How a Child Gets from Boredom to Creativity

Cat careI love the concept that a bored child, if left alone, eventually finds his or her way to creativity.  Whenever I read about this, as a mom I am filled with renewed hope and energy.

“I’m going to let the kids be bored!  I can do this.  By the end of today, great things will have taken place!”

The Reality

But at our house, this is what usually happens, even on those hopeful days:

After entering the land of Boredom, my child walks through the valley of Moping and Fussing.  Then as she continues on her way, she happens upon the village of Annoying Behaviors where bickering and sibling rivalry are commonplace.  This is usually the point where I can’t stand it any longer and step in.  My child can’t even come close to finding that lovely, shaded path leading to Creativity, no matter how many times I’ve told her it exists.  It must be well camouflaged.

The Long Summer

This past summer, however, things turned out differently.  We’d planned a fairly pricey vacation for August, and thus didn’t put any money toward summer camps.  Our oldest ended up getting his first job, doing trail maintenance which was perfect for a 14 year-old boy.  Our 13-year-old was accepted into a 5-week (free) science camp, and our youngest, 10 year-old Annie, continued with her new love of gymnastics.  Unfortunately, Annie’s gym time didn’t begin until 5 pm so her daytime hours were wide open.

Very quickly Annie got bored.  Most of her friends were on vacations or at day camps.  Because we weren’t going to throw money at this problem, we toughed it out.

The first week was hard – full of crankiness, whininess, and annoying behaviors.  I remember feeling pretty desperate and panicky, and wondering if we’d made a big mistake.

I’d recently begun my summertime yard sale visits, though, and randomly found an American Girl series book which Annie didn’t have: A Smart Girl’s Guide to Money: How to Make It, Give It, and Spend It.  I put it on Annie’s beanbag chair when she was out.  I often place books in plain sight in my kids’ rooms for them to discover.  Sometimes they take and sometimes they don’t.

A Light Bulb Goes On

During the second week of summer, I saw Annie reading this book.  Later that day she excitedly informed me she was starting a mother’s helper business, an idea the book had helped generate.  She’d heard that two of our neighbors had created a “Mom camp” for the summer, caring for each other’s kids every other day.  Annie planned to offer her services to them.  First, however, she spent time creating a name and logo for her business at the book’s suggestion.

Next Annie brainstormed what kinds of things she knew the neighbor kids enjoyed.  When she “pitched” her mother’s helper idea to one of the moms, she offered to bring along specific toys and games for her kids.  Our neighbor agreed to try out Annie’s mother’s helper business and soon she was up and running, working 2 hour stints 2-3 times a week.

The part of this experience that stood out most for me was how passionate and confident Annie was about her new venture.  Whereas in her state of boredom she’d been more passive and helpless, a week later in this creative space she was active, energetic, and more mature.  She’d entered that “flow” state we all love.

One Experience Leads to Another

About three weeks into her mother’s helper work, Annie informed me she had another goal for the summer.  As you may remember, the idea of summer goals has not always been successful at my house, so I was pretty excited merely hearing her use this phrase.

Annie sat me down and told me she really and truly wanted to volunteer with the cats at our local Humane Society.  She knew I’d heard from other parents that this was quite a commitment as training had to be undertaken with a parent, then a regular volunteer schedule put in place (again with a parent).

Last year Annie’s 3rd grade teacher taught the class persuasive writing techniques, and I sensed that Annie was using these in our discussion about volunteering with cats.  She’d thought through the various concerns she knew I’d have, and offered solutions.  In addition to the time commitments, Annie knew our family was trying to drive as little as possible during the summer, so on her own she’d looked up the local bus schedules and found a way to get to the Humane Society without driving.  I think this may have been the part that convinced me, actually.

Developing Her Identity

That same American Girl book suggested readers think about their passions in order to decide what they might turn into a money-making venture.  Annie had done this and realized she wanted to be someone who reached out to animals in need, in this case on a volunteer basis.  It was the first time I’d seen my daughter begin to develop her identity in this way. (Observing this, I just couldn’t say no, even though I kind of dreaded the trainings.)

So Annie and I logged 2 hours of training. Then another 2 hours of training.  Finally we paid $50 for the privilege of giving 2 hours of our time weekly for the next 6 months.  Is volunteering this hard in other towns?

All through the process, Annie’s commitment never wavered.  She took notes during the trainings, and later reminded me of various rules to uphold at the Humane Society.  Luckily our first real volunteering stints occurred during kitten month, with kittens aplenty.  That helped with my, at times, flagging motivation.

Summer’s End

Toward the end of the summer, word of mouth about Annie’s mother’s helper business traveled through our neighborhood and her client base grew.  During this school year she has added “homework helper” to her list of services at the request of one parent.

Annie and I still faithfully volunteer at the Humane Society every Friday from 4-6.  Most of the cats get adopted rather quickly, thankfully.  Recently we’ve been spending our time socializing feral kittens, and brushing the cats who remain there for longer periods.

Annie truly enjoys the work she does with the cats.  What I enjoy is watching my daughter.  During her volunteering and mother’s helper work, I get a view of the person she may be as she grows older.

I also get one more reminder that it’s okay to let my kids be bored – as long as I subtly help them discover paths out of the land of Boredom.


How do you handle your child’s boredom?  Leave a comment below.  And if you like this post, please pass it on to others!

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Alaska Impressions


glacier ice

Glacier ice


“Mama, I’m going to walk in front with the ranger!  I want to hear her tell which berries I can eat.  Oh, and did you see how big the bald eagle’s nest was?!  I spotted the baby birds inside,” Daniel, my 13 year-old, rapidly informed me as he ran ahead along the beach path.

 Our family was taking a ranger-led beach walk in Glacier Bay National Park (near Juneau, Alaska).  As I watched my excited middle-schooler question the naturalist about a bright orange berry, I thought about the times I’d walked this rocky beach at low tide during the summer I worked at Glacier Bay during college.

This park was the final stop of our 2-week Alaskan tour.  As I strolled along the water, I thought back on the traveling challenges we’d faced in this immense state, and the unforeseen gems we’d encountered.  It had been a full trip – the kind you’re glad you did, but then need a vacation to recover from.

Living in land-locked Colorado, my husband Todd and I often take our kids to maritime places for vacations.  For this summer’s trip, during our 20th wedding anniversary, we decided to return with the kids to some of the spots we’d visited on our somewhat atypical Alaskan honeymoon.

Gustavus, Alaska outside Glacier Bay National Park

Gustavus, Alaska


A Vast and Varied State

Travel within Alaska was as challenging this time as it had been 20 years ago.  -Well, minus the sea plane which landed on a lake the size of a small ice rink when delivering us to our Arctic Circle kayak trip.  You only need to do that once.

Our family packed for temperatures anywhere from 80°F and sunny, to rainy 40s.  We were going sea kayaking so we also needed thick rain coats and pants, although one person chose not to bring his rain pants and received a natural consequence Alaska-style.


This was not one of those trips for which we packed clothing we never wore.  More often there were chilly times when we donned more than one set of clothes – like the time a wake from a huge cruise ship that passed us 5 miles away was still big enough to wash over my kayak 10 minutes later and soak me.

Learning to Be Flexible

Midway into our trip, a big storm came through the small fishing village of Cordova on Prince William Sound bringing high winds that cancelled the daily ferry we were scheduled to take.  This meant cancelling a kayak trip we’d planned the next day.

“It’s part and parcel of traveling in Alaska,” we reframed this challenge to our kids.

The train, ferry, bus and plane trips we took in Alaska were also a piece of the overall experience, helping our kids comprehend how massive the state is.

The Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad


We saw nearly as much wildlife from trains, buses and ferries as we did from sea kayaks.

Mt. McKinley from the train window

Mt. McKinley from the train


Science in the Great Outdoors

As luck would have it, our son Daniel was accepted into a 5-week summer camp on climate which took place before we left for Alaska.  He was therefore introduced beforehand to some of the glaciers and climate change indicator species we’d see in Alaska.

One of our cool sea kayak guides giving Annie a science lesson

Science lesson from our guide


For each of our kids, this Alaska trip brought textbook lessons to life.  They’d learned about the life cycle of salmon in school, for example.  Up there we sea kayaked to a river at the edge of the ocean where pink salmon furiously swam upstream in 8 inches of water to spawn.  They reminded me of middle-schoolers cramming and jostling into narrow hallways between classes.

Pink salmon are grey on the outside

Pink salmon


“They really do die after they lay their eggs,” Annie said looking at the dead salmon touching her rubber boot.

“Sure smells like it,” her 15 year-old brother Stephen chimed in as he kept an eye out for the brown bears we were warned about.

In Glacier Bay, Todd and I showed the kids glaciers we’d seen 20 years ago that no longer met the ocean, though we saw others which were still calving huge chunks of sky blue ice into the sea.

Cruise ship in front of glacier for size comparison

Cruise ship beside glacier for size comparison


Unexpected Takeaways from Alaska

I figured the wildlife and wildness of Alaska would make an impression on my children, as it had for me as a 19 year-old.  But there was an unanticipated occurrence for my kids as well.  They met people doing jobs that they could envision themselves doing some day.  This experience was vastly different from having their parents tell them about an interesting work opportunity somewhere they’d never been.  On our trip, the kids met fascinating people doing exciting things they’d never heard of.

When we were at Ballard Locks in Seattle (prior to leaving for Alaska), Stephen told his dad, “I might want to work here someday.”

We spent quite a bit of time with rangers at Denali and Glacier Bay national parks.  Daniel, our nature boy who says all he needs to be happy in life is a well-placed hammock, realized he had a skill for spotting wildlife.  Then talking to naturalists with varied specializations excited him about the possibility of doing this work someday.

Ranger with sled dog

Ranger with sled dog


“I think I could spend a winter in Denali patrolling by dog sled,” Daniel told us after attending the rangers’ dogsled demonstrations there.

Daniel imagining his future work

Imagining his future work


“I’d like to take pictures of Humpbacks’ flukes in Glacier Bay,” Annie, now 10, pronounced.

Annie watching a Humpback whale from a sea kayak

Watching a Humpback whale


Since each Humpback’s tail has unique markings, a group of marine biologists has photographed them to track the different whales for over 30 years now.

Humpback whale from the beach near our camp

Humpback from the shore


“But if I couldn’t do that, I’d work as a waitress in the Lodge like Mama did.  That would be fun too,” Annie mused.


Brushing teeth below tide line in Alaska

Brushing teeth below tide line


Overheard in a conversation between 2 of our kids in the fishing town of Whittier while we did our laundry next door to a salmon cannery:  “I’m never working in a cannery.  I don’t care how much money they say you can make in one.  I couldn’t deal with the smell.”

“If I don’t work at the locks, I might guide sea kayaking trips,” Stephen declared as we trekked the rainy mile to Mendenhall glacier within Juneau’s city limits.


It was so gratifying to watch my kids imagine different work experiences they might pursue when they got older.

My Lesson Learned

Walking back from exploring tidal pools at the end of our beach hike, Daniel asked our affable ranger how one gets a job like hers.  She was full of helpful suggestions.  As they spoke, I was reminded that when you travel, it’s not simply the scenery and wildlife, but interacting with the people who know it and love it, that makes a lasting impression of a place.


What were your unexpected takeaways from this summer’s travel near or far? Leave a comment below!


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“You need to talk more in class.” Introverted Kids in Today’s Schools

 girl with book smilingAshley is an 11 year-old who lives in our neighborhood.  She’s soft-spoken and curious.  Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her.  A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking.  I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had been through a harder transition than I’d expected.

Middle School

Ashley’s mom said in elementary school her daughter had always had difficulty speaking up and never liked group projects, but had managed to show her other strengths.  Ashley soon discovered, however, that middle school had even more group work and seven teachers to get to know rather than one.  She’d been a good student in the past, but at conferences in middle school a number of teachers said they’d like Ashley to be more active in group work and talk more in class.

Ashley said she would try to improve on these areas.  Yet her mom had noticed that as the year progressed, Ashley seemed to be enjoying school less even though she had good friends.

Introverts in an Extroverted World

Soon after this conversation with Ashley’s mom, I began reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, and met many others like Ashley within its pages.  Cain points out that we live in a country that reveres extroverts.  This stance has become more extreme in recent generations.  As Ashley has found, and my kids will attest, group work is widespread in today’s public schools.

Cooperative learning favors extroverts who like to think through problems aloud rather than gathering their thoughts prior to offering them, as introverts do.  Yet today’s teachers are told they must prepare students for the working world where teamwork is the norm.

Cain lists additional research showing that working in groups is not always the best context for creativity.  Introverts do their best work alone, at least for a good portion of their working day.  Studies have also shown that organizations that don’t allow employees to close the door to distractions are less productive than those which do – for both introverted and extroverted types.

Skills of Introverts

Cain also highlights the strengths of introverts.  They tend to have fewer interests, but pursue them more deeply over longer periods of time.  This goes for friendships as well.  Introverts notice their environment more accurately and are sensitive to changes around them, often catching problems in a project more quickly than others. Their sensitivity to people and environments, and lack of focus on wealth and fame, often makes them more effective leaders than extroverts.  Introverts enjoy taking in large and varied amounts of information, and excel at synthesizing and strategizing.

When I spoke to Ashley’s mom, she told me that Creative Writing was Ashley’s favorite class and mentioned that her daughter brought a fairly mature understanding of the happenings around her into her writing.  Her writing teacher noticed too.

Extroverted Schools

Like many introverted children, however, Ashley was feeling that school wasn’t a place where she could regularly draw on her strengths.  Instead she often got the message that she needed to learn to be an extrovert.  Granted, the skills of extroverts are important in life, but so are those of introverts.  If we are teaching introverted kids to be more extroverted, why are we not helping extroverted kids learn the strengths of introverts in school?

Introverts and Modern Technology

Upon finishing Quiet, I picked up Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.  Turkle, an anthropologist and psychologist, has studied the effects of technology on today’s young people and our culture in general.  She worries that teens who are constantly online or texting, are not “cultivating the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” Young people who consistently look outward to their social networks, aren’t learning the skill that comes naturally to many introverts like Ashley, self-reflection.

Having interviewed numerous teens and adults throughout America about the role of technology in their lives, Turkle concludes:

A stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection.  In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts.  But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding [to those contacting you].

I haven’t quite finished reading Alone Together, but after reading 3/4ths through, it occurred to me that perhaps Susan Cain’s introverts have an extra layer of protection against the allures of modern technology – their natural comfort with solitude.  And they have another leg up due to their tendency toward introspection.

New Perspectives

I’ve always thought of myself as more of an extrovert, and two out of three of my kids are definitely extroverts.  Yet reading Quiet reminded me that each of us has a unique mix of introverted and extroverted traits.  Quiet helped me appreciate my introverted qualities, those of my neighbor Ashley, and my older son Stephen.  The book even encouraged me to further develop some introversion characteristics that I don’t have in excess.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea, sit down in a quiet spot, and finish reading Alone Together.


How do your introverted kids handle school?  Leave a comment!

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How to Beat Cabin Fever: The Art of Roughhousing

mother and child roughhousingWhen our middle child, Daniel, was 3 one of the phrases we’d regularly hear was, “Will you roughhouse me please?”  He was so desperate for this kind of play that it was the only time he consistently used the word “please.”  It worked.  Saying please usually does.  I regularly got down on the carpet with him.

Around this time Daniel and his siblings’ favorite roughhousing game was Airplane (when the parent is on her back with bent legs and the child climbs onto her legs to fly like a plane). The names we gave our Airplane variations hint at their natures:  Crash Landing, Washing Machine, Volcano.  Another favorite game of Daniel’s was sitting on my knees as I sat on a chair and bounced him like a bucking bronco while singing a cowboy song.  He, meanwhile, attempted to stay on my knees as long as possible while giggling uncontrollably.

Both Daniel and I were happy and exhausted when these roughhousing sessions ended (which was usually because some part of Mama’s body could not tolerate even one more Airplane session at that moment).

Using Roughhousing to Teach Kids Life Skills

I’d read in various places how to use rough and tumble play to teach kids self-control and even social skills.  When Todd or I wrestled with our kids we talked beforehand about saying “Stop!” if things went too far.  Each time our kids said to stop, we always did so immediately (even when there didn’t seem to be an obvious reason) since we wanted to teach them that you stop when someone tells you to. We also watched the other person’s face and body language while playing as a way of listening to our partner.

When my kids were young, I sensed the importance of roughhousing and the potential it had to teach them vital life lessons, but I didn’t realize the extent of possibility in this play until my friend Kim mentioned the book, The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, by Anthony DeBenedet, MD and Lawrence Cohen, PhD.

I love this sentiment from the book:

Roughhousing is great fun.  It’s also a little dangerous.  In fact roughhousing is great fun because it’s a little dangerous. 

The Art of Roughhousing lays out numerous ways that horseplay can help kids and why it’s a need, not simply a want.  Those of us who are parents of boys have most likely seen how driven they are to make contact with each other and their love of rough play.  But the book reminds us of how valuable it is to roughhouse with our daughters as well.

Rough and Tumble Play Helps Girls

Although girls are more likely to use their voices than their bodies when communicating with peers, DeBenedet and Cohen claim that if girls roughhouse at home, they can more easily speak up for themselves in a direct manner in all aspects of their lives.  Roughhousing gives girls a way to test their strength and power and to become more confident.

What Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay Can Teach

For both boys and girls, horseplay with a parent has the potential to teach emotional intelligence including social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism. This is because rough play with another person activates many parts of the body and brain – from the amygdala (emotional regulation) to the cerebellum (balance, coordination, and complex motor skills) to the prefrontal cortex (planning and decision-making).

During roughhousing, we parents can model for kids how a bigger person can let a smaller person win – demonstrating cooperation and impulse control, and teaching that winning isn’t everything.  When parents stop the horseplay because the child’s demeanor has changed from excited to upset, they are showing their child how to be aware of another person. This is also a time when parents model empathy by spending time comforting the unhappy child.

During rough and tumble play, most of these valuable emotional and social lessons are being taught nonverbally to kids, a compliment to the more verbal and passive academic learning they receive at school.  It’s as if these roughhousing lessons are integrated straight into our children’s growing bodies.  Then when the child has a similar experience later, she has a body-memory already there from which to draw.

Many parents and teachers are hesitant about roughhousing these days.  I think most mothers understand where this ambivalence may come from.  However, reading this book reminded me that horseplay has so much to offer our kids (and us) that it is worth getting past one’s reservations.  The Art of Roughhousing also describes various tried and true roughhousing games geared to a child’s age.

Five Roughhousing Tips for Parents

1.  Tune in to your child.  Don’t simply begin roughhousing because you are in the mood, or it’s a good time.  Notice when your child is ready for this type of play.  (Dads, this may not be right before bedtime.)

2.  Leave time for settling down after a roughhousing session.  Don’t roughhouse just before walking out the door to school, for example.

3.  Make eye contact with your child when you roughhouse.  Eye contact is an important aspect of social and emotional intelligence and rough and tumble play is a good time to practice this skill.

4.  Stop immediately when your child says to stop.  Ask why he or she wanted to stop afterward if you are unsure.

5.  Beware of tickling.  If you choose to tickle your child, watch them carefully when doing so.  Laughing during tickling doesn’t always communicate, “Keep tickling me.”  The authors suggest “almost tickling” when you just barely tickle the child.  This potential tickle can bring on peals of giggles, as well.

Little Roughhousers Grow Up

Sadly, my two older kids have grown too big for many of the roughhousing games listed in this book.  But I have roughhousing suggestions for parents of big kids (and let’s face it, we’ll all be those people eventually).

Here’s a variation of one game in the book which works at our house with kids and adults of all sizes.

Straight-armed push:

Two people stand facing each other with arms out straight, and hands clasped with the other person.  On the count of 3, begin trying to push the other person backwards (still on their feet), keeping arms straight.  This is surprisingly good exercise and fun!  My kids beg for more.

A More Structured Rough and Tumble Activity

Another way to handle the need for roughhousing as kids get older and bigger, is to begin a martial art or similar activity involving two people.  We chose To-Shin Do for our kids, a defense-oriented martial art which involves strength, strategy, and physical contact.  While practicing a martial art isn’t as free-form as roughhousing, To-Shin Do seems to meet a good many of my kids roughhousing drives.

Now I better go rest up because Daniel’s about to get home from middle school and he and I have a straight-armed push roughhousing date soon after he arrives.


I’m sure readers have additional ideas about roughhousing, and I’d love to hear them.  Leave a comment below!


By the way, The Art of Roughhousing might be a fun gift for Mother’s or Father’s Day when the time comes.

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To Err is Human: 5 Ways Your Mistakes Can Make You a Better Parent

This image shows a guy with a pan of smoking cookies.Please tell me something like this has happened at your house too.  Two weeks ago my husband Todd was sick with a flu that snuck by the flu shot mix this year.  He felt terrible for over a week, poor thing.  One weekend day I’d taken our oldest to an activity while Todd stayed home with the other two kids and directions to watch a DVD with them or rest.

I returned home to discover that Todd had done a few other things besides resting.  First he began cooking lentils in preparation for Snobby Joes – we’ve been trying to do more Meatless Mondays.  Then the kids started acting up and driving him crazy so Todd decided to take them to the library. This would have been fine as long as he turned off the stove first.  Being sick, he didn’t.

Thus a while later, Todd and the kids returned home to a can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face, smoke-filled house.  Stephen and I arrived soon after.

Once our initial clean-up and air-out phase was complete, I took a walk to get some fresh air and ponder our next steps in dealing with our sweet little home which now smelled like a saloon.  As I walked, it also occurred to me that what we currently had was a teachable moment.  We could use this mistake to support various life lessons we’d been attempting to impart to our children.  A screw-up like this might as well be good for something.

Five Ways to Turn a Parental Mistake into a Useful Lesson

1.   Admit it.  Show your kids that you too make mistakes.  Be honest about your mistakes in the same way you always tell them to be honest about theirs.  Acknowledge your frustration and anger.  This sets the stage for your home to be a place where people share the bad as well as the good, and help each other fix mistakes.  We could never have hidden such an odorific debacle as this one from our kids – maybe this was a good thing.

2.  Make amends.  Teach the lesson that we can’t stop mistakes from happening because we’re all human, but we can always try to make things better after we’ve made a mistake.  Show your kids how you are making amends for your goof and ask them for additional suggestions.  Let them help you fix things if they wish, in order to support the message that family members help each other when something goes wrong.  The next day our kids helped wash down the walls of our smoky home.

3.  Teach children how to learn from mistakes.  Common parenting advice is that we should let kids make mistakes so they’ll learn important life lessons and won’t repeat the same actions.  While I generally agree with this sentiment, I have rarely seen it play out so smoothly with my 3 kids.  If left to their own devices, my kids would need to make the same mistake 4 or 5 times before truly learning “the lesson.”  Therefore, I try to support their learning when I can with questions such as, “If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?”

When we parents make a mistake, we can let our kids in on our thinking process.  In our recent screw-up, for example, we were reminded we’d been meaning to buy a pressure cooker.  This incident was a sign that we should do this now.  We explained to the kids that with a pressure cooker, beans and lentils don’t need to cook for as long and people are less likely to forget the stove is on.  We also talked to our kids about other changes we could make as a family to prevent this from happening again.  They suggested helping us double check that everything was turned off before we leave the house.  Hopefully we’re not flipping on an OCD switch in anyone, but clearly Todd and I could use the help.

4.  File the mistake away to be used again when needed.  Last week our 3rd grader Annie decided to wait until Thursday afternoon to do all her weekly spelling homework.  It was due on Friday.  (I know what you’re thinking.)  When Annie got home after school on Thursday, she realized she’d left her spelling workbook at school.  A steep and dark downward spiral ensued, swallowing all hope and brightness in its path.

I made an initial wrong move by saying to Annie, “Let’s just email your teacher and ask her if you can do your spelling homework over the weekend.”  I’m still not completely sure why this suggestion led to even deeper despair, but I think it had something to do with problem-solving before Annie was ready.  So I quickly back-tracked and simply described what I assumed Annie was feeling – hopelessness.  After this I told her about times I’d felt the same way after making a mistake.  Now I seemed to have her attention.  I pulled out an example of one of my bigger screw-ups from my mind’s “mistakes folder.”

“Annie, remember when I took you to Kaya’s birthday party at 2:00 when it actually had started at 10:00?”  (I’d already made that one up to her in other ways, so she wasn’t still angry about it.)  “That was a big mistake, and I felt really frustrated when it happened.”

Something about sharing my own mistakes with my kids always moves them through the upset phase a little faster.

5.  If  the mistake you made was a parenting mistake, apologize to your child.  So many challenging parenting moments come when you feel pushed into a corner needing to make a quick decision, or something unexpected occurs and you simply react to it.  These hasty responses are often the ones we regret.  But there’s a way past this.

Acknowledge you made a mistake and apologize to your child.  “Daniel, when I banned you from the Wii for a month after you came home late from school, I reacted too strongly.  I’m sorry.  I was still scared about not knowing where you were when I said that, and now I think it was extreme.  I’ve changed my mind.  You’re grounded from the Wii for a week instead of a month.”

When we apologize to our kids, we model this vital life skill for them, an ability which helps us move from a stuck, angry place to a more hopeful position.  Knowing that we parents can always apologize to our kids if we screw up, and in doing so we are teaching them a useful lesson, has helped me become a more relaxed parent.

My more relaxed stance makes everyone in our family happy because as the saying goes, “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”  Whether from our massive house-cleaning effort, or just the passage of time, our home finally no longer smells like the corner bar.   And Mama’s happier.


More ideas along these lines?  Leave a comment below!


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Promoting Your Child’s Passions

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend, Virginia, and her 4 kids.  Her oldest child, Micah, had just turned 15 when I saw him.  I don’t usually expect 15 year-old boys to be great conversationalists.  And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite when talking about his life.  Until I asked about the animals he’s raising, 40 chickens and 4 goats.  When talking about his farm animals Micah’s eyes lit up and his speech became animated.  He seemingly could have gone on forever about buying his goats “at auction” and his quickly expanding chicken business.

When Micah was 10, his family had moved to the country from the suburbs.  Although Micah doesn’t live on a farm, many small farms surround his neighborhood.  Soon after moving, Micah met a neighbor who owned a brood of hens and was hooked.

Virginia reminded me that she and her husband had little experience with or interest in farm animals.  She admitted that they’d put off Micah’s request to raise chickens for a year or so.  But like many of life’s real passions, Micah’s didn’t ebb over time.  Eventually his parents relented and soon they were sharing their bathroom with 12 fluffy chicks for the winter.

Over time Micah built his flock up to 40 chickens.  He also amassed a group of regular egg customers, learning about finance along the way. Once he’d saved some money he began floating the idea of adding goats to his farm operation.  Soon after Micah bought the goats, his grandparents asked what he wanted for his birthday.  Micah informed them that he needed a shed.  How great is that?  Not an iPad or an iPhone, but a shed for his animal supplies.

Encouraging Innovation

Although Virginia said it hasn’t always been easy for her, she and her husband have done for Micah what Tony Wagner advises in his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  As parents they have supported Micah’s passion.  After interviewing over 200 experts on innovation, Wagner concludes that it is not important what college major or serious interest a young person chooses, only that they follow something about which they are passionate and then delve deeply into their field.

For parents like Virginia who may find themselves explaining their child’s unusual pursuit to surprised extended family members more than they wish, Wagner explains that the Internet has changed the working world in their favor.  Greater communication and less rigidity in the world of work now mean there are many paths through which to enter a career.

Wagner writes, for example, about a girl who majored in art and went on to become a computer simulation programmer.  When she was subsumed in her art studies during high school, her parents supported her but worried she would have trouble making a living from her passion.  While pursuing an art major in college, she became involved in a computer simulation project and fell in love with this work.  In this new realm she drew on an artistic background in ways other programmers could not.

“Study what you have a passion for and change the world on your terms,” one of Wagner’s interviewees urged.

The Magic of Mentors

Wagner observes that we parents are in a unique position to notice what our children are passionate about and help them expand their knowledge base. When I last spoke with Virginia, she said Micah had begun spending time with a retired veterinarian named Bob who now raises sheep on a nearby farm.  After meeting Bob herself, Virginia introduced him to Micah and encouraged a potential mentoring relationship.  Now Bob regularly takes Micah to local talks on goat and sheep farming, and has taught him how to test his animals for parasites using sophisticated lab equipment.  This may not be for most kids, but Micah is on cloud nine.

As Virginia intuitively did, Wagner reminds us to support our kids’ passions with mentors whenever possible.  When a child takes a class somewhere, even on a subject he or she is fervent about, she is one of many in the room.  But when a child talks to a local bee keeper, fabric dyer, bike racer, geographer, or novelist, he gets one-on-one encouragement.  This unique support is often what moves young people to the next level of an interest.

Sparking Innovators at Home

Creating Innovators was quite inspiring, so of course while reading it my mind immediately focused on how I could better promote the passions of my 3 children.  But here’s the rather unfortunate reality.  My kids seem to be, how should I say this, between passions at the moment.  Such a disappointing realization after gathering so many strategies to encourage their passions!

I can say that 2 out of my 3 kids have demonstrated strong passions in the past, which now seem to be on temporary hiatus.  I would have said all my kids have, except when I really look at our 3rd grade daughter, Annie, I think I was mistaking her passionate personality with having a passion.  Just because you are an intense and excitable human, does not translate directly into having a passion.  Not yet at least.

When I admitted this to Virginia she helped me feel better by telling me that her other 3 children have not yet happened onto their passions either, although she thinks one might be close to finding it in foreign languages.

Clearly not all children follow a linear progression into their life passions or purpose as Micah has.  Parents of kids who take a more circuitous route to discovering their passions need more patience and perhaps endurance. But Tony Wagner would tell us that it’s important to keep using our intuition to expose our kids to things we think they could be interested in.  And we need to let them quit an activity that has not taken hold after a good amount of time, or from which they are ready to move on.

My Personal Commitment

So I vow to keep introducing my kids to the exciting neighbors I meet at the annual block party; taking them to talks around town such as the free Peace Corps presentation at our local REI store or the demonstrations by science professors in town called the C.U. Wizards; and accompanying my kids to community events like sustainable building fairs or artist open houses.

During these activities I’ll be ready to notice whether my children’s eyes light up at certain parts of the presentation, or if they are enthused all the way home as we discuss what we learned.  And finally, on the home front I will try to discern the activities my children tend to lose themselves within and come away from feeling refreshed.

Come to think of it, I believe I will put extra attention into noticing these areas in my life as well.


What passions have you supported in your child?  How did you go about this? Leave a comment!


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During Life’s Tough Times – 6 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Uncertainty

Our middle son, Daniel, just began middle school.  A middle child in middle school.  It’s gone about as you would expect from that combination – not too well.  Daniel now attends our neighborhood middle school, but comes to it from an elementary school across town with few friends in tow.

The challenge is that most of the 6th graders at this middle school came from neighborhood elementary schools and therefore knew each other already.  School’s been in session for 6 weeks now.  Daniel is slowly getting to know other kids, but no fast friendships have emerged.

Instead he’s been learning the lesson that sometimes this process takes a while.  If only he weren’t such a social kid, like so many middle children.  Then he wouldn’t care and it would all be a bit easier.  But he does and it hasn’t been.

So I find myself musing about teaching my children to handle uncertainty.  We don’t know how this will turn out for Daniel in the end.  Will he make good friends, or even a best friend?  Or will it end up being one of those school years when he learns to manage on his own?

But this is life, right?  We’ve all been through these tough situations.  Perhaps this is why it’s so hard to watch our kids face them.

However, I did feel better after reading Jonathan Fields’ book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance.  To be honest I don’t know about the turning it all into brilliance part.  This is middle school after all.  But fear, doubt, and uncertainty – those we have.

Fields writes about developing a tolerance for ambiguity because ambiguity and uncertainty go hand in hand with any creative process.  I immediately latched on to this concept!  I was supporting Daniel to strengthen his tolerance for uncertainty.  Because, as Fields says, without this there would be no creation and innovation, crucial life skills.

Yet, even though I now have a goal, Daniel still has to handle daily uncertainty.  If only he knew that it would all turn out okay in the end.  That would help him hang in there!  Of course that scenario would pretty much remove the un- from uncertainty.  Instead Daniel must remain in the uncomfortable position of not knowing how middle school will unfold.

Uncertainty is like wearing an itchy wool sweater that’s a size too small – and because this is about middle school we’ll say it’s also a bad color on you.  The sweater’s not going to kill you, and in good moments you manage to forget about it.   Yet it’s just not going to be a pleasant time when you’re wearing the thing.

How Do We Help a Child Handle Life’s Ambiguities?

I had one initial idea.  As it happened our family adopted a Humane Society kitten before the school year began.  Way back before we had kids I’d come up with the idea to name our next cat, Ambiguity.  Then each time it plopped its fuzzy, warm body onto my lap, I’d be “sitting with Ambiguity.”  I would practice accepting the many things undone and endings unknown around me, while calmly stroking a soft kitty.

Of course when I floated the name Ambiguity by my kids, it went over like a pregnant high jumper, as my mom used to say in the 70s.  In the end we named her Shenandoah (daughter of the stars) for the river in my home-state of Virginia.

6 More-Vetted Ways to Help Children Learn to Sit With Ambiguity

1.  Predict.  Help your child by predicting some of the challenges that may lie ahead.  “Expect it to take a while to get to know all the rules in your new school.  I bet it will feel a little awkward for a bit.”  “What will you do if you don’t have someone to walk home with?”

2.  Exercise.  Uncertainty is stressful.  Exercise relieves tension and anxiety, in addition to helping children eat and sleep well during ambiguous times.

3.  Give kids small rewards and acknowledgments for tolerating uncertainty.  During this challenging transition to middle school, Todd and I have given Daniel small treats now and again – a movie or special dessert.  We tell him we’re proud of him for simply hanging in there.  This falls in the same camp as my stepfather paying me for failing when I was a child.  It’s worth acknowledging the tough things our kids are handling.

4.  Travel.  In new places you and your children will quickly be reminded that things never go quite as planned on a trip.  Will the boat come on time?  Will we like the apartment we rented?  Will the kids eat the food?

Travel reminds us that even when events don’t play out as expected, some sort of adventure takes place.  The unpredictability and uncertainty of travel can teach kids (and parents) to become comfortable with these experiences.  Like the time we took our kids to Costa Rica to learn some Spanish and one of their favorite experiences turned out to be the adventures we had riding local buses.

5. Get a pet.  Unconditional love from an animal can be exceedingly beneficial to a child facing one of life’s struggles.

6.  Share your own experiences of ambiguity.  Like all children, mine adore stories Todd and I tell from our childhoods.  The ones they love best are those about our past challenges and failures.

My Uncertainty Story

I told Daniel this story last week.

One day while studying abroad in Cambridge, England, I saw a notice about upcoming try-outs for the rowing team of the college I was attending.  I was on my university’s rowing team at home and jumped at the idea of rowing in England.  I assumed I’d show up to the try-outs with numerous hopeful rowers new to the college.  Instead, on the morning of the try-outs, I stood there as the only outsider in a group of college girls who clearly all knew each other.

It soon became apparent that they’d rowed together the previous year.  And it was raining.  Of course.  My first thought was to sneak off, jump back on my bike, and ride (on the left side of the street) back to my apartment.  And honestly I was beginning to do just that when the rowing coach saw me.  I had to stay and face this uncertain situation.

At that point a little saying popped into my head.  I’d come up with this mantra during another awkward experience recently.  “The best things in life sometimes start out the worst.”  I began silently repeating it to myself.

I slipped my shoes off and slid onto the wooden seat the coach pointed me to in the 8-person boat.  At least I was about to do something familiar.  Soon everyone would be focused on rowing, not on the new American girl in seat 3.

As we pushed out onto the water, however, something immediately felt unusual about this rowing shell.  Turns out the British have a different style of rowing than Americans.  Now I was the new American girl in seat 3 who looked like she didn’t know how to row.  “Brilliant!” as they say in England.

As luck would have it, on that fateful day of try-outs one girl had not returned from the year before.  And I was there.  After a brief explanation that I actually had rowed before, and felt I could learn the British method of rowing, the coach agreed to give me a try.

It took a while to get to know my rowing-mates – the British aren’t known for their extroversion.  However, I slowly became more at ease with the 7 other college girls in my boat.  Our coxswain, Simon, was quite welcoming from the start.

As I look back now on my time abroad, some of my fondest memories are of traveling to various sites in England for rowing regattas.  And I’ll never forget the extremely formal end-of-season rowing banquet.  A five-course meal topped off with a serving of port in a beautiful banquet hall.  It was a scene right out of Chariots of Fire.

What I Told Daniel Next

Wherever we end up sitting with ambiguity – on a rather hard middle school desk chair, or in an 8-person British shell rowing the wrong way – it’s rarely comfortable.  But if we can learn to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty, we may end up finding some of life’s true gems just down the path.


Additional ways to help kids handle uncertainty?  Other thoughts?  Leave a comment below!


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Trading Intangibles: The Parenting Strategy We’ve Been Waiting For

When my daughter Annie was 8½, she began noticing people’s earrings.  “Mama, did you know so many people had earrings?  I like the dangling kind best,” Annie informed me.  Not long after she made the tentative comment, “Maybe some day I could get my ears pierced.”

Instead of responding with dread, which admittedly I felt a small amount of, I realized Annie was offering me something I’d been waiting for – the opportunity to trade items of unequal value with her so we could each end up with something we wanted.

A Parenting Strategy with Huge Potential

I’d initially read about his concept in Stuart Diamond’s book, Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World.  Diamond gives a number of examples of parents trading “intangibles” with children, for instance, a later bedtime for always cycling on the sidewalk.  The trick is finding something your child wants badly that is not a big deal for you, and something that is very important to you but of lesser value to your child.  Then you trade.

When I first came across this idea it looked like a powerful parenting strategy.  Rather than butt heads forever over some great divide, each of us could walk away with something we truly wanted and give up something of lesser importance.  This was brilliant!  I was going to use this strategy daily, or at least weekly.

How Things Actually Unfolded

But as the days and weeks ticked by, I realized this tactic was harder to use than I expected.  I’m still not quite sure why I couldn’t launch this type of negotiation with my kids (and husband) immediately.  Perhaps this concept took someone infinitely more alert than I was.

I was aware that my kids regularly asked for things, but these things (a pillow pet, a model airplane, a special cereal or dessert) were never the right kind of thing to trade.  It turned out that my kids were filling the airwaves of our home with requests for tangible, concrete items.  Luckily I already had pat responses for these desires:

  • “Find out how much it costs and check your cash supply.”
  • “Save your money for it.”
  • “Put it on your birthday wish list.”

I Finally Got My Chance

I needed to keep my eyes open for more intangible requests from family members.  Annie wanting her ears pierced seemed to fit this category.  I finally had a possibility for trading intangibles!  I needed to think carefully so I wouldn’t waste it.

A key consideration with Annie’s ear piercing request was that I was comfortable with her having it done, as long as she could take care of her ears by herself.

I told my 8½ year-old that if she could take care of her hair for the next 6 months, we would look into having her ears pierced.  Her part of the deal included washing her hair when necessary, brushing it, and generally keeping it out of her eyes. And of course she was to do all of this without parental reminders, approximately 90% of the time.

This was our initial trade.  Over the next 6 months Annie held up her end of the deal, and there were far fewer battles over hair in our home.  You may remember from previous posts that my husband Todd’s biggest girl-child stressors are those involving hair, so I must emphasize we were all happier after this trade.

Soon after Annie turned 9, she asked if we could look into ear piercing. I said yes, and Todd and I began to discuss what intangible we might trade for the actual ear piercing.  Since Annie’s bedtime had been inching later and later, we decided to offer her pierced ears in exchange for an 8:15 bedtime.  That, and she had to care of her ears.  (We watched some YouTube videos so she could visualize the pierced-ear care required.)  Annie quickly agreed to our proposal.

Where We Are Now

Annie had her ears pierced almost 4 weeks ago.  So far she’s been caring for them and we haven’t had to argue with her about an 8:15 bedtime.  By the way, if she stops going to bed at the earlier time, Todd and I decided she won’t get new earrings when that time comes.  Hopefully that will be a strong enough motivator.  We’ll see.

With one negotiation success under my belt, I’m on the lookout for new opportunities!  Annie’s brothers are now 12 and 14.  You’d think I’d have all sorts of independence-related requests to work with.  Not yet.  Or perhaps they’ve learned to make numerous, hardly noticeable micro-requests, another one of Diamond’s negotiation strategies!

I must sit back and be patient.  One of these days when I least expect it another intangible request will pop up.  In the meantime, I’ve been creating a mental list of tradable intangibles:

1.  Practice your instrument (clarinet or saxophone) at least every other day without being asked.

2.  Attend spin class with your dad at the gym without complaint.

3.  Put on sunscreen and/or wear a sun shirt regularly.

4.  Close the garage when you are done in there.

So bring on those intangible requests, I’m ready for another trade!

Since I’m new to this parenting strategy, I’d love to hear about intangible trades you’ve made in your homes (successful or not).   Leave a comment below!

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“Kids, What Are Your Teachers’ Pet Peeves?” A Creative Way to Raise Children’s Social Awareness

At my kids’ elementary school we aren’t told who their teacher will be until the day before school begins.  One year, right after teacher assignments were posted, my son Daniel came to me with a look of concern.

“Mama, I got the strict teacher.  Everyone says she’s really hard and no fun at all.  What am I going to do?”

I understood what Daniel was saying.  I too had heard these things about this teacher.  However, I’d also heard that she pushed kids to learn a lot, setting a high academic bar.  At times my Daniel had been known to shoot for mediocrity in class, especially when no one was looking.  And I knew that when children work hard at school, they usually feel proud of themselves in the end.

I was secretly pleased that Daniel had been given this teacher.

However, I also needed to find a way to talk with my anxious son about how to work with a strict teacher.  He needed help to start out on the right foot in her class.  This was going to be a delicate conversation, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to pull it off.  I didn’t want to focus too much on this teacher’s strong personality traits, accentuating them even more in Daniel’s mind.  Yet I also didn’t want to minimize Daniel’s worries.

My Breakthrough Idea

At dinner that night I had an aha moment.  It went like this.  My daughter Annie did the mealtime thing that drives me crazy.  I’d just returned to the table from refilling my water glass.   Right after I sat back down, Annie requested more water.  (She wasn’t yet able to reach the tap on her own.)  This is one of my major pet peeves.  It’s fine to ask me to refill your water when I am already up filling a glass, but that’s your window of opportunity, not right after I’m seated again.

“What’s a pet peeve?” Annie asked.  Thus began a lively dinner conversation.  I explained the concept of a pet peeve and soon my kids were off and running with it.

“I bet Mama has way more pet peeves than Daddy,” Daniel said.  Ouch, but also very true.  Our oldest son Stephen asked if we could name our next pet “Peeve”.  We could then say to people, “This is my pet, Peeve.”

Pet Peeves All Around

From here the kids started naming their own pet peeves:

  • “When I’m on my bike passing someone and I say, ‘I’m on your left’ and they move to the left.”
  • “People who bring a huge lunch to school, eat a few bites, and throw the rest away. They could at least give the rest to me.”  (from one of my growing boys)

Then the kids began listing Todd’s and my pet peeves.  They knew so many more of them than we expected!  My first response was a mix of shame and embarrassment.  I hadn’t realized my annoyances were so visible.  Was this bad parenting?  But in a rare parenting moment, I was able to shift my thinking back to the big picture.

I reminded the kids that it took skill to notice pet peeves in other people.  When you know someone’s pet peeves you can stay away from these areas and get along with the person better.  We discussed how knowing the kinds of things that bother a person can tell you something about that person.

I asked our kids to notice their new teachers’ pet peeves over the first few days of school.  Daniel, who at that time wanted to be a detective when he grew up, loved this idea.  It seemed to organize him.  He now had a plan of action, rather than simply being scared and nervous about his new teacher.

Toward the end of my kids’ first week of school, we had begun a list of teacher pet peeves.  We realized some teachers were clearer about their pet peeves than others.  “I get angry when someone gets up to sharpen their pencil when I am talking to all of you,” Daniel’s teacher informed the class the first day.

Some of Stephen’s teacher’s pet peeves were, “Never turn assignments in on unlined paper,” and “Don’t say blowing up a balloon when you mean inflating it!”

Other teacher’s peeves were harder to figure out.  They would take some careful observation over time.

Getting Used to a New Teacher

During the next few weeks, I listened to Daniel talk about his school days but didn’t ask him many specific questions about his teacher.  I wanted to give him space to get to know her in his own way.  This took patience on my part, not my strong suit.

About a month into the school year, I asked Daniel how things were going with his “strict” teacher.  After thinking for a second he said, “Well, she is strict.  The kids were right about that.  But I don’t really mind it.  She tells us exactly what the rules are – so we know when we’re breaking one.  It’s not a surprise or anything.  And she treats us like big kids.  We work hard, but I like it.”

I must say I was relieved.  You never know how these things will go.  I figured our conversation had come to a close when Daniel added as he walked off, “Mama, I think I was able to figure her out quickly because she’s actually a lot like you.”

I’ll admit my first response to this was, So people see me as strict and uptight with a lot of pet peeves?!   But in time I was able to shift away from myself and simply be grateful that Daniel liked his teacher – strictness, high standards and all.


One of my friends can’t stand reading hardback books with pages that have jagged edges.  See, we all have pet peeves!  What are your quirkiest ones?  Leave a comment below.   (It will make me feel better.)

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Subways, Buses, and Backpacks: Teaching Kids Frugal Travel Skills

This is a guest post I just wrote for the Center for a New American Dream website.

I bumped into my friend Sarah the other day.  As we stood in the hot, dry Colorado air I asked about her summer.  Turns out her family had just returned from their annual trip to Norway where her husband’s parents live.

I tried to contain my jealousy, which I found wasn’t easy in 100 degree heat.  Ah, peaceful, idyllic, never-sweltering Scandinavia.  Staying with grandparents, eating delicious dairy products, and sleeping between crisp, clean linens.  A vacation where your biggest concern is which berry patch to visit each afternoon.

My family had recently returned from a different kind of vacation.  On our trip my husband Todd and I discussed how helpful it would have been to have relatives in some of the East Coast cities we were visiting.  Not only would it have lowered the price tag of the vacation, but it would have allowed more down time between explorations.  And there probably would have been fewer wrong turns and buses taken during our forays.

on the NYC subway

For this year’s vacation, we extended our familiar Washington DC trip, where I have family, to include New York City and Boston.  As our kids get older they are increasingly interested in US history and geography.  Our home state of Colorado only has so much to offer in these departments.  Additionally, a while back our 13 year-old son attended a lecture by Peace Corps volunteers.  By the end of the talk, he was inspired to do a future Peace Corps stint – and his enthusiasm has been consistent for over a year.

As Todd and I have pondered our son’s travel visions, we’ve realized that, although our kids are excited about seeing the world, they have few skills for the budget traveling they will probably undertake as late teens and 20-somethings.

We’ve concluded that we won’t be able to offer our children Europe any time soon, but frugal travel is something we can definitely provide!  Since we didn’t have family in New York City or Boston our upcoming trip was an ideal time to begin actively teaching our kids feet-on-the-ground travel.

For starters, our trip included no rental cars, no taxis, and no Broadway shows or expensive activities.  However, there was a train (from Washington DC to Boston and back through New York City), and there were subways in three cities, local buses, and many miles of walking – with stops for frappés, cannoli, or deli sandwiches depending on the city.  In the end we discovered that feet-on-the-ground travel was not only inexpensive, it was also a green way to travel – another skill we wanted our kids to learn.

For the six frugal travel strategies we used, click over to the Center for a New American Dream.

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