Other People's Kids: controlling the chaos on preschool playdates

by | Feb 27, 2015 | Mailbag, Parenting With Authority | 32 comments

It’s mailbag time again. Today we’re going to discuss managing unruly children in your home . . . when they’re not (exclusively) yours.

The Question:

Hi, Kendra!

I enjoy reading your blog, and I find your posts on discipline and family culture particularly encouraging. I only have one toddler and another baby on the way, but your articles help me feel more confident in the belief that it is possible to raise a large family without living in constant chaos and unpleasantness.

I would love to hear your input on how you structure play-date type situations and how you handle being hostess to other people’s (small and somewhat naughty) children. I enjoy getting together regularly with two other moms and their children. The problem is that the older two kids (one three, one two-and-a-half; neither of whom are mine) spend most of the time trying to take away whatever toy the other one has and discretely “bullying” the three babies. We three moms spend almost the entire time correcting and redirecting the kiddos, but it’s all pretty gentle and ineffective. I would expect more obedience from my own kid, but it’s hard to know how to handle other people’s kids even when they are giving my own younger toddler a hard time.

I would love to know how you (a). establish house rules for play dates at your house. (b). handle the toddler impulse for uncivilized behavior among a group of toddlers and preschoolers. (c.) handle situations in which your child is enduring a bit of unpleasantness from older kids (do you step in? try not to? I don’t want my kid to be too coddled, but I also don’t want him learning bad habits that he will probably repeat when the new baby is born).

It doesn’t help that I don’t feel fully confident in my assessment of how much fighting and naughtiness can be prevented and how much is just part of the territory (although, when one of the kids licked my butter dish after being told he couldn’t have any more….I figure that could be preventable, right?).

Thanks so much for any feedback!

 The Answer:

Whew. This one is a toughie, Anna.

I feel like I really come down on BOTH sides of this issue. Philosophically, I’m all for just dealing with my own kids. And not trying to boss other people’s kids around. So, if we’re at the park and a kid is hogging the swing, I’d just tell my kid, “The swings are busy, we’ll do something else.” I wouldn’t go up and ask the mom if we could have a turn. But then if we’re on the swing and some other mom asks me if her kid can have a turn, I’d tell my kid, “We’re going to let this boy swing for a while.” Because, really, my kids are pretty squared away, and probably they’re not going to flip out. And if they do, we can use it as a learning experience. So, it’s all fine.

But it’s somehow more complicated when it’s all going down at my house. We host weekly clubs and classes and lots of parties here, so there are always “other people’s kids” around. And the thing with other people’s kids is that they have other people’s rules and expectations. Or, occasionally, no rules or expectations at all. It can be tricky to find that balance of insisting that other kids treat my home and my children with the proper respect, but not stepping on the parenting toes of friends, or just spending all my time at get togethers chasing kids about and laying down the law. That’s no fun for anyone. I do it when I have to, but . . .

I really try to figure out how to prevent the most common of the preschool playdate problems before they have a chance to happen.

I think it’s great to let kids work things out amongst themselves. I’m all about that. But I think that, as a concept, it’s really more appropriate for kids closer to the age of reason. Kids under six or so are, by definition, pretty unreasonable, and can’t be counted upon to see any side but their own. They need guidance.

With my own kids, it’s possible to set up a system of rules and behavioral expectations that even very young siblings can learn to coexist within, but it’s difficult to apply a system like that to kids from other families, unless they are a regular part of our family dynamic.

So, practically speaking, free for all type play dates with a set of toys that “belongs” to one kid, but are new and exciting to the others are always going to be challenging.

I used to be a part of a moms’ rosary group that met one morning per week at different people’s houses. The community I found among those other Catholic moms of little kids was truly life changing, but the play date part of the meetings could be stressful. My kids are not allowed to run around like little tornadoes playing with every different toy in the room. And they are not allow to dump toy bins. But different families have different rules. Some kids are totally allowed to do that. After a few hosting attempts involving messes and unhappy kids, I just started putting only few toys out that were geared toward babies, and moving the couch in front of the toy closet, so no one could get anything else out. Without fun messes to make in the playroom, the bigger kids would all just go play outside. Eventually, the group has started meeting at area parks instead of in homes, and that seems to be a lot less trouble. There’s less fighting, and less dumping out of every toy bin in the room while the moms are chatting.

I really recommend outdoor play dates whenever that’s possible. If it’s not, (here’s where I’d usually make a Canada joke, but . . . I’m going to have to go with, sorry everywhere but Southern California) you might have more success with a more specific activity at a playdate. Like, everyone plays with playdough, or everyone paints. I don’t mean an art project that’s going to require the moms to help do it, but just one thing that there would be enough of to go around, so there’s less looking-around-to-see-what-other-kids-have-that-I-want. So, basically, prevention of unpleasantness, because that’s my first goal.

But, if that’s not practical, or if I tried it, and it didn’t work and there was still unpleasantness, I’d try to address any particular situation with my own child first. If my son came to me to tattle, I’d say, “Tell him in a firm voice that you don’t like that.” But that’s not always the way things go down. If I saw a child ripping toys out of another child’s hands, and his own mom didn’t say anything to him, I’d handle it the same way I would if my own child were the perpetrator. I’d walk over and squat down and put my hand on the toy in question and say, calmly but firmly, “In this house, we don’t take toys away from other children. I’m going to put this away so that it doesn’t cause any more unhappiness between friends.” And then I’d just walk away with it and put it out of sight. Usually that works and I just keep doing it until the kids figure out that if they want to have any toys left they should stop fighting over them. As with any parenting-type practices involving other people’s kids, you do run the risk of offending another mom. So, I try to be quick and discreet about it. Or I just shrug and smile when I get back to the other moms in a kids-will-be-kids kind of way, to try to diffuse any tension.

The same goes for our basic Tierney House Rules: In our house . . . We don’t jump on the couch. We don’t play in the bedrooms when we have people over. We don’t hit the TV. I remind other people’s kids of our house rules in a calm but firm way, “Hey, Suzy, in our house, we don’t play in the bedrooms when other kids are over. Anita will be right back, please wait for her here.” I’ve really never had that sort of thing escalate into unpleasantness. And as my own kids get older, I expect THEM to remember, share, and enforce our family rules. Because they are on Team Tierney.

As for food, that one has been a learning experience for me as well. My own kids can mostly handle food being out at their level without making huge messes with it, or being gross with it. But, often times, other people just handle things differently, maybe their kids aren’t used to having All The Snacks available. It’s not my job to teach other people’s kids how to eat snacks, but like you, I prefer my butter un-licked. So, now, I keep food up on counters, rather than on coffee tables, because I don’t want to have to supervise it all the time. Again, in situations like this, prevention of problems is always going to be the least painful way to go, in my opinion. But some kids are climbers, and very dedicated to butter-licking. So, I also just try not to get too attached to any food I put out at a playdate or party. Some things just aren’t going to be useable afterwards.

And I try to remember that there are lots of different explanations for how other people’s kids are behaving in my home. When I was the mom of just one or two littles it was easy to get offended at what I might have perceived as a lack of respect for my home and hospitality and children. But as I’ve been doing this longer and met more and more moms, I’ve come to understand that . . .

1. <gasp> Stuff that bugs me doesn’t necessarily bug other people. Maybe it really just doesn’t bother them when their kids do that in their own homes to their own stuff. Different people have different standards. Maybe some stuff I let my kids do bugs them.

2. Maybe their children’s behavior does bug them, but they are just maxed out right now. We all know how hard motherhood can be. Especially at the beginning. Maybe that mom isn’t getting much support at home, maybe she feels like she’s on them all the time and she’s exhausted and all she wants is to just hang out with some grownups and not yell at her kids for a couple hours, come what may. Now that’s not an ideal situation, obviously. But I’ve learned the hard way that there is a WRONG WAY to offer parenting advice. In fact, most of the possible ways of offering parenting advice are the wrong ways. But by continuing to be a supportive friend, and inviting her over, and by having kids that appear to be less exhausting than her kids, perhaps she’ll ask me how I do it, and I could give her some advice, or steer her towards a blog I find helpful. <wink, wink>

3. Maybe her kids are tougher than my kids. There are a lot of genuine behavioral issues that aren’t visible to the casual observer. It sounds like you know these moms well enough to know whether or not that’s the case. But in my own experience, hosting events as often as we do, I’ve met a handful of kiddos who really do need to be held to a different standard, because God made them different. I’ve talked about it with my kids as they get old enough to comprehend it, and, with some guidance, they can become much more understanding about what to expect when those friends come over.

One thing I wouldn’t really worry about is other kids’ bad behavior affecting your son’s behavior, once he’s not in their presence. Kids are remarkable in their ability to compartmentalize. They know exactly what they can get away with at home that isn’t allowed at preschool, for instance. As long as your family rules are consistent at home, and you’re clear about your expectations, exposure to other kids with other family rules isn’t going to change your son’s behavior. He might need some reminders, even some reminders that involve sitting in the corner, but then he’ll be back with the program.

Anyway, like I said, tough situation. And multifaceted. I hope this helps a little.


For more parenting philosophy-type thoughts, you may enjoy . . .

How we deal with discipline, in general:
And how we deal with toddlers, specifically:

And how we get our kids on Team Tierney:

Creating a Family Culture

Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

you’ve got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail .
com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use
your question on the blog.

P.S. As if that wasn’t quite enough of me for one day . . . I’m also at Blessed is She today, explaining all about how YOU are a superhero.

“Today’s readings from Ezekiel and Matthew can be pretty well summed up by another familiar Bible verse, Luke 12:48: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.”

Perhaps you remember when it was Uncle Ben, saying it to Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” But it’s the same thing.

None of us was bitten by a radioactive spider, or injected with a super-soldier-serum, or born an Amazon-Princess and given a magic lasso made from Aphrodite’s girdle.

Nope. For us, it’s way better than that. . . .”


  1. Mama Sophie

    Kendra, I think you don't need to try anymore, just re-edit posts like this and voila, your book is ready to be published :0)

    No parenting book has been as helpful to me as your blog. Thank you.
    Thanks to Anna for the mail too.

    Have a great week end, Tierneys! ♥

  2. Mandi

    Sometimes I feel like I'm the parent with the poorly behaved child other other people's homes, mainly because the main problems that crop up in play date situations are not a part of Lucia's everyday life. She has no siblings and isn't around other children very often, so 1) there is no consistency in learning what I do or do not allow in her action with other children since the time she's in those situations is a very small part of her life and 2) I often don't know how to address those situations myself since I've had little to no chance for trial and error in that situation. I also don't want every interaction she has with other children to end up being negative or moderated by me. Lucia acts completely differently at play dates than at home because the situations are completely night and day, so it really doesn't reflect how she's being raised at home, but I don't really know how to make the situation any better since the only think I think would help is having her around other children more but it's completely exhausting for me to take her anywhere (or even have other people over to our house) and have to spend 90% of time monitoring and correcting her. I just can't imagine doing it more than I already do, which is only a few hours a few times a week.

    • Tia

      I sometimes worry that my kid is the "troublemaker." He's usually really great with people, and especially in a collection of older adults who are modeling good behavior. The trouble is when he's around other kids. The only thing I've found helps is basically taking him aside and saying "if we can't [play nice] [share sandbox toys] [stop pinching clement] [stop crying] [stop whining about that third cupcake] [stop kicking] we're going to have to leave and try again next time." It usually helps. If it doesn't, we leave. The vast majority of the time, he's having enough fun that he really is motivated to get a handle on his behavior. He's also into taking deep breaths. Somehow seems to help him calm down in melt-down mode. But it is exhausting.

      Also, take heart! My older son is NOT an only child and is still dealing with this issue. We are constantly working on sharing and appropriate behavior with other kids, he goes to preschool and gets lots of nudging in that direction too, and while he's generally pretty good and there are improvements, I think it takes a while and is, realistically, just a stage that all kids go through, siblings or not. So I don't think it's anything you're doing (not doing) per se. Only kids can grow up to be generous and well-behaved for sure.

    • Kendra

      Mandi, I'm sure the other moms understand. I know I would!

    • Laura

      I can really relate, Mandi! I have one two year old and we deal with a lot of issues around sharing and taking turns and it really tests my ability to improvise. And it is so awkward because the issues only come up in a public setting and can be moderately embarrassing. It's taken me some time to admit to myself that regulating these kind of situations is not something that comes naturally to me (which is not to say this applies to you, too). I'm trying to get better at it. No words of advice here, just solidarity, sister.

      Great post, Kendra! Thanks!

  3. Holly Parlier

    Good response, Kendra. The only thing I'd add is that I have realized mamas (me included) are pretty tolerant of children their own children's ages or younger. This is obviously because we are familiar with that age, and unfamiliar with ages older than our children. I have many a time patted myself on the back for not "letting" my child act a certain way only to have that child (or another one) act like that in the future. Consequently, I have found parenting to be quite humbling! 🙂

    • Kendra

      Good point. Also, things vary so much from kid to kid. If I had just had Betty and Bobby, without having Jack first, I would have been pretty insufferable. I was lucky enough to get a challenging one first. Then sixth, in case I had forgotten. 🙂

  4. Kristin Papez

    Great post. I also really struggle with this issue. Because we have a large family with well defined play and behavior expectations, I often find having other children at my home rather stressful. And not because the other children are behaving badly, but simply because they often have different rules and expectations. I try to encourage my older kids to gently remind their guests of our house rules — it seems more effective in most cases. But our rule for visiting other homes is simply this: If a different household has different rules, always follow the more strict rule. For example, we NEVER jump on couches. Not at our house or at other homes (even if it is allowed). At our house my kids are allowed to pretend play battles/light saber duels/etc but some families aren't comfortable playing with pretend violence. That's cool. My kids can play other things for an afternoon. It's all about respecting people and their property. But, like most things, it sounds much easier in a blog reply than in real life!

  5. Theresa

    Great, great, great.

    I loved all the points you made and would add another thought based my own experiences… If I witness a child that is not my own behaving poorly, I have to remind myself that's it's not necessarily a reflection on his mom and dad's parenting skills and I dearly hope that others will be as gracious to me under similar circumstances!! For example, if a guest child is jumping on my couch, I have to be careful not to think, "I can't believe his mother lets him jump on couches" because it's quite possible she doesn't, but he used his little kid free will to try something new and naughty at someone else's house. I don't let my kids use rude bathroom humor, but they have done it elsewhere when I'm not around and once I heard about it, I could address it. Part of forming our children is to teach them to carry the rules with them outside of the home, that proper behavior starts here and is expected from them everywhere else we go, but… it's a learning process and they're not always going to be rule-abiding angels when they're out of my sight. I hope that parents who witness the slip-ups of my children are comfortable to address it, but would not necessarily assume that that particular behavior was how we do things in our family, or was because I'm the kind of mom who lets them get away with that;) (God help me!) I definitely try to offer other parents the same courtesy.

    • Theresa

      How come I always think I'm leaving a *short* comment and then when it posts it's like a wrote a book? When's your post on the virtue of brevity coming out??

    • Kendra

      Yep. I've been there, too. 🙂 Also, I am the LAST person to share my thoughts on brevity. They would be much too long.

  6. Unknown

    Mandi, The website wouldn't allow me to comment directly to your post, but I thought I would offer a few thoughts in response. As someone who has been doing the parenting gig for 10 years, I would encourage you to keep at in your efforts at parenting your child during a playdate. I'm with Kendra in that I let the behavior of kids slide a LOT during a playdate, but there also comes a point where it gets frustrating and stressful to have certain families over, and it does affect our ability to be friends and have playdates. But there's one key difference: if I see the mom doing her best to correct her child and give consequences appropriately, I'm more than happy and willing to be patient with the situation, even if it means we don't get to interact as much for a time. Because everybody's been there! But if there is a mom blatantly ignoring aggressive or destructive behavior, it's really hard for me to put up with that for very long. It's just a natural consequence that if a situation is nothing but stressful for me and for my kids, we will avoid that situation in the future.
    I know it's hard especially when there are no siblings, to reinforce how we play with other children. But it DOES get better, especially if you are consistent, even in these short-lived situations. And your mom friends will appreciate your efforts, I promise! Even though it's frustrating for you, and probably your child, your consideration and respect of other people's houses and kids will win you major brownie points, and the opportunity to keep trying again. It gets better, I promise!! – Lauren

    • Mandi

      Lauren, I don't think I quite understand your comment. Do you think I don't show consideration and respect of other people's houses and kids? Because I do and I don't think my comment suggested that I don't. I do always correct my daughter when she needs it, but at this point, it's constant so play dates are just no fun for either of us. I'd rather just stay at home (and so would she) than constantly have to monitor her interactions with other kids. She feels like she's being constantly picked on and doing something wrong. I get rude comments from other moms. It's just overall a lose-lose situations for everyone.

    • Kendra

      Mandi, I *think* what Lauren is saying is that since you ARE doing your best with your daughter, your friends will understand. And I agree with Tia above, it's not that she's an only child, it's not that you're not parenting her enough, that's just who she is. Jack was always a challenge at playdates and we left many a park for throwing sand. And he's got plenty of siblings. She'll come around. 🙂

    • Unknown

      Yes, definitely didn't mean to imply that you aren't parenting her, I mean you definitely said so. It was more of an encouragement to keep up the good work, and that it WILL pay off, even though it doesn't feel like that in the moment. Basically other moms really appreciate your efforts. And I know for ME, that's all that matters. – Lauren

    • Mandi

      Oh, thanks, Lauren. I guess my insecurity is showing.

  7. Tia

    Kendra, what do you do about the situation where you're disciplining your kid at a person's house and the parents say "oh that's okay, I don't mind." I am always struggling for a very polite, non-judgy way of saying "yeah, but I mind."
    Also, what's your take on apologizing to a host for your own children's bad behavior, either with or without the kid there? Should you just direct all the discipline to the kid and let that speak for itself? OR do you think the host appreciates it if the other parent acknowledges the problem?

    • Kendra

      Yeah, that's a common one. I just smile and say, "thanks" but keep parenting my kids the way I think works the best.

      Sometimes kids break things at my house, in that case I appreciate when the mom comes to tell me and it's nice when the kid apologizes, that's what I would want to do if we were the break-ers in the situation. But other than that, I figure kids are being kids, whether I address it or the mom addresses it with the kid, for me it's over with. I don't need it acknowledged further.

    • Sarah C.

      Whether it's parents or kids who interject to say they don't mind or that the rule is different at their house (for example, we have a house rule against climbing on the coffee table but I nanny at a house that allows coffee table climbing), I just mention that it's easier for me to enforce rules like that across the board. I usually don't explain that much and I don't make a big deal out of it. Also, if my child broke something, I would definitely apologize and offer to fix/replace it, but otherwise, I would probably not apologize unless it was a major incident. Otherwise I just wouldn't make a big deal out of it–really, our discipline is something private to our family. 🙂

    • Martha

      Oooh that happens to me A LOT – probably because we only have one and I'm beginning to think I'm sort of super strict about some (unusual?) things.
      Whenever people say "oh no, it's okay," I always say "she knows the rules" and keep correcting. I want other parents to know what our rules are too…I come from a 'community parenting' type of family, so I want other people to be okay telling my girl not to do things they know she's not to do.

    • Sarah C.

      Oops–I started writing this prior to Kendra's response. Wasn't trying to one up or anything!

      Kendra–thank you for the advice on how to deal with not-your-children who are taking things from your own smaller child. I'm going to try that with my nephew who is a year older than my daughter and constantly snatching things from her.

      Also, with the swing example do you do the same thing even with your youngest ones like Feankie and Lulu? Right now, I inform the parent and/or child that we will tell them when my daughter is finished. She's under 2 and we are still working to develop flexibility and avoid meltdowns. Aside from that, while I do encourage sharing, I also don't think it's fair to tell a child that they can't play with the toy they were in the middle of playing with because someone else wants to use it. To me, that promotes a me-me-me attitude and works contradictory to promoting self control/self regulation or sharing/taking turns. As an adult, if someone is using something you need or want, you ask for permission and then you have to wait your turn. Sometimes it takes a little while, although admittedly, I have had to tell adults that I will let them know when I am done and have seen adults throw tantrums about having to wait…

  8. Heather

    I have this very vivid memory of my best friend pulling over while we were riding in her car after my son bit her son AGAIN for about the tenth time that day. I had disciplined him every single time but this was the tipping point. With tears running down her cheeks she said, "I'm sorry. We just can't spend time together as long as he keeps biting." What we didn't know then was that my son had Aspergers and the biting was a manifestation of his frustration of not having the ability to articulate his needs/wants/etc. His biting was never unprovoked but it was always an inappropriate over reaction to a perceived slight. Kid takes toy from him… he bites. Kid doesn't play the game the way he anticipates it should go… he bites. My son will be 21 on Sunday and is about to be a father for the first time in May. In his mind the little boy he was biting was his BEST FRIEND as a little kid even though after that day we were no longer invited to play dates or birthday parties or to group outings. He doesn't remember any of that but it still breaks my heart to have been ostracized in that way. I was just a mom parenting my kids the best way I knew how. This was my third child and my first two kids were nothing at all like this. I was doing things the same way and it wasn't working and I just didn't know why not. I say all of that to say to other moms be as compassionate as you can and teach your kids to extend grace as well. You never know what is behind misbehavior and it's not always a result of poor parenting. Fortunately as the years have gone by we have learned so much more about his differences and I have been able to adapt my parenting skills to help him. I've also been able to educate people about kids on the autism spectrum and although there have been other people who have opted not to deal with him/us, many more people have embraced him and loved him for the way he views the world.

  9. Amanda

    Thanks for the tips. They sound very reasonable- it really makes me want to get together with more kids 🙂

  10. Lauren @ Here We Geaux

    I love how you always approach situations with setting "team" expectations. I can picture a very tight nit extended family system resulting even 50 years down the road. Beautiful.

  11. Patricia Shepard

    Just found your blog (thanks, Bloglovin'!) and I believe I've found a kindred parenting spirit! This post really spoke to me. I find myself in your position basically every time. It's gotten to the point where I just don't do playdates unless the stars are perfectly aligned. I run a loving but tight ship, and my 3 year old understands rules and listens well. It is frustrating both for me and him when the majority of other parents, no matter how cool, don't even bother to try to get their children to listen, behave, etc.
    Anyway, I can't wait to go through your blog and read all your old stuff! I'm your new student!!!

  12. Hafsa

    I have to say that I can semi-relate to Heather's comment. My daughter is autistic and non-verbal and play dates are tough for us. She has impulse control issues when it comes to food so I'm appreciative that I have understanding friends who put the food out of reach like you do Kendra. It's also become easier to host smaller group play dates in my home than to travel. It helps my daughter with socialization activities per her ABA Therapy goals in a controlled environment. I appreciate your advice Kendra since I intend to host more play dates in the future.

  13. Meg

    Love this! question: why the rule for playing in kid's bedrooms? I have a hunch you have an excellent reason for this.

    • Kendra

      It's to keep the messes contained to areas that are at least somewhat supervised, and to keep from having to deal with boys and girls and closed doors and whatnot as the kids get older.

      When I was growing up, we had a strict "no boys in the girls' dorm" policy, but I didn't have any brothers, and only girls ever came to my house. So playing in the bedrooms wasn't an issue. But since we always have whole families over, there are lots of boys and girls over all at the same time, and I find it much simpler to just avoid that issue entirely, but not letting ANYONE in the bedrooms.

  14. Melissa Caskey

    I keep coming back to this post again and again. I just have to say how much I appreciate your compassion, and that of so many of the commenters. I have a 3.5 yr old, a 2 yr old and soon to be newborn. My 3.5 year old is very challenging and I feel like I try SO hard and nothing works. It is really exhausting and frustrating and because we have some very specific behavior issues that we are trying to address, we are lax about some things that other people are probably more strict about simply because I really want to have a positive relationship with my son and I already feel like I am disciplining him about 99% of the day. It would be devastating for me (I have high anxiety and am pretty self conscious about most things) if I felt like other people were making assumptions about my efforts as a parent based on his behavior. I expect a lot from my kids in terms of kindness and sharing and manners etc. But just because you have those expectations doesn't necessarily mean your kids are going to comply. Thank you for understanding that, I'm glad that someone does!

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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