Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Long, Long, Letter...

...also known as my crazy Christmas letter.

We hope your 2014 has been filled with joy and peace and love, and that Christmas culminates a beautiful year. Whether it was a tough year or an easy one, sometimes beauty is found in unexpected places, including through sorrow and through the mundane. Our beauty was found this year in God’s faithfulness and provision during rocky times.

Our son Peter, 13 in January, loves science and nature and wants to be a farmer. He put in a beautiful flower and vegetable mixed garden, and talked a lot about going to Africa to help the impoverished with their subsistence farming. Through Amazima, Katie Davis’s non-profit ministry in Uganda, he learned online about Farming God’s Way, which doesn't involve turning over soil, but just digging holes for the seeds, and keeping the surrounding ground untouched, except for a mulch cover made from the previous year’s foliage. Weeds are cut off at ground level so as not to disturb the rich soil, adding to the blanket mulch for the next crop. This method produces high yield, allowing those in abject poverty to feed their families, sell their produce, and buy seeds and tools. The produce is purchased at fair prices (not low, in season prices) by ministries, who then store it and use it for feed programs. Traditional farming, involving turning over the soil first, leaches minerals and causes erosion, whereas Farming God’s Way and rotating crops keeps the soil rich and productive. The practice is spreading throughout Africa and beyond as Christian non-profits continue to work to empower and restore dignity to the world’s poorest, in Jesus’s name
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Peter would like to work closely with those in abject poverty, both as an evangelist and as one who would train and equip Ugandans to live self-sufficiently, with dignity and hope, changing their families and villages for Christ. (Christianity is declining in the U.S., but growing extremely well in China and Africa, with China gaining strongly on our numbers. Pretty soon, we’ll need missionaries to America, not from America.) 

Peter works on the leadership skills he will need in the field by helping me teach the four year olds at church every other week, by being a verse teacher in AWANA, and by preparing for and teaching his sisters their science curriculum, including their experiments.

My Momma heart is so proud of Peter, but I ache for him too. He’s had an extremely tough year with OCD, especially after suffering a concussion in August (fell from a tree). Still, he remains faithful and hopeful; he lives bravely and inspires me every day.

Paul is 11 and loves math, art, football and basketball. He is the world’s best brother—kind, helpful, fun, giving, and sacrificial. He vacillates between wanting to be a math teacher or a journalist, and God willing, he hopes to be writing books and possibly Christian curriculum someday (maybe with Mommy). He enjoys our Sonlight Curriculum, which emphasizes learning through literature rather than textbooks, incorporating the best from both the fiction and non-fiction worlds. Paul would like to write a similar curriculum someday, going into business for himself. He wrote a family Advent study for us and also enjoys theology, fiction writing, and sports writing. Honing his teaching and leadership skills, he teaches his sisters using their non-fiction history selections. Paul sees himself ministering here in America in some capacity. Paul also struggled with OCD this year, though to a lesser extent; both boys have been in counseling.

Mary is 8 and she enjoys toads, frogs, butterflies, and finding and giving thanks for the glory of God. She can find hidden praying mantises, cicadas, caterpillars, tree frogs--just about any tiny creature known to our yard and local nature parks. She’s observant and patient, wanting to find God’s glory before Mommy calls her back in for school. Each person has a style of worship, and hers is definitely through Creation and song.

She also has a heart for the impoverished and may follow Peter to Uganda, where they can both speak English, which is the official language there (neither wants to learn a foreign language, though Peter says he’ll suffer through it if God wants him to).

This last spring I identified dyslexia in Mary, which slowed down her reading before I researched and found appropriate curriculum from All About Reading, written for dyslexics, providing the scaffolding and repetition they need to excel. She’s been making outstanding progress this fall, and Mommy is learning all about the dyslexic advantage, working to capitalize on the inherent strengths dyslexics are known for. Peter has dysgraphia (difficulty with spelling, handwriting and organizing thoughts on paper) and dyscalculia (math disability), so I wasn't surprised to find a sibling with difficulties. Kids with ADHD often have learning disabilities as well, mainly in reading and math, but Peter, thankfully, is a wonderful reader.

Mary developed full-blown Generalized Anxiety Disorder this year, which runs strongly in my family. It’s been a long, hard road but she too has gotten some counseling, and I‘m reading a number of books so I can help her respond better to her fears, which thus far encompass weather disasters, health outbreaks, and bombing by planes. I’m definitely grieving over my children’s difficulties, but I see them responding bravely, without bitterness, and learning to trust God through the fire, which encourages me and helps me let go of the outcome, knowing God has a plan and purpose for our infirmities.

Beth is six years old and she loves graceful, energetic ballet moves, acting and singing, pink princess dresses, dolls and stuffed animals, picture books galore, learning to read, and playing with her siblings. Right now she’s having a tough time with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis pain, but you wouldn't know it by her energy and zest for life. She bears her situation admirably. She hasn't said yet for sure, but I think she wants to be an entertainer. She has the spiritual gift of encouraging others, which I think goes along with being an entertainer. When she’s around, there’s usually joy.

We have four other precious ones we think of as our children, so even though this makes for a too-long letter, their stories are fascinating and worth the time. The new year brought us a new Compassion International sponsor child, 15-year-old Sheila from Uganda (Kabale district), who writes us English letters in her own hand. English is her best subject in school, besides physics. She’s carrying a full high school load, doing well in all her subjects. She’s a Christian living with her 62-year-old grandmother, her mother having died and her father living apart from her. She wants to be a nurse or a teacher and help others. Nurses and teachers have a lot of patience and love, she writes. She loves her school teachers, telling me they teach her how to be independent in the future. 

We've written back and forth since January, 2014, and I already feel like she’s my daughter. Her faith is very strong and inspiring. She is learning “that God is with me in everything I do, and that he will never leave me.” She likes playing football (soccer) and going to Christian fellowships. Her grandmother is a peasant (subsistence farmer), planting sorghum, beans, and sweet potatoes in the wet season (2 wet seasons a year). Sheila helps by washing clothes and utensils. She wrote me about Jeremiah 29:11, one of my favorite verses, telling me that it teaches her never to lose hope. Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Nelson, our sponsor child from El Salvador, to whom we've been writing for three years, is now 10 years old, in the 3rd grade. He, too, wants to be a teacher. His favorite subjects are art, language, and science, and he loves nature. His drawings are amazing. School work has become easier for him over the last two years. He told us about his country, which he says is very pretty, with volcanos, rivers, and a national bird called Torogoz, and a national flower called Izote. His favorite food is pupusas, which are tortillas with a filling of crackling and an edible flower called loroco. They are delicious, he promises, and asks us if we've ever tried them J

For his Holy Week vacation he had a great time with his mother, brother, and baby sister (no father in the picture). They ate pupusas and enchiladas with crazy corn, and swam in the river with cousins. He, too, loves football and plays it in the fields with his friends. His future plans are “to finish his studies and learn more and then teach other children.” He wants to help his family financially (Compassion children are known for giving back to their communities and families). He is going to church with his mom and siblings, and his faith is growing strong. I’m so proud of him! His letters are longer now and he sounds excited about life and the future. When a child is released from the hopelessness of poverty, and told they are loved and matter to God and to you, they begin to dream and yearn to help others.

Raphael, another child of our hearts, is 15 years old, from Burkina Faso. We've been writing back and forth with him for 3 years, as his correspondent family. He prays for us at school, he tell us, and he loves us and he’s proud of us. He makes me smile and cry. He’s very sweet, but sends us the shortest letters of the four. Also subsistence farmers, his parents planted tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, zucchini and pears, in their wet season. He likes to go hunting, play football, and work in his uncle’s store during vacations. He is a good boy. In love, I encouraged him to resist temptation, stay away from alcohol and drugs, and choose his friends wisely. He wrote back that he would, and didn't seem offended, telling me he likes my letters. I was relieved, as I hoped the advice would be taken in love, as from a loving parent. (Impoverished men, lacking hope and ability to support their families, easily fall prey to alcohol.) 

He does well in school and could qualify for Compassion’s Leadership Development Program, enabling him to attend college or vocational training. All the students at Compassion centers get vocational training in high school, but he has the potential to go beyond what they teach. Raphael also goes to church with his family.

Divya, our correspondent child of four years from India, is turning eleven soon. She lives with her parents and her brother. She was promoted to the sixth grade this year, and while at first she was an average student, over the years that has changed to above-average as her needs are being met through Compassion International. I am so thankful that Compassion looks out for these children, paying attention to their comings and goings, so as to prevent child trafficking, which is common among poor families who are lied to—enticed by being told their girls will be sent as servants to good homes. 

Divya's needs are being taken care of by Compassion, so her parents don’t share the desperation common to India’s poor. Compassion International, who administers their program through local churches, pays for her school fees, uniforms, books, shoes, school bag, notebooks, umbrellas, and at least two meals a week at the Child Center, extra food when needed, health screenings and health care, Christian teaching, hygiene and health teaching, parenting classes, and vocational classes for students and parents. Her parents are day laborers, employed part of the year. India’s poor have it worse than most in the world, outside Burkina Faso and Haiti, which are among the poorest nations on earth.

Divya wants to become a teacher and help poor children. She goes to Vacation Bible School when she is on break, and attends Bible studies and prayer group. She loves to spend time with her family, study, and play with her friends at school and at the Center. She tells me her family is very happy. Her letters are long, sweet, loving and grateful. She prays for Beth’s arthritis and tells me, along with Sheila from Uganda, that they think Beth will be healed by God, even though there’s no cure. They assure me and tell me to believe. They make me cry and smile and believe anew. I’m so grateful for each of these four precious children, along with my own four.

My husband is still very busy, away from home 65 hours a week spread over two custodial jobs (54 hours total work). We enjoy dinner with him at 7 PM, and then he reads to the boys from our curriculum read-alouds (historical fiction novels--this year ancient history through the Middle Ages). He visited his father, 91 years old and living in Florida alone, this last spring. He also talks 4 to 6 hours with him on the phone weekly. I’m busy with the children as detailed above and love it immensely, finding my daily life full of purpose.

I usually hand-write a message to each family this goes to, albeit a short one. To you, dear reader, I want to say...may the peace of God lift you and sustain you, giving you a joyous 2015, as you abide in and serve Him. Thank you for your love and support. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

10 More Christmas Books

Hopefully, all you've got left to do is a few Christmas cards and some baking. That leaves much time to cuddle the children and read Christmas books. Time to savor. Christmas need not be all over on December 26, for there is always the week after too, to linger over books.

Put some of these on hold via your library's computer system, and pick them up early next week?

Listen to the Silent Night by Dandi Daley Mackall
Copyright 2011


Synopsis: It was not such a silent night when Baby Jesus was born. From the baa, baa, baa of sheep to the flut-flut-flutter of angel wings, it was actually quite noisy! Here, from CBA bestseller Dandi Daley Mackall, is the story of the first Christmas, using the sounds of that miraculous night to really bring the story to life. With rich, gorgeous paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, this reverent retelling of the nativity is sure to become an essential part of every Christmas collection.

My notes: Beautiful paintings to linger over on each page, and it is truly is a reverent retelling of the Christmas story in engaging rhyme for all ages. A short one; five lines of rhyme per page.


How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley-Holland 

Copyright 2004


SynopsisTwo modern masters illuminate the Nativity story, creating a sumptuous gift book for families to cherish. Mary, great with child. The lively donkey. The dignified wise men. The glorious angels. All the beloved figures of the nativity story are given new life by acclaimed poet and novelist Kevin Crossley-Holland, who links their tales into a chain of voices revealing the miracle and meaning of Christmas. Peter Malone's illustrations glow with the same majestic grace. This is a book for art lovers to admire, poets to praise, and families to read together and treasure.

My notes: Really beautiful book; short, with few lines per page, but meaningful words, all of them. A unique retelling of the Nativity, indeed. My favorite lines are the last page: I am the Light of Light. The baby who will cradle the world. In your heart, hold me. I will never leave you.

Christmas in the Stable by Astrid Lindgren 

Copyright 1998


SynopsisAs a young girl listens to her mother tell the story of the first Christmas, where else would she imagine the miracle taking place but in the stable and fields she knows so well? "Simple loving text and radiantly beautiful pictures in rich colors by Sweden's foremost painter of animals and nature." -- Chicago Tribune "A reverent and lovely Christmas picture book." -- The Horn Book


My notes: Love this book! So gentle, soothing, so loving. You recognize the name Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame? Yes, same author. A keeper, but possibly hard to find unless your library keeps a Christmas section.

Little One, We Knew You'd Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones

Copyright 2006

Synopsis"... Lloyd-Jones's soothing, lyrical text expresses the universal love felt by parents awaiting the arrival of a new addition to the family. Numerous intimate portraits of the Holy Family, surrounded by realistic renderings of tranquil animals make this a fine volume for sharing. The gentle rhyming verses here may invite introductory discussion of not only the Nativity, but the joyous miracle of birth anytime of year." -- Publishers Weekly

"A brief, poetic text and stunning illustrations flow together with magically successful pacing in this exquisite retelling of the Nativity story... Though this is a Nativity story, its message of awe and transcendent love will also touch new parents welcoming their own babies or expectant parents awaiting a miracle child of their own." -- Kirkus

"the words are a litany of celebration and praise for the miracle of birth-and especially the birth of the Christ Child born in the manger long ago. But... [the words] can be said to any child, at Christmas or on a birthday. This is an absolutely gorgeous book. The illustrations... the gold inlays on each page make the pictures seem like illuminated manuscripts. Sacred pages for a holy Babe, for our holy children, the ones we love. I also celebrate the meaning behind `We Knew You'd Come.' Some things our hearts know, and have always known. What a divine gift this book is for us all." -- ChinaBerry


The Christmas Cobwebs by Odds Bodkin
Copyright 2001


Synopsis: A poor shoemaker and his family move from Germany to Chicago with only a box of glittering glass ornaments. But when a tragic fire destroys their new house and shop, the family has to move into an abandoned shack, with cobwebs dangling from the rafters. Soon the shoemaker must sell his family's cherished decorations. But on Christmas morning, they all awaken to a shimmering surprise hanging from their tree.Spun by the Christmas spirit, a wonderful magic weaves throughout this holiday tale.


Booklist Review: In this poignant Christmas story set in "old Chicago," a "humble cobbler" and his family anticipate Christmas by admiring the one memento they saved from their old home in Germany--a box of beautiful glass ornaments. When a fire burns the cobbler's shop and home, the cobbler rescues only the box of ornaments, taking it with him when he resettles the family in a cobweb-strewn shack. Everyone tries to prepare for Christmas, but the cobbler must sell the ornaments to support the family, leaving the tree bare. The shack's story takes a magical turn when the spiders living in the shack weave beautiful decorations onto the tree, surprising and delighting the displaced family. The simple, well-written text is perfectly paced for quiet story hours, and the stylized, nicely composed paintings echo all the emotional drama. Children who have experienced or can imagine leaving behind the security of their own warm homes will connect with this moving offering, and parents will appreciate the message about materialism. Great for family read-alouds.

My Notes: This is one of my Mary's all-time favorite picture books; she checks it out numerous times per year. Tonight when I finished it for the umpteenth time, she leaned back dreamily and said, "Mommy, I just love that book. It inspires me." When I asked why, she said it's because they didn't have anything and yet they were really happy. She continued: "They didn't blame God or complain about what happened to them. They just started over and they were happy (content) with their love."

So there you have it. A very nice synopsis of this book.

A Cowboy Christmas: The Miracle at Lone Pine Ridge by Audrey Wood
Copyright 2001


Synopsis: From Publisher's Weekly: When Evan, a fatherless boy, senses danger one Christmas Eve, his prayers help save his favorite cowboy, Cully, from a chilly death. They also set in motion a chain of happy events for Evan and his ma. The somewhat overwrought tale is nonetheless fluidly told, and Florczak's (previously teamed with Wood for The Rainbow Bridge) realistic oil paintings, aglow with light and shadow, make ample use of the Western setting. Scenes of cowboys camped around a fire inject a dose of humor, while stunning paintings of Cully's riderless horse on a snowy cliff and Evan's mother strolling with Cully under leafy birch trees convey the dramatic events. All ages.

My Notes: This may have minor flaws, as recounted in a couple Amazon reviews, but I enjoyed it very much and cried at the end. The paintings are gorgeous. Publisher's Weekly called it "somewhat overwrought". Huh? Is a sentimental book a crime? I love me some sentiment. The world is too harsh, busy, crazy. When I sit down with my kids, I want something meaningful, appreciative, warm and wholesome. If I ever write a book for children, I'm sure it too will be tagged as "overwrought".

An author's note provides historical information about cowboys, including that they rarely survived beyond the age of thirty due to the dangerous lifestyle. Audrey Wood researched the life and times of American women pioneers of the West, by reading diaries and journals from the period. The author writes: "A Cowboy Christmas is a tribute to the courage and faith of the men, women, and children who braved the many hardships of the frontier West."

Rocking Horse Christmas by Mary Pope Osborne

Copyright 1997

SynopsisKindergarten-Grade 3. A story that's as rich in the spirit of Christmas as it is spare in its choice of words. Thrilled with his present of a rocking horse, a boy takes all sorts of wonderful imaginary trips. As he grows up he moves on to other interests. Meanwhile, the horse laments his playmate's absence. Finally, it is relegated to the attic. Years later, a small boy discovers the horse with delight. For this had been his father's horse, his "oldest friend in the world." And soon this new boy and the old horse gallop away to their own adventures. Bittinger's oil paintings on linen are rich in palette and detail. The cover and the title-page illustrations showing Santa making and delivering the horse might well go unnoticed, but they are intrinsic to this story and so much a part of its charm. The scenes where the boy's imaginative play surrounds him with cowboys, knights, race horses, and jungle animals are so alive with motion and energy that they fairly leap off the page. The unnamed youngster could be any boy and this horse could be any toy, any treasure, that enables a child to become an adult made richer by memories and imagination. The theme of toys outgrown and put aside but not forgotten is so well-done here that it will strike a chord with many children.

My Notes: Very well done. A well-paced, vivid, imaginative story. Makes a parent smile, thinking of all the ways little ones use their toys and how real and vivid the adventures are to the children. A toy ceases to be a toy and becomes "real" like in The Velveteen Rabbit. This reminded me of the magic of The Velveteen Rabbit. Okay, yes, I think I did cry at the end, but that's nothing new around here. My kids would be shocked if Mommy didn't cry during 60% of picture books.

My Prairie Christmas by Brett Harvey
Copyright 1990


SynopsisOnce again, and with great success, Harvey mines the grandmother lode as she did in My Prairie Year (Holiday , 1986). Two days before Christmas, Elenore Plaisted's father goes out to find a tree and does not return. On Christmas morning, Mother leads the children out into the deep snow to chop down a cottonwood. Just as they finish decorating it, Papa bursts in, explaining that he had been trapped in town by a blizzard. The joyous celebration is followed by a snow walk under the star-filled prairie sky. The story moves readers through an emotional spectrum from contentment, to the dread in waiting, to the relief and rejoicing. Ray's full-color watercolors with colored-pencil illustrations are warm and simple, perfectly suiting the Plaisteds' family life. Children who have read the Christmas barrel chapters from Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter (1953) or Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985, both Harper) will nod in recognition at this bit of American history. A beautiful addition to holiday shelves that will serve all year long in American history sections.

My Notes: I really enjoyed the quaint pictures of prairie and family life. Made my girls and I warm and happy to read this and take in the wholesomeness of the whole scene, with the handmade decorations for the tree, the handmade presents, and the Christmas barrel, with its flour and sugar, enabling the family to bake some Christmas goodies, which they couldn't do before Pa brought the Christmas barrel laden with presents from Maine. Like the synopsis above indicated, it reminded me of a Little House on the Prairie Christmas.

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story by Cynthia Rylant

Copyright 1987

School Library Journal SynopsisGrade 1-4. Full-page watercolor paintings decorate this warm, sentimental story loosely based on actual events. Rylant traces the origins of an Appalachian "Christmas Train" that travels through the mountains each year on December 23 to a rich man who wished to repay a debt of kindness he had received many years before. He faithfully returns and tosses silver packages from the caboose to the coal-town children who wait by the tracks. One such child is Frankie, who longs for a doctor's kit every year; instead he gets much-needed socks or mittens along with small toys. As an adult, he moves back to the town to live and work, having fulfilled his dream of becoming a doctor. With her clear, balanced, and well-paced storyteller's voice, the author builds the anticipation and excitement that the children?and especially Frankie?feel at the train's annual arrival. Although the heroic profile of this child-turned-man makes him more of a symbol than a real person, his story is capably told. The illustrations provide panoramic views of the Appalachian countryside, with deep nighttime blues and wintry colors, strengthening the sense of place. A well-rendered reflection on the importance of giving and sharing.

My Notes: Should be a classic in every home with children. Very meaningful, about giving back to our communities. Told beautifully from two perspectives, that of giving and receiving, demonstrating the blessing of each. 

Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno

Copyright 2013

SynopsisPapa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear weren't expecting any company when they went for a walk on Christmas Eve, but that's exactly what they got! Debut author Maria Modugno teams up with award-winning artists Jane and Brooke Dyer to deliver a festive twist on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, with Santa Claus stepping in as the cheerful intruder.

Leaving their pudding to cool on the kitchen table, the unsuspecting bears head outdoors for a crisp evening walk. But when they return, they are shocked at what they find! Their pudding . . . eaten! Their chairs . . . broken! Their cozy beds . . . slept in! And it looks like the culprit is still there! Fast asleep in Baby Bear's bed is someone awfully familiar. A fluffy white beard, a red jacket covered in soot, and two black boots sticking out from under the covers. Could it reallybe . . . ?

With sparkling prose and splendid watercolor paintings, this delicious holiday treat glows with warmth and humor that will delight readers page after page.

My Notes: Very sweet illustrations. We loved it, but then we're fans of most Three Bears renditions.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Toy Recommendations, Part 2

Puzzles are always a wonderful gift that can involve the whole family in meaningful interaction (or engage just one child), but if you've purchased many of the smaller-piece puzzles, then you've also thrown away a few due to missing pieces.

The answer? Floor puzzles!

Melissa and Doug make floor puzzles for three different levels: beginner, 24-50 pieces, and 100-pieces. They are high-quality, educational, and the pieces are too large to get lost. Children don't lose interest over time, especially when the family works the puzzles together. Puzzles aren't used everyday of course, but probably several times a month, and even more when they're detailed enough to really study.

Once the puzzles are pieced together, they offer sound learning. Your child can memorize the positions of the U.S. states (tactile, visual method, and even auditory if you say them), learn about the continents and their position, learn about the prominent animals living in different regions of the US and world, and learn the position of the planets and their relationship to one another and to the sun. That is just a sampling of what's available. Amazon has better prices by a dollar to two (usually), but you can use the Melissa and Doug website to see what they make.

My favorites:









Do you have any floor puzzles? Have you loved them?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Toy Recommendations

One thing I've learned in the past 13 years of parenting? Go classic with toys whenever possible, not trendy. Think of the imagination, the different uses over a wide range of maturities, the quality, the myriad of ways to recreate with the same materials, not commercial-driven crazes. When you give in and buy some nothing toy that was marketed to your child, you will all regret it.

You can't go wrong with Melissa and Doug Standard Unit Blocks.

Melissa & Doug 60pc Standard Unit Blocks

Melissa & Doug 60pc Standard Unit Blocks
Melissa & Doug 60pc Standard Unit Blocks
Item# MD-503
Regular price: $69.99
Sale price: $47.59
Availability: Usually ships in 2-3 business days.




In case you don't already own this gem of a toy, I searched and found the best price this year at Jacob's Room (quotes above from Jacob's Room). If you have a larger family, you will eventually want a second set.

There's no end to how children of various ages will use these large, sturdy blocks (12 year old still loves them, and all the neighbor kids). Think of the myriad of accessories your child already owns that can be utilized with this classic toy: Hot Wheels, all other vehicles, people figures, animal figures, and the incredible, joy-instilling Hex Bug. Each day will bring a new use, a new joy, a new sense of accomplishment.

Besides PlayDoh, which I love for many of the same reasons, Melissa and Doug Standard Unit Blocks are my favorite toy of all time. They don't get lost, Mom; they're too big. And they're easy to store in the accompanying delightful, well-crafted wood box. Just putting them away is a good brain exercise, as they fit perfectly and it takes practice to learn the best arrangement.

Kitchens

I used to think every little girl (or little boy) would like a kitchen, and I'm sure many a parent has sunk good money into one, but over time? They don't play with it much. Think longevity. How many uses per month, per year, and over time and maturity? Dishes get played with more than kitchens, for whatever reason. But a caveat: the more dishes the set comes with, the less they'll get played with. Stick with a simple, durable tea set. Kids don't like to be overwhelmed, and it takes time for us to learn that.

Large Plastic Indoor/Outdoor Toys

If you ever want a large plastic toy such as a wagon, kitchen, picnic table, sandbox, etc. check garage sales first. These items are very expensive and can often be found in good condition at garage sales for less than $10.

That said, a durable, brand new wagon is a treat for any child, and will likely provide years of joy.

Dolls

Dolls, but not too many. The more dolls, the less they get played with. If you get another one, ask which of the old ones she wants to give to Goodwill.

Doll accessories, but only one or two, for the same reason.

Doll clothes will be played with more than beds, strollers, etc., over time. The stroller will likely go out of fashion in a month, though your neighbor girls might enjoy it when they visit.

Legos: Boys and Girls

These can be a good investment, but not the sets, in my opinion, because how many times will they want to put the same thing together (or the same two things)? And how many are mature enough to keep the pieces together? Better to buy larger packages of Legos and books to go with them, that feature a myriad of different ideas.

Hot Wheels are durable, invite a myriad of uses, and don't ever go out of fashion. My friend at church found her 18-year-old son perusing them in the toy section. waiting for his mom. The tracks are good, but the simpler the track, the better. Those that you just watch will go out of fashion, so choose something interactive, like a track that races the cars. Blocks and other classic toys that help your child invent his own track, with wedges and heights and slants, make Hot Wheels even more durable over time.

Dump trucks made by the best toy companies are always a good investment, inviting never-ending uses.

Remote control vehicles are rarely worth the money, and long ago I began my "no". If you can find it at a thrift store, go for it, I tell them...with your own money.

Electronics: We have never purchased any electronics other than our family PC, and the educational software our curriculum demands, but in the future we will need a tablet that allows educational, special-needs applications. I am thankful such things exist.

I know Minecraft, Wii, Xboxes, iPhones, iPods, etc. are all the craze, but they eat up time, are addictive, and really, what benefit is there that can't be realized by a good classic toy...and by real interaction with real people, like the family and friends we know are safe, and who God has placed in our lives for discipleship purposes? I've never regretted not having them. If you've got the time to monitor these things, and your time usage and content controls are working, they may be a good investment. I'm just not sold on the idea of any of them as truly beneficial for children, but every family is different.

My kids liked the Cool Math Games website for a few years, which made up their video game consumption (24 minutes a day after school), but the ads have gone too worldly, so I banned it. They don't miss it.

What are your favorite toys? Any ideas you've gathered that make electronic toys work for you and your children? What have your children's favorite toys been over time?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 in Review (in pictures too)

From the first thunderstorm, which heralded in full blown Generalized Anxiety Disorder for Mary, through today, this has been a tough year. I have a month-long wait to learn anything more about my mammogram issue. It's just been one strain after another--distancing from an alcoholic parent and the dysfunctional patterns contained therein, and coming to the realization that sometimes wisdom means stepping away, saying I won't help you continue in your sin, and I won't let your sin continue to scar my psyche. I will love you, but from afar, through my prayers, and through my forgiving. 

The year also brought new disorders, old disorders worsening, dyslexia, a son's concussion, a worsening of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a health scare, a two-ships-passing-in-the-night, special-needs-parenting marriage (with my 54-working hours husband also caring via phone 4-6 hours a week for his almost 92-year-old father).

I've learned that if another person is not personally struck by or exposed to a condition, they're likely to blame it on me and/or my parenting, so any support must be gathered carefully, such as through other special-needs moms, or I manage with the Lord's help only. Not that I should hide anything, but understand human nature in regards to judgement--and give thanks that as Christians, we grow in grace, not necessarily in goodness. Grace is beautiful. 

Grace is a precursor to holiness in our lives. When we readily offer grace, we're saying we understand our own filthy conditions. It's hard, this humility, but it allows holiness to take up residence. My own pain and need for grace allows me to offer grace generously.

We'd hoped that when the thunderstorms passed for the year, Mary's anxiety would settle down, but now whenever she hears anything on the roof she thinks there's an ice storm that will cave our roof (I have a picture book to blame for that notion). When she hears an airplane she panics that we're being bombed. I haven't a clue where that notion came from. We don't have a TV signal so I read news online, without the kids around. The boys know a few details about the world's war issues, but the girls aren't around when we discuss it.

After AWANA on Sunday she vomited from anxiety because a couple families were sick and absent, so she worried about Ebola, which hasn't been discussed here in weeks. Her anxiety over her various worries will lead to one vomiting episode, after which she doesn't get sick again. The vomiting hasn't happened more than four or five times this year, but it's exhausting and stressful. Once anxiety starts--and I can never predict it--there's no talking her out of it, but she can be distracted by praise songs and special activities, for a time.

My twelve year old disorganized all our pictures on this computer, so as I shuffled through trying to sort the mess (all dates are off a year on the camera), the pictures didn't lie to me--yes, we still had smiles, along with our tears of frustration this year. Grace.

What is the value in tough years? What is my testimony of the year?

Our faith grew; we're learning to abide better. I understand better that my life, my children's lives, must be lived out as a sacrifice to a Holy God. We offer our years on the alter--our hopes, our fears, our idea of success. When we do that well, what we get in return is not disappointment, but joy and hope. 

I'm sorry for Mary because crippling anxiety is ugly and fierce, but if it can serve the Lord, I say yes with an open hand. Not only does this mindset help me display compassion and hope for my daughter's sake, but it models for my children how God wants us to view our infirmities.

So, 2014, I'm not embittered by you. I thank you for the heart stretching. I thank you that we're finishing full of hope and assurance, full of love and abiding. Without you, it just wouldn't be.

Romans 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. 





































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