The Best Gift I’ve Ever Given. . .

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received? How about the best gift you’ve ever given? Can you come up with your top three? What’s the common denominator between them all? What makes the gifts so special?

More often than not, when I ask people these questions, they usually respond with gifts that:

  • were not expected
  • were ones they (or the other person) really needed
  • showed how much one person knew or understood the other
  • were not necessarily things, but experiences
  • were sacrificial on the part of the giver

That’s how I would describe the favorite gift I have ever given. And today, I’d like to tell you about it. Grab a nice cold glass of egg nog and enjoy . . .

It would be my first Christmas away from home. Four months earlier, I trekked from Wisconsin to my new home in Seattle to seek my MBA degree. Having left all of my family and friends behind, I knew Christmas of 1979 would be tough.

After experiencing (and not enjoying) my first solo Thanksgiving, I decided to see if my meager bank account could support a surprise trip home. Although a flight to Green Bay was out of my price range, I could pull this off if I flew to Chicago and had someone drive me the remaining four hours north. Bless his heart, my friend Bruce offered to be my chauffeur to and from O’Hare.

Once my top secret trip was scheduled, I made a point of sounding extra lonesome on my weekly calls home. (Yes, a little nasty but in the end they wouldn’t mind!) My parents were having mixed emotions about this Christmas, too.

After our long, snowy ride, we arrived at my brother Rick’s house late on the 23rd and reviewed our plans. Rick had acquired a large empty cardboard box, big enough to fit yours truly. It would be addressed to my parents from the North Pole, and the grand unveiling would be set for 9:00 a.m. Christmas eve on their upstairs apartment doorstep.

As Rick drove me to my parents’ place, the suspense became almost unbearable. When we arrived just outside their door, I placed the box over my head and crouched down, sitting on top of the bottom flaps to hold it in place. After giving the “all clear” signal to Rick, he rang the doorbell and rushed down the stairs out of sight.

Let’s pause so you can fully imagine this. You are an unexpected Christmas gift on your parents’ doorstep and are about to shock the living daylights out of them! My heart was about to explode.

My mom, in her mid-Sixties, answered the door and shouted, “Oh my, Lil, what’s this?” (Lil was a similarly aged neighbor visiting.) Her presence only added to the raucous. Next was “My, this is heaaavvvvyy! What could be in here?” Lil added, “I don’t know, but let’s try lifting it.” Listening in on their speculation, I almost lost it!

Well, to make a long story short, these ladies tried their best to lift it (while I, inside, was desperately holding down the flaps!). When one of my boots stuck out, I knew it was time. I counted to three and in one move jumped out of the box and cried, “Merry Christmas!” Just try to imagine their shock. It was truly priceless. And, within five minutes, it was all around the entire complex.

A Christmas present no one would ever forget.

This season, we focus on what I personally consider to be history’s greatest gift—a savior, named Jesus. He was and is an unexpected gift that came to mean everything to this world, and He came from a Giver who knew exactly what we needed.

Over the next week as you spend time with those you love, think about the reasons behind your gifting. Is this the year for your greatest gift?

Merry Christmas from the LifeSmart family.

Holiday Traditions to Start with Your Kids and Teens

We’ve arrived the holiday season and the hustle and bustle abounds. There’s a holiday activity to attend at every turn—tree lightings, festivals, family parties, cookie exchanges, Christmas pageants, church services, and much, much more. For a family with kids—especially ones in early teen to older teen age range—it can be hard to find activities that “fit” their current interests.

It’s not too uncommon for teenagers sense the independence in their future and pull away slightly from parents and family (we wrote a bit more about this phenomenon here). In fact, I recently had a conversation with a friend who was trying to enjoy holiday traditions with her teen son, but she described him as disinterested and sullen. This mom was frustrated and nearly at her wit’s end—she said these things were so much easier when he was younger.

As a parent with two adult children, I’ve been through this stage myself. I can understand the pull between wanting to enjoy the holiday season with your kids, and also wanting to respect their changing interests. In order to help, all of us at LifeSmart have put together a list of ideas for things to do with the teens or young adults in your life during the month of December. Without further ado’, here it is:

  • Go to an outdoor ice skating rink. These are becoming increasingly popular and are popping up in shopping centers or city centers all over.
  • Watch a Christmas movie, their choice. Don’t try and push “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Let your teen pick the flick . . . and the snacks.
  • If you celebrate Hanukkah, let your teen pick the theme of each night. As they get older, they may not be as interested in the little gifts. Choosing a theme allows your family to branch out and participate in activities that engage even the older kids.
  • Donate to a charity or complete a service project of their choice. Is there a kid at their school who may need help with Christmas gifts or food this year? A cause your teen is passionate about? Make your holiday giving about something that’s important to them.
  • Have them invite their friends over to do some holiday baking. Teens are often more likely to enjoy a family activity if one or two of their friends get to join as well.
  • Let your teen lead the Hanukkah rituals and activities—and allow them to invite their friends to participate as well.
  • If you’re up for helping to host, let your teen host a Christmas party. Planning it can be their job. It can be a great chance for them to learn administrative and organizational skills! And, if the Christmas party idea isn’t a hit, perhaps a get together to watch the NCAA football conference championship games.
  • Paint Christmas ornaments at a local pottery painting studio.
  • Go skiing, snowboarding, or sledding as a family.
  • Check out an area play or concert, including local high school performances
  • Ring the Salvation Army bells as a family or as a group with their friends.

Creating new winter holiday traditions as your children grow and change their interests can be hard to navigate as a parent. The important part is communicating that you care, and are willing to adjust your own expectations in order to spend time with them. It’s a great opportunity to let them take the lead on ideas and event planning. And, most of all, to share in their world a little bit more.

May this season bring you love, joy, friendship, and endless fun with family.

Happy holidays from LifeSmart!

The Gift of a Giver

During this time of year, we are inundated with suggestions of ways we can help others. Whether it’s the Salvation Army volunteers wearing Santa hats and ringing bells outside your local grocery store (I do that!), organizations making it possible for you to “adopt” a family less fortunate than yours, or packing up shoeboxes full of goodies to send to children in third world countries—there are countless ways you can make a difference. To be honest, I think it is a welcome change from the messages we most often hear all the other months of the year.

“Follow your passion. Do what makes YOU happy. You’re awesome. Find yourself.” These phrases should sound familiar, because they seem to be everywhere these days. Young people all across the globe are being encouraged to discover themselves and follow their hearts. These messages aren’t necessarily bad by any means—we all need to follow our passions—however, life really isn’t all about us. When taken to the extreme, this mindset contributes to self centeredness and an entitlement mentality and can send our children the wrong message. So, this holiday season, and for the other months of the year, I encourage you to direct your life toward others.

As the holidays approach swiftly, what if we all went from being self-focused to other-centered? Think of what a difference we could make in the world! After all, I think most successful people would say that their biggest life accomplishments have more to do with what they’ve done for others, rather than what they’ve done for themselves. Giving can be a greater gift to the giver than to the receiver.

Where are you directing your life right now—toward yourself or toward others?  Spend some moments thinking about how you spend most of your time, energy, and resources. Talk with your family about the ways you can shift your focus toward others. Whether it’s by yourself, with a friend, or as a family unit, brainstorm some ways you can impact your community during the holidays and beyond.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Donate a Thanksgiving meal to a local family who can’t afford one this year
  • Serve meals or collect clothing for your local mission or shelter
  • Adopt a family (or child). Some organizations you can do this through are: Doing Good Together, Soldier’s Angels, World Vision, and the YWCA. Also look for local organizations or programs near you.
  • Visit those who are lonely (bedridden, in a nursing home, etc.). Call local senior centers or nursing facilities to find out how you can help. Dust off those rusty caroling skills! Or, take someone out to lunch who is missing a loved one.
  • Donate to Toys for Tots or similar programs
  • Make a difference in the lives of foster children. Look into ways you can help during the holiday season with organizations like Together We Rise or Children’s Action Network.
  • Encourage paying it forward. Even if it’s just buying a Pumpkin Spice Latte for the car in line behind you at Starbucks, it will bring joy to someone’s day! One of my favorite stories is about someone who pays for the groceries of others.

 

I promise, you’ll receive far more in return than you give. Your life will have more balance, your spirit will soar, you’ll make new friends, and you’ll maximize the impact of your life. Oh, and you’ll also make the world a better place in the meantime! What’s not to love about that? Happy holidays!

 

What Christmas Traditions Can Do for Your Teen

cookies“Aaaaw, do we really have to do        __this year?” (eyes roll)

Got teens?  If so, it may be easy for you to fill in the blank. Many times, these are the years parents get the most pushback from their kids when it comes to family traditions.  (Think Audrey in Christmas Vacation, if you’re a fan.)

But while some Christmas traditions may well need to be put on the shelf as children get older (e.g., a 16-year old on Santa’s lap at the mall to get that annual photo may seem a little over the top to some and downright humiliating to others), many traditions can serve to reinforce the bonds we share as a family.

As our (Arlyn’s) five children were growing up, we went out each year on the weekend after Thanksgiving to cut the family tree (more visions of Christmas Vacation, the slightly-edited-for-language version).  Early on, in an attempt to settle the inevitable squabbles that would arise as we searched for the “perfect tree,” we settled on the practice of having a “girls’ year” and a “boys’ year” to pick the tree. Did this eliminate conflict?  Not always, although it certainly minimized it. What it did do was cement a tradition that to this day continues to forge an impression in our kids’ minds of who we are as a family: we do things together. We communicate. We negotiate. We take turns.  These are important aspects of our family brand—all year long.

The “kids” now range from 19 to 30. And we still go out to cut a Christmas tree together each year … adding sons and daughters-in-law and a few grandkids to the mix, and still alternating girls’ years and boys’ years!

The traditions your family establishes and maintains—like going to church together on Christmas Eve, taking cookies to your neighbors, wearing matching jammies on Christmas morning, or whatever—can accomplish far more than just fun memories. They can be a significant part of creating a strong sense of security, identity, and values in your children. These are the kinds of qualities that can ground them and give them the internal strength they need to navigate the world with confidence.

Trust me, there were a lot of eye rolls and even a few spats over the years on our annual Christmas tree expeditions. (I remember an apple fight that turned ugly one year; the boys found rotting apples in a nearby orchard and decided to pelt the girls with them!). But bottom line, the tradition became something that contributed much more to our family brand than we ever anticipated: our traditions helped to cement our relationships.

What traditions does your family practice at Christmas?  Have you ever thought about what qualities they contribute to your family brand? Please share your ideas and memories with us; we’d love to hear!

An Out-of-the-Box Holiday Idea

Tired of shopping from gift card-laden lists that remove the element of surprise? Tempted to play it safe yet again? Or, are you willing to take a calculated risk and think “out of the box” for the special people/person in your life? Allow me to share a true story that might just influence your decision… and add a little magic, too.

I grew up in a family with limited financial means but who went “all out” at Christmas. Imagine a Norman Rockwellian Christmas on steroids. That would be us! Cookies and candies made from scratch. Tinseled tree. Snowball fights, sled riding, and ice skating. Midnight mass. Caroling in the neighborhood. Home made eggnog. There was nothing like it.

But things were looking different for us in the Christmas of ’79. Earlier that summer, I moved from Milwaukee to Seattle to attend grad school. I didn’t have the money to fly home so this was destined to be my first Christmas away. We avoided the subject during my weekly calls and for good reason. I knew this would be hard on all of us—probably me the most.

However, I decided to play a hunch in early November. What if I flew out to Chicago on a cheap ticket and had someone drive me the rest of the way? Ka-Ching! I immediately made the arrangements with my friend Bruce and didn’t tell a soul. I even sounded a little extra “down” during our December phone calls to help “set the stage.” Okay, I was milking it!

After the four-hour winter drive from O’Hare, I arrived at my brother Rick’s house where I plotted the big event for the following morning. I would be placed inside a large cardboard box sent from the North Pole on my parents’ upstairs apartment doorstep. Rick would ring the doorbell and “ditch” out of sight. And, at the appropriate time, I would jump out of the box and shout, “Merry Christmas!!!”

Now, I’d like you to imagine this for a moment. You are inside a box about to startle the living daylights out of your parents who are clueless to what they’re about to experience. Try to imagine.

My heart was pounding like never before as I sat inside the box. Eventually, my mom answered the door and immediately called out to her (visiting) friend to see what was on the doorstep. For reasons of space, I can’t replay the entire event, but imagine two ladies in their sixties trying to lift this mysterious carton into the apartment, utterly clueless as to what was inside. After they put in some effort, I knew it was time. I counted to three, and jumped out, providing the most delightful shock of our lives. Within five minutes, the story spread like wildfire throughout the apartment complex. A surprise for the ages.

My first Christmas away would have to wait for another year. Simply unforgettable.

As I reflect on that moment, I am reminded of what made it so special:

  1. It was a complete surprise—certainly not on their list!
  2. It was a gift from the heart—it spoke volumes about their importance to me
  3. It was creative—you might say, “Out of the box!”
  4. It made a lasting memory

And, wouldn’t you know it, but years later, I would receive my all-time favorite gift—one that possessed these same qualities.  It was an engraved license plate frame from my kids on Father’s Day that says, “Dad’s are Cool!” Now, that’s a keeper!

So, to you adults: who might benefit from an out-of-the-box type of gift that reveals how much you care? And, to you teens: what might you share with your parents, teachers, mentors, etc., that honors them for their investment in you?

It needn’t be any more elaborate than a handwritten note, straight from the heart.

Merry Christmas everybody!

 

 

Your Greatest Gift

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”

Mother Teresa

 

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?  How about the greatest one you’ve ever given? Can you come up with your top three?  Is there a common denominator?

 

More often than not, when I ask people these questions, they generally answer with memories of gifts that:

  • were not expected
  • were ones they (or the other person) really needed but wouldn’t have suggested
  • showed that one person was thinking about the other, and understood them
  • were not necessarily things, but often experiences
  • were sacrificial on the part of the giver

 

That’s how I would describe my favorite gift ever given.

 

I grew up in a modest income family, but with parents who splurged on us every Christmas. Whether gifts or homemade candies and cookies, Dad and Mom did everything to bring joy to our household at Christmas. Sacrificially. Wonderfully.

 

But, that Christmas of 1972, we were struggling.

 

Life for my parents had changed dramatically a few months earlier. I left for my freshman year of college and my older sister got married and moved to Taiwan with her husband. Mom and Dad, who had poured everything into their kids, were adjusting to an empty nest.

 

When I returned home for Thanksgiving break, I could tell it hadn’t been easy for them. Our usually spirited household was quieter than normal and our conversations were often nostalgic. Someone would be missing this Christmas.

 

That’s when I realized it was my turn to be the sacrificial giver, with a gift they would never ask for or expect—but one that would mean everything to my parents.

 

On that Christmas night, Mom and Dad would open my letter saying this year it was  about them. That in 20 minutes, they would receive a prearranged and prepaid long distance call from their precious daughter. At six dollars a minute and as your typical broke college student, all I could afford was 10 minutes.

 

I will never forget those 30 minutes and the sea of emotion that filled our living room. Hands down, it was my best gift ever, and possibly theirs.

 

This season, we focus on what I consider to be history’s greatest gift—

a son given to us sacrificially by our heavenly father… an unexpected gift that means everything to this world… from a Giver who knew exactly what we needed.

 

Is this the year for your greatest gift? What will it be—and who will receive it?

 

Merry Christmas to you and yours,

 

Dennis Trittin and the LifeSmart Team

The Joy of Living Generously

The value of a man resides in what he gives
and not in what he is capable of receiving.
~Albert Einstein

Really, life’s greatest joys come not in the getting, but in the giving. Don’t you agree?

People who live generously—not just with their money, but with their whole person—deserve special admiration. They’re not motivated by fame or fortune, but rather by joyful service. Their qualities of generosity, empathy, compassion, and kindness make them inspiring treasures to us all. And although those values tend to get more press at Christmastime, they are values we should all aspire to live by all year long.

Generosity is a paradox. The culture around us screams materialism and commercialism – Buy, buy, buy. Accumulate. Indulge. On the other hand, there is a whole world out there that desperately needs what we have to offer. It invites us to give, serve, help, and empower. The paradox of generosity is this: the more we give, the more we get! It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. We find our life by losing it. We win by losing. We gain by giving away. And, our greatest memories are of the gifts we gave rather than the ones we received.

This kind of generosity requires sacrifice—not just financial, but personal. Yes, it can be stretching and uncomfortable. But slowly, we begin to realize there’s more to life than what we own and can hold onto.

Have you ever wanted to change the world? This is where it starts. In fact, how you eventually impact the world will be driven not merely by what you have to offer but what you choose to offer. It’s the ultimate generosity test, isn’t it?

What do you uniquely have to offer the world? There are many different avenues that can allow you to allocate your personal resources to serve others. To decide how best to give what you have to benefit others, there are three main questions to consider:

  • What talents, skills, and resources do I have to offer?
  • What groups or community segments (e.g., youth, elderly, homeless) do I feel most called to help
  • What organizations will allow me to use my time, talents, and treasure to help those I feel most passionately about?Could your answers to these questions be a New Year’s resolution in the making

What would happen in our communities if we all cultivated and demonstrated this heart of generosity, of “other-centeredness” as a way of life, embodying the qualities of generosity and compassion in our everyday dealings with people? I think the world would be a more welcoming place! With that in mind, here are some ideas for living generously this holiday season—and throughout the year:

  • Make a donation to an organization serving people and causes you are passionate about.
  • Look for ways to be creatively generous if you are on a limited budget. How can you give time? Attention? Acts of service? Material possessions? You could sell something you own and give away the proceeds.
  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter in your city.
  • Visit a nursing home or hospital. Listen to their stories, or tell some of your own. Just sit with them if that’s what brings comfort.
  • Allow yourself to be interrupted without being irritated—this is a mark of a generous spirit. (Or, put down your mobile device and give the people around you your undivided attention.)
  • Make yourself available to people or organizations, free of charge, for consulting on an area or topic in which you have expertise.

This short list of ideas just scratches the surface—you may even come up with better ones! The bottom line is this: Living generously will bring help and hope to others and immense joy to you in return. You’ll receive far more than what you give. Nothing compares with using all of you to serve and improve the world around you. This is the true spirit of Christmas!

Have you experienced the deep satisfaction that “giving yourself away” evokes? What have you done and how has it impacted you. Looking ahead, what new ways do you envision using your time, talent, and treasure to make the world a better place? Share your thoughts; we’d love to hear your stories and ideas!

The Two Stages of Life and What Really Matters

“What do you want for Christmas?” is probably the most asked question right before the holidays. You’ve probably been asked, and even asked it yourself, more times than you can count over the last couple weeks. Sure there was a time in my life that my list was a mile long, but things change. Now, my Christmas list is filled with hopes for others—especially the young people in our communities.

It’s said that the first half of one’s life is the “accumulation stage” and the second half is the “distribution stage.” During the accumulation stage, you’re in gathering mode, spending your efforts on life’s needs and wants.  You build a career, buy and furnish a house, start a family and buy the things necessary for your children, save for retirement, and buy lots of things along the way. Many of us could probably go in our closets or garages and pull out items we haven’t touched in years, or forgot we had! But is that all there is to life?

But then, one day, around the age of 50, it hits you. You have all the toys you need, your kids’ braces are paid for and they’re in college or beyond. You have a boat and a new deck and a comfortable car. You discover that the joy of giving is greater than the joy of receiving, and your perspective changes dramatically. I’m a typical case—it happened to me around 49! That’s when my life focus really shifted to helping children and young adults lay a solid leadership foundation for life. Pursuing my passion of equipping young people to succeed in the real world has been more fulfilling than anything I could have imagined.

Did you notice how the first half of life tends to be more skewed toward self and family, and the second half is more focused on others? Had I known this earlier, I would have sought more balance in my accumulation stage and started my distribution stage sooner. The joy and satisfaction that comes from giving our time, talent, and treasure so far outweighs the fun of accumulating that I regret not starting this process earlier.

With Christmas just a few days away, opportunities for giving and sharing abound. This is the easiest time of year to find ways to positively impact others and give of our excess. But hopefully, directing our lives toward others will not be a once-a-year event. By starting earlier and making it last the whole year long, we receive far more in return than we will give. So, where is your heart and passion leading you today?

Do you want your life to have more balance, your spirit to soar, your heart to be filled with joy, and your life impact to be maximized—all while making the world a better place? Embrace the gift of giving yourself this holiday season and see where it takes you. Then, make it the gift that keeps on giving, into January, the New Year, and beyond.  Next time you hear “what do you want for Christmas,” do a self-check. Let’s all make the resolution to begin our distribution stage earlier and put an end to accumulating stuff we’ll rarely use and may even forget about!

Take a few seconds to reflect: Where are you centering your life? How are you modeling this principle to the young people in your life? Have you begun the distribution stage? Share your insights and ideas with us; we’d love to hear from you!

Practical Ways Your Family Can Serve Others This Christmas

“I will honor Christmas in my heart,
and try to keep it all the year.”

~Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

One of my annual highlights is watching the film classic, A Christmas Carol. I love watching the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge when the self-centered miser develops a servant’s heart. Granted, it takes a dramatic, catalytic experience late in life to get him there, but he becomes a changed man all the same. Every time I watch this film, I reflect on what more I could have done in the past year to help others. It’s a time of accountability, complete with a promise to do better in the year ahead.

I have special admiration for people who commit their lives to serving others.They’re not motivated by fame or fortune, but rather by joyful service.

I’m convinced our daughter Lauren was born with a servant’s heart. I first noticed this when she was four during a visit to a McDonald’s playground. She befriended a devastated little girl who had been deliberately abandoned by her big sister (Ronald would not have been happy!). The girl’s tears were soon replaced with joy for those ten brief minutes. While this example may seem ordinary, it is illustrative of the many times that Lauren has nurtured people who were socially excluded. Her empathetic heart has often been a blessing to others. Not surprisingly, she is considering a career in child psychology and counseling. I think she’ll be a natural.

The holiday season is a time when our thoughts often turn to practical ways we can serve those less fortunate. At a time when we are counting our own blessings, what are the ways we can include, encourage, or assist people in need?

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of our family’s ideas:
–       take a shift ringing a bell for the Salvation Army (we just did this last week; it’s a hoot, you meet great people, and it’s such a worthy cause)
–       volunteer at a local food bank
–       gather a group to sing carols at a retirement home
–       go out of your way to compliment those who are in service positions (including the Military)
–       send a note to a teacher expressing your gratitude
–       donate money to a local ministry that pays electric bills for the needy
–       adopt a family for gift giving
–       send a personal note to someone who lost a loved one in the past year

What do you and your family do to serve and bless others during the holiday season? Please share your ideas and stories with us; we’d love to hear your experiences!

What Do YOU Uniquely Have to Offer the World?

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I’ve been reflecting on how thankful I am—not for what I have for myself, but for what I have to give away. Really, life’s greatest joys come not from the getting, but from the giving. Don’t you agree?

I have special admiration for people who commit their lives to serving others. They’re not motivated by fame or fortune or power or things, but rather by joyful service. Their qualities of generosity, empathy, compassion, and kindness seem to come naturally to them, and they’re inspiring treasures to us all.

How you impact the world will be driven by what you have to offer and what you choose to offer. Well then, what do you uniquely have to offer the world?

“What do I have to offer the world?” It’s a profound question, and one that will continually evolve throughout your lifetime. At any point, though, your assets will generally fall into three categories: your time, your talent, and your treasure.

There are many different avenues that allow you to allocate these resources to serve others. To decide how best to give what you have to benefit others, there are three main questions to consider:

  • What talents and skills do I have to offer?
  • What groups or community segments (e.g., youth, elderly, homeless) do I feel most called to help?
  • What organizations will allow me to use my talents to help those I feel most passionately about?

Then, it becomes a matter of deciding which of your assets to offer to have the greatest potential impact in each situation. Your time, talent, and treasure offer you tremendous opportunities to give the gift of yourself.

Living life with the heart of a giver will bring help and hope to others and immense joy to you in return. You’ll receive far more than what you give. Nothing compares with using your gifts and talents to improve the world around you. This is the true spirit of Thanksgiving!

Have you experienced the deep thankfulness that “giving yourself away” brings about?  Looking ahead, what new ways do you envision using your time, talent, and treasure to make the world a better place?