our summer bucket list

This morning we stopped by our community garden spot to pick snap peas before heading to the library. Just-from-the-garden fresh and crisp, those snap peas disappeared in no time. “As sweet as candy,” my older son declared.

At the library, the boys each got to choose a book to keep for completing ten of the reading program activities. Then they participated in a dinosaur scavenger hunt. We checked out a week’s worth of reading material and arrived back home just in time for lunch. There’s much to savor in the simple summer routine that we’ve settled into, and Friday library visits are one of our anchor activities. (During the past three school years, it was just me and the preschooler.)

Summers also afford the chance to do things we may not get around to during the school year. I recently read an article in Minnesota Parent advocating for a realistic summer bucket list. I quite agree that an attainable list of meaningful family experiences and activities is better than an over-the-top list that goes undone. So I’ve written down some of the things that have been and I’d like to see continue to be a part of our summers:

attend VBS

make popicles

complete the library summer reading program

take swimming lessons

memorize a psalm

grow our own tomatoes

go camping

check out a new swimming spot

read one of the Chronicles of Narnia

participate in a Lego Mini Build

send the boys to Camp Clair

bake zucchini bread (because there is nearly always someone who wants to pass along one of those “too-big-to eat” monsters and we can only eat so many zucchini fritters)

We’ve already completed – or have in progress – about half of these. My plan is to hang on to this list for inspiration as we move in to the second half of the summer.

What’s on your summer to-do list?


of child’s play – and life

Last week our preschooler had a friend over to play. They started out by pouring out the contents of the toy box and picking through it for the most interesting things. Those items in the toy box are rarely touched these days, but when looking at them through a new set of eyes, my son did end up thinking a few of them were worth his attention again, at least for part of an afternoon. But it wasn’t too long until they pulled the marble ramp from the closet, followed by the wooden train set. They played with each for a good ten minutes before casting about for something else. Then my son started creating something out of K’nex while the other boy became engrossed in the workings of a submarine. Soon it was time for each to revisit their favorites among the toys scattered around the living room and one bedroom. I heard marbles going down the ramp again…

When the play date was over, we had a lot of things to pick up and put away, but I had good help. And I have few complaints of this kind of play: two boys enjoying each other’s company as they mostly do their own thing, but everyone once in while cooperate to make things go better – or have a brief conversation.

Somewhere along the way, play tends to get more complicated so that by the time you’re eight you’re much more likely to be absorbed in someone else’s script. Earlier this year and at the end of last, our second grader was consumed by Star Wars. (No coincidence that it started shortly before the release of the latest Star Wars movie.) There was – and still is – a lot of Stars Wars going on at the school playground, if my son’s stories are any indication. The boys who have seen the movies or have some other good source of Star Wars information are the ones who get to tell everyone else how to play. They teach the others the names of the good guys and bad guys, explain who does what, when and how … In such games, my son is a follower. He hasn’t seen the movie – and most probably won’t for several years since it is rated PG-13.

Maybe that’s not quite as big of a deal now as it was three weeks ago, though. Because that’s about when our second grader came home with four Pokémon cards that Eli had given him at school. Since then there has been no rest about adding to his “collection.” More specifically, he believes we need to go out and buy some more cards. Right. Now. (I’ve put him off till the end of February at least. I hope they’re on to a new topic by then.) It’s the same scenario about following someone else’s script. The kids with the most knowledge about the Pokémon trading card game are the ones who dispense information about this fictional world, including details such as who is a “fire type” – and what that even means.

Every day I am reminded what a heavy dose of pop culture comes with public education. I’m left with a lot of questions about how we as parents help our son navigate that, especially as the pop culture values seem to grow more and more divergent from our own.

learning from failure

I recently read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure This book offers an alternative to today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting approach, which “has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” Lahey begins the book by describing her dawning realization that she had been overparenting and chronicles some of her own struggles to grant her sons more freedom and more responsibility. She makes a compelling argument for allowing children the safe space they need to fail – and learn from that failure – at a young age when the stakes are still low.

The controlling parent or the one who always comes to the rescue of her child is challenged to begin parenting for autonomy and competence, which involves setting clear and specific expectations, being physically and emotionally present and offering guidance when a child is frustrated or needs redirecting. She argues for giving children responsibility around the home as an important part of helping kids feel autonomous, competent and connected.

In a discussion of motivation, the author describes how overparenting inhibits intrinsic motivation and essentially teaches children that without parents’ help they’ll never be able to surmount challenges. By protecting kids from failure, she argues, we’re communicating that we don’t have faith in their ability to overcome the challenges they face.

Throughout the book, Lahey offers some practical suggestions for parents, including the following:

Allow for mistakes and help children understand the consequences of those mistakes.

Don’t offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his or her mistakes.

Value the mistakes as much as the successes – in other words, support and love them just as much whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Provide feedback that supports effort and guides a child toward seeing his or her mistakes and then finding a workable solution.

Praise kids for their effort, which encourages them to draw the connection between effort and capability.

Encourage risk-taking in learning; fear of failure undermines education.

Emphasize goals rather than grades.

The Gift of Failure is a worthwhile read that may have you rethinking your expectations for your kids. It challenged me to consider what level of independence I will expect of my kids by the time they are young adults and to make parenting decisions in the present that will help them reach that goal.

This school year, after reading the book, I’ve taken more of a hands-off approach to the getting ready for school routine each morning. My son packs his own lunch, though still with some supervision. He’s responsible for getting things into his backpack too. So far, he’s forgotten his homework at home once and forgotten a book that he was supposed to take to school. This is when my temptation to take over kicks in, but for the sake of fostering independence I’m trying not to.

Five Ways to Help Kids Thrive This Summer

A little something I wrote for our PTO newsletter. 

  1. Take a virtual vacation

Your child chooses several countries he’d like to visit and makes an itinerary. For the first stop on the virtual vacation, he reads about the climate, culture and customs of the country. Together prepare a typical meal from that country and then your child can share some of what he’s learned about the place and perhaps teach everyone a few words from the language. Enjoy a folktale, book or movie set in that locale. The next week, repeat with the second country on the itinerary and so on, until you’ve finished your international virtual vacation.

  1. Entertain the family

Don’t let your child just consume entertainment, suggest she create her own. She can make a movie, develop a board game or write a play to perform with friends or siblings. It may be fun to try her hand at making number puzzles or word games. Book making is another option. Brainstorm ways she can share her final product with others.

  1. Plant something

Kids learn about responsibility by taking care of living things. Suggest your child choose a vegetable or herb for planting if he would like to enjoy the fruits of his labor. If outdoor space is limited, fill a large container with soil and try planting a cherry tomato. Or grow some herbs on the window sill.

  1. Stay active

Summers are short, so make sure to provide ample time for outdoor fun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. While some children naturally want to keep moving and easily get in an hour of exercise, others may need a little encouragement. Look for new activities to try and repeat favorites often, whether that be a nature walk, a bike ride or a certain sport or active game.

  1. Volunteer

Help your child gain life skills and compassion through helping others. Volunteering together helps your child understand the importance of giving back to his community. Whether you choose to pick up trash at a park, pack meals at Feed My Starving Children or collect supplies for an emergency shelter, volunteering helps stave off a sense of entitlement. Find local volunteer opportunities at an online site such as Hands on Twin Cities.

speaking of Santa

Today I took my four-year-old in for his early childhood screening. The interviewer began the assessment with some small talk. She stated that Christmas is coming up and asked my son what he wants from Santa.

“Santa’s fake!” he told her. She started laughing. “I’ve never heard that answer before,” she said, looking at me rather than my son.

“Okay, so what do you want for Christmas?” she tried again.

“A sketch pad,” he said.

“What else?” she prompted.

“A Bible,” he said. At this point I started wondering if my boy thought he was saying what his mommy wanted to hear. I also started wondering what sort of judgments the interviewer was making about our family.

“Oh, I’d want one of those too,” she said. “What else?” By then, I was getting tired of the question. What are we teaching our children in this country? That Christmas is all about getting? In our family, we try to spend a lot more time talking about what we’re giving for gifts than discussing our wants.

I think my son was tired of the question too. “A box,” he said. Thankfully she let it go at that and moved on to her scripted questions.

Despite this awkward beginning, he scored well above the average four year old. I expected that — since we live in a place “where all the children are above average.” Now, I’ve just got to teach him not to break the news about Santa to his classmates. Thankfully, we’ve still got some time to work on that.

how it feels when your kids hold up a mirror for you

At bed time, I closed the door behind me as I left my two-year-old’s room. He started crying at full volume. So I reentered his room to find out what the problem was. “I was talking to you, mommy,” he said, meaning, “Why did you leave mid-sentence?”

So I let him finish his statement. It was something about how the fan was blowing my hair. I had known what he was saying the first time and walked out before he finished his thought.

I get it now. He needs me to listen and hear him out. Even when I believe I already know what he’s going to say.

Kids are pretty good at giving their parents feedback. Here’s another example.

“I don’t want to be a daddy when I grow up,” my five-year-old said today as he was finishing his lunch.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because my children would disappoint me,” he said.


“Did you know that mommy and daddy are more often pleased with you than disappointed with you?” I asked. He laughed a little, relieved. I went on to list some of the things I like about parenting, including playing with my children and helping them learn new things.

Since that conversation I’ve been thinking about how to make sure I balance the reprimands and reminders he receives with affirming statements.

how it goes when the mom who rarely leaves home is gone for the weekend

My sons both protested about my leaving them for the weekend. Even though I explained Aunt Clair wanted to celebrate her birthday with her sisters – with no children, and no guys either.

“That’s the worst party ever,” my five-year-old said.

“That’s the worst party ever,” my two-year-old repeated.

But I gave each of them a big hug and left them in the capable hands of their daddy. He got a hug too.

Turns out my three guys created their own fun. They were well rested and happy when I got home Sunday afternoon. My older son reported, “Daddy gave us the foods we like to eat.” (Goat soup, yogurt, ice cream and grapes, in case you’re wondering.) My younger one said, “Daddy took me to the zoo.”

I was relieved that I am replaceable, at least for a few days at a time.

teaching my son to read – week 1

“Of all the wondrous delights you may confer upon your child, few will match the enduring pleasure that literacy provides,” Sidney Ledson wrote in Teach Your Child to Read in Just Ten Minutes a Day. I recently picked up this book because my son has been asking me to teach him to read. He first asked me last September, but I was dragging my feet because it seems like a lot of effort. I’ve taught preliterate adults before and I know it isn’t exactly easy.

In the past, I’ve been swayed by both the whole language and the phonics perspectives, but Ledson makes a fairly compelling argument for phonics and provides an easy 32-step program based on sound-symbol correspondence. (We’re focusing on sounds and ignoring the names of the letters for now.)

Our five-year-old seems to be in need of a new challenge – something to distract him from superheroes – so the timing is right. Once he found out why I was reading Ledson’s book, there was no rest until I started teaching him. So we started on Sunday. Today I dug out our wooden blocks and reviewed yesterday’s lesson, the sounds for U and P. He can now read “up.” At least he could this morning. Ledson advises not teaching any more sounds until a child has mastered the ones that have already been introduced.  We’ll review those before bed time, and tomorrow I’ll check to see if he still remembers them before moving on to the next letter in the sequence, C.

Perhaps by the end of April we’ll have mastered the first 100 words. Stay tuned.

taking superheroes off their pedestal

I took my son to a superhero birthday party on Saturday. It was at the home of the boy my son would probably call his best friend. It was a drop-off party – as in parents aren’t invited. I guess kids-only parties start right around the fifth birthday, and we’re just four months into the five-year-old territory, so I’m still getting used to the idea.

My son came home talking about the ninja toy the birthday boy got as a gift. The “light green ninja” had a backpack on, with green discs inside. My son called them pennies but the kids in the know quickly corrected him, he told me. Other times my son has been at this home he has come home asking when I am going to buy him superhero Legos.

For the past few years, this friend of his has been his primary source of information about superheroes. We don’t watch them around here. We don’t buy them either. Only occasionally can I be persuaded to read a book about them. At this age, peers already influence a child’s preferences about play more than any other source of input. And these kids are getting the script from the cartoon makers. (What ever happened to true creative play?)

Am I the only one that thinks this superhero thing is a little off base? And what can I do about it? Take a this-too-shall-pass approach? Find some five-year-old boys for my son to play with who don’t talk about superheroes incessantly? (Are there any to be found in this country?) Balance out peer input with stories that do NOT promote violence as the solution a problem or do NOT teach that strength equals power?

How do we teach boys about the value of humility and meekness? Yes, meekness. As in strength under control.

rearing unselfish children

“Good luck with that” is what one friend said when I told her I was reading a book called Raising Unselfish Children in a Self-Absorbed World. But this book, written by Jill Rigby, is actually quite practical – and hopeful. The basic premise of the book is that if you model generosity and others-focused living then your children are quite likely to follow in your footsteps.

I know, you don’t need to read a book to figure that out. But the book contains lots of specific ideas for how your family can love and care for other people. Suggestions are broken down by age group so the book is equally relevant to the parents of a teen or a preschooler.

It’s a book worth reading if you want to help your children “give till it feels good.”

What is your favorite activity for helping children become more others-focused?