Should I feel guilty that I want my kids to go back to school?

One of the fellow moms from my son’s upcoming kindergarten class shared an article from the Huffington Post about a mother sending her little boy off to school. The article promised to be a real tear-jerker judging by the image of the woman and the little boy sharing a tender moment. I started reading it right before bed because, who doesn’t like a good tug at the heart strings, but it didn’t get me teary eyed. In fact, I couldn’t even get past the first part where the author wrote: “I’ll miss our quiet days together.” My thought was: what quiet days together?

For a short minute I felt like there was something wrong with me for not relating to this sentimental article.

Could it be because he’s my last child and not my first?

Shouldn’t knowing this is my last baby make this article even sadder?

Am I missing the big picture?

The next morning during my morning run, I made a comment about how excited I was that my kids were starting school next week.  One of my running friends’ asked: “Are you feeling guilty about wanting your kids to return to school?”

“Absolutely not!” I exclaimed, “If I have to hear, ‘Mommy, he hit me first!’ one more time, I’m going to lose it. The one burning question I have is how the hell do parents home-school their children!”

As I was saying this, my mind wandered back to opening that article about the kindergartener and once again I questioned myself: Should I feel guilty about wanting my kids to go back to school? Is there something wrong with me?

We’re in an era where we parents are constantly reminded that our time with our kids is fleeting. We are told to enjoy every minute of our time with them because it won’t last. And it’s true. It doesn’t last. But here’s the problem: in our quest to be mindful, present, and grateful, we can easily fall victim to feeling guilty when we’re ready for a new season.

I remember reading once that when it comes to raising kids, the days are long but the years are short. Having a son that is almost 10, I can certainly vouch for how quickly the years have gone by.

But here’s the thing, the days are long–and if you’re fully invested in your kids– the days can seem even longer. I’ve had a wonderful summer with my kids and I’ve had the luxury and privilege to be fully immersed in their care. This means we’ve traveled together, played together, and stayed up late together. We’ve had a blast!  But it also means that I’ve had to say “No!” to watching TV a gazilion times, mediate fights between siblings, force them to set aside reading and math time every day, and beg them to pick up after themselves. There have been as many yelling matches, tears, and time-outs as there have been I love you’s, cuddles, and belly-aching laughter.

It also means I’ve fallen behind in work and my routines are out of whack. It takes me twice as long to do things like write or respond to an email (This blog post alone has taken me three days to write).

My house has been a loud, rambunctious playground for my 9, 7, and 5 year old boys…and their friends…for three months.

So the answer to the question, “should I feel guilty about wanting my kids to return to school?” is an unequivocal: “NO.”

Some of my parent-friends are dreading back to school routines, waking up early, and structured days. That’s okay, too. I’m pretty sure by December I’ll be excited for another break from routine. But right now, I’m longing for a few solitary hours to focus on my business so I can continue pursuing my passion while raising my kids to pursue theirs. They’re both important and both deserve attention, and the key is to not let one rob you from the other….at least not all the time.

The beautiful thing about ages, stages, and seasons is that you can enjoy them, suffer through them, relish them, and then move on to the next phase. Isn’t that being truly present?

My running buddy, David Altshuler’s, weekly blogpost titled “Eight Year Old World,” was about some time David spent taking care of other people’s eight year olds this summer.  He cleverly articulated: “It is easier to write about eight-year-olds than to live with them.”

In this article, my friend shared wisdom as a man who’s already raised his kids and understands that despite how challenging the process can be, we should be truly grateful for the opportunity. This one hit closer to home and I found myself feeling extra grateful for the fun times I’ve had with my kids this summer.

But I still can’t wait for the kids to go back to school.

A Moment of Clarity

There’s nothing wrong with me for feeling that way…or with you… no matter what you feel.

 

 

What Successful People Are Willing To Do…

Let’s say you play soccer. And let’s say you belong to a team that hired David Beckham to coach you. Would you take advantage of that opportunity?

I assume your answer is: “Of course I would!”

I’ve been shocked to see how many people let opportunities like this slip through their fingers.

My kids play chess. This summer, they were invited to participate in a competitive five-week chess training program, which included competing in the 2018 Southern Open Chess Tournament. This intensive training was taught by an International Grand Master, currently ranked 165 in the world. Considering that there are roughly six hundred million people who play chess, being ranked in the top two hundred players worldwide is pretty remarkable. This guy even won a gold medal in the Olympics!

It would be an incredible opportunity for any chess player to spend five weeks learning from this master. My sons’ chess school has hundreds of enrollees, and of that group, only thirty-eight were invited to participate in this elite track. But of those 38, only 17 kids participated. This small group included several kids who had spent their entire scholastic year working towards the goal of getting invited to play and yet their parents didn’t register them.

An opportunity lost.

After the tournament ended, we learned that our grand master has been given a full scholarship to an American university where he will play on its chess team. So, unfortunately for us, our kids only have one more month to learn from him. Yesterday’s class was designed to review the games the kids played at the tournament – to see what they did correctly, what they did wrong, and how they can improve. Of the seventeen kids who participated in the program, only three showed up to class (and two of them were mine) even though this type of exercise is one of the keys to improving your chess skills.

Another opportunity lost.

Of course, the kids have no say in this matter. Their parents are in charge of enrolling them, paying for them, and driving them to activities. Kids only decide whether they like it or not. And to some parents, that’s equally irrelevant because you don’t enroll your child in a sports program, so they make it their career.  After all, it is highly unlikely that your kid is going to be the next Yankee baseball player or prima ballerina or international grand chess master. Instead, you enroll them in sports programs to develop mentally and physically, to entertain them, to explore their talents, to keep them busy, to teach them discipline, and to help them discover their passions.

But this article is not about playing second base for the Yankees or doing plies at the Met. And it’s certainly not about playing chess or becoming a grand master.

This article is about life.

It’s about training.

Sure, the boys learned some good chess techniques with this teacher and their games have improved. But that is the least important of their training.

 What really matters is that they learned that this grand master has been studying chess five hours a day for twenty years. They learned that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, what matters is your progress. They learned that no matter how much higher someone is ranked above you, you can beat them if you play a particular game better than they do. They learned that to succeed you need self-discipline. They learned that their talent only makes up about 20% of their success, the other 80% is consistent dedication, discipline, and hard work. They learned that when you are amongst the best in anything you do, you have more possibilities (like this master who received a full scholarship and room and board for his family at a prestigious university.) These are lessons they can apply to anything they do.

I don’t care if my kids excel in chess or not. I want them to succeed in life.  As “Dilbert” creator, Scott Adams, said, “You can’t control luck, but you can move from a game with bad odds to one with better odds. You can make it easier for luck to find you.”

I know we all want our kids to be successful, which is why I was so surprised to see how few of the kids who enjoy playing chess were allowed to take advantage of this rare chance. Maybe the school didn’t communicate the magnitude of this program effectively or maybe there were some legitimate reasons for some parents not to enroll their child in the program. But regardless of what the reasons were, it reinforced a valuable lesson that I learned a long time ago…

A Moment of Clarity

Successful people are willing to do things that unsuccessful people are not willing to do. And sometimes that simply means showing up.

What Are You Thankful For?

Are you always repeating yourself with your kids?

“Brush your teeth.”

“Comb your hair.”

“Do your homework.”

Sometimes the repetition can be exhausting. But there is actually a reason why we parents have to do this. In order for anyone to learn a new concept or adopt a habit, repetition and consistency is key. It stands to reason that our little ones need this reinforcement – even if we sound like a broken record. Parents often wonder: will it stick?

Parenting is delayed gratification in its truest form.  We invest and invest in our kids, without knowing what the end result is going to be.  And we never really know if we’re doing any of it correctly.

But every once in a while, we are rewarded for our efforts.

I drive my kids every morning either to school or camp. The first thing I do when we’re all buckled in is ask my kids what each of them are grateful for. This is not always easy to do. Sometimes they’re extra cranky because they didn’t sleep enough. Sometimes we’re just recovering from a yelling match because they were fighting or they weren’t cooperating in the morning and I lost it. Mornings with three small boys can be rough. But no matter how frustrating our morning is, I take a deep breath and say, “Okay, what are you thankful for? Who’s going first?”

I want the practice of gratitude to be a part of my sons’ daily routine. And no matter how frustrated or angry we are, I want to teach them that we have the power to change our attitude and our mood at any moment.

There have been days my boys have challenged me.

“We should do this at bedtime, Mom. It’s too early to know if there’s anything to be grateful for,” or

“I don’t have anything to be grateful for.”

And my response is: “Oh, that’s precisely why we do this first thing in the morning. How about saying thank you for being alive, or waking up this morning in our beautiful home, or thanking the universe for our wonderful family and that we’re all healthy? How about being thankful for the sun or for nature or for oxygen? There is so much to be grateful for that has nothing to do with how your day goes.”

Some days it’s easy. Some days it feels like I’m pulling teeth. But day after day, I ask them to express gratitude. And then I leave town.

One of the things I dislike about traveling is the disruption to the routine. It’s that control-freak mom syndrome where you feel like nothing is done correctly unless you’re the one doing it. I’m constantly asking my husband if the kids brushed their teeth or if they made their beds. They have way much more fun with their father! But they are loved and cared for and that’s what matters most. I’ve learned to accept that life is going to look a little different when the enforcer has left the fort.

The last time I was away, the most wonderful thing happened. I left before my kids woke up. When I landed, I called my husband to let him know I’d arrived. He was driving my sons to camp. We were connected via bluetooth so we could all hear each other. We said our usual “I love you” and I miss you” and then I said, “Okay guys, I have to get going so I can request an Uber to the hotel.”

“Mommy, wait!” Justin interrupted hurriedly, “What are you thankful for?”

My heart melted.

It hadn’t occurred to me to have gratitude mornings on the phone! Justin was now the enforcer and all I could think was: Oh my God, it stuck! Justin was even teaching his dad how we do mornings. And the best part of it all, my son sh0wed me that I am there even when I’m not.

“What are you thankful for, Mommy?” He repeated after a few seconds of my silence.

“I’m thankful for you buddy. So thankful for you.”

A Moment of Clarity:

For those of you who are working hard to create meaningful relationships with your kids: Keep doing what you’re doing. Be consistent and repetitious. You may think sometimes that your kids aren’t listening or paying attention. They may not respond immediately, but they are paying attention. When you least expect it, they’ll remind you what an impact you’re making in their lives and how deeply ingrained you are in them…even when you’re not around.  There is no greater reward than that.

The Dentist Visit That Changed A Mom’s Life

Suzy left her husband after enduring an unhappy marriage for 15 years. Angered by her decision, her ex-husband invested all his resources in taking Suzy to court.  Without money for competent counsel, Suzy was beaten by the legal system, leaving her penniless and losing primary custody of her two children.

 The parental plan allowed for the kids to sleepover at Suzy’s house twice a week. But her job was so far from the school the father chose for them that she couldn’t get the kids to school in the morning and be back in time to clock in for work. So the kids had to sleep at their dad’s on her weeknights.

This was a terrible time for Suzy, and by the time she came to see me, she confessed if she’d known she could lose her kids, she would never have gotten a divorce. Here was a woman who loved her children deeply and wanted to have a relationship with them, but her ex-husband constantly sabotaged her efforts and logistics made matters worse.

I began working with Suzy to develop a Be There Even When You’re Not mindset. There were many things she couldn’t control, so we focused on what she could control. She started to show up when she could – surprising her kids at soccer games and school– stopping by even if for a minute to give them a kiss. I told her to schedule a FaceTime call with them every evening before bed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that she didn’t think of FaceTiming them in the evenings but whenever she did, they would end up crying because they missed her. She felt she was doing them more harm by calling.

“At least if I’m out of sight, I’m out of mind,” she’d say, sobbing. But I explained that if she didn’t call, they could confuse that with not caring or remembering them. This was an opportunity for her to reframe the situation. She began finding ways to make the FaceTime call a happy one that they’d look forward to eventually.

And then one day Suzy came to see me and she was as happy as I’d ever seen her.

“You’re never going to believe what happened yesterday,” she said.

“Tell me!” I responded.

“I got a call from my kids’ dentist on Monday asking me to confirm their appointment. I had no idea they even had a dentist appointment. As you know my husband doesn’t tell me anything he does with the kids. I don’t even know how the dentist office got my number but for some reason it was in their records.”

She kept talking faster and faster trying to keep up with the thoughts running through her head.

“So I said, yes, I can confirm the appointment but please give me the date, time and address?” Her eyes lit up.

“I couldn’t be sure they would be going to the appointment or if my ex would forget since they called me for the confirmation. But I decided to risk it and go there to see my kids. So on Wednesday, I took a late lunch from work, and I went to the dentist and sat in the waiting room.”

“Oh my God, what happened? I asked.

“I was so nervous –I could feel my hands trembling. I waited for about ten minutes praying they’d come. Then the door opened and I saw them walk in! They arrived fifteen minutes before their appointment time.”

“What did you do when they walked in?” My heart raced.

“I just smiled and said ‘Surprise!’ They saw me immediately, yelled ‘Mommy,’ and ran over to hug me. ‘What are you doing here?’ they asked. I told them I just wanted to  spend a few minutes with them. They were thrilled! They each sat on either side of me and held my hand and we chit chatted about their day.”

“Was your ex-husband there?” I asked, wondering what kind of reaction he had.

“Yes, he was! He was so shocked to see me that he didn’t react. He just nodded his head, sat on the opposite side of the waiting room and never said a word. When the nurse called their names, I gave them one last kiss and hug and slipped out the door to head back to work. Caroline, it was one of the happiest moments I’ve had in a long time.”

That evening Suzy’s kids were beyond thrilled to get on FaceTime with her and relive the surprise from that afternoon. They told her they got their teeth cleaned and they didn’t have any cavities. Before they were ready to shut the computer off and go to bed, her daughter looked straight into the camera and said “Thanks, Mommy. It was really awesome to see you today.”

Just like that, Suzy stopped being a victim of her circumstances. She started playing by her own rules and showed her ex and her kids that she wasn’t going anywhere. She would do anything and everything to be there for her kids, even if it meant a late lunch, a fifteen minute playdate at the dentist office, and driving both ways.

We’ll never know why the dentist’s office called her instead of their father that day, but let’s just chalk it up to the Universe had her back. She was so very grateful for that.

A Moment of Clarity:

Parental alienation is real and can make it very difficult for a parent to reach their child. But keep trying. Show up in any way you can and let your kids know that you will always be there for them–even if it means popping in for a quick visit at the dentist!

 

Surviving Summer

It had been one of those days. Monday. Ely wanted the day to be fun for her three girls. She planned to get up early and get out of the house to enjoy the day. Maybe go to the park or somewhere fun to play. But Ely couldn’t get her act together. In fact, she couldn’t get past breakfast. She wanted the girls to have a healthy breakfast – but the kitchen isn’t her strong suit. The girls hated the smoothie she made and refused to drink it.  Cindy, her two-year-old, knocked the smoothie down to the floor in one of her crying fits. Bella, the five-year-old, hit Sammy, the three-year-old, and took her toy. They each ate a few bites of the pumpkin oatmeal pancakes Ely made, but it certainly wasn’t worth the mess she’d made in the kitchen.

Somehow it was noon and the girls were still in pajamas. Ely was in pajamas. The house looked like a hurricane hit it and her husband hates to come from work and find the house messy. Oh, and the girls were hungry. Of course they were, they barely ate breakfast. 

And then Ely checked her phone.

All the school moms were posting on the group chat what their kids were doing this week.

Suzy was in gymnastics camp. Christy was in acting camp. Lily was having a blast in nature camp. Ely had debated whether to put her girls in specialty camps this summer but since she works three days a week, she preferred to keep her girls home on her two off-days so they could spend time together. Only the summer camp at her daughter’s school would allow her to bring the girls three times a week.

Mia’s mom had also kept Mia home this week. She was posting pics of the scavenger hunt she’d set up in her backyard and the healthy snacks she’d prepared for her daughter. Mia loves all the healthy foods her mom makes. After lunch, they were going to do some school work so Mia is ready for First grade.

Ely was still trying to get the girls to brush their teeth.

Ely sat for a moment on her sofa, watching her little girls run around with disheveled hair and half naked. She felt completely defeated.

I totally suck as a mom.

Not only were her kids stuck at home instead of a “cool” camp, but she couldn’t even manage to do something fun at home like the other mom.

How do they do it?  She thought as her mind went into a downward spiral.

Why am I such a disaster?

I can’t even take care of myself. I don’t exercise. I’m tired all the time.

My kids give me a hard time about everything.

I can’t get it together. 

She spent hours beating herself up, as she picked up the kitchen, put the girls down for nap, fed them lunch, and played with them.

After a very long and brutal day, the girls were bathed and in bed. Ely was laying with Bella reading her a bedtime story. “Ok baby girl,”she said “It’s time for you to go to sleep. Tomorrow you get to go to camp and have fun.”

Bella sat up straight on the bed. “But mommy, I don’t want to go to camp tomorrow.”

“Why not, Bella?”

“Mommy, I just want to be with you.”

Ely couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Bella, you rather stay home with me and do nothing than go to camp with your friends?”

“Yes, mommy. I love being home with you.”

Ely couldn’t hold back the tears. All day she’d beaten herself up for not being as perfect as the other moms, who all seemed to be mothering better than she was. She’d stressed about all the things she wasn’t doing this summer and all the while her daughters got exactly what they wanted. Time with their mommy. 

A friend of mine who has older kids told me once, “I used to think my kids needed quality time with me, but I’ve realized they just want time with me.”

We all have a little Ely in us. We set such high standards for ourselves and we judge ourselves and beat ourselves up for not doing everything perfect. But those are not the standards our kids are holding us too. They don’t need all that. Actually, what they need is so simple.

So next time you’re down in the dumps about how badly you’re failing at this parenting thing – remember Ely.  Give yourself a break. You’re doing the best you can and that’s okay!

A Moment Of Clarity

Don’t worry so much about giving your kids a magical experience this summer. You are the magic.

Be There … Even If Only Through A Window

When I was a little girl, I learned a lesson that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life– that parents can have meaningful relationships with their children despite the obstacles life puts in their way.

I was 9 years old. My parents were divorced and this was my weekend to be home with Mom. We spent the day working on my closet. My mother and father were both disorganized but disorganized in very different ways so I guess I inherited a “double genetic dose” as a result! 

My father’s spaces were always cluttered. There wasn’t a corner or crevice in his home that didn’t contain a book, magic trick, or cherished memento. But, no matter how much stuff there was, he knew where everything he needed was… his financial papers, his work documents, and his books. Within his mess there was order

On the other hand, my mother’s home looked impeccable, but she never knew where anything was! Her approach was to put everything in boxes and line them up so everything looked neat. Then she planned to go through the boxes to see what to keep and what to toss later. But with three children to raise, “later” rarely came.
Mom and I sat cross legged on the floor, stuffing my stuff in boxes and placing them in rows, hanging up all my clothes, lining up my shoes and lovingly placing my dolls and their clothes in boxes. It had been a long day but the result was worth it. I was proud!

The phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hi mi amor!” My dad said, enthusiastically.

“Hi dad!” 

I was always excited to hear my dad’s voice, but today I couldn’t wait to share my accomplishments.

“How are you? How was your day?” he asked. 

“Great Dad! Guess what we did.” 

“What?” he matched my excitement.

“My mom and I organized my closet! I have all my toys in pretty boxes. My clothes and shoes are all neat. It looks awesome!”

My voice changed when I remembered the rules. See, I had a stepdad and he didn’t allow my dad to come into my house. My mom (who is an angel)  had to deal with his tough personality. One of the accommodations she made was to get me my own private phone line so my dad and I could talk whenever we wanted.

“I wish you could see it, Dad, but I know you can’t come into my house.” 

Hearing the sadness in my voice, Dad responded, “My love, I wish I could see it too but I’m sure it looks great. Tell me more about it.”

I was a little girl living in a different home than her father did, a little girl who wanted him to be there with her when he couldn’t be. It wasn’t fair! I didn’t ask my parents to get divorced. And I didn’t understand why my dad couldn’t come in my house. But I wasn’t one to nag so I tried to let it go. 

We chatted a little while longer and then my dad said, “Ok mi amor, you’ve got school tomorrow so you need to get ready for bed. Sleep with the angels, my love. I will call you tomorrow.”

“Okay daddy, goodnight.” 

“Love you!” (My dad always ended a conversation with an “I love you”.)

“I love you too.”

I showered, brushed my teeth, pulled on my pajamas, kissed my mom goodnight, and headed back to my room to watch TV.

Suddenly there was a tap on my window. It freaked me out, actually. I stood on my bed and leaned over my headboard to peer out. There was a face staring back at me! I didn’t know whether to scream or run. But then I recognized my father’s large hand waving from side to side and zoomed in on his unmistakable smile.

I pulled up the blinds and opened the window. 

“Dad, what are you doing here?” 

He chuckled, “Just because I can’t come in your house doesn’t mean I can’t see your closet. Come on, show me!”

I jumped out of bed, slid the closet doors open, and showed my dad all my orderly boxes, tidy clothes and neat shoes a la Vanna White. Smiling, he gave his signature” thumbs up!”

I jumped back on my bed, stood on my tippy toes and pressed my lips against the screen. Dad pressed his lips against the screen on the other side and gave me a kiss. “I love you, mi cielo. And, I love your closet. Now get to sleep so you can rest.” 

Happy, I closed my window, let down the blinds, climbed into bed and drifted off to sleep. It had only taken thirty seconds for Dad to see my closet through the window, but the memory of his being there for me, in that moment, will be etched in my heart forever.

A MOMENT OF CLARITY

Divorce doesn’t have to destroy your relationships with your kids. You may have to show up in creative ways. You may have to overcome some obstacles. But you can always Be There Even When You’re Not.

The Hardest Promise To Keep- A lesson in Delaying Gratification

Do you ever set a goal like quitting smoking, losing weight, or writing a book, and then decide not tell anyone about it? We all do that. Do you know why? Because it’s easier to make excuses when no one else is counting on us or expecting us to keep our word.   

The hardest promises to keep are the ones we make to ourselves. My seven year old, Justin, was confronted with a promise that was hard to keep, and his experience taught me a lot about parenting and self -control.

I’ve invested a lot of time teaching my three boys to eat healthy although they love pizza, fries, chips and desserts like other kids. Justin, however, is the one who has most taken to a healthy lifestyle. Lately I’ve found him more conscious of his food choices. He’s learned to read the ingredients of anything with a label on it and he knows whole foods are best, even though he still treats himself to the unhealthy stuff.

We were vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina when we unexpectedly ran into Nick and Chris, Orly and Justin’s best friends from school. They were staying in a cabin in Black Mountain and their parents invited us to come spend the night. The boys had a blast eating Oreo cookies, pizza, chips, and any other treats they could find.  We allowed them to let loose because we were on vacation— but Justin knew exactly what he was doing.

In the midst of hide-and-go-seek games and running around like lunatics, Justin took me aside and whispered quietly, “Mommy, I’ve eaten a lot of junk today so, as of tomorrow, I’m not going to eat anything with sugar for two days. Okay, mommy!”  And off he went to play again. I admit I didn’t take Justin seriously or thought he’d follow through with his promise.

The next morning was New Year’s Eve. I woke up and went upstairs to make my coffee and write. Our friends were making breakfast, and a delicious aroma of bacon and warm croissants wafted through the house. Eventually, I heard voices echoing and little feet stomping downstairs.

“Mommy,”Justin said proudly as he came upstairs. “Nick gave all the kids Oreo cookies this morning, but I didn’t even have one.”

“That’s great, Justy,” I smiled.

He insisted. “Remember I told you I wasn’t going to eat sugar for two days, Mommy? That’s why I refused to eat the Oreo cookie.”

“Yes, Justy, I’m very impressed that you’re sticking to your promise. Great job, buddy.” Pleased, he went off to find his friends.

Moments later, a yell sounded from the kitchen: “Boys, breakfast is ready.” The kids gathered around the kitchen island and took their seats. Eggs, bacon, potatoes and chocolate-filled croissants were arrayed on the table. Everyone migrated towards the croissants. Justin stared at them with a pained expression.

“How are you doing, buddy?” I asked.

“Those croissants look so delicious,” he licked his lips. 

I could tell he really wanted one. I wondered if he regretted ever telling me about his pledge to avoid sugar. Would he feel judged by me for quitting? He’s only seven years old, I thought. I’m not going to make him feel bad if he wants to eat one little croissant.

“Justy,” I said gently as I stroked his arm, “Don’t worry about the promise you made not to eat sugar. It’s New Year’s Eve; You’re with your friends; We’re on vacation; Maybe today was not a good day to make that promise. Eat the croissant.”

Justin stared at it. His little lips tightened as he thought about it. “No, mommy. I’m not going to eat any.”

 “Justin, you realize you didn’t make this promise to me. You made this promise to yourself. I won’t be disappointed at all if you eat the croissant. I want you to be happy and enjoy yourself.”

“I know mommy. Can I have some eggs and bacon please?”

I was amazed. My little boy was showing self-discipline and strength. I put a generous serving of eggs and bacon on his plate and handed it to him. “Justin, the hardest promises to keep in life are the ones we make to ourselves. The fact that you’re keeping this promise to yourself shows me that you can do anything. You’re going to be successful in everything you do, son.”

A huge smile came across his face. He enjoyed his eggs and bacon.

Delayed gratification means you resist the temptation for an immediate reward in order to receive a later reward. This concept was proven many years ago by a psychological study known as “The Marshmallow Test.”  My dad popularized this test with his book, “Don’t Eat The Marshmallow…Yet!” Delaying gratification is something anyone can learn to do, but it’s not always easy.

Although I’m a big proponent of “not eating the marshmallow” the way my dad taught me, here I was encouraging Justin to do just that. I didn’t want him to feel deprived of something he wanted on his vacation, nor did I want to see him suffer. I reassured him that I would not judge him if made an exception to his promise. I used every excuse in the book, and then realized, those are the justifications we all use when we want instant gratification. We spend more money than we should, we eat things we should avoid, we sleep in and don’t make it to the gym. And we justify our actions with acceptable excuses like:

“I’m on vacation,” or

“This is a special occasion,” or

“You only live once.”

True or not,  those are all excuses.  

Justin missed eating that croissant for five minutes, but what he gained in exchange will last him a lifetime. He felt empowered by following through on his choice, and that made him happy.

It’s hard to keep promises we make to ourselves because it’s easy to talk ourselves out of it. That’s why you should always have an accountability partner when trying to reach goals. But even your accountability partners can enable you to make excuses for yourself, like I did with Justin.  

Next time you want to break a promise you’ve made to yourself, and no one is watching—or someone is encouraging you to do it— remember you have the power to delay gratification. The more mindful you are about it, the more control you can take over your own actions. See yourself empowered by your own self-control. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, you can develop self-control. It’s the little wins that set you up for the big wins.

A Moment of Clarity

With every choice we make, we create our own success story.

My little boy taught me that.

Bold Conversations, Funerals, & A Bright Yellow Dress

Yany was ten years old when her Cuban grandma, Abuela Fifi, began taking her to the cemetery. An only child with working parents, Yany spent a lot of time doing “old people” things like going to the doctor and running errands. But by far, Yany’s favorite outing with her grandma was their monthly trip to the cemetery.

Yes, the cemetery.

Yany didn’t understand why grandma would drive to the burial ground office to deliver a check once a month. They would engage in this brief transaction and then be on their way.

Then came the best part:

Yany would beg Abuela Fifi to drive around the plots.  Moving at a snail’s pace, Abuela Fifi would lower the windows as Yany read the names on the tombstones and created elaborate stories about the peoples lives.

“Oh look, that’s Maria Victoria! She was a beautiful singer, and she loved to wear polkadot dresses.” Yany would proclaim. Grandma would smile and move on to the next plot. “Fernando! Fernando was a grouch. You know he didn’t even like talking to his neighbors.”

Plot after plot, Yany and grandma visited real people and told stories of their pretend lives. Children are like that. They don’t need much to spark their creativity. They can make believe, tell stories, create drama and humor, conflict and triumph – and do it effortlessly. They don’t care if it makes sense or not; it’s just fun.

One day, Abuela Fifi encountered a situation that got her thinking. Her granddaughter loved the cemetery. She willingly accompanied her month after month, but she knew nothing about the reality of why they were going. Abuela was a powerful woman who believed in telling children the truth about life. Though she loved to indulge Yany, she also wanted to prepare, educate, and guide her.  So on the next trip to the cemetery, she decided to have a very honest and bold conversation about what this all meant.

“Yany, do you know why we come here and why I write a check and hand it to the gentleman at the desk?” she asked gently.

“No.” Yany shrugged, eager to get to storytime.

“Well, the reason I write a check is because I am paying for my funeral arrangements. You see, I am going to die one day and the tombs we drive around looking at… there will be one for me.” Yany’s eyes opened wide.  Abuela put her arm around her and said “You don’t have to be scared. Death is part of life. We all die. And though this is the place I’ve chosen for my body to rest, I will not be here.

“Where will you be?” Yany asked.

Oh,  I will be with God, and in your heart and mind. I will always be with you, even though you won’t be able to see me anymore.”

Abuela Fifi was inspired even though Yany was nervous. They were sitting on a couch in the lobby of the funeral home and surrounding them were different rooms where viewings were being held.  Abuela Fifi stood up and grabbed Yany’s hand. “You see that room? There is a coffin in there with a person who has died in it. Walk on over and look inside. You should see what a dead person looks like so you are never afraid of death. Go on.” Yany looked into the room and saw lots of people dressed in black gathered together. “Abuela, I don’t want to go in there.”

Abuela smiled, “Come on, Yany, you have nothing to be afraid of, go on in. You can do it.” 

“But Abuela, I’m not scared; I’m embarrassed. I’m wearing a bright yellow dress!”

Even at ten, Yany could sense that she wasn’t dressed appropriately. “Oh, that doesn’t matter. Go ahead, Yany. It’ll just take a minute.” Yany hesitated, but she walked up to the coffin in her bright yellow dress, peeked inside, counted to ten, and ran back to her grandmother.  

Abuela waited for her with open arms, “There. It’s done. You’ve seen a dead person. You no longer have to be afraid. The day I die, you will remember this moment and you will know it is only my body in that casket and not my soul. And don’t come visit me at my tombstone when I die because I won’t be there. Make sure you visit me while I’m still alive! Now let’s go drive around the cemetery so you can tell me all about the different people.” 

Now you may be thinking that Abuela Fifi was insane. You could be judging her for exposing a ten year old to such morbid realities, or comparing her to how your grandma would’ve handled the situation. Regardless of how you feel about what Abuela Fifi did, Yany learned a lot from this experience. 

She became aware at a young age that life is fleeting and temporary, and therefore you must embrace it.

Through the stories she told abut the names on the tombstones, she learned to value her imagination. As adults, too many of us lose our ability to make believe and be creative. Ironically, adulthood is when we need creativity the most. Try making up creative stories about real people. You may find a storyteller lives deep within you. Use that gift.

She learned that in life you have to be pragmatic. There is no use in sugar-coating things or hiding truths, even with kids. Knowledge gives you the power to make informed decisions, think for yourself, and overcome obstacles with courage.

She learned the importance of confronting life with humor. This story offers just one example of Abuela Fifi’s wackiness. The old lady is simply funny. Funny makes life easier and lighter.  It makes hard things easier to swallow. When Abuela Fifi is no longer here, Yany will laugh whenever she retells her grandma’s stories, and, let’s face it, there’s no better way to remember someone than with a smile.

Lastly, Yany learned to shine. There will be times in life when you will not be dressed appropriately, you won’t fit in with the crowd, or you will be the only one standing up for something you believe in. There will be times when you’ll look like a fool and want the Earth to swallow you. You may feel like you’re wearing a bright yellow dress at a funeral.  You’ll be afraid. You’ll be embarrassed. But you’ll get through it.  

And then there will be times of tragedy and of grief – maybe in your circle, or your community, or the world.  Times when it will feel like you’re navigating in black seas. During those times, I want you to think of that same bright yellow dress. I want you to wear it. I want you to be the light that shines in the darkness, like Yani did that day. It takes courage and confidence to wear yellow when everyone around you is wearing black. Like Abuela Fifi would say “Go on little one, there is nothing to be afraid of.” 

(Abuela Fifi’s tombstone has long been paid for, but she is still alive and probably reading this blog post laughing at how crazy she was back then. Yany visits her often and is thankful for all the time she’s had with her.)

Create meaningful relationships with your kid with this resolution

Let Go of Presumed Resolutions This Year!

January is notorious for increased gym memberships, fasts, diet plans, and energized people ready to tackle the year to come.  We tend to make resolutions that are tangible – like losing weight, exercising, or traveling. And then there are what I call,  “presumed resolutions.” These are resolutions we should make to achieve an intended result, but we leave those results to chance.  For example, I would guess we all want to have meaningful and close relationships with our children, but we assume that happens automatically if we are “good” parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles. Yet, good people don’t always have great relationships with their kids, do they?

I want to share with you a resolution you can implement today that can help you have a meaningful relationship with your child in the years to come. It’s based on a true story.

On December 13, 1979 – five days after I was born – my father sent me a postcard. Yes, only five days after my birth my father had to travel for work. The truth is that I didn’t need my father during my first week of life, nor would I miss him if he were gone. The only thing a baby needs is to be fed, changed, wrapped in a blanket, and loved. My mother was doing a perfectly fine job of caring and loving me, so I didn’t need anyone else.

I did not read that postcard or even know that he sent it until I was 36 years old.

Over the years my father sent me hundreds and hundreds of postcards. Many were thrown away or lost in the mail, but when I was old enough to read them, I would wait for the cards to come in the mail and I collected them in a cardboard box. I loved receiving those cards and even though I didn’t realize it then, it was through those postcards that my father consistently communicated his love for me.

One day my mother came over to my home holding several large, old photo albums. She’d been doing some spring cleaning.

“It’s time for you keep these in your home; I’ve held on to them long enough!” she said handing me the albums. I flipped through the pages, seeing pictures of myself as a baby and little mementos my mom had kept –the hospital card, the hospital bracelet, a little card that came with a bouquet of flowers. And then I saw it, Dad’s First Postcard, preserved for 36 years in a self-adhesive photo page.

building relationships through postcards
I wasn’t surprised to see a postcard from my father, but what I couldn’t believe was how soon he started sending them. Why would he send me something he knew I couldn’t read or appreciate?

My dad knew he’d always be traveling because of his career. He wasn’t going to be physically with me every day, but he wanted to be close to me regardless. He made a promise to send me a postcard from everywhere he went so I would always know he was thinking of me.

My father couldn’t control whether my mom would save the card for me or read it to me when I was older. (Luckily for him– and for me – she did save the card for me.) He couldn’t control whether the card would be lost in the mail or if I would ever know that he sent it. The only thing my father could control was sending the postcard.

That’s the thing about relationships. You cannot predict how the other party will respond. You can’t ensure that the other person will appreciate your efforts or sacrifices. The only thing you can control is your own actions.

So what can you do to create a special relationship with your child this year? Start today. Make a promise to your child you know you can keep. That promise will depend on your personal circumstances. Are you divorced and only see your child every other weekend? Do you live far from away? Do you live with your child but work long hours? Do you travel often?  Is the child a niece or nephew or grandchild?

Call every day. Facetime. Skype. Send a postcard. Send an email. Do whatever works for you … but do it consistently. Don’t worry whether or not your baby is old enough to know the difference. This is as much a promise to yourself.

It doesn’t matter what route you choose or what promise you make as long as the message to the child is clear: I love you.

Don’t leave your relationships with your children to chance. Not this year.  Take control of that which is in your control, regardless of the circumstances. Do that and you’ve already won half the battle.

In the years to come, your children will grow to cherish the promises you make and keep, and they’ll know you will always be with them—even when you’re not

The Expected Surprise

Surprises are often used as a way to communicate love or appreciation. Regardless of your personal feelings about surprises (some people claim they hate them, these unexpected events are proven to increase dopamine production in our brains. But surprises don’t always have to be unexpected. You can actually create “surprise traditions” that can strengthen your relationships and bring incredible joy to your loved ones. Let me give you an example:

Twelve Decembers ago, I was in my boyfriend’s apartment studying for my law school exams. I heard the front door open and knew he’d arrived, but I did not expect what I saw next. The door slammed open as my boyfriend shoved in a large, bushy Christmas tree.  All I could see was his smile behind the fresh green branches that covered up his whole body.

“Surprise!”

I was indeed stunned.  This was our first Christmas dating and we didn’t live together so the last thing I expected was for us to decorate a Christmas tree at his place.

Amazed, I muttered a “Thanks babe!”

When I was little, my mom and my stepfather put up an artificial white Christmas tree every year. It was pretty, didn’t make a mess, and was a one-time expense. There was nothing wrong with it. But in all the Christmas movies I watched, I’d see families going out to pick their special tree at a local farm. I dreamed of how it would look and smell in my home if I had one of my own.

“You said you always wanted a ‘real’ Christmas tree when you were growing up so I figured, why not get you one this year. Even though you don’t live here, we can put our gifts under this tree and celebrate Christmas together.”

Now, thanks to my boyfriend, I finally had a real tree. I was touched.  Excited we purchased a box of Christmas lights and candy canes to adorn it.

That boyfriend became my husband and now, twelve years later, he still “surprises” me with a Christmas tree every winter—even though it’s an expected surprise.

You see, I was sure that after we were married, we would go together each year to buy our tree. In early December of our first year of marriage, he told me he was going to the store to pick up something we needed. But guess what he returned with instead. Yes. A tree.  

The following year he did the same thing. Then we had kids. I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle that. Would we start buying trees as a happy family, or would he surprise the kids as well? Neither. Year after year, he takes the kids with him and they all surprise me!

Every winter I know that my husband, Orlando, is going to buy me a Christmas tree, but I never know how or when it’s coming. This year he bought it the day before Thanksgiving. Other years he buys it the first week of December, or the day after Thanksgiving, or on the day of my December birthday. The “surprise day” the tree arrives is part of our family tradition.

This tradition brightens every Christmas holiday. My kids look forward to conspiring with their dad to ensure that I will be surprised, and I feel so special that they go through all the trouble.  Knowing they are going to buy me the tree doesn’t make the surprise any less special. It’s more special because it is also a tradition. Every time I think of Christmas, I think about how wonderful my family is. When my boys grow up, they may repeat our tradition with their own families, or maybe they will come up with surprises of their own, but they will carry our Christmas tree tradition in their hearts when we’re no longer around.

Create a “surprise tradition” in your family. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. All you need is a simple surprise to communicate “I love you.” Surprises are repeatable. As you do surprise your family again and again, your special act will become a tradition. You will plant seeds in the hearts of your loved ones that will be there even when you’re not.

Please tell me in the comments below what “expected surprise traditions” you have in your family, no matter what the occasion. Include as many details as you can so you can help someone who needs a boost.