Archive | December 2013

What’s Not to Like About Winter?

Snow Shovel

Who needs a fancy treadmill when a simple shovel and free snow will do the trick?!

By Jen Ashenfelter

There’s plenty of negativity and whining throughout social media. In an effort to always look at the glass half full, I offer you these thoughts on the recent string of snow storms blanketing my little slice of Pennsylvania–might I add–before the “official” start of the winter season. (Tiny bit of snarkiness intended…)

• Shoveling snow is great exercise which I don’t seem to get much of lately. I love that my entire body, right down to the tips of my fingers reminds me of this glorious fact for days following my winter workout.
• Working from home on snowy days allows me to be with the kids during a two-hour delay, and I don’t have to drive on the roads with the rest of the yahoos. This also gives me additional opportunities for exercise (read the previous point) as there’s no one else at home to shovel the driveway before everyone returns home or to clear the deck and backyard for the dog to do her business.

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Shoveling the deck and part of the backyard for the dog is one of the many perks of working from home when it snows….

• I love the refreshing crisp air nipping at my nose and giving me goose bumps because it clears my sinuses and the cool 68 degrees inside my house feels amazingly warmer than it did before I went outside. Venturing into the winter wonderland frequently, especially without a coat, is a great way to save money on heating my home.
• Living in Pennsylvania, I get to experience all four seasons which makes me appreciate three of them so much more and gives me the chance to lovingly invite Mother Nature to “bite me” every winter.
• Cabin fever takes me back to my days as a real estate agent because I begin to notice all the positives about my home. This comes in handy as I offer Realtors the opportunity to sell my home because I’m moving to Southern California…

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“No really honey, I’ll be happy to shovel the driveway by myself before everyone gets home.”

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Holiday Heart and Soul

Happy Holidays from “Off the Merry-Go-Round!”

As we countdown to Christmas, our writers took time to share their photos and reflections of their most treasured holiday keepsakes, decorations and more. We invite you into our homes this holiday season, to share our memories, tips and inspiration!

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This has always been my favorite ornament. It was my mother’s, and it was always the last ornament to be put on our tree when I was growing up. I was so happy when she gave it to me. And now I continue the tradition… it’s always the last ornament I place on my tree as well. -Jen Ashenfelter

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I feel very blessed to have a large collection of antique glass ornaments from my grandmother and mother-in-law. Since our living room is painted light blue, I struggle with holiday decorating. Traditional reds and greens look out of place. But placing a mixture of green and blue balls into several big, old brandy snifters brings holiday sparkle to the room. I especially enjoy the nostalgic 1950’s era aqua tones! -Karen Hendricks

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My oldest daughter, a dance major, is coming home from college this week! To welcome her home and add fun holiday decor to her room, my younger daughter and I made ballerina snowflakes and strung them on a garland atop her window. We used oragami paper for the snowflake skirts. -Karen Hendricks

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These are some of my favorite decorations–carved wood angels and trees. Simple! -Chris Little

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My mom, who passed away on December 6, 2006, started my collection of Possible Dream Santas many years ago. She would search for just the right Santa that might reflect “our” interests. We continue to cherish these Santas year after year. Interestingly enough, she even purchased one for me the year she passed away. -Mary Ann Filler

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This is the Santa that my mom chose for my Christmas gift, the year she passed away. It takes center stage on my mantle. It’s still emotional for me to think about how she picked this out despite how sick she was. -Mary Ann Filler

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Our family’s Christmas tradition focuses on three main concepts: One – Preparation for Jesus’ birth, marking the Advent season using an Advent Wreath and an Advent Calendar–which this year is in the form of a beautiful wooden house. Behind every window or door being a treat or small toy…

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Two – Anticipation of news of His coming, having the 3 Wise Men “travel” through our house, a little distance each day (my son loves to move them!), until they reach the Crèche (Nativity scene)…

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Three – Celebration of Jesus’ birth! Baby Jesus doesn’t appear in the manger until Christmas. In our home, Christmas tradition also revolves around the story of the life of Saint Nicholas. We are very deliberate in our teaching and celebration with our son. On the first Sunday in Advent our priest responded to the commercialism and secularism that has taken over Christmas by saying, “You never want your children to think that they don’t need God (because they received so many presents Christmas Day).” -Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

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The stockings were hung by the chimney with care… My grandmother started the tradition of knitting personalized stockings for everyone in our family, complete with our name at the top and birth year towards the middle. My mom continued this tradition by knitting my husband and children their own personalized stockings too. Atop our fireplace is a special painting–artist Dean Morrissey’s whimsical Santa, “Preparing for the Journey.” I splurged on this painting after working with the artist during several festivals. I admired it for several years before treating myself, including a gorgeous framing job by a local gallery & a special inscription and signature from the artist. (My cat Jingles even posed for this photo!) -Karen Hendricks

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Dean Morrissey – Preparing for the Journey

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New fireplace decor for 2013! I adore our two-sided fireplace, situated between our living and dining rooms but it’s not very efficient so we rarely use it. So this year, I stacked white birch logs saved from our beloved tree struck by an ice storm several years back, along with evergreen boughs trimmed from the bottom of our tree, and a string of Christmas lights. It gives the illusion of warmth and fire once again! (Jingles is looking quite annoyed at all these changes occurring in “his” house. HA!) -Karen Hendricks

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Does everyone have one of these handprint wall hangings left over from preschool? This one is from 1997. I saw one from 2010 in a friend’s house (with much younger kids of course) last week. Treasure! -Chris Little

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For our family, this crèche is a beautiful reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. -Mary Ann Filler

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While this ornament is also a reflection of the true meaning of Christmas, it has caused some strife in our household. For reasons I don’t totally understand as a mom, every year my 3 sons fight over who gets to place this ornament on the tree. Last year, we wised up and wrote down a schedule of who will get to put this ornament on the tree from now until the year 2020! Problem solved! -Mary Ann Filler

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This is a new Christmas treasure! A print of chalkboard art from local artist Valerie McKeehan. -Chris Little

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Our angel tree topper has witnessed all of our Christmases as a married couple, as it was purchased during our first year of marriage over 21 years ago! -Mary Ann Filler

Holiday Links:

To learn more about the chalkboard art of Valerie McKeehan, click here for her Lily&Val website.

To see more examples of Dean Morrissey’s gorgeous Santa paintings and other works, click here for his artist page on Greenwich Workshop.

To make snowflake ballerinas, click here for the pattern and instructions (also pinned to our Off the Merry-Go-Round Pinterest board, “Holidays.”)

Do our photos and stories stir up your memories as well? We welcome your holiday ideas, memories and thoughts!

Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth with… Carrot Soup!

IMG_6120FB By Karen Hendricks

Amidst all the holiday baking, gooey goodies and indulgence…  I’m going to offer a sweet, healthy—and probably unexpected—alternative: Carrot Soup.

I won’t deny, I enjoy a delicious snack of Christmas cookies at this time of year, but I also like to balance things out, so-to-speak. It’s way too easy to overindulge, over the holidays!

I discovered the best kind of recipe—one that’s both easy and healthy—for Carrot Soup. Actually, I found two recipes on Pinterest and have merged the two into my own unique version. It ties into nearly every current, healthy eating trend:

  • It’s vegan for those who only eat plant-based foods
  • It’s a great option for those on the “clean eating” diet of whole, unprocessed foods (I’ve been trying to incorporate more of this approach into my family’s meal planning)
  • Carrot soup contains cancer-fighting antioxidents
  • It’s a colorful food, for those trying to “eat the rainbow”
  • And it’s a satisfying solution to “Meatless Mondays”

Carrots are sky-high in Vitamin A, with a good dose of fiber, Vitamin C and potassium too. One of my favorite things about this recipe is the taste of fresh ginger… delish!

We have been pelted with early season snowstorms here in central Pennsylvania (and it’s technically still fall!) so warm soup is definitely in order, already. There is something about warm soup that seems to magically warm my soul as well.

Carrot Soup

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 c sweet onion, chopped
  • 1 T garlic, minced
  • 2 T fresh ginger root, minced
  • 2 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium potato – try using a russet potato or a sweet potato, your choice, peeled and chopped
  • 6 c vegetable stock or chicken stock
  • Cracked black pepper and Kosher salt, to taste
  • Plain yogurt and honey for garnish

1. Use a food processor to chop all of your veggies. This is time “off the merry-go-round,” after all. Save time wherever you can so you can spend more time with your family! 🙂

2. Cook the onion in the olive oil. Use a large stockpot if you will be cooking the soup on your stovetop. Or, simply use a frying pan for this step and then cook the soup in your crockpot.

3. After 10 minutes, or when the onions become soft, add the ginger and garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

4. If using a stock pot: add all ingredients. Or, transfer onion mixture to crockpot and add all ingredients. Bring to a boil and simmer until the carrots are tender. This step could take up to an hour on the stove. Turn your crockpot on low and let it cook all day.

5. Puree with an immersion blender directly in your pot or transfer several batches into your blender to puree.

6. Serve with a dollop of yogurt and a drizzle of honey. Don’t skip the honey… it’s a bright note that really brings out the ginger and carrot flavors and ties them all together.

Serves 8

(Abridged from Women’s Health Magazine and Food Network, via PopSugar)

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A spoonful of plain or Greek yogurt adds a nice element of creaminess…

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Don’t forget the drizzle of honey 🙂

A few more tips:

  • This soup is satisfying, but if the male members of your family are like mine, they would probably appreciate a steaming loaf of homemade bread as an accompaniment. A hearty whole-grain or oatmeal bread works well.
  • I have tried both the russet and sweet potato in the soup and they both work well. I personally prefer the sweet potato flavor. Either way, the potato thickens the soup a bit and adds additional nutrients and flavor.
  • I have doubled the recipe and then packaged up the leftovers for easy-to-reheat lunches or frozen them to send off with my daughter to college, for a stash of “Mom’s Meals” in her freezer.
  • This recipe always reminds me of the first time I tried carrot soup, several years ago, in a New York City restaurant. I was on a weekend trip with my daughter and we ate at a fantastic Italian restaurant for her birthday. As an appetizer, we both tried Carrot-Orange Soup. What an awesome combination of flavors, with the addition of citrus. I haven’t tried adapting this recipe to include the orange flavor, yet… but stay tuned!

Join the conversation and let us know…

Which soup recipes do you turn to over the winter months?

How do you combat over-indulgent holiday eating habits?

You’d Better Watch Out, You’d Better Not Cry, Your College Kid is Coming (Back) to Town!

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Tomorrow I’ll head out to pick up my freshman for winter break. On the one hand of course I’ll be thrilled to have him home for almost a month. On the other hand I confess I’m a little apprehensive: Will he fit in to our new household routine? Will he be bored by our life, which is considerably quieter than a freshman dorm? And perhaps the biggest unknown: How will we adjust to his new independence, in light of his younger sister’s routines and rules, not to mention our own sanity?

I’ve prepared myself to not see him much—I know he’ll want to sleep late into the morning and visit with his old buddies late into the night. To help me prepare for other changes, I’ve been doing some reading, hunting for tips for making this vacation a good one. Here are some suggestions I’ve gleaned on the subject of adjusting to a college kid’s return to the fold for the holidays:

Manage your expectations. Along with those visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, I know I’ve got fantasies of joyous reunions and laughter and togetherness, along with hot cocoa and roasting chestnuts—the works! Reality is bound to be different, and if I’m not careful—disappointing. So I’m trying to be aware of my hidden agendas—trying to let them go so I can simply be open to whatever is actually happening, rather than holding on to what I think should be happening.

Keep connected to the younger sibs. My younger daughter has gotten used to being the center of parental attention (for better or worse)—and she’s definitely gotten used to having a bathroom to herself! Having her older brother home may take some getting used to. Other younger sibs may have to adjust to having to share access to the car. I want to check in with my daughter from time to time to see how it’s going for her to have her brother around.

Same with the college kid. I expect mine to be exhausted from a long semester, topped off by a week or two of exams. And I know from his previous trips home that it can take him a while to settle in, to feel like home is actually home. I expect our little town to feel a lot smaller to him on this extended break—and a lot less interesting than the city where he now lives. And I wonder how it’ll be when his little sister is busy with her school activities and sports, and he has less contact with her than maybe he thought he would…

Plan a few family activities, but not too many. To make sure we do spend some fun time together, we bought tickets to a hockey game and a concert we know we’ll all enjoy. And we have some family gatherings lined up right around Christmas. Otherwise, we’re trying to keep things loose, partly because I know my freshman likes his down time, but also because I know it’s going to be important for him to reconnect with his old high school friends. Which leads me to:

Be ready to renegotiate rules and expectations. My son is used to staying out pretty late when he’s on campus, and that’s largely fine with me, since I don’t know when he’s coming or going. But it’s going to be a challenge for me when he’s heading out for the night as I’m heading up to bed. We’re going to have to talk that out: I don’t want to give him a hard-and-fast curfew, but letting his housemates (i.e., his family) know where he’s going and when he’ll be home is common courtesy, right? That’s how I plan to approach it.

Enjoy your young adult! In her book Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years, Karen Coburn suggests asking your college kid to take some inventory now that the first big semester is over. “Winter break is an opportunity for students to reflect on the semester—on ways they have changed, on what they have learned and on how their goals are evolving,” she writes. “Conversations between parents and their college age children about these topics can be extremely rewarding for both parties.” Coburn adds, “Parents who engage in conversations of this sort with their children, rather than just asking them about grades and professional goals, are likely to find this a very rich experience. It’s a great feeling to have your child open up new worlds for you. Listen to their excitement over new ideas without judgment. Ask your child to recommend a favorite book to you.” That sounds like fun, right? After all the work we put into raising our kids, here’s our chance to enjoy the young adults they’re becoming. I hope I remember to slow down and do just that!

Okay experienced empty nesters: What else do we need to know to prepare for this upcoming winter break?

That beautiful image? Some rights reserved by Bert Kaufmann.

The Immortality of My Parents

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

I gently chided my husband – again – about how he continues to leave the light on in our master bedroom closet once he has exited, as well as the night light above the toilet when he is finished using the bathroom. “But it’s not me, it’s the gremlins,” he emphasized. Now, where had I heard that before???

When my father was alive, blaming similar occurrences on “gremlins” was his way of doing one of two things: either explaining away the great mysteries of life (Where in the world did I put my glasses/car keys/pair of scissors I just had in my hand? Those blasted gremlins again!); or, trying to “get out of” some trouble around the house that for some reason was always inevitably his fault.

In that shared moment with my husband, I realized what I had known all along as I watched my father near the end of his life: that Dad’s life really wouldn’t ever end. It would continue to live on in me, in my family, and in others, since he had touched so many lives in his personal and professional life. I also realized that over the years I have taken on many of my father’s ways – similarly moving about the house and interacting with my family, that it is almost as though he is here with me daily.

Somehow I still can't leave the house without putting on lipstick or lip gloss! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Somehow I still can’t leave the house without putting on lipstick or lip gloss! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in so many ways, I now catch myself carrying on a lot of my folks’ “parent-isms.” So much so that I am beginning to wonder if they actually are immortal! Here’s what I mean:

  • The “gremlins” have apparently followed me from my childhood home to my house.
  • My son breaks out into song with, “Ooo, Eee, Ooo, Ahh, Ahh, Ting, Tang, Wala, Wala, Bing, Bang.” Is that a real song or did my Dad indeed make that up? I refuse to Google it to find out.
  • When my son was showing me something and said, “Look at this, Mom,” I responded, “I see said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw.” Ugh! Another bad Dad pun!
  • I’m beginning to tell the jokes from Reader’s Digest and claiming them as my own.
  • When I am getting ready to run an errand, I frequently pause for one last look in the mirror – My mother’s question, “Where’s your lipstick?” resonates in my ear. I choose lip gloss instead.
  • I keep picking out white shirts for Andrew to layer under his long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. Mom is infamous for saying, “You can wear white with that,” when my sisters and I would approach her looking for color matching ideas.
  • I catch myself posing larger than life questions and considerations to my son as both of my parents were prone to do. Like a 4-year-old really gets my explanation about aging as to why I cannot simply leap out of bed and somersault across the floor at 6:00 in the morning too. “And you too one day will be old.” Yes, Dad – I know that now!

My dad passed away on October 3rd this year (click here for “A Gift from My Father”). Those of you who have also lost a close relative or dear friend know that all the “firsts” (holiday, birthday, anniversary) without them are especially tough. My family and I have held fast to having our own holiday time at home versus traveling out of state between various relatives. We believe it is very important that our son wake up in his own house for holidays and experience the family traditions we have established. At Christmastime, we would visit my parents on December 27th or 28th to exchange gifts since they live less than 3 hours away, yet that was the extent of celebrating holidays outside of our own home.

This Thanksgiving, however, we decided to stay with my mother in my childhood home and join her, and my sister and her family, for the Thanksgiving meal. It all seemed “fine,” yet there definitely was a presence missing. My sister puts out little name cards at each table setting so everyone knows their seat, and when she came across the card that said (“Pop Pop”) she and I both had to take a breath. I sat next to my mom, yet oddly, didn’t know what to say or do. I just kind of reached over at one point and put my hand on her arm, hoping she would somehow know what I wanted to say but couldn’t.

The day after Thanksgiving, my mom and I visited Dad’s grave site and met the gentleman there who would help us choose a headstone that would be eventually shared by Mom as well. It was a bitterly cold day, and the man was far too chatty and cheerful for me. The morning there exhausted and annoyed me, and by the time my family and I arrived back in Maryland that evening I was emotionally drained. I slept most of the weekend.

We have all heard of having a “Blue Christmas.” This is also a Christmas song written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, and is a tale of unrequited love during the holidays. It has become popular Christmas music that causes us to think about anyone we are missing during the holiday season. Here are a few tips I am finding helpful in keeping cheer amidst feelings of melancholy:

  • Create a “tribute” table or other spot in your home where you can see your loved one and have their presence more easily felt.
  • Talk to your loved one (yes, out loud!) every day. Tell them what is on your mind and what you are feeling, whether it directly pertains to your relationship or not.
  • Call family and friends who are still with you and reminisce. Cry together, or laugh as you remember the good times.
  • Find fun activities to join in that are separate from the things you used to do with your loved one. Sometimes a shift in routine can be a welcome distraction.
  • Let yourself feel your emotions, yet try not to become bogged down in them to where you are feeling prolonged feelings of sadness and loss. If that does become the case, find an unbiased professional to talk with, help you sort your emotions out, and cope. After all, losing a loved one – especially around the holidays, is tough.
Setting up a 'tribute table' for my father has been helpful. I can "see" him every day and more easily talk to him. I burn a tea light candle for him daily, and have decided to keep the table up for one year.

Setting up a ‘tribute table’ for my father has been helpful. I can “see” him every day and more easily talk to him. I burn a tea light candle for him daily, and have decided to keep the table up for one year.

I watch my husband and son from our dining room window – building a snowman and enjoying a friendly snowball fight in the first snow of winter. Yet it is more than this present moment I see. I see into the future as well – when my little boy will have grown and one day experience the loss of us, his parents. Will he hurt as badly as I do now? What memories will he hold dear and cling to when we are no longer in front of him? I don’t know. Yet if I am successful at continuing to pass on those delightful little parts of my father and mother, which I am so thankful for and which are now parts of me, my son will have plenty of them to keep him warm.

A time of happiness as we watch our young son grow and become close as a family. Yet what losses will my son experience in the future?

A time of happiness as we watch our young son grow and become close as a family. Yet what losses will my son experience in the future?

Are you dealing with feelings of loss or sadness this holiday season? Feel free to share your story, as well as ways you are coping and helping to bring a little cheer to this time of year.

REAL Sports Heroes

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By Karen Hendricks

Are you an avid sports fan? We all have our favorite teams, our favorite sports—NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, college football, and the list goes on. I grew up just outside Philadelphia which means I will forever cheer for the Phillies and Eagles. It’s in my blood!

“Professional” Sports?

Over the past few years, like a lot of fans, I’ve become disillusioned by the off-field antics and more seriously, crimes, of professional athletes. Their skyrocketing salaries, crazed celebrity status, and unrealistic ticket prices have also affected me. I’m generalizing here, and of course there are exceptions. But very few wonderfully talented athletes seem to maintain “real” lifestyles including a healthy balance of family life. There are so very few real heroes.

Youth Sports Step Up to the Plate

But for about the past 10 years, all three of my children have been involved in sports activities. And there is no greater experience—for both the kids and us as parents. This is where my heart now lies; professional sports, step aside!

My children’s involvement with sports began with AYSO soccer, a wonderful program that teaches basic soccer skills and good sportsmanship. There are hundreds of AYSO programs in communities across the country—all run by volunteers, mostly parents like you and I. Soccer is an awesome sport that not only encourages physical fitness because it includes a good amount of running, but it also enforces the importance of teamwork.

Other sports my kids have enjoyed include:

  • Tennis – This is a great, life-long sport and included some of the best-mannered high school girls I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
  • Track — Similar to soccer, I believe all kids can benefit from the simple exercise of running. Although kids are competing as part of a team, there’s also the personally rewarding aspect of competition with yourself—to continually beat your personal records (PR’s).
  • T-Ball and Coach/Pitch Baseball

The vast majority of coaches, parents and teammates we’ve met through the years have been amazing, inspiring, supportive and positive people!

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My son Kyle has a beautiful stride on the track!

Take the Good with the Bad

We’ve had a few brushes with ugly situations along the way… parents getting out of control on opposing teams, parents at my son’s AYSO games using profanity, and situations involving my husband who is a referee—one of the most thankless jobs there is. Even going back to kindergarten, during the days of co-ed AYSO soccer, there was a boy who punched my daughter in the stomach because he couldn’t accept the fact that my daughter scored on him! This past year, we’ve had several situations with one of my daughter’s 14-year old teammates as well as the girl’s mother, acting out of jealousy over my daughter’s talents; the mom even resorted to sending me “hate mail.” Craziness! But put into perspective, they are all life lessons—chances for us as parents to model good character, take the high road, and lead our kids by example through difficult situations with real life lessons.

Sweet Victories

As a parent, there is no greater joy than seeing all the hard work and practice that your children pour into sports pay off when they achieve their goals on the soccer field, tennis court, track, etc. There are enormous mountains and valleys that we, as parents, see our children through. I have encouraged my kids to stick with sports during tough times when they’ve wanted to quit, and there have even been heart-breaking injuries that required physical therapy and time to mend. All of those struggles make the victories that follow, even sweeter. And by “victories,” I don’t necessarily mean “wins” in terms of the score. My husband and I simply try to encourage our kids to always do their best in all things—sports, school, and in situations requiring good character. Those are life’s real victories.

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My daughter Kelly, in action on the soccer field!

Now, on the rare occasion when I watch professional sports, the games seems empty and meaningless. Nothing keeps me on the edge of my seat more than watching my own children and their teammates compete, struggle, persevere and excel. Quite often, it brings tears of joy to my eyes! Which is why I feel as though our youth are the TRUE heroes within today’s sports community.

What are your children’s experiences with sports? How have sports benefited their character development? How do their sports experiences affect you as a parent? What do you think of professional sports? I’d love to hear your thoughts….