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February 2010 Archives


Creating a Family Art Studio

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For years we had two giant shelves loaded with art supplies in the boys bedroom. Quite often I would hear them digging around, looking for just the right recycled box to paint and become some new part of a very elaborate Lego world. It was organized and seemed to work fine, aside from the occasional mess, but a visit to a creative friend's house made me consider taking it all a step further. She turned a small sun room into a children's art studio and it was pure magic.

My kids were delirious visiting her house and it seemed to ignite a new level of creating love. One weekend later I convinced my husband to give up a barely used sunroom/office to create our own family art studio. There is just something about claiming some territory and honoring creativity in the place where you live and spend so much of your time. The kids have spent hours upon hours since holed up in the little room, creating to their hearts content.

Here is what I have learned so far:

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Even the baby will want to participate. It helps to surrender to artsy mess and just let them get messy and into everything. We keep the any toxic or tiny supplies high and in tight containers, but markers, crayons and the like are fair game. Lyra constantly has marker all over her but she is happy.

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Use what you already have. Dig through junk drawers and recycle bins. You probably already have most of the supplies you need. It is just a matter of organizing it and laying it out in an accessible and inviting way. If this isn't your strong suit, invite and super clean neat freaky friend over, she'll know exactly what to do. Don't be afraid of getting rid of old stuff to make the clearing for the new space either. Think about why and how you use your current living spaces. Are they being utilized? Is a guest room really necessary? Can a space be shared if you really can't give it entirely over?

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Add some love to your space. Hang your children's own framed art work in the space. Put up shelves for sculptures and pottery. Don't forget to add photographs that remind you of beauty and family love. Music is a must have! My son Josiah made the art shown above after we were all sitting in the studio working on our own projects and listening to Yellow Submarine by The Beatles. We sometimes play family DJ and everyone picks a song to add to the playlist. All of it invites togetherness and creativity.

Do you have a small carved out for your art or work? What tips do you have for encouraging art in your home? Tell us in the comments.


What to Do if (You or) Your Child is a Drama Queen

Posted by Jen on February 24, 2010 at 6:28 AM in Raising Girls
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As mothers we love to complain about our daughters being too dramatic, while being completing forgetful of all the ways we were overly dramatic as girls ourselves--or in my case, overly dramatic yesterday. I keep thinking we should take this show on the road--Madeleine and me, but thankfully, there's a young troubled starlet on the cover of every gossip magazine to remind me that life as a child star (with or without the dramatic stage mother) means rehab is just a few years away.

Here are a few ways I'm trying to play the role of "mature grownup" when Madeleine is responding to life's every turn with drama, drama, drama:

Some of this is normal. Notice I say "some." Madeleine has been an expressive child since birth. It only makes sense that her capacity for self-expression would grow right along with her verbal and reasoning skills. She's got the full range of emotions going from across the spectrum and that's a good thing. My work is to channel her energy, not squelch it. Understanding (and honoring) her as a naturally expressive person helps me put this behavior in perspective.

Just because your drama queen is in hysterics doesn't mean you have to be. High strung kids can pull everyone else into their drama in no time. Before you know it, you're pacing, emoting, yelling, and throwing your hands around for emphasis, too. I find it helps most when I take a calm, quiet and somewhat detached demeanor. She's caught up in her own emotion, but Mom is doing just fine. This conveys a natural boundary that gives her confidence and something to count on. Not an easy posture for me, but I'm learning.

It's okay to step away from the fire. Sometimes Madeleine is too upset/tired/animated and/or offended to really entertain any other point of view. In these cases, things go better if I'm empathetic ("I can see you are really having a hard time") and clear ("I'm not going to talk about this until I have a chance to calm down myself and think it through") in the midst of her storm. By giving myself a little timeout to process, I offer an example of how to get through heavy-duty emotions. Just because her intensity is turned way up doesn't mean I need to react immediately. Giving myself time to think helps both of us.

Try passing notes. When Madeleine is really upset about something, sometimes we communicate best through writing. At eleven, she's well acquainted with the brilliance of the phrase "circle yes or no." By writing back and forth, we can boil things down to the underlying issues and say the most important things on our minds. Most of the time her outburst is connected to a tiny need she's feeling too big to own up to, like--"I need more alone time" or "I need quiet time with mom". These are the kinds of things that notes bring to the surface.

Don't feed the elephants. There's an disproportionate amount of media/books/music focused on the insecure girl, desperate for reassurance and approval. While I understand that much of this is designed to validate feelings and help girls get on towards empowerment, sometimes I wonder if we're telling our girls that it's normal to be unsure of themselves--that part of growing up is playing the part of the tentative ingenue, afraid of the world. I know Madeleine is listening hard when I tell her that this classic "girl" behavior doesn't have to be her destiny--and that working on social and academic skills is one way to keep her standing tall and calm in the inevitable storms.

Cry if you want to. Sometimes our drama queens are tuned into the big feelings that we long ago learned how to stamp out. It's okay to spend a little time in meltdown mode until the waves wash you back to shore. A gentle bubble bath is the perfect place to get it all out while doing some important self-nurture at the same time. Madeleine is learning how to self-soothe--an important skill for grownups as well.

Are you a drama queen? Is your girl (or boy)? Share with us what works well in the comments below.


Teaching Your Child to be Gracious

Posted by Kristen on February 22, 2010 at 6:26 AM in Manners
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gra·cious Pronunciation: \ˈgrā-shəs\ Function: adjective Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French gracieus, from Latin gratiosus enjoying favor, agreeable, from gratia Date: 14th century

a : marked by kindness and courtesy b : graceful c : marked by tact and delicacy : urbane d : characterized by charm, good taste, generosity of spirit, and the tasteful leisure of wealth and good breeding (Merriam Webster Online)

I am pretty sure it gets on the grandparent's last nerve. I am the manners police. Every action demands a "please," "thank you so much" or "excuse me." If I don't hear it, all conversation stops until I hear it. As much as I am trying to make it an action without a thought in my children, it has become an action without thought to me. I catch myself doing it to other people's children, which is as horrifying as it sounds. Believe me when I say I could not care less about your child's manners or lack thereof. It's just that I am so used to saying it that it comes out before I think.

It is clear that being gracious is a value that is important to me. I find myself frustrated with the trend of entitlement that our generation seems to be moving toward. If you think that everything is owed to you, you tend to be less likely to feel thankful for the good things you have.

The thing is, I think there is a big difference between being gracious and having gratitude. Gratitude is defined by WordNetWeb as "a feeling of thankfulness and appreciation." I cannot force my children to feel thankful or appreciative. But I do believe that by practicing the act of being gracious can be training for gratitude. If you say "thank you," odds are better that you will actually feel thankful than if you don't say anything at all.

I have noticed that the manners policing is finally kicking in with my kids. Rumor on the street is that they pull out the manners when they are elsewhere. I'm also seeing that they seem to actually mean it sometimes when they say "thank you." I think that is all that you can ask for as a parent. What do you think?


The Spelling Candy

Posted by Patience on February 19, 2010 at 10:48 AM in Kid problemsParenting tipsSchool
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It was Wednesday again, the homework day that Jack dreads each week. I have to be honest, I do not look forward to it either. It's the day when he must write five sentences using his spelling words. Reading has come very slowly to Jack so forming words is like his worst nightmare.

"It's so hard! I'm so, so frustrated!" he says with his palm on his forehead. We sound out each word slowly, he writes until we get to the third sentence. I suggested a break but he just wanted to be done. There were computer games to be played and outdoor sword battles waiting for him.

"I think I know what you need." I said.
"You do?" he replied somewhat intrigued.
"I think you probably need some spelling candy. It may or may not work, but it's worth a shot. Whaddya think?" I waited to see if my very alternative idea would work.

"Yes! Whatever it is mom, I'll try it. I mean, candy sounds good anyway." he said.

I went into the kitchen to dig through my junk basket. My house is way too small to be provided the luxury of a whole junk drawer, so basket it is. At the bottom I found a very tacky diamond shaped plastic box I got months ago in a gift bag I received from an awards event I attended. It was from a local jeweler hoping I'd come pick out some lovely ring or anklet I'm sure.

I remember thinking how nice the bath salts would be but when I opened the tiny box to smell them, I quickly realized much to my disappointment, it was rock candy. It seemed though the entire repurposing made total sense for this moment.

I handed him three little tiny candy crystals for his last three sentences. He held them like he had just discovered the holy grail and promptly returned to his work.
"Mom, I think this spelling candy is really working. " he said.
"Oh, I'm glad. I thought it might but I was a little worried it wouldn't. I'm just happy you are feeling better about the whole thing."
In just a few more minutes he was finished.

He still asks me every now and then for the spelling candy when he feels a little stuck. Jack carefully rations the candies out as I told him he probably won't even need them by the end of the year. I sometimes wonder if this is a terrible idea on multiple levels but he has seemed to find the balance of not relying on it too much yet finding a tiny bit of power in the jewelry store swag.

I remember the kindergarten days I made power pancakes for Josiah when he was struggling to find his own. What do you think of this alternative parenting idea? Is it misleading or just creative?

What do you do when your kids get stuck? Tell us your ideas and thoughts in the comments.


Too Much Screen Time? Or Just More of the Right Kind?

Posted by Jen on February 17, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Media
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Over the last 72 hours, Madeleine, age 11, has won first prize in a high end fashion show, successfully completed knee surgery, finished the rehab project on her new room, provided edgy commentary about issues surrounding Miley Cyrus's fame and celebrity and decided turnip farming really isn't her thing anymore.

Carter, age 8, has become a dodge ball champion and is now navigating a career change that could grant him the number one tether ball player in the known world. He's also navigated disagreements with three bosses, painstakingly followed the directions to making four new origami creatures, studied climate change and decided that he really doesn't want to go anywhere in a car anymore. Not because he's prone to extreme carsickness--don't get me wrong, Mom. I am sick of THAT--but because he just can't in good conscience get in cars the way the emissions are contributing to global warming.

None of these accomplishments happened in the real world, of course. No, they came while one or both children were sitting behind a computer screen, like thirty year old cubicle slaves, slogging through hours of gaming, learning and websites, on the quest to be the smartest most sophisticated children on earth. Or the biggest losers. You decide.

I know this is considered the pinnacle of bad parenting, that as a "good parent" I'm supposed to limit their screen time, monitor their online use--blah, blah, blah. And trust me, I follow advice from the best of them. (Just come over and bear witness to the 35 paper airplanes Carter engineered this weekend or watch them sled down Meryl's hill or listen to the song Madeleine wrote on the piano that sounds impressively like Sigur Ros.)

I'm just wondering if too much screen time is as worrisome a thing as the wrong kind.

Right now, I'll admit it. I really don't want them to get off "that thing" as I like to call it when they're doing hip replacements or studying Gray's anatomy. I honestly think they can have another thirty minutes when Carter is on Brain Pop reading explanation after explanation about global warming. Now granted, it's not always like this and God knows they are also taking in plenty of drivel. But there's something about the hard-charging, multi-tasking, decide-now-or-die, teach-me-now quality to the online/gaming world that I can't help but think will help them in the long run.

It's a secret opinion I've kept to myself for fear of being stoned by the other parents (think twice before casting the first stone), but then I saw this recent CNN video about gamer Jane McGonigal who's changing the world one game at a time. Those are grown-up boys and girls playing her games, but my guess is the only thing that's different between them and Madeleine and Carter is that there's no mother around to tell them to go outside and turn that thing off.

I'll still be saying that to my kids for the next eight years or so, but I hope that when I'm not around anymore they do something remarkable with their online savvy. I hope they win contests in the real world; I hope they beat some bosses. I hope they talk circles around my doctors when I need knee surgery. And I really hope they solve problems for worthy causes all their own.


Best Party Ideas for a Five-Year-Old's Birthday

Posted by Kristen on February 15, 2010 at 8:44 PM
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Today we celebrate a huge milestone in our house. Today Ethan turned five. He woke up this morning and he was a different person. Dare I say it, he seemed grown up.

Spend the night with the family at a hotel with a pool. There is an upside to a birthday party where only your children are attending and you don't have to make your bed in the morning. I'm a big fan of the lazy and low budget option. This sounds a little crazy but my kids have very low expectations for pools so any old pool will do. In the good years we go to hotels with water parks and in the low budget years we combine work with birthday celebrations.

How about a party at a bowling alley? Work with me here. If you go on the off times, bowling can be a huge bargain and is always lots of fun. Bowling alleys these days have lanes that have bumpers for consistent success (and delaying the life lessons that it isn't going to work out in your favor ever time, i.e. life is not full of strikes).

Pack a birthday lunch and take it to the park. This is a great option for all you warm weather birthdays. With a large playground at your disposal, there is all of the energy release for the kids and none of the running around knocking over furniture at your own house. Parks in my area have special areas that can be reserved for parties so you can even secure your own (covered) spot for your picnic.

These are just a few ideas. What are your best ideas for a five-year-old's birthday party?


A Kid Friendly Valentine's Day

Posted by Patience on February 12, 2010 at 7:51 AM in Family ActivitiesHolidays
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Valentine's day has always been one of my favorite holidays. Ever since I can remember my mom made a heart`shaped meatloaf and decorated the table with hearts galore. My dad would bring home flowers and chocolates for me and my sisters and we all exchanged valentines after dinner.

It never occurred to me that the holiday was soley for partners, I just thought it was about love of all kinds. This turned out to be a social life saver through awkward middle school years and other times when I was on my own. It was a great parenting move on the part of my parents. I always felt connected and loved.

Here are a few ideas if you want to take back Valentine's back at your house.

1. Make a family love celebration plan. Ask the kids what kind of love party you should have. One year we decided we should eat everything we love. Every person picked something for the menu. It was hilarious. We ended up eating corn dogs, corn, ham croquetas, chocolate milk and cheesecake. I'll never forget that year.

2. Make a toast. Buying sparkling juice and start a new tradition. Have each family member make a toast to something or someone they love. Do it right and serve it in real or tiny plastic champagne/wine glasses. It makes it festive and fun.

3.Invite some friends. Invite someone different to your family love dinner. Maybe a single friend or an elderly neighbor, or even another family. Have a valentine station set up so they can make their own on the spot. Hang brown lunch bags on the wall with everyone's name to serve as mailboxes. Put a kid in charge of delivering the bags after dinner. It's always nice to widen the circle of love.

4. Do something different. If none of this sounds like your speed, why not try something totally alternative? Check out this project for reminding the world we are all loveable. Kindness will be sure to make the day your best ever!

5. Don't give up. You don't have to totally give up your time with your partner/spouse either. Plan a night out before or after when the restaurant aren't packed and it is quieter. A valentine's breakfast is always nice too! You can have both with a little planning and intention.

How do you make Valentine's Day special at your house? Tell us in the comments.


Parent to Parent: How to Work Together without Judgment

Posted by Jen on February 10, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Parenting tips
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more love notes

It's bound to happen. You're in a conversation with a spouse or another parent about some aspect of child development, education or parenting and you get your buttons pushed. Or worse--you find yourself in a discussion with a partner or relative over how to handle kid conflict and you stumble into someone else's sweet spot of insecurity or defensiveness. How do you keep your conversations positive so you can work together to give your kids the parental support they deserve?

Ask questions first. Sometimes I think I understand a situation, even after hearing just a few sentences. It's easy in these instances to jump in with an opinion or advice and be on my way. But sometimes--especially when someone is really upset or struggling--there's a lot going on behind the scenes that make the circumstances much more complicated than I could possibly realize. The best way to avoid an unwanted fight is to check my assumptions by asking questions first. By asking for more information, I give the other person a chance to reflect. I give myself a chance to really understand what's going on.

Listen for the need. A lot of times we talk, talk, talk about the problem--usually about what someone else is doing that is driving us nuts--be it a child, spouse or friend. Things tend to resolve more quickly, however, when we can identify what we really need. Whether you are the one in crisis or you are trying to offer support to someone who is, things don't start moving in a positive direction until our needs are on the table. One thing we can do for each other as parents and friends is try to help each other identify what we really need. Here's the short list of things that parents need while raising kids: support, encouragement, factual information, friendship, knowledge of current research/trends, mentoring, appreciation.

Notice the emotion. Even when someone is asking for advice, many times what they really need first is understanding and empathy. When those two things are in place, it is much easier to really listen deeply to the input from people around you. Without understanding and empathy, all the advice in the world doesn't feel quite right--and you can even feel attacked, when the other person was just trying to help. Try this experiment: Listen to the problem and try to guess what emotion they are experiencing. Then check to see if you were right. "Wow! Are you feeling frustrated about this situation? or are you more disappointed?" Presenting your guess as a question helps everyone involved feel safe and heard.

Pay attention to your gut. If you feel your blood pressure rise when you read a particular article, there's a chance that you have some important history with this topic that demands your full attention. For example, I had a very traumatic birth with Carter, so I'm not exactly the most objective person in the world when people start offering the same advice I took before things headed south. In these cases, I know it's better for me to take a step back and not jump into the conversation until I can offer my advice without judgment or an agenda. The tell-tale sign this is happening? When I think there is only ONE way to address the problem.

Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. When conflicts arise between partners, know that you both care tremendously about what happens regarding your children's well-being. There's no one expert on parenting and there's no one expert on child development. Consider the possibility that you both have something significant to bring to the table.

How do you handle conflicts over kids or parenting advice when you and your partner or friend disagree?


That is for Babies, Not Big Boys

Posted by Kristen on February 8, 2010 at 9:14 AM in Raising Boys
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I pulled out the fluffy pajamas for him to wear to the Super Bowl party last night. His face lit up and then it fell.

K: What's wrong? These are your favorite pajamas that Marmie gave you for Christmas.
E: I know, Mom. But those are for babies (pointing to the movie-themed character that had sustained him and frankly, me, for at least two years).
K: What are you talking about? You LOVE these pajamas and you love this movie.
E: I know, Mom. But my friend says that this movie is for BABIES. Like Mason.

I always wondered how this would go down. I vaguely remember an incident or two when I was really young and someone told me I was "too old" for something. That's the part I remember. I don't remember if I abandoned the toy to my baby sisters or if I continued to play.

K: So what if he thinks it's for babies? Do you like it?
E: (sighing) I do.
K: Then that's all that matters.
E: No, it's not.
K: Ethan, I like that movie. Does that make me a baby?
E: (laughing) NO, MOM!
K: Then why would you liking it make you a baby?
E: Because my friend says it's for babies.
K: Well, I guess you had better go in and tell Dad that HE is a baby because he likes that movie and he LOVES those pajamas of yours. In fact, we discussed how we wished we had such comfy pajamas in our sizes.
E: I'm not going to tell Dad that he is a baby.
K: That's probably a good idea. His feelings would be hurt.

It is at moments like this that I'm glad I am dealing with this now rather than when I was twenty-something. The twenty-something in me would want him to take a stand. Be a CHAMPION FOR THE MOVIE CHARACTER!!! Draw your sword and fall on it for the movie character! The twenty-something in me would would want him to hold onto whatever he loves for as long as he possibly can and at any cost.

The thirty-something in me now realizes that there is something to the adage "pick your battles." And by that statement, I mean myself as well as him. It is okay for him to move beyond the movie as long as he decides that is what he wants to do. It is okay to be too big for something. It is not okay for him to belittle his brother for liking something however. That's the battle I chose to fight. Hopefully I have picked the right battle.


Cabin Fever Fun

Posted by Patience on February 5, 2010 at 7:07 AM in Parenting tips
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We are on our 4th snow storm for the year here in Central Virginia which is positively crazy! The snow hasn't blessed us with her presence so much since like 1961. While I am still delirious over the snow, the untimely stomach bug sent our cabin fever over the edge. I imagine even all of the brave people in the greater snow areas eventually hit some level of crazy with kids indoors so even as a novice, here are a few ideas to cure the boredom:

1. Stop and play!- Just surrender, stop the chore, task or other productive idea and play. After being interrupted for 5,234th time yesterday I asked the kids if they wanted to play four corners. After we got bored of that, we played hide and seek. Playing with children cures almost always cure every angst you got going.

2. Change the scenery. Bring the outside in. Get a flat under the bed stoarge bin or just a big mixing bowl. Bring a pile of snow inside to sculpt and watch melt. Sticks from the outside or even straws are perfect for constructing tiny snow creations. Throw in some tiny plastic animals to make a snow zoo.

3. Get creative. We are deep into art these days as we recently turned an old sunroom into an art studio. Flip books are our recent latest obsession. You can learn how to make them here. If you are feeling super adventurous, create your own mini-art station or studio on a table for the week. Set out different art supplies everyday inviting new creativity.

4. Read and Watch. There is a big media rule in our house, you must read the book before you see the movie. The kids both loathe and love this rule. There have been a few moments it has been broken but not very often. Being stuck at home is the perfect time to read The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, or some other gem that has been turned into a moving picture. Thanks to Netflix you can promptly watch the movie and discuss which was better.

5. Cook Together. Put those kids to work! Here are some great ideas about inviting kids into the kitchen and here are some tips for keeping it healthy.

Okay, give us your cabin fever remedies in the comments! We could all use them right about now.

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