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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Why Is the Transition to Summer Always Harder Than I Expect?!

One summer when my sons were 2 and 4, my sister, Heather, came to visit.  At that time we lived in a small apartment near the university.  Due to the size of our home and the wattage of our children’s energy, we spent much of our time outside, frequently at local parks and playgrounds.  Even in the heart of winter.

Not yet a parent herself, Heather may not have realized just how many playground outings she was to take part in on this visit.  In the end it was unclear whether she still considered her time with us a vacation, though I’m sure it felt good to go back to her own peaceful home.

We were returning from one of these outings early in Heather’s stay when I found myself strategizing aloud.  “Heather, when we get inside, you take Stephen and I’ll cover Daniel.  If we don’t they’ll start poking and shoving before we know it.”

“But,” Heather pleaded looking a bit worn out from the running games she’d played with the boys in our dry, high-altitude climate, “won’t they be tired from playing and less likely to fight?”

“One would think so.  I used to think so,” I responded.  “And if there was justice in the world this would indeed be the case. Yet these small beings defy logic.  Instead of arriving calmly at their familiar residence, the transition back home brings out the worst in them.  So get ready,” I added.

At about this time in my kids’ lives, I’d begun to find scraps of energy for skimming the various parenting books I’d amassed.  Many of the books mentioned children’s struggles with transitions.  The teachers at my kids’ preschool gave similarly sage advice about transition times.

I began to notice the many transitions in my children’s days.  What made these times so challenging for my kids?

There were the small, daily transitions – waking up in the morning, coming home from the park, joining the family for dinner.  And the larger ones – ending the school year, starting a new musical instrument or class, spending time with grandparents on vacation.

During transitions we hover between two places, one foot awkwardly balanced in each space.  The ground on which we stand is uneven.  No wonder transitions make us feel unsteady.  During transition times we no longer have our daily structures to support us.  Our time and space feel wide open.  We have too many options available to us.

Because transitions can be unsettling, we often subconsciously reach for something familiar.  Or if we’re under 10, we may jab a brother as a way to regain some control over the uncomfortable moment.

I soon noticed it wasn’t merely my kids who struggled with transition times.  As the haze of early parenthood lifted, I saw I had my own trials during transitions.

Take the yearly event that’s come around once again – the end-of-school transition to summer.  During those first school-less weeks while my kids were experiencing peaks in sibling rivalry and bickering, I was in the same room cycling between day dreams and anxiety.  When I wasn’t engaged in those ever-so-useful activities, I noticed I was eating more than usual whether hungry or not.

My kids are older now.  I’ve experienced the end-of-school transition for nearly a decade.  You’d think I’d be better at it!  Instead it’s become one of those skills you start to learn again and again, but never advance beyond Level 1.  In my life this includes learning to play tennis, bake bread, and knit.

I was feeling bad about my inability to smoothly navigate the regular transitions in my life when I came across Sam Anderson’s recent article on Stupid Video Games.  He suggests that the recent spate of iPhone-specific games (such as Angry Birds) are designed to be played during those numerous transition times that populate our days.

Anderson explains, “we play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally.  They’re less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day, less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits.”

While I’ve been handling transitions by overeating, spacing out, and adding to my list of indiscriminate worries, Sam Anderson admits he’s been:

playing when I should have been doing dishes, bathing my children, conversing with relatives, reading the newspaper, and especially writing.  The game[s] were an anesthetic, an escape pod, a snorkel, a Xanax, a dental hygenist with whom to exchange soothingly meaningless banter before going under the pneumatic drill of Life.

Suddenly I felt a little better.

We humans, no matter how free-spirited, like some structure and consistency in our lives.  For a child this may take the form of a toy or blanket that provides magic soothing when needed.  For we grown-ups our trusty iPhones can bestow similar magic powers during unstructured, uncomfortable moments.

So instead of attempting to quietly master transitions and imply that others should do the same, I now point them out to my kids. Together we’ve generated a list of actions that make the larger transitions smoother – exercise, patience, play time with friends, reading a good book, watching a movie.

Lately my goal is to help my kids learn to notice and predict transitions, along with their accompanying challenges, and at least be aware of healthy ways to manage these times.

And if my kids take after their Mom, they’ll reach for these healthier tools perhaps half the time.


What are healthy ways you help your kids manage transitions?

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Kids Sharing a Bedroom: Pros and Cons

When our oldest child, Stephen, was 7 he was invited to spend a night in the hotel room of his visiting grandparents.  I expected our middle child Daniel, then 5, would be excited to be the sole occupant of their shared bedroom.

However, as bedtime approached Daniel looked increasingly anxious.  Eventually he took me aside and broke the news that he might have trouble sleeping. “It’s just that every time I look at the closet I think of Scary Green Guy, and Stephen won’t be here to help me feel better.”

You probably know Scary Green Guy as the Incredible Hulk.  On a trip to Target department store, Daniel had seen the Incredible Hulk emblazoned on a 3-pack of boys underwear.  That image was quickly seared into Daniel’s young mind and soon stood in for all scary figures lurking in dark closets.

After Daniel and I discussed his worries about sleeping, I realized he’d become comfortable sleeping on the lower bunk under his big brother.  As Stephen turned during the night the beds swayed slightly, and this regular movement soothed Daniel, reminding him his brother was near.

Daniel’s experience was reassuring to me because having our boys share a bedroom was not always easy.  When asked to dress in the morning, they often happily ignored us and wrestled in their pajamas for another 15 minutes.

We’d established personal places in the room for each boy’s things, and then set up rules about not raiding a brother’s belongings.  Then there were the times one boy wanted to fall asleep to music while the other wanted silence.  Or when one had a bad cough at night.  And sharing a bedroom meant sharing a small half-bathroom as well.

Some days our sons’ room sharing seemed more a liability than an asset.  But at that time we had no other option.

Then one day I decided to adjust my attitude about the challenges of sibling room sharing.  I painted a plaque with the phrase “Close Quarters Create Close Families” and hung it centrally.  Soon I began to notice the benefits of our situation more than the problems.

Sharing a bedroom required my sons to:

  • Regularly negotiate with each other.  (light on or off?  window open or shut?)
  • Be more alert to their roommate’s daily moods.  Perhaps this occurred because sharing a room means you cross paths more each day.  But I think the boys also realized that things ran more smoothly when they noticed the other’s mood.
  • Practice patience regularly.  When you share a bedroom and bathroom, you learn to wait your turn.  And by necessity, you generate ways to pass the time while waiting.
  • Be very comfortable with each other.  The decade of room sharing in my sons’ lives has so far been the time they were closest as brothers and friends.


Our lives include various types of social relationships.  One of the draws of connecting with others online is that you can control many aspects of this contact.  You can wait and watch before you enter an ongoing conversation.  Then you can type a message exactly as you want to say it.  In these relationships you control the level of intimacy.

This is the opposite of what kids sharing a bedroom must learn to manage.  When you’re at your most fatigued you still have to negotiate with your roommate.  He sees you at your best and your worst.  It’s messy, awkward, and challenging, but it’s real life.  Visions of college dorms or marriage down the road?

One day as I walked through my boys’ room, I noticed Stephen had pinned a drawing to their wall.  He was in his architect phase, and he’d drawn a good-sized house, complete with ample deck and small attic room, labeled:  The House Stephen and Daniel Will Live in When They Grow Up.  A sweet 8 year-old sentiment embodying their closeness at the time.


Looking at Stephen’s house drawing, I thought of the recent trend in new home construction with separate suites for each occupant.  I can understand being initially attracted to this floor plan, but thinking of what my boys were learning by sharing a room, I realized this type of house wouldn’t work for me.

It would be too easy to lose touch with my family’s day to day ups and downs if each evening we retreated to our individual spaces to watch a movie on our own TV, or play computer games or check Facebook in our separate bedrooms.  Even reading in our own rooms could be lonely.  There would be no one with whom to share the funny or poignant parts of the book.

As with young Daniel’s experience, it’s comforting simply being in a room together with space for casual conversation.  We are social animals after all.


The summer Stephen turned 12 we transformed part of our basement into a bedroom ().  After Stephen’s move downstairs there was less jostling, fighting, wrestling, and bickering.  Our family life became a bit easier and quieter.

Each child has had their own room for a while at this point, and I find I must work harder to get people to congregate in our cozy living room.  Sometimes Todd or I lure the children in with food, then keep them there with a board game or chapter book.  Lately we’ve been reading from David Quammen’s book of biology essays, or playing the game “”.   But fighting the forces of family dispersion takes energy.

Now that my kids are in or near adolescence, I can see that keeping them connected to each other will be increasingly challenging in upcoming years.  I find myself remembering that small bedroom filled with bunk beds, 2 desks, and 2 bookshelves with sweeter and fonder memories than ever.


Did you share a room as a child?  What are your memories – good or bad – of this time?  Leave a comment below!

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The Power of the Written Word: New Info from Neuroscience

Recently Jhumpa Lahiri wrote a striking phrase: “[S]urely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time.  To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

I took particular notice of this passage because her writing affects me in this way.  There is something delightfully unsettling about losing oneself in fiction.  I didn’t experience this quite so intensely before becoming a parent, but since then there have been days I crave a novel with the same desperation as spring sunshine after weeks of gray winter.

Reading the right book at the right time is like opening the window in a stale room.  It blows in fresh views from new vantage points.  It distracts from the mundane, pushes a reset button on the day.  It is perhaps my most beloved vice.  A vice because once I’m in that lovely, faraway place, it’s not easy to return.

My husband Todd knows by now that if I come back from my literary vacation in an unexpected mood, one in which I didn’t set out, this new mood likely matches that of the protagonist I’m following.  Now poor Todd must decide whether to address or ignore this new emotion in a household already brimming with various humors.

But it’s a small price for me to pay – riding the waves of a character’s life.  There’s so much wisdom and perspective to be gained!

When our family of five succumbed to the stomach flu within a two week period last winter, I found myself thinking daily about Louie Zamperini, the man at the center of Unbroken, the popular WWII biography.  Louie Zamperini probably had an aching stomach like mine every day of his imprisonment in that P.O.W. camp.  How on earth did he manage it?  I’m embarrassed to admit how much that man’s harrowing experience helped me manage a few weeks of stomach flu camp – small in the scheme of things I know.

Or the times I read a book that truly changes me.  It’s as if a new classification is added to my brain’s file cabinet, and from then on my memory system shifts slightly: B.C.F.S. (Before Cutting For Stone) and A.C.F.S.

When I read Lahiri’s New York Times piece on writing, I realized something.  I’ve been known to push reading on my kids more than some. This works for my child who loves to read.  Then again he probably would have loved reading with or without me.

My mini-epiphany was that I push reading not in fact because books and teachers say to do this.  This had been my operating assumption.  Instead I think I encourage reading because I love to read so much, and I want my kids to experience what has been so powerful for me.  This realization makes me feel a bit better, though it also leads me to make a mental note:  Just because something works well for me doesn’t mean it has the same effect on each of my kids.  There are many activities which generate similar experiences of “flow” and wisdom in my children the way reading does for me.

What’s Our Brain Doing When We Read?

In the same New York Times section there was another enlightening article on fiction, this time from the perspective of neuroscience.  It seems my experience of losing myself while reading great fiction has been elucidated in brain scans.

Annie Murphy Paul explains that when we read a passage which elicits smell or texture, or describes movement, the region of our brain which controls these abilities becomes active.  Our brains even differentiate between a kick (light up the leg region) and a hit (turn on the arm region). The brain doesn’t distinguish fully whether we are reading about something or actually doing it.  Because of this phenomenon, a deep, multifaceted learning occurs through reading.  This brings to mind that almost physically tired feeling that can arise after reading an engaging story.

Don’t tell my kids this when I’m trying get them out of the house for some exercise.  “But Mama, I was just reading a good chase scene.  I don’t need to run around!”

Reading Improves Our Social IQ

Paul writes that because of the multiple ways the brain is stimulated through reading, fiction is a particularly useful method for teaching kids to understand social cues.  Social intelligence involves taking the perspective of others in order to decipher their intentions and emotions.  Reading can help children learn these skills by watching, or perhaps we should say passively experiencing, social situations in a low-stress, low-stakes environment.  Research findings show the more a person reads, the better they read social situations.

Once again I was back to considering the bountiful benefits of reading.  But with or without these literary advantages, I still only have one out of three children who truly loves to read.  How can I support reading in my other kids?  Unfortunately the New York Times didn’t come to my rescue on this issue, but it turns out one of our local papers did.

Graphic Novels for Kids

Colorado author and mom of three boys, Karla Oceanak writes graphic novels for kids.  She assures us that not only do graphic texts quickly hook kids in, but brain scan research suggests graphic novels stimulate both left and right brain hemispheres due to the mix of images and text.  Oceanak adds that “because visuals are stored more readily in long-term memory, we remember better when text is accompanied with pictures” as well.

The moral of my story on stories?  Just because my particular brain does not happen to “light up” upon reading graphic novels doesn’t mean these books aren’t exceedingly worthwhile for my kids.

And who knows, maybe Jhumpa Lahiri is currently working on a graphic novel that would be right up my alley!

Which books hook your child in most easily?


Check out what the blog Imagination Soup has to say about graphic biographies for kids.

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How Hard Could Coaching Ten Year-Olds Be?

Sam, the youngest and smallest player on our basketball team had been desperate to “bring the ball up” in a game all season.  My husband Todd, Sam’s coach, was hesitant because he could see what Sam couldn’t.  If Sam dribbled the ball up, he wasn’t likely to make it past half court before it was stolen.  This was 10 year-old Sam’s first time playing basketball and truth be told, he hadn’t even mastered dribbling yet.

But toward the end of the season, in the final minutes of a game, Todd let Sam bring the ball up.  At half court Sam was quickly swarmed by players twice his size and lost the ball.  When he looked over at Todd tears were welling in his eyes.

A moment later our team got the ball back and a kind soul passed it to Sam, who was then fouled as he attempted a shot.  Next Sam was whisked to the free throw line with all eyes on him and the score tied.  He nervously prepared for his shot. (They only get one free throw in this league.)  Sam eyed the basket and hurled the ball with all his might.  We’re still not sure how, but the ball went in.  I could almost see the synapses in Sam’s young brain laying down a long-term memory of that moment, which became the high point of Todd’s and my season as well.

Coaching our kids and their buddies was something Todd and I always assumed we would do.  Todd’s a teacher.  I’m a child psychologist.  Between us we’ve done quite a few sports, and have had a wide-range of coaches.  I naively thought this combo would make a pretty good coaching partnership.

Here’s how it went.  Todd was the head coach and I was an assistant coach of sorts, which often looked more like a good cop and a bad cop.  I was usually the one who put kids who misbehaved into short time-outs on the sidelines.  And I soon acquired the nugget of wisdom that the quickest way to stop an elementary-aged boy from talking when he should be listening was to have someone else’s Mom (me) sit right next to him.

The honest truth is coaching kids turned out to be much more challenging for Todd and me than either of us expected, for reasons which changed with each new group of kids.  In coaching basketball for 4 years at the YMCA, for instance, Todd became the one who always said yes to adding boys who’d never played basketball to his roster.  I mean isn’t this what the YMCA is all about, introducing kids to new sports?  But because of this we often had “Bad News Bears” teams who rarely won.  We noticed that as the boys got older, this was more challenging for them to accept, no matter how much we praised the effort they put in.

We did at least follow the advice of sports psychologists Ronald Smith and Frank Smoll of the University of Washington, in concentrating on player effort.  These researchers advise focusing on effort and commitment because those are within the players’ control, unlike the skill-level of the other team.  Smith and Smoll also emphasize the importance of a positive relationship between coach and players.  I’m reminded of the kids on Todd’s teams who’ve pulled him aside before or after practice to share some non-sports accomplishment with him.

My energetic and upbeat friend Lila has coached her daughters’ first through fourth grade soccer teams for the last 4 years.  She also understands the value of getting to know each girl on her team.  At the beginning of their work together, Lila talks to each player about her personal hopes and goals for that season.

Although Lila has been successful in many areas as a girls’ soccer coach, she has struggled with her younger daughter’s response to having her mother as coach.  Last year Ava, age 7, didn’t appreciate the attention her mother gave to the other players.  “You act like you like them more than me!”  Eventually Lila talked with Ava about this at home, and they came up with a hand-signal code Ava could use with her mom to let her know when she was upset at practice.  Then they agreed on some small overtures Lila could make to Ava at those difficult times.

Lila and Todd are both blessed with deep wells of patience which they draw on regularly as coaches.  (I notice this in others because my well tends to be slightly more shallow.)  But a coach needs more than simply patience to teach young players a new sport.  Smith and Smoll have created DVDs for parents and coaches which describe their coaching strategies supported by many years of research.  One of these strategies is that the progression for teaching a skill is:

1. Demonstrate.   2. Explain (briefly).   3. Practice.

These sports psychologists tell coaches that player mistakes should be used as teachable moments.  However, when a coach is using a mistake for teaching purposes, s/he should use the “positive sandwich” method.  First, note something the player is doing well.  Next follow this comment with specific technical instruction.  And finally end with a note of encouragement.  Praising players when they are giving their maximum effort goes a long way toward increasing effort and commitment during the season.

In one study Smith and Smoll found that girls who played basketball for coaches who’d been trained in these methods had decreased anxiety overall, while girls who played for untrained coaches had increased anxiety as the season progressed.

For many of the above reasons, and because Todd and I have each had coaches who have left negative marks on us, we put a lot of thought into choosing coaches for our kids.

What to Look for in a Coach for Your Child:

  1. The coach shows good sportsmanship at games and spends consistent time teaching players about sportsmanship.
  2. The players like and respect the coach and are motivated to work hard when they are around him or her.
  3. The coach praises kids when they work hard, and doesn’t give empty, undeserved praise.
  4. The coach is able to understand each child’s current abilities and pushes each appropriately for their level.
  5. S/he wants the kids to enjoy playing the sport and isn’t focused only on winning.
  6. In a recreational setting, the coach gives all kids relatively equal playing time at games.

What to Consider If You’ve Decided to Coach Youth Sports:

  1. Try to find another team parent to be an assistant coach, but make sure his or her coaching style is similar to yours.
  2. Get to know your players’ parents.  Ask them their goals for their child regarding this athletic experience.
  3. Spend time developing relationships with each player, and ask them their personal goals for the season.
  4. If your own child is playing on the team, talk to her ahead of time about her concerns about you as coach, and check-in with her regularly throughout the season.
  5. Read some books on how to coach kids’ sports.
  6. Come to each practice with many options, so that you can drop a drill that isn’t working.  Expect this situation to occur somewhat consistently.

I think I expected the experience of coaching youth sports to be more mild and calm, probably influenced by watching too many After School Special, Hallmark-sponsored TV shows as a child.  My vision of the coaching experience was similar to one of those hazy photographs where the bright colors have been tempered.

But what Todd and I found is that when you’re actually working with a team, it’s quite intense.  The highs are high and the lows are low (much more like adolescence than middle childhood).  The beginning of a new season can feel like strapping yourself into a rollercoaster you’ve never ridden before.

I guess I’ll just chalk coaching up to one of the numerous parenting experiences that did not play out as we expected, but I’m glad we took on just the same.

Please forward this to anyone you know who coaches kids’ sports!

And feel free to leave a comment below on your experience with coaches–

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