A Relationship Worth Protecting

relationship HFM“Can you see your love for me shining through? Cuz what you see in me, I can see in you. And soon enough, you and me we’ll be out of time. And kindness will be all we can leave behind.”

- Nimo Patel

My younger daughter rushed upstairs, her face wet with tears. She said she was having trouble putting together a Lego structure and couldn’t figure out what to do. When she asked her big sister for help, she cut her down—her words sharp and pointed and straight into the heart.

Yes, it had been a long summer. When you move to a new state, your sibling becomes your full-time playmate. My children had been in the company of one another for two solid months, no reprieves. But I’ve noticed that as my older daughter becomes more tween and less child, her patience is thinner … her sass stronger … her tone edgier. And there’s something about her little sister’s laid-back, leisurely nature that pushes her buttons. But something needed to be said before irreparable damage was done.

I went downstairs to talk privately with my older child. She was aptly securing the final pieces to an impressive Lego tree house. Pushing stray pieces aside, I sat down next to her. “I have something to tell you,” I said my voice low and serious. My daughter knew to stop fiddling and look into my eyes. “Whether you like it or not, you are shaping your little sister’s self-esteem. The way she feels about herself will largely come from how you treat her. In fact, your opinion of her may be even more important than mine.”

I paused to let my daughter absorb this information. When I continued talking, I surprised myself by divulging something I hadn’t fully appreciated until that moment. “Do you know why I know the impact your opinion has on your sister’s life?” My daughter shook her head. “Because I was the little sister. Yes, my sister and I fought over clothes, music, whose turn it was to feed the cat, the bathroom, and other silly things, but never once did my sister shame me or put me down. Not once. Just imagine what that gift did for me.”

By now I was crying. Surprisingly my daughter wasn’t looking at me strangely or searching for the nearest exit. With a mixture of interest and sadness, my daughter looked like maybe what I had to say was something worth listening to. I swallowed hard, attempting to regain control over my unexpected emotional breakdown. “We all need someone in our corner, to have our back, to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. If you haven’t noticed, your little sister looks at you like a hero. And when you criticize or belittle, it hurts. But when you compliment or encourage her, she soars.”

Later, as I later replayed the conversation back in my head, I was reminded of the most important “rule” I had in my classroom when I was a teacher. I informed my students that our classroom was a safe haven. While I fully expected there to be squabbles and disagreements between children, there would be no hurtful attacks on physical appearance, intelligence, or abilities. I realize now that this is how I feel about my home. I expect my children to treat each other respectfully and kindly, no exceptions. To some this might sound like a ridiculous aspiration, head-in-the-clouds kind of thinking. “Siblings are supposed to knock each other down and toughen each other up,” I can just hear the naysayers say. I might have agreed with that statement had it not been for my sister showing me what happens when a family member believes in you despite knowing your every weakness and fault.

You see, in grade school I was a mess. I had a bad bowl cut. Too many freckles covered my nose. I wore the same awful navy blue sweater every single day until it practically disintegrated. My hair held the unbecoming shine of ultra quick showers minus the shampoo. I had the worst smelling feet. I gained a lot of weight the summer before middle school and got stretch marks. I was ashamed. While my parents worked, my sister took me to the neighborhood pool. She never said a word about my body. She only said, “I love your bathing suit.” I remember. It meant everything that she chose to look beyond the unsightly marks.

In high school my sister would wave me over as I walked down the halls. She would introduce her awkward freshman sister to her senior high friends. She was proud of who I was. She believed in me. My sister never told me I was not capable even if she thought there was no way I could make the volleyball team or move up a chair in orchestra. As an adult, my sister showed me the same support. Knowing how much I loved to write, she was adamant that I should start a blog. I said I didn’t know how. She sent me a book telling me how. She said she would help. My sister kept saying I should and I could until I finally tried. I would not be a published author today had it not been for the unconditional love and encouragement I received from my sister. My life would have turned out very differently if my sister had routinely tore me down rather than continually build me up.

My greatest hope is that my children encourage each other this way. I cannot force it to happen, but I can model it. Because honestly, talking to my older daughter about how I expect her to treat her sister has shined a slightly uncomfortable spotlight onto my own words and actions. The truth is, the way I treat my older daughter will reflect how she treats her younger sister. Just as she is shaping her little sister’s self-esteem through words and actions, I am shaping hers.

Just as I told her to think about the voice she is using with her sister—is it kind? Is it impatient? Is it encouraging? I must consider my tone too.

Just as I told her to think about the messages she is giving—You matter. You’re smart. I believe in you. I must think about my words too.

Just as I told her if you don’t like her wearing grubby t-shirts every day, compliment her when she wears something you do like. I am trying to practice that too.

Just as I told her to notice when her sister is stressed out or struggling and to say, “how can I help?” instead of “just deal with it.” I must remember this too.

Those are things my big sister did for me. Not perfectly. But consistently. And it made a life-changing difference.

Last week my daughters began riding the bus at our new school. It was the first time they’ve ever been “bus riders” since our old neighborhood didn’t have school buses. On the second night of school I heard the girls talking in the basement.

“When the teacher says walk to the bus, you need to go as fast as you can, okay? I was worried you were going to miss it. I kept praying you were coming. Walk real fast tomorrow. I know you can do it,” said the big one.

“Okay, I will,” promised the little one. “Thanks for letting nothing bad happen to me.”

“I won’t,” said her protector.

relationship HFM

We all need someone in our corner … to have our back … to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. We can do that, my friends. We can do that for our sisters … our brothers … our children … and for each other. We can do that for the people who are learning how to treat others by watching us live.

I leave you with my own personal pledge so I can build up, not tear down … so I can be a role model, not a bad example … so I can leave a legacy, not a scar. These are my hopes for anyone who spends time in my presence.

The Presence Pledge

I hope you feel like a welcomed spark to my life, not an inconvenience, annoyance, or bother to my day.

I hope you feel comfortable in your skin, not constantly wondering how many things you need to change before you’re loved and celebrated.

I hope you feel heard, valued, and understood, not dismissed for being too young or too inexperienced have an opinion or know what you need to thrive.

I hope you feel capable and confident, not incapable of doing something without constant supervision and correction.

I hope you feel brave to bare the colors of your soul, not pressured to hide your light or play small to gain acceptance.

I hope after spending an hour … a day … a lifetime in my presence,
I leave your heart fuller,
your smile wider,
your spirit stronger
your future brighter
than you could have ever imagined by yourself.

live more love more 1

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I wrote The Presence Pledge after reading a powerful article by Andrea Nair. The following question immediately grabbed me and made me think about how I want to impact the people in my life:

“This is a great question to continually ask yourself to grow a strong, positive relationship with your children: How do my children feel about themselves as a result of spending time with me?” -Andrea Nair

I also want to share three other pieces that promote grasping what really matters in a world of distraction, pressure, and perfection:

1) How to Stop Siblings Fighting with Six Words 

2) Interview with Catherine Steiner-Adair author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” This article has very helpful information about creating healthy boundaries between life and technology.

3) Backpacks for Everyone - My dear author friend Galit Breen is matching children who need a backpack with those willing to donate a backpack. Staples has the first 25 covered so please let her know if you need one. (They are filled with school supplies, as well). Or if your family is looking for a way to make a difference in someone’s life, this a very simple way! Learn more here

Please feel free to share your thoughts, stories, and experiences regarding protecting sibling relationships. Thank you for walking beside me on this journey to live more and love more in the precious time we are given, my friends of The Hands Free Revolution. I will never forget the flood of encouraging comments you wrote last week that lifted me from a period of uncertainty and doubt. My writing has been fueled in a way I have never felt before. So thankful for you. 

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!

Or:

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!

Or:

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.

Or:

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.

Or:

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!

Or:

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

 

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*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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