Three Bonus Skills to Teach Your Kids

This is not a post about teaching your kids to dress themselves or tie their own shoelaces. It’s not even a post about ensuring your kids tidy their rooms and put their dirty clothes in the hamper. Or take out the trash and pack their own lunch. And shocker, it’s not about kids picking up their effing Legos. It’s not about teaching reading, manners, social skills, negotiation, independence or any of that.

Yes, yes, these are all important to their well-being and development, to the orderliness of your household, your mental health and the general good of society and all that. But there are a few extra skills which, quite frankly/selfishly, are the icing on the parental cake. Let’s call them bonus skills.

Teach them:

  • How to give your neck and shoulder massage nice, firm massage. Their little bony fingers can actually dig in to your tight sore muscles better than an expensive masseur.
  • How to use the coffee machine. After all kids love to push buttons so popping a K-cup into the machine is a breeze.
  • How to drive. No more chauffering them plus you no longer have to always be the designated driver. (Of course this doesn’t apply to parents of the under-16 crowd but we can dream, right?)

What other bonus skills are you teaching your kids?

 

Three Lunch Box Strategies

My early memories of school lunches were very formative. From age 5 to about 12, it was all very Hogwarts-style. Long tables, steaming bowls of overcooked cabbage, ghastly steak and kidney pudding and sloppy semolina for dessert. Teachers staring down at you, ensuring you ate every last bite – or else. Being made to eat crisps (chips) with a fork because young ladies don’t eat with their fingers. Once we were into middle school, things became a little more modern. A cafeteria approach with less discipline and doom and more choice. I cannot remember if there was a salad bar or fresh fruit available – but I do remember the wonderful rhubarb crumble and custard. Most kids participated in the lunches provided by school, though a few (a lucky few?) brought in packed lunches, as we called them in the UK. (I don’t remember why my sister and I never had packed lunches: was it a parental mandate or our own choice? Note to self: ask Mum.)

Fast forward several decades and now I’m the Mom, pondering the school lunch landscape. Fortunately, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Michelle Obama’s program, school lunches here in the US are not as dire as they used to be and there is far more awareness of what constitutes a nutritious lunch, despite push back from school departments and economic challenges, especially here in Boston and Framingham.

My kids’ school district)has made good strides in providing healthier launch options and I commend them. Still, I’m not altogether sure that my kids would always make good choices or appreciate the food on offer (see below – roast turkey fricassee, anyone?) So every day they go to school with a home-packed lunchbox. Except Friday because pizza.

Have you ever done a quick search on Google or Pinterest for lunch box ideas? There are thousands, offering suggestions for alternatives to the tired PB & J, strategies for lunch planning and prep, and ways to create artistic masterpieces that will convince your kids to actually eat celery sticks.

Given that I’m not the artistic kind when it comes to food prep and taking into account the standard morning mayhem in our house, fancy sandwiches and sculpted vegetables were never going to be in our repertoire. In fact, in the spirit of divide and conquer, my role has always been on the grocery shopping/provisions side of the equation while my husband (a professionally trained chef) handled the actual prep. However, we kept on hitting three chief problems:

  • Not enough variety – we’d always default to the same foods
  • Both kids didn’t like the same things – son would eat the ham and cheese and leave the bread; daughter would eat the bread and leave the ham and cheese
  • So much wastage – their lunch boxes would always come home with loads of uneaten items.

So, in order to ensure their little tummies were full, their taste buds challenged and that we weren’t tipping all the leftovers into the trash every evening, we decided to try out three different approaches.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Theory: This phase involved cramming their bento-boxes with lots of different choices. Call it pick ‘n’ mix, the theory being that hopefully they’d eat a little bit of everything and get a well-rounded meal.

Conclusion: Failure. The kids ate what they liked, left what they didn’t and good food went to waste.

Shock and Awe

Theory: Surprise “baba ganoush and black beans” for lunch! We assumed that they’d be so hungry at lunchtime that they’d surely eat whatever unexpected delight they found in their lunch boxes.

Conclusion: Failure. It appears that kids would rather go hungry than eat suspicious food stuffs. Meaning crabby kids at the end of the day and yes, wastage.

Do-It-Yourself

Theory: A few months ago, I was struck by the realization that unless we stop doing stuff for our kids, they will never be able to do anything for themselves. So we decided they could make their own darn lunches every day (except Friday because pizza.) We provided some basic ground rules, like you must include protein and vegetables and the ratio of sweet stuff must not outweigh said protein and vegetables. My husband even taught them how to slice their own cucumbers which terrifies me despite the fact that my seven-year-old proclaims she is now “good with knives.” Oh joy.

Conclusion: Other than the daily concern of finger amputation, success! The kids are making good choices (see below), taking responsibility for feeding themselves, and best yet: they eat everything. Plus, my husband has an extra 10 mins in the morning.

My only regret is that we didn’t go the DIY route earlier. The next challenge is to get them to mix things up a little (my youngest picks the same foods almost every day) but all in all, DIY has been the way to go. Lunch box dilemmas solved!

School lunch mneu

School lunch menu

Kids lunchboxes with healthy food choices

Kids pack their own lunches for school

 

Why Am I Doing So Much For My Kids?

“I cannot help you; you’re too independent.”

My Mom said these words to me a few months back. I think she was complaining but I’ll take it as a compliment. After all, I’m the middle child. The older one got all the first son status. The younger one got all the youngest child attention. So I was always determined to chart my own course. Consequently, I firmly believe that happiness and success are my own choice. I alone am responsible for the decisions I make and their outcomes. I create my own destiny.

So why the heck am I doing so much now for my kids? I do their laundry, I clean up after them (I use the word “clean” quite loosely), I remind them (when I remember) to take their swimsuits/library books/signed forms to school, I arrange their playdates, I (sometimes) check their homework. I organize their clothes, get new ones when they outgrow current ones. We buy groceries, new shoes, toys. My husband folds their clothes, packs their lunch every day. We plan and cook their dinners, recycle their trash. We ferry them here, there and everywhere.

Is this not part of the definition and commitment of parenthood?

Yes, they do have some basic chores but inconsistency is ubiquitous (our fault, largely.) Take your plate/glass/cutlery over to the sink when you have finished your meal. Put your shoes/coat/hat/mittens away when you come in the house. Hang your towels up after you use them. Make sure dirty clothes find their way to the hamper, at some point. To me, these are all part of respectfully co-existing in the same household.

But I have decided it’s time for the grown-ups to back-off and for these kids start stepping it up. There is much much more that they can – and should – be doing to be active contributors to our home and hearth, otherwise known as this working Mom’s domestic crisis.

Starting today – albeit gradually and with best intentions – I’m doing less and they are doing more. They are nine and almost seven years-old and I believe it’s time. Maybe even beyond time. It’s going to start with bringing their full hamper down and then folding and putting away their own laundry. We’ll move on to making their own school lunches. Stacking and emptying the dishwasher. Sweeping the kitchen floor. On the weekends, they can make their own breakfasts and lunches. They can call their friends and arrange their own social schedules (checking with parents, of course, who still have to do the ferrying.) I’m sure my husband would appreciate help putting the trash out.

The whining will certainly be loud. Eyeballs will roll. They will be plenty of “fine” and “whatever” and pushback. There will be days when the particular pair of pants he wants to wear are not clean because he won’t have realized that the hamper was full.  They will inevitably say “I’m hungry” and get all stroppy when food does not instantly appear. They will learn. I know other parents who have successfully drilled these duties into their kids’ and I feel ashamed that I am still doing it all for them.

Over time, I’m hoping, these chores will become natural, second nature and hopefully, this household will hum with organization, goodwill and less mayhem. But this isn’t just about making my life easier (though that’s a huge incentive, I’ll admit.)

It’s about getting them to think, anticipate and understand the ingredients of an independent life so that, as they get older and obstacles (emotional, physical and academic) plant themselves in their path, they’ll have the muscle memory to face them. Be responsible for their actions. Take failures and inequity in their stride and ultimately, create their own success – whatever that will be.

Emptying the dishwasher, putting away clean socks and remembering their library books are just stepping stones in this journey. Independence is the goal, but happiness is always a choice.

A Parenting “Aha” Moment

You know those lightbulb moments when, like a bolt outta nowhere, you suddenly slap your forehead and realize something utterly amazing.

Well this wasn’t like that.

Rather, this was a slo-mo, blurry edged, fuzzy thing dawning on me kind of realization. But it did make me slap by forehead.

For years now, I’ve been giving my kids multi-request instructions. And, by giving, I mean yelling across the house. For example:

“G, please go upstairs and turn the light off in your room, pick up the PJs you left strewn on the floor and put them in the hamper. And don’t forget to bring your library book downstairs.”

or

“T, it’s  time to put your shoes on and then brush your teeth. Don’t forget to also brush your hair. Then get your coat, hat and mittens on. Oh and is your lunchbox in your backpack?”

or variations thereof.

This happens on a daily basis. Often many times.

You are nodding, I see. You do this too. And, like me, you wonder why all components of such requests never ever ever ever get completed?

The slow-loading realization that finally slapped me around the face like a cold, wet fish was that, after the first few words of the request, kids universally hear the following:

“Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah…….”

It’s nothing personal (I hope.) I realized they can only process one request at a time! All this time, I’ve been projecting my multi-tasking-ninjaness onto these little creatures whose brains simply cannot deal with that much information at once, let alone remember the correct sequence.

This finally dawned on me when my six year-old said, just like Otto in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, but cuter:

“What was the middle thing?”

Henceforth, I must remember to break down these requests into bite-sized chunks and deliver them eyeball-to-eyeball, rather than shriek them from one end of the house to the other. We’ll see how that goes during the usual morning mayhem.

“What was the middle thing” Otto, from a Fish Called Wanda

The Grand Illusion: Mogul, Mom & Maid

A real conversation from early December:

Husband: “Honey, when will our Christmas cards arrive?”

Me: “I’m sorry, I haven’t even ordered them yet.”

Husband: “What? How come? We’re already receiving loads of cards and should be sending ours out now too.”

Me <insert snark> : “Oh, I didn’t realize. I’ve been lying here on the couch watching reruns of Desperate Housewife and filing my nails.”

Husband: “I know you are busy, I get it. But I’m surprised the cards aren’t done because you always seem like you have everything under control.”

BOOM. The moment of truth. It always seems like I have everything under control. Hahaha!

The reality is: I don’t. It’s all a thin veil or, rather, a grand illusion. Scratch the surface and there’s a hot mess of confused priorities, a healthy dose of anxiety, a fair amount of disorder, random spots of remarkable focus and OCD, a pinch here and there of laissez-faire and, more often than not, a wing and a prayer, a shrug and a nervous giggle.

Or, as a friend who is also trying to figure out this working Mom thing calls it: the sliding scale of incompetency.

Reality #2. Also back in early December, Liz O’Donnell, author of the new book Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman” asked me to contribute to a blog carnival with other working Moms, to share our tips and perspectives about our balancing acts. Irony: it was one of those weeks when all around me, life was exploding and there was no time to blog for me, let alone anyone else, let alone blogging about my balancing act! So, Liz, here’s my post, just a few weeks late …..

So, I ask myself, what of this grand illusion? Does it help or harm me? One the one hand, apparently I project this image of a confident working Mom, managing all that comes with it, with a smile on my face. This is good, surely? Heck, I even fool myself most of the time. I achieve this illusion, like so many other women, thanks to my ability to prioritize, multi-task and to turn on a dime when it’s really needed. It’s also thanks to several handy tools that help save some precious time and the wonderful invention that is Waterproof Post-it Notes which, quite literally, ensure the contents of my brain don’t disappear down the shower drain. (Buy them now …. hurry!)

On the flip-side, existing in this mode is a scary place. At any given point, there’s a terrifyingly strong chance that I will screw something up big time. The fragile card tower that I hold together all day and night is precarious. One missed deadline, one forgotten item at the grocery store, one overlooked play date invitation – not to mention the fun and games of hormones – and it can all come toppling down. The energy involved in keeping the cards propped up and balanced is exhausting.

So this is my balancing act. With the emphasis on the word ‘act’. But would I exchange it for not being a working Mom? Nope! This is my bed and I chose to lie in it.

Oh, and back to those Christmas cards. Yes I did get around to ordering them but so late that they ended up arriving on Christmas Eve. Have I had the chance to mail any out? No. Will I? The likelihood is probably not. Sorry folks. Because here’s reality #3 which, thanks to Dr. Seuss, I use day-in and day-out as a filter for the choices I make when prioritizing the 23697,2466,00000 things on this working Mom’s to-do list:

Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind!

20 Signs That You Have an Elementary School Kid

(This post originally ran on Huffington Post Parents)

The days of bottles, potty training, snotty noses and sippy cups are far behind me. I now have two kids in elementary school and, like so many parents of similar-aged kids, find myself pondering about how much my life has altered as I cruise around the grocery store at 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening. One on the one hand, my kids are more independent: they can read, they can write, they can tie their shoelaces (well, almost) and I’ve even been paying them to sort, fold and put away their laundry! But on the other hand, the sheer volume of school/PTO requests, homework and social activities threaten to overwhelm and quite frankly, erode any chance of quality me-time (other than grocery shopping late at night). Does any of this sound familiar?

Here are many ways to know when you, too, are the parent of elementary school kids:

  1. You find out about a school project/permission slip/photo day at 8 a.m. the day they are due.
  2. Play dates and parties are drop off… and you are thrilled.
  3. You proudly wear rainbow loom bracelets (while muttering under your breath about the chaos of rubber bands littering your house).
  4. Math homework makes you quake with fear.
  5. You manage to squeeze your lower half into those tiny seats during parent-teacher conferences.
  6. The days of the week take on new meaning: Monday is “you have PE, don’t forget your sneakers day!”, Thursday is “return library book day”, Friday is “pizza day!”
  7. Minecraft.
  8. You are scared to put your hand inside their backpacks.
  9. Your second job is peddling wrapping paper, raffle tickets and other fundraisers (and your friends and family deftly avoid you).
  10. Ninety percent of the morning mayhem in your house is created in the last 10 minutes before school drop off.
  11. Your iPad/laptop is no longer your own.
  12. You have to explain why Miley Cyrus is really not that cool.
  13. You are adept at stealthily throwing away the latest ‘art project’ in the trash can outside, making sure to hide it underneath other stuff.
  14. You find yourself singing along to Kidz Bop (even when there are no kids around…).
  15. Gloves and hats and socks get lost with uncanny frequency.
  16. Pokemon.
  17. Your toddler knows to yell “BUS” as it approaches the end of your driveway.
  18. Your weekends are a complex logistical challenge — full of parties, play dates, sports and errands.
  19. You are not beneath drying papier maché volcanoes in the microwave.
  20. You know that the day when you’ll have to explain the birds and the bees is inching closer and it terrifies you.

The Incompetent Chef & the Legendary Hippo Cake

Last night, I cooked meat and I didn’t kill anyone.

The truth is that every time I cook with meat of any kind, I’m convinced that I am endangering someone’s life. When it comes to cooking, I am insecure, unconfident and a generally a klutz. It’s as if my hands turn into giant lumps, unable to coordinate, cut or stir with precision. Timing several items to be ready simultaneously causes me to break out in hives.

The fact that I am married to a professionally trained chef just makes matters worse. “Just make a roux,” he’ll suggest. Like I know how to make a roux and what you do with one? “That’s the wrong knife!” is a common complaint. Scuse me, it’s metal, it’s sharp, it cuts – so what is wrong with that? Also, I need to improve my stirring technique, apparently.

Unlike my husband who is very patient with me and who can whip up a gourmet meal in a jiffy without breaking a sweat, I need the following conditions in place to even attempt cuisine success:

  • A recipe to follow, preferably with 4 or less ingredients and steps
  • A timer – and plenty of time for mistakes and do-overs
  • No husband within 10 metres
  • Plenty of space for things to spill, get dropped, messed up
  • No children within 5 metres
  • Alcohol
  • Clorox wipes

Many of my cooking miss-haps are now the stuff of legends among family and friends. This one, for example, has become fondly known as the Hippo cake. (It was supposed to be a honey cake.)

The Hippo Cake

I guess only practice can make perfect, right? As long as I don’t kill anyone in the process.

For the Love of … Tupperware (Not!)

My mother always says ‘there’s a lid for every pot,’ meaning there’s a match out there for each and every one of us. While this may apply to our love lives, it does not translate to my tupperware cupboard. Lawd, how I dislike tupperware.

And this evening, I lost it. I was looking for a particular-sized tupperware container. Meaning, I had to reluctantly rummage among the mismatched, chaotically organized lids and containers. Could I find what I was looking for? Of course not. Not only could I not find what I needed but the rummaging caused lids to fly and containers to topple. Ever so quickly, I tried to slam shut the cupboard door so that the lava of plastic vomit would not cascade out onto the floor. I managed to somewhat stem the flow but the dratted door wouldn’t shut. I opened it another teeny inch, squeezed my arm in and blindly waved it about, hoping to jigger the insides into a less imbalanced stack of plastic. But alas, the door would still not shut.

So I swore. And walked away.

Being somewhat of a control freak, maybe you are surprised at my lack of desire/need to corral these plastic tubs into orderly discipline. However deep my desire for neatly stacked, logistically organized kitchen cupboards, the reality is I don’t like the smell of day-old food hermetically-sealed in plastic, I don’t like packed lunches and I don’t much like leftovers.

Ergo, I don’t like tupperware.

So there you have it.

For the Love of …. Dish Towels

Husbands and wives argue over many things: money, schedules, kids, cleaning up, folding laundry the right way, loading the dishwasher, other women, other men, clothes, music, TV, sports and so on. If you’re married, you know how it goes.

Fortunately, me and my hubby, we really don’t argue. Sure we nit-pick from time to time: it’s healthy. We are also incredibly silly, which is even healthier. But one of my pet peeves that really gets me going in the spousal bickering department is our opposing views on  … dish towels.

Me: Dish towels — or tea towels, as we call them in England — are intended, as their American name suggests, for drying dishes. Drying dishes that have been cleaned. Therefore, said dish towel should also be clean prior to their drying function or else the dishes would become dirty again. Ammiright or ammiright?

As a secondary function, dish towels can be used to dry one’s hands, after one has washed said dishes. Again, this calls for use of a clean dish towel, or else said hands will be rendered unclean once again and the whole thing is “moo” (to quote Joey.)

Him: Dish towels are rags with wide-ranging functions from wiping down messy counters, to cleaning the inside door of the wood-burning stove, to handling sticky, hot pots and pans.

We’ve had several run-ins on this delicate topic. We’ve called each other names. We’ve thrown our hands up in the air. We’ve laughed and snickered at each other’s weaknesses on the topic. We’re both right and we’re both wrong. It’s a hoot.

The good news is we found a solution. We’ve established hooks by the sink, designated for the clean dish towels to be used only for drying dishes. And another spot where we hang a towel, designated only for the drying of clean hands. This makes me happy. All other dish towels, tea towels, rags or whatever you wish to call them are his to use however he sees fit, as long as they eventually find their way into the washing machine and never, never, put on the hooks with the clean towels.

Yes, I am a control freak and he is a professionally-trained chef. It’s a beautiful thing.

The other funny footnote to add to this seemingly pointless post is that, when towels are not hung back up or put in the washer, but are left in random places within the dog’s reach …. well then, off they disappear to be buried outside in the mud somewhere, as our dog likes to do. Often.

So there you have it. Happy weekend, folks!

Our Beautiful Mess

For a while now, I’ve been pondering writing a blog post about stuff. All the stuff. How there’s just so much of it. Everywhere. And about the futility of trying to erase, structure or organize the stuff because it just multiplies, rearranges and disperses itself liberally all over the place, no matter how hard or how often you try to tame it. I was going to describe how the stuff makes me feel like I am out of control, unable to master it with the necessary formulae and discipline.

How every couple of months I go nuts and, armed with a trash bag I hurl sweeping armfuls of the stuff – no matter if it’s new, old, missing parts, Lego parts, home-made, store-bought, homework, artwork, party favor, more Lego parts, Happy Meal made-in-Taiwan piece of crap, even more Lego parts, plastic, paper, metal, recyclable, animal, mineral – into the bag and haul it off to the trash. Often several, large, misshapen bag loads before the overwhelming urge to trash everything gradually settles and the guilt creeps in. Was that wasteful? Did I “accidentally on purpose” just commit a cherished something to an early demise? Haven’t I really just made room for the next inexorable influx of stuff?

But I’ve had a change of heart.

I took a long hard look around my home, taking in every room, and I realized something. This mess, this unruly, chaotic mess, is our mess. It’s a complete reflection of our lives, replete with activity and creativity and disorganization and projects and presents. It mirrors how we are constantly on the move, producing, consuming and creating.

It’s a beautiful mess. And it makes me smile.

I’ll still try to organize it, filter it, minimize it. Sure, I’ll do a sweep from time to time to get rid of stuff no longer played with or used. Probably before birthdays and Christmas. But I’m not going to treat it like the persistent enemy, anymore. I’m not going to let it guilt or shame me.

It’s our beautiful mess.

p.s. Have you tried the A Beautiful Mess app? It’s very nifty. You can add doodles or scribbles to your photos. Here’s one I made earlier!

IMG_6386

p.p.s Also worth checking out, Jason Mraz’s A Beautiful Mess. I love it.

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