How to Help Kids Connect With Older Generations

Kids are often uncomfortable around older people (even grandparents). Here are research-backed tips to help them connect, for the benefit of both parties.

My grandmother turned 90 last month. She is spunky, funny, and an incredibly talented crafter (we’re talking award winning quilts, hand-hooked rugs, and fabric art).

She raised five children who have gone out into the world and generated an extended family of about 40 people, including 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. A few weeks ago, we threw her a surprise party. It was a raucous affair with a series of toasts, lots of hugs, and multiple rounds of singing.

At 90, Grammie still lives alone. She has undoubtedly kept her mind sharp through her intricate crafting, but like anyone who is aging she can get confused or forgetful. She is amazingly self-sufficient in so many ways but also needs support from family, especially her kids, as she continues to navigate the ins and outs of daily life. 

Despite these natural effects of aging, I still see Grammie as the hilarious woman who laughs so hard she can’t tell her own jokes and has been known to belt out, “Come on baby light my fire!” while doing dishes.

great-grandmother

But I often wonder if my kids, who haven’t had the opportunity to know her for so many years, see her the same way. Sometimes they seem unsure how to act around her or shy away from contact. My son asks questions about great gram and her life as he seeks to understand how she is related to him and to all of the other kids his age. 

Not knowing who she was when she was younger, they are figuring out who she is at the age of 90. 

That’s what older people are to them – unknown.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that my children are less comfortable with the unknown. That’s what older people are to them – unknown. 

They have few older people in their lives, and even fewer who are at the stage of life where more visible physical changes are settling in.  This is the result of a modern lifestyle in which intergenerational living is less common. Many of us don’t live with, or extremely close to, our parents or grandparents (though, of course, some cultural traditions value these connections more than others). 

More than that, our lives are not always organized in a way that promotes intergenerational contact. 

Our children spend time at school and home where their adult caregivers are the age of their parents or grandparents, but not typically beyond their 60’s. And we spend less time with neighbors than previous generations might have. 

The result, not just in our family, but in research around intergenerational perceptions in general, is that children who do not spend time around older adults have less positive perceptions of them (Heyman et al, 2011; Davidson et al, 2008; Okoye, 2008; Osborne Hannon and Hall Gueldner, 2006). 

This means that both generations may be missing out on the potential benefits of interactions with each other.

I am looking for ways to help my kids feel more comfortable with older friends and family members and older folks they might meet in the future – to help them make connections that are valuable to them and to older generations. According to Page et al (1981), I’d better act soon; this research showed that children should be educated about aging before they are six years old if we are to foster more positive images of aging moving forward. 

So what can we do?  Here are three ideas I might try…

Increasing the frequency of positive interactions between children and elderly family and friends seems to be an important first step. 

We can be more conscious about visiting my grandmother every time we are “in her neighborhood” (a few hours away) and we can find ways to steer the conversation toward story-telling that might help my children to relate to her and appreciate what she can share with them. 

Likewise, we have an older neighbor whom we usually only see in passing; we can make an effort to check in on him more often or we can rekindle our friendship with an older neighbor who lived in our previous neighborhood. By doing so, we can demonstrate to our children that our elders are an important part of our family and our community.

Formal intergenerational programming also has been shown to have positive impacts on children’s perceptions of aging (Heyman et al, 2011). 

I actually remember doing a pen pal project with an elderly friend of my parents when I was young, and I remember my sister interviewing our great aunt to learn about her incredibly interesting life.  These experiences probably made us more comfortable with our older friends and family, but they were few and far between and didn’t happen until we were much older.

Joint child and eldercare programs look amazing, but probably aren’t an option for everyone right now. Instead, we can look for community-based programming that could help our children to engage with friendly older individuals. For example, there are programs that engage retired seniors as volunteers to read to children in local libraries or in school. The added benefit is that these programs are also beneficial for the adults who volunteer, enabling them to participate more fully in their communities and increase their sense of self-worth and connectedness (Skropeta et al, 2014).

Beyond in-person interactions we can also look at how older individuals are represented, if at all, in our children’s books and other media. 

Research has shown that introducing children to books with a variety of older characters can help them to develop “more nuanced thinking about age” (Larkin et al, 2013). Just how often do you see an older person in the books that you read to your children, and how are they represented? If there are elderly characters, what are they doing? A fascinating study by Sciplino et al (2010) showed that more than 50% of grandparents in books across three cultures were shown in “sedentary physical activities” (remember the four grandparents sharing a bed in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?). In addition, 59% of grandfathers had grey hair. The researchers argued that kids are being presented with a “homogeneous image of grandparents”. But there are alternatives. Check out your local library for books with interesting older characters doing interesting things.  For some ideas, browse these compiled lists from Reading Rockets, Generations United, or Pinterest.

There is so much potential for positive outcomes from intergenerational relationships. It’s worth paying attention to how these relationships play out in our families and communities; taking active steps to make these interactions a part of our lives, if they are missing, is an important part of raising kids.

Books that Please Parents as Much as Preschoolers

Lucky for us parents, there are a lot of absolutely excellent children’s books – ones that can please both kids and the parents who read them.

We all know that reading to our kids on a daily basis improves their vocabulary and their readiness for school. It’s also a great way to spend dedicated time with our kids as we pause from the everyday frenzy of modern family life.

I think we parents also know that not every book is a good book. Have you ever gotten caught up in the rhythm of a story only to turn the page and find that the rhythm or rhyme is totally gone?

Or how about those stories that have absolutely no plot line? Then there are those books that make you want to throw them out the window – you know, the ones where all of the girls are pink princesses and get so excited about finding the perfect bow to go with their new dress? I could go on.

Lucky for us, there are also a lot of absolutely excellent children’s books – ones that can please both kids and the parents who read them. There is nothing more fulfilling than finding a book, or better yet an author, that brings joy to a kids’ bedtime routine and is also fun to read for us adults (who rarely get to enjoy picture books these days).

While there are of course classics that should be on every shelf (Good Night Moon, Blueberries for Sal, Fox in Sox, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar) there are also some more modern authors who work wonders with language, lessons, and rhythm. Many of our favorite books and authors have been recommended by other experienced parents with excellent taste and good rhythm.
So today I pay it forward. Here are some of the authors that you will thoroughly enjoy reading to your toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary kids (in approximately that order):

Sandra Boynton

pajama-time
I don’t know how she does it, but Sandra Boynton can turn a simple toddler board book into a work of art that is a pleasure to read (or sing). Perhaps because my mother’s maiden name is Boynton (no relation) these books have been passed around in our family for years. Barnyard Dance is a family affair in our household when we need to work out a little pre-bed energy. I love singing Personal Penguin and Snuggle Puppy, while my husband can read The Going to Bed Book over and over again without blinking and my almost two-year old has Moo Ba La La La memorized. I’m telling you, this woman is a genius (and a millionaire I’m sure).

Mo Willems

pigeon_bus_spread_lg

Who’d have thunk that Mo Willems’ simple books about stuffed bunnies, pigeons who love hot
dogs, and an elephant and pig who are best friends could be so fulfilling? When I was pregnant with my first child, a childhood friend sent a copy of Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay up Late and we set the bar for children’s books right then and there. My son has started to read the Elephant and Piggy series and seems to truly capture the lessons of friendship that these simple and funny stories convey. I mean, when piggy throws the ball behind him and gets ultra-excited because he must have thrown it around the world, who can resist a smile?

Eric Litwin and James Dean

pete the catThis musician/author/artist team created Pete the Cat, a series that was introduced to us by a cousin who is an elementary school teacher and grew up in Atlanta. Pete shows us that even if our best shoes get dirty we don’t have to fret, we just keep on groovin’. Is there a better lesson for preschoolers? The added bonus is that most of these stories have a funky rhythm (and you can visit their website to watch the videos and learn the tunes). We’re especially fond of the VW Bus in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas and we all get into the message: “At Christmas we give, so give it your all.”

Julia Donaldson

the flying bath

My college roommate and one of my lifelong friends moved to England, which is sad for me, but lucky for my kids who were introduced early on to The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. This is one of those authors who can write an outstanding book that is just a little bit complicated with its puns and plays on words, but still completely understandable for preschoolers. Just one look at some of her titles assures you they will be good: Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, and Monkey Puzzle are excellent choices. An added bonus is the movie version of The Gruffalo, which is a beautifully-made rendition of the story that simply animates the well-written verse read by Helena Bonham Carter.

So if you’re getting a little tired of the books on your shelf or your child has grown attached to a book that drives you nuts, consider taking this list of authors with you to the library; it can also be a handy go-to list for baby shower or birthday party gifts.

Of course, this is just a segment of the great books that we have been lucky enough to run into (and I’ve just realized that they are all about animals instead of humans, so I’m sure we’re missing something here). Who are some of your “go to” authors?

Should We Pressure Kids to Clean Their Plates?

Studies link parental behaviors around food to eating problems in kids. But giving up pressure-to-eat doesn’t mean giving up healthy eating.

My husband and I are foodies; we eat a predominantly vegetarian diet that is full of food that many American parents would consider “not kid-friendly” – things like collard greens, pad thai, and whole wheat bread with lots of seeds. 

Our two children have been eating what we eat at almost every meal since their first bite of solid food (though I suppose that applies to breastmilk too).

For the most part, they have surprisingly open tastes when it comes to food.

But life is not perfect at our dinner table.  We have our nights when our kids refuse to eat, either because the food is not to their liking, we are eating too late and they are grumpy and tired, or (most often) because they aren’t hungry enough to finish what they are served.  These nights are a constant battle for us, and unfortunately consistency is not our strong point.  Our responses on any given night could include any one of the following:

  • “You’re not leaving the table until your plate is empty.”
  • “Just eat three more bites and you can earn dessert.”
  • “It’s your choice, but if you don’t eat you won’t be getting another snack before bed.”
  • “Just eat as much as you can.”

Quite frequently, my husband and I have different opinions of how it should be handled.  No wonder our kindergartener alternates between cleaning his plate, making his own decision to forgo dessert, negotiating with us, or throwing a temper tantrum.

I recently turned to research to see if there was a preferable approach to this nightly dilemma.  If scholars can agree on the appropriate parental behavior, then perhaps my husband and I can agree too?  Here are some of the things I learned.

There is a name for the behavior I’m talking about: parental pressure-to-eat.

First, there is a name for the behavior I’m talking about: parental pressure-to-eat.  It’s when parents pressure their child either to eat in general, or to eat healthy foods.   It applies to the “clean your plate” approach and the “you must eat your broccoli” approach as well as the “three more bites and you can have dessert approach.”  It is a highly studied phenomenon.  I did a Google Scholar search for articles published in the last three years and found at least 20 relevant studies within a few minutes.

Second – and here’s the difficult news – many of these studies link parental behaviors around food with eating problems in childhood and later in life.   The fact is, we parents have a lot of say in what our children eat and so we have the potential to contribute highly to our children’s tendencies to be picky eaters, emotional eaters, overweight teenagers, or teenagers with eating disorders. In short, both pressure-to-eat strategies and restrictive strategies can have a negative impact on children’s ability to self-regulate their diet.  Researchers argue that we are “socializing our children to eat past their internal hunger/satiety clues” (Orrel-Valente, 2006).

What’s more, according to a review of the research on this topic by Mitchell et al (2013), “the stress and anxiety that can surround difficult mealtimes can have a detrimental impact upon both child and parental psychological wellbeing”.  I can relate to that after a few nights of conflict-filled dinners.

For those of us who have given in to the “clean your plate” pressure, or the tendency to bribe with dessert, there is some more bad news: a growing collection of research seems to be showing that pressure-to-eat strategies aren’t working.

A laboratory experiment conducted by Galloway et al (2006) showed that when kids were given constant messages to finish what they were served they actually ate less than kids who were not given those messages.   Kids who were not pressured to eat also made “fewer negative comments” – a worthy goal, I think we could all agree.

Girl Eating Dinner

So, if pressure-to-eat is the not the way to go, what’s a parent to do?

Let’s start with the idea that giving up pressure-to-eat does not mean giving up healthy eating.  If we have such high potential to contribute to our children’s negative eating challenges, we also have great potential to contribute to their eating success.  We aren’t supposed to just sit back and let them do whatever they want.

According to a study published by researchers in New Zealand (Haszard et al, 2015), “healthy eating guidance and monitoring by parents were related to the consumption of fewer unhealthy foods.” Notice the words used by these researchers – they bear repeating – guidance and monitoring. Not pressure or force feeding.  When parents didn’t monitor their kids’ eating and gave the kids high levels of freedom over what they chose to eat, kids became fussy eaters.  Conversely, when parents were somewhat “food restrictive” and gave children choices within limits children ended up eating more healthy fruits and vegetables.  As Loth et al (2013) described, parents should be “educated and empowered” so that they can anticipate problems in advance and be prepared to help their children make healthy choices.

One way we can be educated is to learn a bit about portion size and the variability in kids’ energy intake.  The USDA guidelines for children age 6-12 state that lunch or dinner should consist of: 1 cup of milk; ¾ cup of fruits or vegetables; 1 grain/bread; and one serving of protein (2 oz of meat, for example, or a ½ cup beans).  Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that portions should be “child size” until adolescence.  I highly suspect there are nights in our household where we overfill our kids’ plates, setting them up for failure.

Even within these guidelines, we also have to trust our kids a bit more to know how hungry they are.  A classic study by the New England Journal of Medicine (Birch et al, 1991) confirmed earlier studies showing that kids are pretty good at adjusting how much they eat from meal-to-meal and ending up with an appropriate overall daily intake with little to no adult guidance.

It’s pretty impressive what kids can do if we let go a little and give them a bit more ownership over their bodies.

The overall message, as I interpret it, seems to be that we should teach our kids about healthy foods and we should help to influence their good eating habits by providing right-sized healthy meals and limiting sweets, but we should not impose “clean your plate” rules just for the sake of those rules, nor should we completely disallow sweets here and there.   We need to coach our children so that they will be able to make their own decisions about food and healthy eating as they leave our dinner table for other venues.

There is one other extremely important message in a number of the research studies I read.  What parents eat matters.

There is one other extremely important message in a number of the research studies I read.  What parents eat matters.  As one study that looked at the influence of mothers’ eating on their daughters’ food habits stated: “findings suggest that parents should focus less on ‘picky eating’ behavior and more on modeling fruit and vegetable consumption for their children” (Galloway et al, 2005).  We cannot use the “do as I say and not as I do” strategy if we want our kids to learn about healthy eating.  This supports the theory that we should feed kids what we are eating, as long as what we are eating is a healthy choice (for more on this, read about Bee Wilson’s new book First Bite: How we Learn to Eat).

There are a ton of resources out there on how to help kids enjoy healthy foods, and many present strong alternatives to the pressure-to-eat approach.  But when it comes to actually sitting down at the dinner table, this research has encouraged my husband and me to try the following strategies:

  1. Eat meals together so that we can role-model healthy choices and our kids don’t expect a special meal prepared to their specifications;
  2. Start with realistic serving sizes and encourage our kids to ask for more if they are hungry;
  3. Offer our kids a few choices of healthy options (small servings to avoid waste) so that they have some say in what they are going to eat, but all choices are acceptable to us;
  4. Better yet, have our older son choose some of his own meals, helping him to select the right combination of  food groups;
  5. Explain to our children that they don’t have to finish their plate, but that they might have to wait until the next regular meal or snack time for more food.

There is a great deal of art to helping kids eat healthy foods – we can create amazing recipes, bring them right to the garden to see where their food comes from, and get their hands dirty in the kitchen – but there is also a great deal of science that can help to illuminate promising practices.  In our household, these strategies are definitely worth a try.  Good food is too important to fight about.

*I encourage you to visit some of these links and read articles yourself; for guidance on how to interpret an academic article, see Information Overload: Navigating the Research on Raising Kids

Information Overload: Navigating the Research on Kids and Families

Advice for parents who want to make sure they’re getting the right information from studies and research popularized on the Internet.

You’re reading through your daily Facebook posts, and a headline pops up: “Why so Many Rich Kids Learn to Like Healthy Food.”

You’re intrigued because you sure haven’t had much luck getting your daughter to eat her broccoli lately, and wonder what the experts have to say.

You click on the link and are brought to an article in The Atlantic covering a recently released research study.  You skim the article and learn that kids sometimes need to try new foods somewhere from 8-15 times (research study #1) and that low-income families buy what they know their kids will like because can’t afford to waste food (research study #2). 

Linking these two research studies together, the journalist reaches the conclusion that has informed his article’s title – rich kids learn to like healthy food because their parents can afford to waste food they don’t eat on the first ten tries.

But wait, can it really be that simple? 

If you find yourself asking that question, then you’re onto something.  It isn’t as simple as the title or even the nicely-written article claims. 

While the article cites strong and important research on both of these topics (repetitive offerings and spending patterns of low-income families), there are a multitude of other factors that also influence the foods that kids like, such as how early kids are exposed to a food, what their parents eat, how the food is cooked, what is served in school, access to fresh vegetables, and more. (A week later, I heard this NPR Story on Bee Wilson’s book First Bite, in case you’re interested in this topic.) 

I believe that many of these factors could also be linked to socioeconomic issues, and need to be equally attended to to alleviate disparities.

So perhaps the title of the article should have been:

“Economic Factors Influence Families’ Ability to Expose Children to Food Repetitively, Making One Strategy to Encourage Healthy Eating Inaccessible to Low-Income Families.”

You might not have clicked so quickly on that one.

microscope and science tools arranged neatly

Sometimes the message of research is lost in translation.

Therein lies the challenge with how research is shared online. There is outstanding research being conducted that should help parents in their day-to-day pursuit to raise happy and healthy kids, but sometimes the message of that research can be lost in translation. 

The language of scientific research can be entirely inaccessible to those who have not been trained in these practices and researchers are not always good at leaving that language behind.

At the same time, some journalists and blog authors will be tempted to write a misleading article (whether intentional or not) because they can get a better response with a title like “Why such and such will solve your child’s behavior problems” than they do with a title like “Research shows that such and such a strategy may contribute to better behavior in children.” 

See the difference? 

So, what is the average parent to do? 

As a trained researcher, I am hypersensitive to misleading research summaries.  I always find myself digging deeper to make sure the summary is on target with what the actual researchers intended.  But you don’t necessarily have to have a Ph.D. to get your questions answered.

Here’s my advice to parents who want to make sure they’re getting the right information:

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Be a Critical Reader[/su_highlight]

I don’t mean “critical” only in the sense of “critique” – the point isn’t just to try to poke holes in the author’s argument.  I also mean “critical” in the sense of “critical thinking.”  Dr. Stephen Brookfield, a prolific scholar in the field of adult learning, says:If you can’t think critically you have no chance of recognizing, let alone pushing back on, those times you are being manipulated” (2011). 

Being a critical reader means digging below the surface and asking questions about what the author presents as fact.  What kind of assumptions are they making about the research and how it applies to our day-to-day lives?  Do those assumptions sound too simplified?  One clue that an author might be making a jump from the research findings is a title that infers (or directly states) that this research provides conclusive evidence that there is a definitive “solution” to your problem. 

Most scientific research articles include a list of limitations as to how far their research findings can be generalized.  For example, if they did their research on 50 kids in a small suburban elementary school they likely list limitations about whether their research can be applied to kids in, say, inner-city schools.  Does the research summary include those limitations or boundaries, or are they left out? 

Another common disclaimer in academic research is that the research found correlation between two things (an input and an outcome, for example) but that they cannot definitively claim causation.  In other words, they can’t always say that one thing causes the other, or that there might not be other (perhaps unknown) factors contributing to the outcome.   

Don’t let these disclaimers ruin your impression of the value of research.  The magic happens when multiple studies in multiple contexts arrive at similar findings.  An article that presents more than one research study on a topic of interest may be a stronger source of information. 

For example, Amber Leventry’s recent Parent Co article on children and creativity used multiple sources (research, interviews, examples, personal testimony, etc.) to present a compelling argument for making space for our children’s creativity to blossom.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Understand the Messiness of Research Limitations[/su_highlight]

Here’s the thing – our kids are not machines. 

It might feel frustrating to read research studies that contribute to our knowledge about a given topic but don’t answer it definitively.  But here’s the thing – our kids are not machines.  There is no users’ manual to tell you that connecting wire A to wire B will lead to outcome C. 

Research on kids, or on humans in general, is not that straightforward either. 

Be open to reading articles that offer promising strategies, compelling correlations, and potential solutions – not just amazing revelations or answers to “why.” 

Read them and think about whether they apply to your own family, or could be tweaked to apply to your family.  Try some of the things the researchers suggest,  but don’t assume that they are the ONLY solutions.  You are the one who knows your family best, after all.   

Here’s an example: In our house we notice that our son’s behavior goes downhill after he watches a television show on the tablet.  I’ve been reading up on sensory sensitivity issues, and while I’m not eager to diagnose anything the research is helping me to think about whether watching “shows” on the tablet is a good choice for my son. 

We’re trying to limit tablet use to interactive activities to see if that helps – our own little experiment.  The research gives us some ideas to go on, even if we don’t attempt to take it as “fact.”

typing
hands typing on laptop

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Consider Reading the Research Yourself[/su_highlight]

I know, I know.  Who has time to read scientific journal articles on a regular basis?  Moreover, who can understand those things?  But if you’re really interested in the topic, or it’s extremely relevant to your family, it is worth it to go to the source.  And here’s a little secret for you – there is a formula to how scientific articles are written that can help you to browse quickly a paper and get the basic outline of the study and its conclusions.

Almost every scientific research article includes the following sections:

  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Abstract[/su_highlight] – the paragraph that gives you a summary of what the article will tell you, including the problem they were examining, their approach to the project, and a summary their findings.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Introduction [/su_highlight] – the opening section (or sections) that introduce you to the topic of the research, the problem the research is trying to address, and why the research is relevant.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Literature review [/su_highlight] – this often can be included as part of the introduction.  What other research has been done on this topic to-date and how does this new study build on that research?
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Methods [/su_highlight] – a detailed description of how the study was conducted (who was studied, with what tools, for how long, how the data was analyzed, etc.).
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Results [/su_highlight] – the scientific results of their research – often with lots of tables and research jargon.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Discussion[/su_highlight] – typically a more narrative section in which the researchers interpret their results, and often try to justify extrapolating those results to a broader or more general population. This also is the section in which the limitations of the research, based on the research methods and assumptions, are discussed.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Conclusion [/su_highlight] – the “take away” of this research; what have the researchers really learned from doing it, and what questions need to be addressed next?

If you can familiarize yourself with this outline, you can then direct your attention to the parts that will be easier for you to interpret and understand.

Here are a few tips on how to read a research article:

1 | After you’ve found a title that seems promising to you, take a quick look at the abstract to see if the article is really discussing what you want to learn about and to get an initial sense of what you’ll likely learn by reading the article.

2 | Skim the introduction to see why this research is important.

3 | Skim the literature review (for now) to see how much research has already been done on this topic and whether there are any interesting trends in the research to date; you might want to come back to this section if you decide you want to read other articles on the topic.

4 | Skim the methods section to see how extensive the study was.  Look for things like size of the sample (e.g. number of people surveyed), where the study took place, and how much data they collected.  This will tell you if this is a small niche study that tells just one part of the story (still important!) or a large-scale study that offers greater “generalizability.”

5 | Skip over the results (you can come back to that section later) and move to the discussion and conclusion.  This will help you to see what the authors found in their study that was meaningful and potentially applicable to your situation.  It will also give you a sense of the limitations the researchers cite in how their research can or should be applied.

Many people think that scientific research is just for labs and nerdy researchers.

However, research on humans is a fascinating endeavor that can add a lot to our lives (and does every day, whether we know it or not). 

Parents should be able to benefit from this research, but it is important to look at research summaries with a thoughtful and critical eye.  After all, if we’re going to use research to back up a decision we make or an approach we take with our family, we ought to be sure we’re getting the right information about that research and not someone else’s misleading “click bait.”

Recommended site: the ScienceofMom.com by Alice Calahan, PhD

Homemaker Hacks for the Cleaning Impaired

I hate cleaning. There, I said it. But I also love organization. Here are homemaking hacks for the cleaning impaired (like me).

I hate cleaning. There, I said it.

Aside from the sporadic cleaning sprees that are sometimes inspired by either houseguests or the desire to procrastinate on something else, cleaning is never on the top of my priority list.

That said, I also love organization; I wish I had the energy to actually fulfill all of the planning and organizing dreams I can come up with. It’s hard to find a balance in this love-hate relationship.

I may be the only one who harbors this resentment toward cleaning, but just in case I am not, here are some homemaking hacks I have discovered for the cleaning impaired:

Plastic Tubs

cleaning-bins2

If you have children put down what you are reading right now and go buy plastic bins or tubs – 8 or 10 of them if you can. I used to stare at my living room in pain wondering who was going to clean up the legos, tinker toys, blocks, and vehicles that were strewn all over the floor and if we were ever going to fit all of them into the cabinet.

But then I discovered the beauty of plastic tubs – designate one for blocks, one for anything with wheels, one for stuffed animals (or just throw anything wherever it fits) and clean up takes approximately 10.2 seconds, especially if the kids help (what toddler doesn’t like throwing things into a bucket?!).

Plus they look pretty nice stashed in the corner of any room. Gardener’s Supply carries these awesome Tubtrugs but you can often find them at your local hardware or home supply store too. Go nuts, buy a bunch of colors. Have your kids choose their colors so they get excited about them too!

I promise you, they are worth their weight in gold.

Top-Layer Waterproof Bed Pads

This one’s especially for parents of potty-trainers or night time bed-wetters. You know that feeling – its 3am and your preschoolers comes in to say “I had a leak.”

You groan audibly as you either kick your spouse to say that it is his or her turn or feel a nudge on your shoulder indicating it is in fact your turn. You trudge down the hall and gather all of the energy you can possibly muster to take the sheets off. You consider having your kid sleep on the mattress because it takes that much work to re-make the bed, but then you realize you can’t wash the mattress so you begrudgingly install a new set of sheets, praying that the blanket didn’t get wet too. Only to do this all over again the next night.

Stop changing sheets! My favorite bed pads, Brolly sheets, are installed on top of the bottom sheet and cover just the section of the bed where your kid’s torso falls. They tuck in on either side and when they get wet you just pull it off the bed and voila, you’re back to sleep. Even better, buy two so you can put a fresh one on and ensure you won’t be washing the sheets in the morning anyway.

The Swiffer (or something like it)

 

swifter

Vacuums are heavy, people. I don’t want to have to get my full-sized vacuum out unless I’m ready to tackle the whole house and that just doesn’t happen very often. A Swiffer Vacuum is great for cleaning between actual vacuuming (if you even do that at all). This is an especially relevant tip for those with have either: a) pets who shed; b) lots of wood floors; or c) children who insist on dropping crumbs on the floor. This should cover almost all of you. You’ll read reviews saying that the battery doesn’t last long. They’re right. But the point of the Swiffer is to do a quick 5-minute sweep before that unexpected guest shows up, not to spend a half-hour cleaning (who does that?). Extra credit if you get your kids to enjoy using the Swiffer!

House Guests

There is no better fail-safe way to make my husband and I clean the house than to invite house guests over. This inspirational decision motivates us (and sometimes our kids too) to whirl through the house like Publisher’s Clearinghouse will be arriving any minute with their cameras.

Paperwork that has been sitting out for weeks miraculously finds a home; the stack of books that has been strewn across the floor tripping us gets organized into the bookshelf. This strategy doesn’t work if you force all of your crap in the closet and hope the door stays shut; but it does work if you do all of those things you realize you could have been doing all week but were just too lazy to get around to. Space those guests out and you’ve got yourself a long-term strategy!

When all else fails, hire (or barter for) a cleaning company/person.

Do you have the ability to add a few hours of income-generating work to your plate doing something you actually like doing (or at least hate less than cleaning)?

Alternatively, can you think of anything on which you spend about $70/month that you could give up? If you can do either of these things, you might be able to afford to have a cleaning company or person come in once a month to do a good deep cleaning on your bathrooms, maybe even mop your kitchen floor.

Better yet, do you have a friend who likes cleaning and hates something that you happen to enjoy doing? Maybe you can barter two hours of cleaning in exchange for three take-home meals, or for mowing your neighbor’s lawn. We all have our strengths; its ok to trade them. This may also apply to your spouse or child; tonight my husband folded laundry while I did the taxes.

Also, see above; consider your cleaning person a house guest for whom you have to tidy up.

If you have other ideas for this messy mom, I’m all ears!

Why I Let My Son Watch (Some) Sports on TV

Its Sunday afternoon. Superbowl Sunday to be exact.

My husband is in the garage laying out recycled pallet boards planning the wall he will finish off in our basement. I am working on my freelance writing while thinking about how to create a label for my lip balm made from our beeswax. My six-year-old son is watching the LA Clippers play the Miami Heat on the basement TV.

One of these things is not like the other?

While my husband and I played sports when we were young and encourage our kids to do the same, we’re not big professional or college sports fans. We may joke about your Yankees vs. Red Sox household, but I can’t remember the last time we actually watched more than 10 minutes of a baseball game. For us, sporting events are usually limited to The Olympics and the occasional play-off or World Cup game.

So it has come as a bit of a surprise to us that our son likes to watch sports on TV. It doesn’t seem to matter which sport – today was his first basketball game, but he was hugely into World Cup soccer and will watch most other sports when given the opportunity.

I will admit that some of the draw for him is just the sheer pleasure of watching TV. We’re those parents who limit screen time to Friday night movies and the occasional PBS show. So when he does get to watch TV he zones out like he’s watching the moon landing or someone has cast a spell on him that blocks out all external stimuli.

But there’s something different about watching sports. He’s not that passive zombie. Instead, he’s interacting with what he is watching and with the people who are with him, and he can re-enter the world around him more smoothly than after other screen time experiences.

Here’s what I think is going on:

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]First, he’s active.[/su_highlight]

He’s a competitive kid so he enjoys cheering on “his team” (usually whichever team is winning when he turns on the game). He moves around in his seat or stands up and jumps up and down just like the adults who are really into a game, cheering when his team scores, waving his arms as they are getting close, and grunting when they are scored upon.

Moving his body instead of sitting in a trance on the couch keeps him from zoning out completely on the screen.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Second, he’s doing math.[/su_highlight]

My son loves math and is always asking us to give him math problems to solve. When he is watching sports he is constantly talking about the score – which team is winning and by how much.

We talk with him about what it would take for the other team to catch up and he learns how many points are awarded for each kind of goal, basket, touchdown, etc.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”][su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Third, he’s learning some pretty complex rules.[/su_highlight]

He doesn’t quite understand why a soccer goal is one point but a basket is two (or sometimes three). He wants to know why the whistle is blown or what kind of penalty was called. He wants to know who we are rooting for and why, or why they wear those kinds of sneakers or cleats.

Luckily we know enough to answer most of his questions. We can sense his brain processing new information, and we hear him describing the game as it progresses using the new terms he has learned.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Lastly, he is witnessing sportsmanship (at least we hope he is) and learning that everyone loses once in a while.[/su_highlight]

Being the competitive kid that he is, he takes losing hard – whether that’s in a board game or on the baseball field. We try to point out when players help each other up after tackling each other or shake hands after a match. And when players aren’t sportsmanlike, he usually sees them get called on it. Y

You should have heard the conversations about the soccer player who bit another player during the men’s world cup; that was not ok and he knew it.

So despite my personal lack of interest in most professional sports (except for women’s soccer – cause those women rock), I don’t mind that he likes watching.

That said, we do have two parental rules of thumb (both of which were confirmed by the Superbowl that happened later the same day):

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]First, we are cautious about football.[/su_highlight]

More than enough brain injury research has informed our decision that he will never be allowed to play, so we hesitate to have him exposed too often to the sport. Yes, I understand that other sports are also dangerous and do result in concussions, but most studies still list football as the most dangerous sport (see this summary by the CDC if you’re curious) and professional leagues seem to have a long way to go in making players’ safety top priority.

In addition, the sport seems ripe for unsportsmanlike conduct and sore losers, despite the many well-intentioned players that I am sure are part of the game.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Second, we try to supervise and, when needed, intervene or distract during commercials and halftimes.[/su_highlight]

Why so much sex, beer, and violence has to go with sports is a topic for another essay altogether.

To put it another way, Parental Guidance is still required.

No doubt more questions will arise as he gets older. But for now we’re appreciating his innocent one-man cheering squad and listening to him enthusiastically describe his favorite play of the game, even if we’re sitting right next to him.

Who knows, maybe he’ll rub off on us.

Confessions of a “Crunchy” Mom

Yup, that’s me. Breastfeeding my daughter in our community garden plot. There is no doubt that I have become what the urban dictionary calls “crunchy.”

Yup, that’s me. Breastfeeding my daughter in our community garden plot – and having my husband take a picture of it.

To my right are the carrots that we will harvest, save, and puree to become her first solid foods this winter; to my left is the kale that we have been pureeing into smoothies for my 4-year old almost every morning this past week (and he loves them).

We also have a garden plot at home, right next to my husband’s bee hives that supply the honey that my family eats each spring morning to prevent allergies.

Did I mention that my infant daughter was born naturally with the help of a doula and a midwife, with a little bit of help from my hypnobirthing and labor yoga classes?

On the spectrum from “Real Housewife” to 1960’s hippie flower child I fall somewhere in the middle, but there is no doubt that I have become what the urban dictionary calls “crunchy” (a derivative of “granola”), defined as: “politically strongly left-leaning and may be additionally but not exclusively categorized as vegetarians, vegans, eco-tarians, conservationists, environmentalists, neo-hippies, tree huggers, nature enthusiasts, etc.”

Some folks out there look at my lifestyle as ridiculously alternative, but others would say I can’t claim the crunchy crown quite so quickly.

After all, we do have two cars in our suburban driveway (though one is a Prius), I didn’t have a homebirth, I sport “business casual” attire on a regular basis, and we do eat (local) meat.

I am even secretly relieved on rainy days when I can throw the cloth diapers in the dryer instead of hanging them one-by-one on the clothesline.

I wasn’t always this crunchy. My upbringing was decidedly middle-class suburban, some would say preppy. Though we grew vegetables a bit when I was young most of the time, I never knew (or cared) where my food came from.

In fact, I didn’t even used to like half of the things we now grow ourselves – tomatoes grossed me out, raspberries had too many seeds, and kale – I didn’t even know what kale was. I wore khakis with polo shirts and Tretorns though I was part of the flannel shirt craze of the early nineties.

And politics – well maybe I shouldn’t get into politics – but let’s just say my roots are not as liberal as the branches onto which I have climbed. I’m pretty sure I would have scoffed at someone like me, especially if it was the mom of someone my age. I did not aspire to become a “hippie.”

So here I am, owning up to my crunchiness, and reflecting on my transformation.

And here’s my confession – I have become crunchy as a result of peer pressure. Not the negative peer pressure that derives from wanting to fit in with those who are popular (I experienced my limit of that kind of peer pressure in middle school), but the kind of positive peer pressure that comes from seeing something you aspire to and trying to live up to it.

It happened in baby steps, I suppose.

First, I saw echoes of my future crunchiness when I split from the popular crowd in middle school, not entirely by choice, and became friends with a much more eclectic group of friends. Then I went to college and my inclination toward volunteerism grew into a passion for social justice; I bonded with friends who shared similar passions.

After college, I lived in Washington, DC and met folks with whom I could identify politically. Moving to Vermont for grad school and deciding to stay sealed the deal. I fell in love with the environmentally-focused community in this beautiful place, and I also fell in love with a partner who had the energy and follow-through to live a crunchy lifestyle way more than I could have on my own.

When I became a parent, it was totally natural that having kids would make me lean toward this lifestyle even more – not only because I want to create a certain kind of life for them, but because the act of parenting offers a multitude of values-based choices to which I can apply my crunchy ways.

Someday our kids may protest or roll their eyes at our liberal “localvore” ways (ok, sometimes my 4-year old already does), but for now, we have a family value that we can share. Come to think of it, I think that’s a big part of why I love being crunchy and being married to a spouse who is equally so.

This value that we share creates all sorts of opportunities for family bonding.

The farmers’ market on Saturday mornings; evening picnics at our community garden plot; picking berries; making our own wood-fired oven; hanging laundry on the line; laughing as my son asks whether we are using gas or battery power; and yes, breastfeeding.

After the kids go to bed, it’s not unusual for my me and my husband to spend hours in the kitchen canning, preserving, or discussing what steps we want to take to weatherize our home. Those nights feed our relationship more than anything else. It can be a lot of work, but when you enjoy what you’re doing it doesn’t always feel like work. In fact, I hope someday we can do more of this kind of work and less of the kind that requires you to be in an office away from home.

Being crunchy isn’t just about being an environmentalist, or leaning in a certain political direction (though those parts of the definition do fit for me).

It’s also about being a part of something – a big social movement, a strong local community and – most importantly for me – a happy family that spends time together. It doesn’t hurt that we eat so darn well.