When Parenting Is Hard: How to Be a Good Friend to Someone Who Has a Challenging Parenting Reality

I have some real challenges in my parenting reality. 

The extent of which I did not even fully understand until about a year ago.

But those challenges have been a part of my life every single day for a long time.  And in the midst of navigating them over the years, I have felt eyes on me.  Sometimes judging eyes.  Sometimes gentle eyes.  The stress of trying to navigate a challenging parenting reality while feeling judgment and criticism both silent and spoken has left me with wounds that are still healing. 

Parenting is challenging in and of itself.  But add in any other complicating factor…whether ongoing or for a season…having a child with special needs, having a chronic illness, having a child with a chronic illness, having a child with sleep struggles, being a single parent, having a child with emotional or behavioral challenges…and you’ve got a whole new level of challenge on your plate.  Any one of those challenges adds its own layer of stress onto parenting.  Mix two or more of those together and the stress level increases exponentially. Because the nuances, struggles, and difficulties of any given challenging reality are intricate and specific to each family, it can often be hard for others outside that family to grasp the complexity, added weight, and stress of parenting in the context of those challenges.  Without understanding, judgment can easily occur. 

While I certainly have felt the pain of critical voices and judging eyes, I’ve also been incredibly blessed by accepting hearts and affirming voices along the way, too.  In fact, there were times when those accepting people were the ones who God interjected in my life at specific moments so that I could hear the words I needed to hear to keep going.  Those accepting hearts and affirming voices have made more of an impact in my life than they will ever know.

There were a few things that these people said and did that mattered so much. Their acts of understanding, affirmation, and support impacted me so greatly that I wanted to share them with you, too.  These were the things that made a difference in some of my hardest parenting seasons.  If you have a friend who is in the midst of a challenging parenting season or a challenging ongoing reality, these three things can make a world of difference to that mom or dad…


Accept that person, that child, that family as they are.  In order to truly accept someone as they are or their reality for what it is, a level of understanding is necessary.  And to understand you have to be willing to listen.  Good listening involves asking questions without interjecting your own solutions; rather, it involves empathy and reflecting back what you hear the other person saying.  Good listening leaves the person sharing with a sense of being heard with attempts at being understood.  Take time to try to understand your friend’s challenging parenting reality.  Take time to really listen to what her reality is like.  Listen to what is hard, what is exhausting, what is sad.  In her challenging reality, there has probably been so much adjustment and loss.  As you listen, offer acceptance…of her, her child, her family as it is. 


Affirmation is so incredibly strengthening to someone in a challenging parenting reality.  Take a moment to think about your friend, asking yourself this question: What do you see her doing well?  Be specific as you think through that question. She most likely already knows her challenges…she lives it every single solitary day…and may even feel waves of personal failure in parenting depending on how extensive the challenges are.  Make a point to tell her specifically what you see her doing well, whether over the phone, in a text, in person, or in a handwritten note.  Your words that point out what she is doing well…the things that are working in the midst of the challenges…can make all the difference in the world!  It can give her something to hold onto when so many things seem to be falling apart.


If you have the margin in your own life, ask your friend how you could help.  Not in a condescending “man you’re really bad at this parenting thing” way, but in an “I see you and I know it’s really hard right now, what can I do to help” way.  Most likely, she’d love a break from the challenges (whatever they are), which might mean babysitting or might mean you intentionally engaging her child or might mean you running to the store for her or might mean you brining dinner over or might mean you going to coffee with her for some grown-up processing time.  Ask how you can help and then do what you can from what she shares. 

There were seasons early on in parenting before I knew the specifics of the challenges we faced in our family that these three things were the very supports I desperately needed to make it through. 

To be understood.  To be affirmed.  To be supported. 

You can make all the difference in the life of someone with a challenging parenting reality be doing any one (or all) of these three things!

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Long Term Benefits of Free Play

Shortly after I wrote my last post, “How We Homeschool: The Toddler and Preschool Years” (click here to read), I had a friend write me asking me to define “free-play,” a term I had used in that particular post.  I took some time to flesh that concept out in the comments on that post (included here as the first paragraph below), but it pushed me share even further on “free-play,” which resulted in today’s post…

What I was more specifically referring to in the last post as “free play” could better be defined as “self-directed” play as opposed to teacher/parent/care-giver directed play. In our home, there are times when I am creating the activity for my boys to participate in: an art project or a board game or something imaginative (which is good and important); however, free play would look more like my boys deciding what they want to play and creating their own game/agenda/pretend scenario. It could be imaginative (i.e. my big boys create all kinds of stories with their superhero figures), but it also could be coloring or building with blocks or digging in the dirt, etc. “Free play” would be any play activity that is self-directed.

My first year teaching, I taught down the hall from a teacher who was in her last year teaching.  She had been teaching for thirty (plus) years and was retiring that very year.  I still remember to this day words she shared when our grade level team evaluated students’ writing samples on afternoon.  She shared with the team that she had seen a decline in the quality students’ writing over the years…with an increased decline in recent years.  She attributed the decline specifically to the lack of free, imaginative playtime young children now have.  She connected ample amounts of free play to the development of imagination, and ultimately, she connected developed imaginations with quality writing.  I could totally see her point: without adequate time developing and even “living in” your imagination, what will you have to write about? 

Fast forward a few years later to me becoming a mom of my own children.  This very concept naturally and almost immediately became woven into our family.  Even early on, Val and I would delight in watching our boys create their own games, their own storylines, their own imaginative play.  We loved watching their imaginations develop.  We loved seeing them have freedom to be and create and play.  We taught activities and games and learning skills along the way, but it was inherent to our parenting style to give them plenty of time to engage in self-directed, imaginative free play.  Even now, as we balance both school and play, I sense the value of our boys still having ample time to play freely, to create, to self-direct.  So we make time for it. 

Initially, the value of free play was just a hunch I had.  It’s what I felt deep down inside of me…as a mom…as a former teacher…and as a former homeschooled kid myself (who, because I was homeschooled, had plenty of time to imagine and create and play…thanks mom and dad for that).  Ample self-directed playtime felt beneficial to my children’s development, but I didn’t have proof.  Just my own feelings and theories and ideas…until I started doing some research that eventually led to a trail of articles that specifically connected the value of free play to executive functioning.  It seems that not only does ample free play in childhood benefit us in areas of developing our imagination and writing ability (as I learned while teaching), but it actually also helps us learn how to think, how to problems solve, how to organize tasks, how to create and meet our own goals.  The benefit of ample free play in childhood is largely long term in nature.  Now, not only did I sense the benefits of ample free play, I had research in the form of articles that emphasized it’s value and long-term benefit.   

For those of you who would like to read more on this topic, I’ve included a few articles that delve into the benefits of free play in greater specifics that I can include in this post:

“Why Young Kids Need Less Class Time – and More Play Time – at School,” by Valerie Strauss (click here to read)

“Kids Whose Time is Less Structured Are Better Able to Meet Their Own Goals” (click here to read)

“Children Should Learn Mainly through Play until the Age of Eight, Says Lego,” by Lucy Ward (click here to read)


How We Homeschool: The Toddler and Preschool Years

I recently had a friend write and ask me when I started doing homeschool learning activities with the boys.  She was asking for information on when to work on what with her toddler.  While I didn’t consider myself officially homeschooling until my oldest started Pre-K, I had been intentional with learning and life activities all throughout his (and his brothers’) toddler and preschool years.  After writing my friend, I felt like it might be helpful for other toddler-mamas to have access to this info, so I’ve modified my original email to be an easy read guide to what to work on when with your toddler or preschooler.

An Quick and Easy Guide to Learning Activities for Your Toddler or Preschooler

The Basics:

Until your child is about four years old, you’re simply going to be covering these basic things over and over and over again in a variety of ways.  These four basic categories will be your focus for the toddler years:

Capital Letters

Then when your child is about four years old, you’ll start to incorporate:

Lower Case Letters
Number Identification

The Detailed Timeline:

I’ve done something a little different (and a different stages) with each of my boys; however, this was the basic developmental timeline I followed for what I focused on with my boys during their toddler years:

6 months – 12 months

talking to/with each of the boys
singing songs/nursery rhymes
reading to/with each of the boys (mostly board books at this stage)

12 months – 24 months

all of the above, plus…
incorporating play-do, paint, crayons, etc.
doing simple block-style puzzles together

2 years – 4 years old

all of the above, plus…
small lessons that focused on letters
small lessons that focused on bigger themes (weather, animals, habitats, etc.)

My Personal Early Learning Philosophy

I am a huge fan of creativity and imaginative play, so I kept the formal learning times in the toddler/preschool years short and simple.  I firmly believe that free-play is vital to mental and emotional development.  

I have also invested in memberships to places that we could go to frequently as part of my approach to early learning.  This year, we have a family pass to the children’s museum and the aquarium.  In previous years, we have had a pass to the YMCA for swimming, the art museum, and/or the water park (but never all those passes in the same year).   We frequently go to parks and visit the library regularly to check out books (and have done this for-e-ver).  We want to start going to Lowe’s once a month for their free “build it” projects for kids.  With the passes, the parks, the library, and attending whatever other free activities we find in town, I am really trying to focus on experiences in and exposure to a bigger world for my boys.

When I taught first-grade years ago, one of the most important things I would emphasize to my students’ parents in regard to helping their children become readers was the “20-minutes a day” rule for reading.  There are articles out there explaining how reading to or with your child for 20 minutes a day is one of the greatest contributors to your child becoming a reader.  While 20 minutes a day might be too much for some of the early toddler years, just reading daily with your child now starts that life rhythm (and can work up to 20 minutes a day as your child gets older).  

Resources (Ones I Actually Used)

These are a few resources that I actually referred.  These are helpful with a variety of learning focuses and skills (I’ve included links for all that I could):

The Toddler Busy Book (great for activities), click here

Slow and Steady Get Me Ready (I used the activities for a while, but mostly used the checklists at the back), click here

“Scratch Garden” (look for them on YouTube…they have all kinds of learning songs…geared more toward 3-7 year olds), click here

“The Toddler Preschool” (I put together 22 weeks of lesson plans when my oldest was about two and a half years old, posting it all on this blog), click here

“Totally Tots” (I also pulled a lot of activities from this blog…it is fairly user-friendly and broad in scope), click here

“Baby Center” (I used the developmental milestone checklists on this website to help me keep track of what we should be focusing on next in all the developmental areas: cognitive, social, emotional, etc.), click here

Some of my favorite shows with learning focuses include “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”, “Sesame Street,” “Octonauts,” and “Wild Kratts.”

As you’ve read through this resource list, I’d love to have you add in the comments any other helpful websites, books, or apps that you have found helpful in focusing on the basics with your toddler or preschooler! 

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Pray Know Give Go

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  - Edmund Burke. 





Even after the city of Fallujah was liberated this past week, there are still 86,000 people trapped in the desert without adequate food and water anticipating going home to a city crumbled after two years of oppression (click here).  In Istanbul, 41 people died and 239 people were injured during an attack on the Ataturk Airport this past Tuesday (click here).  This past week in Nairobi, a Kenyan lawyer who works for International Justice Mission, his client, and their taxi driver went missing after leaving court (click here).  Just this morning, news came out of a suicide attack in Kabul that killed at least 30 and wounded another 53 people (click here). 

In the face of so much tragedy, what can we actually do?

Four words that came today as I prayed about these locations, these tragedies, these people, and our response…because not only can we do something, we must do something. 

Pray.  Know.  Give.  Go.


You can always pray.  Immediately.  Continually.  For people you will never meet.  And in doing so, you do make an impact in the spiritual realities surrounding every single tragedy you pray for.  Our ultimate fight is not fought in the tangible world, but against spiritual powers (Ephesians 6:12).  Pray for the oppressed, the wounded, the families of those who have died.  Pray for justice to come to pass. Pray against our very real spiritual enemy, that his schemes to destroy lives would not prevail (John 10:10).  Pray for Jesus to have authority and power over places attacked by darkness…that freedom, hope, and life would be known and felt by the people reeling from every oppression, injustice, and attack.


Learn what is happening around the world.  Educate yourself about world events, about worldwide injustice, and about ways that you can fight oppression and injustice.  As you learn, share with those in your circle what you’ve learned.  Become a global citizen who fights for the rights of all humanity.  Publicize the people and places who need to be seen and not left in the dark of injustice and oppression.  For starters, click on all the “click here’s” above and read about each of these places and what has happened these people this past week. 


In the face of oppression, injustice, and death, giving money does help.  There are multiple organizations already mobilized to bring help quickly where help is most needed.  Financial gifts from small to large make an impact.  Choose organizations that you trust, organizations that give most of their donations to the actual causes and keep only necessary amounts for overhead and staff costs. 

To help with the issues listed in this post, check out these ways to give:

Click here to learn about what Preemptive Love is doing for those trapped in the desert near Fallujah. 

Click here to learn “How to Help Victims of the Istanbul Airport Attack.”

Click here to find out how to draw attention to the abduction of the human rights lawyer, his client, and their taxi driver in Nairobi. 


As you engage with the reality of the world, you may feel yourself moved to actually go and become a catalyst of justice, peace, and love in these places.  I am not talking about two week trips.  I am talking about a life calling…or at least a long-term commitment.  It is very possible that you may be called to go live somewhere not here and be a tangible presence of healing to a hurting people group.  I have a handful of friends actually living this very life right now as you read this post.  You might just be the next person to be an actual catalyst of life, healing, hope, and justice. 

You can do something.  What will you do today?