My Big Fat Greek Vacation

Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert

My family and I are not world travelers, but recently we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to Greece that we’ll cherish for decades to come.

There were 17 people in our party: 10 cousins, 3 aunts, 3 uncles, and 1 YiaYia. We travelled with my husband’s family in honor of our late Papou, who used to talk about taking his kids and grandkids to the old country until the onset of Alzheimer’s cut that conversation short.

Our trip took us to Athens, Santorini, Naxos, Nafplion and Spetses. We worked with Susan Whitson of King & Whitson Travel (who I highly recommend, as she did a phenomenal job) and planned an itinerary based on her expertise and feedback from fellow Greek families.

Most people know that Greece is breathtakingly beautiful. But what fascinated me most is how its beauty is due to age. And when you visit a place that’s been around for thousands of years BC, and realize how every monument, stone wall, church, and village has a long and storied past, you gain a deep appreciation for the traditions and old world charm that simply can’t be found or manufactured in modern-day communities.

My 17-year-old niece Katherine Grace summed it up best: “There are some places you visit that you don’t have to go back to…but Greece is one of those places you have to go back to.” As wonderful as it felt to check Greece off the bucket list, we all hope to return one day.

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An Encouraging Word for New Moms

Congratulations, momma! You did it. You’ve ushered a beautiful, breathing, live miracle into this world. That newborn baby cradled in your arms is a game changer, a little piece of heaven so warm and irresistible that you instinctively know this is the purest thing you’ll ever experience on this side of eternity.

It sounds cliché, but try to soak it up. Understand how the indescribable high of meeting your child is hard to repeat. While I certainly can’t speak for everyone, for childbirth stories can get very complicated, I can say the days my children were born were the best days of my life.

In those hospital rooms, I experienced a joy unlike any joy I’d ever known. I felt the divinity of God’s time (kairos) intersect with the reality of our time (chronos) and transport me to a place so peaceful and perfect that I can only imagine what heaven must be like.

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15 Things I’d Want a Son to Know

As a mom of four girls, I often write about raising daughters. And on many occasions, I’ve had moms with sons ask for insights related to boys.

Obviously, I don’t have first-hand experience, but I do know many parents who do a great job cultivating boys into men. Besides taking mental notes from them, I’ve developed a hypothetical list of my own, things I’d want to instill in a son based on personal experiences, the qualities I like to see in a man, and what I’m learning about teen culture through my work with adolescent girls and books for them.

Following are 15 things I’d want a son to know. This list is by no means complete, just a few things I consider important and which I hope my daughters look for in the boys who enter their lives.

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20 Things College Girls Should Know

It was a college football game weekend, and as my friend walked down sorority row with her teenage daughter, her daughter took it all in.

The energy. The buzz. The sea of people dressed in the school colors, full of excitement and hope. Out of the blue, her daughter asked a question.

“Mom, what’s the hardest part of college?”

Her mother said the first thing that came to mind: Saying no.

It was a funny answer, yet really true. Saying No is the hardest part of college.

Whether it’s No to Domino’s pizza at midnight, No to going out on Tuesday night because you need to study, or No to someone who is pushing you against your better judgment, it is beneficial and wise to get comfortable saying No.

Yet even with the invitations you pass up, college is unbelievably fun. It is a time of freedom, fun, and lifelong friends you’ll always feel close to because you help each other grow up.

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How Does a Girl Restore Her Reputation?

I once met a woman who grew up with a father who failed to show her love and affection. Hungry for attention and very naïve, she went to a party one night in 9th grade, had too much to drink, and made some regrettable choices with a boy.

The next week, her phone began to ring off the hook. It wasn’t the boy reaching out – it was his friends. You see, word travels fast when a girl makes a mistake. One night is all it takes to get the wrong kind of label and start attracting the worst guys, the predators who only want to use girls and have no idea how to show respect.

As a writer for teen girls, I often hear school counselors talk about the regret they see in their office. I hear about the girls who come to them feeling broken and ashamed, convinced they’re damaged goods because that’s how people treat them or that’s how they see themselves.

In many cases, they think they don’t deserve what the “good girls” seem to get – like a guy who will respect them – because of choices they made in the past.

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Tips for Tryouts: Confidence, Courage, Community

It’s that time of year again, when girls and guys across the country are gearing up for tryout season and getting physically and mentally prepared. While I can’t help anyone with physical preparations, I can offer a few thoughts for the mental part.

Here are 3 words to keep in mind:

Confidence * Courage * Community

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What Will Your Recovery Be?

It started with a phone call – the kind of call every parent dreads.

The gym where my girls tumble had called to tell me that my oldest had hurt her finger and was in pain. It happened during a back-handspring and immediately started to swell.

We went to the ER, and after several hours we emerged with confirmation that she’d broken her finger and might need surgery. They scheduled us to see a hand surgeon on Monday.

Since the accident happened Thursday, we spent the entire weekend waiting and worrying. Besides the physical pain of a broken bone, we had to manage the emotional pain of what this might mean for her as a cheerleader – especially since her squad had tryouts the next week. 

Many friends and visitors came by that weekend to keep Ella’s spirits up. They spoiled her with gifts, food, flowers, love, and attention. Again and again I tried not to cry, because my heart was so grateful for every individual who showed up during this vulnerable time. 

On Monday we met with hand surgeons and chose the one who specializes in athletes. She recommended surgery on Tuesday, therapy starting Friday, and an estimated six-week recovery. It felt good to have a plan, yet I was scared. Somehow in my 14 years of parenting I’d never sent a child into surgery, so this was new territory.  

By God’s grace her surgery went well, and her recovery has been smooth. Her bones are healing quickly as young bones tend to do. And while we’re not in the clear yet, we have reached a better place. I can look back now, reflect on the events, and process some lessons I learned.

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Drowning Out the Inner Critic with Only Love Today

Today’s post is written by a special friend who can articulate the painful truths we all wrestle with but are scared to admit. Known to the world as Hands Free Mama, I know her simply as Rachel, an incredibly kind, beautiful, and compassionate soul who lives out her message of love and offers a soft place to land to those who know her.

Rachel’s newest book – Only Love Today – releases March 7. I highly recommend it for moms and daughters, as even my 7-year-old has been captivated by her words of hope, love, grace. Today’s post offers some backstory on Only Love Today and how these words helped Rachel silence her inner critic. It’s one we can all relate to, a story that reaffirms our value despite our imperfections.

Thank you, Rachel, for sharing this vital message!

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She’d asked me to get in the bathroom stall with her while she put on the swim suit she’d been given to wear to the meet. I hesitated. The stall was exceptionally small and the air conditioning in the building was broken. But there was a pleading in my child’s eyes that looked hauntingly familiar, so I accompanied her.

My daughter immediately asked me to turn away. I crammed myself into the corner. The bathroom door hinge was two inches from my nose. I was already sweating, and I wasn’t the one wrestling with a fierce duo of nylon and spandex.

I had a bad feeling about this.

Behind me there was grunting, wiggling, pulling, stretching. There was a tremendous amount of exhausting effort going on back there. I could feel the frustration radiating from my child through the back of my shirt.

“Everything okay?” I asked with a cringe.

“I.Can’t.Get.It.On!” my child burst out.

“Would you like me to help?” I asked. “I’d be happy to help,” I repeated, desperately hoping to improve the dismal situation.

After a few more grunts and sighs, my child accepted my offer.

“But close your eyes, Mama,” she instructed.

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Want to Like Other Parents? Presume Positive Intent

It happened when my daughter was 9, and I knew immediately by the look on her face that something was wrong.

While the kids around her were all smiling and running – thrilled that school had ended early – she was trudging toward me with her shoulders slumped and a defeated expression.

Before I could ask, my daughter told me that a girl in her class had invited all her friends except her to eat lunch down the street. Pointing over my shoulder, she showed me the pack, and my heart ached as I turned around and indeed saw all her friends giggling and huddled tight as they waltzed away together.

As my daughter tried not to cry, the Mama Bear in me woke up. I was angry at this girl and her mom, and when my daughter said, “This makes me want to plan something and not include her,” part of me agreed.

Deep down, however, I knew that was an immature reaction. And since I was the adult, I needed to think like one.

So I took a deep breath and tried not to assume the worst. I didn’t know how this lunch had transpired, and trying to guess would be speculation. Rather than go there, I focused on comforting my daughter.

I told her we’d do something special too, and maybe this was an oversight, not an intentional act of meanness. Maybe we should give this girl and her mom the benefit of the doubt.

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Be Real and Know Who’s Good for You

I’ve never been a fan of pretense. Even as a little girl, if I sensed that a person was acting fake or a little hoity-toity for my taste, it made me want to run the other way.

I suppose that’s why I’m glad for the cultural shift in recent years where being “real” is a popular idea. Words like transparency, vulnerability, authenticity, and truth telling have gained buzz, and while pretension is still alive and kicking (thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to put on a show), there is also a mass of people who are tired of pretending and so exhausted by the quest to impress that they’re officially over it.

The irony of being real, however, is this: While we love for other people to pull back the curtain on their lives, we hesitate to do it ourselves. We’re afraid that if people knew the real scoop on us – our insecurities, flaws, and struggles – they wouldn’t like us anymore. They’d be unimpressed or disappointed.

This fear keeps us on the hamster wheel of pretending and putting on masks. It creates internal strife as we waffle between wanting people to think we’re a big deal and wishing to kick superficial stuff to the curb and live real, honest, and simple lives.

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The Gift of Christmas Grace

It was a simple task, really, and one that many families had successfully carried out before us.

Our church had asked our family to take care of baby Jesus in the week leading up to Christmas. On the last Sunday of Advent, we set up the Nativity. We then brought Jesus to our home for safekeeping, swaddled in a purple blanket.

It was thirty minutes before the start of Christmas Eve Mass, as I was rushing to get ready and sweep everyone out the door, when the accident occurred. One of my daughters was carrying Jesus around in the swaddle when suddenly He slipped out of the purple cloth.

The wooden figure broke in two places, around the ankle and the wrist.

I couldn’t believe what had happened – but then again, I could. I’d worried all along that this might happen, but even my worst scenario didn’t play out like this, right before the service.

As my family drove to church, I was upset and tense. I wondered why we couldn’t be normal and handle this sacred assignment.

Naturally the church was packed, and as we walked into the vestibule, the two priests leading the service waved me over.

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20 Tips to Help Your Teen Use Social Media Wisely

Whenever I speak at mother/daughter events, the Q&A at the end often leads moms to ask questions about one particular topic.

Social media.

As the first generation of parents dealing with social media, we don’t have much advice to go on. We don’t have parents ahead of us who have pioneered a path and can tell us exactly how to best prepare our kids for digital interactions.

We are the pioneers – which means there’s a lot of trial and error. There are also a lot of conversations as we converse with other parents, share what works/doesn’t work, and try to learn together how to keep our kids safe online while helping them use social media wisely.

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A New Book for Teen Girls!!!

When people talk about teenage girls today, the conversation often turns to how addicted they are to their phones..

But what nobody seems to ask is “Why?”

Why are girls addicted to their phones?

Why do they obsess over Instagram “likes” and social media numbers?

Why can’t they put their phones down, even in the company of friends?

If you ask me, there isn’t one explanation, but rather a combination of forces. And to truly understand the dynamic, we should first consider the heart and the mind of a teenage girl, and think about what’s important at that age.

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What Middle School Girls Should Know About Friendship

A woman in teen ministry once shared with me a term that describes the state of female friendships in the middle school years.

Fluid.

In other words, friendships can change a lot in this stage of life. They may ebb and flow as everyone makes new friends, explores new friendships, and sometimes grows apart.

The growing apart may not be intentional; it’s often a matter of not having classes together or the same extra-curricular activities. 

We typically become close with the people we see the most, and as teenagers evolve in their passions, personalities, and circumstances, their relationships evolve too.

This is a tricky thing to navigate for girls and their moms. While I’ve been really proud of the friend choices my daughters have made – and I feel certain that many friends, including old friends from elementary school, will be friends for life – it’s hard to see an old friendship slip away and wonder what ever happened to that cute girl you used to see all the time.

Why don’t you have Isabella over anymore? I don’t hear much about her – is everything okay? The response is often something like, “Yeah, I love Isabella, I just never see her.” Nothing specific happened; it’s just that life is busy, and there isn’t enough time in the day to spend time with everyone you like.

Sometimes girls drift apart for a reason. Sometimes a falling out triggers sudden mistrust. A girl who your daughter thought was a friend (in my book I call them 50/50 friends) does something hurtful or mean. Or a group of girls may gang up on one girl because she made the leader mad. The scenarios are endless, and the lesson to be learned is that girls sometimes must learn the hard way what true friendship looks like.

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5 Things Your Daughter Should Know About Chasing Boys

There are certain things in life worth waiting for.

A really awesome guy is one of them.

Unfortunately, our world has devalued the art of waiting. We want our heart’s desire now. And for teenage girls eager to fall in love, that eagerness can get the best of them. They may chase the boys they like instead of waiting for the right boys to chase them – and then wonder why their relationships are empty, short, and shallow.

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10 Thoughts for My 10-Year-Old Daughter

There are certain people in this world who soften me when I look at them.

My daughter Marie Claire is one of them.

Maybe it’s rosy cheeks. Or her starry eyes. Or her lyrical voice as sweet as honey that reminds me of a fairy.

Then again, it could be what I know about Marie Claire that isn’t readily apparent. Like how kind, tender-hearted, and compassionate she is. How she knows what to say to a friend who’s been hurt by another child. How she listens before she speaks and often makes remarks that grab me and make me think, “Wow, that’s really wise.”

Clearly, there are many qualities that I admire and love about my girl. But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d choose her joyful spirit.

It doesn’t take much to make Marie Claire happy. It really is the simple things – like having a dance party in the kitchen, or jumping on the trampoline with friends – that make her radiate.

I want her to keep that light. I want her confidence and self-esteem to last for years to come. Where Marie Claire is now, fast approaching her 10th birthday, is the sweet spot before adolescence.  As I think about what typically happens to girls in adolescence – how studies show that confidence and self-esteem often begin to erode starting around 5th grade – I want to hug my baby tight, reaffirm who she is, and point her to the truth.

Because only the truth can help her as she wrestles with life’s big questions and finds her place in this world.

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When Other Parents Love Your Child

Years ago, I heard of a high school principal who shared with a room of educators an experience from her personal life.

While speaking with her neighbor one day, she mentioned how her daughter was interested in art. The next day, her neighbor appeared on her doorstep with an unexpected gift: paint, paint brushes, and art supplies so her daughter could get started.

Obviously, this principal was moved. She couldn’t believe what her neighbor had done for her daughter. Her message to the room of educators was this: “That is what it means to be an educator – to make a personal investment in someone else’s child.”

I love this story because it applies to parenting, too. It’s what “the village” is all about. After parenting for 14 years, I’ve learned how the best gift you can give any parent is to genuinely love their child. This means caring about their well-being, recognizing what makes them special, and sharing your time, talent, or treasure.

While speaking to young moms at my church recently, I sensed a village camaraderie. I could tell it was in force as they laughed and bounced babies on their laps. I encouraged them to keep it up, because as kids grow older, the village tends to shift. The “we’re in this together” mentality that helps moms survive the toddler years can unexpectedly weaken as parents get more competitive, more skeptical, or more protective in creating a hedge around their family. 

After all, loving a baby or snaggle-toothed child is easy – but loving a teenager who may be more talented, successful, or celebrated than your child isn’t always the natural response. Same goes for loving a teenager who just made a bad mistake and now everybody is talking about them.

In regards to my village, it differs a little from child to child. While some faces are constant, like family members and close friends, each daughter also has certain adults who have a soft spot for them.

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Be Awesome and Make History

Recently I asked my nine-year-old daughter what she wants to be when she grows up.

She eagerly replied, “I want to be awesome and make history!”

Exactly how she plans to make history is up in the air, because at her age, that part is irrelevant. All she knows is that she wants her life to count. She wants to matter. She wants a life of significance that people will remember.

And if we’re being honest, don’t we all feel the same way? Don’t we all long to leave a legacy that outlives our time on earth and keeps our memory alive?

Our desire for a meaningful life is good because God planted the desire in us. He created each of us for a special purpose that will leave the world better than we found it.

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Parenting Your Teen in an Age of Social Media

As a writer, I like social media. I can appreciate the benefits it offers because it has opened up doors for writers by offering a quick, easy, and free way to connect with readers.

As a parent, however, I have mixed feelings toward social media. I hear stories about kids who have misused it, been hurt by it, or made a terrible mistake that went viral, and I panic because I’m raising daughters in a generation that’s still figuring out how to be smart with a smart phone.

It’s a complex challenge, to say the least.

Parents often say they wish they could do away with social media for kids, because the problems outweigh the benefits. While I understand this, we all know it’s not going anywhere.

With new apps constantly being introduced, and teens growing increasingly reliant on online communities, we parents are forced to deal with this reality and develop a game plan.

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Connecting With Your Teen Daughter

When I began writing my first book for teen girls, I was writing for mothers. So when I sent two sample chapters to my editor for review, she offered pivotal advice that helped shape me as a writer and a mom.

She said, “This is a good start, but if you sound like a mom, the girls will stop reading. Write it instead from the voice of a wise big sister. Channel your teenage self.”

What her advice forced me to do was to put myself in the shoes of today’s girls. It forced me to go back in time and dig up memories of myself at their age – even the unpleasant ones I really don’t like to remember.

And when I combined my experiences with the realities of today’s teen culture (way harder than the environment I grew up in), I softened up toward these girls. I grew a heart for what they’re going through and the pressures they’re bound to face.

Instead of seeing myself as a parent with so much wisdom to impart, I began seeing myself as their sister in Christ, someone to walk beside them with compassion for what they face and hope for what God has in store.

I share this because I now understand how the approach we take in talking to teen girls determines whether or not they listen. Without compassion or empathy, they’ll inevitably tune us out. 

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12 Back-to-School Prayers for Your Child

It’s that time of year again, time to pull out the backpacks, get haircuts, set up alarm clocks, and make 20 trips to Target because school is about to start, and Mom is on a mission.

Wherever your heart is this season – whether you’re jumping for joy because you’re ready for some space, or crying on the sofa because you aren’t ready to let your kids go – you probably have mixed emotions about the school year ahead.

You hope it will be a great one, but what if it’s not? You want your kids to excel and be happy, but what if they fall and struggle in ways you never saw coming?

We moms like control, and not having control of the next nine months can make us feel a little, well, anxious. And since my favorite cure for anxiety is prayer, I’d like to share some prayers that might calm an anxious heart.

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The Key to Great Parenting? Consistency

My sweet father-in-law, Nestor Kampakis, passed away unexpectedly this past New Year’s Eve. Although he had Alzheimer’s, his death was a shock, altering the landscape of 2016 for our family.

Papou was a good soul and everything you’d hope for in a father: kind, loving, protective, wise, honest, committed, and faithful. He adored his family and loved anyone whom his children loved, because if someone was important to his child, they were important to him too.

After Papou died, I sat down with Harry and his two sisters to help Harry with his eulogy. We cried and laughed as we recalled our favorite memories of Papou, from famous words of wisdom like “If you go to bed with dogs, you’re going to wake up with fleas” to stories of him patiently teaching his kids to water ski and pulling them all day on the boat.

As Harry wrote his eulogy, he noticed a theme to his father’s life. What made Papou a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, and friend could really be summed up in one word.

Consistency.

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Character is More Important Than Winning

Several years ago, I heard about a 5th grade boy who showed character during a summer all-stars baseball game that was intense and high-stakes.

Both teams were determined to win.

The boy, named Michael, made an amazing stop at short stop. Everybody in the stands thought he’d caught the ball for an out, but it was questionable whether the ball touched the ground before landing in his mitt.

The umpire asked Michael if he’d caught the ball. The crowd grew silent as everyone leaned in and listened closely. Michael knew that if he said yes, he’d be the game hero. His team and their fans would be thrilled.

But Michael chose to be honest instead. He admitted that the ball hit the ground before landing in his mitt. Immediately you could hear the crazy parents in the stands grumbling about the call and the missed catch.

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Big News: I Have A New Book Coming!

For about a year now, I’ve been pouring myself into a project that is near and dear to my heart.

And I’m thrilled to finally announce that this project is a second book with Thomas Nelson that releases this fall and will be available everywhere books are sold!

The book is called Liked: Whose Approval Are You Living For?and the official release date is November 15, 2016. Like my first book, it targets teen and tween girls, yet the message is relevant for all ages.

The purpose of Liked is to empower girls through faith. It’s designed to help them focus on their audience of One – the God who created them – and discover a life of confidence, courage, and purpose.

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Raise the Child You Have, Not the Child You Want

I have a friend who learned that her daughter had cancer after going to a routine 2-year-old pediatrician visit several years ago. Her blood work was off, and this led to testing and a diagnosis the next day. As you can imagine, they were shocked and very frightened.

Her daughter is doing fantastic now, and last year we celebrated her five-year remission. One thing that’s always stuck with me, however, was a realization my friend had shortly after learning about the cancer.

She told me that when her daughter was a toddler, her spirit, spunk, and strong personality could drive her up the wall sometimes. She wanted her to be calm and easy.

But after the diagnosis, she realized how God made her tough for a reason. He gave her daughter a special armor on purpose, because He knew she’d need that armor to handle the grueling and aggressive treatments she’d face to fight cancer at a remarkably young age.

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