Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Creating A New Year's Mission Statement

It’s almost December 31st, and if you’re a compulsive list-maker like me, you are in the process of making up your New Year’s Resolutions. Actually, I enjoy this exercise so much that I celebrate New Year’s Resolution Time twice a year- once in January, and once in September, at the beginning of the new academic year. And yes, they are usually the same, year after year, and like the rest of the world, are usually forgotten or broken by 11am January 1st (or the day after Labor Day!)

Most experts say that the key to keeping resolutions is to make just one, and make it your highest priority. And that is the key to efficiency, which is my number one priority this year: sticking to one goal, and making everything in your life streamline toward it.

But I have so many things I want to do better this year, ranging from health to finance to specific ‘bucket list” things I’ve been putting off. One “thing” cannot encompass it all.

But how about a “mission statement”? What if, instead of checklist-type resolutions, we all sat down and tried to come up with one clear, catchy statement that would express what we really wanted out of 2010?

A single mission statement’s greatest gift is simple: focus. As in a company, any activity outside that statement means you’re getting off track. Mission statements help prioritize daily activities, remind us of what we know we should be doing anyway, and are flexible enough to incorporate unexpected opportunities and challenges that arise during the year.

And perhaps most importantly, a “mission” indicates a path, not an achievement that is gained, lost, or “broken.”

Defining our mission this year is going to lead to less waste in our time, spending, and opportunities: if something helps our mission, it’s in. If not, it’s out. We can stop chasing rabbits down holes all year and focus on what we have predetermined is important.

So let’s do it- be people on a mission this year. I’d love to hear yours.

And for the record, so it’ll be in print, here is mine:

To fully utilize and appreciate all that has been given to me, and desire nothing more.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"You Know Where the Bakery Is?"

I must have been in a very giving mood when all those sign-up sheets were passed around at the beginning of the school year. According to my email inbox, I signed up for every holiday volunteer opportunity possible – especially baking requests. Me. Bake.

The latest “friendly reminder” email came into my iPhone while I was waiting for a class at the gym. Apparently alarmed by the change in my breathing and appearance, my favorite work-out partner, a 90-year-old dynamo from New York, asked what was wrong. One minute and a thousand words later, I had explained the reasons for my stress.

She had one question: “You know where the bakery is?”

Huh. Yeah, I did.

I got rid of more than just my stress level by taking this amazing woman’s advice and going to the bakery (or buying slice-and-bake, as I ended up doing). I also let go of my ego.

The only reason I had for wanting to bake *homemade* cookies was not because I thought they’d be more appreciated by my 7-year-old clientele, but because I wanted people to say “wow- these are great cookies!” to my face, and “how does she do it all?” behind my back. Now, no one is going to say either of these, but the cookies will still be enjoyed, and that’s the point.

So let’s all look at our remaining holiday to-do list and see where our ego can be removed to make way for a more efficient, yet still excellent, final product. If the smile will be just as big on someone’s face by doing it the easy way, for Heaven’s sake, do it.

It just may put the smile back on yours!


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Coupons Your Kids Will Actually Love

A few years ago, our entire family went to Ireland for Christmas to visit my husband’s family. The trip was fantastic, but did present itself with one problem: how on earth were we going to do presents? This was about the time airlines were getting very strict…and expensive…about luggage, so we needed to get very creative about gift-giving for the kids.

That’s when I stumbled on a fabulous article in Richmond Parents magazine in which the mom-author described her now-almost-grown-kids’ favorite annual gift: the coupon book.

Started as a money-saving technique and continued due to popularity, this mother gives her kids a hand-made set of coupons, most of which have little or no money value, as their main gift. You read right.

In this fabulous book, the coupons are not made up of “$10 shopping at Target"; "a new bike you pick out…” or the like, but rather an entirely different set of “gifts” the kids adore.

The first type of “coupon” allows the children to break rules. “One night of unlimited TV”, or “One week of not making up the bed” are the most memorable. By giving her children a chance NOT to do what they normally have to, she both reinforces the necessity of the rules the other times of year (“Oh, you didn’t make up your bed? Well, I guess you just used your coupon!”) and allows for some slack.

The second set of coupons involve attention. “One lunch date alone with Mommy”, “One hour of Daddy playing the board game of your choice.” This makes the kids feel important, prioritizes quality time together, and is priceless yet free.

The final set involves things one might allow the kids to do anyway at times, but sets clear limits. “One box of any cereal you want”, “One sleepover with 3 friends invited”. These coupons allow a parent to say “yes”, but then be able to stop saying “yes” even though she said “yes” once before….you know where I’m going with this.

The sky’s the limit with these books, but for us, they have moved beyond a financial or weight-limit “emergency gift” and become the backbone of our holiday gift planning. Making up these coupon books for our kids allows my husband and I to sit back and think about fun things we want to do in the upcoming year (“camping trip to the Outer Banks”), encourage budding interests in our children (“one afternoon playing tennis with Daddy”), and give attention to those needing it the most (“one week of tuck-ins alone, just with Mom”).

And yes, it saves tons of money too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Need Gifts" instead of "Filler Gifts"

There are two things kids look forward to most Christmas morning- getting stuff they want, and opening stuff…period.

Rather than filling the landfill and emptying our wallets by buying a bunch of “filler presents”…you know, the gifts you buy just so the kids will have more to open…why not set aside things we were going to give them anyway and wrap up those?

Your kid may be desperate for a new pair of pants – can she wait a few weeks and open them Christmas morning? The robe hook for her bathroom door? The box of hand-me down clothes you’ve just received? All are gifts.

And what about the everyday necessities we automatically buy for our children that they take for granted, like extra school supplies, socks, picky-eater cereal, granola bars? These, too, can be wrapped up and presented as the gifts they authentically are.

No, none of these gifts will be our children’s favorite to open, but that’s not the point. They will enjoy the act of opening them, and then get really excited when the few “real” special gifts emerge. And, rather than be left with a bunch of stuff they will never use, they’ll be left with a bunch of stuff they will simply use.

This may seem like “cheating” to you, but ease your conscience. The youngest children won’t know the difference, and the older ones are old enough to turn it into a family game (is this a “want gift” or a “need gift?” ) and start learning a valuable lesson: anything given to them for free IS a gift, and should be enjoyed and appreciated.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Truly MAGIC Beans for Santa

So just how exactly DOES Santa keep track of how good or bad your kids have been?

I stumbled on a “little known fact about Santa” a few years ago that has given my kids a tangible measure of their behavior during the holiday season – one that serves as a fantastic discipline tool and a way to make the countdown to Christmas a bit more bearable!

I heard through the grapevine that Santa collects dry beans on Christmas Eve to bring back to Mrs. Claus to make soup for all the elves Christmas morning…and in exchange for these beans left out for him, he will swap them out for jelly beans! But what makes these dry beans so special is that each bean left for Santa Claus represents one good deed done by a child that holiday season!

Unwrapping a book a night may be my children’s favorite holiday tradition; this one is mine. The first week of December, I buy a few bags of dried pinto or lima beans, then set them in a shallow bowl next to a glass canister within arms reach of my children (you’ll be surprised how pretty this looks, too). Every time anyone says or does something nice, a bean is dropped in the jar. Yes, I also take one out when they misbehave.

Over the weeks, the beans add up, as does the Christmas spirit and the good habit of doing nice things for one another. Sure, the kids are ridiculously obvious and manipulative at times about it: “Here, Sis, let me help you walk down the hall to the bathroom…Mom, is that a bean?” but I couldn’t care less. For around $5 I get improved behavior, a reason for the kids to want Christmas morning to wait a few more days, and another gift for the kids to be excited about Christmas morning.

I heard the Easter Bunny does this too, by the way….

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Month of Gifts from your Bookshelves

We’ve already established that kids love to open presents (hey, so do I), so what better way to jump-start a new, leaned-down gift-buying season than give the kids MORE gifts to open…and to open now, before Christmas!

Sneak into your kids’ rooms and take off the shelves any book remotely related to the Holidays- think outside the box, as anything with “snow” or “winter” will work, too. Surprised at how many you have? Hopefully you have enough to read one a day all the way until Christmas morning. If not, you may want to hit the library and check a few out.

Now, wrap each book as if it’s a gift (maybe make a discreet mark to identify the library books in case you need to renew them mid-season!) and place them in a basket by your couch. (Green tip: I wrap with newspaper then draw a stick-figure Christmas tree on them). Every night, allow your kids to pick one “gift” to unwrap, and read the book together.

I have done this with my children for a few years now, and it is possibly our favorite holiday tradition. We start December 1st, and read the last one Christmas morning. All year, I look out for holiday-themed books at garage sales, thrift stores, and library rummage sales, so am able to sneak in a few new ones amongst the old favorites.

This fun new tradition does a few things: it forces our family to sit down together every night to take a moment to celebrate the season; it allows my kids to get their “gift fix” right when they think they’re going to DIE if they can’t open that gift under the tree yet; and it even serves as a discipline tool….the child with the best manners at dinner gets to open the book that night.

This is something you can start tonight, even if you don’t have all the books yet, and is a great first step in our attempt to stretch out the season!

NEXT POST: An Advent game to improve your children’s manners all season long!


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advent over Excess...a guide to stretching out the season and stretching your dollars

Upon opening the last gift on the Christmas morning when my uncle was 7 years old, he stood up, walked over to the family tree, turned off the lights, and declared, "Christmas is over."

It was probably before 8 A.M.

While he has been teased endlessly about this blunt statement (obviously- I'm writing about it 50 years later), how many of us are guilty of at least empathizing with this mentality? Christmas is irrevocably linked with presents, and the entire holiday season seems to build up to that climax- with a hard crash to follow.

If this is how many of us secretly feel, it is no wonder that we overspend and overstress with the presents- we want the "moment of Christmas" to last, and if there are only a few presents under the tree for our loved ones (especially our kids), then Christmas just doesn't last long enough and isn't a big enough deal.

So how do we cut back this year without cutting short the fun?

By stretching out the other stuff... and therefore conciously turning Christmas into a full season that brings joy, peace, and cheer to all...including yourself.

So, in the relaunch of my blog, we will explore easy and inexpensive ways to make this Holiday season exactly that...a full season...enabling us to end the guilt, the credit card debt, and the landfill waste by making Christmas bigger than the gifts under the tree.

Read tomorrow about how to give your children something to unwrap every day between now and Christmas morning...without spending a dime.