10 Free (or Practically Free) Gifts Your Kids Really Want

I just returned from the grocery store, where they are ready for the last minute Valentine’s Day rush. The bouquets of roses are at the beginning of every checkout lane to make it as easy as humanly possible. Sure your kids might love some chocolate tomorrow or a present on their birthday or for Christmas. The truth, though, is that there are ten things they would secretly love even more, but will probably never put on their gift lists.

Looking to make your children feel loved and valued? Hoping to lessen the chances they get involved in risky behaviors? While you might still want to give that birthday or Christmas present with a bow on top, try giving them these things throughout the year.

  1. A date with Mom or Dad. It doesn’t have to be fancy. The more children you have, the more important the gift of getting one on one time with a parent giving you their undivided attention while doing something enjoyable together means. This is not a time for you to lecture, but a time to enjoy one another’s company and for you to be a fully engaged listener.
  2. Family game night. When is the last time your family sat down and played a board game together? If you can’t afford a game, try thrift shops and yard sales (our library book sale sometimes has board games) or have fun creating your own board game together and then playing it. (You can use poster board, an old box or a board canvas.)
  3. 8 hugs (or positive touches) a day. I’m not sure the number eight has held up in more recent research, but the principle is the same. Your kids are starved for positive physical touches from you (if they are in a don’t hug me phase, try another type of touch like patting them on the back, fist bumps, high fives, etc.). The more they get, the more their physical touch “bucket” will be filled, making them happier, healthier and less likely to try and get physical touch in inappropriate ways.
  4. Hearing you say “I love you” and “I really like you/enjoy spending time with you” multiple times a day. For some children hearing “I like you” means more than “I love you” (because they believe you are forced to love them as a parent, but you choose to like them), but they all need to hear both statements regularly. Don’t just assume they know it. They probably do, but they still desperately need to hear you say the words.
  5. Working on a project together. The project doesn’t matter as long at it is something you are both motivated to do. It can be repainting their bedroom, building or making something, cooking something fun or for someone else, a service project, a garden….. ask your kids what they think would be fun. Being equally invested in a project and working as a team – where you respect their opinions and give them some ownership – makes them understand that you realize they are growing and maturing and have something to contribute.
  6. Hearing your (now) funny growing up stories. It helps to know you weren’t always as perfect as you may seem to them now. It also can teach them that often something that is embarrassing today may become one of their favorite funny stories with time. It also shows them you can laugh at yourself – especially important if they are beginning to think of you as uptight or rigid. Just make sure your stories don’t sound as if you are actually making fun of them, but rather that you can empathize, because you have been there yourself.
  7. Cranking up the music and singing or dancing around the house. They may roll their eyes at your “old” music, but they may not realize some of their “new” music is actually a remake or a sampling from your favorite tunes. Save the classical and jazz for other times and pull out the fun stuff you listened to as a child or a teen.
  8. Go on an adventure. Adventures require curiosity and exploration – not necessarily money. Why not explore an unfamiliar hiking trail that is supposed to have a unique aspect to it? Or for a few dollars, check out a cool museum exhibit. Those of you who have teens and are braver can try some truly adventurous things. Sometimes searching online for “off the beaten path” and your location can unearth some things you might never find on your own. (Note: Some of the people who create these lists are bar hoppers. Atlas Obscura generally has a wider range of ideas.)
  9. Learn something new together. This needs to be chosen by your child. Craft stores, cultural art centers, hardware stores and other places often offer short term, affordable classes. The benefit of two of you doing it together is that you may be able to share some basic tools. (Check before assuming you can do that though.) Not only will you have a shared experience, but a fun topic of conversation outside of class as you work on learning or perfecting the new skill.
  10. Uninterrupted, undistracted listening from you. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to talk with someone who is obviously distracted. In fact if it happens more than once, you probably give up trying to discuss things with that person or to get their advice. It’s not always something you can schedule ahead of time. The next time one of your children wants to tell or ask you something, but everything down and give him or her your full attention. Listen actively. Let them completely finish before you do anything more than ask clarifying questions. If you get in the habit of doing it, you may just be surprised how much your kids will talk to you and what they are willing to share with you and get your thoughts about.

So go run to the store and buy your kids some chocolate or a birthday gift. But give them the gifts above, too. They will probably remember those gifts much longer than they will remember whatever you purchased and wrapped.

Fun Family Service Activity That Grows Character As Well

As I write this, much of the country is being blanketed with snow and ice. The rest of us are just really cold! Spring may seem far away, but for some areas, in just a few weeks, the early Spring blooms will appear. It’s a great time to start a family service activity that will help your children work on their character as well.

You will need to gather a few supplies before starting. You will want some containers you can use as temporary pots. Have some fun recycling containers around your house like those for drink or food. You will also need some soil. While you can use the dirt in your yard, for best results you may want to purchase a small bag of soil that already has some fertilizer mixed in. Finally, if you cook using fresh fruits and vegetables, you may already have what you need, but if not, you will need a few grocery items listed below.

Start by talking to your kids about the various times in the Bible when people didn’t have enough food. Discuss the various ways people found food – usually by traveling to a place that had more food, by sharing with others, by a miracle or some combination of factors. If you want to focus on a specific story, Elijah and the widow in 1 Kings 17:7-24 is a good one to use.

Explain that even today, some people have problems finding enough food to eat. Some children live in families where their parents don’t give them very much food and the only food they get is when they are at school. It is important to help children who are hungry have enough food to be healthy. It is also a great way to serve them to teach them how to grow their own free food when they aren’t able to purchase it.

Explain that when we cook, we often throw away things that could be planted and grow us free food for the future. It takes a little while at first, but if you regularly plant these things when you use them, you will soon have a steady supply of free food. If you don’t have land to plant a garden or it is cold outside, many of these things can be grown in containers and indoors. (FYI: Home Depot sells great Meyer lemon and key lime trees that produce fruit in pots indoors.)

Here’s a partial list of some of the things you and your children can plant to grow free food. Please note that seeds in some hybrid fruits and vegetables will not produce plants or plants that produce fruit. If you have access to a farmers’ market, their produce often works best. For plants where you plant roots, most grocery store items will work fine.

  1. Onions – plant roots you chop off
  2. Celery – plant bottom you chop off (it’s a root)
  3. Garlic – plant a clove and get a bulb of cloves eventually
  4. Romaine lettuce – plant the bottom you chop off
  5. Ginger – plant a small section, preferably with a “knot” on it
  6. Herbs – place a stem of the herb in a glass of water in sunlight, once roots grow, plant in dirt
  7. Potato – let grow “eyes” then plant each eye
  8. Sweet potato – place toothpicks and put bottom off in water in a glass in sunlight, planting in dirt once a vine grows
  9. Carrots – plant the leafy green top you chop off
  10. Beets and other similar root vegetables – plant leafy top you chop off
  11. Pineapple – chop off leafy top with a bit of fruit and plant (I’ve gotten a beautiful plant, but no fruit although some people also get fruit)
  12. Seeds from things like tomatoes. Note that this process takes much longer and can be hampered if the seeds are from a hybrid.

If you really enjoy the project, there are more extensive lists and instructions online. Your family may also want to explore hydroponic gardening. Some missionaries in food deprived areas also teach a type of gardening that is combined with raising fish that is really fascinating.

Growing food from kitchen scraps can teach your children patience, perseverance, responsibility, a strong work ethic, generosity, a servant heart and other godly character traits. It also teaches them a practical life skill that will help them have free food should they ever need it, and allows them to empower those without sufficient food to grow their own food, too. It’s a great family project for any time of the year!

Can Your Kids Benefit From Sick Days?

To me, one of the very worst parts of parenting was when my kid was sick. I hated to see her suffering and there’s often very little you can do other than try to minimize symptoms until they fight off the virus. Those first couple of days are rough, but what about the day or two when they aren’t quite well, but are feeling much better?

Do you rush them back to school and activities so you can get back to work or get them out of the house? A few of you don’t have a choice, but for those who can work from home or already stay at home, why rush your child back when he or she is probably still contagious? Instead, give the ailing child a little extra TLC and attention. Snuggle up and read a book or watch a movie (yup movies on sick days are not going to ruin them for life)? Sit by the fire and let them talk about anything and everything while they drink some warm tea. Lay down with them when they take a nap (because you’re probably sleep deprived too and have already been exposed to their germs).

While we are thinking about giving our kids more time and attention, why not think of times when they are healthy that you can spend some one on one time with them, listening, supporting, nurturing, teaching, coaching, encouraging, loving? Maybe everyone in your family needs to cut out one activity, so you all have more time together for family dinners and board game nights. The children in the Netherlands are supposedly the happiest kids in the world, and most attribute it to the fact that families eat breakfast and dinner together at the table, every day – regardless. It gives the kids plenty of time to get focused attention from their parents each day and parents an opportunity to catch up with their kids and talk about what they hope is truly important to their children – like being a faithful, productive Christian as an adult.

Make this year a retro year for your family. Bring back spending time together enjoying each other – not in the car running from activity to activity. You might be surprised how much happier and better your kids are.

Rethinking Happy Mom, Happy Child

For years, there has been a common saying told to mothers everywhere. Whenever a mom (for some reason, dad is never mentioned) is trying to decide whether or not to do something that impacts her children, inevitably someone will say, “Happy mom, happy child”. Is that necessarily always true? Is it really what is in the best interest of our children?

Not let me preface this post by saying I am not a member of the moms should be martyrs club. Even children can be selfish and may want to prevent their mom from doing something that won’t harm them in any way and will actually be good for both mother and child in the long run. It may even be exasperating because to you the choice should be a happy one for your child, too (like having a new baby).

Often, however, the saying has also been used to justify taking actions that will definitely cause pain to the child and worse yet things that are known to harm children. As Christians, we are told to consider the needs of others. There is no gospel message of putting your desires above the needs of others. God calls us to love others self-less-ly, not selfishly. What’s a mom to do?

I can’t tell you what to do in every instance where the desires of the mother and child don’t align. Even the same option. in two different families may have two different answers. What I can do, however, is share some things to consider as you encounter one of these “happy mom, happy child” type choices.

  • What does God have to say about it? The Bible is great because, while it may not list every possible situation one may encounter in life, it does contain a lot of godly principles that can apply to a lot of different life dilemmas. If all else fails, read verses on parenting, love and selfishness v. service/love, etc.
  • Pray. Not the “Please God let me have my way regardless”, but seriously asking God to give you the wisdom to make a wise choice that impacts your child spiritually in a positive way.
  • Allow your children to voice their concerns… respectfully. This is important. Your children will do better in any situation if they feel respected and heard. They also need to learn to disagree with others in a respectful, loving way. If they start being disrespectful, have them go off by themselves until they can present their case respectfully.
  • Consider their objections seriously. If they are communicating they are heartbroken over your choice, it is important to consider whether or not what you want is worth the pain it will cause them. Sometimes, you have no choice, but when you do, it is worth some extra consideration.
  • Is there a creative way that both you and your child can be happy? We tend to think there are only three options in any conflict – your way, my way and a comprise where neither one of us is happy. The truth is there may be several other creative solutions that may leave both of you satisfied.
  • Give your child permission to mourn and be empathetic during that time of mourning. If your choice is breaking your child’s heart, it is unfair to expect him or her to be excited about it – especially as excited as you are. If the loss is major in the mind of your child, he or she may have to mourn it as they might the loss of a friend or relative. Don’t try to force your child into happiness. It just causes children to be angry. Empathize with the pain your child is feeling.
  • Remember your child is still a child. Yes, you want your children to consider what is best for you, too. It’s a bit unrealistic, however, to expect young children to be “happy for mom” that you are getting a divorce, moving a long distance, switching from a homemaker to a career outside of the home or making some other choice that greatly impacts their lives. Getting angry because they are not putting your happiness first is unfair.
  • Sometimes what is in the best interest of your children is for you to sacrifice your desires for a time. Rarely is something truly a “once in a lifetime” offer. Often your desires can be deferred to a time when it will not be as disruptive to the lives of your children. I did not have our daughter until I was in my 30’s and I can promise you that most of you will have many years for second, third and even fourth acts after your children leave home. If what you want to do aligns with God’s plans for you, He may just catapult you farther and faster than if you had taken the option at a time that would not have been best for your children.
  • When there is not a better option, take the time to explain as many times as necessary why you need to ignore their desires and do what you think is best. This can actually be a good lesson for them about how God answers our prayers at times (assuming your decision is not a selfish one, but an unavoidable or truly best choice). Sometimes parents, and by extension God, say no to a request because it is ultimately in the best interest of the child. Or it may be a situation where you were not actually given a choice in the matter. Regardless, your children should be told age appropriate information to help them understand your decision making process. It may not make the choice less painful, but it does teach them how to make godly, tough choices.

“Happy mom, happy child” is not always true and we need to stop pretending it is. Handling those situations with the love and care they deserve is what is in the best interest of your children – regardless of what choice you ultimately make.

Teaching Your Children to Forgive

Have you ever noticed how often you hear someone say something along the lines of, “I don’t real have a relationship with my parents. When I was growing up, they…..”. Now I am not suggesting there are not some parents who are so toxic that they are genuinely dangerous to their children and grandchildren. Most of the time, however, the reasons given for the broken relationship(s) boil down to differences of opinion, style and other more mundane disagreements. While they may never be fully resolved, forgiveness would go a long way to healing broken families of origin.

The problem is that most of us have an extremely warped view of forgiveness – even biblical forgiveness. These mistaken ideas added to other natural barriers to forgiveness, tend to make us dig in our heels and hold onto our grievances. While talking about forgiveness as a concept involving ”other people” can be interesting, we can stay emotionally removed from the impact a lack of forgiveness can have on our own lives.

What, however, if those “other people” become your children? What if you are the person they refuse to forgive because of one or more of your parenting mistakes? Let’s get real. No parent is perfect. Even the most godly, most intentional parent errs. We just assume or hope our kids will forgive and forget. I am sure the parents of those adult children who refuse to forgive them thought the same thing. If you want your children to forgive you now and in the future, you are going to have to teach them about true, biblical forgiveness.

So what are some things you need to teach your children about forgiveness?

  • The overarching story (and many of the other stories) in the Bible is ultimately about broken relationships and forgiveness. The Fall ushered in sin and by choosing to disobey God, Adam and Eve fractured their once perfect relationship with Him. The remainder of the Bible is in reality about the Messiah coming to Earth to make it possible for mankind to repent and receive forgiveness and a restoration of that perfect relationship. Share this overarching story with your children. Teach them the other stories involving forgiveness. Share with them God’s commands about forgiveness. To be truly forgiving of others, it helps if they understand the enormity of God’s forgiveness of them.
  • Don’t accept the reluctant ”Sorry” as an apology or the even more reluctant “Fine” as forgiveness. This is probably one of the most common mistakes parents tend to make. Accepting a non-apology as an apology and non-forgiveness as forgiveness doesn’t teach your children anything about forgiveness. In fact, it encourages them to fake their way through the process rather than actually learning how to do the emotional work often needed to apologize and forgive with humility and grace.
  • Acknowledge that apologizing and forgiving can be difficult and take hard work on both sides of the equation. Sure, some things are easy to forgive and forget. The older your children get, however, the more likely they are to encounter a situation that is difficult to forgive. Or one where both parties are firmly convinced they did nothing wrong and don’t need to apologize. These situations break relationships and can cause all sorts of negative life consequences. Teaching them how to handle those situations when they are young is a great way to prepare them for the future.
  • Encourage humility in all things. A huge stumbling block to forgiveness is often pride. We would NEVER do those things that we are angry about…. except, when we hold on to our anger, it becomes bitterness and rage. We can easily become the person with whom we were initially angry. Humbly remembering that they make mistakes and sin, too – even if it is in different ways – and need forgiveness from others, can help your children be a little more empathetic when others sin towards them.
  • Forgiveness does not mean we are saying that what happened was acceptable. Forgiving a murderer does not mean that the murder was justified. It merely means we are no longer going to let our thoughts ruminate on the hurt and anger that murder caused. Will some trigger remind us of our pain from time to time? Quite possibly, but then we make the choice once again to forgive and move on with our lives.
  • Refusing to forgive means our lives will continue to be ruined by that incident. In fact, the repercussions from not forgiving can impact our lives in ways even worse than the initial incident. Did you know refusing to forgive ruins your physical and mental health and can cause fractures in other relationships? The list of the possible negative consequences from refusing to forgive is probably much longer than the list of negative consequences from the original incident. Even if it isn’t, do you really want to add more problems to the ones with which you are already dealing?
  • An effective apology mirrors repentance – stating what was done that was wrong, saying what changes will be made so it won’t happen again, asking for forgiveness and attempting to make atonement for what was hurt in the incident. “Sorry” should be sincere, but is only the beginning. Teach and enforce the rest of the steps. Atonement isn’t always possible, but should be encouraged.
  • Emphasize that forgiveness and apology are about the “heart” even more than the words and actions. Your children should work towards being truly sorry and truly forgiving – not just check off the boxes.
  • Teach your children how to redirect their thoughts when they start thinking about the negative incident. You can’t forgive something you never let yourself forget. Teaching your children how to redirect their thoughts, instead of continually ruminating on the incident, will make it easier for them to forgive.
  • Teach your children to pray for their enemies. I think God knows it’s very difficult to simultaneously be furious at someone while praying for them. By giving us the command to pray for our enemies, God is nudging us towards forgiveness.
  • Discuss the idea of “hurting people hurt people”. I don’t know if this is accurate all of the time and it certainly doesn’t excuse someone for hurting others. For those trying to forgive, however, it can remind their heart to show compassion in spite of their pain.
  • Model godly repentance and forgiveness. Apologizing to your children when you are wrong does not undermine your authority. It can actually increase their respect for you. Children need to be taught, but they also learn from observing you. If they see you forgiving others, they are more likely to do the same.

Even Christians struggle with repentance and forgiveness. Just because you may have not mastered these qualities yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach them to your children. You might just find that teaching your kids helps you improve, too.