mean, am I fine?” she asked looking down at herself.  “Sometimes I feel different.”

I immediately stopped walking and searched her face. Without saying what she meant, I knew; I just knew.

I bent down and spoke from a painful memory tucked away since second grade. “When I was your age. I felt different too. I felt uncomfortable, self conscious. One boy said really cruel things about the way I looked. He said I didn’t belong. His words hurt me for a long, long time,” I admitted.

As she looked at me sadly, her previous words echoed in my head. “Everyone picks the butterfly,” she’d pointed out a moment ago.

I placed my hands on her sturdy little shoulders as if somehow this could make her feel my words right down to the bone. “I want you to know something. You can always talk to me when you feel different or uncomfortable. I will never laugh. I will never judge you or tell you it’s no big deal. I will never brush away your feelings because I understand. I remember how it hurts. And some times you just need someone to understand that hurt.”

“I love the firefly,” she had said a moment ago. I then realized I had something she could hold on to.

“You mentioned that you love the firefly,” I reminded her. “Well, I think you’re a lot like a firefly. You know why?” I asked.

The worry on her face lifted. She looked at me hopefully. “Why, Mama?”

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When You Get it Right … and When You Don’t

what's right 2 handsfree mama

“I must have done something right,” the father of a nineteen-year-old young lady was telling me after having fixed my troublesome garage door.

Although his daughter had drifted a bit during her early teen years, she was now coming over to her parents’ house on the weekends and was genuinely enjoying spending time with her parents again.

The repairman’s eyes lit up when he talked about the renewed relationship with his daughter. He seemed relieved about how things had turned out.

“I must have done something right,” he had said a few minutes earlier.

His oldest daughter is nineteen. My oldest daughter is ten. I don’t want to wait nine years to know whether or not I’ve done something right. Because now is when I need to hear it.

Now—when I am in smack dab in the middle of raising her.

Now—when I feel the pressure to examine every choice I make, wondering how these choices will affect her now and in the future.

Now—when I want to trust my gut and live by heart rather than simply go along with mainstream opinion or “expert” advice.

Now—when I need little glimmers of hope to cling to each day.

So I decided not to wait.

Each day for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking for a little rightness—a little what-is-right-in-my-world.

Notice I say “a little.” Because what I am talking about is practically unnoticeable. It’s hardly note-worthy. And it’s definitely not anything worthy of public sharing—at least not according to societal standards. But that’s why it’s working for me. That’s why it’s encouraging to me. Because looking for what is right in my world – in my day – in my hour – is far more encouraging than looking for what is “right” in my world according to social media, societal standards, or popular opinion.

I invite you to take a look. Maybe this list will inspire you to see what is right in your world today.

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When Someone We Love Loses His Way



*name has been changed to protect privacy

After teaching children with severe learning and behavior issues for eight years, I was in need of a change. A first grade position opened up in the district, so I applied and thankfully was offered the position. I instantly adored my team of first grade teachers. In exchange for grade level supplies and curriculum guidance, I offered effective behavioral strategies for the most challenging students in our grade level. And on extremely trying days, I would even accept visitors from other first grade classrooms.

Gregory* was one of my frequent visitors. My students and I always knew when Gregory would be coming. We could hear his problem escalating, and then there he would be standing at our door with the work he was refusing to do in hand.

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Voicing the Gift

*all names in this piece have been changed

Voicing The Gift

My first teaching position was a bit unusual. Because a full time teacher was not needed at either school in the district, I worked half-day at the high school and half-day at the elementary school. That was the nice thing about my special education degree; it encompassed grades kindergarten through twelfth. Oh wait … except I didn’t actually have my special education degree (yet). That is how scarce the supply of special education teachers was at the time. But with an elementary education degree in hand and a commitment to obtain my master’s degree in special education, I was able to accept the position.

So there I was, a teacher of big kids with learning and behavioral problems and a teacher of little kids with learning and behavioral problems. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at either end of the spectrum. But despite my lack of training, I had worked with kids long enough to know I was good at one thing: listening. I knew from experience that if an adult acted the slightest bit interested, kids (no matter what age) generally liked to talk.

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Six Words You Should Say Today

If you have ever experienced an emotional response simply by watching someone you love in action, I’ve got six words for you.

Very rarely does one sentence have immediate impact on me.

Very rarely does one sentence change the way I interact with my family.

But this one did. It was not from Henry Thoreau or some renowned child psychologist. It was a comment from kids themselves. And if I’ve learned anything on this “Hands Free” journey, it is that children are the true experts when it comes to “grasping what really matters.”

Here are the words that changed it all:
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Love Without Question

When it comes to matters of the heart, refrain from asking questions. Instead, just go with it.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

Thanksgiving 2011 was one of the best I can remember.

It had all the makings of a fabulous holiday experience:

*hilarious moments (let me just say four words: “Awkward Family Photos Game”)

*inspiring moments (running in “The Drumstick Dash” alongside my husband and 15,000 other people with all proceeds going towards hot meals at the local mission)

*peaceful moments (having a the loveliest tea party for two with my precious 16-month-old nephew.)

*thankful moments (counting the number of freckles on my five-year-old daughter’s exquisite nose as she rested her sleepy head on my lap; BTW, there are 34)

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Do What You Can Do

I haven’t been able to get a recent tragedy out of my mind.

I thought perhaps it was because it happened in the state where I grew up.

I thought perhaps it was because I am an avid concert-goer myself, and a freak accident such as this could have very well happened to me or to one of my friends.

Then I realized it wasn’t the circumstance of the accident, nor the location that consumed my thoughts and weighed heavily on my heart. It was what happened in the minutes directly after tragedy struck.

On August 13th, as fans awaited a concert at the Indiana State Fair, strong winds from an approaching storm caused the stage rigging for the outdoor concert to collapse, abruptly ending five precious lives and injuring forty-five more.

As many terrified spectators understandably ran away from the danger and chaos, approximately 100 people ran toward it.

With bare hands, men and women lifted steel beams and heavy scaffolding from the injured and frightened survivors.

Other heroic bystanders sat and comforted those who were bleeding or had injured loved ones until medical assistance arrived.

When I think about the courageous souls who ran to assist, I find myself in awe of their split-second decision to go forward, rather than to turn away.

If only one or two people had decided go forth and help, the beams could have never been lifted. But because a group of individuals each did what they could do, their collective actions created one dramatic, life-saving impact.

A week after the State Fair tragedy, one of my blog readers sent me a link to a website. She thanked me for continually inspiring her and wanted to share a website that she thought would inspire me, in return.

My first thought upon viewing this website was this: The steel beams from that tragic night are still being lifted.

A beautiful mother and wife named Andrea was among the many spectators who were critically injured at the state fair that night.

Andrea’s skull was crushed by the collapse of the enormous metal structure. She suffered a traumatic brain injury that nearly took her life.

You can read about Andrea’s injuries and progress in a touching post written by her brother here.

While Andrea remains hospitalized, local businesses, community members, even small children and pets are doing what they can to support Andrea and her family financially, emotionally, and spiritually.

Here are a few examples …

A local day spa is offering $15 pink hair extensions …

A local bakery is selling pink “A” cookies …

The local roller skating rink recently hosted a benefit skate …

And there are bake sales, t-shirts, bracelets, window decals … with proceeds all benefitting “For The Love of Andrea.”

When you see each of these respective acts as one meaningful collection, the impact is indescribable. Go to to witness this beautiful inspiration for yourself.

The day after I viewed Andrea’s website, I was confronted with the choice to either run toward or turn away from a family who was enduring great heartache and sadness.

Through the Caringbridge website, I learned that just ten houses down from me was a loving daughter trying to make the last few days of her mother’s life as peaceful and as painless as possible.

I stood at my computer that morning and literally ached as I read her words, thinking selfishly of my own mother and how excruciating such circumstances would be.

My hands hovered over my keyboard in the “Sign My Guestbook” section of the website, yet I was unable to move my fingers.

For a person whose passion and purpose is to create beautiful sentiments from the written word, I was at a loss.

What could I possibly say to this hurting family?

It would have been easy to run away, simply close my laptop and become distracted by a million insignificant things, but I yearned to run forward.

I thought of the small town bakery with their hot pink cupcakes; I thought of the high school boys who had painted their nails pink and the local St. Bernard dogs that proudly donned hot pink bows … all for the love of Andrea.

Then I thought of many individual hands grasping a heavy metal beam and lifting simultaneously at the count of three to free the trapped lives underneath.

I looked at my hands. What can I do?

I am a baker. I have been a baker since the day my four-year-old self could stop eating the butter long enough to toss it into the mixing bowl with a little flour and sugar. Baking is what I do well.

And when I looked on the counter, I saw four very ripe brown bananas ready to become succulent bread.

I summoned my five-year-old daughter (otherwise known as my ever-willing baking assistant and taste tester). I explained what was going on ten houses down. I had taught her about protecting herself against skin cancer, but today the brutal reality of melanoma was crystal clear.

I looked into her worried eyes and explained that it was our job to make the best tasting bread we had ever made.

I held her hands in mine and said, “This is what our hands are meant to do for this family in pain.”

My daughter convinced me that since it was going to be our best bread ever, we needed to make a mini loaf to sample (smart girl).  So before we prepared the larger loaves for delivery to our neighbor, we tasted the dense, warm bread and both agreed it was the best we had ever made. It was for someone very special, after all.

We wrapped the fragrant confections loosely in a brightly colored cloth because they still radiated heat from the oven.

As we carried our gift up the walk, my daughter stopped and suddenly seemed scared.

Understanding she was about to witness a heart-breaking moment in time, she asked, “What do I do, Mama?”

A friend of mine once said my daughter could solve the world energy crisis with her smile.

So I said, “You are going to do what YOU do so beautifully … SMILE. Smile that smile that makes your eyes all squinty and causes your mouth to reach the tips of your ears. Your smile is what our dear neighbor needs right now.”

I watched as my child practiced her best smile as we forged ahead on the walkway to my friend’s front door.

Run toward the pain, not away.

When my neighbor answered, I simply held out the bread and said, “I came to give you warm bread and a big hug.”

Lift the heavy beam.

There were few words, mostly a deposit of love and strength inside a hearty embrace.

My neighbor later posted an update on her mom’s Caringbridge site, noting the outpouring of support her family was receiving through food, cards, prayers, and by caring for her children’s afterschool needs.

I was again reminded how the individual actions of many, when compiled as one, can result in the substantial lifting of another person’s heavy burden.

That evening, my daughter and I sat on the front porch step watching a brewing storm off in the distance.

In the middle of the menacing sky a ray of sun peeked through, illuminating only the outline of the black cloud. It looked like a golden electric string suspended in mid-air.

For whatever reason, this sight triggered my daughter to think about our neighbor and her fragile mother who was slowly slipping away from her loved ones.

“It’s beautiful in heaven,” my daughter pointed to the ray of light that had suddenly cut a sizeable hole in the black cloud, revealing abundant sunshine and puffy white clouds on the other side.

Then without warning, my freckle-faced child bowed her head and said the loveliest prayer for a mother and daughter whose incredible bond would continue to exist, even beyond death.

Run toward the pain, not away. And once you are there, do what it is that you do best.

If we each lend a hand, then together as one, we just might begin to see a more beautiful world.


Today is the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Let this be a day where you push aside daily distraction and abandon the thought that you can’t possibly make a difference. Instead of running away from someone in need, run toward.

Think of a neighbor, co-worker, friend, or family member who is going through a difficult time. Now do what it is that YOU do to bring comfort to someone in need.

  • Make a phone call and just listen
  • Offer to run to the store
  • Make cookies
  • Grab take-out and tell them not to worry about dinner tonight
  • Mow their yard or rake their leaves
  • Write a note of encouragement
  • Pick some flowers
  • Say a prayer
  • Simply ask: How can I help?

Together we can make 9/11 a day of light and hope by collectively running toward someone who needs a reprieve from the heaviness of life.