10 Book Reviews by a 10-Year-Old

This is a guest post by Nicholas Efran.  His book reviews are a lot more succinct than his mom’s! If you want to know more about the books, you can ask Nicholas in the comments.

key:⭐️=1 star  🌜=1half star  😥=so sad  😠=makes me so mad  👎=thumbs down  🆒=cool book  💯=100

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

This is the story of kids who won a writing contest and got to go to the pre-opening of the new library before it opened to the public. They played many games there, but they found out that the last game they were going to play was “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”. I don’t want to spoil too much of this book, as it is a good book, but I really recommend you read it—and there is a surprise at the end of the book!⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

Elephi, the Cat with the High IQ by Jean Stafford

Elephi is a cat who looks out his window one day and sees a little white car that a man is abandoning in the deep snow. He manages to get the little car into his owners’ apartment. He talks to this car—which I find a little strange, but things in stories can be personified. Eventually the car’s rightful owner comes back and everything is good.⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

Elizabeth Rew is a girl who discovers magic in a place you wouldn’t expect: The New York Circulating Material Repository, which is like a library of objects. She has adventures with her friends, and they discover who is working with bad or dark magic.⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander

We got this book at the library book sale, and since it was about a cat I thought I would like it—but I was almost 💯% wrong. 😠  The book is about a cat who can time-travel and has a strange white mark on his belly. Apparently the cat can talk to his owner, and the owner wasn’t surprised at all when the cat started talking, and apparently all cats can talk and time-travel. Instead of having nine lives, they can live nine lives in nine different time periods. The cat takes his owner places (I only got through two before I quit reading the book) and they have adventures, almost all of which involve getting kidnapped and taken away. Nothing seemed to be explained enough, and their adventures seemed quite repetitive.🌜👎

Redwall by Brian Jacques

This book involved a lot of fighting and things that I thought were just terribly sad, like a mouse and his family getting trapped and forced to do things and being threatened with death.😥  Apparently, when the mice found a fox that was on their side lying injured, they just took him inside their castle, and he could walk up their stairs with no difficulty, which seems strange because mice are a lot smaller than foxes.⭐️⭐️🌜👎

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

This was an extremely good book with many twists and turns in the plot. I really enjoyed reading it, although I think it was a little strange and hard to understand.  Mr. Westing chooses his heirs, and his will describes things they’re going to do as it’s being read. He gives them a puzzle to solve that leads them to the name of his murderer. There are many explosions, and overall I give this book⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

I really enjoyed this book. I remember my dad tried to read it to me when I was about 5, but I didn’t remember any of it, so I wanted to read it again. Claudia and her brother Jamie run away from home to live in the art museum in Manhattan, where they have adventures trying to figure out who made a statue called Angel.⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Miranda had a friend named Sal.  However, another boy punched Sal—apparently just to see what would happen.  Every day when Miranda walks home from school, she has to pass the laughing man, a homeless guy who seems kind of crazy.  It’s all explained in the end, but I don’t want to ruin it!  This is a very interesting book, as it involves time travel, and I give it⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

Ghost Cat by Helen Rushmore

Ghost Cat is a book about a girl named Glory who finds a cat she thinks is a ghost, although she doesn’t really believe in ghosts; however, the legend said there was a ghost who looked like the cat.   Overall, I think this was a very good book, and I think you should read it.  I would give it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

The Trolley Car Family by Eleanor Clymer

The Trolley Car Family by Eleanor Clymer is a book about a family who moves into the country in their family’s trolley car.  They had a lot of fun after finding out that they had neighbors who were very nice.  They grow a garden and have a small farm and have other cool adventures.  I liked this book, and overall I would give it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🆒

Visit the Quick Lit Linkup for more book reviews!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips on many topics!

Seder and Holy Week: Family Traditions, Old and New

Welcome to the April 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Family History

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, lore, and wisdom about family history. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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My children’s ethnic ancestry is five-eighths Yiddish: All of their father’s grandparents, and my maternal grandfather, were descendants of Eastern European Jews.  We aren’t Jewish–my ten-year-old son Nicholas and I are Episcopalians, we’re bringing baby Lydia to church with us, and my partner Daniel does not practice any organized religion–but Jewish/Yiddish customs are an important part of our family background.

seder plateDaniel’s grandfather, Herschel, is 99 years old and still hosts a Passover seder in his home.  I’d never been to a seder before I started living with Daniel.  Now it’s our annual connection to our Yiddish roots, and I missed it very much the few years we weren’t able to attend.  Daniel’s mother always comes to spend Passover with her father, and she makes the dinner.  Family friends, the Feldmans, come over for the seder and bring dessert.  We don’t make it as formal and reverent as we could, but we all respect the basic structure of the ritual and try to follow the traditions.

Nicholas was three months old at his first seder.  He sat calmly in my lap and even slept through part of it.  Of course he doesn’t remember it.  He was too young to sample any of the food.  But it was very special to all of us that he could participate in this family tradition with his great-grandfather.  (An extra bonus was that my brother happened to be in town that spring, so he got a chance to attend the seder, too, and to meet Daniel’s extended family.)  Herschel exclaimed many times how glad and amazed he was to be a great-grandfather.  Although he knew we wouldn’t be raising Nicholas as a Jew, still we were welcome at the seder table.

The Story of the OppressionOver the years, Nicholas understood more of the Passover story: Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and when they decided to leave, they had a bunch of adventures!  We are grateful to God for guiding them through all those difficulties so that we can be here today.  We remember our brave ancestors and celebrate the coming of spring with this ritual and these ceremonial foods.  He was three years old when he recognized that this story also is part of our Easter Vigil service at church and that we hear parts of it in church at other times of year.  At five years old, he noticed that the Gospels say the Last Supper was a Passover meal; celebrating Passover is totally appropriate for Christians as well as Jews.  His parents, grandmother, and great-grandfather all have enjoyed watching Nicholas grow old enough to read the Four Questions and to hunt for the Aphikomen–a matzoh wrapped in a napkin that is hidden somewhere in the house at one point in the seder for the child(ren) to find at a later point.

DayenuNone of us expected that Daniel and I would have another baby in our forties or that, if we did, Great-grandpa would be still alive to know her–but here they are!  Herschel and Lydia each took their first unsupported steps in the week before the seder (his were the first since an injury last summer) so they had something in common.  “Imagine knowing someone so much younger than me!” Herschel marveled.  He can remember when radio broadcasts began!  Each year we have together is a blessing.

Lydia was eleven months old at her first seder.  She sat in a high chair and was rowdier than I would have liked, but we got through it, and she loved the food!  She ate matzoh, hardboiled egg, date charoses (the apple kind is too crunchy, since she doesn’t have teeth yet), matzoh ball from the soup, gefilte fish, asparagus, and strawberries.  (The asparagus and strawberries aren’t traditional Jewish foods, but they’ve become traditional at this seder because they are springtime foods.)  We didn’t offer her any horseradish!

The Watch-Night of the EternalWe read the seder from The Union Haggadah, published in the 1920s and used by Herschel’s family ever since.  I love the illustrations and the feeling of reading from the same books that have been used for generations.  There are some parts that just give me chills.  Why is this night different from all other nights?  Each year, this night is similar to last year’s seder and many years before, but this night finds us all slightly different than we were or will be in any other year.

An Only KidWe Do This.  These are the traditions of our people.  We do not change them for the children.  The Haggadah includes many references to suffering, slavery, plagues, even a casual mention of “The Angel of Death”–which Daniel always says in a spooky voice.  When the leader reads, “Let us now say grace,” all the rest of us pipe up, “Grace!”  I think this was the first year Herschel didn’t chuckle about how silly he feels saying, “Lo! This is the bread of affliction…”  (That was probably because he bowed out of the role of leader this year, so Daniel’s mother was reading that part.)  There are dark parts and fun parts to the seder, and there are parts we always skip to save time, and it’s not a singing family so we just chant the parts that could be sung–and all of that is the same now as at the half-dozen seders when I was the youngest person present.  Nicholas squirmed a bit when he was one and two years old, and he spent some of the time playing under the table, but he was there through the whole thing.  We expect Lydia to do the same.  After all, they are part of the family.

The seder doesn’t make me want to start observing Judaism, but it makes me feel more connected to the Jewish part of my heritage–which is an even larger part of my children’s heritage.  My two great-grandparents whose lives overlapped with mine were the two Yiddish ones, but I never did any Jewish activity with them; now I feel a little closer to them because I know a little more of what was familiar to them.  I’m glad that my children get to participate in this family tradition.

***

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • They Come Through You — Aspen at Aspen Mama shares what her late-discovery adoption means to her and her family.
  • The Shape of Our Family: Musings on Genealogy — Donna at Eco-Mothering delves into her genealogy and family stories, observing how the threads of family reveal themselves in her daughter.
  • Hand family stories down to the next generation — Lauren at Hobo Mama asked her father to help her son learn to read — never expecting that Papa’s string of richly storytelling emails would bring a treasure trove of family history into their lives.
  • Saving Family Stories — Holly at Leaves of Lavender talks about why she thinks it’s important to preserve fun and interesting family stories for future generations.
  • Serenading Grandma — When Dionna at Code Name: Mama started playing violin in the fifth grade, her grandma and mother were the biggest part of her musical cheering section. Her grandma urged her to keep playing and reminded her that someday she’d be thankful for her talent. As was so often the case, her grandma was right.
  • Family legacy ambivalence — With a family history of depression and suicide, Jessica at Crunchy-Chewy Mama frets about her children’s emotional health.
  • Seder and Holy Week: Family Traditions, Old and New — As an Episcopalian whose children’s ancestry is five-eighths Jewish, Becca at The Earthling’s Handbook values the annual Passover seder that connects her and the kids to family traditions.
 Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday to see what’s working for other families!

Lemon Creamy Salmon photo tutorial!

Lent is about half over.  If you’re fasting from meat during Lent, and you normally eat a lot of meat, by now you’re probably getting kind of bored with fish sticks and macaroni-and-cheese.  Time to try something new!

I’ve posted this recipe before, explaining how this delicious complete meal can be adjusted to work with whatever greens and starch you have handy.  In this post, I’m making a specific version of it, helpfully illustrated with photos for all you visual learners.

Bonus Parenting Tip: If you have a child who is old enough to use a camera and is casting about restlessly saying, “I want somebody to dooo something with me!” on a Sunday evening just as you are about to start dinner, ask him to be your photographer for a cooking article!  It will keep him busy, and it will enable you to get photos of every step of the process without having to pause the food preparation to wash your hands so that you don’t get fish fat and onion juice all over the camera!  (That is the reason I don’t take photos of cookery more often.  Well, also it’s because taking the extra time to load photos into a post rarely seems worth it to me–not being a visual learner myself.)

All photos in this article were taken by Nicholas Efran, age 10.  Thanks for your help, Nicholas!ingredients

To make 4 servings of this particular version of Lemon Creamy Salmon with Tangy Greens, you will need:

  • 15 oz. canned wild Alaskan salmon, including liquid
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 4 cups fresh kale
  • 1/2 lb. whole-wheat rotini pasta
  • 2 tsp. instant vegetable broth mix (We get this in bulk at the food co-op.)
  • 3/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil (separately from above oil)
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

Read more…

A Day as Mama and Data Manager

Welcome to the March 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Day in the Life

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have given us a special glimpse into their everyday.

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There are three main things I do in my day-to-day life: mothering Lydia (10 months old) and Nicholas (10 years old), working 40 hours a week as the data manager of a social science research study, and writing this Handbook.  I write quite a bit about the first activity, and if you are reading this you’re obviously aware of the third.  But I’ve written very little about my job.  What is a “data manager of a social science research study,” anyway?

My job is to organize the HUGE PILES OF DATA collected by interviewing 1,517 men every 6 months for 4 years, then every year for 9 years, and 3 more times since then (whenever we got a grant to follow up).  Other people do the interviews; I just work with the data.  The study started when the guys were in elementary school.  They answered questions for about 2 hours each time, and in the early years their parents and teachers were interviewed, too.  Each person’s answer to each question is encoded as a number in a data file, which looks like a spreadsheet.  The row is the data on that participant, who is identified by a 5-digit number.  The column is the question, which is identified by a string of 8 letters and numbers.  There is a separate data file for each questionnaire, each time it was asked; each data file has a name, also 8 letters and numbers.  There are patterns to these 8-character strings, which I can “read” and remember very easily after 16 years working for the study.

In addition to organizing the data from the interviews, I make variables called “constructs”, each of which represents an idea that is measured by a bunch of different questions.  I write computer programs that do arithmetic and algebra with the “raw data” from the questions to create the constructs.  For example, the construct Parental Stress sums up the parent’s answers to these 14 questions; a parent with a score of 14 is exceptionally calm, while a parent with a score of 70 is a frazzled wreck.  My programs attach labels to the constructs and their values so we can keep track of what all the numeric values and 8-letter-and-number variable names mean.  (No, “frazzled wreck” is not the actual value label!  It’s “very high stress”.)

So, it’s my job to know what questions we asked, how the answers were coded, what constructs were made, and where everything is in thousands and thousands of data files.  I also spend a lot of time looking for things that don’t make sense, figuring out what’s wrong, and fixing it.  The higher-level statistical analysis is done by other people, as well as most of the writing of papers about our findings–but because I like to write and am a grammar zealot, they often ask me to proofread and sometimes let me write a section.

The main focus of the study is juvenile delinquency: which boys do it in the first place, which ones outgrow it rather than becoming adult criminals, and what factors make crime more or less likely.  We also have lots of data on mental health, substance use, parenting practices, and demographics.  Interesting stuff!  I love my job.  I’m surprised I managed to summarize it this briefly!  Okay, let’s get on with A Typical Day In My Life…. Read more of this post

What I Read Recently: Adult, Tween, Baby, and Architecture Books

I’ve only read two books to myself in the past month, but I’ve been reading to both of my kids, too, and looking at some floor-plan books, so here are two book reviews in each category.

Books I read to myself:

  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards begins during a snowstorm in 1964, when Norah and David’s child is about to be born.  They can’t get to the hospital, but luckily David is a doctor, and his nurse Caroline is able to meet them at the clinic and administer anesthetic that makes Norah semi-conscious during the birth (as was the style at the time).  Baby Paul is perfect, but he’s followed by a twin sister whom David immediately recognizes as having Down Syndrome.  He directs Caroline to take the baby girl to an institution, and then he tells Norah that their daughter died at birth.  He wants to spare his family the pain of raising a disabled child, but Norah is devastated by the loss, and it affects their family life forever.  Meanwhile, Caroline finds the institution unbearable and decides to move to another city and raise Phoebe (giving her the name Norah had said she would give her daughter) as her own child.  The plot then unfolds over 25 years.  This is my favorite kind of book, about people who seem very real getting into interesting situations and having feelings that make sense even if you, the reader, would react differently.  Almost every moment has a vivid clarity.  I also love the depiction of Pittsburgh, where Caroline raises Phoebe, because that’s where I live and I’m familiar with their neighborhood and the other places they go.  This book was just as good the second time around as when I first read it several years ago, but I’m glad I waited to reread it until my own daughter was safely born–stories of birth defects and complications are not ideal pregnancy reading!
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  Just when I think nothing new can be done with the structure of novels, something like this comes along!  Ursula is born in 1910 and dies without taking a breath.  Ursula is born in 1910 and drowns at the seashore when she’s five years old.  Ursula is born in 1910, has a terrible feeling of foreboding at the seashore when she’s five years old, and then at age eight ventures onto the icy roof, after her brother throws her doll out the attic window, and falls to her death.  Ursula is born in 1910 and at age eight hides her doll under the pillow, but then she catches the Spanish flu….  It’s like a time-travel story, except it’s always the same stretch of time; what matters is what she does with it and what else happens, the effects of the proverbial butterfly fluttering its wings.  WARNINGS: Some of Ursula’s lives are pretty grim, even graphically horrifying.  The nature of the story is going to force you to think about all the ways a little girl could die.  But if you can handle it, this is a fascinating book!  I especially like the points when the cumulative effects of Ursula’s multiple lives come almost to the surface of her consciousness–which in some of the timestreams gets her sent to a psychoanalyst who is hilariously clueless about how to talk to a child!

Read more…

How to Get Kids to Behave in Church

Welcome to the February 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Do It Yourself

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of
Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code
Name: Mama
. This month our participants are teaching us how to make
something useful or try something new.

***

By the time my first child was born, I’d been attending a small, liberal Episcopal church in my neighborhood for eight years.  Church is very meaningful to me, so I wanted to continue going, but how would I manage with a needy little baby who would become a wiggly toddler and then a child with his own ideas? Nicholas is ten years old now and has a baby sister, Lydia, and I’m able to manage both of them pretty well while still soaking up church myself.  I’ve learned a lot along the way!

I’m saying “church” but many of these tips would apply to other religions’ worship, and many of these strategies for church behavior also apply to any situation where we need to sit still and listen, like performances and meetings.  I’ve put them approximately in the order that you can start using them, beginning with things that work from birth–so if you have an older child and you’re just now trying to get back to church, skim along until you see something that seems feasible for your child now.  Read more…

Books I’ve Been Sharing with My 10-Year-Old

I wrote Great Chapter Books for Kids when Nicholas was four years old, thinking I’d add to it later or make it the first post in a series…and I keep meaning to get around to it…but meanwhile, I’m going to use the Quick Lit Linkup as motivation to write about what I’ve read to Nicholas, and recommended that he read, just in the past couple of months around his tenth birthday.  Some of these will eventually make the “great” list, while others might not.

Although I don’t spend as much time reading to Nicholas as I did when we commuted by public transit to his preschool, I still read to him for about half an hour at bedtime; we have been firm about keeping up that tradition even now that baby sister Lydia is on the scene!  My father continued to read bedtime stories until I was 14, and I think it’s a great way to experience books together.  Nicholas also gets to read a different book to himself in bed for a while after 8:30.

These are some of the books he’s heard or read since November:

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

This is one of the less-well-known Chronicles of Narnia, but I think it deserves more acclaim. Read more…

The Nutcracker: music for the imagination

Ah, December, the month when the days are getting shorter and shortest as we try to pack in shopping, parties, preparations for hospitality or travel, and tranquil spiritual contemplation along with all our usual activities!  It makes a kid who persistently wants attention all the more annoying.

The December my son Nicholas turned two, I found a great way to get him to use his imagination, work out some of his physical energy, and leave me alone just enough that I could wash the dishes!  It also boosts my holiday spirit and gives me a nice feeling of being a classy, educational sort of mom.

Most of us are familiar with The Nutcracker as a ballet, a theatrical event that we might attend annually or only when somebody we know is in it.  But it’s also a musical composition by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky that is beautiful and tells a story even when you have only the music.

We happen to live just blocks away from the incomparable Jerry’s Records, so I picked up The Nutcracker as a two-record set for $4.
Nutcracker album cover
Read more…

My 9-Year-Old Architect

I love drawing floor plans–even though I failed to become an architect–so I looked forward to illustrating my article about how we rearranged our home to make space for our new baby Lydia.  I thought this also would be a great opportunity to learn to use TouchDraw, a drafting app I’d bought for my iPad months ago but had barely gotten to play with.

Unfortunately, a mere 15 minutes of attempting to make those drawings taught me that TouchDraw sucks.  As best I can find, it can’t draw an arc–so how could I draw a door?  Its lines seem to be looking for every opportunity to jump just slightly away from being perpendicular when you lift your finger after drawing.  Its help files are laughably incomplete, set up by someone with good intentions of writing the help files someday.

Rather than spend time seeking a better drafting app, I decided to do the drawings by hand and then photograph them and post the photos.  Of course, I already have a hand-drawn scale drawing of every room in our house (doesn’t everyone?) that I made as soon as we bought the house so that we could use the scale model paper cutouts of all our furniture to decide how to arrange the rooms.  (We used it again to figure out this current arrangement.)  I would simply tape that drawing to the table, roll out some of the proper architect’s trace-paper that I still have, trace the room, draw in the furniture, and make handwritten notes around the perimeter as necessary to explain details.  I looked forward to doing this some night when Lydia went to sleep before I was totally exhausted and after I’d finished all my crucial chores.

Well, that didn’t happen any night last week!  When I got up on Saturday morning, I explained the situation to my nine-year-old son Nicholas and noted that I would need to spend a couple of hours during the day working on my drawings.

“But Mama,” he said, “What about Room Planner?” Read more…

5 Tips for Green Lunch Packing

It’s back-to-school season!  If your child brings a lunch to school, now is the time to think about how to pack that lunch.  If you bring your lunch to work, this is a great time of year to rethink what you’re packing, too.

Choosing the right lunch-packing habits can make a big difference in how much garbage you create.  Reducing waste often saves money, too. If you shift from eating out of plastic wrappers to eating out of washable containers made of glass, metal, or other safe materials, you’ll be taking in fewer harmful chemicals.  So it’s a win all around, not just for the environment!

Here are a few main ways my family makes our school and workplace lunches more environmentally friendly.  This is not a sponsored post.  All of the specific products mentioned here were chosen by my family and purchased at full price, and all opinions are our own.  These tips are written as if you, the reader, are the lunch eater, but they all apply to packing kids’ lunches, too!

1. Use what you have.

The greenest type of reusable item is one that you don’t buy new, because even the most ecologically-produced objects take resources and energy to make.  Here are some things I’ve repurposed for packing my lunch: Read more…

Centerpiece

Our nine-year-old Nicholas has been interested in home decorating since he was about four years old. I often get frustrated with his desire to set up things that are merely decorative, have no useful purpose, and just get in my way! I am even more irritated when he wants to buy things just for decorating. I like our home to look clean and pleasant, but I feel we have enough stuff around without cluttering up the place with decorations.

However, I have learned that sometimes decorations help to motivate the family–myself included–to keep a space cleaner and neater, so that we can appreciate the decorations instead of losing them in the clutter or letting them be obscured by dust. The dining table centerpiece is a good example.

Read more…

Recycling Used-Up Pens and Markers

This is a guest post by Nicholas Efran, nine-year-old son of ‘Becca and Daniel. He wrote this article for the June 2014 issue of the Colfax Communicator, his school‘s newsletter. (Mr. Sikorski is the principal.) We hope it inspires other kids to start recycling things that are getting thrown away in their schools!

Three third-graders started a recycling program for used-up markers, pens, and highlighters at Colfax. Nicholas Efran, Sadie Rothaus, and Emma Reints got enthusiastic support from Mr. Sikorski in setting up bins around the school, next to the staircase entrances. Anyone may bring their used-up pens, markers, and highlighters from home, as well as those used in school. Read more…

Vegetarianism and Animal Rights: Explaining to Children

Welcome to the June 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Animals

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and wisdom about kids and animals.

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When my cousin Samantha was three years old and I was in college, I was visiting her family and we were eating chicken for dinner when Samantha asked, “What is chicken made of?'”

Her mother took a deep breath and said, “Well, chicken is made of a chicken.

Samantha’s eyes widened. To make certain she really understood what her mom was saying, she asked, “Chicken, buk-buk?” making a pecking motion with her hand. Her mom confirmed that the meat on our plates was indeed parts of a chicken who once pecked and said buk-buk. Samantha didn’t freak out, but she was surprised and sad and didn’t eat any more chicken at that meal.

The idea that people can eat animals startles many children when they first hear about it. Some parents want to prevent children from knowing that meat is animal flesh until they’re much older, to prevent objections that might complicate family mealtimes. I don’t like the idea of hiding such a basic truth about food from the people to whom it’s served, so I’m glad I witnessed Samantha’s response to this fact a decade before I became a mother; it gave me plenty of time to think about how I would handle my children’s questions about meat-eating. Read more…

Saving Money on Sports Fan Gear

We aren’t sports fans in our family.  Exercise is good, but we’re not much interested in playing sports and even less interested in watching sports.

But we live in Pittsburgh, a city with three professional sports teams that are a major focus of the local culture.  We can’t help noticing when one of the teams is doing well: We see people wearing black and gold even more often than normal, all the city buses have some slogan like “Beat ’em Bucs!” flashing across their foreheads in between route announcements, and we know when a game has been won because we hear people hollering, “Woo!!” as they drive down the main street behind our house.  Sometimes even we feel caught up in rooting for the home team–after all, it’s in our best interest for our fellow citizens to be happy instead of dejected.

When our son Nicholas was four years old, the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl.  Attending preschool that fall and winter, he could not help noticing that all the other kids had Steelers shirts and the teachers were constantly talking about Steelers.  This was not the first time he’d asked for a Steelers shirt, or a Penguins shirt, or a Pirates shirt–these garments are popular even among the youngest children and typically are pretty sharp-looking compared to standard little kids’ clothes–but this was the point at which Daniel and I began to think it might really make sense to get him one.  We believe that resisting peer pressure is a valuable skill and have modeled questioning what “everybody” does, but we also remember the feeling of wanting to fit in with our classmates.  While we aren’t really into sports, we don’t think they’re a terrible evil to be avoided on principle.

The trouble is that official licensed sports team logo gear is expensive.  We didn’t want to pay $20 for a tiny shirt our kid would outgrow in a year!  But the cheap knock-off gear is not only less attractive and poorly made, it’s technically illegal.  Luckily, we learned two handy ways around this dilemma:

  1. When the team is winning successive rounds of championships, the merchandise commemorating the previous win will go on sale.  Nicholas didn’t mind at all that his first Steelers shirt said something about divisional champs.  We picked it up for $6 in the supermarket the week after the Steelers’ next victory.
  2. Kids outgrow their team shirts, and these tend to be sturdy garments that are re-sold in good condition.  There’s nothing illegal about this, as the team received the licensing fee at the first purchase.  We’ve picked up half a dozen Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates shirts for $2 or $3 at Goodwill or yard sales.

It works for me!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday and Thrifty Thursday for more money-saving ideas!

How to use long-frozen cookie dough

When my parents visited us the Christmas before last, my mother made her grandmother’s traditional animal cookies: a buttery dough that you roll out and cut with cookie cutters (they don’t have to be animal shapes, of course) and bake and frost.  The recipe makes a huge batch, so she divided it and froze two portions, and we made cookies from the rest.

My son Nicholas and I defrosted one blob of cookie dough last spring and baked cookies for church coffee hour.  But the other blob was still sitting in our freezer, 15 months later.  I was beginning to wonder if it was still good and how we might get around to baking some cookies, because I’m seven months pregnant and would like to be filling that freezer space with leftovers to eat postpartum, but I’m so tired so much of the time that rolling out cookies does not seem to be within my capabilities.

One evening last week, nine-year-old Nicholas ate a healthy dinner and then asked for a bowl of berries (we have a big bag of frozen organic mixed berries from Costco, which we’ve been defrosting in the microwave one serving at a time) with yogurt.  I had to tell him I had finished off the yogurt at breakfast.  He was upset.  Berries with milk would not be as good.  We did not have ice cream.  After a while he started asking for “a bready topping”.  No, NOT oatmeal!  Finally I thought of the cookie dough.

We removed the blob of dough from its plastic bag and put it on a plate in the microwave on “defrost” setting.  After 5 minutes the dough was workable.  We defrosted about 2 cups of berries, warming them just to the point where they weren’t stuck together or too icy to handle.  Nicholas formed the dough into 7 pancake-like circles and wrapped each one around a handful of berries.  We put the blobs in a baking pan, poked the tops with a fork, and baked at 350F until they were crusty on the outside, about 15 minutes.  They got larger and stuck together, but they were easy to separate with a spatula.

The result was a sort of dumpling that could be hand-held while eating.  They tasted great!  The cookie dough was sweet enough that the berries didn’t need additional sugar to taste like dessert.  The dough wasn’t stale or freezer-flavored at all.  (I’m impressed, given that our refrigerator+freezer malfunctioned for several months last year before we decided to replace it, so everything from the freezer got semi-thawed and refrozen at least once.)  A little bit of berry juice had leaked through the crust, but the dumplings weren’t soggy, probably because Nicholas ate the last layer of berries at the bottom of the bowl and most of the juice from thawing was down there.

Using the old cookie dough to make fruit dumplings worked for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more food-related articles!  Visit Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

Four Weeks of Mostly Meatless Dinners (February)

I’m not using the term “pesco-vegetarian” in the title like I have for many of my other multi-week meal plans because I think “meatless” is the more common word people are searching for in Lent.  My family eats no meat at home except occasional fish–which does not count as “meat” in many fasting plans, for some reason–so our menus are ideal for Lenten fasting or any time you want to avoid eating red meat and poultry.  Recently, I have been eating meat in restaurants a bit more often than usual because I’m seven months pregnant and have developed anemia, and the iron from turkey and beef is supposed to be the most absorbable…but in general, I still prefer a low-meat diet.

This menu features two new gadgets we got for Christmas: a slow cooker and a Vidalia Chop Wizard.  We’re finding both of them to be pretty useful.

Here’s what we ate for dinners in February.  Our weekday lunches are leftovers and occasional restaurant meals for the adults and a lunchbox meal (using leftovers where feasible) for third-grader Nicholas.  Weekend lunches tend to be leftovers, too; the ones that weren’t, or that made some notable use of the leftovers, are listed here.  I plan the menu, but my partner Daniel cooks our weeknight dinners so they’re ready when I get home from work, while I cook on the weekends and sometimes prepare ingredients during the week.

Week One:

  • Sunday:
    • Lunch: Pizza and salad left over from the previous night, when we had friends over for dinner.  They brought a “salad bar” (greens, shredded carrot, cherry tomatoes, avocado, and beets in separate containers) and we bought the pizza at Mineo’s.  I made Italian salad dressing–I don’t really have a recipe, but my method goes something like this: In a glass jar, put 2 parts olive oil and 1 part apple cider vinegar; sprinkle in plenty of sea salt, black pepper, dried minced onion, and granulated garlic and smaller amounts of dried red pepper flakes, nutritional yeast flakes, dried basil, dried oregano, and dried parsley; close jar tightly and shake it; taste it and adjust as needed; set jar inside a shallow dish to protect the tablecloth from oily drips.  This dressing can be stored at room temperature for a couple weeks.
    • Dinner: Lemon Creamy Salmon with Tangy Greens.  I used frozen kale for the greens and heated up leftover rice for my carbohydrate and leftover whole-wheat couscous for the guys.  Now we had a second jar of homemade salad dressing, a different flavor; I put them side by side in a small oval dish. Read more…

My kid doesn’t have to wear a coat.

I’m an easily chilled sort of person. I like to feel warm and cozy, and being cold upsets me. In any given weather conditions, I’m usually wearing at least as many garments as the average person, often more.

My son Nicholas seems to feel warm most of the time. He’s often quite calm and comfortable in very cold temperatures. He has a decent sense of modesty and won’t run around undressed in public–he doesn’t even like to go shirtless–but he’ll happily wear a light jacket or no jacket, bare feet or flip-flops, one layer of short-sleeved shirt, in conditions where I think that isn’t nearly enough.

I decided a long time ago not to fight about this. I do advise him when the weather has gotten colder since the last time he was outside, or when the forecast calls for a 20-degree drop during the day. I occasionally insist that he bring along appropriate garments in case he wants them later. But I don’t force him to wear a coat, or zip it up, or keep the hood on.

Nicholas started teaching me about this a few days after he was born. Everything I had read about baby care said that your baby should wear as many layers as you are wearing yourself, plus a hat. He was born in December, so on our first day home from the hospital, I was wearing a flannel shirt over a long-sleeved thermal top over a nursing bra, jeans over cotton leggings, and three pairs of socks. It was a bit confusing to extrapolate the equivalent from his wardrobe, but I swaddled him in a flannel blanket over a long-sleeved knit jumpsuit over a T-shirt and diaper, knitted booties over socks, plus a knitted hat.

His face seemed very pink. He was grouchy.

“I think he’s hot,” said his grandmother.

Read more…

GAME SHOW!! with math practice

My third-grade son and I came up with a game that was a lot of fun and valuable math practice and physical exercise for him, while being very easy for me and using only a few basic supplies that were easy to set up and clean up.  This is a perfect activity for families in which all available parents are still recovering from viral bronchitis (or similar debilitating illness) while one or more kids are fully recovered and going stir crazy, but it’s too cold to play outside.  It could easily be adapted for multiple players.

Materials:

  • large supply of fake money, such as from a Monopoly or Life board game.  If you don’t have this, you can keep the kid busy with a preliminary activity of making fake money!  You want at least 20 bills in each of several denominations.
  • stopwatch.
  • area of clean floor.  Have the child sweep the floor before playing.  If possible, use an area at the foot of a staircase or outside one end of a hallway, near a couch or bed where the parent can be comfortable.
  • two receptacles of some sort, which can hold a handful of fake money or a small trinket.  I grabbed some Christmas stockings that are still waiting to be put away.  (We got sick right after Christmas….)
  • a few small trinkets.  These do not have to be anything actually exciting–you’re just going to pretend they are.  Another option is to cut some photos of desirable items out of an advertising flyer.

Prerequisite: Child should have at least one experience of watching a typical television game show, such as “The Price Is Right”, to learn the appropriate ridiculously enthusiastic behavior and when to deploy it vs. when to listen carefully to the game show host’s instructions.

Set Up: Scatter the fake money in a big, festive pile on the clean floor.  If desired, decorate the staircase/hallway/approach to the pile with some of the money along the edges of the path and/or with whatever tinsel garlands or anything you happen to have lying around.

How to Play:

  • Contestant [child] runs down the stairs/hallway while game show host [parent] enthusiastically announces, “Come on doowwwwnn, Nicholas!!!”  Contestant bounces next to the money for a moment of imagined applause.
  • Host announces, “Your challenge is to pick up . . . exactly . . . ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED FORTY-SIX DOLLARS!!  Go!!” and starts the stopwatch.  (Choose a number you’ll easily remember, like the last 4 digits of a familiar phone number.  You don’t want any confusion over what the number was.  If this is difficult for you, use a phone book or other printed source of numbers, and check off each one after use.)
  • Contestant scrambles to pick up the correct amount of money as quickly as possible.
  • Host stops the stopwatch and announces the time: “He did that in just twenty-eight seconds!  But . . . is it the correct amount?”
  • Contestant shudders in suspense while host counts the money.
    • If amount is correct, host announces, “Congratulations!!  You are the winner of one thousand two hundred forty-six dollars!!  YAAAAYYY!!” and tosses the money over the contestant’s head while the contestant does a victory dance.
    • If amount is too large, host is very shocked: “One thousand two hundred sixty-six dollars?  How greedy!”  Contestant shrivels in shame and pays a penalty equivalent to the difference ($20 in this example) from his previous winnings.
    • If amount is too small, host is sympathetic: “Aww!  One thousand one hundred forty-six dollars!  You are not a winner.  Better luck next time.”  Money goes back to the pile while contestant walks away sighing.
  • Repeat over and over and over again for as long as contestant and host can stand it.  (Of course, each round uses a different amount of money.)
  • About every tenth win, host announces, “You’ve unlocked the Special Bonus!!!  Which of these hidden prizes will you choose?”  Host holds up the two receptacles in which she has hidden the prizes.  Contestant chooses.  Host reveals the prize, for instance a card depicting Mickey Mouse: “You’ve won . . . free admission to Disney World!!  YAAAAYYY!!”  Contestant hyperactively celebrates.  Host then reveals the other prize: “But look at what you could have won!  This fine bottle of hand lotion!”  (You might want to make one prize really exciting and the other something of a dud.)
  • If anybody needs to get a drink, go to the bathroom, etc., host announces, “We’ll be back after these messages!”  (Set up the next Special Bonus when child is out of the room.)

Because Nicholas was the only contestant, we weren’t keeping score; he was just enjoying the challenge.  He made only three mistakes in nearly two hours of play; usually, he was able to scoop up the correct amount, even though he completed every challenge in less than 40 seconds and some in as little as 7 seconds.  I’m impressed!

With multiple contestants, you could set aside the winnings–or add up a running total on a scoreboard so that you can return the money to the pile, as well as getting addition practice–and see who gets the most money.  You might incorporate the time in the scoring, too.  If contestants are at different ability levels, give the younger one simpler rather than smaller amounts of money, like $3,000 while the older one has to find $2,917.

This homemade game show worked for me!  Visit Mom’s Library for more activities to do with kids!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more low-cost do-it-yourself activities!

Help Save the Animals!

My eight-year-old Nicholas created this picture that he wants you to share everywhere and put in a place where you will see it often. He wants you to think, every time you see it, about what you can do to help animals of all kinds to be safe in this world we share.

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How can you help save the animals? Here are just a few ideas:

  • When you could choose instant garbage or wash a dish instead, think about animals whose trees were cut down to make paper plates, animals whose prairie burrows were destroyed to drill oil wells so people could make more plastic, animals whose air was ruined by smoke from factories. Every time you reuse something instead of choosing a throwaway thing, you are helping to slow down the process of turning animals’ habitats into garbage.
  • Buy things that are made near where you live, instead of things that travel from the other side of the world in big ships. Think of the animals who live in the ocean where the ships leak poisonous oil. Think of the whales who get lost or can’t find food because the noise of ships blocks their special singing.
  • Pick up trash outdoors. Never throw trash on the ground! Think of the animals who get hurt by trash that gets twisted around them, chokes them, or puts bad chemicals in their drinking water.
  • Walk, bike, or take public transit whenever you can. Think about the animals who drink water that runs off pavement with yucky car drips on it, the animals who breathe air filled with car exhaust, the animals who live in rubber trees that are cut down to make tires. Every time you leave the car at home makes those problems a little bit less.
  • Have a birthday party where everybody gives money to an organization that helps animals, instead of giving you a gift. Or sell your old stuff to make money that you donate–while also helping your stuff find new users so that they don’t have to buy newly-made stuff.
  • Eat less meat and other animal foods. When you do eat them, buy food from animals who lived healthy lives. Spend a moment thinking about the animal who died, or gave up its milk or eggs, so that you could eat.

Nicholas was inspired by a recent documentary which showed that leopards are living wild in the city of Nairobi because their habitats have been destroyed. I was just fascinated by the idea that the animal knocking over your garbage cans in the alley could be a leopard! But Nicholas got very sad and upset. He had trouble falling asleep that night because he was crying about the leopards who just need space to live and all the other animals who face this problem around the world. He sobbed, “What can I do, Mama? How can I help save the animals?”

I told him the things above. I reminded him that every little bit counts and that all the little bits add up. I encouraged him to think of the animals when he is tempted to make a harmful decision.

The next day, he decided he needed to do something to help other people remember to think of the animals. He drew the picture and asked me to make copies that he could hang on telephone poles. I reminded him that paper comes from trees and that posters on poles last only a few days and often become litter. But on the Internet, images and ideas can spread very quickly all around the world.

Please share this image everywhere! Please link to this article! Please help save the animals! You can share more ideas for helping animals in the comments.

My son’s taking action to help the animals works for me! Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more ideas to use resources wisely so more creatures can share them. Visit Mom’s Library for lots more educational ideas for kids.

Why my kid never believed in Santa Claus

He never believed in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, either.  There are three important reasons why Daniel and I decided, before Nicholas was born, that we were not going to pretend that any of these characters were real.

The first is that we didn’t like the idea of lying to our child.  We felt that claiming these characters were real, when we know they aren’t, would kind of make us feel bad.  Our child should be able to trust us.  Now that we’ve met the individual child we got, we know he’s a very analytical type who easily figures out what’s going on and demands full explanations of processes.  He was hard to confuse with things like Piaget’s famous conservation experiments even when he was a toddler.  The first time he ever saw a stage magician, he immediately started trying to figure out how to do those tricks.  If we’d presented the fables as truth, we’d have been interrogated with years of questions about exactly how those reindeer fly to every house in one night, where the bunny gets the eggs, etc., etc.

The second reason is that we wanted him to appreciate, from the very beginning, that holiday magic is something we all make for one another.  Christmas gifts aren’t brought by a guy in a sleigh to whom money is no object; we spend hours choosing or making gifts for our loved ones, thinking about what each person would like, as a way of expressing our love and respect for each other.  Easter isn’t about a magic bunny who brings us candy for no apparent reason; Easter is about Jesus and the springtime renewal of the world, and Grandma likes to send us some candy.  Losing a tooth is an exciting step toward maturity that is honored with a little treat, and there is a traditional routine for collecting this treat from your parents overnight using a special marsupial (Tooth Beary) crocheted by Grandma.

The third reason is that I wanted to teach my child my religion.  (Daniel does not belong to an organized religion, so the deal was that I could take Nicholas to church and teach him my faith until such time as he might tell me he didn’t believe it and didn’t want to go.  By age 3 he had decided he definitely wanted to be an Episcopalian, and he was baptized.)  If I told him Santa Claus was real, and he then found out otherwise, he would then logically doubt what I’d been telling him about God being real.  After all, the invisibility and super-powers of God are not all that different from what people attribute to Santa.  As I mentioned last week, Nicholas has shown no signs of doubting the existence of God but has remarked on the oddity of people believing in these other entities while not believing in God.

So, without Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, poor Nicholas has had a really dreary, cynical childhood, huh?  Read more…