The New Research That Convinced Me to Become a Soccer Mom Dropout

Am I a horrible mother? The society-driven guilt part of me says, “yes,” but the authentic me says, “heck no!”

My oldest son is eight and one of the few in his class who is not involved in soccer…and never has been.
It hasn’t been an intentional choice on our part. He has never really shown an interest (for more than one day). Plus, I’m not ready to commit our precious free time after school and especially on weekends to sitting in the hot or cold or rain to watch him practice.
Am I a horrible mother? The society-driven guilt part of me says, “yes,” but the authentic me says, “heck no!”
Truth be told, I kind of like being a soccer mom rebel. I don’t enjoy always doing the expected motherhood thing, and my son isn’t one to just “go with flow” when it comes to activities like that. He has participated in certain activities from time to time – summer baseball (we missed half the season traveling), “ninja” gymnastics (right up his alley), and chess club.
Overall, however, I find that he does best just hanging out with his friends after school – the few who have also eschewed soccer.

What we do instead

The other day, I found my son and two friends making an “arcade” out of a bunch of huge cardboard boxes and some Nerf guns. I couldn’t have been more proud. They used their best salesmen techniques to try to convince some younger boys at the park to play for a fee (ha!).
They didn’t make much money, but they had a blast, and you could tell they felt empowered by their experiment in entrepreneurship.
I’m not against all organized activities. They have their place. But seeing the pride on my son’s face while planning and accomplishing his arcade idea reinforced my hunch that there is something to allowing kids to just do their own thing.
Plus, his behavior and mood improves when he has plenty of time to play with friends without an agenda. During free play, kids get the chance to release their emotions, pent-up anger, or anxiety. Think of how you feel when you’ve been stressed and then you go for a long walk or a strenuous workout. You feel de-stressed and cleansed, right?
This is what play does for kids. Without it, our kids’ emotions and frustrations spill out as misbehavior, whining, and overall crankiness.
This past weekend, for example, we were pretty busy. We went to an amusement park with some friends, my son sold popcorn for Cub Scouts, and we had church and a party to attend. We are not usually that busy on weekends, but it just ended up that way. By Sunday night, I felt a little spent but it seemed my eight-year-old was doing okay.
Guess what? Monday after school, he lost it. Total meltdown. He had not gotten enough downtime over the weekend. He had held it together at school all day and needed an emotional release. He whined and cried off and on, and then we talked for about what’s been going on at school and on the playground, etc.
Once his energy had been restored, my son became a totally different kid. The night before, you would have thought everything in his life was a disaster. The next morning, he was eager for school and ready to move on.

What does the research say?

Child development researchers are delving into this topic and trying to understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.
In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers at The University of Colorado looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured verses unstructured activities) and the development of executive function.
Executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develop during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life.
Executive function includes things like:

  • planning ahead
  • goal-oriented behavior
  • suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors
  • and delaying gratification.

Do these sound familiar? They are typically all the skills that break down when kids are overtired or stressed and have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road.
Researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s activities and their level of executive function. The results showed a correlation between these factors. The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.
So what does this all mean? Before you pull your kids out of their activities and turn to “unschooling,”  keep in mind that this study was small scale (70 children) and only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured verses unstructured activities cause a change in executive function, or if there’s something else going on here.
What this study does show is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study. What is it about unstructured time that might enforce executive function skills? Is there something about structured activities that limit executive function?
A study like this encourages parents to reassess the cultural norms and expectations we might be adopting. Are we involved in activities because our kids like them or receive some benefit from them? Or are we just doing “what soccer moms do”?
Activities can be great, but don’t feel like you must enroll your child in every enrichment opportunity out there because that’s what society dictates.

My Magnificent Mom Body

I feel like I’m going to vomit. My friend who runs marathons told me, “When you feel like you’re going to throw up, keep pushing for three or four more minutes. It will increase your stamina,” so I’ve been running through that pukey feeling. I’m slower than most of the girls in my group, but I’m getting faster. See, I remember that pukey feeling from those ten, twelve, fifteen hours of labor. I got this.

For the first time in nine years I’m not pregnant or nursing a baby, but out with my friends. I stop at one glass of Malbec and, instead of staying out to dance, I head home. I drag my ass out of bed at five o’clock to work out.

“But why?” my friend asks. Here’s my answer:

I don’t do it because my four-year-old said, ”Your butt looks like it got poked all over.” (Yeah, that’s cellulite). She’s also said, “You’re the strongest, Mommy,” and, “You look so beautiful, I love how you look,” and, “Do the dance again, Mommy!” Not one of my kids care about a couple dimples on my booty, especially when we’re shaking them.

I don’t do it so my body is beach ready. My body is beach ready when I put on my bathing suit and sunblock.

When I was pregnant with my third the doctor came in (with a cute intern) and pointed at my belly. “What’s this?” he asked. Um, a stretch mark Mr O.B., perhaps you’ve seen them before? Yes, it’s unusually large, but surely you’re aware. More like S.O.B.

Anyway, if I can be humiliated by the doctor and be okay about my bod, I think I can handle anyone at the beach.

I don’t do it because my stomach is mush. I think my stomach will always be squashy, no matter how many planks I do. I remember when planking wasn’t a thing, and I liked it better. All my babies have slept on that belly, snuggled up, their little heads on my heart. It’s a comfy tummy.

I don’t do it to decrease stress. I use naps, orgasms, and wine for that. Also, my kids sometimes set up a “spa” for me in the bathroom. I lie on the damp, dirty bathroom rug while the four of them rub my back with hot washcloths and sweet-smelling bottles of hotel lotion. Paradise.

I don’t do it for my husband. He likes big butts and he cannot lie. He has seen me make and subsequently give him four human beings. I mean, after that, running a couple miles kind of fast is pretty inconsequential.

I don’t do it because my friend posts motivational memes all over her Facebook page. Enough already. If I see one more perfect ass with something about squats on it, I might unfriend you. At least unfollow. See, it feels like all I do all day is squat to pick up a lego off the floor, squat to kiss a bloody knee, squat to sweep the broken glass into the dustpan. I got you’re squats right here, buddy.

Yes, I’m setting a good example for my kids. Yes, I feel better. And yes, I’m becoming that person who is a little grumpy when I don’t work out. Damn it, I hate that person.

None of these things are really why either.

I’m training for a triathlon, my first. Pre-kids, I used to think, “Wow! Those people are amazing, I could never do that.” But I’m doing it. I’m doing it now because, after pushing out four babies, nourishing them with only my body, lifting them to the branch so they could climb, pushing, pulling, and dragging them screaming out of countless grocery stores, carrying their sleeping bodies from the car and up a thousand stairs to bed, catching them whenever they were going to fall, all that and raising them up, I finally know the strength of my body.

Please don’t tell me how to get my body back. My body has been here all along, growing human beings. I never knew how capable I was until those four tiny people gave me this extraordinary gift: they gave me my mom body.

How Can You Prevent Trampoline Injury? Stop Treating it Like a Toy

The problem with trampolines isn’t so much safety as it is categorization. When we categorize trampolines as sports equipment, they look much different.

“Everyone wants to have fun. Everyone wants to have fun with their children. You think you are being a good parent, spending time with your child, having fun – and the next thing you know your whole life changes.”
So opens the first post on Alisha Carlo’s The Fracture Factory, a blog where “it’s all fun and games until your kneecaps end up in your thighs.”
Carlo chronicles her family’s experiences with a local trampoline park – from her sister’s ACL tear, to Carlo’s self-imposed ban on family trips to the park, to her husband Jamie’s flouting of that ban, to Jamie’s bi-lateral patella tendon rupture (that’s a double kneecap injury) and long recovery.
The titular “Fracture Factory” comes from one of the nicknames the local hospital uses for the trampoline park. Others call it “The Fractury,” and some joke that the hospital’s surgeons must have invested in the trampoline park.
Carlo’s story has taught me all manner of things I wish I didn’t know. I now know to always read the seemingly routine liability waivers at family fun centers before signing. The waiver for the trampoline park near my home, for example, tells me that “Participants may die or become paralyzed, partially or fully, through their use of the Sky Zone facility and participation in Sky Zone activities.”
I now know that trampoline park injuries are on the rise, from 581 to 6,932 between 2010 and 2014. I now can’t un-know what kneecaps look like when they’re six inches out of place. In short, I now know to avoid trampolines.
At the same time, I’m also sensitive to the problems caused by campaigns to “boost awareness.” Many of these campaigns are problematic because the resulting awareness makes people scared of non-existent threats. I’ve made that argument about many awareness campaigns, whether the focus is moldy Sophiespuffy coats, or E. coli in raw cookie dough.
Trampolines may be one of the rare cases when parents actually need more awareness.

As toys, trampolines cause injury, the parent-oriented website run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers simple advice about trampolines: “Don’t buy a trampoline for your home!”
Actually, the advice is even broader. The AAP recommends against trampolines in gym classes and on playgrounds and asserts that trampolines belong in “supervised training programs” only. That advice may seem like an overreaction to parents, especially when the most popular home trampolines have thousands of positive Amazon reviews.
It’s difficult to determine the overall risks posed by trampolines because we’re missing a denominator. As Slate’s Melinda Wenner Moyer points out, we have an estimate of how many injuries occur to kids under age 18.
In 2016, there were an estimated 103,512 emergency department visits as a result of trampolines. Although we could probably figure out how many trampolines are sold in the U.S., that number doesn’t tell us how safe trampolines are because we don’t know who exactly is jumping on them, or for how long.
Imagine, for example, that there were only 103,512 trampolines. In 2016, that would have meant an average one injury per trampoline. That would be pretty concerning.
But imagine there were 20 million trampolines, or, as Wenner Moyer suggests, 20 million trampoline jumping hours per trampoline. That would be concerning, but perhaps no more dangerous than many other forms of entertainment.
Without data on trampoline ownership and use, Wenner Moyer instead relies on injury rates. She compares the injury rates for playground equipment to the injury rates for trampolines and finds there were actually fewer playground injuries in 2016 than trampoline injuries.
“I don’t have any data on this,” Wenner Moyer admits, “but I suspect that American kids collectively spend a lot more time climbing on playgrounds than they do jumping on trampolines.”
It’s hard to determine exactly what proportion of trampoline users are likely to get injured, but it seems that they are being injured at a higher rate than playground users. Their resulting injuries tend to be more severe than those sustained on the playground.
Injuries like Carlo’s husband’s double patella tendon rupture aren’t freak accidents, but consequences of the physics of trampolines. As Wenner Moyer explains, if a young child lands on the trampoline just after it has moved upward from another jumper, the force is strong enough to break that child’s legs.
Wenner Moyer is not a killjoy out to ruin your fun with trampolines. She’s both an owner of a mini trampoline and a parent to young children, now “panic-wondering” about whether or not a trampoline constitutes an acceptable risk.
The goal of her excellent piece “is not to scare you into dumping your trampoline in the garbage; the point is to provide you with facts so that whatever decision you make will be informed, and so that you can minimize the danger by setting a few guidelines if you want.”

As sporting equipment, trampolines prevent injury

After reading about Carlo’s family’s experiences and Wenner Moyer’s analysis of trampoline safety, I won’t be buying a trampoline. My concern is not that trampolines are dangerous. Like Wenner Moyer, I see the value in kids’ risky play.
The problem with trampolines isn’t so much safety as it is categorization. Wenner Moyer categorized trampolines as toys, comparing them to playground equipment. But what if that’s the wrong comparison?
When we categorize trampolines as sporting equipment rather than toys, they start to look much different. Trampolines aren’t viewed as a danger to athletes. In fact, they’re often considered a safety device.
When you think of Olympic diving practice, you probably picture a pool. Most professional divers, however, do significant amounts of dry-land training. The training is, in part, a response to practical problems: If you can’t rent time at a swimming pool, you can still practice on the trampoline. But trampolines also help divers avoid injury while practicing new techniques.
Divers are not simply bouncing around. They use specialized equipment that allows them to practice dives without impact. Unlike amateur trampolinists, divers use spotting rigs when they practice on the trampoline, which allows them to perform complicated moves in safety. Essentially, they’re training at a Sky Zone…except they have safety equipment.
Divers aren’t the only Olympians who use trampolines as safe training devices. Freestyle aerial skiers put in a lot of practice on the trampoline before attempting their skills at death-defying heights.
One group that doesn’t use the trampoline to practice new skills is Olympic trampoliners. They practice new skills while firmly planted on the ground.

How to trampoline like a serious athlete

When treated as a toy, a trampoline can lead to serious injury and occasionally death. When treated as a piece of sporting equipment, a trampoline can make a dangerous sport less dangerous.
Parents and kids who want to keep their trampolines might do well to follow the safety guidelines that athletes do. For example, many athletes practice with a safety harness until they have mastered a particular skill.
Although a safety harness may not be a practical solution for home trampoline use, the following three safety rules can dramatically reduce the risk of injury:

1 | Jump one person at a time

This is the rule most likely to be broken by at-home users and the cause of the majority of trampoline-related injuries. If you review the Olympic training videos above, you’ll see that serious athletes never break this rule. That’s because there is real danger to life and limb when multiple people use a trampoline at the same time.

2 | Make it impossible to fall

Athletes don’t get injured from falling off trampolines. That’s not because athletes are better trained than backyard trampoliners. It’s because there is often nowhere to fall. Athletic training facilities use foam pits and other padded surfaces that make falling from a trampoline impossible.

3 | Don’t jump without supervision

A coach or trainer should always watching.
If your child complains about these rules, you can always remind her that following them may get her to the Olympics.

Is That Your Child or a Wild Animal?

This is a submission in our monthly contest. January’s theme is “Wild.” Enter your own here!

Recently I took the kids to the local zoo. Yep, all three kiddies and me. We thought it would be a nice way to kick off summer vacation. While navigating the property, we encountered tons of different and unique animals, some of which reminded me of one of my kids at some point.

I know what you are thinking: “She’s looney.” Either that or you think I’m the worst mother in the world for sharing with the world that I, on occasion, have an easy time comparing my children to zoo animals. But I bet you could, too.

There are so many similarities between wild creatures and our children. Passing up an opportunity to make and share the correlation was just something I could not do.

Ever seen a toddler go ape-shit on you? Boom, there’s your gorilla. For real, right? How else are our kids like gorillas? Well, gorillas spend their time in three main activities: feeding, traveling, and resting – the same as your child, who basically only wants to eat, stay busy, rest, and then repeat.

Do your kids enjoying viewing the tortoises at your local zoo? I’m sure they do, because it’s like visiting a long-lost family member. Think about it. Ever beg your young child to hurry up because it takes them ten million years to do anything, including get their shoes on or get out of the car? That’s because they’re like the land tortoise who moves at less than one mile an hour. Nice little family reunion for them, right?

Wait, did you just secretly open a snack for yourself? No way that you’re going to enjoy that little goodie without your child. With his slothbear-like keen sense of smell and great eyesight, he’ll spot it for sure. You will never, ever get away with eating something and not having to share some of it with your children ever again.

How about those lorys who have no concept of respect for personal space? Ever walk into the lory bird sanctuary at a zoo and have them leave you completely alone? That’s rare. Usually, once you enter, they swarm you – they’re on your head, your shoulders, your arms – just about everywhere. Just like your children, right? I mean, when is one not being held by you, or tugging on you, or touching you? For me, it feels like never.

You know what other animal my children are like? Giraffes, or at least the ones at my local zoo. The giraffes there are very moody and often do not comply with the requests of the handlers to come closer for a guest-giraffe encounter. Who does this sound like? Who else can be ill-tempered, rebellious, and non-compliant? I don’t think I have to tell you. I’m pretty sure you have that one figured out.

You also can’t forget about how our children, as toddlers, often waddle like drunk penguins, typically stink like warthogs, and spit like llamas whenever they excitedly talk to you.

There’s one last comparison to be made, and this one might surprise you. This was not a creature that had its own exhibit at our zoo. Rather, it was a creature that we saw and observed, many times, merely walking the zoo property. Can you guess what it was? A butterfly.

How are butterflies similar to our children? Well, just like children, each butterfly we saw was different and unique in its appearance. Each one had different mannerisms, unique to itself. Each one was taking a different path and flying in a different pattern. You know what else? Each butterfly was beautiful and each butterfly made us smile. Wouldn’t you say the same about your children? (I couldn’t end on a less-than-positive comparison.)

It isn’t always bad to be compared to an animal. I’m proud of my children’s animal-like qualities. I love animals and I love kids. That’s why I am totally cool with my son wanting to go to the zoo, aquarium, or pet store each and every day.

Sandra Bullock said once, “If you don’t have kids and animals, you don’t truly know what life is about.” Amen, sister.

This post has appeared on the author’s personal blog,, under the title “How Children Are Like Zoo Animals.”

There’s a Bear in There – Tales from the Wild

This is a submission in our monthly contest. January’s theme is “Wild.” Enter your own here!
2017 was the year of the bear for my family. Officially it may have been the Chinese year of the rooster but for us, it was definitely the year of the bear. Born, raised, and living in Australia where kangaroos and small marsupials abound in the wild, I dreamed to see bears in the wild. I marveled at the idea that these large mammals still had enough habitat to survive.
We planned a trip to Canada and Alaska. Others may go to these locations to see Lake Louise or get their fill of glaciers. For our family, it was all about finding a place that had so much wild that bears roamed free.
We talked about the wilderness a lot. Sure, we have the outback in Australia with it’s deadly snakes but how could this compare to the real wild as we started to call it. The real wild not only had bears we discovered in our planning. The real wild had wolves, caribou, deer, moose. It had squirrels, chipmunks and marmots.
We studied hard for our trip into the real wild. We read travel books and blogs. We watched TV shows about hardy Alaskans living in harsh and unforgiving lands. We learned how to feed a dog team through winter, how to survive in a tent in subzero temperatures and how to make a makeshift bed from pine needles. These skills were sure to come in handy in our RV adventure through summer.
We also learned that Alaskans were not as keen to see bears in the wild as we were. We often heard an Alaskan say “I’m really hoping we don’t see a bear” while watching the programs. Rather than being amazed that bears continue to exist in the wild, many Alaskans seemed to spend a lot of time hoping they wouldn’t. One woman would regularly recount the time a bear attacked her and speak of the ongoing psychological trauma she suffered as a result.
Undeterred by any local opinion, we remained keen to see bears. Sooner than we knew we were in Canada trying to see our first bear. Our first black bear we saw from a shuttle bus and another we saw crossing the road in front of our car, so fast we couldn’t even take a picture. Finding two black bears, a mother and cub, on the side of the road eating berries was a highlight. We excitedly filmed these bears from the safety of our rental car.
We became interested in animal scat. How to tell a brown bear’s scat from a black bear, how to tell that of a moose from a deer from a caribou. For the first time in my life I came home from a vacation with numerous pictures of animal poo on my phone. I’m not telling how many but it was more than five and less than 20.
Our first face to face encounter with a wild animal happened when we stumbled across a moose and her calf on a brief walk to the lake in Alaska. I was so focused on bears I hadn’t read up on moose and chose to behave as if the moose was a horse. According to a ranger talk I heard later, the mama moose in summer is the most dangerous animal in Alaska, prone to aggression when protecting a calf. Fortunately for me, the moose seemed to know we were harmless Australians and didn’t charge me or my children.
In Denali National Park we observed plenty more bears from the park shuttle bus. We took a hike close to the visitors center and spotted a bear walking across a river. One child started walking backwards, deciding that was close enough. A debate about what was 1000 yards exactly began. 100 yards is the distance we were told to keep at all times from a grizzly. A yard means nothing to an Aussie who functions on the metric system. Without signal we couldn’t Google an answer. According to my kid, 1000 yards was the point we stood.
We pushed on wanting to get closer to our first bear that we had discovered on foot. As we walked closer, the bear decided to put more distance between us. Clearly, the bear knew what 1000 yards was.
On our down day in Denali National Park, we decided to take another hike in the real wild. Denali doesn’t have marked trails so we followed a wooded area parallel to the river from our camp. As our hike continued we began to notice bear scat in increasing quantities. It looked kind of fresh.
“Sing out, kids,” we said. “remember to make noise. This is what we’ve been practicing for. We don’t want to surprise a bear we just want to see one.” Silence. Then we came upon a freshly chewed and rather large caribou leg bone. The kids started singing out “I don’t want to go any further,” “I’m scared,” “There’s a bear here,” “It’s going to eat us,” and “we’re going to die.” At that moment, it dawned on me. The kids did not want to see a bear in the wild any more than the Alaskan folk on the TV show.
We pushed on, because my training as a psychologist has taught avoiding things in response to anxiety is not good for kids. I’m pretty sure that sometimes my kids hate that about me. My husband and I were pretty sure that the kids were going to ruin our chance of seeing a bear on the hike. We resentfully grumbled under our breath about how the kids were killing our dreams while enthusiastically encouraging the kids to keep moving towards what they were sure was certain death.
We gave up the hike when we were entered a wolf den area. No further hiking was permitted to protect the wolves’ breeding success. As we turned back, a bus driver hailed us and asked if we could see the large grizzly bear about 900 yards from where we were hiking. No, we couldn’t. He pointed and gestured for a while before eventually drove off telling us hopelessly blind Aussies to make noise and keep our eye out for the bear. A disagreement began between my husband and I this time about how far 900 yards was. I realized and not for the first time, how often we relied on Google to solve our problems.
We had the unenviable task of convincing the kids to hike back to camp with the kids now fully aware that there was a bear in our proximity. The same bear that was at some distance which neither of their parents could agree on or provide any reassurance about. We searched the zone for the grizzly for some time but never spotted him. What had been high anxiety in the kids was now closer to terror. With some heavy negotiation involving S’mores, we managed to get the kids to agree to hike back to camp along the open river bank. My husband held the bear spray as we proceeded.
We didn’t sight that bear much to my disappointment and the kids relief. They ate a lot of S’mores that night and seemed to forgive us for forcing them to hike into possible danger. We saw more bears throughout our time in Alaska and we learned how to convert yards into meters. The kids remained scared of seeing a bear in the wild unless we were in a vehicle. According to many Alaskans, that’s just how it should be.

Yes, You Can Visit These Gatsbyesque Estates with the Kids

Skip your everyday playground and soak up some history at one of these gilded estates with kids in tow.

Picture a lush lawn, lined with perfectly pruned topiaries, bookended by fountains, and a grand white mansion beaming from behind a chauffeur’s drive. You can just imagine yourself reclining on the parlor’s divan, the wind rippling your billowing white frock as you sip a gin rickey.
Now consider you’re there with your three-year-old. Think you wouldn’t dare take a sticky-fingered preschooler anywhere near a gilded estate? Think again.
From Winterthur in Delaware to Hearst Castle in California, the American countryside is dotted with lavish country houses and gardens, once homes and playgrounds for the wealthiest of the wealthy. And many of these châteaux welcome families with programming specifically for children, even as young as toddlers.
So skip your everyday playground and soak up some history at one of these. Whether you’re looking for a spring getaway or planning a summer trip, you, too, can enjoy the sporting life (or at least pretend to) at the bowling alley or swimming pool of a regal abode and be borne back into a time of leisure.

Biltmore Estate (Asheville, North Carolina)

George Washington Vanderbilt, a grandson of industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, opened this breathtaking 8,000-acre estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains to friends and family in 1895. With a colossal, 250-room French Renaissance-style château, it welcomes over one million tourists each year.
It now includes Antler Hill Village, complete with the Pisgah Playground and Farm, where kids can pet farmyard animals, explore and climb antique tractors, and take part in daily crafts, like churning butter or weaving baskets. At the Antler Hill Village Winery, kids can even try a grape juice flight.
Stay directly on the property at the family-friendly Village Hotel in Antler Hill Village and let the Outdoor Adventure Center outfit your family with bikes or set up fly fishing lessons and carriage rides. At the Biltmore House, kids can listen to an audio tour (geared towards ages five and up) narrated by the Vanderbilts’ Saint Bernard Cedric.
Says Allison, Indiana resident and mom of an 11-year-old, “Our daughter loved it and was able to learn different things than we did.”

The Breakers (Newport, Rhode Island)

Another grandson of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose family’s fortune came from steamships and the New York Central Railroad, built this ornate 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo as his summer home.
The Preservation Society offers a Family Tour specifically targeted to children ages eight to 12. The house itself acts as the narrator, bragging all about its special features (look for dolphins under the staircase and dragons in the great hall).

Ca d’Zan (Sarasota, Florida)

Like an Italian palazzo on a Venetian canal, the 36,000 square-foot stucco and terra cotta Ca d’Zan, once home to John and Mabel Ringling, the circus king and his wife, overlooks Sarasota Bay.
Completed in 1926, Ca d’Zan fell into disrepair after John Ringling’s death in 1936, so much so that it was used as the location for Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion in the 1996 film Great Expectations. But it underwent a $15 million renovation, completed in 2002.
The estate grounds are also home to the Museum of Art and the Ringling Museum of the American Circus (note that admission to Ca d’Zan is separate). Check out Thursday night Art-Making in the Visitor’s Pavilion, ROAR! (Ringling Order of Art Readers) storytimes for toddlers and preschoolers in the Education Center, and Stroller Tours, one-hour interactive tours for infants and caregivers, at the Museum of Art.
Stop by the David F. Bolger Playspace, a playground complete with hand-powered fountains. At the Circus Museum, kids can practice walking a wire and learn clown makeup artistry or play “I Spy” at the world’s largest circus model.

Hearst Castle (San Simeon, California)

There’s no denying the grandeur of this hilltop estate, a four-hour drive south from San Francisco. With 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, this “Enchanted Hill” retreat was the vision of William Randolph Hearst, the name behind Hearst Magazines and a media tycoon who, at one time, owned more than two dozen newspapers nationwide.
Older kids may enjoy playing “I Spy” with a junior ranger activity book, available at any ticket window or from the Visitor Services Office. Keep in mind that strollers are not permitted at Hearst Castle due to the number of stairs and terraces, but child-carrier backpacks and front-packs are allowed. The Visitor Services Office even has these available on loan for no additional charge on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Lilly House (Indianapolis, Indiana)

This 22-room Indianapolis mansion, part of Newfields, a Place for Nature and the Arts, was once home to J. K. Lilly Jr., a businessman, collector, and philanthropist whose grandfather, Colonel Eli Lilly, founded the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company in 1876 in the city.
Wander the Ravine and Formal Gardens on this 26-acre estate, then check out the “sensitive” Mimosa plant, whose leaves curl when touched, at the Greenhouse. During the summer, grab a glass of Riesling and a soft pretzel at the Beer Garden before heading over the Waller Bridge to the Virginia Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, which encompasses 100 acres adjacent to the Lilly House.

Pittock Mansion (Portland, Oregon)

On 46 acres, this French Renaissance-style château was the home of the late Henry Pittock, owner of The Oregonian newspaper, and his wife, Georgiana. Along with eight family members, they moved into their mansion in 1914. The last family members moved out of the estate in 1958, and the mansion fell into disrepair until Portlanders launched a grassroots campaign to save it.
The City of Portland purchased it in 1964, repaired it, and opened it to the public in 1965. Children under six are admitted free, and they can check out hands-on features of the permanent exhibit, like vintage stereoscopes, a popular home entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In March, the Pittock Mansion hosts “Day Camp for Kids: Life in 1914,” where children ages eight to 12 can experience what life was like 100 years ago through hands-on activities.

Reynolda House (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)

Who wouldn’t want to splash in a mansion’s historic indoor swimming pool? That’s exactly what kids attending Summer Adventure camps at the Reynolda House can do.
This former home of Richard Joshua Reynolds, founder of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, is now a 33,619-square-foot American art museum with a collection including works by Georgia O’Keefe and Grant Wood. Each summer, it welcomes around 200 students to attend art and creative writing day camps.
When Reynolds moved his family into the mansion in 1917, the estate, which totals more than 1,000 acres, also included a nearby village for farm supervisors, workers, and their families. Known today as Reynolda Village, it is full of restaurants and shops – a short walk from the Reynolda House and a perfect place to grab lunch during your visit.
In addition to hosting summer camps, the Reynolda House presents Reynolda Read-Aloud storytimes on select dates and, for preschoolers and their caregivers, Mornings at the Museum, which encourages kids to explore Reynolda through hands-on activities.

Shelburne Farms (Shelburne, Vermont)

What was once the 19th-century country home of Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb is now a three-season inn and restaurant on the 1,400-acre Shelburne Farms – a working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark.
Swim in nearby Lake Champlain and, from mid-May through mid-October, visit the Farmyard, where kids can milk a cow, watch the Chicken Parade, collect eggs, and check out the Miniature Sicilian Donkeys.
Each fall, Shelburne Farms hosts an annual Harvest Festival with children’s activities, music, and horse-drawn hayrides, and the McClure Education Center also presents craft workshops for kids. Shelburne Farms boasts more than 10 miles of walking trails, which are open year-round, weather permitting.

Stan Hywet (Akron, Ohio)

From April through December, this former estate of F. A. Seiberling, co-founder of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, welcomes the public to tour its 65-room 1915 Tudor Revival Manor House and 70-acre landscape.
“We’re a very family friendly historic house museum and garden, and on any given day, there’s plenty to do for children,” says Donna Spiegler, Communications Manager at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens. Children ages five and under are free and won’t want to miss the Playgarden (open through mid-October), a 5,000-square-foot, interactive outdoor play area with activities that represent aspects of the estate.
The Tudor Revival Playhouse, for instance, is inspired by the estate’s Carriage House and includes a spiral slide and marble chase. The Bowling Lawn represents the bowling alleys in the basement of the Seiberlings’ Manor House and on the lawn outside the West Terrace.
Kids can pick up Explorer Backpacks, filled with tools like binoculars and bug collectors to use for a day in the Playgarden. Or, they can explore the gardens and grounds by following clues on a Quest! to locate a hidden treasure box.

Vizcaya (Miami, Florida)

When the main house of this Biscayne Bay estate opened in 1916, the owner, James Deering, hosted a party complete with gondolas and cannons. Deering, a bachelor and retired millionaire whose doctors recommended sunshine and a warm climate to assuage his pernicious anemia, built Vizcaya as his subtropical vacation home. His family’s wealth came from a woolen mill, land investments in the western United States, and the Deering Harvester Company, a farm equipment manufacturer.
A nearby village, completed in 1922, supplied the house with everything from fresh flowers and fruit to milk and eggs. The house is now a museum with 34 decorated rooms showcasing more than 2,500 art objects and furnishings and draws more than 200,000 visitors each year.
Children can listen to the 1917 Welte Philharmonic Pipe Organ on weekdays from 4-4:30 p.m., look for iguanas and butterflies in the formal gardens and rockland hammock, navigate the Maze Garden, or look for the “monsters” decorating the swimming pool.

Winterthur (Winterthur, Delaware)

Pronounced “winter-tour,” this 175-room childhood home of collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) is now a museum of American Decorative Arts with a 60-acre naturalistic garden.
Pick up an Activity Backpack and visit the Tulip Tree House and the Faerie Cottage in the Enchanted Woods, a magical children’s garden set on three acres of the Winterthur Garden. In the Touch-It Room, a playspace designed with a colonial-era kitchen, a 1750s parlor, and an 1830s general store, kids of all ages can learn about early American life through playing with tea sets, kitchenware, clothes, and toys.
For preschoolers, Winterthur also offers Wee Ones at Winterthur once a week (March through November), which includes storytime, a visit to the galleries, and a craft. For toddlers, Squeaky Wheels introduces toddlers and their caregivers to the estate with strolls through the galleries and into the garden. Don’t miss Truck and Tractor Day, a fall highlight.

If Entertaining Overwhelms You, Throw More Crappy Dinner Parties

We’ve been doing dinner parties all wrong. The invention of the crappy dinner party could save us all.

I’ve been meaning to have people over for dinner for about five years. Friends I want to see more, the husbands I want my husband to have a chance to chat with, all of these people float through my brain, and I resolve to invite them for a meal.
Then I don’t.
My reluctance is hard to explain. I have friends over regularly when my kids have play dates, and though I’m probably more introverted than extroverted these days, I crave time with adults to chat. I am just petrified to have them over for a meal because that somehow seems to officially proclaim, “This is a big deal! Expectations attached! Stress!”
I’m not alone in feeling this way. My friends cite various reasons for not hosting, including messy houses, anxiety, and food allergies. What was once considered a normal way to interact with friends and neighbors is now considered the labor of all labors, not worth the time or effort.
We can have strong social ties with all of the accompanying benefits, such as longer lives and better health, without hosting dinners, but time around the table can be a convenience for busy parents from a time perspective.
Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,” says that parents who need time to build stronger bonds with friends already have the time and just have to access it using alignment. Alignment means we do what we need to anyway, like eating dinner, just with our friends. There are no extra hours involved, and we aren’t missing coveted time with our families in the process.
But if alignment means we are stressing about a meal because other people will be involved, is it worth it? If we subtract the stress, yes, and removing the stress is possible. We’ve just been doing dinner parties all wrong.

Aim for crappy

The invention of the crappy dinner party could save us all. The guidelines surrounding these casual encounters aim to make the dinner-with-people experience less stressful for all involved. They include: no special house cleaning before guests arrive, no fancy menus, and no gifts for the hostess. Basically, come as you are and host as you are.
The point of the crappy dinner party is to bring back the idea of neighbors just dropping in on each other instead of the pressure to create the perfect ambiance for an evening dining encounter. When everyone knows the rules, the pressure’s off. The focus of the experience also shifts from impressing others to knowing others.
A few fun rules hold the key to opening up an entirely different adventure when we think of dinner with friends. Our focus shifts in every area, and that’s where the magic happens.

Focus on your friends, not yourself

I don’t want the state of my bathroom to scare people, so I am always going to check out the guest toilet before friends arrive. However, most of the cleaning and tidying I do before guests come over has very little to do with them and everything to do with me. I don’t want to be seen as someone who struggles with organization, though that’s exactly the kind of person I am.
Adopting the rule that I can’t clean extra for guests takes away that stress, and it ensures that whatever I do isn’t about my self-image but simply about not wanting friends to prefer a gas station bathroom to the one in my home.

Focus on comfort, not an extravagant menu

Making the menu casual, like grilled-cheese-sandwich casual, takes pressure off the chef, and that’s good news for the guests. The point of hosting is to offer comfort through company, and a person who has been dicing onions and standing over a hot stove all afternoon may not be great company.
When it comes to food allergies, always be safe and ask first. Since my daughter and husband have Celiac disease, we aren’t comfortable with very many people cooking for us. However, we still love to come over for dinner and bring our own food. Stress arises when a host or hostess tries to feed us after we’ve asked them not to and we have to reject their offering.
Fancy food is nice, but the focus of the evening should be on everyone relaxing, not stressing over a meal.

Focus on listening, not entertaining

Shauna Niequist, author of “Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table,” quotes her friend Sybil when she shares her idea of hospitality. She says it’s “when someone leaves your home feeling better about themselves, not better about you.”
Viewed through this lens, time around the table means listening, laughing, and living out life with others. There’s no room for insecurities about tidiness or worries about overcooking chicken. We’re not putting on a show; we’re being fully present for other people, offering them what it feels like we have the least of these days: time and attention.
Niequist sums it up when she says inviting people into our homes is “an act of love, not performance or competition or striving.”

Focus on doing it, not obsessing over it

Don’t wait for the perfect time to have people over for dinner. It doesn’t exist. Unless there is a major problem that makes humans entering your home impossible or unsafe, now is as good of a time as any.
Send an email, call a friend, or text the crappy dinner rules to get the conversation started. Then pick a date and tell your friends to put it on the calendar. Start with people you are already comfortable with and go from there. Practice makes perfect, or in this case a perfectly crappy dinner party.

Keeping Faith in the Religion of Running

Seven years ago, I never walked. When I went for a run, I ran. I ran when I felt great and when I didn’t. But now I’m tired.

The sun casts long rays on crimson-tipped leaves. The September sky invites me out, but I’m tired.

I’m tired of nights spent ping-ponging between beds too small, in rooms deemed too dark or alternately too light. I’m tired of my heavy sneakers. I’m tired of rushing from home to work, to the bus stop, to the store, to the dinner table, to the bath. I’m tired of trying to start running again after too many years spent idle and too many false starts. Still, I tie my laces and start to run.

I start slow and decide to take the short route. It’s been a while. I wonder if my legs will remember the easy tempo that used to come naturally, if my lungs will remember how to adjust, if my mind will remember to unfold.

The first half mile is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I want to stop. I’m already tired.

I’m tired of the relentless march of age and time and hormones. I’m tired of biting my nails, feeling soft, and caring what people think. I’m tired of judging, being judged, and making excuses. I’m tired of my mind running faster than my body. I’m tired of feeling like there’s not enough time.

I open my stride. My muscles tighten, my breath quickens, and my feet find the beat of the pavement. The streets are narrow and winding so I forego music. Instead, I set small goals: make it to the red mailbox; keep going until the black fence; stay strong until the middle of the hill. I give myself permission to walk.

Seven years ago, I never walked. When I went for a run, I ran. The road stretched long and lean ahead of me and my body responded in kind. I ran in rain and snow. I ran in the mornings or at night. I ran alone or with friends. I ran when I felt great and when I didn’t.

But now I’m tired.

I’m tired of my kids asking for another snack while I’m making dinner. I’m tired of needing to plan an extra 30 minutes to get out the door, of stepping on Legos, of the Paw Patrol. I’m tired of trying to follow the latest research on car seats, screen time, homework, and hugs. I’m tired of the mundane worry that’s settled into the space deep within — the space that first exploded open when I met my baby boy and then, impossibly, again when his brother joined our family.

I walk up the steep hill and, when I near the top, I start running again. The shift between walking and running is subtle, like a change of cadence. I concentrate on lifting my feet higher and moving them forward faster. Looking down makes me feel dizzy so I let the thoughts go with each exhale. I try to think about the satisfaction I’ll feel when I’m finished, but in this moment, I can’t help thinking, I am tired.

I’m tired of walking into my classroom and being greeted by bored teenagers waiting to be entertained. I’m tired of applying new technology like a band-aid, knowing it could never cure what’s ailing the American public education system. I’m tired of trying to fight the inertia of the pendulum swing I know is inevitable, test scores to creativity, standardization to individualized learning, content to skills. I’m tired of grades meaning everything and integrity meaning nothing.

I check my watch and immediately regret it. 10 minutes feels impossibly long and impossibly short. I crowd out thoughts of turning around with ones of blinding positivity. I try chanting: every step forward is another step closer, just keep running, you can do it. This starts to feel silly (and useless) so I think about my to-do list. My muscles awaken like my kids from a nap cut short: groggy, cranky, annoyed. I abandon my to-do list and start to craft this essay because I still can’t stop thinking about how tired I am.

I’m tired of watching the world burn and quake. I’m tired of waters rising, ice melting, and deniers denying. I’m tired of too much talking, too little listening, and misguided rage. I’m tired of seeing fear disguised as power, money guiding morals, and leaders not leading. I’m tired of sound bites and platitudes and bullshit. I’m tired of fake news and real news and celebrity news. I’m tired of guns and bombs and disease. I’m tired of seeing the world default to competition over cooperation. I’m tired of feeling helpless.

My feet are heavy against the pavement and I worry my body is too old for this kind of abuse.  Cars race by me with mechanical ease while my own gears grind. I know I’ll be sore tomorrow and I wonder if I’ve pushed too hard too soon. But I don’t stop.

I tuck my worries and exhaustion into the tiny pocket of my shorts and listen closely to the trees whisper into the expanse of blue above.

I keep running until I reach home. I don’t look at my watch, I don’t check my distance. My heart reminds me of its function. My face is fiery. My skin is wet. My feet hum. My tiny pocket is empty.

Later, I will watch my son’s chest rise and fall and wonder which thoughts run through his resting mind and which stay to lay with him. I will review my lesson plans for tomorrow, knowing that some kids will remember what I say, others will focus on how I say it, and others won’t hear a word. I will turn off my phone, the news, the world outside, and turn toward my husband, thankful for these things I can control.

When I finally lay down and close my eyes, I think about the days piling up like layers in an endless canyon of exhaustion. My legs are achy and sore, but I will run again, and again. I run to grow stronger against the weight of the days and to remember the whispers of the grass and trees and sky. They echo in the valleys of my body.

I’ll keep running towards the canyon. Running is a kind of religion. I have faith that when I reach the edge, I will fly.

This post was originally published on Dibouti Jones.

If your kids love Planet Earth then they'll love Animalism

This beautifully animated series, hosted by the renowned science journalist Ed Yong, is our new obsession.

The Planet Earth Series has been blowing our minds since its first release in 2006. The slow-mo showdown on the Nile creates intensity rivaling a living room during Superbowl LI (go Pats). The feeling of a lemur jumping through the canopy is as captivating as a beautiful dance. And the iguana chase in the Galapagos may be more fear-inducing than a sewer-dwelling clown.
The third season of Planet Earth may not be released until 2026, which will make the host, David Attenborough, close to 100! If your family can’t wait that long to nerd out on nature, you may want to check out The Atlantic’s new series: Animalism. The beautifully animated series, hosted by the renowned science journalist Ed Yong, “looks at the way animals live – how they sleep, see, and breathe – and explains the latest groundbreaking research about why mammals evolved to behave in certain ways.
Check out their first two episodes below!
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The Perfect Films For Your Next Mother/Tween Daughter Movie Night

Besides Nancy Drew, here are 10 new classics for moms and their tween daughters to watch together.

“Wanna watch ‘Nancy Drew’?” I asked my 11-year-old daughter as we settled in for a movie night. The film about a Titian-haired teen sleuth popped up as a recommendation on our streaming service.
“I know we’ve watched it before,” I continued. “But it’s good.” I recalled humor and adventure as teenage Nancy Drew solved crimes.
My tween rewarded me with a blank stare. She had no recollection of the PG-rated flick.
Huh. Maybe we had watched it longer ago than I thought. Quickly, I checked its date. 2007. That was shortly after my daughter was born. I vaguely remembered renting it on DVD, too. So it had been years since we watched it.
This got me thinking. What other “older” movies released before my daughter was a tween were worth watching now that she was a tween?
Besides Nancy Drew, here are 10 new classics for moms and their tween daughters to watch together. These movies resonate with tween-friendly themes such as friendship, creativity, resilience, and courage. My daughter and I have watched them and she approves of their inclusion in this list. As every family is different, I encourage parents to investigate if these movies are suitable for your tween by watching them beforehand or researching them further.

1 | The Princess Bride (1987)

Get swept away in the funny and sweet tale of Buttercup and Wesley, who cheat death and battle the bad guys to find love, true love. I can’t say enough about the witty script, which always makes me and my daughter laugh. I also appreciate that Robin Wright appears to wear no makeup in her role as Buttercup, sending the message that beauty is not based on eye shadow or lipstick.

2 | Soul Surfer (2011)

A surfer girl loses her arm to a shark. But thanks to her resilience, faith, and supportive family, she learns to be a surfer girl who just happened to lose an arm. My daughter and I were in awe that this movie is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton.

3 | Enchanted (2007)

This Disney vehicle stars the delightful Amy Adams as an over-the-top cartoon princess who falls for Patrick Dempsey in modern-day New York City. I dig the creative combination of live action and animation while my daughter loves the musical scenes, especially the one in which urban creatures, like pigeons and rats, clean an apartment.

4 | Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

Elisabeth Shue plays 17-year-old Chris Parker in this adventure comedy. After getting dumped by her boyfriend, she takes a last-minute babysitting job and things go horribly and comically wrong. I admire Chris’ quick wit, heart, and pluck as she keeps her charges safe. My daughter finds the story likable and fast-moving.

5 | Legally Blonde (2001)

My first instinct is to hate this movie. It’s about a super cute sorority girl, after all. But the super cute sorority girl uses her savvy, kindness, and smarts to earn a law degree and respect from the peers that once looked down at her. The sorority girl is played by Reese Witherspoon, who I like to point out to my daughter is a successful actress, entrepreneur, and mother.

6 | The Princess Diaries (2001)

Anne Hathaway plays Mia, a gawky teen who learns she is a real-life princess. Mia stays true to her honest and approachable self while learning regal grace and manners from her grandma, the Queen of Genovia (Julie Andrews). My daughter likes the ugly duckling turns into a swan theme while I adore Julie Andrews’ performance.

7 | 13 Going on 30 (2004)

An awkward 13-year-old (Jennifer Garner) wishes to be popular and older. She gets her wish only to realize that she was her true self and knew her best friend when she was 13, not 30. If you are a Gen X mom like me, then you’ll enjoy the soundtrack laced with 80s hits. My tween delighted in the slumber party scene between 30-year-old Jenna and her new teenage friends.

8 | 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Julia Stiles plays Kat, a cantankerous teen that no one likes. No one, that is, except high school bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). I like that this romantic comedy is a modern-day interpretation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. My daughter likes that Kat is an interesting, different female protagonist.

9 | High School Musical (2006)

My 11-year-old had heard of this movie, of course, but had never seen it until recently. That’s when she became captivated by the foot-tapping ditties that tell the story of Troy and Gabriela, two teens who battle the odds to sing together in the (wait for it) high school musical. We found this movie sweet and entertaining.

10 | Dolphin Tale (2011)

This family drama stars Winter, a dolphin who tragically loses her tail. With the support of a lonely boy she befriends, Sawyer, and a new prosthetic tail, Winter learns to swim again. My daughter likes that this movie features a strong boy-girl friendship between Sawyer and his best friend, Hazel. I might like it because Hazel’s dad is played by the handsome Harry Connick, Jr.
There you have it, tween-friendly flicks to watch with your daughter. My hope is that you and your tween enjoy the romance, comedy or drama brimming from these 11 flicks. The time you spend watching these movies might just lay the foundation for successful, happy movie nights when your daughter becomes a teen, too.