LtCol Todd Mahar on Service, Family, and Being There for Each Other

A fascinating conversation about family life in the Marines with LtCol. Todd Mahar, Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines at Camp Lejeune.

Lieutenant Colonel Todd Mahar enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves as a college student in 1995 and was commissioned three years later. He has since served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, from 2013 to 2015, was the Military Aide to Vice President Joe Biden. Currently, Mahar is the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. 

LtCol. Mahar is also a husband and a dad. Speaking with him, it’s evident that despite his impressive advances through the ranks of the Marine Corps, his roles at home top his priority list.


Parent co: I’d like to start with a question that I’m always curious about when I meet a member of the military. What led you to serve?

LTCOL. TODD MAHAR: What led me to serve initially was a little bit of extra money for college. When I was in college, the recruiter called me up when I was home for one of the breaks and just started talking to me and basically asked me some questions that I really didn’t have good answers for.

One question that he asked me that I did have an answer for was, “How would you like some extra money for college?” I would love some extra money! I enlisted into the reserves at that time. Once I got down to Parris Island and boot camp, something changed in me over those 13 weeks. It just seemed like there was something that kind of awakened me, so to speak, and it became more of a passion to do a little bit more and experience a little bit more in the Marine Corps. What kept me serving, though, has been the Marines and the people that I work with.

I can’t think of another job out there where, just by the fact that you wear the same uniform, you can trust them with your life, and they can do the same with you. Plus, I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.

Still trying to figure that out, huh? Well, it sounds like even though the marine corps wasn’t something that you were expecting to become involved with, you knew pretty quickly that it was something special to you.

Yes, absolutely. It was something special and something that I could be proud of. There was a sense of duty. I have served in three-year increments since then, so it’s never been a career. It’s been, “Let’s see what the next three years hold, then we’ll decide after that if we stay in or if we choose to do something different.”

Interesting. Is that normal? I know so little about the inner workings of the marines – the obligations and the time commitment.

Normally everybody comes in on an eight-year contract. You serve four years active duty and then four years in the inactive ready reserves. After your first four to six years on active duty, then, for officers, we get what’s called “career designated.” You get an “indefinite end of active service” date. So the Marine Corps says that they would like you to continue to serve until you feel that you want to leave, and there are some other requirements that also go in there, but after you get your indefinite end of active service, then it’s on you to reevaluate every few years.

Essentially, I could resign my commission at any time and choose to leave the Marine Corps, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet.

And what sorts of things factor into your decision every three or so years? How much has your family been a part of that decision for you?

My family has been a big part of it, and they have been involved in my career since I first came on active duty. My wife and I have been married going on 16 years, and she was there from the start of my active duty time and has been though the four deployments that I have been through. Realistically, the thing that has allowed me to stay in and focus on being a Marine has been their support and their sacrifice.

My wife didn’t necessarily know what she was getting into when she married a Marine, but at the same time she was open to the adventure. And there is a support structure and a social fabric within the Marine Corps that we were able to enjoy, and it has become a part of us. It’s really been one big family. We may have to move around and leave our own families behind, but when you do move around, the Marine Corps is so small that we end up meeting and reuniting with families that we’ve served with in the past.

What are some of your observations about how military life affects your children?

When you’re picking up and moving every three years or six years, it’s tough. You know, as a kid you grow up, and you make friends and you don’t necessarily want to have to leave those friends and start anew.

But what it teaches them a little bit more is the socialization skills and the interpersonal communication skills and relationship-building skills. My son and daughter can go into different situations and immediately try to get to know people and meet people. That’s, I think, from having to move around.

We have some friends that we’ve known in the Marine Corps for years; they have children the same age that we get to either visit or get stationed together every few years. They always have friends that are out there. They’re the old friends that you and I both had growing up except that we say goodbye for a few years and then come back together a few years later.

What is school like for kids on base?

Most bases do not have Department of Defense (DoD) schools on base. A lot of times, military kids are going to school in town. And a lot of military families, like ours, live out in town, so the kids go to school in the local community.

On base, though, when everybody is in similar situations, there’s a similar understanding of what everybody’s kind of going through and that many of the kids will be moving every few years, and the DoD teachers, a lot of them are spouses of military. So they understand and regardless of where you go, there’s always that support structure and that support network that’s out there.

Even out in town, there’s such a large military community in the civilian community that most of the schools understand that and kind of support the fact that many of the parents of the military students will be deploying, and that is a tough time for the children and the dependents. They’re there to be able to kind of help them get through that as well. We’ve had no issues with any of the schools that the kids have attended.

Have you found that it’s much different living on base versus living among the civilian population?

There’s more of a sense of security on base, where you know that your neighbors also fall within the same regulations and kind of orders that you do. There is that respect for authority that may or may not be out in town. There is the respect for the law, but you know, on base, there’s just kind of a common mindset so to speak. I think that having all of the different services and support on a military base, there’s not a huge need to go off base, since you have everything right there. The other big benefit of living on base is that the commute is normally much shorter and you don’t have to come through the gate to get to your office or anything like that.

I would imagine it’s quite a culture shock, changing from military family life to civilian family life. It seems there would be a whole world of challenges for every member of the family, not just the service member.

Yes, we do that within the service as well. As you return from deployment, we have reintegration and transition type discussions and classes. We know that home is not the same as being deployed and vice versa. If you have been deployed for seven months to a year, certain things become second nature to you in different areas. You want to make sure that the Marines transition back to where they know that they’re going back to a different environment and there’s different expectations and that we know that there’s going to be challenges going back home with the families and with the other marines and civilians in and around base. But one of the things that I think, at least for me and my family, the deployments are not … It’s hard to go away from home for that long, but when you come back and you reunite with your family, it makes things fresh again.

Every few years when you have to go on a deployment, it’s like the honeymoon begins again and an appreciation of the things that you have. That is, to me, the upside of deployment. Many civilians don’t know what it’s like to be gone from their families for long periods of time and have to accept the fact that you never know if you are going to come back again. Then on the other side of it is coming back and being able to appreciate what you may or may not have had again.

It sounds like you’re saying deployment makes it almost impossible to take your family for granted.

Yes.

Are there any misconceptions about military life that you hear a lot and wouldn’t mind dispelling?

For me, the conceptions, the different things that you may hear, family-wise it builds a resiliency because of the amount of challenges that we go through, whether it’s moving every few years, whether it’s deploying to different places, the inability to communicate on a daily basis while you’re deployed… I hope that when my kids talk to their friends that may not be in the military, that they can be proud of what their daddy does. The other part is, I deploy and go to combat so hopefully one day my kids won’t have to. I always keep that in mind.

As far as any other misconceptions; everybody chooses their course in life. Just like you’ve chosen your profession, we all have a place in society and a job to do, and I really do appreciate those that will thank me for my service but at the end of the day, I thank them for what they do for myself and my family and for society. We just all make our choices. We do the best that we can with the cards that we’re dealt.

What can civilian families do to support military families?

Well, I mean, to me it’s the understanding and really the appreciation of what those families are going through. When you look at a military service member or family, (know) that when we deploy, we go and have to fight our nation’s battles, and we do that out of service. We do that as a responsibility to support and defend our constitution. It may not be our choice to do it, but the choice was made when we raised our right hands and swore an oath.

The choice was to take care of one another, to make sure – to the best of our abilities – that we all come home safely, and also knowing that it’s just the fact of the matter that we may not. That’s what we experience on a daily basis, and not that we deserve different things as much as just that understanding and again, that our kids don’t choose this life. You may see a new face every year, but it’s not the kid’s choice that they’ve had to move three times in the last nine years of their life.

Is there anything your kids could say that would make you opt out of the corps the next time the decision came around for you?

If my kids get to the point where they understand what I do and the impact of it, they can request that I don’t deploy again. That would be something that I would consider. I do feel, and I learned early on, that the military will be done with you at some point in your life. When that day comes that you take the uniform off and you look around, your family is going to be the only thing that you have left.

Making sure that you have that family support and structure, and really just the caring and the love, you want that to still be there when you hang up the uniform. Hopefully you don’t do anything to destroy that while you’re in the service.

Rosie Pope on Successfully Managing a Business and a Big Family

Designer, entrepreneur, TV personality, and mother of four, Rosie Pope has been pumping pregnancy and motherhood full of style for nearly a decade. In 2008, after finding it difficult to shop for stylish clothes that fit her growing belly, she began to develop what would become a successful maternity line for fashion-forward moms-to-be.

Having established herself as a trusted motherhood guru, she launched MomPrep, prenatal and postnatal classes which offer everything from infant CPR to stroller cleaning.

In 2011, her maternity concierge services were the subject of Bravo’s docu-series “Pregnant in Heels,” a sometimes ridiculous look at the concerns and needs of affluent parents-to-be.

Parent.co: What are the products you’re recommending most to new parents these days?

Rosie Pope Mix and Match Layette 

Doc-a-tot

BassiNEST

Rosie Pope x Aden+Anais Collection Swaddle

Rosie Pope x Aden+Anais Muslin Bibs

MommyNearest App (great for traveling or in a new city with information like where to breastfeed, bathroom, change the baby, go shopping for maternity wear, etc.)

Medela microwave sterilizing bags for bottles, breastpumps, pacifiers, etc. – amazing product!

What is the most helpful thing someone can do for a friend who just had a baby?

Come over and ask them what would really help them out. They may not feel okay letting you watch their baby yet for a date night but it’s the things like laundry, dishes, thank you cards, getting birth announcements out, that can really get a new mom down. Do whatever she needs so that her focus can be on the baby instead of all the other things she has to do.

What did you find most challenging about having two babies so close together?

I think simply that they are both babies at the same time. While it does seem emotionally less challenging for the older sibling as they are so young the fact that you are dividing your attention seems easier to get used to. The trick is to remember you have two babies and your oldest really isn’t that old at all. Remembering that will prevent you from being too tough on the older one or expecting too much. They need their mama, too!

How is managing a large family like managing a business? 

I always joke with my kids that after solving disputes between the four of them I can handle anything at work! I think they are similar in that running a business means constantly navigating through things that you did not expect to happen. Staying flexible, being able to resolve conflict, lead, and nurture are all true of both family and of business.

What is the most over-the-top item anyone has ever put on a baby registry?

Okay, so I’m going to give you a few that your readers could actually register for:

Hermes baby socks

Baby Dior layette

Diamond-encrusted gold pacifier

Crystal-encrusted Baby Bath Tub – for some bubbles and, of course, sparkles!

Odd Jobs: My Life as a Juggler and Father of Two

Jason Tardy, a dad, but also a traveling performing artist who specializes in high energy juggling and self-described “offbeat comedy.”

I love to learn people’s stories – to find out what brought them to all the moments in time that led to the present. As parents, I think it’s particularly important for us to listen to these stories as a way to understand each other.

Parenting is hard and we’re all trying to do the best for our families – including earning money to take care of ourselves and our children. This is the second (the first is here) in a three-part series that tells the story of parents with unique jobs – the kind that may make you wonder: How did they end up there and how does that work? 

You don’t have to look too hard to find the fun dads at birthday parties, school gatherings, or on the sideline of the soccer field. The ones who know a bit of magic, can tell a cheesy joke without taking himself too seriously, and can juggle a water bottle, soccer ball, and dirty diaper are entertaining. But for seven-year-old Molly and four-year-old Lincoln, being the entertainment is their dad’s job.

He’s always the fun dad. He’s the dad packing up his equipment after an hour’s worth of work on the road, having put on a show for kids he doesn’t know. Their dad is Jason Tardy, a traveling performing artist who specializes in high energy juggling and self-described “offbeat comedy.”

Atypical entertainment

When Jason Tardy was 15, he and younger brother Matthew performed at a local talent show in their hometown in Maine. Their act consisted of lip syncing to Weird Al Yankovic songs, shameless silliness, and the confidence to act like fools. Professional juggler Mike Miclon was in the audience and saw all of the tools needed to be successful performers. Miclon became their mentor and taught the Tardy brothers how to juggle. Within months, Jason and Matthew were performing at birthday parties; by the time he graduated high school, Jason was working full-time as a performing artist. “It’s the only job I have ever had.”

It’s also the only job he’s ever wanted. Jason books himself, his brother, and a few other acts under his business name and talent agency Atypical Entertainment. For more than 20 years, Jason has been finding new ways to entertain his audiences while keeping his act fresh and fun for him, too.

He juggles fire, daggers, and plungers – sometimes while balancing on a yoga ball. He plays music on electronic bodysuits and a custom made 15-foot drum set he and his brother designed. He incorporates LED lights, body contortion, and balancing acts into his shows. He is literally a one-man band, beating his drum and tooting his horn, while tap dancing and tripping over his own shadow for the sake of humor.

“I love what I do! I love being creative and making people laugh. [The older I get] the more I realize and appreciate that my job is to make other people happy. That is really important to me. Seeing other performer friends and what they are doing really inspires me to push myself and not to just keep doing the same thing.”

When Jason first started to juggle he would practice up to eight hours a day; when asked how many hours he needs to keep himself sharp now, he said this: “I do not really practice anymore believe it or not. I warm up for a few minutes before the show but I put in all the practice a long time ago.”

When he’s incorporating something new into his act he’ll practice the skill a few hours a day for a couple of weeks before his the show. But when Jason is home, he’s focused on the art of parenthood.

“You should come to a show”

When Jason moved from Maine to Rochester, New York he was looking to meet new people. He started talking to a woman he met online and mentioned she should come to one of his shows. She did. They exchanged phone numbers. Phone calls led to dating, dating led to marriage, and marriage led to juggling life with a wife, two kids, and a full-time job as a self-employed, traveling performing artist.

“I do about 150 to 175 shows a year but most of those are quick. For example every Tuesday this summer I had a show at a local resort and I would leave at 5:30 p.m. and be home by around 10:00 p.m. So I could hang out all day with my family. Probably about two times a year I am gone for five or more days in a row. And most of the other times it’s a night or two here or there. And other times I can be home with no shows for a week or more during my slower months.” 

One or two tours a month are with his brother. Most recently, Jason booked a 10-day tour after he and his wife agreed the financial opportunity was too good to turn down. Tardy loves being a dad and family man, but he needs to be a smart businessman, too.

When asked if he ever thought about a new career after he became a father, Jason was quick to answer, “No way.” He realizes the benefits of a job with a consistent income and built-in health insurance plan, but he prides himself on his ability to stay organized and disciplined enough make his passion financially work for his family.

He has performed on Disney cruises, at fairs, resorts, and even the White House on three different occasions. But his favorite place to play is at home. “I really think I see my kids way more than other working parents do. I have to take work when it comes but I really do have a lot of flexibility [to spend time with my family].”

Kindness is a direct path to a successful future

When Jason was spotted by Mike Miclon at the talent show, he wasn’t just discovered, he was encouraged. Someone believed in him and that helped Jason believe in himself. Tardy relied on that while dealing with bullies in middle school and high school. “I had a lot of people say I should give up. That what I was doing was dumb and that there was no way I would ever do this for a job. I had some kids take my juggling stuff and throw it at me. I had people call me awful names and make fun of me. I knew that they just did not understand what I was trying to do.”

Jason’s confidence pushed him forward, helped him to ignore the nonbelievers, and has put him in a position to pass on what he has learned to others. Jason and his brother, Matthew, tackle the subject of bullying in their AudioBody performances done at schools for kids in grades K-12. The show mixes physical comedy with technology and music and helps students gain an appreciation for those things while encouraging kids to become creative problem solvers. The Tardy brothers tailor their show for each age group but always focus on how being kind is a “direct path to a successful future.”

Jason is living his best life because of his unwillingness to quit. The obstacles that he overcame are just a part of his story; the ability to do what he loves and support his family while doing it is the story of a lifetime. 

Laila Ali on Identity and Wellness

Laila Ali is a mother, cook, entrepreneur, and world-class athlete. We wanted to know about her experience parenting in the limelight.

Laila Ali is a world-class athlete who retired from professional boxing with an undefeated record. She’s also a mother, a passionate cook, and entrepreneur who will be featured on the new “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2017. She founded LailaAliLifestyle.com in 2015 as a “holistic health, fitness, and wellness blog to inspire people to take control of their health and well-being,” she said.

Parent.co was interested to hear Ali’s perspective on motherhood in the limelight and maintaining a healthy self-esteem.

Parent.co: What do you see as the three most important characteristics or qualities you try to instill in your kids?

Laila Ali: It’s tough to narrow it down to just three, but a few characteristic that are high on the list are confidence, humility, and having faith.

As a former professional athlete, how do you talk to your kids about balancing a healthy competitive spirit with good sportsmanship?

I encourage my kids to work hard and do their absolute best. We will win some and lose some, but when you know you did your best, you can feel good about yourself and be free of regret. Then you use your losses to your advantage by focusing on how to get even better. I teach my kids that falling short sometimes is a part of a necessary process that leads to greatness.

One could easily assume that a woman who retired from her athletic career undefeated has never questioned herself, yet so many women struggle with confidence and maintaining a sense of personal purpose outside of motherhood. Have you ever wrestled with that sort of self doubt and, if so, how did you overcome it? If not, how did you maintain your confidence?

I feel that all people have had self doubt at one time or another, including myself. But it’s how you deal with it and overcome it that sets each person apart. My mindset keeps things in perspective and always leads me in the right direction; I believe self doubt is part of the self discovery process.

When I doubt myself, I rely on my confidence and prove to myself that I can do anything I desire if I put in the time and focus needed to be successful. I don’t sit around, sulk, and have negative thoughts. Instead, I get to work and show myself how powerful I truly am.

Being a mom is my most important and most cherished responsibility. But naturally I have many goals and desires that are very separate from motherhood. Finding balance is a constant struggle, but I manage because there is a driving force in me that never dies. We all have to believe in ourselves and have faith. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to others because we are all on different paths. Focus on your own journey and you will be off to the right start.

Do you have any thoughts to offer other stepparents regarding family unity?

Family unity starts in your heart. As adults, we must realize that children are effected by the choices we make and how we interact with them. What most kids need is love and support, regardless of whether they are your own or not. So when you choose to marry someone who has children, you must be ready to commit to putting your love and energy into their children as well.

Finally: you’re a public figure. How do you think/hope your kids will come to understand our culture’s notion of celebrity and fame? What are you doing to help determine this for them?

I don’t really have a concise plan in place for my kids as of yet. It really depends on how much they naturally determine on their own through their experiences and I will fill in along the way. But I do downplay “celebrity” and explain to my children that people recognize me because of the work I do on TV. I tell them even though people get excited sometimes, it’s no big deal. I don’t want them to give it too much energy and feel being recognized adds value to our lives in superficial ways.

As they get older they will understand why their grandfather is so loved, respected, and worthy of being someone to look up to.

WE Movement Co-Founder Craig Kielburger Can Help You Raise Service-Oriented Kids

An interview with Craig Kielburger about the ways his organization, WE Movement, is helping kids experience the life-changing power of giving back.

Craig Kielburger founded his first charitable organization, Free the Children, when he was still a child himself. At the age of 12, Kielburger was moved to act after reading a newspaper article about child labor in Pakistan. 

Since those early days, Kielburger and his brother, Marc, have inspired and enabled millions of children to experience the life-changing power of making a difference through their multifaceted organization, the WE Movement.

Kielburger believes there’s a basic tenet missing from our modern notion of childhood: “I think in our society we need to see a well-rounded childhood as having absolutely academics, absolutely music, absolutely sports, but there’s a fourth pillar that’s often ignored which is this idea of service and giving back.”

Through the WE Movement, Kielburger is making it easier for parents and teachers to integrate that fourth pillar into every child’s experience. WE Day, an event that takes place in numerous venues throughout the U.S., U.K, and Canada, is the annual culmination of their efforts.

Last April, WE Day came to The Forum in Los Angeles for the first time. Sixteen-thousand students and a gaggle of celebrities came together to celebrate the efforts of young world-changers. The resulting prime time special will air on ABC at 7/6C on Sunday, August 28.

***

Parent.co: What is WE Day and why haven’t I heard of it? As I was researching this interview I thought, “This organization sounds amazing and there is such a wide range of people involved, and you’re all doing so much good in this world.” How is it that I don’t know about this event?! It made me wonder about the negative news bias in mainstream media

Craig Kielburger: WE Day is, as we like to say, the Super Bowl of doing good. It’s the Academy Awards of creating positive impact in the world, or the coolest classroom in the world, depending on how you want to look at it. It’s a celebration that’s free to attend, but you have to earn your way there through a year of service.

So these upper elementary, middle, and high school students have all taken action on at least one local cause and one global cause. What we would say is it’s cause-inclusive which makes it a little unique. So we’re not trying to advocate for a particular organization and often in the charitable world there’s a lot of competition out there. We just want to bring together and celebrate the best of young people, celebrate the best of community.

The event has been around for many years and we fill 14 stadiums every year. We have 4.5 million followers on various social media platforms; 2.3 million young people take part in the WE Schools program every year to earn their way to WE Day – 200,000 get the actual ticket to come.

But to answer your question about why (you haven’t heard about it), two answers come to my mind. I think the smaller answer is pure logistics. This is our second ever national broadcast. (The event) has been in America now for only five years… Essentially it’s just a question of time. It really is genuinely still bubbling up.

The second part is, I actually agree with you. I think that when you look at the idea behind a WE Day or the nature of what our organization is, the WE Movement, there are a lot of stories that make the headlines that tear us apart. No matter what your political beliefs, there is a lot of division. Or if you look at tension: racial tension in this world and geographic division and socioeconomic division, and it seems that we live in a world that is increasingly divided, on a global level and on a very local level. That is what dominates the headlines.

I think to your very point, that’s why we need something like WE Day, because we need to remind ourselves that the world is a good place and that the vast majority of people are striving for good and that communities can come together around something positive. That no matter your political beliefs, no matter your religious beliefs, no matter your ethic origin or socioeconomic background, your color of skin, etc. we can come together around this idea of service and creating a better world.

That may sound naïve to some, but 200,000 young people are filling stadiums to celebrate what unites them.

I know that you felt passionately about social injustice at a very young age and from what I’ve read you were encouraged and led in all the right directions – helped by adults to feel empowered to change what you saw as something that needed to be changed. How do you talk to parents and teachers about the role they play in the lives of young people who want to effect social change?

Those who are present in the lives of young people are critical to that. When you watch the WE Day broadcast that’s coming up on ABC, there are moments where we are aiming it squarely at parents in the call to action. Obviously a lot of the show is aimed to young people, it’s a multi-generational show, but we’re aiming it squarely to parents to recognize the opportunity for a couple reasons.

For 20 years now, 21 years, we’ve work with parents. We actually even do parenting workshops and I typically start a workshop by asking parents to finish the sentence, “I would be a successful parent if my child were…” and then to give a bit of a description. You hear words like caring, kind, successful, good head on their shoulders, grateful.

There’s this universality that despite what we might think, I’ve never had anyone say, “captain of the football team,” or, “valedictorian.” What parents want is something more fundamental. It’s raising good kids. It’s kids who have a sense of purpose in life, kids who have a sense of confidence in who they are, they have a good group of friends around them, a sense of identity that’s rooted in something bigger than themselves.

All of these things can come from service. I think that parents, who so often in our society are wanting to give youth every single opportunity, one of the greatest opportunities is giving them a chance to help someone else. The studies alone have shown that when young people do this they’re more likely to go on to higher education, they’re less likely to use or abuse drugs, they have a higher sense of self esteem. We wrote a book on parenting called “The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care and Contribute,” so I’m pretty passionate on this subject, but often I think parents and teachers don’t know where to start.

Parents often don’t know where to start because the world is so busy around us and there are countless headlines and countless issues. Teachers often don’t know where to start because class time is so precious.

How does WE Schools help with that particular issue?

Whether it’s a core-curricular or extra-curricular, they need to justify that this furthers core academic and life skill learning. So where our program steps in is two fold. There’s We Schools and something else we’re very excited about, We Families, which obviously involves parents.

WE Schools is a free national program that provides a service-learning overlay to core course learning. At the risk of that being too convoluted, basically what this means is we help teachers help students learn through experiential service learning. They can learn life skills, they can learn academic skills, but engaged in service. You learn biology by testing water. You learn Spanish by helping a new immigrant. You learn about American History by helping veterans. You engage in your core learning, doing so within the core framework of service. And in the process you develop all these amazing life skills.

The WE Families program has everything similar to schools, but even a little bit more. It’s a series of campaigns of very simple ways that families can get involved in service. Things like WE Scare Hunger where families will trick-or-treat collecting food at Halloween for local food banks. We’ve collected 7.6 million pounds of food doing that.

Or they’ll do things like WE Are Silent where there’s a pledge not to speak and understand what it’s like to be bullied if you’re a young person – what it’s like not to have a voice. Or your family or your school can have a sister village around the world and we’ll connect that together and you can learn about that village and connect online with that village – even find ways to support, like the clean water project, the teacher’s salary, or a woman entrepreneur in that village.

Or you can add more, you can go overseas and visit your sister village. Every year thousands of families do this with us. Four or five thousand people a year will go overseas and we’ll host them and they’ll meet their sister village around the world and it becomes a learning experience through service trips.

All of this takes place during the year and then WE Day is the celebration that recognizes the amazing actions taken by these young people.

What Are the Keys to a Successful Nanny Share?

If having a nanny seems too indulgent or is out of reach financially, nanny sharing may be the alternative that’s right for your family.

When first-time mom Nicole planned to return to work as director of strategic accounts for a commercial interiors manufacturer in New York City, she figured a nanny for her three-month-old son would be the best fit for her and her husband’s schedule.

Organized and poised, Nicole had begun to do research for a responsible caregiver almost as soon as she became pregnant. The first thing she did was go online but quickly became overwhelmed by the myriad childcare apps, websites, as well as the cost.

The second thing she did was call Bonnie, another new mom about to return to work as a food and beverage manager, who was also actively searching for childcare for her six-month-old son. The moms share a zip code. They share a nearly decade-old friendship. And they share something else — family: they are sisters-in-law.

When Bonnie expressed a similar frustration, it was her brother, Nicole’s husband, who applied logic: It’s the same problem — there should be one solution. So the families added something else to the share list: a nanny.

I interviewed the two career-committed moms at Bonnie’s home, and the signs of a close-knit family were apparent. It was a Sunday, and aside from their husbands and babies —affectionately referred to as bro-cuz — several cousins, aunts and friends had gathered. Not to mention three small dogs that barked in syncopated rhythm every time someone entered the room. Still, Bonnie and Nicole were unflappable.

They were co-hosting an informal presentation as consultants for a line of safe beauty products, a side venture they both agree was a result of their nanny share situation. “We see each other every night, and after the nanny’s shift, which is 9:00 a.m.. to 5:30 p.m., we take the boys to the park or a nearby restaurant. And we talk about everything,” Nicole confessed as we sat down to chat.

The sisters-in-law strike the perfect balance of serene and spirited, so when Nicole’s college friend first pitched the beauty sales idea to them, they had nothing to lose…and discovered something else to share.

The nanny share evolved as a solution to a mutual problem. What was your original childcare vision?

Bonnie: Originally, my mom, who lives about 15 minutes away, agreed to babysit part time during the days that my husband and I worked the same hours. But three weeks prior to my return to work, my schedule changed and our hours became less flexible. In retrospect, that vision wasn’t realistic. It would have placed an enormous responsibility on my mom and added pressure to her own schedule.

Nicole: I was going back to work around the same time as Bonnie and after exploring all the options, was most comfortable with employing a nanny to work in my home. That’s when it occurred to us that a nanny share might work.

How did you go about the search? What special qualities and certifications did you require for a nanny share?

B: We were lucky because Nicole had found a few candidates via Care.com, word of mouth, and the doorman — whom she liked. She set up a meeting and we were all in agreement about the one nanny that met our needs the best. She was CPR certified for babies. She was open to discuss past experiences handling emergencies and was thoughtful about what she would do in a hypothetical situation.

N: She came highly recommended from another family in the neighborhood who was moving out of state. A mommy recommendation is better than any résumé.

Does the nanny split the time equally between your two homes? Do you have duplicates of everything? How did that impact your budget in both positive and negative ways?

B: Yes, the nanny splits the time equally and we alternate weeks at each other’s apartment. We do have duplicates of some things in each apartment or different versions with the same function. We realize as the boys grow that we need to make parallel changes both necessary and fair for both sets of parents.

We had to fast track the baby-proofing once we saw that my son was so active. That meant we had to baby proof Nicole’s apartment, too. And it’s usually the nanny who brings these things to our attention. For example, when it was time to adapt our strollers into double strollers, Nicole’s model was much easier to maneuver and had room for the diaper bag.

N: Since the boys are so close in age, we really have a mindset like mothers of twins. Researching parents’ reviews of strollers that accommodate a second seat would have made that change smoother. 

As far as the budget, the nanny’s total salary is over 30% more than the going rate for one child. The two families split that total in half. Even with the added cost for duplicate items, we figured that our savings surpass the cost of what each family would have to pay two nannies each week.

What is a typical day like for the boys? What nanny rules did you set at the beginning? Does the nanny do other tasks, such as housekeeping or care for a pet?

B: The boys’ eating and sleeping schedule dictate the day. My son takes longer naps, so we adjusted the schedule in order for the boys to go outside in the morning. We listen to the nanny’s suggestions, too. We don’t wear shoes in our homes anymore. We all agree it is a good decision for cleanliness reasons, especially as the boys begin to be more mobile. The nanny does help out with light housekeeping that’s baby-related, such as cleaning bottles, taking out the trash, and occasionally doing the boy’s laundry and bedding.

N: Weather permitting, she takes my dog out for a walk once a day.

About rules, we are extremely conscientious about keeping a tidy home. Our nanny is mindful of that, too, even with two boys and our mini schnauzer. She is also cautiously respectful to maintain the lines between the two separate residences. For instance, the nanny got a call from the doorman who said that my brother-in-law’s friend was coming up to see the babies. She was in our home that week so she played it safe and refused to let the friend in. Later, we laughed heartily about it — our dear friend not as much — but at the core appreciated her gut reaction. I guess that’s an unspoken rule: To think like a mother with safety first.

Speaking of your partners, has parenting been a 50-50 relationship so far? Who does the nanny call if there’s an issue at home?

B: My husband and I have a 60-40 spread on our end. (laughs.) He’s a great father and very involved in all aspects of our son’s life. He stays in touch with the nanny and so do I. She group texts us photos and videos of the boys daily.

My work day begins at 7 a.m. so my husband handles mornings on his own, gets our son fed, dressed, and then drops him off at Nicole’s apartment if it’s their week. In the evening, I pick up our son. I prep all the baby food and formula, clean his bottles and toys, restock the diaper bag, and do the laundry. In an emergency, I believe the nanny would contact me first. My husband thinks so, too.

N: Although my husband initiated the nanny share idea, drafted, and revised the contract — we pay the nanny on the books — ours is more like 70-30 when it comes to the daily baby tasks. I’m still breastfeeding, pumping breast milk at work, storing and freezing breast milk. (She pauses.) Maybe it’s 90-10 (laughs.)

But in all seriousness, we are four parents committed to each other. We have to be flexible and honest as couples in order to make the nanny share work. We have to be open and really listen to what the other partner is saying, ebb and flow off each other, to stay balanced.

How has the nanny share helped you as working moms? In what ways has the nanny share experience been advantageous for your babies?

B: The share definitely helped to pave a smoother transition back to work. We know that the other mom is there and it’s a nice feeling of security. Sharing the emotions of going back to work and the whole roller coaster of feelings once the ride began has allowed us to vent, show support, and figure out things together.

N: For our babies, being together every day is the best advantage of all. They have the benefit of sharing a relationship that is the closest to a sibling. They are each other’s first friend. They play side by side and learn together. And they will eventually fight. Other than twins, there is nothing quite like this experience.

What is the contingency plan if one family has to cancel for a day?

B: Both families pay their share to the nanny at the end of each week. If one family has to cancel we would still pay her. That’s in the contract. If the nanny needs to come late or is sick, then she would make up the time. If one family needs the nanny for overtime, then that family would pay her.  Of course, in a pinch, we call upon the services of someone else we share: Grandma.

“Parent Hacks” Author Asha Dornfest: “Sometimes you just have to do what works in the moment.”

Why parents need hacks, and how it’s helpful to understand that there’s freedom to be gained from structure – “very flexible structure.”

Asha Dornfest started her blog, ParentHacks.com, back in 2005. She is now the author of “Parent Hacks,” – the book, and co-hosts the “Edit Your Life” podcast.

Parent.co spoke with Dornfest about what makes a parent hack work, why parents need hacks, and how it’s helpful to understand that there’s freedom to be gained from structure – “very flexible structure.”

Asha Dornfest speaking at WDS 2015. Photo credit: Armosa Studios
Asha Dornfest speaking at WDS 2015. Photo credit: Armosa Studios

Parent.co: What do you say to people like me who might think they aren’t quite organized enough to even put themselves in a position to utilize these hacks, no matter how badly we may want to.

For instance, the idea of creating outfits for your kids and rolling them up with a hair scrunchie. I was like, “That’s brilliant.” Then I was like, “Wow, when would I do that?”

Asha Dornfest: The first thing I would say is, believe me, I’ve felt that so many times when I’ve read things. My Achilles heel happens to be around crafts, and the fact that it would require me to go to an art supply store and buy those things. Oh my gosh, the overhead required makes me tired even thinking about it.

I would say that everybody comes to these hacks from where they are. There’s no expectation that every single one is going to work for every single person. I think for some people they would look at a hack like the outfits with the scrunchie, and they would think, “Oh, that’s great. While I’m folding laundry I’ll just do that. That would be so easy.”

We stumble upon what makes our individual lives and situations easier, and those lives and situations change day to day, and are totally different based on what’s going on with us.

For other people it’s like, “It’s enough for me to just get the clothes in the drawers. I’m feeling good about that!”

I think there is allowance for that in, if not the book, then the notion of parent hacks. The idea here is we stumble upon what makes our individual lives and situations easier, and those lives and situations change day to day, and are totally different based on what’s going on with us.

The key is to notice in your life what it is that’s holding you back, and then fix that stuff. If you were to open my drawers, and look at my clothes, you’d be like, “Wow, you don’t even fold your clothes. You shove your clothes in your drawers.” I’m like, “Yeah, and it pretty much works for me. This is not a problem for me.”

I think that’s the thing. There isn’t an expectation that every hack will, or even should, work for everybody. You pick and choose the stuff that seems to make your life easier, then either ignore the rest, or think that maybe some day it might pop into your mind when it actually becomes handy to you.

As I was looking around on your site, I could feel myself creating a mental file. I’m not going to implement this immediately, but this is really brilliant, and I may not have thought of it on my own, so I’m really glad that I’ve just read this.

That’s really good. I think the thing, too, is that I find that guilt is such an undercurrent in so many parenting books. There’s this feeling that maybe I’m just not doing things right, or enough, or I could never do that. There is this insidious guilt and inadequacy that can creep in when you’re reading parenting books. I really tried to address that in this book. I’m hoping it came across. To me, it came across, but I’m hoping to readers it comes across that this is about encouraging people to embrace their own moments of genius, and to share them, and even get a little recognition for them.

I noticed on your website there is an emphasis on community. A lot of the hacks are reader submissions. It seems like it’s a supportive environment, not a competitive environment.

Not in the slightest. I never could have done it had it been competitive. This was really inspired by my own need as a relatively new parent myself. I felt very left behind by the parenting books that I read, and this was many years ago before Facebook, and you couldn’t really reality check beyond your own physical geographical community.

Starting the blog in 2005 was a way for me to reach out to other parents and say, “What’s working for you because I got to say it’s pretty hard over here? Here’s what’s working for me. How about we talk about it?” That’s really how it started. It was so simple.

Parent Hacks Book

It seems like you were ahead of your time, in a way. Was that just a natural inclination of yours, to reach out through the internet?

Yes. It really was. It’s both a natural inclination of my personality to reach out in the community way, but also the web part of it, the blog part of it, came because my previous writing career, before kids, was writing about computers and web publishing. My husband and I, we’re super early internet people. We were designing websites in the mid-90s, which was unheard of.

My first big book in that realm was “Microsoft Front Page for Dummies.” I don’t know if you remember Microsoft Front Page, but it was a web publishing program. Sort of like Microsoft Word, for webpages. I was very conversant with the web. I understood how the web worked. I understood how to create a website. I was using the web long before many of my peers were. Long before Amazon, before Google, before all that stuff. It wasn’t that I had this vision that the web would be this grand platform for parenting community, but it just seemed like a natural fit for me.

I found it so interesting that you mention on ParentHacks.com that your children have internet pseudonyms. I think that’s brilliant. I wish I could go back and undo some of the tagging that I’ve done of my children. It makes perfect sense to me now, that you were already more immersed in that world than a lot of other people.

It was a completely different world in 2005 on the web. Then, parent blogging was a relatively small community. Parent Hacks as a blog was – to my mind – one of the first parenting blogs that was more of a community-oriented site than a personal journal.

At the time parenting blogs were very much, first of all, they were written by women, so there weren’t men talking about parenting on the internet. Second of all, they were personal storytelling blogs. ParentHacks.com was definitely not. It’s never been about me. It’s always been about the community.

That attracted an audience, and so did the fact that it was a gender neutral site. Dads could talk about parenting, and that was a big deal because at that time the only people hanging out on the internet and using it a lot were programmers who, for better or for worse at that time, were mostly men. It turns out, lots of men at that stage really wanted to talk about being dads. They wanted to share some of the funny hacks that they’d come up with, and useful tips. That was the first wave of audience.

How you define the term “hack?”

I would define a hack, in terms of parent hack, as a clever or unexpected solution for a kid-related problem. Basically, one of those flash bulb moments you have as you’re, generally, dealing with either a moment of crisis, or just a daily annoyance, that you come up with a way to fix it. It’s just sort of a brainstorm that comes to you. Often times it’s unconventional, or it reuses something creatively in your house, or it’s just an unusual way to address, or fix a problem. That’s what a hack is.

There’s an obvious demand for these solutions. Why do parents need hacks?


I think parents need hacks because parenting is such a moment to moment, seat of the pants job. Literally, you have to think on your feet. You are on your feet, and you’ve got to deal with situations as they come up. A kid starts screaming in the backseat of the car, or diaper blowout, or whatever…

You have this illusion before you have children, I think some of us do, that we’re in control of our lives, our schedules, and our destinies. Then our children arrive and we have to respond to what happens, and what’s thrown at us. We can make plans, but those plans need to be flexible.

“Parent Hacks” addresses that. It addresses the fact that sometimes you just have to do what works in the moment.

Then again, the other part of the reason parents need Parent Hacks is because nobody’s standing around giving us medals for dealing with a diaper blowout in the middle of the neighborhood park. It’s really nice to get a little recognition for that. To not only get recognition, but to become part of something that makes us realize we’re not alone. We’re not losers because we’re all a mess by the time we get to the end of the day. We’re all doing this. We’re all figuring it out. We can help each other out when we share these little tips.

I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the idea that there’s a whole lot of freedom to be found in structure, particularly as it relates to working parenting hacks into your day, or as it relates to your podcast, “Edit Your Life?”

My natural way of being is – my mind likes to wander, and I physically like to wander. I love to be spontaneous. I love to not have plans. I’m not a risk-taker type person. When I say spontaneous it’s not like, “Let’s go skydiving!” It’s more like, “Let’s see what happens. Let’s see what reveals itself, then let’s make decisions based on that.” This is a wonderful thing.

However, when you’re dealing with parenting and the lack of predictability that comes with that, (it’s better to) have certain things structured so that you can get them done without really having to expend a lot of mental energy on them. Things like, a bit of a bedtime routine, a wake-up routine. Or there’s a bit of a laundry routine so you know you’re not going to be scrambling for underwear for your children.

Here’s a good example: If your kids play sports, after every sports practice you immediately put the uniform, or whatever, into the wash so it’s ready the next time. Those little bits of structure that take forethought, when you can just push yourself a little bit to take that extra step, it’s amazing. It frees 110% more mental energy. It’s really more than the sum of its parts, in terms of what it gives back to you.

I am so glad that you mentioned the podcast because my co-host, Christine, is very structured in the way she works, and she does it exactly so she can build in those open pockets of time. If you were to compare Christine and me, in terms of our productivity, she is much more productive because that’s the way her mind works. It’s really fine. That’s how she prefers to work.

I think that the key comes in accepting who you are, and how you like to work, then just adding little improvements, just like I was saying at the beginning. Adding little tweaks and improvements that will fix the problems you’re running into, not make you into some sort of ideal from everybody else’s perspective.

So many of us need to hear about how to live more simply, how to declutter, both mentally and practically; the idea of creating space in your life. What I’m hearing you say, and the message that I would love to hear more people saying, is that a lot of that space can be found by letting go of the things that you’re doing out of obligation, or out of a “Keeping up with the Pinterest moms” mentality.

We spend way too much time and energy and space worrying about stuff that we aren’t actually interested in doing.

You just hit on the head. That’s exactly it. That’s where it starts. Understanding that clearing space isn’t some sort of moral thing, that the best people are the ones with the least clutter. It’s not like that. It’s more like you deserve space for the things that are important to you, so what’s important to you? I think that’s where it starts.

It’s hard to be self-confident in this day and age, as parents, because there’s so much information coming at us. We care so much about doing what’s right for our kids and being good parents. It’s sort of a recipe for feeling inadequate, or feeling like we’re messing up somehow. It just seems like everywhere we turn there are all these different examples of people who are winning, but it’s like, “Are they winning in the way that I want to be winning?” It’s very hard to answer that question, but I do think that’s where it starts for sure.

…For me, speaking personally, it’s the most important message I could ever finally figure out. It took a long time.

I think that it’s easy to be susceptible to the idea that you are doing something wrong to begin with. But it’s really good to hear you say that that’s an incorrect assumption to start off with. It’s more about figuring out for yourself how you want to be doing something. That’s what all the hacks are about, right? Something that you organically come into on your own.

Yeah, you organically come into on your own. You recognize that it worked for you in that moment. It may not work for anyone else. It may not work for you the following week, but it worked for you in that moment, and you had the urge share it. That is that whole notion of trusting yourself as a parent in the most elemental form.

Raising Kids With a Movement-Based Lifestyle: An Interview with Katy Bowman

The simple truth is that we and our kids spend too much time sitting. But it’s never too late to start a movement-based lifestyle.

By now you’ve probably heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking.” The message that our sedentary lifestyles are causing all sorts of health issues is out there loud and clear. But have you also heard the message that exercise isn’t necessarily the answer? 

Think about a typical day in your life and the life of your family. How often are you moving?  Do you and your kids sit to eat breakfast, sit in the car on the way to school, sit at a desk all day, sit to watch television? The simple truth is that many of us, including our kids, spend significant portions of our day on our backsides.

Katy BowmanKaty Bowman is a biomechanist by training and founder of the “whole body movement program,” Nutritious Movement. Her message is that movement should be a part of our everyday lives – all day, every day – rather than just a thing we do in between all of the sitting. 

Nutritious movement, she says, is a human need just like a healthy diet. A repetitive exercise regime only moves your body in one specific way for one specific period of time, Bowman explains, but integrating movement throughout the day is a lifestyle change that moves your body in all sorts of ways, helping you to be more balanced. 

As an added bonus, nutritious movement can make you a happier person because movement is no longer something you have to check off your to-do list. “I’m not stressed about NOT exercising, feeling like I’ve failed to meet the needs of my body,” Bowman says of her own transition to this lifestyle.

Bowman is also raising her kids in a movement-based lifestyle.  They have monkey bars in their house and do not have chairs or couches; instead, they eat and hang out in all different positions on the floor. They walk everywhere they can, including frequent trips to the playground, and they hike barefoot through national parks. Bowman says her kids realize that their family is a little different from others, but they see difference as a normal part of life and don’t resist the lifestyle.

I became interested in Bowman’s work after giving birth to my second child and ended up diving into everything I could get my hands on. I’m a convert to Bowman’s philosophy and I’m already starting to feel better. 

I move more during my day at work by alternating between sitting, standing, and reading on the floor. I’m also trying to make movement, especially in nature, more frequent in my family’s life.  I’ve begun to prioritize our long walk to the bus stop each morning, getting myself outside to play soccer, and spending time on the swing set (I’m working up to my own monkey bar repertoire).   

I was thrilled to talk with Bowman about what it means for her whole family to live this way and what the rest of us might learn from her. Lucky for us, Bowman believes it’s never too late to start introducing kids, or adults, to a movement-based lifestyle.

https://nutritiousmovement.com/a-day-in-the-life/
View: a day in the life of a movement based lifestyle.

What strategies would you recommend to get kids excited about, or at least not protesting, more movement in their lives?

I think the key is to not make a big deal out of it. The whole “guess what everyone, we’re going to embark on our movement-based lifestyle” probably sounds like “you’re going to have to start doing things you don’t want to do.” Instead, just start taking walks and say “good bye everyone, I’m going to spend some time out in nature alone” and just watch them line up to come with.

Set up games and puzzles on the floor and watch them join you, which is different then saying “Let’s get on the floor and play this game because it’s healthier for us.” Most kids don’t enjoy kale and walking because it hasn’t comprised the bulk of their experience, and we’re all comfortable with our habits. Sneaking it in helps, and modeling is really the best way for kids to become familiar with the idea. Ask your littles where they want to walk and let them lead, rather than saying “we need to get our walk in to stay healthy.”

Are your kids involved in organized sports? Do you approach sports decisions any differently because of your own research and lifestyle?

My kids are little—three and just five. Organized sports are a fairly new thing. But there is more and more evidence pointing to early specialization (that is, having kids play the same sport for many years, as opposed to them playing lots of different movement games and sports before finding what they’re good at as older teenagers) can lead to injuries that can effect them as adults.

I think of sports in the same way I think of dessert—a great way to supplement a well-balanced whole-food diet. My kids climb trees, walk long distances, and hike a lot through nature. We walk to the store and jump off high things, and sprint, and wrestle, and swing through monkey bars—barefoot the bulk of the time. I’m all for sports, I just don’t see sports as fully meeting their movement nutrition guidelines.

I’ve read that you chose a Forest School for your kids.  What recommendations do you have for families who don’t have this type of option for school? 

Before you assume you don’t have an outdoor program near you, check. This can include a Facebook post that says “Family interested in enrolling their kids in a nature school, afterschool, or weekend program. Is anyone else similarly interested, or willing to take some steps with us to start one.” Once a week I post something about a new school popping up and there’s always a comment or two like “That’s right near me! I didn’t know there was anything.”

If there’s no official program, start an after school or weekend meet-up in nature. Here’s my biggest “get your kid moving” tip: Kids want to move with other kids. Going for a walk “because it’s healthy” is an adult construct developed out of an almost sedentary experience. They can’t relate. What they can relate to is other kids moving through nature, because it’s fun. Humans are pack animals. Get kids a little older and more skilled than yours and it’s like some natural instinct to keep up kicks in and away they go, COMPLAINT FREE (which means your outdoor time becomes a break from The Constant Whining – or, is that just my kids?).

Do you have any recommendations for parents who want to bring these ideas to their kids’ schools?

Suggest ways to add movement to your child’s teacher or the school’s PTA. This can be a bit tricky, but the research on sitting and learning and health are in your favor. I haven’t seen any research pointing to sitting as the best option for kids and education, it’s just how schooling has been done (for research to the contrary, check out this article on the benefits of standing).

Instead of only suggesting, offer to be of service in terms of funding, looking for grants, or volunteering your time in the class to help support this endeavor. I’ve inspired at least a few class rooms to go furniture free (check out this example of a chair free classroom ), and volunteering to shop thrift stores to stock classrooms with tables and cushions of various heights has been helpful, as is volunteering to chaperone class walks and weekly hikes.   

For more ideas on how to incorporate Nutritious Movement into your life, and the lives of your kids, I highly encourage you to check out Katy’s Facebook page.  I guarantee you will be inspired and occasionally laugh.  When you’re ready to dive a bit deeper, you might start with her book Move your DNA which provides all of the basic science behind the concept. 

PS – If you’ve been sitting the whole time you read this article, get up and take a movement break; your body will thank you!

Heather Shumaker: Kids Need to Take Risks

We talked to author Heather Shumaker (“It’s OK Not to Share” and “It’s OK to Go Up the Slide) about the difference between danger and risk for teens online.

Heather Shumaker is the author of “It’s OK Not to Share,” and “It’s OK to Go Up the Slide,” which was published last month. She has added her voice to a chorus of mental health professionals and free-range parenting advocates who all assert that children benefit from being allowed the room to fall, fail, and otherwise experience pain. We spoke with Heather about the difference between danger and risk, and how this idea applies to tweens venturing into the online realm.

Heather-Shumaker-author-portrait

PARENT CO: I was intrigued by your post on the Daily Beast (Yes, Let Your Kids Talk to Strangers), and it got me thinking all sorts of things about what you call “healthy risks.” It almost sounds like an oxymoron.

HEATHER SHUMAKER: I think that parents are mixing up danger and risk. We think risk is something that’s going to hurt our kids, but risk is completely different than danger, or getting hurt. Risk is taking a chance, and trying something, and extending yourself. Sometimes in order to grow and change, and get that healthy life that we want for our kids, it doesn’t mean playing it 100% safe; it means taking some things that are reasonable risks, healthy risks.

In order to be a living, mortal person that’s going to be who they can be, we have to take some risks and sometimes get skinned knees. We protect kids a lot from the social and emotional risks, and some of that is just from the fear that they’ll get their feelings hurt, or that they will feel sorrow, or that they might be temporarily scared.

I agree that we overprotect our kids from the emotional injuries that are just going to happen to any human. Do you see that inclination coming from our own unresolved traumas or wounds, from our own childhood?

When I speak around the country I ask a room full of people, how many of you had all of your feelings accepted as a child? In a room of about 200, maybe two people or one person will raise their hand. For most of us, it doesn’t have to do with the traumas in our life, it has to do with the fact that we were not taught how to cope emotionally with all the feelings that come: What to do with our anger, how to resolve conflicts, what to do when we’re feeling sad. We need our parents or older people to guide us when we have these big huge feelings. Happiness can be a big huge feeling, but usually the ones parents have trouble accepting are the negative ones.

Anger, sorrow, frustration, jealousy; all those difficult feelings are ones that we don’t tend to have accepted, so then we don’t have emotional coping skills. All we know is that it hurts. We’re trying to protect our kids from that kind of hurt. When you have the coping skills to deal with these big emotions, sure being sad or being angry is not pleasant, but you know you can get through it, you know what you can do to get yourself out of it.

The really key thing that we, as adults, need to recognize is that all the feelings are okay, but all the behavior isn’t. You can be mad, but you can’t hit your brother. Accept the feeling, but limit the behavior. We often don’t separate them, we just go, “Why did you hit your brother?”

I think that’s such an important distinction to make. I’m constantly reminding myself of that. I’m hyper-aware of allowing my kids to feel all the things, but I still have to remind myself to differentiate for my children between the behavior and the action.

Right. Then to find the appropriate outlets for them. Actually my first book “It’s Okay Not To Share,” has a huge section on emotions, and emotional expression, and separating the behavior from the feelings. I think that once that foundation is in a family then you can more comfortably move on to this concept of healthy risk. Otherwise it’s too scary.

I’m curious what you think it is – either in your background or research you’ve done – that’s enabled you to trust in the relative safety of what you’re calling healthy risks?

UpTheSlideIt’s the way I was brought up. For me it’s second nature. I don’t have to get over the fear as much as other people do. I can see the fear around me and I understand that living with fear is a very difficult thing. It stresses us as adults, it stresses the kids, too. For example, my father when we were outside taking a walk in the woods, he was constantly encouraging us to balance on logs, or jump over streams, and try to jump over streams at the widest part we could. Sometimes we’d slip and get wet.

He taught us how to run down hills, and to fall. He’d say, “You’re going to fall so here’s how you fall safely so you don’t get hurt. You tuck yourself in and roll with it.” Just that attitude of assuming there will be knocks and bumps in life, you can make that a metaphor for all sorts of things.

You also talk about this notion of teaching kids to listen to their instincts more; to trust their gut feeling about people and situations.

We do, as humans, have this survival instinct, and some of these ideas are coming from Gavin de Becker, who wrote “The Gift of Fear.” I cite his work in “It’s Okay to Go to Up the Slide.” One of the things he talks about is developing those street smarts, and relying on that instinct of,“Uh-oh, something’s not right.”

(In cases of) sexual abuse, people talk about that “uh-oh” feeling. It doesn’t feel right, even though (the abuser) is telling you, “It’s our private game and it’s okay.” Your stomach is telling you it’s not right.

Listening to that (feeling) is much better safety training – for us to help our kids tune into that voice – then it is to just lock them inside and not let them play in the front yard by themselves.

Even just having your child interact, having him or her ask the librarian the question instead of you asking the question. Having them interact at the grocery store with the check-out clerk. Maybe the check out clerk who has down syndrome, and is bagging the groceries. Lots of interactions, that’s how kids pick things up.

They’ll notice what’s different, and they might ask you questions about it. Having exposure and experience is the only way that anybody can gain and hone this kind of skill. We all have it, but it gets sharper if we practice.

What if my son is saying, “I’m too shy to ask if I can pet that stranger’s dog.” How do you know when to actually push a kid to do something he doesn’t want to do?

You don’t know, but let’s take the dog example. A lot of kids are fascinated by dogs, and they really do want to pet the dog. If they want you to do it for them, you can make a judgement call on that particular day. Maybe it’s a day that they’re feeling a little bit off, and you want to say the sentence for them, “Can we pet your dog?” If everything is going well, and the child is well-fed, and well-rested, and they really want to do this, you can say, “I will stand right next to you. I will be there with you when you ask.” That moral support is enormous, because what the child is doing is taking a social risk. Taking social risks can be huge for some kids.

Speaking of risks, we’re preparing a series of posts about tweens, sex, and social media. Can you talk about the risks versus the real dangers posed by social media, specifically.

Pornography and taking advantage of kids sexually, that is a danger. The risk is if the child’s on the computer and social media, they would be exposed to that danger.

Do you have any thoughts on applying your methods, if you will, to the tween generation and specifically the online world?

It’s complicated. You’ve got to be talking about these things – big topic, important topics – continually. Not every single moment, but also not one big talk when your child is 12. It’s a gradual process. If that’s something that you’ve been doing, or able to start doing, the child has a lot more knowledge and awareness of what dangers might be.

Also as far as social and emotional coping skills, I think that when a child ventures into the online world, I’m a big believer in you’ve got to have a foundation of real life skills first. If your child is having trouble resolving conflicts with her friends in real life when she’s 11, or whatever age, then they’re not ready for social media, because it makes it all harder when you can’t read the body language. You’ve got to have a strong foundation in what’s okay and how to treat people well in real life.

As you’re talking I’m reminded of something you said about exposing kids to sadness and grief, and not necessarily shielding them completely from the news of the world. It seems to me this falls in that category. Americans tend to approach sex ed from a very glossed over, rather timid perspective. I think that contributes to the risks we’re talking about. Like you said, if you don’t have the basic knowledge then you can’t make informed choices.

Kids need to know the basic knowledge of how a baby is made, and they can start learning that when they’re two and three, because that’s usually when a second sibling is coming along, and there’s pregnancy in the house. It’s a perfectly natural time to talk about it, but then continue the conversation over time. Then lead on to the next thing.

Yes. We miss those opportunities sometimes out of our own fear. How would you advise someone who feels they’ve missed a bunch of opportunities, and now they have a 12-year-old who’s facing this new territory?

Assume that your child has accumulated quite a bit of misinformation. And it’s okay to acknowledge, “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about this when your were little.” Then ask what he knows, because then you have a base of knowledge of what he knows, or what she knows. Then probably something will pop out that’s a little ridiculous; start by straightening those things out.

Just dive in, because kids are safer when they have information. My basic guideline with difficult topics, whether it’s a terrorist bombing in the news, or how babies are made, whatever the difficult topic is, if a child is old enough to ask, he’s old enough to get an honest answer.

It gets back to the idea of healthy risks. In general, kids take on as much risk as they can handle.

What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Conversation with Creators Susan and Refe Tuma

Parent Co. caught up with the creative parents behind the popular Dinovember books to hear what they had to say about living the Dinovember life.

Susan and Refe Tuma are the authors of the Dinovember books, including What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night and What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Very Messy Adventure.

Parent Co. caught up with the creative couple, parents to four children under the age of eight. Here’s what they had to say about living the Dinovember life.

PARENT CO: The photographs in the Dinovember books are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Your dinos blow the Elf on the Shelf and the Mensch on a Bench away by miles, in my opinion, and also provide a secular option that allows any family to get in on the fun previously reserved for specific religious holidays (albeit tangentially, as much as such a product can be considered for “religious” purposes). Can you describe the genesis of Dinovember?

tumblr_nyhhy9wQPy1rl2q3to1_1280
via Dinovember.tumblr.com

REFE TUMA: When our son was an infant, he had some minor health problems that kept him up at night for hours. Two years into this, Susan and I were exhausted. We’d get up in the morning and have nothing left for our older kids, and they were starting to notice. We needed some way to reconnect with them.

One night, after putting the kids to bed, we came across a box of dinosaur toys. On a whim, Susan decided to set them up on the bathroom sink and give them the kids’ toothbrushes. We figured it might give the kids a laugh in the morning. We went to bed without thinking much more about it.

The next morning, our daughter burst into our room and pulled us out of bed. The dinosaurs had come to life and she had caught them brushing their teeth! Her reaction was so unexpected and priceless. That’s when we knew the dinosaurs would have to come to life again. And they did, for the entire month of November.

tumblr_nymz3ncT6J1rl2q3to1_1280

via Dinovember.tumblr.com

PC: A Pinterest search for “Dinovember” ideas yields seemingly endless results. How did the month-long family activity become an Internet sensation and two-book deal with Little, Brown?

RT: In 2012, the very first year the dinosaurs came to life, we started taking pictures of the messes they were making. We put a few on Facebook for friends and family, and jokingly called it Dinovember. Everyone enjoyed it, and they were a bit of an inside joke.

In 2013, the dinosaurs returned—and we found out that our kids weren’t the only ones interested in what they were doing. Friends and family started sharing the photos, and on top of that our kids were telling anyone who would listen all about their crazy dinosaurs. We wanted an easy way to explain what on earth our kids were so excited about, so I wrote a quick essay describing what Dinovember was and what it was about and posted it on a new site, medium.com. I figured, whenever someone asked us what our kids were talking about we could point them to that essay and the photos, and it would make a little more sense.

Instead, Welcome to Dinovember was read [on Medium] more than 2 million times in 24 hours. It was syndicated by the Huffington Post and the story was picked up by the Washington Post, Metro UK, and others. I started getting emails from literary agents and editors who wanted to talk about expanding the essay into a full-length photo book. We were in complete shock (and excited out of our minds!).

We wanted to make two books, one for the adults who had started following along with Dinovember, and one just for kids. John Parsley at Little Brown shared our vision and, along with our wonderful agents Liz Farrell and Kristyn Keene, helped orchestrate a deal with Little Brown and Co. and children’s imprint Little Brown Books for Young Readers.

PC: From what I understand, your family’s home is truly the scene of the crime in these photos. What’s the worst mess the dinosaurs ever made?

SUSAN TUMA: That really is our house! As for the worst mess—the dinosaurs once created an avalanche from our refrigerator’s ice-maker. It stood 4’ tall and 3’ wide and took over 750 lbs. of ice. It’s in one of the final photos of What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night, but we also have a photo of two of our kids sledding down it. It was that big.

PC: Setting up the dinosaur scenes and seeing your kids’ reactions must be so fun. Who does the clean up?

ST: Not the dinosaurs, unfortunately—if only we’d gone with robots!

The kids will often play with whatever the dinosaurs got into the night before, so a lot of the clean-up during Dinovember isn’t all that different from any other month; if the dinosaurs do crafts, the kids do them too. It’s a mess either way. (Of course, if spray paint or broken eggs are involved, it’s going to be mom and dad doing the cleaning.)

PC: The Dinovember books are very art-forward, but they also tell a story. Can you describe the story writing process? Who does the writing? What’s the most important message the books send?

via Dinovember.tumblr.com
via Dinovember.tumblr.com

ST: We truly work together on every step of the process. That’s one of the benefits of doing projects like these with your spouse—we live this stuff together. Refe started out doing most of the writing since that’s a big part of his background, and I (Susan) took the lead early on in the photography department. Now there isn’t quite as much distinction—it’s almost entirely collaborative. It’s just more fun that way. We have different approaches, and so often one person’s idea is refined or informed by the other’s. It actually brings out the better work from both of us.

Our books are definitely about the importance of childhood imagination; the spark and the wonder of it.  We hope they’re also an invitation to parents to engage in that wonder as well, with their children.

tumblr_negvyo99nJ1rl2q3to1_1280.jpg

PC: Do the kids still think the dinosaurs come alive at night, or do they know it’s you? How did you explain this to them and what was their reaction?

RT: It depends on which ones you ask! Our youngest two are aged 2 and 4, and they absolutely believe. Our oldest (8) is in on it now. She likes to help the dinosaurs out from time to time, and has come up with some great ideas. So far, our 7-year-old has chosen to keep playing along ;).

PC: What’s interesting to me is how you created a family tradition that was all your own—I think that’s what many of us parents want for our own families. It’s more meaningful than a commercialized product bought at a store ever could be. What did Dinovember teach you as parents and as a family?

RT: I think we’ve learned that all good things in life are messy, especially when kids are involved. And that inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest places—even in a box of old toys.