Home Away from Home

How do you stay connected when you are separated from your child because of travel?

Many of us travel for our jobs. My husband and I have worked hard to minimize our travel schedule, but there continues to be times when we need to be away. Being away from a few days is relatively easy for our kids to handle. It becomes more difficult when one of us is gone for longer periods of time.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it stinks!

Applications like Skype and FaceTime have made it easier to communicate and ‘see’ each other, but can be somewhat disappointing when you don’t have very interesting information to share: nothing particularly exciting or unique happened during the day and everyone is fine, or have limited time to talk.  When discussing this issue with some friends one, whose spouse also travels quite a bit, shared that when she or her husband travel they found that sharing pictures or making video messages went a long way with the kids. I thought it was a great idea, so our family decided to give it a try. Instead of sending a standard “Hi, Dad. How are you? We love and miss you” message, we decided to get creative. We’ve come up with various silly ways to stay connected when one of us is away. We sing songs to each other, put on short skits or Lego-inspired plays…the kids have lots of good ideas. It’s all about what they think will be fun or interesting to do. It’s been fun to make the videos, and helped us all feel more connected even though we are miles apart.

What’s helped you feel most connected to your child or spouse when you’re away on travel?

Spilt Milk

The phrase “don’t cry over spilt milk” took on new meaning for me this week. I brought my computer into the kitchen on Sunday morning with the plan of getting some writing done after breakfast. Instead of moving immediately into my writing, I invited my oldest son to come join me at the computer so we could watch some sports highlights that he had missed (due to his bedtime) from the night before.  My husband brought my son’s breakfast over to him to eat on the island where we were sitting including a glass of milk. My son and I finished watching our highlights and I got up to wash the dishes. A few minutes later I heard my son exclaim, “Uh-oh, sorry Mom.” I turned around to see what he was referring to. I quickly spotted the glass of milk laying across my keyboard with most of its contents now seeping into my computer. There was a momentary pause on my part. Did that just happen I thought. After I determined the answer was a resounding “yes” I quickly picked up the glass and started to towel off my machine. I turned the keyboard upside down and did everything I could think of to dry it off. I reassured my son everything was okay. I honestly thought the computer was going to be fine. I even powered it back on about fifteen minutes later without any problems.

Two days later I pulled out my machine to do some work on it. I hadn’t used it since I had powered it on after the milk spill. When I opened the computer I noticed there might be a problem. There was milk residue on the screen and on the keyboard. I thought I had gotten all the milk off, but clearly I hadn’t. Then I tried turning the computer on. It turned on, but wouldn’t let me log in. I was getting a strange battery empty signal (even though the computer was fully charged), and the cap lock key was stuck in the ON position. I shut the machine down and tried again. The second attempt had the same issues and the computer fan was now making a loud noise I’d never heard before. I knew the machine was in trouble, so I shut it down and quickly starting scrolling through my phone for a computer repair shop.  For anyone who has gone through a similar experience, you know that you first have to take your computer in to be diagnosed ($) and then pay someone to fix it ($$$). The milk spill damaged the keyboard requiring it to be replaced.  It took a while for the cost of this accident to sink in. Wow! I thought, I had no idea an accident like this could cost so much.

When I got home, I wanted to talk with my son. While what happened was an accident I wanted him to be aware of what happened as a result. I believed it was an opportunity for him to learn and us to grow together. I didn’t see anything positive coming from getting mad at or making my son feel terrible for the damage done and the financial burden we incurred. He didn’t mean to spill the milk and none of us had any idea what might happen if he did. We all learned a lesson that day. My son learned that when we get anything liquid on Mom’s computer it can cost more than what the Lego Star Wars Death Star set costs (my son understands what this means. He has wanted this set for a while, and we had to explain even Santa couldn’t afford it!), and my husband and I learned that no one can have any liquid around our electronics, and if we do, we need to understand the risk.

We had a very calm discussion about the whole thing. While having an unexpected expense wasn’t easy to take, it was easier to get through when I reminded myself, its just money. Yes, I’ll need to work a little harder to make up for what was lost, but I can’t put a dollar amount on going through this experience with my child.

The damaged computer and bill that followed could have made me cry, but instead I grew. In my opinion, it was worth every cent.

How do handle unexpected accidents? How have you helped your child learn from the experience?

And…..Action!

Has your child ever asked you to do something you didn’t know how to do, or aren’t sure how to teach them?

There are things I want to teach my children and expose them to, and some things I realize I don’t know how to do or probably wouldn’t be the best teacher (e.g. skiing or snowboarding!), but I also know I can go to a ski resort and pay for them to get a lesson with a skilled instructor. What do you do when you’re not sure who can help?

My boys love stop motion video. It doesn’t matter what format—clay, cutout, graphic, puppet or Lego. You can see stop motion in greater abundance than I did as a kid. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other holiday classics encompassed my exposure to stop motion. My children’s experience has been different. My oldest was able to participate in an iPad Animation class after school one semester. I wasn’t sure how the course would work at first—would they be using clay? Or something else? I soon learned Lego was the format of choice, and the class provided (just for the class itself) the iPads for the kids to use. Every week when I’d pick up my son from class he couldn’t wait to show me how many frames he had shot and what the video action looked like. My husband and I were struck with advancements in technology. Star Wars came to theaters when we were our son’s age, and now our children had tools to make their own movie. Amazing! The iPad Animation class has long since ended and my boys have continued to seek it out. We came across Lego animation both professionally (Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menance) which my kids love, and amateur videos on YouTube. When my children saw that other kids were making Lego videos, they wanted to make them too. The only problem, my husband and I didn’t know how to help—we weren’t familiar with what software the teacher had used with my son’s animation class and weren’t sure if we could figure it out. Because neither my husband nor I were familiar with what we needed to do next, we did what any parent would do. We stalled.

My oldest son began asking, almost daily, to make a Lego movie. “One day,” I replied early on. So he adjusted his question, “Can we make a Lego video one day?” to which I’d reply, “Yes, one day.” It was clear to me that the line of questioning and my response were not making me comfortable. I want to expose my children to different things and certainly want to encourage any interests or passions they have, particularly if they help them explore their creativity or capabilities. I was resistant to allow my sons to make videos because I didn’t know how to help. After a few weeks of stalling I finally told myself enough! I decided it was time to do some digging around the iPad/iPhone App Store to see what was out there. I tried video animation first and got some hits, but not what I was hoping for. I tried again this time typing in the key words Stop Motion Animation. I got a match and found a tool my kids could use. The app is called Stop Motion Animation (go figure!) and is really easy to use. My sons and even my niece started using the software right away, navigated it easily and have made numerous movies since. They love it.

Once I saw how easy the application worked and how much joy my children got from it, I asked myself why did it take you so long to make this happen? I determined not knowing what to do next was what inhibited me from taking action. And isn’t that something we all incur as parents from time to time? Part of my role as a parent is to teach my children things. Getting out of my comfort zone to do something new, even if its simply finding out a way to help my children make stop motion Lego videos, is good for me. I want my children to push themselves to see what they are capable of doing, and it’s good for me to do that too. I’m reminded of the cue given when a scene is being shot in a movie or show…and…ACTION!  When the director says “action” the actors start the scene. They may make mistakes and have to do multiple takes to get the scene right, but hesitation to start doesn’t serve the project or any of the people involved well. Instead of pausing or stalling when faced with a can-we-make-a-video or other situation where I’m not sure what exactly I need to do next in the future, I’ll be less hesitant to jump in and start figuring it out (and….action!). It might not be easy or comfortable for me, but will get easier if I take action.

What prevents you from taking action when your child wants to try something you’re not familiar or comfortable teaching them? What tools do you employ to help to help you take action?

My Kids Went on a Road Trip and All They Got Were These Marketing Toys!

Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat book has some hilarious content that any parent can relate to. One chapter, “You Win, McDonalds” really struck home. My husband and I have often had discussions around the marketing of companies like McDonald’s and Legos. The marketing is so good it’s hard to fault either company with their success in these areas.

When we go on a road trip we almost always stop into at least one McDonald’s or one Cracker Barrel. We’ve tried other restaurants and McDonald’s wins out because of the happy meal and the cool toy they offer with it, and of course, most have a playground. And while we may not normally let our children go on the playground, mainly for time sake (though knowing they are not picking up any unknown germs is always reassuring) the fact that they have a playground screams “We Like Kids” to kids.  Cracker Barrel is a favorite, because you’ve got cool rocking chairs to hang out in on the porch (assuming you can find a free one) and you have to go through an awesome store in order to get to the restaurant. Everyone can find something they’d like to eat in the Cracker Barrel and can probably find something they wouldn’t mind buying too. To our kids Cracker Barrel screams “We Like Everyone!”

We recently went on a cross-country trip and spent many hours in the car. We inevitably hit a McDonald’s and a Cracker Barrel.  There were Happy Meals and miscellaneous knick-knacks purchased. And while the Happy Meal toy or the Cracker Barrel trinket may be easily forgotten, by our children they were part of good memories for all of us.

We went on a road trip. We drove hundreds of miles and survived with smiles on our faces. Success!

Where did my Money Go? Adventures in Children’s Marketing

When I first had my oldest son, I was struck at how many things are marketed to children and how well it’s all done. It starts slowly. First, you are drawn into the clothes—after all your baby needs them, but you don’t want your baby to wear just anything, you want them to be hip, trendy, look cool or sweet. Then comes the furniture and how you decorate their room. There are so many choices and you want their room to reflect their future personality (mainly it ends up reflecting what you hope their future personality to be). Then comes the toys, development toys start first. They are marketed under terms like Einstein, Genius, and Smart. This marketing is brilliant in my opinion. It’s so simple and tugs at any parent’s primal desire to raise an educated child. Have you ever met someone who wants to have a dumb baby? I certainly haven’t. Of course we want to give our child every advantage so we buy, buy, buy. We can’t help ourselves.

As your child ages, you may become aware of these marketing trappings and may even have some success from getting caught up in the hoopla. If so, you are in the minority (but good for you!). Who hasn’t gone into a Target and thought I just need to buy my son a t-shirt, only to walk out $100+ later with a t-shirt, a couple pairs of shorts, an activity book or two, plus some shoes for the next season and some of the other items you’ve been meaning to buy. I actually avoid going to Target because I seem to fall into this trap almost every time. What just happened to my money? Did I really have to stop at the in-store Starbucks and get myself a drink? Why did I feel the need to buy all the other items now?

Target stores are inviting, they shout welcome, come this way! They are convenient and know who many of their customers are—parents! It’s genius.

Then your child will start to get into certain genres of toys. It will be their obsession. You just don’t know how long it will last. My oldest LOVED airplanes. His obsession started when he was two until we entered kindergarten. He wanted every airplane he could get his hands on, every airplane book or toy. My youngest LOVED (and still loves) all things related to the Pixar movie Cars. He wants any and every car associated with the movie or off-shoot and nothing seems to satiate his appetite for these toys.

My oldest has now moved from airplanes to Legos (as mentioned in previous posts). Lego is different than the Legos my husband and I were familiar with. You have to be a Lego fan or you won’t get caught up in the hype. Lego makes it easy to be a fan. And if you are a fan, you’re a goner. I made the mistake of coming across one their Lego Minifigure Collections when my children were young and we were getting ready to go on a camping trip. For anyone unfamiliar with Lego Minifigure Collections, they come out about once a year with a new series. Each series continues unique minifigures. Each minifigure costs approximately $3, cheap enough that you don’t feel guilty buying it. These minifigures come in packaging doesn’t allow you to know which character you are buying until you open it…it’s a mystery. I picked up four minifigure collection bags and gave two to each of my boys. It cost $12 and for the joy it brought them it was well worth the money, except…your children will want other minifigures in that same collection, or they’ll figure out there are other collections and want minifigures from that, and you didn’t pick those bags so now you have a choice: listen to your child beg, or go buy them more and hope that you find the correct character. I caved the first few times my children asked (after all what’s $3, right?) and bought each child another minifigure or two. Any parent that is honest will admit that you try to decipher what is in the bag before you decide to buy it. Is that a guitar for the rock star minifigure? Is that the helmet to the warrior minifigure? Does this have a gold feeling to it? (Lego enthusiasts familiar with the most recent minifigure collection will get this reference). Once I got repeat characters, I decided no more. It was like playing the lottery and realizing I was gambling away my money. No thank you, I think I may already be doing that at Target! Once I came to this conclusion, my children realized Mom would no longer cave. That doesn’t mean no more minifigures, it just means minifigures in moderation. Lego does make it hard to resist.

Genius. Pure genius.

Every time I feel like I’m starting to get smarter about how things are marketed to children and how I’m drawn in as their parent, I realize many companies still have a jump on me. How can I compete with them when we’re on… a road trip?

To be continued…

Reaching Your Full Potential

My boys are big fans of Cartoon Network’s Ninjago. The story follows four ninja as they train, taught by their master Sensei Wu, in order to defeat the great Lord Garmadon. The Lego minifigures—Cole, Kai, Jay and Zane—was what first drew my sons in.  My husband and I have found there are actually some pretty good lessons Sensei Wu teaches his young apprentices in the series—to appreciate differences, appreciate what you have, and to work hard to reach your full potential.

As a parent, I certainly want my children to appreciate differences, appreciate what they have, and reach their full potential, but often think how do my husband and I do that?  For me, it starts with having a plan that captures what you want to teach your child (e.g., values, morals, beliefs, experiences, etc.). While my husband and I had similar upbringings (two parents, small town upbringing, etc.) we didn’t have identical ones. When I was pregnant we both thought about things we wanted to incorporate from our own upbringings and things we didn’t (I think this is common for many new parents or parents-to-be to do). We took it a step further and wrote down things we wanted to teach our children and things we didn’t independent of each other and then compared notes. That’s how we started our plan.

The plan is dynamic and will change as our children grow and as we grow as parents. It requires inspection—are our children learning appreciation, for example.  If so, how?  If not, what do we need to change?  Our busy lives can leave us a bit drained at the end of each day, and weekends can feel like “catch up” time for all the things we weren’t able to get to during the week.  I find that I have to carve out time to ensure I am able to evaluate, with my husband, how we are doing in our parenting journey. Most nights we find some time after the kids have gone down. It takes work, it takes thought and it takes commitment.

While I want my children to reach their full potential and appreciate their talents whether they come to them naturally or they work hard to gain them. I want to reach my full potential as an individual, and as their parent. It’s hard to conceive that achieving that goal is possible, but I’m not going to stop trying. Thankfully I don’t have to master my skills to defeat an evil dark lord, but I do need to master my skills gain confidence in myself, and in my parenting journey.

How are you helping your child reach their full potential?  How are you reaching yours?

Uno!

My childhood memories of playing games is vast: Sorry, Simon, Merlin, Dark Tower, Monopoly and Uno to name a few. I enjoyed them as a child, but my enjoyment seems to fade as I got into my teens. My Mom would suggest we do a “Family Night” or “Game Night” when I was a teenager and the thought of it made me cringe. Boring, I would think, that’s what kids do. As a parent now, I better appreciate what my Mom was looking for. To spend uninterrupted time together as a family, and to enjoy each other’s company before my sisters and I were out of the house.

My sons have accumulated many board games over the years and I often thought they would end up with layers of dust on them, never used. I envisioned myself requesting a game night when they were older and was preparing myself for objections and disappointment. My kids surprised me recently when they asked to actually play the games. We started with a board game, Snail’s Pace, and really enjoyed ourselves. While we didn’t make it an official “Family Night” or “Game Night” we have had many unofficial impromptu game dates since.

My oldest son is really into Legos and I stumbled upon Creationary, which is a Legos-based game. You roll a dice, draw a card and build a place or thing out of Legos in a given amount of time. It really is a game you can enjoy at any age.

My youngest son is really into Lightning McQueen and any car from the movie Cars. I stumbled upon Cars 2 Uno in our neighborhood Target and knew I had to get it. I loved Uno as a kid and thought perhaps my kids might one day too. In the interim, I knew my youngest would love a Cars-related item with our other games. As I guessed, my youngest was excited about the cards, but didn’t have much interest beyond looking at them. To my surprise, my older son was intrigued with the cards and wanted to learn how to play right away. My husband and I have played dozens of Uno games with my son since. He seems to enjoy the game as much as I did when I was a kid.

I had no idea how much fun playing games could be. What I enjoy most is the uninterrupted fun with my family enjoying each other’s company.

A note to my Mom: Sorry, I wasn’t more open to this as a teen!

What activities or games have created uninterrupted fun for your family?

It’s a Lego-Lego World

How many parents out there have Lego fanatics in their family?  I tell you with great conviction we have two in our house in my boys.

I went on a trip that took me out of town a few months back and picked up two Lego Minifigure packs at the store for my boys. For anyone unfamiliar, the packages contain Lego Minifigures: tiny people equipped with various outfits and accessories. These are sold in packages that don’t reveal which character is inside so you don’t know if you are buying a new figure or one your child already has.  It’s children’s marketing at its best—once your child has one, they will want them ALL. As a parent, you will try to blindly feel your way to all the Lego Minifigures your child desires. Thankfully the packages are relatively inexpensive and my boys get great joy from them.

There are a number of reasons that Legos make the perfect toys for children:

  • They have changed immensely since I was a child and yet are still a classic
  • They capture my children’s attention for long periods of time
  • They reveal your child’s building capacity
  • They reveal your child’s creative capacity
  • They reveal your child’s willingness to look for a very tiny and very unique piece that is needed to complete a project

I used to believe (this stems from my own childhood I’m sure) that Legos were for boys, an activity fathers and sons.  Not true nowadays.  We stumbled upon a great Lego game called Creationary a few weeks ago and decided to invest in it. The game has you roll a die to select a category, choose a card within that category and then build whatever is on the card. My husband and oldest son are both really good at this game. I’m not as good. They often struggle to guess what I’ve built. “Mom, is that a spaceship?” my son asks. “No, it’s supposed to be a tree,” I say. You get the idea.  Win or lose, the game allows us to sit down as a family and have some fun, uninterrupted time together—which is much appreciated in our fast-paced lives.

I’m thankful that Legos are something my whole family can enjoy together; we’re better for it!