Sunday, May 20, 2012

Commencement Address of a Different Sort

A good friend sent me this commencment speech in an email this week. It was spot on and I thought I'd share it with my faithful readers today! Enjoy!

image @photobucket user BJM2012
Class of 2012,
I became sick of commencement speeches at about your age. My first job out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. Every spring, I would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds—which was quite a feat given that I was 23 at the time. In the decades since, I've spent most of my career teaching economics and public policy. In particular, I've studied happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. And I've found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead. Here, then, is what I wish someone had told the Class of 1988:

1. Your time in fraternity basements was well spent.
The same goes for the time you spent playing intramural sports, working on the school newspaper or just hanging with friends. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your postgraduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years.

2. Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation is a happy day. But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I'll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple. The only difference between when I graduated and today is that now no one can afford to retire.
3. Don't make the world worse. I know that I'm supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I'm going to lower the bar here: Just don't use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that "changing the world" also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.

4. Marry someone smarter than you are. When I was getting a Ph.D., my wife Leah had a steady income. When she wanted to start a software company, I had a job with health benefits. (To clarify, having a "spouse with benefits" is different from having a "friend with benefits.") You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water. I also want to alert you to the fact that commencement is like shooting smart fish in a barrel. The Phi Beta Kappa members will have pink-and-blue ribbons on their gowns. The summa cum laude graduates have their names printed in the program. Seize the opportunity!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Parent Education Mission

This small board is a BIG representation of a passion of mine.
See the full size version  HERE.
Did you click PLAY above? View an awesome video detailing some of the challenges in Slovakia

In November, I am traveling to Europe to conduct parenting classes in a small Roma Gypsy community located Cachtice, Slovakia.

View Larger Map

This people group is greatly discriminated against and their children are not given the same educational opportunities as 'white' children and that's ... well, that's not ok.

I took this in 2007
Perhaps due to their abject poverty, it has been identified by groups such as the UN and Amnesty International that Roma families need resources & training in order to establish a home enviornment that enhances, not deteriorates, early brain development in their children.

Children without blocks to build with, books to read and scissors to cut (or parents who understand the necessity of such activities) enter school behind and are therefore labeled "special" and receive a less than acceptable education which only exasperates the cycle of poverty.

We can make a difference in this community! I am a part of a team from the U.K. based organization Next level International. Together we can teach Roma families, mentor locals to continue the work and see an entire community transformed.

Isn't that exciting?

We will train & mentor locals who can then, in turn, reproduce the training model that will be used in other towns and villages in both Czech and Slovakia. Communities can be transformed!

My favorite aspect of the trip will be the Parenting Toolbox Kits we will leave with every Roma family. The kit will include "tools" that each parent needs in order to nurture the growth and development of their children. Blocks, books, balls, crayons, paper ....
We will teach them the importance of reading, playing, interacting with their children.
We will make homemade games
and sing and play together.

me in Bratislava
These are the things me, and the parents around me take advantage of. When you live in abject poverty, when you are illiterate these things don't come naturally. Help me help world to be a better place.
I'm starting in Slovakia.

Won't you help?

My fund raising is two fold:
  1. Sponsor a Roma Family with a Parenting Toolbox Kits (approx $25 USD each) and/or
  2. Sponsor a leg of my trip (14 days @ $100 USD a day = $1400)
Click the blue DONATE button in the right margin of my blog to give today! It's greatly appreciated!

p.s. did you click the pin board above? it has a great video about the plight of the Roma's! You hafta see it for yourself!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Simply Living

My children were having a debate the other day about whether it is better to be a kid or an adult. The vote was evenly split as my younger ones argued that it was preferential to be a grownup since no one would "tell you what you had to do" and "you could have all the money you wanted" (Really? Where do they get these notions?).

However my older kids, who have had a teeny tiny taste of responsibility, think it is best to remain a child as long as possible. They argued, "You don't want to grow up and be like mom! She has to work to buy the food, cook the food and clean up the food all the time!" But the little ones were not swayed replying, "Yeah, but she likes to do all that!"

Isn't this one of the great ironies of life; always wanting the next phase of life? First, you are a kid who can't wait to grow up. Remember feeling desperate to get your driver's license? Then once you've had that taste of freedom you can't wait to move out on your own. It's not long though before you wish you had someone to share your life with. Then you long to settle down. After settling you dream of starting a family. One minute you can't wait to have kids the next you long for them to move out. Sadly then, one day you realize you are old and you wish you were young again.

Is this just the rhythm of life or an unnecessary string of dissatisfaction? I think if we are not careful we could end up spending our entire lives longing for the next season. Isn't that sad? When will we learn to enjoy the moment we are in?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Anne Lamott Tweeted Me!

I started this blog because (at the sake of sounding dramatic) I want 'To Write a Better Story' like I want to breathe.

I want my life to be a fantastically entertaining story when my grand kids sit down and tell their kids about "Stephanie the Great" (thank you Bill Cosby, creator of Little Bill).

I want my kids to tell tales of  bravery and tenacity. I want them to marvel at how happy I was despite my darkest moments. I want them to have a smirk of admiration when they remember what a tough broad I was.

And ('cause that's not enough)

I want to write. Write a story. Stories.
I want to write.
I want to be a writer.

So I've been working on that for 2 years.
Two. Years.

I blog (because apparently that's what aspiring writers do) and
I author a weekly series in my local paper.

I AM writing.
I guess you could say I am a WRITER. (Thank you Jeff Goins. Seriously, thank you!)

Here's the thing .... sure I blog and I got my parenting advice column going on but ... I want to tell my story. I think about it all the time. I think about how I would tell it. I imagine releasing it and sharing it with the world.

And then fear grips my heart.

I believe if I write my story, my truth, it could be painful for loved ones to read.

So I don't do it.
I don't tell the story.
I don't write it out.
I won't speak of it.
Which means my kids may grow up never knowing their history. They'll never hear about the great betrayal or bear witness to my solitary transformative moment.


Earlier today......

I checked in on Twitter today for a brief moment between tasks at school. I saw Anne Lamott was doing a Twitter Chat sponsored by Penguin Publishers. By the way you should know ... I love Anne Lamott. I loved Bird by Bird (it was one of the first books I read as I embarked on my soyouwannabeawriter journey). I asked her in 140 characters if writing a story was worth it if it could potentially hurt those I love.

Essentially I wanted to know the answer to the question that burns at my soul.... is my story worth it?

Is my story worth it?

All I know is that is exactly what I wanted/needed to hear.
Anne Lamott, thank you.
Thank you.

In honor of Mother's Day you should read her essay from Some Assembly Required. It's worth it - go ahead... click over!

Q. What did you do writer friend? Did you write about "it" and did your family support you? Turn away from you? How did you deal with the fallout?

In a world where there are a million blogs and not enough time to read them I thank you for visiting mine!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sticks and Stones ~ Practical Parenting Series

What do you do when you see a child being mistreated in public? Do you do as I do and wonder where the line is between minding your own business and stepping in?

I was out for a lazy, evening stroll recently when I witnessed a woman yanking on and screaming at a little boy who appeared to be no more than four or five years old. My heart beat wildly in my chest as I could see the anger on her face and the fear in his eyes.
Should I intervene?
Mind my own business?Well, right or wrong, I did nothing. Instead, I walked on and watched in horror as the little boy was viciously, verbally reprimanded. He was weeping and trying desperately to escape the woman's harsh grasp. It seemed to me he wasn't trying to avoid discipline, he was very frightened.

Of course, I don't have any idea what invoked this woman to such cruelty but I can't help but wonder; does it matter? Does any one of us have any right, under any circumstances, to treat another human being, let alone a child, with such utter disrespect, hatefulness and vengeance?

I'd say absolutely not! At no time, in no place does any one, young or old deserve to be treated in such a way. Ever.

Now, a week later I sit at my keyboard replaying the scenario in my mind and the truth is it still haunts me a little. I may not have responded at the scene that night but I'm choosing to use my words today in hopes that it will make a difference for children like this little boy in the future.

When we think about the horrible abuses that take place in our world we can easily cite physical, emotional or sexual abuse as some of the worst case scenarios. And indeed it is so, but let us not dismiss the painful words that sting the heart and burrow deep into the minds of victims! Verbal abuse can absolutely be just as damaging to a person's well being.

Remember the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!"? How very untrue it is! Words are very, very powerful. In fact, words might be one of the most powerful tools a parent can wield in a child's early most formative years.

Dr. Michael Popkin, child development expert, says that our job as parents is to teach our children how to survive and thrive in the society in which they will live. In order to do that they must have the courage to overcome life's obstacles. He says in order to raise children to have courage we must spend time encouraging, not discouraging them.

This is very good news for parents and essentially anyone who interacts with children. Encouragement is free and accessible to anyone who might choose to use it! All that is needed are your well chosen words. When you encourage a child you are literally building courage in them. Conversely then, discouraging a child tears away the courage you want to instill. Think of it like a bank account. In order to increase your savings you deposit, not withdraw money. The same is true with courage. Encouragement is the deposit, discouragement is like a withdrawal.

Some forms of discouraging words are obvious; cursing, yelling and demeaning our children. Other forms of discouragement are more obscure. For example, we are actually disassembling any courage in children when we do things for them that they could do for themselves. We say things like, "Honey, your too little to do that" or "Don't you dare (________) what are you trying to do make my life harder?"

We also discourage kids when we expect the worse from them. How many of us have found ourselves saying, "Don't get in trouble!" or "Don't make a mess!"? What seems like a relatively harmless phrase is really a projected expectation of failure. Why don't we change our speech to include words of faith like "I know you'll try your best" or "Let's clean this up together"?

Finally, and most commonly, we discourage our children when we only notice the negative. When you find yourself saying things like, "Now look what you did!" or "What were you thinking?" we miss an opportunity to build our children up. Instead let's think before we are so quick to speak and look for opportunities to catch our children being good. Let's say things like, "That was a good try", "May I help you?" or "You'll get it someday!".

Our children are smaller than us. Their feelings are smaller and much more fragile as well. Let's not abuse our adult power and influence and be people of discouragement. Let's be a people, a community, that encourages one another. Let's use our words, our power-packed words to build each other up. Why? Because I'm the mom and I said so! That's why!

Stephanie Sikorski has had plenty of practice being encouraging to each of her five children but is also employed as a certified Parent Educator for the Monmouth-Roseville School District. She can be reached for comment or consultation at

Monday, May 7, 2012

Menu Monday

It is Menu Monday here at To Write a Better Story.

And I've got no menu for you.
Turns out I can't even meet my own standard for cooking.

Sure we've got dinner in the crock pot right now but
2 kids are at a practice
Darling Hubby is out coaching
the teenager bops in and out so much I'm not sure whether she's coming or going
and I think the other 2 kids are around here somewhere....

o yeah, they're here, I remember! They just helped me carry in 6 bags of groceries so we'd have food for tomorrow.

Also, I just broke my cardinal rule of never going to the grocery store without a list.
I didn't have a list.
I don't have a menu.
Heck, I'm not even sure I had the money to buy the food we're about to consume.

Yeah, it's been like that lately.

Did I mention .... nah, forget it! Even to myself if I continue down that path it sounds a little whiny. And you now what? I'm alive!
I'm alive and well. Healthy enough to clean my kitchen (that my family left for me from 6:30 this morning, grrrrrr!!!). While the fries are cooking in the oven I've got 2 seconds to post Menu Monday and at least I had my wits about me to get something in the crock pot when I left the house this morning.

So Menu Monday? NO!
A recipe? Yes!
And a darn good one!
Mark this one's my flippin lifesaver crock pot recipe:

Italian Chicken

In the crock pot add:
1 bag of frozen, boneless chicken breasts
1 can of Chicken Broth
1/4 cup of Pepperocini juice (optional - it just adds a hint of flavor-flav)
2 packets of dry Italian dressing

Cook on low until it easily shreds or falls apart. Serve on toasted buns with your favorite cheese (we love Provolone or Pepper Jack).

and by the way - leftovers are even better!
and BONUS!
keep any left over for ANY recipe you need that uses precooked chicken i.e. Enchiladas, Quesadillas, Burritos, Chicken & Rice casserole, Potato Chip Casserole, Chicken Noodle Soup, Cream of Chicken Soup, Chicken Nachos ........

Seriously ... it's that good!

Hope you are all well!
For what's left of this Monday - may you rock it!

For more awesome Menu ideas visit Her Menu Plan Monday is really great!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Finance Friday Returns

It has been a few weeks since I've had a Finance Friday entry here at To Write A Better Story. I've got 10 very good reasons: Aaron, Halee, Ethan, Eric, Abby, Bell, school, ShopKo, responsibilities and um ... life.

Also we've hit a bit of a rhythm. It felt to me like we were sinking so hard and so fast that I could not get my feet (or my generally positive attitude) underneath me but now it seems we've hit bottom. Good right? Now there is nowhere left but up.

With things finally leveling out, a plan formed and a budget adjusted accordingly, I can breathe. And breathing feels good! Now that I'm breathing, maybe I can begin writing again.

Has the last year been hard?
Um, duh! ... Yes!
But I've no - do you hear me? - NO regrets.

In the next few Finance Fridays I'm going to:
*introduce you to my Good Cause and next overseas trip
*explain my idea of Tentmaking
*ask you to buy a purse/bag for the Czech Republic
*and share about one of my Tribe's biggest blessings yet (hint? I'm digging out my ears from 1992)

Thanks readers! Thanks for sticking with me. For being gentle when you read my most heartwrenching entries. Thank you for being kind with your emails, comments and words. But mostly, thank you for continuing to visit To Write a Better Story. I believe I'm a better character because of you!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I'm a Failure

Failure seems to be a re-occurring theme for me this year, I've written about it twice in my Practical Parenting series for the paper (here & here), it's regularly in the forefront of my mind as I blog and whenever I see other bloggers/writers talking about it it always grabs my attention.
Like this recent post from Donald Miller.

You see, I want to live a great story.
I really do!
In fact, I'll let you in on a little secret: I very consistently think about what this means for me. When I imagine, I pretend as if I'm an observer of my own story watching/marveling as it unfolds.

Which makes me weird (I'm aware of that thankyouverymuch) and alone.
Sometimes I wish the  main characters people in  my life could understand this.

Back story...

My darling husband and I spent 12 years of our life dedicated to a little church we planted in 1997. We dedicated our lives, literally building it with our own hands. We interrupted our family's schedule. Missed holidays with loved ones and comforted the mourning in their deepest times of need. I shared my husband when I wanted him to myself, befriended people who only wanted my friendship because of my position in the church and put my kid's bedtime on hold for 'a Word'. I cooked for this flock. Planned events for them. Taught them. Mentored them. Involuntarily became their leader and biggest cheerleader and
when it was time for us to move on ...
when we left to try something new (because season's change)
that new thing didn't work out
a grey unspoken fog descended between us that thundered

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Grief and Young Children

(This article appears as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series for

As parents we teach our children a lot of things; how to talk, share, use the potty and deal with grief. In every decision we make, every word we speak and every reaction we have, we are directly, and simultaneously inadvertently, teaching our children how to deal with and react to life. This is why we must be very careful during times of tragedy and death.

When in mourning it can be very difficult to think outside of your own personal feelings of loss and sadness. However, as parents we must take into consideration how large of an impression our reactions will leave on our children and how much influence our words carry. No matter how difficult, the absolute best thing grownups can do is be age appropriately honest with kids. Even, and most especially, when it is the hardest to do so.
Do you remember how highly you thought of your parents when you were young? In a child's eye, moms and dads are supernaturally strong. This is why it can be a very confusing time for children when they see their parent crying. You may be tempted but don't hide your tears. Instead, reassure your child that you are fine but explain that thinking of your loved one makes you feel sad. It's not harmful for children to see their parents cry rather it can be dangerous to create a false reality. Children, even infants, can pick up when something is not right and a parent may inadvertently communicate to the child that there is something shameful about displaying one's feelings.

AddThis Smart Layers