Saturday, June 26, 2010

Solo Road Trips with Kids

I am one of those people who tends to get cabin fever. No matter where I am, once in a while I have to be somewhere else for a while; preferably somewhere that involves old friends, good coffee and a little shopping. My husband and I got married young, and while I am very extroverted, he is quite introverted. So in order to keep us both happy, I tend to go out and leave him at home -- I get some people time and he gets some alone time and we're both happier. In any case, these needs haven't changed since I've had kids.

This has led me to do something that many people think is crazy -- solo road trips with kids. Yes, you heard me. I like to pack my kids up in the car and drive hundreds of kilometers. I have done this with a baby and a toddler as well as with a toddler and a preschooler. Here's how:

1. Plan to do part of your drive at night -- if possible, start driving at night. Once the kids are asleep, you can get a few hours driving in, and then stop and sleep somewhere in the middle of your trip. This will mean 3 or 4 hours of hassle free driving. Alternately, start driving after lunch, drive through nap time, stop for supper, then drive into the night.

2. Think ahead about what you will need to keep your kids occupied and comfortable. This means wipes, diapers, extra changes of clothes, jackets, and a change of shoes should be easily accessible. Bring a bin of toys and pass them back one at a time as they get dropped, since you won't be able to reach back and fish them off the ground -- get a few new toys to blend in with your kids' old favorites. Think about things that can be played with easily while sitting -- action figures, small dolls or animals, matchbook cars, hard backed sketchbooks and pencils or crayons, search and find or sticker books, toys that rattle or shake or can have things taken in / out of them for babies. Do some novel things like putting a toy digger in a plastic container of raisins or trail mix. Head to the library and pick up stories on cd and some fun kids music and add them to your family favorites. While you're there get some new books with complicated, fun pictures the kids can look at by themselves (Where's Waldo or books by Richard Scary or Graeme Base). Cut up fruit and put it in small bowls that you can just pass back to hungry kids. If you have time, make some of these desks for older kids. Carry the potty and a package of Lysol wipes to clean it out so you don't have to look for a bathroom in case of emergency.

3. Organize everything you'll need so that its within reach - this is the advantage / disadvantage of having no one in the passenger seat. You can load it up with stuff. I usually have two snap top bins -- one with toys and one with snacks. Books are sitting upright behind these bins, and water bottles and our cd storage book are laying along side this. Tucked under the seat is my bag with diapers, changes of clothes, and lots of wipes. This way I can pass back snacks, drinks, toys and books while I'm still driving to keep the kids occupied.

4. Stop a lot - young children get restless and bored. Then they start crying and fighting. Babes need to be nursed and changed regularly. If possible, stop every hour or so for a good 15 minuites of play time. Every little town will have a park or visitor center somewhere, big highways will have rest stops with green spaces to run in, and if you're on the prairies you can just stop on the side of the road and let them run in a field. If you will be staying at someone's house on the other end, let them know that you are uncertain when you will get there, and just phone them when you are an hour or so away so they know you are coming. This will not be a fast trip.

5. Set your expectations low - expect things to get messy, kids to get fussy and the baby to blow out their clothes or the preschooler to throw up. That way you won't be so frustrated when it actually happens. Just try to keep a cool head and take things in stride -- remember the fantastic destination you are heading to and remind yourself that its worth it.

I think it might be optimistic to say that doing a solo road trip with small children is fun. But I will say it will give you a huge confidence boost. If you can travel solo with small kids, you can do anything. So don't let being a mom of young kids hold you back from doing something you enjoy -- go for it!

What are your best road trip tips?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Vacation

We're off on vacation tomorrow and I'm extremely excited.  The thought of travelling cross country with 3 little ones can be a little daunting, but we've learned some things along the way that will help our journey immensely.

When we first travelled with our first child almost 6 years ago we knew nothing about traveling with a baby.  So we brought it England.  We thought it was an easy connection to get the train from the airport, we were wrong.  And we had to carry everything up a stairwell, across the street and down a block.  My husband was this close to leaving half of it in London while the rest of us traveled up north to his grandparents.  He didn't, but we've never forgotten that trip.  Since then we've used the rule, "do we really need it?"  when packing.

Things we know we need: 
- car seats for the kids, but not necessarily their own.  Tomorrow we are bring our daughter's infant seat and our eldest's booster seat, but my middle child is borrowing one from his cousin who has two. 
- clothing, but only enough for a week.  We can do laundry while we are there.
- toiletries, but just the stuff we use every day, no extras
- identification, health cards etc, carried with us

Things that we can get away without:
-pack of diapers, I just bring enough for a day, you can buy diapers everywhere, they take up a lot of unnecessary room.
-lots of toys.  I pack a few of my kids favorite small toys in the carry on, plus one colouring book and crayons, a few activity books (Where's Waldo is great for travel), and a set of headphones for each.
-play pen for the baby.  This is something that can usually be borrowed where you are going.  Most hotels have them to at no additional charge.
-stroller for the baby.  I do bring a sling (they are fabulously portable and small to pack).  I've also usually been able to borrow strollers from someone at the other end.

We've learned to pack at least one full change of clothing in our carry on.  Our luggage has been delayed by the airline more than once.  We also don't pack big, bulky suitcases.  Everyone has one small suitcase.  You can fit more clothes when you roll everything up inside.  My kids have all the clothing they need plus a raincoat and a pair of sandals inside, it all fits.
I make sure to pack my kids favorite potable snacks in my carry on bag too (granola bars, fruit to go strips, goldfish crackers...)  you know your kids.  You know that when they are hungry they want to eat now, and it doesn't necessarily equal when the fight attendant is coming around.
We let our kids run around as much as possible before the flight and during any layovers.  Most airports have play spaces in them which is very helpful.
Also, we make our kids go to the bathroom when we are on the ground (even if they say they don't need to go).  There is often a wait between when you board and when it is safe to use the airplane washroom.  This is not a time you want to be cleaning up any accidents.

Whatever your travel plans this summer, I hope you enjoy it, traveling can be wearing on the best of us,  but if you plan well, it can go well and be an experience you kids will remember (for the right reasons!)

Monday, June 14, 2010

What teachers want

I know, I usually write to you all from the mama perspective, but I'm also a teacher.  Here in Canada most of the kids will be out of school at the end of next week (or the week after depending on your province).  I know my American friends have their kids home for summer vacation already.   Your child has made great strides over the past school year.  Just think about what they knew this time last year and what they know now.  I look at my own son who learned to read.  I think about the information he has shared with me about all sorts of topics.  So how do we keep them on a roll during this break and still let them enjoy the break?
Here are some things I've suggested to parents of my students in the past:

1.  Read! - Most libraries have a summer reading program for kids.  The formats are usually quite similar. The kids pick a goal of how many books they think they will read throughout the summer.  As they work towards their goal there are check in points and little prizes along the way.  The libraries also have free programs running for all age groups that range from crafts to science experiments to story times.  Check out what your library is offering this summer.  (hint - to keep your own child interested make their goal realistic and choose books that meet their interests and reading level)

2. Keep a Summer Journal - What better way to preserve childhood summer memories than to write down the important stuff.  This could be a simple notebook that your child writes in a few times a week, or, it could become a more elaborate scrapbook where they add pictures and keepsakes.

3.  Explore your city together - Just wait for it, 2 weeks into their break inevitably you will hear the words, "I'm bored!" come out of your child's mouth.  Of course they are (even with the 101 toys and games that are in the house).  They are longing for something new and interesting.  So find something to do.  You could hit up: beaches, lakes, parks, farms, picnic areas, city streets, museums, ethnic food stores, zoos, hiking trails...
You could try your hand at:  kite flying, soccer, fishing, canoeing, berry picking, orienteering, cooking, rock climbing...
There is always something to do.  Find a city guide, a tourist map and see what's going on where you live.

4.  Don't over program your kids!  - Sure they need things to do, but they also need a break.  They have worked hard this past year.  Put them in a day camp, or summer soccer sure.  But don't put them into day camp, summer soccer, t-ball, dance club, summer drama and swimming lessons.  It's too much.  Let them be kids.  Let them play and know the joy of an endless summer day riding their bikes and eating orange juice pops.

5.  That being said...if your child's teacher has recommended a summer learning program for your child, put them into it.  They usually say so for good reason, especially if your child has started to 'click' when it comes to a particular area of learning.  They don't want the summer to undo what's been done.

Most of all, have fun together.  If you can, take some time off to be with your kids.  You don't have to have a big, elaborate vacation (although that's fun too).  Kids really do enjoy family time (as much as it hurts your 13 year old to admit it) and they will remember it fondly later.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Speaking of Summer Arriving . . .

Skip to my Lou is hosting a great month long "Craft Camp". All month she is featuring a different blogger who has an easy craft or project that you can do with your kids during the summer. Its only June 9th and there's already been some fantastic things. I love these simple kites and the glue batiking is a brilliant idea.

Just thought I'd pass on a good thing.

Routine Matters

This past spring I woke up to the realization that my kids were acting up more and more because they were bored.  Sure they have plenty of toys to play with and DVDs to watch, but that isn't what makes them happy.  Leave them alone playing for long enough and they will start fighting (sound familiar?)  So when were my kids the happiest?  When they were doing something meaningful with one of us.   I fell into the trap that thinking by being in the same room as them we were spending time together, but that's not true.  If I'm on the computer and one of my kids is playing cars and another is drawing we are being near each other, not being with each other.
I started to think about what I knew about child development, what I knew about my own children's needs and personalities and what I had originally imagined my ideal time of what raising my kids would look like.  It didn't match what we were living.  Time to re-focus.
It sounds silly but I started to plan.  I started to make a schedule.  I knew that I couldn't just wait for things to happen, I had to make them happen.  Here's what our week structure started to look like in the afternoons:
Monday - craft
Tuesday - baking, swimming lessons
Wednesday - community play group
Thursday - craft
Friday - community play group, movie night
Saturday - family outing
Sunday - church, family lunch outing
Writing down an outline simply wasn't enough.  I brainstormed craft ideas (inspired by an old Mr. Dress-up book).  I thought about recipes the kids would enjoy.  I looked up placed that we could go.  None of it was particularly expensive.  Once you have basic craft materials (scissors, markers, paper, crayons, stickers, paint...) you can do a lot of things.  We hit up Michael's and found some deals too (a few little wood airplane sets for $1.50 each, small clay pots for painting, iron on patches and aprons to personalise...).  We bought a large paper roll at Ikea for $5.00 to make life size drawings.  I had the kids go through the Mr. Dress-up book and star what they wanted to do the most.  We dug out the collection of coloring books for the depths of the closet for afternoons to simply color.  And it worked.  They love spending time like this together.  We've baked muffins, cookies and cinnamon buns.  They look forward to what we are going to do each day.  Just this morning my oldest told me that he loved our family because we do things together.  A big change from the bored boy getting into trouble.  He really has brightened up a lot.
As the spring programs are starting to end, I'm looking towards our summer schedule.  Life will be much different.  Our oldest will be home full time.  We will be spending some time travelling.  The routine will change.  But now I really value the importance of having a routine, having a plan.  Does this mean all my weeks are the same?  Not at all.   Things come up, so we change it a little, vary it a little, but we have a plan.  We spend intentional time together, that's the important thing.  Since I now know, really know, how much my kids thrive on having a routine, I make sure to go over the week ahead with them so they know what's going on.  I'll let them know the plan for the day.  If we have places to go, errands to run, they balk less because they know the whole plan.
Does all this routine mean that there is no room for spontaneity?  Absolutely not!  Not every minute of the day is planned out.   We take impromptu detours along the way, but the schedule gives us a way to go.  And I have happier, more secure kids because of it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When You Should Shelter Your Kids

There are a lot of ways that I don't shelter my kids. I let them climb trees and play on the sidewalk in front of my house. I let them watch tv in the grocery store while I shop in the aisles nearby. I let them play with whomever happens to be at the park, and all the kids in the neighbourhood (so far). We let them play with hammers and nails and wood while my husband is mowing the lawn or working in the garage. But there is one thing we do shelter them from: the news.

A few months ago, my five year old son started refusing to go to the living room by himself. He would only play independently for a few moments before he called out, "Mom? Where are you mom?". He became very anxious about his brother and sister and their safety. I couldn't figure out where he had developed this fear: we live in a very safe town; its the kind of place where you know everyone and chat with them at the grocery store and post office. So I asked him where this had come from, and he said he was worried that all the bad things he was hearing on the news were going to happen to us. Yes, he was worried that an earthquake or tsunami was immanent. He wondered when a stabbing or shooting or abduction was going to happen to him.

I discovered that he was listening, more closely that I had realized, to the news on the radio. At five years old, he doesn't have the wisdom to know the statistical likelihood that something will happen to him. He doesn't understand that a war happening across the world can't hurt him. So we stopped listening to the news.

The other day, we went to a local cafe for brunch. They had a huge tv screen that was displaying the news. Usually it is showing pictures of Stephen Harper arguing with someone or something similar. But today, it was footage of the victims on board the ships that had been attacked on their way to Gaza. Wounded people being carried on stretchers off of ships. Open, bleeding wounds and sick people. My son, of course, asked, "What is that, Mom? What's wrong with that person? Why are they carrying them away like that? What happened to him?". I looked around and found that there was not a single table where you could not see the tv. So I got up, got some to-go containers, and we left.

I was frustrated that we couldn't finish our meal in the resteraunt. But it is my job to shelter my kids from scary images that might stick with them for an indefinite time. I felt silly, but at the same time I was happy to have saved me from the hassle of nightmares and anxiety in the future, and to have saved my kids from needless exposure to images they don't need to see.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Favorite Children's Books That You Haven't Yet Read

It's no secret that I'm a voracious reader (how's that for using a 50 cent word?).  Consequently, one thing I really look forward to with my kids is reading to them. We read together pretty much every day. And now my 5 year old reads to me too which is extremely exciting. I realised today that he would probably be ready for me to start reading some novels to him. I think I'm going to start with Stuart Little by E.B. White. It's a classic.

If you do a quick google search it's easy to find lists of classic, must read books for kids. There are many on those lists I can't wait for my kids to discover (Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte's Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Shiloh, James and the Giant Peach...) and on and on the list goes. But what about books that you read as a child, loved but aren't on these lists? Don't those deserve a spot in the must read pile too?
My favorite book when I was about 8 or 9 was a more obscure title, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Edwards (Andrews). It's a fantastic read, full of imagination.

This got me thinking. There has to be other great titles like this. Those that are very written, but not as well known. Most of us could probably write a top kids read list and come up with a lot of the same titles. But I challenge you now to share a title that isn't on a top 100 list, but deserves to be loved all the same.
My own kids have 2 most favorite books, one that you would find on such a list, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton

and the lesser known, The Rain Came Down by David Shannon.

These are the 2 stories that they want to hear again and again and much that my husband recorded himself reading The Rain Came Down onto his iphone so the kids could hear it anytime. Fantastic story that you probably haven't yet heard of.
So what are they? What treasures in books do you share with your kids? What ones are you looking forward to?

You can find a sample of a classic children's top read list at: Teacher's First 100 Best Books

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Water is a Good Thing

Ever since I was little, I have loved water. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours in the bathtub and at the swimming pool. As an adult, whenever things get tough, I still like to take a bath or wash dishes or (when I lived near some) go and sit by the water. There is a simple reason for this: water is soothing. It provides a simple transition from the everyday world into an altered, slower, lighter reality.

I have found that water is also a great parenting tool. Both my oldest and my youngest child can be easily overstimulated. They get overwhelmed when the world throws too much noise, change or business at them. I have found that one of the best ways for them to unwind is by taking a bath.

The last time my five year old had a giant meltdown, I finally gave up trying to put him in his room or yell at him (counterproductive, I know) or try to coax him out of it. Instead, I picked him up, carried him to the bathroom and started the tub water. I insisted that he take get himself in the bath, otherwise I would plunk him in it fully dressed. He dutifully got into the tub, still raging at the world. I found some sort of soak in the cupboard and told him, "This is magic powder. It will help you calm down and feel better." I sprinkled some of the soak into the bath, tossed some toys in for good measure, and left him (keeping an ear open, of course). Twenty minutes later, a new child emerged.

The same thing happened the other week with my 6 months old baby. We had gone to visit friends for a couple of days, without my husband. She was in a new environment, with two very attentive young girls that wanted to play with her all day long, and no daddy. She was getting increasingly fussy and clingy. So I put a little water in the bath, sat her down and poured water over her back while she played with the water. I didn't add any toys, since she was already too stimulated. 10 minutes later, I had a refocused child.

My middle son does not get so easily overstimulated. In fact, he tends to be a sensory seeker. In plain English that means that he loves to be in the middle of the mess and action and noise. If there is no mess, action and noise, he will gladly make all three for you. As a preschooler, one of the key ways to mellow him out, and keep my house intact, is to give him a few baths a day. He loves pouring the water and splashing in the bath. If its nice enough out, I turn on the hose in the back yard and let him get muddy. Yes, my back yard is a bit of a disaster. Yes, my white carpet has not thanked me for this (but then, if I could, I would rip up the carpet). But it does mean we are more likely to go all the way through a meal without milk and food being creatively mixed together with hair, clothes, the table and the floor. It also give us a small chance that the blankets might stay on the beds rather than having a little boy dragging them around the house and wrapping himself up in them, and that his little sister will spend the whole day without being covered in every pillow in the house.

I also use water to calm myself down. I have always enjoyed a hot bath when times were chaotic, but I often find that I no longer have time for an hour long bath. Instead, I have come up with a little shower meditation that I do (no, its not a freaky as it sounds, trust me). Its quite simple, and only takes a few minutes. Get in the shower and turn on the water (it is suggested that you remove your clothes first). As you wash your body and hair with soap, be mindful of the sensations around you and try to be in the moment. Try to feel the soap on your skin and imagine it is drawing out all the tension in your muscles. As the soap is washed down the drain, imagine your physical tension is disappearing with it. Take a few deep breaths now, and let the water run over your head (it is suggested that you don't lift your head, so as to prevent water in the nose -- this might break the mood). Focus on the sensation of the water washing over your body. Think of all the stress you have been through in the last few days. Now let the water wash the stress down the drain as well. If you are a visual / arsty type of person, imagine your stress is a colour, and let the colour drain away. Now turn the water a little bit cooler, just to the point where the water is refreshing. Imagine it is something restorative, and let the cool, restoring water soak into you. Again try to focus just on the physical sensation of the water for a moment. Now take one more deep breath, and you are done. Pray that no one is waiting outside the bathroom door with a cry of "He punched me!" or "I'm thirsty!" If they are, know that you are ready to take them on again. If only you can find a towel . . .

My Children Each Have Different Parents

No this isn't a confession fit for the likes of Jerry Springer. Technically, biologically and completely my children have the same parents.
Experience-wise, reaction-wise and wisdom-wise their parents are completely different, particularly my oldest and my youngest.
You see when we first brought E home from the hospital almost 6 years ago it was with the thought in the back of our minds of "oh my goodness, they actually let us bring him home, what are they thinking?" And the next 6 weeks proved that we had done some terrible drastic thing that completely changed our lives. We thought we were prepared, but nothing prepares you really for the reality of parent-hood. The only way to know what it is like is to go through it. Do you all remember the first 6 weeks of parenthood? I know, you all came through it, you just didn't think you would at the time. That was us. As the years have gone by our parenting with E has been that of firsts. As a result, his parents are cautious, somewhat hovering, always learning on the job.
Our current baby (number 3) has much more laid back parents. The first 6 weeks of being home were not a big deal. Getting a schedule together, not a problem. First time parents look at this mama and say, "What? You are out at a mall with a 5 year old, a 3 year old and a newborn, and you aren't falling apart? How do you do that?" They are in awe of this mamas capabilities.
The reality is is that I am indeed both parents all at once. As my oldest gets older we continue to deal with firsts, though not quite so nervously as when he was a newborn. We have learned a lot in parenting, we have a lot more confidence in parenting, but we still move forward with caution.
My 2nd child has more knowing parents, those who think, "oh, you are doing this now? I remember this with your brother..." and subsequently reacts with a much improved parenting reaction. You've learned on the job, been able to reflect and now have a better parenting tool in your belt.
My 3rd child has the most prepared, laid back parents of all. Her parents are those who now have parented once, learned, parented twice with improvement and are now going round three knowing exactly what to do (with practice). The only curve ball here is now we are parenting with a gender difference. So far, there's not much of a difference (we're still in infancy stage), but I'm sure it will change as the years go by.
What kind of parents do your kids each have?



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