Monday, June 29, 2009

Making Family Vacations Memorable

During summer, many families take time off from their weekly routines to enjoy some time away. Whether it’s a trip to the Wisconsin Dells, camping under the stars, or sightseeing across our beautiful country, family vacation time is upon us. Having traveled to every state with my family during the past eight years, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on planning memorable vacations. Notice I didn’t say perfect – in fact, some of our best memories are when things went wrong. Having the right attitude and great planning are the keys to vacation fun!

1. Plan the vacation with YOUR children in mind. Think about the ages and developmental levels of your children when planning a vacation. While some four-year-olds can keep themselves busy in a car for long periods of time, most need frequent breaks, lots of activities, snacks, and patience! Plan trips from your children’s point of view. Kids don’t have an awareness of what they are “missing” on a trip, they only know what they are experiencing. As you think about running from sun-up to sun-down through the streets of Disneyworld, and you picture yourself yelling at the kids to stop crying and keep up, STOP! Take a break and rethink your plan! Getting to only 7 rides, but savoring and enjoying each one AND the sights in-between, will have a must more lasting, positive memory than hurriedly and crazily rushing through all 16, barely taking time to appreciate any one before you shuttle along to the next!

2. Be creative in the car. There’s a great game on the market called “Are we there yet?” It’s a deck of cards with things to look for on a road trip. Both the front and back of the cards have things like: a car with a flat tire, two birds flying together, a broken fence, or a tractor. Each time your child spots one of the objects, they earn a new card. Instead of playing child against child, have them be a team – during the next 30 minutes, if they are able to find 10 items on the cards between them, they win! To save money, you can make up your own deck of cards. Prizes can be little token things you pick up before starting your trip, a small souvenir from your next destination, or something special that you can do together as a family when you get to your next hotel. Be creative in planning those long rides, and anticipate the time for frequent breaks as part of your travel plans.

3. For the plane ride, pack a bag of tricks. It’s essential to pack small snacks, as you never know if you will be stuck on a runway or circling a city longer than planned. Suckers are great during take-offs and landings as the swallowing process helps keep little ears from popping. If your child has a real problem with his ears, someone once told me that if you heat some wet paper towels (use the bathroom sink if it has hot water or ask the flight attendant to heat them in a microwave on board) and put the paper towels in the bottoms of small cups, then place the cups over the child’s ears. The ears will not feel the pressure of landing. A Portable DVD player is a great entertainment tool on an airplane. Make sure you charge the battery. You can also go online to to see if your airline's plane has an outlet near your seat. Check with the site to make sure you have the right adapter as well!

4. Be creative in your preparations for the kids! Once I decided to make a felt board for my kids when they were very young and we had a long journey planned. I wanted to give them something unique to play with, but didn’t have a lot of money to buy the professionally made ones. While it was a lot of work, it was a godsend! I bought felt from the local art supply store. If you can find the kind with one side that has sticky-tape on it, it works best. Otherwise, you need to have white glue as well. Each child had different colored felt backing, based on her favorite color at the time. I also purchased several rolls of clear shelf liner. I put the felt on two pieces of cardboard, and then taped the boards together so it could fold in half for storage. I then cut out their favorite Disney characters from magazines, wrapping paper, ANYTHING that I could get my hands on. I laid out all the pieces onto the shelf liner to “laminate” them. I attached felt on the back of the design, and stored everything in baggies. You can also substitute magnetic backing and a magnet board in place of the felt. It was labor-intensive, but they played for hours! Having their own colored backing helped in sorting when they shared their characters too.

5. Plan ahead, but be flexible. Some travelers are planners, like myself, and have every detail of the trip covered. I have the most organized packing lists and travel itineraries. Yet something is always forgotten, or the best plans go haywire. Teach your children flexibility, keep your sense of humor, and roll with the punches to fill each trip with positive memories. Some of our crazier moments include driving over a shop vac in the highway at 75 m.p.h., weather related flight cancellations, and having a child step in a fire ant hill on the side of the road while taking a picture of the “Welcome to Louisiana” sign. How we handled those moments kept us laughing together and defined us as a family. When you go into a trip knowing it won’t be perfect, there will be tired kids (and grown-ups), and weather or travel arrangements don’t always go according to “the plan”, you are prepared for whatever comes your way.

I will end with one of my favorite stories from a trip to Mt. Rushmore.

As we were making the long drive west, we had a scheduled stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Across the street was a doll museum (not on our itinerary). We decided to check out the doll museum, and in it, my husband spotted his long lost Jolly Green Giant stuffed toy. He described his love for this toy, and how it went missing many years earlier on one of his family vacations. The girls were both amazed and humored at hearing this grown man’s story about a lost stuffed toy. On the return trip, we had another scheduled overnight stop in Blue Earth, Minnesota. When we pulled into our hotel parking lot, my husband quietly pointed out to me, through the glass of the swimming pool enclosure, a GIANT, 20-foot statue of the jolly green giant. I secretly showed the kids, through the windows, that the Green Giant was waiting for us! The kids and I blindfolded my husband, who at this point was playing dumb, and I drove him to the statue. The kids ripped off the blindfold, and my husband shrieked with delight while the kids giggled with laughter and excitement. That unplanned surprise was one of our best moments as a family.

Have fun making your own positive vacation memories!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Setting Limits and Following Through - or - Don't Be a Slot Machine!

Setting limits and following through can sometimes make you feel like you are a slot machine in Vegas. With enough pressure and persistence, you ‘pay off’ by giving in. Let me give you a few tips on when to say no, and how to help your child know you mean it.

I am going to start by helping you know when to let your child make choices and when to stand your ground. Picture 3 boxes in front of you. Box 1 items are the things that you don’t negotiate on. They are important values, rules, and parent guides that are reliably consistent. Box 1 items are things like, “you never get into a car with a stranger”, “you wear a helmet when riding a bike”, or “you sit in the back of the car with a seatbelt on”. Parents need to be very consistent with these, and kids learn quickly not to ask about changing these rules.

Box 3 items are things that your child chooses. Box 3 examples are: “apple juice or water”, “take a shower or bath”, and even picking out clothes for school (although as they get older, the school sets some ground rules for kids who like to test this box’ limit!) It’s important to let a child feel she can make choices. And don't worry - people will recognize the child who goes to school wearing plaid and polka-dots dressed herself. That child's self esteem soars when people comment, "Did you pick out that outfit today? It's rockin!" And the child learns to either modify his choices or stand up for his individuality when his peers ask, "Why are you wearing that sweater with those pants?" When kids are younger, limit the choices, as I did above with the apple juice or water example, so they don't get overwhelmed and then are unable to choose. This is also the place where kids can make a choice, and if it doesn’t go well, they learn from their mistakes. A good example of this is if you give a child $5 to buy something, but he chooses to spend it on something you think is a waste of money. Once you have established that he has $5 to spend, don’t control how it gets spent, unless that was the arrangement before you gave him the money. If you said, “When he goes to a store, and you tell him that he can use this money for a snack, but not for toys,” and he comes home with a glow-in-the-dark yoyo, you need to take the toy and donate it, throw it away, or keep it for your child until the time you determine he can have that gift. Don’t let him keep the toy. But if you don’t attach any rules to the money, you can give advice, but it is important to let the child make his own choice. If he spends it on a toy that breaks or doesn’t get used, that is the child’s lesson to learn! Let them make choices!

That leaves Box 2. These are the things that are negotiable. However, negotiable doesn’t mean, “argue until the parent gives in”. It means that both parties can express their reasoning, and then a decision is made, usually by the parent.

An example of this is bedtime. Parents usually discuss actual bed times when a child is around four years old and she begins to understand time. That bedtime is fixed (Box 1) for a while. At some point, the child wants a later bedtime, and the issue moves to Box 2. The child explains her reasoning (“I’m older than my brother, I should be able to stay up later” or “I am not sleepy when I get into bed and don’t fall asleep for awhile.”) You might reason that she doesn’t get up in a happy mood, is hard to wake up, or gets out of bed ten times before going to sleep. You can then negotiate that you will allow a bedtime 15 minutes later, provided that: she stay in bed once she is tucked in and that she wakes up reasonably in the morning. The logical consequence of not managing these is the bedtime goes back to the original time for two days, and then the child can try the later time again. Giving them a chance in a reasonable amount of time to show they learned the rule is important for all children! But here is the key point - once you come to an agreement, you need to follow through! Make sure the child gets the later bedtime. And make sure that if she gets out of bed or doesn’t wake up when asked on the first violation, you revert to the old bedtime for two days! Do not “give another chance! Once you do that, it’s like feeding the slot machine! They put the quarter (“please give me another chance”) in the slot machine (you) and if the machine pays out (“ok, I’ll give you another chance”), the child learns to play the machine (push the limit once a limit is set!)

The most important point of this discussion is that once you are consistent with your responses, children learn to respect your limits. Allow for choices, stand firm on non-negotiable items, and establish a limit and follow through on the privilege or consequence consistently. I will write more on this important topic in future weeks, but in the meantime, if you have any questions about limits, need to know what Box an item goes into, or what to do if your child doesn’t respect the rule, please post them here and I can answer to the whole group. Remember that if you are questioning it, so are many others! There are no silly questions! Parents who ask for guidance when they need it are making the smart choice! Have a great week!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Finding ME in Summer!!

Find Time for Yourself This Summer

As I sit at my computer right now, I am thinking of the 10 projects that I have started, but have yet to finish. Many times, as a parent, I find myself juggling so many different things, and the ball that gets dropped usually has my name on it! So, I am going to use this blog to jot down the things that I am promising to accomplish this summer. I encourage each of you reading this to do the same. If you will hold yourself more accountable by sharing it on this blog, feel free. In a few weeks, I’ll be checking my list to see how I’m coming along. You know how they say there's no "I" in TEAM? Well, there is ME in SUMMER! We are better parents when we feel good as individuals!

1. Rid my house of things that we NEVER look at or use, one room at a time. I have started this – today I purchased 50 large green garbage bags. Starting with my closet, dresser, and drawers, I have filled 2 garbage bags. I am enjoying reminiscing through old photos (I saved those), and loving the clean, rearranged drawers. We tend to get used to the clutter over the years. Many people can't seem to part with their possessions, even if they haven't used them for a long time! When going through your children's artwork and school projects, have them select 5 items or so per year to save. Pick the ones that have the most meaning, or define your child from that age. Put all the items in a large bin and store it away to look at or gift to them in the future.

2. Play! For me this summer, it's golf. On my first week, I will say the first five holes were not reminiscent of the golfer I used to be! But during the last four holes, I got two bogeys and redeemed myself. It felt great to be outdoors, chatting with the ladies, and moving! Afterwards, we shared lunch together, and it was such at treat! Great women, good food, wonderful conversation. For some of you, your play activity might be tennis, softball, bowling, mah jongg, or an art or photography class. Whatever your personal hobby, make time each week to enjoy it!

3. Exercise! We need to take care of our bodies, and tired parents sometimes forget about this. I have! But this past week, I logged about 6 miles in three separate outings. My walking buddy and I did not use the lousy weather as an excuse to sit at home – one day, I used the treadmill, on the other, we walked the mall! Talking with a friend and getting some well needed exercise feels amazing! Do you have one of those health club membership cards that hasn't seen the outside of your wallet in a while? Well, there's no time like today to use it!

4- Talk to your partner! Most of the time, parents are in tag-team mode. One parent is running in one direction, while the other is flying off in another, usually with one or two kids in tow. Try to find at least 5 minutes each day to talk face-to-face to your spouse or partner with no interruptions. This means no TV, folding laundry, answering the phone or dealing with the kids…truly just time for each other to attend to one another. You’ll be surprised how 5 minutes a day leads to feeling more connected and in sync with each other. Remember, couples' time is NOT just reserved for Saturday date night!

As you think about making your own list, be creative. Imagine yourself reconnecting with an old friend, going to a movie by yourself, getting a massage, or spending the day in your pajamas “just because”. The goals don’t have to be monumental to have an impact on your life. Just find ways to focus on yourself and feel good about it. I’ll still go to work, get the groceries, pay the bills, make sure the kids are cared for, and wash the dishes. But I am also going to make sure that the ME in SUMMER gets some attention!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Summer's Here! Time for Parenting Reflection!

Summer’s Here!!

With the end of school comes the relief of summer; schedules are less hectic as activities come to an end. It’s refreshing to look at your planner and not find yourself and your children scheduled from morning ‘til night! During summer’s relaxed mode, it’s a great time to reflect on your role as a parent, and see what you can do to enhance your life.

Family meals – So often, with soccer practice, dance rehearsals, and Girl Scout meetings, parents find less and less time to have traditional family mealtime. This summer, make a point of increasing your time together at the dinner table. Remember to leave all cell phones behind! Try including one child a week in a meal preparation. Have him choose the family meal (make sure there’s at least one thing served that everyone enjoys) – he can help shop, prepare, and serve with you. This special time together will be remembered for a long time!

Another great activity is to play the “Best and Worst Game” at dinner. Each person shares the best and worst events from his or her day. Any event counts – “bests” can be like being able to sleep late or moving up a level in swim class. “Worsts” can include having to let an employee go or your child getting separated from her camp group between swimming and lunch. If your children are under age 5, that’s the whole game. As kids get older, from ages 6-9, include the why question – “Why were those the best and worst?” And for kids over 10, have them explain how it made them feel. So for me, waking up late was my best because when I sleep in, I feel SO rested, and it makes me very happy!

The lemonade stand – This is especially great for the younger children; they LOVE lemonade stands! Make sure you are with them the whole time for their safety. Have them prepare the lemonade, get cups, and make signs. Tell them that they can keep half of what they earn and use it for something they want for themselves. Have them make a donation with the other half: to the local food pantry, a shelter, etc. While the amount of their donation may seem very small, the lesson of giving is what is most important. And knowing THEY worked to make money for both themselves and for someone less fortunate definitely sends self esteem soaring!

Garage sale – This is a hot ticket for the older children. Have the children go through their things and sort out what they have grown out of – toys, books, stuffed animals, and clothing. Make sure you agree with their sorting, and that you don’t have younger siblings, friends or cousins to pass things down to! Sort through your own things as well, as this is another activity that should be highly supervised. Find out the local ordinances in your area about advertising for garage sales with signs, and have the kids make signs and post them in approved places. You can also advertise on Craigslist or your local paper. Tell the kids that from the money their items bring in, they can use half to purchase something for themselves or their family, and they can donate the other half to a charity of their choice, through the purchase of items for the organization or a monetary donation. Teach them that giving is an important family value.

I’ll close with something that our family did together for quite a few summers. It was our family goal to go to all 50 states. From 2000-2008, we toured the country, mostly by car, and saw this wonderful, beautiful land we live in. While laughter and fun was almost always present, it is the unscripted, zany moments that we all remember most – like the time our hot air balloon, after sailing over the beautiful Rocky Mountains, landed in a field covered with… well, bull droppings. Or how we rolled over something while driving 80 mph on the highway in Texas, and in the 100 degree temperature, stood along the side of the road, watching my husband bat the offending item out from under our car with my daughter’s crutch. What had we run over? A shop vac. We’ll never figure that one out! I can still visualize the kids’ quizzical looks as I snapped a picture of the policeman holding the offending vacuum. I wanted to document the event in case the car rental agency doubted our story. So make sure you spend your summer laughing at the crazy, unpredictable moments as well as the planned, fun ones! And enjoy your time together; they grow up SO fast!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Parent Tips for Children's Internet and Cell Phone Safety

One of the most talked about issues both in and out of my counseling practice has to do with technology and our children. Parents, wanting to make sure that their children are "up to speed" with the latest and greatest technology, are providing access to cell phones and the internet at alarmingly young ages. Children as young as six feel it is their "right" to these privileges! Parents ask all the time how to supervise the internet, how to enforce basic rules around cell phone use, and whether or not they are doing their child a DISSERVICE when they DO NOT succomb to adult and child peer pressure and either restrict or monitor their children and technology. I have seen children as young as 7 with facebook accounts - and many of their parents have no idea that they have set them up!

With that in mind, I have developed Parent Tips for Internet and Cell Phone Safety for Children. It's important to note that every family needs to establish their own guidelines and rules, and each child's behavioral, emotional, and social maturity needs to be considered when setting up the rules.


Having access to the Internet and using a cell phone is a privilege. Parents need to provide proper guidance and supervision to promote safety. What is sent to one person or uploaded on the Internet enters a PUBLIC arena. Children need to understand the lack of privacy that is potentially at risk when children misuse the technology.

How public is it? The following are examples of how easily information is passed to an entire network: a picture sent through cell phones to everyone on their contact list, an email sent out to a buddy list, an IM conversation copied and pasted into email and sent out to an address book list.

It is a parent’s obligation to help children understand the safe use and risks of this technology through discussion, supervision, setting appropriate limits, awarding privileges for appropriate technology use, and providing consequences for inappropriate technology use. Don’t look for ways to punish your child; use supervision and monitoring as means for communication about what’s appropriate and what’s not, and reinforce appropriate use and parental access with privileges.

Trust and supervision go hand in hand. A child will make you feel guilty about supervision – telling you if you are monitoring their behaviors, you must not trust them. Teach them that trust is earned when repeated checks result in observation of appropriate behavior, and trust is maintained when less frequent checks continue to result in observation of appropriate behavior. Likewise, observing inappropriate behavior results in decreased trust, increased supervision, and will result in limits to privileges.

It is crucial to establish rules around cell phone use. For example, set times for phone to be turned off for the night, make sure the phone is turned off at bedtime, and, if necessary, your child might need to give the phone over to you before sleep. In addition, limit cell phone use during homework, mealtimes, and family time. Phones can be placed on the counter, for example, before meals. Children should not even CHECK the nature of a text message during family time. Teach them that it can wait until later. If an adult needs to be accessible by phone for urgent work issues, he can check his texts or calls during family time, but work to model the message that family time is the priority!

It is important also to set limits around texting. Texting to opposite sex under age of 16 needs to be limited and monitored. A guide to this can be that once 1-2 texts each (back and forth) is established, child needs to call to have a voice conversation with the person of the opposite sex. Many children inappropriately send text messages or sexual pictures (sexting) because the impact of what they are doing doesn't feel real. Look in the local papers and you will read about situations where a child under the age of 17 sent a sexual text to a person over 17 and the older person was arrested and charged with child pornography. Many parents are setting a minimum age for co-ed texting, or at least monitoring the language and content of what is texted, especially when children are under the age of 17.

Because of technology, parents need to continue to speak with parents regarding plans and to insure parties are supervised. Children are relying LESS on parents to make plans, and detour around parental authority for arrangements. Children are making plans via cell phone, and they believe parents don’t need to contact each other. Children actually feel it will embarrass them!

In addition, parents are no longer picking children up by going to door (they are calling child’s cell phone). Parent to parent contact is CRUCIAL in helping you feel you are not alone in parenting!

Internet use must be monitored as well. Under age 14, children’s passwords should be known to parents. Over age 14, parents need assess if they need to know passwords, which depends on the maturity and behavior of the child. This might change as your teen moves through high school, and the privilege of a private password CAN be revoked if the child's behavior warrants. Parents have the right to access their children’s email and internet sites to monitor activity. If access is denied by child, the child loses internet privileges. If inappropriate use is noted, the child loses internet privileges. Making good choices results in continued, appropriate use!

It is most important that children know you CAN check these sites – children who know their parents CAN monitor their use are more likely to make responsible choices. Check periodically, and increase monitoring if at risk behavior is noted.

Specifically, facebook is intended for High School age children and older. It is not appropriate for a child under age 14 (junior high or younger) to access facebook, although many children are accessing this site. If you feel the need to indulge your child with this at such a young age, it is imperative that you supervise the use often! In addition, parents shouldn’t need to “friend” their child – you have access to monitor, and they need to self-monitor. However, if you choose to have children as friends, set a good example and do not expose those children to adult content. When your child does have a facebook account (high school), browse through child’s site WITH your child periodically. This is not the time for you to grab the details of their lives. Instead, use it to open discussion about what's appropriate and how what is being put out into the virtual world can have a longlasting impact on their lives.

Remember, these are guidelines, not firm rules. In your individual homes, examine how you negotiate the privileges that come with technology and how you supervise those privileges. Make sure you consider the individual child when setting your own guidelines. Please share your thoughts, concerns, and successes here as well!