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Mary O’Donohue: Defining Your Family Values

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Once upon a time, there was a young mother of two children, ages five and 10. One day, at a local store, this mother's five-year-old daughter tried to shoplift a candy bar. It was a wake-up call for that mom, as she was forced to admit to herself that even though she and her husband were modeling what they thought was a kind, honest life, they weren't actually actively teaching those values to their children. So this mother sat down, came up with a list of 12 values that were most important to their family, and specific ways to teach those values, and something new began.


That young mother's name was Mary O'Donohue, and those initial lessons have grown into something much bigger than she thought they would. They are now shared in a book called When You Say "Thank You," Mean It, which she says is "a solution for busy 21st century parents who want to raise children who are ethical, compassionate, grateful, and respectful." Her book creatively engages the entire family using weekly exercises, thought-provoking Questions of the Day, challenging role-playing games, and other fun, family-friendly activities. She donates a portion of her author’s net profits to charities benefiting families and education.

But that is, as they say, only the tip of the iceberg. Mary also contributes to the Parent'hood column in the Chicago Tribune, speaks to audiences about the power of extraordinary character from childhood onward, and balances being a mom with a career in television production, working on shows such as Today, Meet The Press, MTV Unplugged, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. An avid traveler, Mary has visited China, Turkey, Greece, Malta, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Germany, and Italy. Mary and her husband Jim have been married for 17 years and are parents to Connor, now a teen, and Grace, that erstwhile-five-year-old who is now a tween.

At this time of year, when other moms are just starting to turn their minds to planning Halloween parties and Thanksgiving projects, Mary turns her mind to coming up with unique ways to reach out to others, based on their family's important values. She provides these suggestions for some unusual ways to make the holidays special for kids in need:

  • Bring in a local church choir or madrigal singers to take the children from a group home out Christmas caroling. Provide hot chocolate and holiday treats when they return.
  • Ask local artists to participate in a hands-on art project with a multicultural holiday theme at a homeless shelter. Find out if an art store in the area will donate supplies. Make the project include something interactive and don't be afraid to be a little messy—kids love that! Just bring along some old shirts and towels (and volunteers) for quick and efficient clean up.
  • Bring in a professional storyteller to a community center in a disadvantaged area of your community and invite them to share a classic holiday story like The Night Before Christmas.
  • Get together with your extended family, friends, or co-workers, and between you, buy tickets to a holiday-themed show or musical for a few local families who can't afford such an extravagance. Contact the theater manager and see if you can get the seats for half price. Maybe they'll even throw in a few tickets on the house! Arrange for transportation or provide a parking pass.
  • Arrange for a professional magician to entertain at the children's ward of the community hospital during Chanukah or Christmas. Make sure the magician will go from bed to bed for the sickest children. Kids who are facing illness need to be reminded that life can still be magical.
  • Ask local restaurants in your hometown to consider setting up a Holiday Table. Restaurant patrons, local businesses, or places of worship can be invited to sponsor the table for one night in December to provide a free meal for a family in need this holiday season. Make sure to choose restaurants with kid friendly options!

The process of defining one's family's values was, for the O'Donohue's, a life-changing and life-affirming one. Whether it leads to a published book and speaking career, or just a better family life for you, it is definitely a worthwhile thing to do.

How have you taught your family values and made them more service-oriented?

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