Ideas to Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas (without going crazy)

Looking for memorable ways to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, without wearing yourself thin? Here are a few simple ideas.

God became Man to redeem mankind. It’s a simply staggering fact. It’s such an important part of our faith, we have chosen to celebrate Christmas for 12 days.

That decision relieves a lot of the pressure I used to feel from trying to cram so much into such a short time. It also means thinking of ideas to celebrate for 12 whole days, without driving this minimalist Mama crazy.

If you’d like to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, but find the thought overwhelming, here are few ideas to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas simply. 

On each of the days of Christmas, the children have a surprise in their stocking. It isn’t always a gift. Sometimes it’s a certificate for a family activity. Sometimes it’s a note letting them know we’re hosting friends. Sometimes it’s a group game or gift. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to serve others together.

Here’s a peak at my plans for this year. (Assuming, of course, that I don’t come down with a terrible bug on New Years!)

Simple Ideas to Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas

  • Day 1: Celebrate with extended family.
  • Day 2: Make a Christmas-themed craft together.
  • Day 3: Buy a new game for the family. Play it together while eating homemade caramel corn (without corn syrup).
  • Day 4: Make cookies and bring it to someone we wanted to visit before Christmas, but couldn’t find time to.
  • Day 5: Give everyone a new book. (These are our favorite storybooks.) Read them aloud.
  • Day 6: Host a movie night of an old family favorite, like Follow Me Boys.
  • Day 7: Go bowling as a family.
  • Day 8: Sponsor a gift for children in need.
  • Day 9: Let them pick a family to invite over for dinner. Make it a feast.
  • Day 10: Give them passes for a favorite place (zoo, museum, amusement park, etc.)
  • Day 11: Go to the theater and watch a family movie together.
  • Day 12: (Twelfth Night) Celebrate Jesus being manifested to the Gentiles by hosting an internationally-themed potluck. Have each friend bring a favorite ethnic dish, dress up (if they want) and play fun ethnic music while we feast together. (If I’m feeling really ambitious, put on a skit of the wise men worshipping Christ.)

Looking for simple ways to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas? Here's how I keep it simple but memorable.

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As you can see, making the 12 days of Christmas a memorable occasion for your children doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Use these simple ideas to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas while relaxing and enjoying the holiday.

Fun and Educational Gifts for Kids

A good education isn’t all fun and games. But I want learning to be as fun as possible for my kids. One simple way to make learning fun is by incorporating educational games into our schooldays.

Who wouldn’t want to practice their spelling while playing games with Mommy?

If you’re looking for fun and educational gifts for elementary-aged kids, here are some of our top picks. All of the gifts cost less than $40. Most of them are under $20.

Looking for fun gifts for your kids that are also educational? Here's a handy guide.

Full disclosure: links to some products in this post are my referral links. (photo credit) 

Fun and Educational Gifts for Kids

Critical Thinking and Puzzle-Solving Gifts

Mastermind

Practice critical mathematical thinking while trying to figure out your opponents pattern. (2 players) Purchase for under $10

Suspend

A fun family game of balance and strategy. Add your magnetic piece without toppling it all. (1-4 players) Purchase for under $10

Chess

My kids beg to play chess. It makes them feel so grown-up. It’s a fun game for almost any age that forces you to think critically and strategically. (2 players)  Purchase a beautiful board for under $25 (Here’s another gorgeous option

Bedtime Math

Don’t let the name scare you! This is a fun collection of bedtime math puzzles to help children (and parents, ahem!) learn to think more mathematically. (Fun for the whole family!) Purchase for under $10

Riddle Collection

I struggle with thinking outside-the-box. Riddles help overcome that by training your brain to think creatively.(Fun for the whole family!) Get a free ebook or purchase a paperback for under $10

Puzzles

Puzzles count as an educational gift, right? (Or is that stretching it too far?) Either way, some puzzles are just an exercise in frustration, but these heavy-duty puzzles with captivating pictures are fun —and surprisingly difficult— to solve. (Fun for the whole family!) Purchase for less than $20.

Memory – Boosting Gifts

I Never Forget a Face

Like classical memory, but with a fun twist. If you struggle to remember faces, this game is for you! It has 24 pairs of beautiful faces from around the world. (2-4 players) Purchase for under $10.

History-Themed Memory

If you’re following a classical timeline in school, these historical sets help add fun visuals to the history! Purchase ancient, medieval, or American history sets for under $15.

Artistic Gifts

Draw in 3-D

love Mark Kistler’s You Can Draw in 30 Days for adults. Here’s his fun guide for kids. (Fun for the whole family!) Purchase for under $15

Craft Set

There is an almost endless variety to choose from. Especially if you do the craft with your child, it’s sure to be loved!

Language-Development Gifts

Fairy-Tale Mix-Up

Learn how to tell a good story with this funny set of mixed up fairy-tales. This is perfect practice for learning to write stories. (Fun for the whole family!)  Purchase for under $10.

Boggle

An ever-changing game of mixed up words. (2+ players.) Purchase the classic game for under $10 (or the fancy version for under $20).

Scrabble Jr.

Another game of scrambled words. (2-4 players.) Purchase the original game or Scrabble Jr. for under $15

Books (of course!)

What better way to develop a child’s language skills than with awesome stories? Here’s a growing list of our favorite picture storybooks for younger kids. This children’s literature Pinterest board has some of our favorite longer stories.

Science- Themed Gifts

Nature Field Guides

A few years ago we bought the kids simple field guides. I can’t count the number of nature walks those guides have spurred! Pair with a magnifying glass, and you’ve got a great gift for the budding scientist. Purchase these kid-friendly guides for less than $10 each. 

Wildcraft

Learn about the incredible world of herbs with this fun, cooperative game.  Purchase here for under $40 here.

Looking for fun, educational & frugal gifts for your child? Here's a guide for elementary kids.

Fun, educational gifts for elementary-aged kids

These frugal gifts are not only fun, they’re great educational games and books to help spark your child’s imagination.

What are your favorite educational gifts for kids? 

My Perfect Kids (Ahem!)

Today was one of those days. The kind that felt an awful lot like being on a see-saw.

One moment, the children were dripping sweetness like a ripe, juicy peach. They said “please” and “thanks”, shared their toys happily, and sweet echoes of “Yes ma’am” echoed around the room when I asked them to do something.  I felt like giving myself a pat on the back for how well we were doing on this parenting adventure.

The next moment, loud shrieks of “MAMA! Guess what _________ did!” and “Stop it right NOW!” jarred my proud thoughts and brought me back to reality with a screech.

One moment they were dripping sweetness. The next annoyed shouts filled the air. My kids aren't perfect, just like I'm not perfect.

Grace in my imperfect reality

  • The reality that I’m a sinful mother who needs grace every moment of every day.
  • The reality that, even at their most perfect, my children are sinful creatures who need grace every moment of every day too.
  • The reality that all my best methods and well-thought out plans are naught if the Lord doesn’t build our house.
  • The reality that even though I love this season of life (most of the time), it’s a picture of imperfection.
  • The reality that God’s mercies are not just new for me every morning, they’re new for my children.
  • The reality that few things drive you to your knees like parenting.
  • The reality that the seeds I plant now may not bear fruit for years or decades, for good or ill.
  • The reality that I can’t be a joyful mother of children unless my joy is rooted in Something deeper than happy children and a semblance of order.

My kids are a work in grace, just like me. Each delightful, annoying, stretching, imperfect moment can be another step in our sanctification.

And so I lift my eyes from my not-at-all perfect self and not-at-all perfect children, and rejoice in the reality that Jesus came to redeem messy families like mine and use them to build His church.

5 Ways to Foster Your Child’s Imagination

The average American parent spends hundreds of dollars on toys for their children each year, but the grandest of all “toys” is simply a well-developed imagination. Imagination turns sticks into swords, or spoons, or paddles, or a fire to warm your hands in the deep forest under the picnic table.

From my limited experience, imagination comes pretty naturally to children. My desire as a mom is to foster it and channel it toward what is good and true and beautiful.

Drawing from the excellent tongue-in-cheek advice in Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, I’m seeking to help my children’s imagination blossom. How? By reading them good stories, limiting their screen time, sending them into the great outdoors, not micro-managing every moment, and even letting them get bored occasionally.

Of all the gifts we can give our children, a well-developed imagination is one of the best. Here are five ways to foster it.

One of the highlights of Will’s summer was catching and playing with frogs

How to Develop a Child’s Imagination

Read good stories

Stories ignite our imagination and shape our affections.

Sometimes imaginative play is lackluster. Sometimes it borders on depressive or mean or ugly.

Make time to pour in more good stories: stories where good conquers evil, true beauty is magnified, and truth is vindicated. Read stories that aspire to the noble and embrace the adventure in common things. (Here is a growing list of our favorite picture storybooks.)

Turn off the electronics

In his poetic rant against the television Roald Dahl claimed the TV

… ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND…

Sometimes a movie is just the sanity-saving “babysitter” I need. With few exceptions though, electronics promote passive reception, not active imagination.

Maybe my kids are just weird, but even a short video dramatically decreases their ability to entertain themselves. So, in order to foster their imagination, usually I say “no” to more screen time.

Send them outside

Sometimes my kids drag their feet when I tell them it’s time to go outside to play. The funny thing is, it usually only takes five minutes in the great outdoors to become totally engrossed in play.

So, when they don’t want to play outdoors, I tell them to play for ten minutes and then I’ll let them come back inside. I can count on one hand the amount of times they’ve wanted to.

There’s something almost magical about being outside in the fresh air and sunshine. It helps clear a clouded brain and opens up a bright clear world of wonder.

Let them get bored

Don’t fill your schedule with so many structured activities and planned play dates that they don’t have time to just be kids. Kids need down time, just like moms. Let them run out of planned activities and be forced to think of ways to entertain themselves. (If they are stumped, here are some great non-electronic ideas to get their imaginative juices going!)

Don’t always micromanage everything

Have you ever read a kid’s book from decades ago and been shocked at the free-reign children were given (and how maturely they often handled it)?

My tendency is to be a mother-hen type mom. Joshua wisely encouraged me that it’s okay to let them learn to play together without my constant interaction.

Let them figure out their own games. Let them make up their own stories. Let them practice working together. Let them learn to say “please” and “sorry” without needing your reminder. By practicing managing themselves (with your presence nearby), they not only have a chance to gain maturity, they learn to let their imagination take wings.

A good imagination is an incredible gift we can help foster in our children. (Sadly, good imaginations seem to be on the decline in much of the modern world.) Here are five strategies to help make sure your child doesn't lose this precious gift.

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Develop Your Child’s Imagination

Imagination turns a normal day into an adventure. It leads to discoveries and the loveliest of stories.

As parents, we should foster our children’s imagination through reading good stories, turning off the electronics (at least most of the time), sending them outdoors to play, letting them get bored (and discovering their own interests), and not always micro-managing their lives.

How do you foster your child’s imagination? 

[Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.]

Picture Storybooks Worth Re-Reading

Looking for children's stories that are worth reading over and over. Here's a growing list of favorites.

There is one point that parents, researchers, and teachers universally agree on: reading to your children is incredibly important.

Reading enhances your child’s imagination, increases his vocabulary, introduces him to unknown lands, and provides a wonderful excuse to cuddle on the couch together.

I shared a few of our favorite picture storybooks here and here but thought it would be fun to compile a growing list of picture books we’ve read again and again… and will read countless more times.

My criteria are simple: the books must be consistent with a Christian world-view (though not necessarily written by Christian authors) and be well-written and illustrated.

Books that explore our rich heritage or introduce other cultures are extra-beneficial. Occasionally there is a line or two that I disagree with, but that opens up the door for great discussions, right?

Children’s Stories Worth Reading Over and Over

  • 15 Animals: I never thought such a short story could produce so many giggles!
  • Aesop’s Fables: the timeless tales masterfully retold and beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
  • All Because a Little Bug Went Kachoo: a silly Suess story about unintended consequences.
  • All the Ways I Love You: a short but darling expression of love.
  • Are You My Mother? my all-time favorite Suess story about a baby bird looking for his mother.
  • Baby Dear: such a sweet story of a little girl caring for her doll, just like Mommy!
  • The Apple and the Arrow: although it’s a longer picture book, the story of William Tell captivated my children’s attention. (Thanks, Aneysa!)
  • The Bear that Heard Crying: an amazing true story set in the wild frontier about a bear who protects a lost 3-year-old.   
  • Can Brown Eyes be Made Blue? from a series on Christian heroes [Though not as well-written as I’d like.]
  • Chanticleer and the Fox: this classic story from the Canterbury Tales comes to life with simple medieval-esque drawings.
  • Cookies: Bite-Sized Life Lessons: the meaning of words life pessimistic and courageous are cleverly explained using cookies. (Great to read before a tea party!)
  • A Child’s Garden of Verses: Robert Louis Stevenson’s delightful poems for children whimsically illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa.
  • Fancy Nancy: I totally empathize with the plain mother in this story, but in the midst of the glamor and sparkles this story emphasizes the importance of love.
  • The Greatest Treasure: sprinkled with Chinese proverbs, this fun story highlights the beauty of contentment.
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie… oh the giggles you’ll garner.
  • It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny: the grass may look greener on the other side, but as P.J. Funnybunny learns, all animals have problems to face.
  • The Kitchen Knight: this Arthurian tale highlights the need for kindness, not just bravery.
  • Little Bear tales: Simple, humorous stories about a little bear.
  • The Little House: a city grows up around this little country house.
  • Little Lips Shall Praise Thee: sweet simple stories and poems celebrating life in God’s world.
  • Make Way for Ducklings: for some reason, the thought of traffic in Boston being brought to a standstill for a family of ducks makes me smile.
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: Mike was pretty sure that he and his steam shovel could dig more than 100 men could in a week…but would he ever have a chance to prove it?
  • Mr. Bell’s Fix-it Shop: a favorite from my childhood about a fix-it man who can fix everything except broken hearts. [Though the out-of-print prices are outrageous!]
  • One Grain of Rice: set in India, this incredible mathematical tales shows the power of doubling.
  • Otis: a charming tale of a tractor and his friend calf.
  • St. George and the Dragon: the thrilling legend of fierce dragons and brave knights comes alive in this beautiful retelling.
  • The Seven Silly Eaters: This has got to be the most-read story in our house. Hilarious rhymes tell the story of a large family of picky eaters. (Thanks, Pritchetts!)
  • Snowflake Bentley: a true story about the man who “discovered” the beauty of snowflakes and spent his life sharing that discovery with the world.
  • The Ugly Duckling: another classic tale told and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
  • What Can You Do With a Tail Like This? close-ups of animals tails, noses or ears get children guessing what animal they belong to and the following page gives fascinating ways different animals use them.
  • When Jessie Came Across the Sea: a touching story of a poor immigrant girl’s coming to America and her enduring love for her Grandma.
You may notice that I don’t have any Bible story books. The Bible is the most important book to read aloud with our children, but after flipping through multiple children’s Bible storybooks, we came to the simple conclusion that reading the Bible, just the Bible, is enough for our family. (I’ve been pleasantly shocked at just how much little children can understand! The greatest theologians will never fully plunge the wealth of mystery and paradox in the grand story, but even a child can worship its Hero.)
There is no frigate like a book, wrote Emily Dickinson. Whisk your child away to foreign lands with these picture storybooks that are worth reading over and over!

Grab a book and read together

Reading aloud to your children is important and it’s fun. So pull out your favorite books and cuddle up for an adventure to faraway lands!

What picture books get worn out through countless re-readings at your home?

[Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.]

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Mom Guilt

Mom guilt.

I’m not sure if it has been around since Eve rocked Cain and Abel to sleep or if it’s a relatively new phenomenon, but I’d venture a guess that our highly-public, yet singularly-isolated, modern lives have heightened Mom guilt.

Finding freedom from the guilt that plagues us as moms

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Since becoming a mom seven years ago, I’ve felt twangs of guilt over all sorts of things, like…

Some of the guilt I realized pretty quickly was laughable.

Sometimes though, it’s taken me a long time to realize that guilt over non-sinful-methods-that-work-for-our-family and imperfect-planning is silly.

We aren’t called to be Pinterest-perfect mothers. We aren’t called to be perfect homeschool teachers, chefs, or decorators (thank goodness!) We don’t even have to spend every waking moment with our children.

For years, even when the house was running smoothly and the children were playing happily together, I felt like I was failing as a mother if I opened the laptop. When I finally mentioned this guilt to Joshua, he said, “Honey, it’s good for the kids to learn to play together without you having to be involved in every minute detail of every moment of the day.”

So often the standards we set for ourselves, and the guilt we feel when breaking them, have little resemblance to our real standard.

We are called to love our Lord Jesus. We are called to love our children and raise them up in the love and fear of the Lord. It’s a simple, but all-encompassing, command. A command that might play itself out in my home with Twinkies, organic kale, or both.

So enough of this misplaced guilt. We’ll fall plenty of times pursuing the real goal, but God’s grace will always be sufficient for another day.

Imagination: the Best Toy Ever

The grandest of all toys is free: it's simply a well-developed imagination.

“Mama! Today was one of the best days ever!” Will sang as he came running inside for dinner. What did we do that was so fun?

Nothing.

After a delightfully busy month, this week I cleared the schedule. I turned down wonderful sounding events so we could just stay home. Aside from our simple summer routine of memory work, story-time, and chores, I had nothing at all planned.

So the best-day-ever was almost exactly like yesterday, which was pretty much exactly like the day before. And yet it wasn’t, because of the best of all toys: imagination.

This morning Will was a farmer happily digging up dirt “to sell”. Then he was a king building a castle under the picnic table with Queen Rose.

When rain interrupted the castle construction, they came inside to read stories that transported us to faraway places.

After his nap, Will travelled on a Lego airplane to outer space… then he hid in a make-believe cave under the stairs. The rain kindly stopped in time for Will to emerge from his cave and build volcanos out of all the dirt he dug up this morning.

Parents spend hundreds of dollars on toys each year, but the simple fact remains, imagination is the best toy ever. (And it's totally free!)

Want to develop your child’s imagination? Here are five simple strategies.

Imagination: the Best Toy Ever

So you see, we hadn’t actually gone anywhere exciting or done anything new. But the mud-covered creature that came running in for dinner (and a shower!) with a huge grin on his face, had travelled around the world and through time. He was happy proof to me that imagination is the best of all toys.

His joy was an acknowledgment that in this fast-paced, electronics-dominated culture, it’s okay to just “do nothing” and let imaginations run wild.

Bible Reading with the Church Calendar

For about two years, we’ve read through the stories of the Bible (straight from the Bible) at the breakfast table roughly following the church calendar. This week we start over again in Genesis.

Why? On Sunday, churches around the world celebrated Pentecost—the day when Jesus fulfilled His promise to send the Comforter to His people.

After anticipating the arrival of the Messiah during Advent, then celebrating His birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, Pentecost marks the end of the special season of the Church calendar that focuses on the different aspects of Christ’s life on earth.

Reading through the Bible

Reading the Bible aloud with the children each morning has been such a blessing to me. Attempting to follow the beautiful flow of the Church calendar has also been such a blessing.

Like the feasts in the Old Testament that highlight God’s saving care of His people, the Church calendar highlights the foundation of our faith: Jesus. It also helps keep us from focusing on one aspect of Jesus’ life (like His suffering) while neglecting the others (like His resurrection). I’m not sure about you, but it’s easy for me to get caught up in my favorite stories or passages. Following the church calendar is one method for focusing on the entirety of the grand story and “anchor[ing] our scattered stories in the story of Jesus.” (Jack King)

We don’t have an elaborate Bible reading plan. It’s quite simple:

  • From Pentecost through Advent, we read stories from the Old Testament anticipating the coming of Jesus.
  • At Christmas we begin reading through the Gospels and continue until Easter.
  • From Easter till Pentecost, we read about God’s working in His Church in Acts (and the rest of the New Testament, if we get to it).

This is our third time to start at the very beginning. The first year we barely made it through Exodus by Christmas-time. Last year we read from Genesis through Second Samuel. Hopefully we’ll get to the story of Jonah this year.

More than that, hopefully the story of the Gospel will not only shape our Bible-reading time, but our lives.

Do you have a favorite method to teach the story of Jesus to your children? 

May be linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeWalking RedeemedGraced Simplicity, & Proverbs 31

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What’s Most Important to Your Child

“Mama. We don’t play with the toilet paper. Nooooo. That not good.” Meg told me in the most serious, grown-up voice she could muster, then continued enthusiastically, “Look! My didn’t play with it.”

There is so much to learn about life when you’re two. Sometimes I don’t notice all the little milestones my children pass, because I forget that when you’re two, playing with the toilet paper really is a strong temptation. So is peeking under the stalls in a public restroom and testing all the soaps to see if they’re all the same color.

In the bustle of “real life”, it’s easy to overlook the simple discoveries that lighten their world and underestimate how difficult the simple rules are to follow. (What’s wrong with playing peek-a-boo under those bathroom stalls anyway?)

“Don’t treat what’s most important to your child as the least of your concerns.” My friend Peggy mentioned this advice from Fit to Burst and the words have played over and over in my mind.

It’s so easy to gloss over my children’s troubles and dampen their joys because I’m too busy making dinner or checking Facebook to pause and look into their eyes and listen. It’s hard to drop my important grown-up-stuff to value what’s important to them because they are my children and I value them.

As I pause to appreciate what’s important to them, they’re also teaching me to stand in awe over God’s little marvels and treasure relationships over efficiency. They’re teaching me to become more child-like.

So here’s to treating what’s important to our little ones as important to us too. Here’s to taking the time to rejoice with them and weep with them. Even if it’s over toilet paper.

Linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeWalking RedeemedGrace Simplicity, & Proverbs 31

[Full disclosure: Links to products in this post are my referral links.]

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Busy With the Right Things

The phone rings just as baby wakes up with a blood-curdling scream and drowns out his big sibling’s urgent calls for help from the bathroom. Momentarily ignoring the phone and the baby, you rush to the bathroom but on your way, have to break up an escalating argument between the other siblings.

Nobody said this mothering thing was a piece of cake.

Life as a mom of little ones is busy. Usually all the children don’t desperately need you at the exact same moment (thank goodness!), but there are always things clambering for attention.

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I was feeling overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of needs and the list-of-things-I-want-to-do that kept growing, not shrinking, when God used Facebook as His instrument of encouragement.

I was glancing over my news feed before bed when a friend’s status jumped from the screen, “Lord, help me be busy with the right things.”

Life with four little ones IS busy, especially because I’m teaching part-time at Rose’s two-day-a-week classical school and homeschooling the rest of the week. Countless times over the past couple weeks, this prayer has come to mind.

“Lord, help me be busy with the right things.”

  • Sometimes choosing “the right things” means settling for a super simple dinner plan so that I have time to cuddle on the couch and read books to Meg or dropping everything to kiss a hurt finger.
  • Sometimes it’s meant choosing joy while Rose and I plod through a subject or neglecting this blog (again) so that we can have a “date” while the other kids nap.
  • Sometimes it’s meant pausing in the midst of a busy day and ignoring the mess for a moment to be still.
  • Sometimes it’s simply highlighted the fact that dirty dishes and laundry are a part of life and the right thing to do at the moment (and I might as well sing about it!)

Busyness is inevitable. Let’s make sure we’re busy with the right things.

[Katie, my heartfelt thanks for your simple status. It’s blessed me far more than you know!] 

Linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeEncourage One AnotherWalking RedeemedGrace Simplicity, & Proverbs 31