Tuesday, December 31, 2013

100 Posts - Just checking in before the year checks out

So, today I've reached my 100th post on this blog. Not too bad for a hobby I only started in late July. Instead of my usual ramblings about the latest news parents could use, I thought I would take this opportunity (right before the new year) to check in:

Everybody ready? (This could be bumpy.)
  • My current 100 challenge is to try out 100 recipes. I am semi on-track. I have been gathering lots of new meals to try, I just have to figure out when to make them. If anyone has a great recipe to share with me, please do so at any time in the comments.
  • Am I still running? Off and on. This one gets tricky when it is cold, so I need to rededicate my efforts. And in 2014, I am going to make myself more accountable to my family. (When I am accountable to others, I am more likely to do something.) I also finally have the desire to participate in some walks and runs next year, and I plan to use lots of guilt to drag them along with me.
  • Do I still love peanut butter? Absolutely.
  • Getting better at handing my phone to my son. Nope. I still hand him my phone too often, but I think we are both happy for the distraction while waiting for a table in restaurants.
  • Paying attention to the world news. I try, but sometimes it is depressing. And I still don't really pay attention to politics, because that drives me crazy.
  • My driving mantra. Sometimes I say it and sometimes I don't. My son asked me to stop for a while, because he was tired of the repetition, but I repeat it every now and then to remind us both.
  • Playing the Mom Appreciation Game. I still do this all the time.
  • Have I won at The Oregon Trail game yet? Nope.
  • Standing up for myself so I don't die. I am happy to say that I stand up while I eat lunch four times a week as well.
  • New math for fast food. Yes, I am doing a bit better at factoring my son into the equation.
  • Having tough conversations with my parents. I've actually made some headway on this and it was easier than I thought it would be. My Mom was more than ready to discuss it with me. (Thanks, Mom!)
  • My podcast is still hopping regularly (you can subscribe on the site link or through the iTunes Store by searching for "Stories for Grown-ups), and it now also features lots of writing contests.
And finally: this blog. I plan on still posting regularly. But I may cut out some Thursdays, because just like Arthur Dent, I never could get the hang of Thursdays (if you get that reference let me know and we can be BFFs.) 

All caught up? Great. Bring on the new year! And tell me in the comments what you want to remember best about 2013.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Hey, Mom, what's for lunch?

When I was able to eat hot lunches at school, there were limited options. We ate the food that the kindly nuns made for us. Actually, I am pretty sure the nuns didn’t cook, but it was Catholic school, so you never know.

The point is, we didn’t have options.

But some schools do give children a choice in what they select for meals, which fascinates me. I can see the boys and girls lining up in the cafeteria, deciding between roast beef or spaghetti. Between carrots or tater tots. (I know that my son would choose the tater tots.)

Image by Walt Stoneburner
These visions of mine made me interested in the latest study by Cornell University, which tracks what children eat and then sends parents a “nutrition report card.”

So, if a student uses his specialized debit card to pay for a school lunch, the items he chooses are recorded on that card. Parents can elect to receive that information via email, which they can then use to help adjust dinners – adding more fruits and vegetables or making sure not to repeat meals. Other parents in the study used the information to talk to children about their health choices.

Now, I have posted before about ways in which parents stalk their children, and how I am against it, but I’m on board with this idea. Every day when I ask my son what he eats for lunch he tells me “I don’t know.” Granted, he is little, but clearly he isn’t interested in talking about food. That’s why I love the fact that his teachers write down what he eats on his daily report.

I use that info to adjust what we eat for dinner sometimes. (Less cheesy dinners on the days when lunch is a grilled cheese sandwich, for example.) And this gives me a better picture of what he eats during the entire week.

What do you think? Would you like your child's lunch choices emailed to you or would you prefer to rely on your child to tell you what they ate?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Thank you notes - even if you are doing them, you're doing them wrong

My mom taught me to write thank you notes (thanks, Mom!), because we are civilized, polite people who have respect for our loved ones and an overall fondness for the complex social cues found in Jane Austen novels.

She gave me the basic formula when I was little:
Thank person for gift + say how you will use it + include a personal/thoughtful comment = happy gift giver
So, my early thank you notes looked like this: 

Dear Aunt Gwenn,
Thank you so much for the set of red mugs you sent us for Christmas. We can't wait to paint them. We heard there was a big gathering in Philly this year; we were thinking of you all from the sunny South...

Background image by Shawn Campbell
Bored yet?

It took me way too long to figure out how to make thank you notes interesting. But, now that the holidays are over, I recommend you use this easy method instead:

Tell a story that mentions the gift.

Here's that same note written with this better method.

Dear Aunt Gwenn,
Typically, there is no real joy the day after Christmas. Sure, there are plenty of toys and new gadgets to explore, but we've all returned to work and the real world has crept in on the magic of Christmastime. We stare at each other over dinner, talk about our day and look wistfully at the empty space under the tree, but then...I bring cocoa into the room. It's real cocoa made with milk and topped with whipped cream and cinnamon, served in the bright red mugs you sent us. We talk about what we'll paint on them. And there is a bright spot of Christmas magic in our day.
Thanks again for the mugs!

See the difference?

Try it this year with your thank you notes. You'll get phone calls. It'll be fun. Tell me how it goes in the comments.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Judging books by their covers: YA novels for adults

I read the Harry Potter books - even though I was an adult when they came out. I loved the world that J.K. Rowling created, and enjoyed each of her novels. I know I wasn't the only one; evidently adults enjoying children's books are now a thing.

More and more authors are seeing adult reviews and fan mail for their children's literature come from adults. As I went through my 100 challenge of reading 100 books in a year, I found that I had accidentally chosen to read several young adult novels, including one that was actually a series (yes, I completed it). I found them to all be enjoyable (if somewhat brief) reads, and I probably would have really liked them when I was younger. They were definitely better than the Babysitter's Club books (not that there was anything wrong with those.)

Moving on: When I completed my book challenge, I made a big effort to read works that stretched my imagination and taught me something - books for "adults." Or at least, books for people who want to keep on learning.

Even so, I think I will always want to read the books my son chooses to read. I will want to know the content ahead of time to make sure that, even if they are age appropriate, we can discuss it if needed.

Wait, is that low-tech stalking?

Oh well. What are you reading these days? Tell me in the comments - if I've read it, too, we can talk about it. Or you can recommend something to me. I'm always game for a good book.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Welcome to dinner: Pass the pancakes

I know I don't reference my Dad a lot in this blog, but that's mostly because I am really good at apologizing to my Mom. (Sorry, Dad.) Although my parents separated when I was little, I have some very nice memories of my Dad. For example, sometimes, he would make us waffles for dinner. It was pretty cool, because waffles are awesome and it added a touch of whimsy to an otherwise regular week day. He'd even put chocolate chips into mine. I have been known to make breakfast foods for dinner in my own household (including today on topsy-turvy Christmas Eve) to rave reviews. (Well, the first time my husband was a bit skeptical, but he came around because, come on, everyone loves pancakes.)

Turns out that Dad had the right idea (kind of). A new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that teens who ate breakfast with their families every day were more likely to be at a healthy weight and had diets with higher levels of key nutrients. I just have a feeling that the study intended those breakfast foods to be eaten at breakfast time.

Still, the overall findings of the study is fabulous news...but oh wait. I eat breakfast while standing at the kitchen sink, so that doesn't work for us.

Nutritional components aside, I think there is a lot of pressure on parents to have a family meal together. But I have my own take on it. It is nice to eat breakfast or dinner together, if you can, but I believe the larger point is that you spend time together. So, here are some tips for making that happen:
Image by Shawn Carpenter
  1. Create a "meal" that works for your family. Maybe you can't coordinate schedules to have everyone together for breakfast or dinner. How about a pre-bedtime ritual of hot tea or milk and a cookie or fruit before bed?
  2. Create family time. We like to play board games together on Wednesday nights. Wednesdays are usually the easy dinner nights because we let our son pick dinner that week. Do we end up eating pb&j sandwiches? Yes. And we love them.
  3. Find opportunities to talk. Stuck in traffic? Start a conversation. It will be so much better than just fuming at the other drivers.
  4. Family sports. Consider having the entire family join a bowling league, or make time to go bicycle riding or do another sport together. You will get to talk and get exercise at the same time.
  5. Consider having family meetings. Yes, it sounds a little ridiculous and Cosby Show-esque. But it only takes 20 minutes to check in with everyone and get their take on what is going right that week and what everyone needs to work on. Just make sure that everyone at the meeting gets a voice and that they are scheduled as sacred time that can't be broken.
Do you get to eat meals together as a family? Or do you have to find other ways to spend time together (if so, what do you do)?

Monday, December 23, 2013

I have no idea what is on television these days - and I am happy about it

I can hear myself now: "When I was little, television shows only came on during a certain time, so you had to make sure you were home in time to watch it. There was no way to pause the program either, so you had to time your bathroom breaks and snack runs during the commercials."

My son will look at me incredulously and I will feel old. I wonder if he will believe me if I continue with my "TV in the past" stories and tell him about about getting up to turn the knob on the actual television set because there was no remote control.

And yet, I know that I will one day say this to my child, shortly after we have some sort of argument over the amount of television he watches. I try to limit his exposure to television, but it's hard. But I know we are not struggling alone - the latest studies show that Americans are still watching too much TV.

Neilsen's latest numbers show that people are watching less television per day than they did a year ago. However, these numbers fail to take in account on-demand television.

Happily, our house is designed so that the television lives in the bonus room, far away from the main living area. Out of sight; out of mind. We are a family without cable television. My husband and I use Hulu and Netflix to watch the few shows that we like (or have time for). We let our son watch Sesame Street (also available through those services.) Once a year, we try watching live television. This year we watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. It was awful (not the parade, the experience.) There were so many commercials, and there were large chunks of the parade that I wanted to skip over (it made me miss our Tivo). My son didn't understand what commercials were at all and why they were interrupting the parade (which I am smugly happy about.)

Do you put limits on the amount of television your family watches? Tell me about them in the comments.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Surviving mashups and meltdowns

Background image by Shawn Campbell
I am sitting at my computer, listening to my son play a few feet away from me. (Yes, I know I should be standing.) He is singing a brilliant mashup of "Frosty the Snowman," "Abracadabra," "Little Red Caboose," and "All I Want for Christmas Is You." (Trust me; it's brilliant.) He sings a few lines of one song, then moves seamlessly into the next. The problem comes during one of the Frosty bits. He is singing this:
Frosty the snowman knew the sun was hot that day. So he said something and something else before I melt away...
That would be my fault, as I didn't know the words, so I just sang "something and something else," in place of them and that's how he learned it. I have no excuse for not knowing the words: I have a smartphone and could have easily looked them up at any time.

So here's what we've learned: Don't be lazy. Look up the words to holiday songs.

But listening to my son's mashup reminded me that he sings in a way that is similar to his meltdowns (go with me on this):
  • Just like I'm pretty sure he isn't aware that he is singing four different songs (he is more focused on the trucks), I'm fairly sure he can't recognize the signs leading up to his meltdown. That makes it my job to recognize and point out the signs to him.
  • When he sings, he goes from one song to the next fluidly. When he has meltdowns, his emotions are also fluid - anger leads to tears leads to anger leads to tear leads to tiredness. 
  • They are both better when I don't pay attention to them. If I praise him for singing, he usually stops. If I pay attention to his meltdowns, they usually last longer as most of the time they are his attempt at getting attention. 
  • After both activities, he wants to snuggle afterward. I'm good with that. I can use the after-singing snuggle time to teach him the lyrics he doesn't know, and I can use the after-meltdown snuggle time to encourage him to use his words.
We are trying some new techniques to survive meltdowns in our home. What works for you?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sorry, honey. I've just become my mother. (But you like my mother, right?)

"Don't you use that tone with me."
"I guess this is why we can't have nice things."
"Because I said so."
"Don't make me say it again."
"I'm going to count to three."

Those are all phrases that have fallen out of my mouth in the last few months. I didn't want to say them; I didn't even know they were in my head. I do recognize them though - they were all phrases my parents said to me when I was growing up. They are like parenting sleeper cells - they were planted in my brain when I was young, and they were just waiting for my son to do something incredibly offbeat in order to be activated. I've been a bystander in a parental phrase attack.

As soon as I heard them, I should have apologized to my son. And then, I should have called my mother and apologized for whatever I originally did to make her say one of those phrases to me (seriously, I'm sorry Mom.)

But maybe the transformation into my mother is inevitable. After all, recent studies in the U.K. have been tracking the metamorphosis for years. It all starts at the impressionable age of 14. At 14, researchers have found that we first start to see our parents as vulnerable. Then we get sucked into our own teenage toxic mix of drama and selfishness, so it is not until the age of 28 that we first start to get to know our parents better. By 28, we've met a lot of friends and seen their dysfunctional families, so we have a wider sphere of comparison and all that hindsight that comes with time. We've had some of our own successes and failures at life and maybe we've thought about or started families of our own.

The study shows that it really does take more than a decade to truly value our parents. Yikes. That's a long time. (You are really patient, Mom!)

Continuing this theme, a poll by the website Netmums, has identified the age of 32 as the point in which people become a copy of their mother or father. That's right, only four years after learning the value of your parents, do you become them.

I am over the age of 32, so let me just say this: I like being my mother. She is a woman who knows who she is, she is always learning and she has a lovely streak of sarcasm that I've come to enjoy and expect. She has taught me lots of things in life, such as how to cook, how to write a proper thank you note (more on that later) and even why clothes all need pockets.

What parenting phrase have you unwittingly resurrected from your childhood past? When do you think you started acting like your parent?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fast food makes for some unhappy meals

Sometimes, a gal just wants a burger. Now, my husband makes a great burger - tasty and juicy and perfectly grilled. But, if he's not around (or it's crazy cold outside), I'll do some quick Mom math in my head:
(my craving level x number of days since I had fast food / servings of healthy food and exercise that week)
Math is not my strong suit, however, I've found this formula to almost always nets me a burger. But I think I need to start factoring my son into the equation. A recent study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research just announced that 60% of children aged 2-5 had eaten fast food at least once in the previous week. Although the study focused on California, I have a feeling that the results may be similar for most of the rest of the country. And that math equals too many happy meals.

To all the working Moms out there, let me say that I get it. At the end of a long day, sometimes we really don't feel like cooking. There is a certain depression that comes with working all day, cooking dinner and then having your tyke refuse to eat the meal because he is having a finicky day. 

And to all the SAHMs, I understand the fast food urge, too. Sometimes you are out and about running all those errands, and the store lines were all longer than you had planned. Your little one is about 5 minutes from having his blood sugar level plummet and no one is looking forward to the major meltdown that usually follows. Sometimes, you just need to grab that quick bite instead of listen to the tantrum on the way home.

But Moms, we need to do better about the fast food temptation. The good news is that a recent study says eating healthy food costs only about $1.50/day more than junk food. That's not too bad. In addition to that, the UCLA study found a general decline in consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. So, yay, Moms!

Here are my tips for ending the fast food temptation:

Meal planning
I am a big fan of meal planning. On Fridays, I plan all the meals we are going to eat that week and then make my grocery list on the weekend. 

Prep ahead
Starting in 2014, as part of my 100 challenge, I plan to prep everything I can over the weekend, so all I have to do is toss everything together each night.

Delegate decision-making
You'll notice that in the above sections, I said "I." Although I don't intend to keep my husband out of the meal-planning process, it happens. Usually, I remember to ask him what he would/would not like to eat that week, but sometimes I forget. (Sorry, honey.) To his credit, he usually doesn't have any complaints with what I make. I know him pretty well by now. But I still need to make a better effort at asking.

Seriously - delegate
One new thing I am doing is letting my son plan dinner one meal a week. Yes, that might mean we eat PB&J for dinner, but it gives him a voice in the on-going dinner conversation, and that is empowering and fun for him. (Also it's one less dinner decision I need to make; and we all know that I love peanut butter.)

So now it's your turn to tell me your tips. What do you do in your home to prevent relying on fast food for meals?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My son is afriad of heights and I am sure it is my fault

My son is afraid of heights, and until very recently, I thought he developed this fear from a fall at some point. Granted, my husband and I couldn't think of any time when our son had a serious fall (the short fall out of his bed those few times notwithstanding).

It turns out that it's probably my fault. I have a specific fear of heights. It's weird because I'm not afraid to be on top of a mountain or a mile-high bridge and look over the edge. I'm afraid of roller coasters - but only the climb up the big hill.

It's true. I love roller coasters, but I close my eyes the entire journey up the hill. Looking over the side or over the edge makes my palms sweat. Once, my husband and I got stuck halfway up the coaster for about 15 minutes; my eyes were shut the whole time. I can't explain it - down the hill, I'm fine (maybe because we are going so fast I don't notice it.)

This recent study in Nature Neuroscience says that I may have passed that fear of heights onto my son genetically. In fairness, the scientists saw fears transferred between mice and their offspring, but I'd believe that it could be true for humans as well.

After all, it's the only theory that makes sense as to why my son clings to me when we are up high on an amusement park ride or tells me that he is afraid of heights.

Happily, he seems to have not inherited my fear of snakes, as he pet one this past weekend at our local science museum. (In fairness, I once braved a serpentarium for my son, whose main feature was a PIT OF SNAKES! I think I should get a medal for that.)

What fears do you think you've past along to your children (either wittingly or unknowingly)?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Teaching your child another language - code

I often wish that I knew another language so that I could speak it all the time to my son and he could pick it up. (Yes, I know I could make this happen, but I can only handle so many personal challenges in a year.) I am grateful that he is learning Spanish in school, and I am super proud of him when he speaks it. It is something I want him to keep up with.

But beyond Spanish, there is another language I really want him to learn: I want him to learn how to code.

I taught myself HTML when I was in my first job, and I've used it ever since. It was a skill that I was happy to pick up, as I've used it throughout my career. I know that not everyone enjoys learning new skills, as it was also in that first job that I worked with a gentleman who didn't know how to type. The company hired him a secretary to type all his forms for him. When I politely asked him why he didn't want to learn how to type, he said that he was older and didn't grow up with computers as I did. (I told him for the record that I didn't grow up with computers and learned to type in high school. I also reminded him that typewriters had been around since before he was born.)

But back to coding. As that link above points out, jobs in the computer programming field continue to grow. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if coding was a mandatory part of the school curriculum by the time my son reaches high school. Until that happens, there are some great apps out there that can teach basics to youngsters in a fun way. Looks like we'll be downloading some of these to get started.

What skill do you really want your child to learn and why?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Let's learn something: Can't yell, can't bribe...what can you do?

By now, most of us have seen the study from the Journal of Child Psychology indicating that yelling at children is just as harmful as spanking. So let's review what parents can't do to discipline their children:
  • Spanking teaches children that hitting is acceptable.
    Image by Shawn Campbell
  • Timeouts increase separation anxiety.
  • Bribery works in the short term, but not the long term.
  • And now, yelling has been shown to reinforce bratty behavior and increases depression, even among children raised in "warm and loving" homes.
Ummmm...OK. What's left?

As this Slate article points out, this is what parents are supposed to do:
Beforehand, tell your child what privilege he will lose for any undesirable behavior. The penalty should be brief, significant but not harsh (like no TV tonight versus no TV for a week). When your child commits an offense, you say "You lose X because of this behavior," and then go to another room quietly and calmly.
Is anyone else laughing? 

Sorry, I'm trying to keep an open mind here, but logic and three-year-olds don't go hand-in-hand. But hey, I'm game. I will be happy to try this approach, because I know that I will mess up occasionally and lose my temper and raise my voice. I'm a parent; I'm not perfect. (That's my motto!)

I'd be interested from hearing some tips from other parents (you know...research from the real field). What approach works in your household?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why you should eat cake for breakfast and tips for other family traditions

Sometimes my mom let us eat cake for breakfast. (Maybe "let us eat cake" is the wrong phrase. Maybe I should say "turned a blind eye while we devoured leftover cake.") It wasn't often, but it's something I have vivid and fond memories of from my childhood. (Now that I think about it, I am pretty sure she was eating that cake with us. So, thanks, Mom!)

So, I think of that while I come up with new fun traditions for my own family.  Lots of families do Elf on the Shelf or advent calendars or caroling or carry on other traditions from their childhood that they enjoyed.

But I have different traditions in mind - ones that are a little offbeat so that my son will remember them when he is an adult. To that end, I want to encourage you to create new traditions for your family. Here are some tips to help with that.
  1. Make it a little crazy.
    We're celebrating topsy turvy Christmas Eve this year, in which we eat dessert for breakfast, dinner for lunch and breakfast for dinner. It's just a little bit of fun injected in a day filled with anticipation. Our Pajama-thanksgiving went really well, and I look forward to the time when my son will have to explain to his friends that we wear our pajamas all Thanksgiving Day (and we expect any of our guests to wear them, too.)

  2. Create traditions that have nothing to do with the holidays.
    The family that has Dinovember is awesome. As of right now, the colorful pirate Captain Crayon visits our house, leaves a series of scavenger-hunt style notes and clues that leads to a box filled with doubloons and chocolate. My son is excited about Captain Crayon's hunts and I think my husband (who helps him read the clues) loves them, too.

  3. Be flexible.
    So what if you can't recreate your grandmother's stuffing or you feel like putting up Christmas decorations the second Thanksgiving dinner is over? Do what works for your family. Don't force yourselves to do something just because "it's traditional."

  4. Encourage other family members to create traditions with your children.
    Yearly cookie making with Nana, reading a special book with an uncle, singing Christmas songs with Grandpa over Skype - all of these one-on-one interactions make for some great memories and you don't need to be in the picture.

  5. Ask your family for their opinion.
    (Sorry, honey, this doesn't mean that you are getting out of those Captain Crayon scavenger hunts.) My son has already told me that he wants to leave out cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, so I am listening to him. I want him to feel like a part of our family's traditions and hopefully when he is a little older he'll help make new ones.
What's your advice for starting a family tradition this year? What new ones do you hope to start? Let me know in the comments.

In the meantime, I'll be eating some cake for breakfast. (Don't worry, I'll be standing up.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What's in a (middle) name

One of my favorite parts of having my son was all the paperwork before I was allowed to take him home. (Hear me out on this one.) Mostly, it was the fact that I got to fill out all the paperwork - that there was nowhere for my husband to even sign. I hadn't thought about it before that moment, but obviously it made sense (clearly the baby was mine.) I don't know why this made me so happy (can we blame the drugs?), but I teased my husband that it was actually I who got to name our son, even though we had picked out his name together a long time ago.

Our son's first name was relatively easy for us to decide on. His middle name was a bit harder, and yet, it never occurred to me to not give him one. After all, I was pretty sure that everyone I knew had a middle name. Evidently, this is a recent thing. Only 37% of children were given a middle name in 1911, but today, 75% children are now given a middle name.

According to the U.K. report done by Ancestry.co.uk, bestowing a middle name began to increase after the second world war, as people commemorated lost loved ones. Even today, just over half of middle names are chosen to remember loved ones or are family names.

I've noticed another middle name trend in the last few years, which I am not sure I completely understand. I have met many parents who call their child by their middle name, instead of by their first name, making the middle name the preferred name. I can only imagine a lifetime of correcting other people throughout school and on forms for these children, so I am not sure why parents don't just switch the names around (making the preferred middle name the first name). I totally understand people not liking their first name and preferring to be called by their middle name when they are adults, but the "we call our child by their middle name from birth" trend, I don't get. (Am I missing something?) 

For what it's worth, when I was little the only time I heard my middle name was when I was in trouble (sorry, Mom).

What about you? Do you have a middle name with a special meaning? Do you not have a middle name and have to explain it to people?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Standing up for myself (so I don't die)

I am standing at the kitchen sink eating my cereal. All by myself. And I'm OK with that.

Most of us have seen last year's study about prolonged sitting being detrimental to our health. If you haven't read the study, and you don't want to click on that link, I'll summarize it here (and - ironically - you may want to sit down for this):
  • People who sit for 11 hours a day or more are 40% more likely to die from any cause. The odds of dying are 15% higher for those who sit between eight to 11 hours a day compared to those who sit less than four hours a day.
  • Adults who spend more than four hours a day of recreational screen time (think watching TV or playing video games) have about a 125% increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease.
    • These risks are separate from other traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as smoking or high blood pressure.
Everyone freaked out yet?

I saw that study last year, and did exactly nothing. That needs to change. At the beginning of 2013 I gave myself a challenge to start running (despite my not liking it). So, for 2014, I am going to challenge myself to stand more. So, I need to think about things that I can do while standing up:
Image by Walt Stoneburner
  • Eat. I usually have breakfast by myself, so I think I can spend that time standing and eating - it's usually just cereal or oatmeal anyway.
  • Play with my son. We play a lot of sit down games in our house, but I think I need to start incorporating more active games with him in which I can't sit down.
  • Use the phone. I don't really talk on the phone that often, but I do text and play games on it frequently. From now on, please know that I will be crushing you at Words With Friends from a standing position.
  • Walk more in general. I need to program myself to get up once an hour and take a little stroll around the office/house.
  • Work on this blog. I don't have a stand-up desk, but I see no reason why I can't place my laptop on a tall counter and type away.
Any ideas of how else I can incorporate standing into my day? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Me and my (online) shadow

Once, when I was in tenth grade, my mother walked into the bathroom while I was showering to tell me that I had a phone call. She handed me the cordless phone through the shower curtain and laughed her way out of the bathroom. I told the caller (my friend Monica) that my mother was crazy and I would have to call her back.

To this day, I am not sure if that brilliant move was retaliation for something I did as a child (if so, sorry, Mom), or if it was just another version of my Mom's sense of humor (if so, thanks, Mom...I guess). Either way, I am happy that her bursting into the bathroom with the phone was the extent of her actively invading my privacy (that I know of).

But then again, Mom didn't have access to Mevoked, a Chrome extension that tracks your child's mental health. The extension looks for online usage patterns in children's behavior (think web browsing, social media use and time spent online) to alert parents to a decline in overall mental health. The company doesn't want to replace parental communication with children, rather it wants to alert parents to the behaviors that aren't always visible - the venting and other emotions that children often only unleash online.

Although Mevoked comes from a good place, I can't help getting a bit creeped out by this. I've talked about how some modern technology feels like we are stalking our children before, but this is taking the conversation a step further. We're not just talking about gathering data, but learning, too. Much like Netflix, the more you use the Mevoked, the better it "understands" your child. Parents can access reports and flag content they want the program to disregard.

As a parent, I have no privacy. I get that. I am used to my son barging in on me while I get dressed/shower/use the bathroom/sleep. (We are trying to teach him to knock with variable degrees of success.) I also know that I am sensitive to his privacy in general (which is one reason why we don't do Elf on a Shelf in our house). But he's only three, and I am sure that Big Brother will have something equally diabolical if not worse by the time he is a teenager and actively ignoring me. 

What I want is to hear from the parents who like the idea of this application. Would you consider using it to keep your child's mental health in check?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Let's learn something: How to talk to our parents about their future

Image background by Shawn Campbell
Mom, we have to have a conversation.

You are a wonderful mom, and you are a phenomenal grandmother. I look forward to so many years of you and my son playing hide-and-go-seek, cooking in the kitchen together and doing whatever crazy-wonderful things you can think up to spoil him.

But we need to talk about your future. It's a conversation that I am scared to have with you. I'm scared to have it because it makes me think about what my life will be like without you in it. But, I need to put aside those fears and have this talk with you anyway.

I first thought about this subject when I saw Peter Paul's TED Talk on starting a conversation around death. In his talk, he attempted to make it easier to have that conversation with people by proposing this question:
  • In the event that you became too sick to speak for yourself, who would you like to speak for you?
I thought it was brilliant. I told myself I would ask you that question and get the conversation started. But, I didn't do it. I didn't do it because I had a baby to think about, and there was work, and my daily life and a hundred other excuses and always that fear. So, I didn't talk to you.

Then, I saw another TED Talk by Judy MacDonald on how to prepare for a good end of life. Once again, I told myself that I needed to talk to my mother and find out what arrangements she has made already and what she wants to happen. But there was that fear again. You and I have talked about my son, and our family history, and my job and what we were going to do for the holidays, but not about this subject.

And now, I've read this Retirement Study by Merrill Lynch, which is focused on aging parents' financial futures. It is encouraging people to find out what their parent's financial health looks like before it becomes a surprise.

So, Mom, we're going to have a conversation. And I may cry, because even the thought of losing you tears my heart apart. But, I am going to make an appointment to talk to you about your plans and what you want. I'm doing this because I love you and that is stronger than my fear.

Let's talk, Mom.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Planning to have an autumn baby

My son was born in the Spring. Like so many other mothers, I was thrilled when I found out that I was pregnant, and looked forward to his due date. At no time during my pregnancy did I wonder if the time of year that he was born would affect how he would perform at school.

Several studies from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and other researchers have shown that students born later in the academic year perform significantly worse in school than those born at the start of the academic year. Those few months of difference evidently have a large effect on children's test scores as well as their own confidence and emotional levels.

I suppose this makes sense. With different school entrance ages in effect for different school systems, your 5-year-old child with a birthday in late August may be able to start kindergarten shortly after turning 5, making him the youngest in his class, or he may have to wait until the next year, making him one of the oldest children in his class.

I have a June birthday, and I do recall being one of the youngest children in my class. I am not sure if I was academically stunted though, as I was a bit of a nerdy kid and my Mom was always really good about challenging me with extra workbooks and reading at home (thanks, Mom!) Maybe it is due to her extra efforts that I stayed near the head of the class. One thing I really didn't like about my June birthday is that we were out of school by the time my birthday rolled around, and I could never bring cupcakes into the class to celebrate. (It's the weird little things you remember, right?)

As for my son, I will count him as fortunate that he falls in the middle of the academic year, and I won't have to worry about him being too close to an entrance age cut-off date. If you live in the U.S. and you aren't sure what the entrance age cut off date is for kindergarten in your state, you can find out here

I am curious as to how other households plan to handle this. Do you have a summer-born child who is younger than most of his classmates? How did you deal with it? Did you notice any difference between your child and his/her classmates?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

For a happy marriage you should lower your expectations...wait, what?

At our wedding, my husband and I asked our guests to give us advice on how to have a happy marriage. We received all the usual suspects:
  • Happy wife. Happy life. (This is a big one on my side of the family. Sorry, honey.)
  • Never go to bed angry. (I disagree; things often seem better after a long night's sleep.)
  • Communicate on everything.
  • Compromise.
  • Laugh often.
Not one of them said "have realistic expectations." But, evidently, according to two separate studies, that is a key to a happy marriage. The first study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, claims that wives who are highly optimistic about the strength of their relationship are more likely to be dissatisfied later on.

These results mirror the conclusions of another study conducted by Lisa A. Neff and Andrew L. Greers, who found that newlyweds who exhibited higher levels of relationship-specific optimism "experienced steeper declines in marital well-being over time." The study indicates that optimism may act as a liability, hindering a couple's ability to problem-solve down the line, and the marriage suffers as a result. 

So, um...there you have it: To have a happy marriage, many women need to lower their expectations from romance novel "happily ever after" down to "reality" levels.

I have been with my husband for half my life. (Hold on...I just read that sentence and need a minute to process that thought...wow.) And in that amount of time, we have communicated well, compromised lots, gone to bed angry, and laughed often. And, for the most part, I think we have had realistic levels of happiness. This may be because we were together for so long before we got married and knew exactly what we were getting into.

Which brings me to the piece of advice I usually find myself giving to married couples: Be friends. (At least it sounds better than "lower your expectations.")

What about you? Do you agree with the studies above? What advice would you give to newlyweds?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bedtime: A drama performed in three acts

Act 1: In which my son gets clean
Synopsis: At about 7:30 pm, we tell our son it is bath time and ask him to go upstairs for his bath. Repeatedly. Our son yells that he is not dirty or stinky and does not need a bath. Or, he says that he is busy playing/reading/doing any activity that is not bathing. When he fails to comply, we either lead him up the stairs or, if we are tired of arguing, carry him up. Once upstairs, his Daddy tickles him until he is in a good mood, and gets him into the tub. Our son happily scrubs himself clean and plays with his toys; he is a paradigm of cleanliness and good virtue. Until it is time for him to get out of the tub. Then he argues. My husband somehow gets him dried off, dressed in pajamas and teeth brushed.

Act 2: In which we have too many books
Synopsis: Upon exiting the bathroom, our son goes to his room, where there is soft music playing and his bed is turned down and waiting for him. He is told to select three books. He will want four or five books, but he is told that he is allowed to pick three. He tries to negotiate to four books but is presented with the counter offer of zero books. He settles for three. He then searches through the 157 books that are on his shelves and the mountainous stack of library books on top of his shelves (totally my fault), only to select the same three books that we have read every day for the past week. After his refusal to select different books, we read the three he has chosen. He asks to read another book and is told that he has had his three.

Act 3: In which my son attempts to break my heart
Synopsis: After turning out the light and saying good night, Mommy tries to leave and is subjected to some of the most heart-wrenching sentences ever uttered by a 3-year-old. They include the following:
  • When you leave me, my heart feels sad and lonely for you.
  • Please don't go. If you go, I will wander the dark house looking for you.
  • But what if I don't dream of you tonight and you aren't there when I need you?
  • But I just want you to stay here with me. That would make me feel safe and loved.
  • My heart hurts when you leave me at night. I will cry out for you.
  • You told me that you would always be with me, but you won't stay with me now.
  • When I was a baby you let me sleep on you all the time. Why can't we do that again?
  • When you go, I miss you like you miss Indigo.
What kind of guilt is this? Where does he get this stuff? The last comment is a reference to our long-gone cat, who I showed him a picture of once and told him that Indigo wasn't with us anymore and it made me sad sometimes. (ONCE!) 

We have tried switching parents in the above acts - Mommy on bath duty and Daddy reading and tucking in, and it works for a few nights. But then my son will come looking for his Mommy in the middle of the night and we switch back to the regular roles.

So, yes, bedtime routines are important - most parents know that. If not, here is a study linking the importance of bedtime routines to overall sleep wellness and maternal mood. (Did you catch that? Bedtime routines make MOMS happier, too!) The problem with bedtime routines is that they take a lot of practice. And patience. And a really, really thick skin.

What is the bedtime routine like at your house?

Monday, December 2, 2013

The mysteries of parenthood and a personalized Santa video

All parents learn to appreciate a good mystery. Think about it: One moment, you are happily twirling along in the universe, doing your own thing and the next moment, you have a baby and are faced with a million unanswerable questions. (How long is the baby supposed to sleep now? What did the baby eat to make that smell? You want me to put the thermometer where?)

As your child gets older (and if you are lucky), you'll start to notice themes to their queries. Right now we are answering a lot of questions about Santa. I can handle the normal ones: How does he fit down our chimney? (Magic.) What if one of his reindeer gets sick? (He has backups.) Why can't I zoom into Santa's house on Google Earth? (He put a block on it so you can't see what toys he is making.) 

But this is Media Monday, and I am supposed to be writing about that. So, let me take a brief moment to thank the gods of technology and the kind people at Portable North Pole (and Kevin O'Hara for sharing it with me) who came up with this personalized video message from Santa so that I could add to the wonder of the season for my son. Yes, you can send your child a free Santa video, choosing one for a nice child, an on-the-fence child, or a naughty child (I wonder how often that option is chosen.)

I don't mind injecting technology in our holiday season. I love showing my son the reindeer cam, and I will be happy to track Santa with him using NORAD's site. I think technology has a place among the traditional movies we can show him and all the other traditions we have. One bit of technology I am avoiding this year are all the new mobile Elf on a Shelf apps. I'm sure they are well made, but we don't do the Elf on a Shelf thing at our house. My husband and I talked it over before we even had our son and agreed it wouldn't work for us.

Besides, we have enough mysteries to solve in our household without having to worry about daily elf movements, such as:
  • How exactly did my son go through 18 pairs of underwear in one week? Is he changing them multiple times a day without our knowing or is he just randomly throwing them in the hamper?
  • Where did that chocolate smear come from on my son's blue chair? He hasn't been given chocolate in several days and the stain appeared yesterday. Does he (like his mommy) have a chocolate stash somewhere?
  • Why does the cat declare war on me only on days I want to record a podcast?
  • How many repeated listenings to "Here We Go Looby Loo" does it take before a person is rendered insane?
  • At what point did I start seriously considering "really cozy socks" as a good Christmas gift for myself? 
What technology do you rely on to get you through the holiday season?