Advice from the former CEO of MOPS

Back in 2013 I interviewed former Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) CEO Elisa Morgan for Colorado Parent, in conjunction with the release of her book, The Beauty of Broken. There are few interviews I remember as vividly as this one. She was honest, and many of points she made have stuck with me, and have helped me in my own parenting journey. I’ve often wished she lived in my neighborhood and would mentor me through parenting challenges as my kids grow. That’s probably not going to happen, so instead I revisit the advice that she gave in this article from time to time. I hope it will help another parent, too, after all these years.

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Supporting and encouraging moms was Elisa Morgan’s business. Literally. 

As the CEO of Denver-based MOPS International (Mothers of Preschoolers) for 20 years, Morgan’s career consisted of planning curriculum and resources for moms, delivering impacting speeches to parents and many other leadership responsibilities. With Morgan at the helm, MOPS grew from 350 to 4,000 groups, totaling 100,000 women, across the United States and in thirty countries. 

 All the while, Morgan’s own family experienced many private struggles that were anything but encouraging. Her teen daughter’s pregnancy followed by a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, and her son’s struggle with alcohol abuse and drug addiction were just a couple of the challenges that Morgan and her husband Evan faced. But from “broken” circumstances, Morgan writes about the beauty that can emerge, including spiritual growth, strengthened family bonds, forgiveness, thankfulness and increased self-awareness. “We forget that we all grow through hard times, and that our stories are formed through challenges,” Morgan says.

 Writing a book that reveals many personal details was not easy, but she believes it was an important story to tell, in order to “free today’s parents from feelings of shame and inadequacy about their life and for their children. I share my story to tell parents there is a way out, when things don’t go the way you think they will.”

 Though the book is not a how-to manual on child-rearing, Morgan’s life experiences have provided many opportunities to get real about raising kids today. Here are a few of her insights.

 Get Real About Your Reactions

Morgan remembers the day her daughter lost her retainer when she was 9 or 10 years old. “I was bending over the side of the school trash can to look for it. In that moment, I remember thinking this is the way (my daughter) will think I will respond to other things, and it helped me pull myself back together. When she told us she was pregnant as a teenager, I thought back to that retainer moment.” 

 It’s important to keep our reactions and responses to our kids’ choices in check, or we might have to face our own consequences later. “We can’t control our children’s choices,” Morgan says, “but we can control our responses to their choices. I try to remember the end result. The number one value is to keep the relationship open so you can continue to grow,” Morgan says.

 Get Real about Controlling Your Kids

When it comes to controlling the choices children make, Morgan says there are three components to consider: Heredity, which you can’t control; environment, which you can control to some extent; and free will, which you can’t control. “We can do our best to model discipline and certain values, but in the end, we have to relinquish control,” she says. 

 Influencing your kids, though, is possible, but doing so effectively is different depending on their ages. “With younger kids, consistency and clarity are important,” she says. “As they get older, consistency and clarity are still important, but also, honesty. Try to share your heart (with your kids) while maintaining appropriate boundaries.”

 Get Real about Parenting Forever

Morgan believes parents should commit to a “no matter what” kind of love. “When we parent, we parent for life. We tend to think that it is most important in those early years, but the reality is, it’s ongoing for the rest of your life--not in a co-dependent way, but we have to figure out how we are going to stay on with parenting for the rest of our lives.” 

 This is no easy task, and to help do this, Morgan thinks it is important to attend to your own needs: “Like they say on airplanes, secure your own oxygen mask before you secure someone else’s.” She suggests seeking out parenting classes that can provide support or information, counseling or faith-based book study groups, so that you are growing as a person.

 Get Real about “Perfect Families”

“It’s a myth that if you parent a certain way, your kids will turn out a certain way,” says Morgan. “We very much want to create an ideal, and when things skew off, even for a season, we feel like we’ve failed. We can begin to let go of this by humbly realizing that we are creatures in progress. I remember one day when I was losing my temper, I was thinking to myself, ‘Why do I always have to make dinner? Why do I have to be the one to drive everywhere? How did I get here?’ You become a mother, and sometimes there is this expectation that you are supposed to be mature. But you are modeling to your child a person who is growing—you are not modeling a perfect person.”

 And through imperfection, there are opportunities to teach your children how to handle trying times: “Ask yourself, ‘What am I training them to do? Am I training them to put on a plastic face and pretend to be perfect? Or am I showing them, this is how I handle it when I make a mistake?’ ”

 Knowing what she knows now, Morgan says if she could go back to her 20-something self, just starting the journey of parenting, she would say, “(Your children’s) choices in life don’t define who you are. And I would tell her to trust that I won’t be parenting alone. From my perspective, God would be there along with me.”

Raising Irving: Life With ADHD

My dad, Irving, used to tell me that when he was a school boy in the early 1950s, his teachers would give him important errands to run all over the city of Chicago, during the school day. They were important ones, he told me with pride in his voice—school documents that had to be delivered to the department of education in sealed envelopes. 

Last year when my son was struggling to sit still and behave in the classroom, and we started Occupational Therapy to try to help him, I told my dad what we were doing. In his 70s now, he seemed to understand: “I think I could have used that!” he said. I asked him if he thought the teachers were just trying to get him out of the class for a while, with those errands around Chicago. “Probably!” he laughed. But the 1950s ad hoc solution for a kid with attention issues kind of worked—it gave a talkative, hyper young boy a real purpose and a mission, even if the teacher really did just need a break from him.

I suspect many teachers and volunteers who have been in charge of my son could use a break from him, too. They can’t send him across town on errands, but I wish there was a method that would solve the immediate distraction while allowing my son to feel good about himself, like it did for young Irving.

My son talks. A lot. He’s disrespectful when he doesn’t want to do something. He can’t sit still and doesn’t want to focus on the assignment at hand and fidgets with anything he can get his hands on. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD, but it’s mild, the doctor says, and for that reason, does not recommend medication. The doctor did recommend a specific kind of Occupational Therapy, but says it can take up to six months to see any change. 

In the meantime, though, my son is keenly aware when the adults in charge don’t care for him so much. Many don’t even try to hide their disdain for such characteristics in a child. The doctor told me that it’s common that many kids with ADHD exhibit what she called “class clown syndrome.” She told me, “They use what they consider to be humor to deflect attention away from ‘getting in trouble’ and being embarrassed by that.” This is definitely true for my son, and I’m writing about it today because when it comes to class clown-type behavior caused by ADHD, I believe empathy and understanding from adults is in shorter supply than it is for other disabilities and types of behavior.

Is the bossy child sent to the office for repeatedly not minding her own business? Is the emotional child disciplined for crying too much? Is the struggling reader expected to just pull it together and catch up on his own? Is the physically disabled child asked to get up from her wheelchair by sheer force of will? Of course not, but for kids with attention issues, the standard is different, even though their struggle to sit quietly in class is real.

Our doctor recommended that teachers and caregivers “need to explain to him in a private setting that his humor is actually causing him more problems rather than deflecting attention from getting in trouble,” she said. “It can be helpful for teachers to develop a signal system to help him learn when his behaviors aren’t funny.” While I know that in a large group setting, this is easier said than done, I wish more adults could recognize the struggle behind the behavior. Because, when it comes to any group situation where sitting quietly and conforming is placed in highest regard, we are losing him.

The truth is, though, he’s an enthusiastic communicator, has a clear, loud voice and large vocabulary. He stands up for himself, asserts himself, constantly asks questions, and apologizes quickly and often. I think that most parents would agree that in the grand scheme of things, these are good qualities. But if you possess these qualities as a child, you get in trouble.  

As I write this, I don’t have all the answers (or any, really), as we are just beginning to learn about ADHD, and have not yet gone in for our first new OT appointment. We do ask our son to try to meet teachers and caregivers half way, try and understand their position, and think about how his behavior affects others. We pray for strength and wisdom on how to positively guide an impulsive child. My hope and prayer is that a few adults will start to do the same for him.

A Response To “Peril of Princesses” from a Mom of a Middle Schooler

I recently read Leslie Verner’s blog post, The Peril of Princesses & ‘Passion and Purity’, and though I’ve never read Passion and Purity, as a mom of a 12-year-old girl, I have some thoughts on the princess part. Verner writes, “I don’t want her (my daughter) to worship Falling in Love, but I don’t want her to fear it, either. Instead, I hope she will know she is special, adored and valuable because she is made in the image of God.” Me, too, for my daughter.

She also writes, “I also want to avoid being duped by the media and marketers targeting my three year old girl.” Me, too, when my girl was three, and also now. But I think she’s giving too much long-term credit to movie makers, marketers, and media, and not enough credit to the growing minds of little girls themselves, their hard-working moms, and other strong female influences in their lives. As my daughter has grown up a bit, the things she likes and watches have become both more complicated and interesting than the love stories surrounding Disney princesses.

Post-princess-era, my daughter met Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series, who, in both book and movie form, is a girl who is best friends with two boys, and known for her intelligence and love of study. And Ginny Weasley, thought to be “too popular for her own good,” by Ron and Harry in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is a quick-witted Quidditch player with mad wand skills. And most recently, my daughter discovered the female characters Eleven and Max from the Stranger Things series—brave girls who overcome difficult circumstances and who were friends with the boys first. These four girl characters all grow to like certain boys in their worlds over time, but  their feelings for these boys are secondary to their strength, and to other things they have going on.

Another thing I’ve realized is that what I focus on in a certain movie is often not what my daughter will remember or even care about. I was a bit of a boy-crazy kid, so I understand what Verner means when she says she doesn’t want falling in love to be her daughter’s sole focus. But who’s to say that it will be, because it was for our generation? I asked my own daughter recently who her favorite Disney princess was. I predicted she’d say Ariel. “No, she’s dumb,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “Because she just signs a contract without reading it first.” My daughter chose Belle, but not for the love story or her smarts: “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I just like her songs better.”

Often, for my girl, it’s the characters themselves and things they do that she likes most. Will this change? Most likely. But perhaps the good thing about today’s culture in which our daughters are bombarded with media messages is that they will need to be discerning enough to reject the messages that are not true, whether from Disney or elsewhere. My prayer is that, with the help of God, me, her dad, and the other role models in her life, the positive messages will scream louder than the false ones, and she will choose honorably. And if she doesn’t, I pray she knows she is loved much more by God and by her family than messages from the world would have her believe.

My Path To A Literary Agent

When I was 36, now five and a half years ago, I decided I wanted to get serious about publishing children’s picture books. I’d written, revised, and received feedback on my work. I began submitting my stories to publishers that would accept manuscripts directly from authors (many only accept submissions through literary agents). And I waited. 

I knew the process could take a long time, and that was fine with me. When my first rejection letter came, I honestly wasn’t that discouraged—every writer gets a whole lot of  “no” before they get the one “yes.” I thanked God for rejections, because that meant I was that much closer to acceptance. I told everyone I knew about my new venture. I tried to approach it like I was going back to school—I went to conferences, joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and sought out a writing mentor.

But at the end of four years, though my writing was better, my cover letters were more polished and my platform of other writing was more established, the “no” letters continued to pour in (now from publishing companies and literary agents) with few differences from the letters of years one, two, and three. It was harder to thank God for rejections now. Why had I spend so much of my time on nothing? I could have painted my entire house or finished a degree or trained for multiple half marathons or organized my entire house in the time I had spent submitting my work. If I believed God gave me the desire and ability to be a children’s author, why hadn’t it actually happened? 

I didn’t quit writing or praying or submitting to publishing companies and agents or working as a freelance magazine writer/editor, but I no longer told many people about what I was pursuing. I’d see posts about others’ enthusiastic writing goals and New Year’s resolutions and think, good luck with achieving that in one year. I told a fellow writer friend sarcastically that I had a new book idea: It’s about a sad, lonely piece of paper that falls to the bottom of a pile, and never, never gets read. The end.

I wondered if perhaps God’s plan for my children’s book career was that I wouldn’t write children’s books at all—maybe it was all to help make me a humble person. And while I believe this is a good thing, I sure wished it was a lesson I could have learned another way, and not at the expense of the thing I most desired to achieve.

But the ideas in my head wouldn’t go away. I was constantly telling my children, “that would make a great book!” In the beginning, they’d laugh and say, “you always say that!” and offer ideas. By year five, they’d widen their eyes like I was crazy. Or just say nothing. 

Then one very regular day in November five and a half years after my first manuscript submission, an agent I’d found on The Writer’s Digest New Agency Alerts blog replied. (I’d checked this blog regularly, and submitted to agents found on it regularly, for about four years.) She asked what else I had written, asked me to write a detailed proposal, and a few weeks later, offered to represent me. “I can tell you’ve prepared to be represented by an agent,” she said. I didn’t know that I had, actually, but I guess I had kept working. In the end, it was perseverance that made the biggest difference.

Everyone always says, “Don’t quit!” and  “Go for it!” when it comes to writing. To be honest, I don’t know if this is always good advice. I don’t think you should write because you want to be well-known or wealthy or want to see your name in print.  I believe you should keep going if it’s truly what’s in your heart. If the stories in your head keep coming, and try as you might, you can’t get rid of them. Then you won’t quit writing, because you can’t.

I know that getting a literary agent to say “yes” is just the beginning. I know there will be hard work and revisions and more waiting ahead. But right now I am grateful for this milestone and hopeful that what I told my kids would make a great book will actually become one. Or two or three or four or five.

A Summer of Yes

Before summer began when my daughter was seven, I sat down with several catalogs from local kids’ venues to determine what she’d like to do. No, she said after each description I read. No to gymnastics camp, no to art camp, no to African drumming camp. “We did all that in school!” she said. “I just want a break!” (Really? The African drumming too?) While kudos are due to our public elementary school if she really believed she’d “done it all” by the end of first grade, I think there was another reason.

All school-year long she’s cried after reports from my 3-year-old on what we did during the day. It could be as simple as “we walked down the street” and she’d launch into a tear-filled tirade about how unfair it was, and how she NEVER gets to do ANYTHING because she’s in school. I think that “today we dug ditches” would have provoked a similar response.

O.K., so she felt left out. It meant that I, the stay-at-home parent, had to be a little more creative in finding activities about which a boy and a girl four years apart could be equally excited.

Then we read the picture book, Yes Day, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. As the story goes, on one day a year, the boy’s mom says “yes” to whatever he asks, including: “Can we have a food fight?” “Can I invent my own game?” “Can I have pizza for breakfast?” and so forth.

My kids asked if they, too, could have “Yes Day” at home. My first instinct was “no,” but as I reviewed what the boy asked for, I realized I was O.K. with all of it…just on different days. So, I told them that throughout the summer, they could pick one “Yes Day” question a day until the book was finished.

You’d think I’d said we were going to Disney World. “Best summer ever!” my daughter said. (“Cheaper than camp!” I was thinking.) So, we had a food fight in the yard one day (I got to choose the foods—cooked, plain pasta and peanuts), they invented their own game with objects found around the house, we ate pizza for breakfast and on and on. And then they laughed and whispered about which “Yes Day” activities I might allow them to repeat. Together. Instead of fighting and saying how unfair everything was.

I was encouraged that we came up with simple activities that yielded as much enthusiasm as our best vacation. But most of all, I loved seeing my kids becoming friends for real. And that makes the ultimate “Yes Day” for Mom.

Letters To Fairies

Hidden under my 6-year-old daughter’s bed, laying in the center of her room and folded tightly on her bookshelf, I’ve discovered the following letters:

Dear Fairys: Cud you plese give me a majic wond so I can fly? Put wond here. (Arrow drawn to blank spot on page.)

Dear Fairys, I wud like 5 lokits for the fairy club.

PLESE PLESE PLESE can you give me sum thing that can relly make me fly? I promis I will be carfull.  Put majic thing rite here.

She’s also drawn them pictures, made cardboard houses for them to rest while journeying on important fairy business (complete with snacks), made boats from sticks and leaves, and even written just to say, “I belev in you.”

And the relationship isn’t one-sided. These imaginary winged creatures have dutifully provided a magic wand and lockets for her fairy-loving friends, in addition to bags of pixie dust (a.k.a. glitter and colored decorating sugar) and written back in swirly handwriting time and time again. Once as I returned from a late night trip to Target with a wooden wand from the dollar bin, my husband shook his head and said, “We are going to have one disappointed little girl someday.”

He is probably right. I have rationalized this is no different from Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but then again, they only come once a year. I have even told myself it is really good for her writing and reading skills, but so is reading real books and completing worksheets, I’m told.

For a while, with each decorative “g” or “s” I penned, the pangs of misrepresented-fairy-guilt grew stronger. What had I done, and how could I stop it?  

Then I attended a parent education seminar put on by my school district. The speaker, Stephanie Tolan, a mom, writer, and gifted-education advocate (www.stephanietolan.com) talked about the need for imagination in our children’s lives. She quoted Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” She referenced a study that found children’s participation in theater—yep, imaginary characters coming to life—was a strong predictor of future success. She made the point that humanity cannot have anything that it can’t first imagine. Corporate mergers have to be imagined…as does world peace (her examples). It got me thinking…organizations that help hurting people…movies, songs, books and spoken words that affect us deeply and spur us to change our lives…they all were first imagined by someone.

I thought back to one of my swirly-lettered responses, in which “the fairies” told her, You can only really fly in your imagination. It now seemed to be a better response than I originally thought.

Will she be disappointed to learn the truth about fairies someday? Yes. But my hope is that the disappointment will be overshadowed by the creativity developed in the process. And when she is armed with the truth, paired with inventiveness, just imagine what else she can do.

(She's past the fairy stage now, and she eventually realized the truth on her own without any tears. Dreams of fairies have been replaced by dreams of owning a cupcake bakery.)