Friday, December 27, 2019

Read These Books

by Angie Thomas
Whoa! This was an excellent book and I highly recommend it--for Americans especially. It is extremely well written and has a page-turning story line with engaging characters. Deals sensitively, intelligently, and with nuance on issues of racism and police brutality in America. This is an important book! Technically it is young adult fiction, but unfortunately I wouldn't give it to my young teens. Not necessarily because of the profanity (which is on pretty much every page), but because a couple of scenes are more sexually explicit than I want my teenager exposed to. But adults? Please read this book.

Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century
by Tanya Crossman
This book is the result of hundreds of conversations with third-culture kids. It's eye-opening and enlightening for any of us who are raising them, teaching them, or loving them.

Stronger Than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa
by Rachel Pieh Jones
This is a well-researched, well-written biography of Annalena Tonelli, an Italian Catholic who gave up everything to help the poor and sick in the Horn of Africa. It's a thought-provoking, disturbing but compelling book, especially for anyone who is involved in cross-cultural humanitarian work. Read it with a friend, because it provokes a lot of important questions without necessarily providing answers.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Caroline Fraser
I spent a good portion of my childhood pretending I was Laura Ingalls, so I had to read this book. It is a fascinating account of what pioneer life really was like--and therefore shattered my life-long fantasy of wishing I was born in the 19th century. Despite it's dream-smashing quality, it was a worthwhile read. And after I finished it, I went back and read (most of) Laura's books again--and still enjoyed them!

Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent's Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More
by Katja Rowell
A must-read on food issues for anyone raising adopted children.

Suffering is Never for Nothing
by Elisabeth Elliot
A new book by Elisabeth Elliot?!? I'm there! This is a transcription of a series of talks that Elisabeth gave on suffering. As always, it is full of grace, wisdom, and humor, reinforcing my opinion that I chose a worthy hero.

The Masterpiece
by Francine Rivers
I can't stomach most Christian romance, but this was a good "airplane read" on the way back to Tanzania in August. I appreciated the thoughtful theme of the effects of childhood trauma, and it was a satisfying, redemptive story without too much preachiness.

All You Can Ever Know
by Nicole Chung
This is a memoir written by a Korean-American adoptee who was raised in a white family. I highly recommend this book for adoptive parents, and I will certainly encourage Grace to read it in the next year or two. Though parts of it were so painful to read as an adoptive mom, it ultimately was a story of beauty from ashes.

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism and Heroism in Colonial Africa
by Adam Hochschild
It's hard to recommend a book that is full of so much of the depravity of man, but it's also necessary--especially for anyone who has any interest in Africa. This book is the account of the history of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and how King Leopold of Belgium decided that he had the right to own it and rape its resources for his own personal profit (though he never even stepped foot on the continent). I read history like this and am not surprised when some Africans are intent on purging Americans and Europeans from their countries.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Still Looking for That Better Country

I've been a foreigner for so long that I've forgotten what it feels like to live as a citizen.

It's now normal for me to stick out in a crowd, to get gawks, stares. Every two years, I apply for expensive visas for permission to live in Tanzania. Even though I've lived here sixteen years, I've never voted in a Tanzanian election, or even felt like I have a right to a political opinion. I've never owned a house. I know that just about everything I own will one day be owned by someone else, so I better not get attached to it. I have the uncomfortable feeling that some of those around me are in awe of my foreignness and unnecessarily defer to me, but others resent my very presence in their country.

Either way, I am an outsider.

It's become so normal that sometimes I forget how exhausting it is to live as a foreigner. It's like playing a card game, every day, where you keep discovering new rules that everyone understands except you. Just when you think you've finally got it all figured out--surprise! You don't. And you find yourself feeling like a two-year-old or a hard-hearted wretch or just a plain idiot.

As I think about the new life ahead of me--living as a citizen in a country that technically is my own,  sometimes I'm terrified; sometimes I'm grief-stricken, but other times I'm excited. Yes, my relationship with America is complicated, but the lure of the American dream is strong. We can settle down and put down roots. Maybe for the first time in my life, I can own a house! I can plant trees and watch them grow with my children. I won't have to worry about visas anymore. I won't stand out in a crowd. 

As much as I love living overseas, there's a part of me that aches for permanency, normalcy, security. They are feelings I have stuffed down and suppressed for most of my adult life. Now that there's a possibility of fulfilling them, they have risen to the surface.

I never realized how much I longed for a homeland until it was finally at my fingertips.

The appeal is strong. Which is exactly why I must push back against that feeling and remind myself that America was never meant to be my homeland. I can't put my hope in a country--even the richest, most powerful country in the world.

I could buy a house, and it could burn down. I could put down roots, and then lose a job. I could save for kids' college, and the economy could collapse. I could fit in--but as a Christ-follower, am I supposed to?

If I give into the temptation of allowing America to feel too much like home, to become comfortable, secure, rooted, then what happens when obeying God challenges that comfort? What happens when I need to stand for something that might sacrifice the personal kingdom I built for myself?

And haven't I always said, all these years, that one of the best parts of living overseas is how it reminds me that my real home is in heaven? So why would I want to give in to a desire that tells me my home is in America?

In the most famous biblical chapter on faith, there's a key line: The Faithful didn't get the homeland they longed for. They did not receive what was promised.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Kind of flies in the face of the American dream, doesn't it? The people in Hebrews 11 are our pillars of faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. They were strangers, exiles, nomads. They recognized that their homeland was not on this earth.

Those who never found a home on this earth are celebrated as our faith-heroes. 

There's no reason why God would want me to feel at home in this world. I keep craving it; I pursue it; seek after it....but it's a misplaced longing. In fact, if I do feel too much at home, then something is wrong. Because that desire was never meant to be fulfilled on this side of eternity.

Which is why, even in America, I will need to remind myself to keep living like a missionary.

Of course, it won't be wrong for me to buy a house and plant trees, or vote, or teach my children the Pledge of Allegiance. I just must be careful to remember where my true allegiance lies. Because my home will never be found on this earth.

Monday, December 16, 2019

This is What We Do With Media. What Do You Do?

I would love for someone to research what kinds of cultural changes took place in Tanzania starting in 2009. That's the year the the fiber-optic cable came to East Africa, bringing high-speed internet for the first time.

Before 2009, it cost 50 cents to send a text message. Internet came in by satellite and was agonizingly slow. We would beg people never to send us pictures by email because of the hours it would take to download them. Hours. Literally.

But starting in 2009, that all changed. And today, I spend the equivalent of $5 a month on my phone plan, which gives me all the calling and texting time I need. Our household spends about $30 a month on internet. We stream from Hulu and Netflix. We Skype. At HOPAC, I do everything on Google Apps (it's awesome!). Kids from fourth grade up have email addresses and are required to turn in assignments using Google Apps. I'm sure we're still "behind" the developed world technologically, but we are catching up fast.

But this is a whole new world in parenting, isn't it? And it's terrifying. How do we keep porn away from our kids? How do we keep out the predators? How do we teach them about healthy digital habits--when we struggle with it ourselves? How do we prepare them to handle cyber-bullying and sexting and social media pressure--knowing that we can shelter them from it for a while, but not forever? How do we train them to discern truth in the midst of all of the messages that bombard them through media?

Navigating this new world, we need each other. Not one of us can draw upon our own childhoods to help our kids through it. This is entirely new territory, for all of us.

So the purpose of this post is to share what our family does. Not because we have it all figured out, but because we don't. I would love to hear from others: What do you do? How do you navigate this new world with the kids in your sphere of influence? How do you keep them safe while still preparing for them for a digital world? Let's learn from each other.  

This is us:

1. Lily (age 10) has an iPod, Josiah (age 12) is getting an iPhone for Christmas (shhhh...don't tell him), and Grace (almost 14) has an iPhone. We also have a couple of Kindle Fires and a laptop that any of the kids can use, and Josiah recently purchased an Xbox One (which is his pride and joy). Parents get to know any passwords and are allowed to pick up and look through any device at any time.

2. Internet browsers are not installed on any of the devices. The only time our kids are allowed to browse the internet is for school purposes, which they can do on the "kids' computer." There is a very strong filter on that computer called Qustodio, which prevents almost all browsing. So when the kids need to do research for school, Gil or I have to put in a password to disable Qustodio for a specified length of time. Kids can only use the internet at the kitchen table within visibility of anyone walking by. The kids' laptop is never allowed in a kid's bedroom.

3. Kids are not allowed any screen time (for anything other than school work) on school days, with a couple of exceptions: Josiah gets 10 minutes a day on the ESPN app to check soccer scores, and Grace can use iMessage or WhatsApp several times a week for a limited amount of time. Grace also has unlimited access to the "notes" feature on her phone. (She journals a lot on her phone.) Grace is not allowed to WhatsApp boys without our permission (unless they are in a group chat). We'll give Josiah similar boundaries on his phone.

4. They are each allowed an hour of screen time on non-school days. For the boys, this is almost always Xbox (Fifa football in particular), and for the girls, they usually choose the YouTube Kids' app (often DIY craft videos). The kids can earn extra screen time in various ways (or get it taken away).

5. Gil has all of these devices synced to his phone. He is able to check in on exactly what they are watching and how much time they spend on a particular app. For Grace and Josiah, this means that we got them (used) iPhones. Though they were more expensive than other phones, the parental controls on them are much stronger, so it is worth it. All of the apps on all devices have time limits on them, they have curfews on them to disable at night, and no apps or advertisements can be accessed without parental permission. The devices are locked by parental settings that can be monitored and changed from any parental device.

6. A rule of thumb we use is, "If you ask, we might say yes. If you don't ask, you might lose a privilege." For example, if there's a song they want to listen to or a show they want to watch, if they ask first, then we will consider it. If they don't ask, but we see that they've watched or listened to something outside our boundaries, they might lose the device (or app, or privilege) for an amount of time. (We tried Spotify with these boundaries, but that wasn't successful. So Spotify didn't last on our kids' devices.)

7. We regularly talk to our kids about what is and isn't okay to put into your brain, and more importantly, why. We talk about the dangers of porn and how it's addicting and what it does to your brain and your relationships. We bribe them--literally--to let us know when they come across something that might not be okay. We say, "You will never be in trouble for telling us about something that you read or heard or saw that could harm you. In fact, this is so important that we will give you x amount of money when you tell us about these things." This was Gil's idea, and he did it because he wanted to take away the shame and secrecy that accompanies "forbidden fruit"--and so far, it seems to be working. The kids have done a good job of telling us when they come across something inappropriate. Our kids are still young and sheltered though....we know a lot more will hit all of us. But we're trying to set the stage now for wide open conversation down the road.

8. We put "worldview lessons" into our family devotion times. The kids love this, because it usually means that they get to watch a movie clip. We watch it together and then discuss: "What message is coming across in this scene? What are they trying to say about the world?" We routinely teach our kids that ideas are never morally neutral. Every book, every movie or TV show has a worldview. And if we aren't careful to root it out and understand it, we will find ourselves being influenced without our consent.

9. We are extremely careful about devices "from the outside." We rarely allow our kids to go to sleepovers, and when our kids' friends come to our house, their phones don't get our Wifi password. Our kids aren't allowed to watch or listen to anything on anyone else's device without asking permission first. This isn't always easy to enforce, because it's so easy for kids to get "sucked in" to someone else's device. When this does happen, we usually don't give out consequences (unless it was blatant disobedience), but we do have a talk (again) about why it's important to ask Mom and Dad first.

10. We have yet to navigate the social media world, which is fine by me. We've talked about it a bit with the older kids but they haven't really been interested since WhatsApp is what's most used in their friend groups. I read stuff like this and I want to keep my kids as far away from social media as possible. But I know the time will come when they will want it, so would love any advice on helping kids to navigate it.

I think what's most important to me is the family culture we are trying to create. "Screen time" is isolating, so when possible, we watch movies or play video games together. We are very careful about what the kids watch but we also have widened those boundaries as they get older--and we will continue to. We say things like, "You can't watch that now, but when you're older, you might choose to," because we want to create an expectation that they will become increasingly more responsible. We eat dinner together almost every night. We read novels together at bedtime and on family trips. We talk. A lot. We train our kids that this is a broken world so we have to be careful, but we also don't want to hide from it. We discuss what it means to "redeem the culture" and how to find echoes of God's story, even in a secular world.

The goal? A young adult who desires to live a life of holiness, not out of fear of punishment, but because he or she sees the value in it. Someone who knows how to think critically about media, how to discern truth from lies, and how to put down the phone and interact face to face.

Easier said than done, I know. We have not followed our own standards perfectly. We've had a couple of close calls that could have led down a dangerous road. But that's just made us more vigilant.

This is what we do. I'm sure there are some of you who feel we are being way too strict and some who feel we are too permissive. This is a hard line to walk! What do you do? Let's learn from each other.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Parenting Tips (Or Not)

Anyone who has tried to teach an unmotivated middle school boy deserves, like, 50 million gold stars. Especially when sitting next to this boy at 9:00 at night, trying to stuff math concepts into his brain for a test the next day. This exercise is like stuffing a frozen turkey. Or tunneling through the Alps with a pickaxe.

And the boy is like, "Why do I have to do it this way? Why can't I just do it the way I want to do it?" 

And you're like, "Because you will get the ANSWER WRONG." And your voice raises in pitch and volume with each word.

And the boy just sits and stares at the gecko on the wall.

So then you (very calmly) set the timer on your phone and tell him, "Well, for as long as you sit here doing nothing, that's how much time you'll lose on the Xbox this weekend."

And then he sighs and says, "Fine. I'll sit here all night."

And then you become a raving lunatic who storms to the bedroom to demand that the boy's father remove the Xbox from the premises immediately. So the boy's father dutifully storms out and makes a big show of yanking out wires and heaving the Xbox onto his shoulder and taking it....I don't know...somewhere else.

And then you win the Parent of the Year Award.

(This is all a hypothetical scenario, of course.)

After spending over a decade controlling everything about your child's eating and sleeping and playing and learning, there's this difficult transition in parenting when one day you are startled to discover that your child is becoming an actual person. This often means a whole lot of wonderful, as you see this child become someone who cares and cooks and sings and unexpectedly surprises you with what he is capable of. And suddenly you realize that you are talking to her in an adult sort of way about adult sort of things. This child is actually becoming your friend. This is delightful.

But along with the wonderful, you realize that this child who is becoming a person is capable of forming his own thinking and choosing what you value...or not. This person might holler, "Why do I have to study? It's my life, why can't I choose to fail?" And you can holler back at this person, "As long as you are under my roof, you don't get the option of failing. Too bad for you!" But inside you start getting the sneaking suspicion that there's only so much you can do. Because even though for a lot of years you've been the controlling presence in that person's life, you don't get to be in control forever. Or even much longer. This is terrifying.

And you look down the road and see that it won't be long until this person will be independent of you and she will decide who to marry and who to worship and what to love. And there's not much you will be able to do about it.

Suddenly you find yourself grabbing hold of every minute. You panic one day when you realize, "I haven't taught her about eating disorders yet!" so you casually bring up the topic on the way to the grocery store and she looks at you like you might have lost your mind (which is possible). And you decide that maybe you're not actually as tired as you thought you were when his bedtime conversation turns to why God doesn't always answer our prayers. Because when will you get another chance to talk about it?

So you eventually bring back the Xbox. But you find a way to teach (again) about the importance of math homework, about the value of hard work, about what is worth treasuring in this universe, and about grace. Always about grace. Even for parents.

(That's the most important part.)

She got picked for the varsity team as an 8th grader, played as a starter for every game, and they won the international school tournament!