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  • Lisa Popcak

This is one of the toughest principles for those of us parenting in modern times to actively apply

on a daily basis.


In the past, families were socialized to prioritize family time. Children were encouraged to play

with real toys and real friends. These daily habits allowed families to relate to each other

frequently and casually, but also more deeply when appropriate because the routine time

together laid the foundation for deeper meaningful conversations.


Now almost everything is virtual, and of course, this has escalated over the last few years.

Adults and children check in with our friends, and each other virtually. The constant pressure of

virtual availability often has us keeping one eye on our screens even during our “off” hours. We

find a lot of our relaxation time is spent online as well.


Families just aren’t getting the actual real-life interaction time they need to feel connected and

build healthy, holy relationships.


Many parents see this tendency in their children or find that their children are using their devices

in ways they don’t like, or just more than they would prefer, and the reaction is to take their

phones or gaming systems away for a time, hoping that relationships will automatically improve,

that behaviors will suddenly right themselves, or that children will magically develop a Thoreau

style relationship with nature.


What is seldom recognized is that telling a child what NOT to do will not bare the results hoped

for, especially if those results have not been expressed or have been expressed vaguely. Broad

statements like “Go outside and play”, “Think about your behavior” or “Read a book” etc. don’t

give any real, inviting alternatives. They simply express the idea that, at this moment, the parent

doesn’t approve of the child being on a device, however, they still want the child to go away and

busy themselves with something else.


If we want children to develop real relationships with us, friends, God, or even their own minds

and creativity, we must invite and disciple them in doing so in three ways.


  1. Beyond telling them what not to do, we must tell, and teach, them what we want them to do instead.

  2. We must make the alternative be about connection.

  3. We need to make the alternative engaging.


Let’s look at a few examples.


A very common situation is creating the rule “No phones during meal time”. This is a laudable

rule. Research is teaming with evidence that family meals benefit everyone in many ways. But

those benefits do not spontaneously occur if the family is sitting in stony silence or grudgingly

sharing basic facts of the day, or are using that time to discipline or lecture instead of building

relationships.


Instead, the parent(s) must create an engaging atmosphere where all the members feel safe

and invited to share their thoughts and stories. Creating a pleasant atmosphere helps a great

deal. A simple setting free of distractions allows the family to relax into spending time together.

Setting the standard of only kind conversation with no criticism or negativity toward each other

tells them the behavior you expect. It also helps to come to time together with engaging topics

to discuss, such as an interesting article you’ve read, or a question from a pack of conversation

cards. This allows everyone to share in the conversation without feeling put on the spot or

criticized. Setting up meal time this way lets all the family members know what you want them to

do instead of looking at their phones, creates connection between you, and does so in an

engaging way.


Perhaps you want your children to get outside and play, rather than sit staring at a screen. For a

child who rarely experiences unstructured time outside this can feel foreign, leaving them not

knowing what to do. Using the three steps again, we would have a greater chance of success if

we went outside with them (teaching them what to do). We could connect by taking a walk

together, playing on a swing set together, playing catch, collecting leaves, laying on a picnic

blanket and reading aloud together, or other activities you can think of as long as it is something

your child finds inviting and you could both engage in. Doing this several times allows you to

build relationship with your child, and helps your child feel comfortable doing a variety of things

outdoors away from their screens.


If you want your child to spend time outside of school with their friends face to face you can start

using these three steps by generating list of ideas with your child that would facilitate that. For

instance, hosting a board game night at your home with lots of snacks, having a hot dog and

s’mores gathering around a fire pit, taking them and their friends to a fair in the summer or fall,

or sledding in winter. Plan ways to make it fun and engaging for your child and their friend(s).

Doing it this way allows you to make sure the time with their friend(s) is more fun than just

texting each other, and is safe, wholesome, and encourages them to do things like it again.


These three steps can help all the members of our family to prioritize relationship with people

over things as God has always encouraged us to do.

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I think we would all enjoy a warm, loving home life. We might yearn for it even more if we didn’t

grow up in one. It can give all the family members a sense of security, as well as a sense of

rightness about who we are. A warm and loving home is extremely beneficial to the mental

health of all the family members.



Additionally, researchers find that people for whom faith was at the root of the warmth in their

home growing up are less likely to leave their childhood faith in adulthood. If they leave, they will

be more likely to be drawn back, especially once they are raising children themselves.


We all deserve a warm and loving home. Not on our own merit of course, but because we are

children of God made in his image and likeness. He shares his divine dignity with us, and

dwelling in a place that lovingly upholds that dignity is what we intuitively long for.


If we had a chance to live in the same household as Jesus, wouldn’t we want him to feel

honored, comfortable, safe, cozy, listened to, appreciated, and loved? We would want to give

that to him to honor his dignity as God’s son and show him how much we love him.


That’s the kind of home we should want for our families as well, because we honor our status as

God’s children when we do, and help each other live into that dignity.


But what does a warm and loving home look like?


We are bombarded with images of what our homes could look like. Decorating shows, every

social media platform, magazines, and stores dedicated to home decor, give us a zillion ways to

make our homes beautiful. Sometimes all that content can make us feel like we’ll never have it

together enough to have a pretty, perfect home.


The good news is that creating a warm, loving home isn’t about beautiful decor. It’s about

attention to the relationships in the family.


Too often, we put off building relationships with our family members until the house is clean, the

homework is finished, the semester is over, the crisis is past, the emails are answered, etc. Of

course, it never all resolves itself. The world never stops spinning to allow us to focus solely on

our family life.


This is not new to the social media age (although it may heighten it). We see this dynamic

played out in the very famous scripture of Mary and Martha. Jesus is visiting the home of the

two sisters. Martha does what most of us would do. She gets to work to provide a clean space,

a wonderful meal, and all the things that one would do when having an honored guest visit their

home. Mary just plops herself down at Jesus’ feet and visits with him. Martha, feeling like she’s

been stuck with all the work, gets cranky (just as many of us would). She goes to Jesus and

tells him to tell Mary to get up and help her. But then Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are

anxious and worried about many things. There is only one thing, and Mary has chosen the

better part, and it will not be taken from her.”


Aren’t we as moms anxious and worried about many things, especially these days? But creating

a warm and loving home can actually do wonders to reduce our anxiety and worry and that of

our children. But, as this scene shows, it’s not about the constant business of creating and

maintaining that space. It’s about creating moments of connection with our family. Think of the

scene again. Mary just sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet. She’s not caught up in formality or making

a good impression. She’s caught up in Him.


It’s moments of connection that our children’s hearts long for. It’s moments of connection, when

we can get past the tyranny of our to-do lists, that our own hearts long for.


When we aren’t having those moments of connection, we get burned out and think, “Why am I

doing all this? Is it all worth it?” It’s when we have those moments of connection that it all

miraculously becomes worth it.


We see the holy significance of this when we think of what we read of Jesus’ mother Mary in the

bible and the images of her that art has given us. We never see how she decorated her home.

We have no descriptions of how hard she worked to keep her house clean or how beautifully

she plated a meal. What we do have are stories and images of how present she was to her son,

including standing by Him through His entire passion and death. In these stories, she didn’t

necessarily DO anything that she could check off a to-do list. But she was fully present.


This kind of maternal presence is what every child longs for. When they have a bad dream, they

call for mom. We don’t have to DO anything. We just have to be there. When they feel excited

about an accomplishment, we hear, “Hey mom! Look at what I can do!” When they are

struggling, they want their mom’s help and comfort. It is mom’s presence they yearn for.


And you know what, in those moments, they don’t care if you haven’t vacuumed or what you

look like. They aren’t noticing if you have your makeup on, if you're dressed in an awesome

outfit, or if you're looking your worst because you just woke up, or you're in the middle of

scrubbing the bathroom. All your child cares about is that you are present, and they feel safe,

and loved by you. Because your love, attention, and presence affirms their dignity in Christ and

assures them they are someone worth being present to.


Because we are God’s children, we long to connect with the feeling/knowledge/experience of

God in the midst of all the brokenness and difficulty of the world. We get glimpses of our

connection to God through our moments of heart-to-heart connection with others.


As mothers, we are called to fill our children up with these moments and through them, give our

children a sense of the depth of God’s love for them. These moments give them a sense of how

they deserve to be treated as a child of God, and how they should treat others, as children of

God, as well.


But how do we get them?


Moments of connection do not have to be contrived, beautifully detailed, or Instagramable. In

fact, if we post EVERY special moment we have with our kids, we risk making them feel

objectified, and that “likes” are more important than your relationship with them. If social media

is part of how you provide for your family, it is important to set clearly stated boundaries. For

instance, “I need a half-hour to take pictures. After that, the equipment goes away, and I’m all

yours” is a good way to set those boundaries for yourself while managing your family’s

expectations.


Yet moms have fallen into this pattern way before social media. We might put all our energy into

the perfectly presented Christmas/Christmas activity. We might put all our hopes for catching up

with our family, or the kids finally getting along, into that one week of vacation we desperately

need. We might only let ourselves have fun with our kids when we get to that mega theme park.

Even if all those things go perfectly, they are too few and far between to fix any relationship

deficit that exists from not having a consistently close relationship. Of course, those big

moments rarely go perfectly, and if we have all our energy, hopes, and money focused on them,

then anything that does go wrong can feel almost catastrophic.


Now to be clear, no mom does this kind of thing intentionally. It’s just how life seems to work for

various reasons. But we can do something to break the cycle by building warm, nurturing

moments into our ordinary days.


We begin by intentionally looking for opportunities to connect during the day. Little things like

making packed lunches together in the evening, folding laundry together, or turning off the music

and taking out the ear pods when driving somewhere can allow us to just share time and catch

up with each other. When my oldest daughter was in high school, we made it a habit to have a

cup of tea and get ready in the same space every morning just to get some time together. Look

for any opportunity and tweak it to work for you as a moment of connection.


The next step is to actively schedule moments of connection each day and each week. Let’s

start with daily. Many of us feel like there isn’t a second to really connect with our children during

the day, and there’s no denying that with all that is expected from families now that it can be a

challenge. Yet when we know how much our children, and even we, can benefit from real

heart-to-heart connection we can see how important it is to schedule time onto our family

calendar.


Get the family together once a week (perhaps Saturday morning over breakfast) and look over

the coming week’s schedule. Discuss where you can fit in connection time. For instance, there

are a lot of games that only take 15 minutes to play. Can you fit in that 15 minutes to actually

have fun together right after dinner, first thing in the morning to start the day in a happy way, or

right before bed. Be creative!


Other ideas include reading a chapter of a book together, taking a walk together, working on a

project together. What would give you space to create connection? The task doesn’t matter. The

time to connect does.


Now please don’t think that I’m saying that an orderly home, or creating a beautiful atmosphere

is antithetical to creating connection to our family. Those things and little thoughtful details can

help our family members feel special and loved when they are done to enhance our sense of

well-being and our focus on each other. We just have to remember to put the relationship

before the staging. When we do, we invite God to help us remember how much he loves us

through the love we show one another.

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Once heard a priest define God’s grace as, “The gift God makes available to us to help us lean

into our divine nature as His children, and to help us live out all the virtues in a way that is

improbable, if not impossible, without the gift of grace.”


I really appreciated this reflection. When I heard it, it called to my heart. How easy it is in the

non-stop daily life of motherhood to forget that we are given such an amazing gift, that allows us

to move beyond our human limitations, stubbornness, and fears, and allows us to call upon God’s grace at any time?


It’s so important to realize that it really is ANY time. I think many of us think we can only ask for

God’s grace when we are at church or have a special prayer time, or when we are in a terrible

crisis. But we can ask God for His grace at any moment, in any place.


I have learned to do this to keep me calmer, saner, and more capable of being the person, and

the mom, I want to be in all those daily challenges motherhood throws at me.

For me, the prayer usually goes something like this, “Lord, I need your help. This situation is

making me (fill in feeling here: angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, heartbroken, confused, ______).

Please help me be the person you want me to be in this situation. Please show me what to do

and what virtues you want me to practice right now so that I, and the other people in the

situation, feel closer to you and your love.”

Then I take some time to listen and think. Sometimes a fully formed solution will come to mind.

More often, I will just know inside that I have to do one little thing differently, or exercise one

virtue in that moment that I wasn’t in the mood to exercise before I prayed. For instance,

perhaps I suddenly remember to place my child’s well-being before my own frustrations, leading

me to remember to speak more kindly, and work on small steps we can take together to improve

the situation.


Maybe I’m struggling with balancing everyone’s crazy schedules and how overwhelmed I can

feel by having to juggle it all. In that moment I can ask the Creator of the universe, the God who

created the cycles of night and day and the turning of seasons, to lend me a hand in balancing

my life and bringing order and peace to my family life. Getting a God’s eye view of my family’s

scheduling demands gives me a far better perspective and helps me remember that the creator

of everything is also very good at the details. Sometimes this prayer allows me to get my head

around simply taking one thing at a time. Other times God helps me take the initiative to call the

family together to actually map out our schedules and make a plan together to help it all run

more smoothly.


Whatever the situation, when I remember to stay rooted in the grace of God by actually turning

to him and asking for His guidance and help, I am able to exercise virtues and skills that had

previously not been available to me when I was dealing only from a place of overwhelm.

I have often been made aware of others having this experience of grace as well. Countless

times callers to my radio show More2life will begin the call by saying, “This is amazing! I’ve been

going through a tough time, and I told God I needed help. Then I turned on the radio and your

topic today is exactly what I’m needing to hear!


These times are always an amazing blessing to anyone who experiences them. I know

personally that it is possible to experience them more frequently when we practice tuning into

them more by talking to God throughout the day, especially in the mundane times. For instance,

if I am folding laundry and I’m not exactly enthusiastic about one more load, if I just

conversationally admit it to God in my thoughts, I am often suddenly granted the joy of being

grateful for having clothes to fold and loved ones to care for, and then the chore seems easier. I

might consider this smarmy if I was just chastening myself about my attitude. But I’m not. I’m

actually experiencing gratitude bubbling up in me as a gift because God is responding to me

having brought my feelings to Him.


Of course beyond the daily situations, we can all experience truly tragic, difficult times in life. I

am not saying that if we just talk to God we suddenly get the immediate and exact answer to

these kinds of times. But I can say, from many such personal experiences, that when I am

exercising this practice I am much more able to see the small gifts that can console my heart, or

follow promptings that help me take even small steps toward improvement.


The more we root ourselves in talking to God as a constant, compassionate companion, and

tune our awareness to His responses, the more easily we recognize His loving, guiding

response of grace in our lives.

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