How the Breezy Days of Summer Have Changed

Summer in the 80s. If I close my eyes I can smell the Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil. But times have changed.

Summer in the 80s. If I close my eyes I can smell the Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil and hear Henley’s “Boys of Summer” playing on a mixed tape by the pool. If I don’t look too closely at my thighs in my swimsuit, I can still picture the boy’s initials painted in neon zinc oxide to be washed away later, a tattoo in reverse. I still have my sunglasses with the plastic frames that changed from purple to orange in the sun. I remember rolling in from the pool at the end of the day, smelling like toasted coconut and strawberry Lip Smackers, my hair stiff and lemony from Sun-In spritzes.
Summer feels different now. Shorter. Kids get out from school later and later with June creeping toward July and back-to-school sales beginning with the first hint of August. The days themselves feel more cluttered. Jaunts to the public pool are quick and filled with ‘tweens and teens huddled under umbrellas texting while little ones splash themselves into exhaustion before nap-time. Trips to the beach require car seats for everyone up to 13. The van is filled with seats on seats. I remember sprawling across back seats with only the semblance of a seatbelt draped around an arm or leg, more for show than for safety. We’d play cards and try not to drip ice cream sandwiches on the cracked leather seats.
I learned to swim by age one, the age at which my parents decided to throw me into the pool and wait for me to bob to the surface. There’s a VHS home video as proof. My youngest are three and wear puddle jumpers if they even look at the water. I’m on the swim lesson waiting list.
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Times have changed. Sunscreen, for instance, is not optional. My thousands of freckles from all the years would like a recount. I don’t think you can even buy moisturizer without SPF anymore. We are in an era of protection.
I remember watching “Jaws” for the first time, lying on my stomach in my cousins’ living room and staring at the boxy tv with the rabbit ear antenna. Seven-years-old and I would never be the same, hiding my face in the shag carpet the moment the theme song began. Two notes in and it still gives me the shivers. Today I huddle my children close during the shark scenes in “Finding Nemo.” One day they’ll watch “Jaws” and understand why Mommy won’t go in the ocean.
But for all the things that are different – tin can walkie-talkies replaced with cell phones and iPads lighting up the space around the camp fire – there is so much about summer that is the same. My children will still drag huge trunks (that look like they could travel on the Titanic) to sleep away camp. They will still chase ice cream trucks and eat push pops on the curb and pick strawberries from the garden. They will run barefoot in the twilight to catch fireflies in the mason jars my grandmother used for canning tomatoes. They will raise foam fingers at baseball games and spill cracker jacks down the bleachers. They will eat every meal al fresco and, as July creeps toward August, I’ll make them crack open the summer reading and barrel through. (By the pool and listening to “Boys of Summer,” I’m the mom so I get first choice of playlist even if as they roll their eyes.)
Perhaps that is the biggest change of all. I’m the mom. No longer the child with a sense of timelessness, I’m the one who lathers the sunscreen on tiny shoulder blades and under ruffled swimsuit straps. I’m the one with the bag full of snacks and band aids and bug spray and a stray tennis shoe. I’m the one who kisses the scraped knee after a botched bike trick. I’m the one who rinses off the dirt and sand from their feet before walking barefoot back to the beach house. I’m the one buckling them into those car seats and watching them fall asleep in the rearview mirror, one by one after a day in the sun. I’ve traded my zinc tattoo for a c-section scar, the most permanent mark of affection.
So, even though I miss the world where “apps” meant “appetizers” and Matthew Broderick was the leading male, I would not wish it back. My children have ushered me into the new millennium with all the fanfare they could muster. I’ll let them carry me forward through the summers to come until they have their own visions of “then” and “now” and we begin it all again.

Debate Club: Can a New Year’s Resolution Actually Make a Difference?

Why I’m making a New Year’s resolution this year

by Kristina Johnson

I guess you could say I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve been making New Year’s resolutions my entire adult life, despite being among the vast majority of people who rarely stick with them. Every year when December 31st rolls around, I’ve found myself gearing up to start fresh in the year ahead with a totally cliché list of goals to achieve. Eat healthier. Get my caffeine habit under control. Start working out more (or, to be honest, at all).

Last year, however, was a little different. I rang in 2016 in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital where I’d given birth to my daughter the day before. With a due date in late January, I’d laughed it off whenever people had joked that I might have a New Year’s baby (convinced as I was that I was would be pregnant literally forever). To my great surprise, I did indeed begin the year as a brand new mother.

There’s nothing like being handed a mini human to care for 24/7 to give you a sense of perspective. Suddenly the idea of resolving to live a healthier lifestyle was more important than ever – I’m someone’s mom! I can’t have the dietary habits of a 7th grader anymore! But as so often happens to those of us who begin each new year with grand plans, life simply got in the way. My dreams of eating well and exercising more became hazier and hazier as my baby consumed more and more of my time.

I was ultimately much too busy to stand a chance at sticking to any sort of resolution for 2016, but as this year winds down I find myself thinking ahead to 2017 and the type of woman and mother I want to be in the new year.

Before I quit my job earlier this past summer to become a stay-at-home mom, I’d have to fill out a self-evaluation as part of my annual performance review. I would have to rate myself on how well I’d done my job. Was I “exceeding expectations”? Did I “need improvement”? Did I “achieve my goals”?

I was never too shy to give myself a glowing review. I knew I worked hard, had the respect of my peers, and always got the job done. I started each new work year proud of my accomplishments and confident that I’d learn more, earn more, and keep climbing the corporate ladder.

There was no official performance review for my first year as a mother, however. No one’s logged the countless hours I spent comforting and cuddling, and no one’s going to hand me a raise and a promotion for all my efforts. I certainly worked my butt off in 2016 to be a great mom. It was hands down the best year of my life, but it was also one filled with challenges and self-doubt and too many mistakes to count.

The smiling face of my happy, sweet, and mischievous almost-one-year-old lets me know I must have done something right this year. But I also know I can be an even better mother, because there’s always room for improvement when you’re doing the absolute hardest job in the world.

In 2017, I resolve to be more patient. I resolve to play more and hover less. I resolve to teach my daughter new things and learn some more myself. And yeah, I resolve to eat healthier and kick the caffeine habit – because there’s a little set of eyes watching everything I do.

The data says I won’t always be able to stick to these resolutions. And that’s probably true. But having some filed away in my mind gives me something to work toward. And they remind me that as my daughter begins her second year of life in 2017, and I begin my second year of motherhood, I owe it to both of us to never stop striving to be the best me I can be.

debate club

Don’t make New Year’s resolutions

by Cheryl Maguire

It’s January 14, 2016. People are filtering into the cycle room at the YMCA. I’m adjusting the seat on my stationary bicycle when I realize the class is almost full 20 minutes before it even starts (which is unusual).

The woman next to me, who regularly attends the class, grumbles, “I hate this time of year when all the ‘ressies’ take over the gym.”

Since I’m also a regular, I know her term “ressies” is referring to all the people who newly signed up for a gym membership in hopes of fulfilling their New Year’s resolution of working out. Every January for the past 15 years that I’ve been a member of the gym, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon.

I turn to her and say, “Don’t worry. They’ll all be gone by March.”

She laughs and says, “That is so true.”

Even though I made light of the situation, I actually feel sad knowing all of these people will not achieve a goal they created. Richard Wiseman studied 3,000 people who made New Year’s resolutions. At the end of the year he found only 12 percent of them had achieved their goal.

Despite the high number of failed goals-reaching, about 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. According to psychology professor Peter Herman, people usually don’t achieve their New Year’s resolution goals because they create unrealistic goals. People also tend to underestimate the difficulty in achieving these goals.

I wasn’t always a fitness fanatic. In fact, I would liken my former self to more of a couch potato who avoided all forms of exercise. My transformation was a long and slow process (over the course of several years) and it never involved a New Year’s resolution of working out more.

I think creating a goal just because the calendar (or other people) are telling you to will only set you up for failure which could result in a decreased sense of self-worth. Instead of setting a New Year’s resolution because it’s a new year, create goals throughout the year in those areas of life where you want make changes.

Instead of creating New Year’s resolutions this year, consider the following questions:

  • What did I accomplish this past year?
  • How can I build upon those accomplishments next year?
  • What are some things I could have done differently this past year?
  • List some people who were supportive of me this past year.
  • How can I support other people next year?
  • When I think about this past year I feel happy to remember . . .
  • When I think about this past year I feel sad to remember . . .
  • What are some new skills or information I learned this year?
  • What are some new skills I’d like to learn in the future?
  • What steps do I need to take to acquire these new skills?

In the Midst of Your Own Struggles, Charitable Giving Can Help

Most years, when the holidays arrive, I am struck by how fortunate my family is. Perhaps this is because we are bolstered by a rich supply of traditions and rituals, many of which we collected during our four-year stint in Germany, where we developed a taste for gingerbread, mulled wine, and the jolly spirit of Bavaria. 

Whatever your traditions may be, many parents feel fullness and gratitude this time of year. Sometimes, these feelings lead us to entertain wispy thoughts of teaching our children – right here and now – how to give back to those in need. 

 I should really find a way to do that, we think. 

How, exactly, would I do that? we wonder. 

That sounds like yet another thing on my list this week, we conclude.

Then, we may let those charitable thoughts go all together, allowing the busy holiday season to slide into one more batch of cookies or yet another lazy, popcorn-fueled screening of the Grinch.

I know, because that’s how it often goes in my house.

But this time, for my family, the holidays arrived at the end of a catawampus year. My husband and I separated in May, and our dog died in early October. Two weeks after that, our eight-year-old son was hit by a car and walked away, miraculously, with little more than a concussion. 

Minus the dog, we are all safe and sound. But last month, when I began to feel that familiar sense of holiday gratitude, something had changed. My acknowledgements were raw and insulated. I found it difficult to see outside my own circumstance. If that’s how it was for me, then my children were probably spinning around in a similar, navel-gazing space.

My family needed something to propel us out and beyond this tragic moon phase, and quickly. 

In the past, we have always helped our schools collect items for holiday food baskets and donations to local children in need. These are important community efforts, yet many of them require only a simple, passive purchase. What we needed this year was an active kind of giving. 

While scrolling around on Facebook, I found a site dedicated to helping families do charitable deeds together: I clicked on the “Pick-A-Project” tab and scrolled down. One idea jumped out at me, like a corner piece of English toffee from my mom’s dessert plate that I had to have.

This year, we would host a holiday card-making party for hospitalized kids.

After my son’s accident, when he regained consciousness, we sat in the road together, waiting for the ambulance. He begged me to just let him go home and get in bed. If only I could have. If only I could have pressed some kind of reset button, gone home to bed, pretend he hadn’t just been struck and thrown 20 feet through the blackish night. 

At the hospital, we entered a pediatric trauma room, where my son’s bed was topped with a tie-dye fleece blanket – a gift, perhaps made by someone else’s mom or a volunteer. Later, my son would take it home and drag it around the house like Linus from “Charlie Brown”. The blanket had provided him comfort and much-needed relief from the stark glare of the emergency room.

After that, my family understood what it meant to be in a hospital, uncertain and terrified, and to receive such kindness and care. The holiday card-making idea gave us a tangible, meaningful goal, connecting all of us to something we had been through ourselves. What’s more, it gave us an avenue to engage with our community.

We invited dozens of friends to our house after school one day and asked them to bring extra supplies to share. It became an arts and crafts love fest, complete with glitter glue and endearing misspellings of holiday greetings.

We made nearly 150 cards and packed them in a box sealed with gummy-bear-print duct tape. Then we mailed the cards to an organization that distributes them to children who are hospitalized during the holidays:

Some years are admittedly too busy and stressful to find a way to do something charitable outside of your own family. Still, children can learn, naturally, to look beyond whatever is happening in their own lives, positive or otherwise. After our year of grief and loss, finding a way to focus on others helped with our healing process. 

I look at our Christmas ornaments, and I see how brightly they tell the story of our family, year after year, like the rings of an old tree. Now, that story has banked left into an unknown crop of hemlocks, and we wait for the ending to unfold.

It’s easy to get stuck on how messy life feels for us right now, so the simple act of helping others comes as a joyful distraction. If we pick up our heads and look around – like some kind of periscope of compassion – we’ll always find that the rest of the world is still out there, waiting for us to do our thing.

What You’d Actually Like to Give: An Honest Gift Guide

Let’s let each other nap! Without guilt. Without shame. Just like, hey how about we take a freaking rest?

Gifts for Kids

Show them the place their college savings should be.

Cry a little. Hold each other.

Get them a Slinky!

Such a great, classic toy. Use it once. Feel joyous!

Then, accidentally put a single kink in that perfectly engineered coil. Spend the rest of your life tormented by the scientific impossibility of ever fixing it, versus the wastefulness of just throwing it away. Can you recycle it? Maybe you should take it the scrap metal place? WHO KNOWS?

Remember that one time it worked, though?

Big boxes of kittens. 

If it turns out your kids are allergic to kittens, not a prob!  Just give them away!  The trauma of getting an adorable baby animal and then immediately having to give it up will be entirely assuaged by the one thing all kids love: big boxes.

Knit something!

Get some yarn and some needles or whatever gear knitting requires and get started.

Knit all the way through the first 45 minutes of “Christmas Vacation.” Look down at your progress. Whoops, you forgot to knit. Cast off and call it good.

Give your kid $20 instead. Or a hug.

Books. Look for titles like: 

“Flossing: Yes You Have to and No You Don’t Need That Much.”

“Picking Your Nose is Gross: One Boy’s Tale of Redemption”

“The Case of the Kids Who Actually Fed the Cats Once Without Being Asked”

Gifts for moms.

Fold the laundry.


Then, put it away! Not like, “Oh hey, I’ll move it from the bed to the chair to the floor and maybe back to the bed again, and who knows if it’s even clean or dirty anymore, it’s probably all dirty, I’ll just put it back in the laundry basket.”

Nooo. No. You have to fold it and then put it alllll the way away. Nice try though, kid.

That 23 cents missing from each of our earned dollars.

Yeah. That. Where is it? We want it.

Gifts for dads.


Does he already have ties? He probably does. He either has 47 and wears two, or he has two and wears none.

Put all the ties in a box and wrap the box in Family Circus comics. Burn it. Take a photo and post it to Instagram. Tag gift recipient. #HappyHolidays

Get him a huge chainsaw.

Remember to also buy him a helmet because he is now 100% more likely to filet his skull than he was before you gave him a chainsaw.

Important note: Especially and definitely buy your dad/brother/friend a chainsaw if he’s currently living in Brooklyn, and/or is otherwise highly unlikely to ever need or use a chainsaw.

Give the gift of irony.

Gifts for all humanity.

Get some good therapy.

Refrain from having opinions until you’ve been to 24 sessions. Then, still don’t have any opinions.

Just sit down next to your parent/partner/friend one day and say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t understand.”

Go back for another 24 sessions. Keep going. Never stop going.


Let’s let each other nap. Please, can we just do this? Without guilt. Without shame.

Just, “Hey how about we take a freaking rest? I know we’re running out of ozone, reasonable politicians, and panda bears, but we still have all the naps!”

We can do this, guys. We can NAP.

How to Shield Your Child from Greed and Entitlement During the Holidays

Keep the focus on what the holidays really mean to your family and instill in your kids a sense of generosity and gratitude.

Mid-gift-opening last Christmas with my in-laws, my four-year-old uttered a phrase that sends chills down any well meaning parents spine: “That’s all???”

The kid got a pass because, well, she was four, and impulse control had not been invited to the festivities that day. But her comment was enough to literally make me break out into a sweat and begin thinking about how I could intentionally cultivate generosity and gratitude with my kids during the holidays.

We have discovered a lot about gratitude in recent years, and what we’ve learned is no less than astounding. Studies have consistently shown us that practicing gratitude is effective in increasing well-being, as it improves our psychological, social, and spiritual resources.

Let’s be real for a second. The culture our kids absorb during Christmas is basically beckoning them into a greedy and selfish mindset. Luckily, as parents we can make the culture inside our own homes reflect the true meaning and values of what the holiday season means to us and our family.

Give a lesson on advertising

The holidays are a prime opportunity to give your child a head’s up that toy corporations want to steal a piece of their tiny impressionable soul, lock it up, and throw away the key. Okay, so possibly with different language, but helping your child to see through the gimmicks of holiday advertising will help them be less impressionable to material greed.

We can point out how stores and commercials set out to increase their desire to consume, and also blur the line between what they want and what they actually need.

Watching ads together and reminding them that, even though the smiling perfectly dressed kids with the new toy seem to imply happiness, we know for a fact that money and material items have no correlation to long term happiness.

Explaining to your child that – although toy companies will do their darndest (including using emotionally manipulative measures) to convince us otherwise – toys are not in fact the reason for the season, and that your family celebrates the holidays for reasons much more meaningful and important.

Get your kids in on the giving

Whether it be small scale or large, involving kids in selfless acts of generosity will increase appreciation for what they have.

My husband is a master gift giving guru. Ever since our oldest was three, he began pulling her into the conversation of what to get for mom. Now each year, the kids are expected to brainstorm gift ideas for family members, which automatically shifts their thinking outwards and away from themselves. Kids can also learn the value of a dollar by engaging in gift purchase transactions, and helping to keep track of a gift budget.

We also have an awesome opportunity to build family bonds and increase our child’s worldview during the holidays by choosing a cause outside the family to support. Whether this be giving a financial donation, spending time together at a food bank, or random acts of kindness for those in need, our kids are learning invaluable lessons about how fortunate they really are.

Model gratitude and generosity

If we really want to decrease greed and increase gratitude, incorporating it into a ritual or routine is key. The holidays serve as a perfect opportunity to begin a gratitude circle during dinner, or during holiday festivities. When parents make gratitude a priority, kids will, too. It won’t be long before everyone is feeling all the positive feels, and reaping gratitude’s many benefits.

Along with making new rituals during the holidays, we should model presence. If we are flying around like Martha Stewart on steroids, we will likely have some good cookies as a result, but it’s at the risk of missing what really matters.

Only when we slow down a bit each day and take in our surroundings, can we really get in touch with our own feelings of gratitude. When we genuinely express our gratitude to our children, it teaches a powerful lesson that will likely be woven into your child’s intrinsic view of the holidays.

Role play holiday expectations

With kids five or younger, some of the aforementioned ideas may prove to be a bit too abstract, although it’s certainly never too early to start sowing seeds. For those of you who still want to do what you can to decrease the sweat output during holiday get-togethers, role playing will make the abstract concepts of manners, patience, and gratitude more concrete and easy to remember.

Get right down on the floor with your kids and give them words and guidance that align with your family’s expectations. Then offer up lots of praise when they are able to follow through.

The holidays are not a stress-free time for parents. We are told a million-and-one traditions and activities must be completed for optimal holiday magic. Take a few minutes to reflect on what “holiday magic” really means to you though.

I’m guessing most of us would say it involves a little less time at the store and a little more time giving our kids the gifts you can’t buy, but will value forever.

My List of Demands for the Extended Holiday Break

This holiday break, I’ve told myself I’m going to slow down, listen more, and enjoy the family time. But only if my demands are met.

It hit me the other day that Christmas break is just a few days away.

I find myself getting a bit giddy thinking about all of the possibilities. I am so excited about the idea of spending every moment with my kids in the days leading up to the joyous events of the holiday season. 

In fact, I actually made a promise to them that, this year, I will enjoy our time. I vowed to slow down and listen more. I expressed my excitement about reading holiday books, eating cookies, and sleeping under the tree (the three that is not up yet, or picked out, for that matter). 

At dinner the other night, I exclaimed, “This year will be different! This year we will make every day of winter break an adventure.”

I really, truly, meant every word of it. I promised. I believed it whole-heartedly. Until it hit me.

Holy crap! Christmas vacation is 10 days longer than Thanksgiving break.

Looks like it is time for some serious ground rules. 

While we are on the topic of this very long extended break, I have a few suggestions. Actually they’re requests. Oh, seriously, who am I kidding?

I present to you my list of demands for Christmas vacation:

For the love of Pete, or Santa, or whoever else I can call upon to help me…please oh please don’t make me lock myself in the laundry room again while my kids are at each others throats. The cats seem to also hide in there, and they hate me. 

Is there some kind of alarm that can be put on the iPad when anyone takes it into the bathroom for an extended period of time? Seriously, why does that 800-dollar piece of technology need to be in close contact with the toilet?

Under no circumstances will I entertain the idea of wearing matching pajamas on Christmas morning. I watched my dad be subjected to this humiliation every year. That striped hat with the white pom pom hanging off the top was always bouncing off his eye like a paddle ball.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the poor guy had to wear a nightgown. This was a man who grew up on a farm in North Dakota during the Great Depression. He peed in a tin can and shared a room with 10 brothers and sisters. And he had to wear a red and white striped nightgown on Christmas.

All bets are off. There will be no negotiating, bargaining, or begging. I will not listen to it, give in to it, or fall for it.

I expect the following items for myself: 14 bags of Ghirardelli chocolate chips, 14 large boxes of DOTS, 14 bags of Dove Promises (one for each day of break), and a new door handle that locks. Please install the handle on my bathroom door so I can enjoy my emotional eating in peace.

This is the last one, I promise. It might be the hardest one to deliver, but here goes. Is there any way to reprogram my kids automatic response from Mom to Dad? Honestly, there is another adult in this house, even if he is only an adult by age.

All joking aside, I secretly cannot wait for the lazy days of break. To lounge around all day drinking hot cocoa, eating all the things we’re not supposed to, and watching “Elf” a few too many times.

These crazy, wonderful, stressful, magical, times only come around once a year, so try to find a few moments each day to just enjoy the laughs, the hugs, and the cuddles as much as you can (even if you have to take your chocolate chips and hide out in the laundry room with the cats for a little peace and quiet).

How to Avoid Ruining My Holiday Party

I want to be a gracious host. And I want you to have a fun time at my holiday party. But I’m going to have to make a few requests.

‘Tis the season for guests to spill eggnog on the floor.

You know, the one I mopped specifically to impress them after weeks of ignoring my kids’ leaky sippy-cup milk puddles. Yup, it’s the holidays, and I usually end up hosting at least one party. We have a lot of space, and I have an over-developed sense of obligation.

Also, I actually think it will be grand fun until the night before, when I realize people are going to come into my house expecting food, drink, and basic cleanliness.

I will most likely continue to plan parties every year until I drop dead from a stress-related condition. The truth is, planning activities that bring people together gives me a thrill right up until the moment they start arriving, at which point I transform into an anxious, introverted mess.

If you or your family want to continue coming to these parties (as in, if you want me to live to plan the next one), here are seven things to avoid:

1 | Don’t show up early.

Please don’t show up 15 minutes early and ask me what you can do to help. I know you have good intentions, but there is virtually nothing you can do to help at this point, except turn around, go back to your car, and pretend you didn’t see me mopping the floor, braless, in yoga pants.

I need every shred of time to be ready for this event, and if you come traipsing in early, you are going to disturb the illusion that I actually have things somewhat together. If you absolutely must do something to check off your service advent calendar, take my kids to see Santa hours before the party starts.

2 | Don’t ask me for a house tour.

Behind all these closed doors and baby gates are the toys I didn’t have time to clean up and the laundry I didn’t have time to wash. Getting a couple of rooms acceptable for public viewing proved a herculean feat. I can’t work that magic everywhere.

You don’t want to see my house. And I really don’t want you to see it.

3 | Don’t ignore your kids.

I know. You’re at a party. You want to relax. All the good babysitters are off kissing their cute college sweethearts under the mistletoe at this time of year, and a night off sounds wonderful. But if you bring your kid to my house, I need you to stop them from destroying everything in their path.

Please make sure that they haven’t stashed the green bean casserole you made them try under a couch cushion. Please don’t let them through the baby gate to the great unknown of the Rooms That Are Not Appropriate for Public Consumption. And please, please watch them near the oven and stairs.

I’m too busy making sure my own kids aren’t murdering each other and that the ice hasn’t run out to watch yours.

4 | Don’t give me unsolicited advice about the food.

I cooked for you! You are eating a thing that you didn’t have to pay for or prepare yourself! Therefore, I don’t want to hear about how your sister makes something similar, but even better, or how, if I substitute the butter with applesauce, I can halve the calories.

If you can do it better, bring the dish yourself. Except don’t. I already have an inferiority complex. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it (I don’t, and I won’t).

5 | Don’t give my kids any cookies.

Or candy. Or sips of your adult beverage. They know when I’ll tell them no, and they know who doesn’t know any better. They will come up to you with their big blue eyes and cherubic golden hair and ask you in their sweet baby speech for 10 cookies, and you will be hypnotized by their matching red sweaters, and hand over the goods.

And then they will turn into psychotic demons and wreak more havoc than a bevy of freshman frat boys at their first kegger.

6 | Don’t do the dishes.

I know many consider dish-washing the hallmark of a good guest, but all it will do is stress me out. I’m slightly neurotic about the process (which, I’m sure, will surprise you). When you load the dishes haphazardly, I just wait for you to leave so I can fix them.

Also, I arrange my rainbow-colored Fiestaware ROYGBIV-style, so if you put the orange next to the green, I’ll have an aneurysm. (Yes, I’m aware they have pills for that.) Also, I’ll feel guilty if you spend your party time doing housework, and it won’t give me a break, because I will hover over you the entire time, begging you to go sit on the couch with everyone else. 

7 | Don’t forget that I actually love you.

I know I’m a stress case. But it’s really important to me that you have a good time and preserve the illusion that I have my life somewhat together.

If you follow these steps, I won’t try to kill you with my eyes, and I’ll let you bring the leftover cheese ball home.

The Myth of the Poisonous Poinsettia

Despite the myth being debunked, poinsettias have continued to be incorrectly identified as poisons.

‘Twas the night before Christmas

and all through the house

hidden dangers were lurking

plants to hide and trees to douse

A few weeks ago, my parents took my two-year-old with them to pick out a Christmas tree. When they returned, my son struggled into their kitchen, beaming behind the beautiful white poinsettia he had picked out for me.

“Don’t let him eat it,” my dad joked. This was a child who had refused most food that wasn’t apples or Christmas cookies for the duration of our visit, so there was a vanishingly small likelihood he would consider eating the plant. But my dad issued that warning anyway, as he and my mom have done for as long as I could remember, because poinsettias are poisonous.

Except that they’re not. Poinsettias were cleared of all charges in the 1970s, when researchers at Ohio State found them to be non-toxic. Snopes and other myth-busting websites have exonerated the poinsettia. Yet poinsettias have continued to be incorrectly identified as poisons.

What accounts for the persistence of this holiday myth? And what can the example of the poinsettia teach us about fear-based parenting?

According to Ecke Ranch, the company responsible for cultivating poinsettias into the flowers we recognize today, Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night) were so named because they bloom during the holiday season. They feature in a Christmas miracle story about a poor girl whose paltry offering of weeds bloomed into brilliant red flowers when she placed them by her chapel’s nativity scene.

The plant most Americans know it is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a former medical student and amateur botanist who, as the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico, found the plant and brought it home to his South Carolina greenhouse in the late 1820s.

The plant, which Ecke Ranch suggests was used as a fever treatment by the Aztecs, did not become “poisonous” until 100 years after its introduction to the U.S. The poison poinsettia myth has its roots in botanist Joseph Francis Rock’s assertion that a two-year-old child died from sucking on the plant’s leaves.

It’s not clear that the child existed, or if the child did exist, if he died an early death, or if the child did die at a young age, if it was a poinsettia that did him in. But the myth spread like, well, poinsettia, which had taken root across the U.S. and into Hawaii, where the myth originated. By 1944, that myth was solidified in Harry L. Arnold’s “Poisonous Plants of Hawaii:

The milky juice and the leaves are poisonous. The two-year-old child of an Army officer at Fort Shafter died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919. The poisonous substance is neither an alkaloid nor a glucoside, and is probably a resin. It causes intense emesis and catharsis, and delirium before death. The writer has been unable to find any definitive statement of its pharmacological action or its antidote.

The myth then became an invasive species, growing into medical publications and then popular magazines throughout the U.S. In the 1970s, the Society of American Florists, wishing to restore the poinsettia’s good name while improving their business, commissioned a study from researchers at Ohio State, which found that poinsettias were not poisonous.

The child who may or may not have existed and who may or may not have died is long gone from memory, but the effects of his story linger nearly 100 years later – a testament to the long-reaching effects fear can have on our collective parenting decisions. Belief in poisonous poinsettias has been as persistent as belief in Santa Claus, in spite of mounting contrary evidence.

But in the case of the flowers, why do we keep believing long after we should? One theory is the name, which sounds close to “poison” and keeps danger front-of-mind. The Museum of Hoaxes identifies this theory, as well as “guilt by association.” Poinsettias, which look similar to holly and mistletoe, got unfairly grouped with these actual poisonous plants.

That belief may be starting to change. Over the past few holiday seasons, the Society of American Florists has encouraged its members to download and distribute a flyer about poinsettias. Perhaps their ongoing campaign is working. In 1996, researchers studying calls to Poison Control Centers reaffirmed that poinsettia exposures did not result in toxicity. In 2004, Poison Control Centers received 2206 calls about poinsettia exposure, which made the poinsettia responsible for 3 percent of the phone calls for plant exposures.

Plant-exposure calls to Poison Control have fallen over the past decade, as have calls about poinsettias, which have dropped every year in both number and percentage from 2004 to 2014. In 2014, poinsettia exposures accounted for only 343 calls, representing .77 percent of the phone calls for plant exposures.

The decrease in calls to poison control do not tell us that children are eating poinsettia any less often, or that people aren’t buying poinsettias as often, although either could be true. It may suggest that the publicity campaigns like this one sponsored by the Society of American Florists are working to restore the poinsettia’s good name.

The cautionary tale of the tree-turned-torch

Poinsettias are not going to kill us. But what about the other holiday plant at the start of our story? Christmas trees have been much-maligned for face and eye injuries as well as falls. But more than any of these injuries, Christmas trees are most feared for the fire hazards they pose.

We’re warned to spend the holiday season obsessively watering our trees, quickly disposing of dry needles, and unplugging strings of lights when not in use. Artificial trees invite different warnings about frayed wires and broken bulbs.

Christmas trees have done more to earn their reputation than poinsettias. According to the National Fire Protection Association’s November 2016 report on “Home Structure Fires Involving Christmas Trees,” Christmas tree fires are responsible for an average of 210 house fires each year, which lead to an average of six deaths and 16 injuries, in addition to 16 million dollars of property damage.

We should be emboldened by these figures: 210 is a small number of trees, and even that average is on the decline. In 1980, there were 850 fires. In 2014 – the last year cited within the NFPA’s November 2016 report – there were 170 fires. While numbers like 16 million dollars in property damage sound grim, focusing on another big number can help us put this data into perspective.

The National Fire Protection Association reported average is 210 Christmas tree fires per year. It’s reasonable to assume that each of those fires was started by a single Christmas tree. Using the National Christmas Tree Association‘s data on Christmas tree sales, we can determine that from 2010 to 2014 (the same period reported on in the NFPA’s data), there were an average of 28.3 million real trees and 11.4 million artificial trees sold, for a total average of 39.7 million trees.

We cannot know if those trees are all sold to homeowners instead of businesses, or how many trees are not sold but cut down, but taking a conservative estimate and assuming that just half of that number – 20 million – go to homes, then the average number of Christmas tree fires per year represents one fire for every 100,000 trees. Again, that’s a reasonably conservative estimate.

It’s further reassuring to examine what sorts of fires are included within the NFPA report. Twenty-three percent of the fires included in the 2010-2014 study were intentional; that is, the trees had been set on fire on purpose. It’s likely that most of the trees involved in those fires were being burned in home fireplaces as a means of disposal, when the fires then got out of control.

What’s more troubling about Christmas tree fires is that they’re more deadly than other kinds of home fires. An ignited Christmas tree can destroy a living room in one minute, which helps to explain why Christmas tree-involved house fires are significantly more deadly than other types of house fires.

When a Christmas tree is the first item ignited, house fires carry a one in 34 chance of death. For all house fires, that risk is much lower, one in 142. So although the likelihood of a Christmas tree fire is astonishingly rare, such fires are more dangerous either because of or in spite of all of the PSAs we view each season.

Returning to the National Fire Protection Association’s report, at least some of the resulting deaths may have been avoided by fire prevention education. In some cases, clearly flammable materials like kerosene were stored near the tree, creating an avoidable fire hazard. In other cases, homeowners reentered the home for belongings. Examples such as these demonstrate the need for fire safety education at all times of the year, not just the holiday season.

For children, the holiday season’s invitation to magical thinking is a source of wonder and excitement. For parents, a different kind of magical thinking leads to fears of things that will likely never come to pass. The truth is that we should be worried less about our kids’ safety and more on our own.

Fall-related injuries and back strain are the number one and number three holiday-related injuries, and happen overwhelmingly in adult populations. But we can’t very well get rid of all the ladders and stools. And fearing all the chairs in our homes would drive us mad. So we build elaborate narratives around the more novel “dangers” of the holiday season.

This year, display your poinsettias without fear. Un-baby-gate your tree. But maybe lay off the eggnog before hanging any lights.

Last Minute Christmas Magic Tips From One Hot Mess to Another

The key to a truly memorable Christmas isn’t being a Super Parent. There are simple ways to infuse the season with magical sights, sounds, and traditions.

Ho, ho, holllly crap it’s almost Christmas!

Is it just me or does it seem to sneak up now, even though stores push it as early as Halloween? Why is that? Why doesn’t December feel as magical as it used to? What happened to the big emotional build up with carolers and cinnamon-smelling house parties full of red-cheeked aunts and uncles?

Oh, probably because I’m the parent now and I’m a hot mess. But while the season may never be as magical for me as it was when I was a kid, it’s my turn, my job, to keep it magical for the next generation.

Thus, I dig down deep, through the layers of my consumer cynicism and stress around budgets, clutter, and travel; through my precious ambivalence about Santa and my paranoia of alienating those of other traditions, and I look for ways to keep the holiday spirit alive in my house because, by Jove, I still want kids to have a childhood.

The key to a truly memorable Christmas isn’t being a Super Parent. It’s simply engaging your kids’ senses. When they’re smelling, touching, tasting, and feeling, they’re building vivid memories – and asking lots of questions! You don’t need a ton of planning to try one or two of these kid-friendly activities. And there’s still plenty of time to make everyone’s Christmas unforgettable:

Play with fire

Most Christmas traditions are an adaptation of Yule, the Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice, when days stop getting shorter and the sun begins its triumphant return. Try some of the season’s oldest traditions in commemorating darkness and light:

Track the sunset as it gets earlier and earlier then later and later. Encourage your kids’ questions about the astronomical reasons for this, and why this pattern has been so important to cultures the world around.

Dial down artificial light and instead use candles after dark. Make a mess creating homemade candleholders out of carved apples or salt dough.

Revive the Yule log! The warmth and light of a fire draws people of all ages together for more intimate evenings. If you don’t have a fireplace, decorate a symbolic log with votive candles and let the youngest person have the honor of setting it alight. It’s also fun to task little ones with gathering an “ashen faggot” – a bound bundle of twigs burnt on Christmas Eve by the oldest person present.

Deck the halls au natural

Love festive décor but don’t have the space to store it year-round? Using nature’s found objects cuts your budget, clutter, and carbon footprint, all while familiarizing your kids with their habitat and its seasonal scents and textures.

Take family walks to collect pinecones, acorns, waxy leaves, and other seedpods that fall on the ground. Play botanist by researching or imagining what plants shed these knick-knacks, then paint or gild them to make ornaments for your wreath, mantle, and tree. Usually they don’t even need a thread – little hands can just place them among the boughs.

Did you have to trim the bottom of your tree to make it fit? With the right tools you can slice that stump into discs perfect for decoupage. Drill a hole in each to add thread loops. At the end of the season you can compost or burn them with the rest of your tree, but save the one with your annual family portrait and have everyone sign the back. These make great heirlooms.

Yard art

Kids love to see their neighborhood transform from familiar to festive, but it doesn’t happen by itself! Encourage their patience, humor, and personal flair by giving them temporary control over your, ahem, curb appeal.

Got snow? If so, you don’t need to spend any money on outdoor decorations. Use chilled Kool Aid as dye and sculpt that stuff into reindeer, piles of presents, or even a nativity scene. A little time in the cold grows hardy souls! Plus, it’s always a laugh to watch those masterpieces melt.

Warmer climate? You probably still have critter friends around. Why not make some edible ornaments from peanut butter, birdseed, and suet? Crafting these makes the best kind of mess, hanging them is a party unto itself, and meeting the non-human neighbors is an educational thrill.

Eat and be merry

Repeating family recipes every year ensures that Christmas won’t just live forever in your kids’ minds, but also in their tongues, tummies, and noses. 

Host an annual cookie party for their friends. Tell everyone to bring something to decorate with – some kind of sprinkle, candy, or frosting. You provide the dough and cookie cutters (or blank store bought cookies, NO SHAME IN IT). Let each kid nominate one creation for the prize of taking home the leftovers.

Ever wonder what it means to go a-wassailing? Wassail is essentially mulled cider. As far as cocktails go, it’s easy to make, fragrant, alcohol-free, and infused with vitamins that combat the common cold. Wassail is used for the ceremony of Twelfth Night to toast the health of the orchards. Have the kids soak a piece of stale bread in the punch to place in forest branches, and serenade the trees in thanks for the fruit and fresh air they provide throughout the year.

Just like Twelfth Night, the under-observed holiday of Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the Three Magi to Bethlehem, stretches Christmas season into January in its own yummy way. The best-known commemoration is the King’s Cake. Recipes vary around the globe, but the most important ingredient is a dry bean or other small, food-safe inedible baked right into the treat. The person who finds this fève in their portion gets to wear a paper crown and be king for the night! To make sure there’s no cheating, portions are assigned by the youngest person present, who hides under the table where the server’s out of sight.

Make some noise

Probably the simplest way to ring in the season is to do so literally. Familiar melodies always evoke the times they’re tied to, but there is more than one way to play a tune.

Turn your family into an amateur handbell choir! Color-coded handbell sets often come with holiday sheet music (no musical literacy necessary), and best of all, these bells can only get so loud and never go out of tune or strike an offensive note.

No need to buy instruments if you have a little creativity to spare. Kids can learn a lot about the physics of music by building their own percussions. Pots, pans, pumpkin seeds shaken in a plastic cup – these are the makings of quite a band. Add a set of spoons and a few glasses filled to varying degrees for lighter chimes.

How long will it take to make something sound like “Little Drummer Boy”? Why don’t you let them figure that out while you go upstairs and take a nap.

How A Single Mom Creates Christmas Magic On A Limited Budget

Making Christmas special for your kids doesn’t have to cost an arm and leg. This mom of six shares her tips and tricks for making it all work.

When people find out I have six kids they ask me two questions: Do you know what causes that? And how do you afford Christmas?

The answers are: yes I do, and by planning ahead and creative thinking.

When the kids were younger and their Christmas wish list changed regularly, I used the five dollar bill method as my Christmas savings. Any time I receive a five dollar bill as change, I put it aside – depositing it into a savings account, or simply stuffing it in an envelope at home.

Not only did I never miss that five bucks out of my wallet, but all those five dollar bills quickly add up to a significant savings account.

Now that the kids are older and their wishes are more costly, I start my Christmas shopping in August by purchasing one gift per payday. By the time the beginning of December rolls around, I’m pretty much finished with my shopping, except maybe for last minute stocking stuffers or wrapping paper.

Speaking of wrapping paper, I’m not above buying half-off Christmas wrap on December 26th and storing it for the next year. I’d much rather find room to store a few rolls of paper than pay full price during the last-minute Christmas rush.

The gifts my children enjoy most, though, are usually the ones that benefit the whole family:

Quality, not quantity.

Last year, my kids knew they would be getting just two gifts each. What they didn’t know was that one of those gifts would be orchestra section tickets to a Broadway show at our local theater! More affordable pricing and seating options are available by purchasing tickets for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evening show.

Consider one gift that can be used multiple times.

Local museums and attractions offer discounted family memberships that often include special events for members only. A few years ago, I purchased a zoo membership and was able to add a family friend to the membership. I definitely got my money’s worth – she took my kids to the zoo quite a few times, and I enjoyed the break.

Take the kids swimming inside when it’s snowing outside.

Local YMCAs and rec centers often see a decline in membership during winter months. Check for special, limited time membership deals. Aside from swimming, many also offer other fun family activities like game days or movie nights.

Plan to cheer for the whole year by purchasing advance tickets to different local sporting events.

Big-league tickets prices may be out of your budget, but local triple A leagues offer cheaper ticket prices with just as much excitement. Check for lawn seating or standing room sections for even more discounted pricing. Game-time snacks are also more affordable at local team concessions.

Go to the movies.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Despicable Me 3” are just a few of the exciting movies planned for release in 2017. Many theaters offer gift cards in any denomination that can be used on all new releases. Keep the gift cards handy and be prepared to hit the theaters on opening weekend.

Give redeemable vouchers for gifts and experiences.

Another single mom I know gave her kids 12 handmade gift certificates under the tree last year. The certificates were good for one gift (or one date) per month with mom for a year. She was able to spread out the cost of Christmas over 12 months, and gave her kids something to look forward to as well.