My Children Aren’t Perfect (and I’m dancing with joy )

 My kindergarten teacher had a special pen she used every day for grading papers. On one  end was a regular ball-point red pen, but on the other end was a smiley-face stamp. She would carry it around as we did our work, and if we got everything right, she would turn the pen around press that pretty stamp on our paper. But, if we made an error, she used the ball-point side to scrawl a sad-face.

The first time I saw this magical pen, I silently vowed to get all smiley faces the whole year-long. I achieved this goal until one winter afternoon, when I counted six snowmen instead of five…and a sad face was drawn quickly on my math paper. Eric P., who sat at my table gasped and said, “Ohhhhhhhhh, Katie got a sad face!” I gulped and willed the tears away.

And thus, my terrible tango with Perfect began.This push-me-pull-you dance always led to a short-lived exhilaration, often mixed with exhaustion and tears and sometimes, great emptiness. And still, I’d dust myself off and dance on with this fairly unrelenting and overpowering partner. This continued through undergraduate and graduate school, and into my teaching career. Maturity and time slowed the dance down a bit, though occasionally, Perfect would strike up a tempo that would push me again into a dizzying pursuit…

The perfect dinner party. The perfect thesis. The perfect house. The perfect lesson.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the Ultimate Promenade of Perfection into which I entered on March 21, 1994:


I was completely overwhelmed by the intensity of competition around raising children. Play groups felt more like beauty and talent competitions; discussions revolved around whose child was first in reaching milestones and accomplishing great feats. I felt an almost-primal need to protect my children from the clutches of the Perfect culture, only to discover its pervasiveness: a mainstream magazine recently dubbed parenting as “The Most Competitive Sport in America.”

The conversations I heard at dinner parties and school functions were heavily laced with mentions of Perfect. You know what I’m talking about…the kinds of statements about travel teams and talent scouts that, in my less-secure moments, make me want to thoroughly examine where I went wrong with my obviously-average offspring. Or throw up. Or both.

Still, when I come to my senses, I firmly resist strangling my kids with superlatives, knowing that they’ll never be the smartest or the fastest or the strongest and the best in everythingand that’s okay.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but Imperfect yields a bumper crop of gifts that Perfect could never offer:

 If my children were perfect, they would have no need to develop any of these qualities.  If they were perfect, they might miss out on the unique relationships that develop from cooperation and loyalty and mutual dependence.

If they were perfect, they’d have no need for me…

and they’d have no need for Him.

So, no thanks, Perfect. When it comes to parenting, I’ll sit this one out. I’ll watch my perfectly imperfect children, (who were born of a most-imperfect mother!) as they become just exactly who God planned them to be…

…and I’ll dance with Joy.

Team WORK: Transitioning from School to the Workplace

Photo courtesy CEVEC

Last week I attended a career assessment meeting with a client at the Cuyahoga East Vocational Education Consortium.(CEVEC). This center is designed to provide “vocational and work training to high school aged students with disabilities.” CEVEC is now housed in a recently renovated building, and it positively  buzzes with productivity.

The team assembled in a quiet, comfortable conference room near the main office. Tim Velotta, Career Assessment Specialist, reviewed the results of the testing and educated the group about the next steps in the process. He also explained some of the differences between services and supports at high school and the workplace. Students who are identified with a disability that affects education have Individualized Education Plans, which, as TIm described are “designed to help students succeed.” However, when students transition from public school services to the “real world,” they will receive accommodations–not services– under the Americans with Disabilities Act. At this point, Tim said, “Success is no longer guaranteed.”

This is a scary, and sometimes difficult transition for parents (and for students, too!). For many parents, this presents a touch point of grief; the realization that the child is not following the same college and career path as his/her peers hurts. Even if the parents feel that they have accepted their child’s disability, these kinds of transitions often involve “re-grieving.”

In addition, there are questions! Parents and students want to know what the day will be like, how goals will be accomplished and what the expected outcomes might be. Finally, students and parents might also be excited about the possibilities and experiences ahead, as well as the new levels of independence and fresh experiences in the offing.

In reviewing the variety of job opportunities, Tim described how he and his team evaluate students for job training. The three main criteria assessed are work speed, work accuracy, and level of independence.  In addition, the team assesses  students’ employability skills…the “soft skills” that are necessary for successful employment. These include seeking help when needed, ability to recognize and correct mistakes, flexibility and respect for self and others. Once the assessment is complete, students are placed into a job training program that meets their individual needs. The exciting part? The training they receive involves tasks that directly benefit the community!

What lessons can the Church learn from this process? How can we support families in this unique transition to adulthood?

  • Recognize that this transition might evoke sadness or loss in parents and students. Be willing to affirm those feelings and listen without judgment.
  • Celebrate the transition with the family. If the parents and student are excited about the possibilities, by all means, send a card or make a phone call to give your best wishes. Taking a step toward adulthood is a big deal! Follow the family’s lead and rejoice with them in this new opportunity.
  • Offer opportunities for service at church. It’s important to think beyond the service opportunities we usually assign to teens. Not every student will be able to play the guitar, volunteer in the nursery, or go on a mission trip…and that’s okay. It’s important for us to consider the gifts of the students in our churches and provide opportunities for them to make a contribution to the Body using those gifts. (this is true for both typically developing students as well as students affected by disabilities!)
  • Emphasize the “soft skills.” Reinforcing students’ ability to respect authority, follow directions and make good choices not only builds their employability…it  builds the Church.  When we teach these qualities at church, we can emphasize the greater purpose in demonstrating these qualities, and give our students the knowledge that they can glorify God in the workplace through their attitudes and behavior.
  • Consider collaborating with a center like CEVEC. During my visit at the center, I asked Tim Velotta if students can be placed in jobs at churches. “Absolutely!” he enthused. He listed several “go-to” community organizations that have provided support and training to CEVEC students. If your church feels led, explore this opportunity to reach out to the community.
  • Be a safe haven. Transitioning to the work world can be scary. Students need to know that their church stands with them, ready to commisserate about the rough days and celebrate the successful ones…because that’s what families do.

Working together~

Pearls of Wisdom from The Blaze

What a blessing to hear Tony Campolo preach while I was at Montreat last week! His energy, enthusiasm and passion for social justice was contagious. He had us laughing, celebrating, and pondering as he told stories and answered questions. Here are a few pearls of wisdom from his messages…

  • When asked about his opinions on controversial issues, he told us that it’s important to disagree respectfully. “I always preface my opinions with, ‘I could be wrong,'” he said, and he told us this bodes well for tough conversations in ministry (and with his wife!)
  • Regarding how he would guide middle and high school students, he quoted Freud: “Youth was made for heroism, not for pleasure.” He then added, “I would organize youth around doing what is heroic for God.”
  • Tony also addressed evangelism. From a sociological standpoint, he said that people are either “socialized into the church or they have a conversion experience.” In both models, he said, “There is no new technique for evangelism; it’s just people caring about people and bringing them into the House of the Lord.”
  • Finally, when identifying what he believes true Christianity looks like, Tony challenged youth leaders to develop their students’ awareness of the suffering in this world. “Kids aren’t Christians because they ‘pray the prayer’ or recite the Westminster Confession,” he said, “You become a Christian when your heart breaks for what breaks the heart of Jesus.”

While I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him preach, the most important takeaway wasn’t from a sermon. I overheard, when we were at the airport, a ticket agent saying, “What is your name again?” He answered, “Tony Campolo.”

“And how do you spell that?” asked the agent.

Inwardly, I cringed. Why wouldn’t everyone know this distinguised professor and author? I thought.

But Tony just patiently spelled, “C-A-M-P-O-L-O.” No pretense. No air of superiority. Just kindness. What a gentleman.

And I thought to myself, “What if Jesus were at the airport? What if the gate agent didn’t know Him? How would He react?”

Would He say, “Don’t you KNOW who I AM? I am only the MOST important speaker you’ll EVER hear…”

No…I don’t think so. I think He’d just smile and politely say, “I’m Jesus. That’s J-E-S-U-S.”

“It’s nice to meet you.”

Sometimes the “pearls of wisdom” that are most loudly spoken are our actions.

Thanks, Tony.