Friday, January 30, 2009

How do you parent in a really big family?

The internet is abuzz with news of the California mother of six who just gave birth to octuplets.

My sciatic nerve twinged a little bit just writing that.

Now, the birth raises a lot of questions about selective termination, infertility treatment, and the medical and moral issues surrounding mega-pregnancies, and the newly reported information about the woman's marital status (single) and employment status (not) raises several more, but over at's Child Caring blog, I'm sticking to the parenting part of the equation and asking: How does one manage with 14 kids, the oldest of whom is just 7 years old?

Most large families grow slowly, one child at a time, or maybe a set of twins. Even in a blended family, it's rare to suddently need eight new carseats all at once. The average US family has two kids, according to US census data, but just a generation ago a family with four kids wasn't considered all that "big," writes Meagan Francis, author of "Table for Eight: Raising a Large Family in a Small-Family World" and editor of

"In 1976 – the year before I was born – an American woman had a 36 percent chance of giving birth to four or more children in her lifetime, and about 60 percent of women had families of three children or more," she writes. "But according to the latest census, the number of women who can expect to have three or more has been cut to 29 percent, while those with four or more children has dwindled to 10 percent. And as the number of mothers having more than a couple of kids has dwindled, so has understanding of families that don’t fit the two-kid mold."

When society seems geared toward families of four (total), parenting a large family presents some unique challenges.

"Space -- where will everybody sleep? Is there enough room at the dining-room table?" Francis, who is expecting her fifth child, says. "Time -- how do I give each child the attention he deserves? But I've found that space issues are easy enough to work around -- as it turns out, most kids don't "need" the huge play areas and solo bedrooms we've become accustomed to giving them, and in some ways, parenting lots of kids is easier than one or two."

It's easy to imagine the cons, but there are pros to having a large family, too. "Big families may often be noisy and chaotic, but siblings also provide each other with built-in companions, meaning children in a big family may play more cohesively and crave less entertainment from Mom and Dad," Francis points out. "Of course, big families also mean that siblings may get in more trouble, and then cover up for each other."

"Parents of many children usually quickly determine that, if they're going to maintain a big household, every family member has to chip in, except the infants," she says. "Having regular chores encourages kids to develop responsibility and feel like competent team members, something many contemporary children don't get to experience."

How big is your family, and what challenges do you face with the number of children you already have?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Super Superbowl (or anytime) party snacks

I’m clueless about most sports, but what I’m not clueless about is snacking, appetizers, and munchies. This is a good thing in my household. In lieu of a painfully awkward post about me and football, I thought I’d just share the recipes to a few of my favorite (easy, quick, foolproof) party foods:

1.) Anything wrapped in puff pastry. It’s amazing what you can do with a package of fancy sausage (we like chicken-apple), a jar of dijon mustard, and a package of ready-made puff pastry (from the freezer section). Oh, and an oven. Thaw and then roll out the dough, cut it into squares, place a slice of sausage and a dab of mustard in the middle of each square, fold it into a bundle, and bake until golden. This works well with cubes of mozarella and slices of pepperoni, too.

2.) Pulled pork or BBQ beef sandwiches. There are a gazillion ways to make pull pork, and I might try to reconcile with my crock pot by slow cooking a whole bunch of meat and sauce in it.

3.) Mini pizzas. You don’t have to get all fancy -- even regular pizza tastes better when bite sized. (If you do want to get all fancy, though, my favorite Tandoori Chicken Pizza is a good one to try.) You can set out a toppings bar and have everyone concoct their own, making it a meal and an activity all in one.

4.) Sliders. My husband loves making these for parties. Tiny burgers with a nub of bleu cheese in the middle, topped with caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms, on teensy potato rolls. Mmmmm.

5.) Veggies that aren’t crudites. How many kids will munch on a platter of raw veggies? Try marinading some zucchini, summer squash, peeled eggplant, red onion, and grape tomatoes in Italian dressing, stringing them on skewers, and grilling them (indoors, on a grill pan, given that it’s barely above freezing where I live)? Serve it with couscous to make it a meal.

6.) Hummus and pita. This recipe adapted from Cook’s Illustrated is my favorite, because it makes a dense, creamy dip without a hint of grainy grittiness that you usually have in hummus.

7.) Brownies. Pick your favorite recipe and make a lot of them. I like this one, from Mary at Owlhaven. She has 10 kids and is writing a cookbook; this is a woman who knows a good brownie when she sees one. (If your family is gluten free — half of mine is — Bob’s Red Mill makes a good mix.)

There’s also a wealth of ideas in the Busy Chef group at Work It, Mom! -- check them out!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Need ideas? 10 Valentine's Day crafts

Feeling crafty, but short on time? I've put together a slideshow of 10 easy and interesting Valentine's Day crafts for kids over at Work It, Mom! Take a look and be inspired -- many of the ideas would be great for grandparents, teachers, or parents, and are easily adapted into gifts for the holidays.

To be honest, I'm not so great at crafty things. But I've got a stash of tiny boxes in a junk drawer in my room, and I'm thinking of helping my preschooler turn them into Friendship Boxes for her friends.

Beanie Baby dolls of the President's kids? Bad call, Ty.

Ty -- the makers of all things Beanie Baby -- has come out with a couple of new collectibles: "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia."

I'm not kidding.

The Oak Brook, Illinois-based company says that the dolls are not meant to be a perfect likeness of the Presidents young daughters and insist that the newest editions to the Ty Girlz line aren't modeled on the Obamas. But come on... I don't buy it. And neither does First Lady Michelle Obama, whose spokesperson released a statement saying "We feel it is inappropriate to use young private citizens for marketing purposes."

I understand the desire to offer young girls a plaything that they can relate to, and there's no denying that much of the country is fascinated by Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. But this just smacks of opportunistic marketing, consumerism, exploitation, and greed to me. (The dolls, which retail for $9.99, are already going for as much as $175 on eBay -- no, I'm not going to link to the auction.)

Remember way back, during the campaign, when both Obama and McCain declared that the candidate's families would be off limits? Yeah, it didn't exactly work out that way, but that constant barrage of "happy family" imagery seems different from the stream of PR pitches for Sasha- and Malia-related products and ideas out there right now.

For some reason, I don't feel the same way about child actors and the avalanche of consumer goods with their images plastered on them. Miley Cyrus makes a living as Hannah Montana; the Jonas Brothers made a conscious decision early on to be in the public eye. Isn't there a difference between kids who are celebrities and kids who are the children of celebrities?

The comments are flying fast and furious over at's Child Caring blog; come join the discussion!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Confession: I'm not addicted to my crock pot

I may be the only working mom out there who doesn't have a crush on her crock pot. Maybe it's because I'm not a huge fan of salsa or cheese-enhanced dips; maybe it's because my family will only eat so many stewed things in a week.

Oh sure, it’s a fine mini appliance. It does its job well. We can probably be friends, but I’m not sure that my crock pot is, you know, “The One.” Obviously, the problem in this relationship is me, not it. It’s done nothing wrong, it functions perfectly well, it does what it’s designed to do.

It’s me. I don’t think I have enough patience for the crock pot. ... [More]

Do you have a favorite slow cooker recipe that might tempt me into taking another chance? Please share here or at The 36-Hour Day!

Parenting vs. Step Parenting

At, we're talking about parenting vs. step parenting and wondering if there's a difference when it comes to raising kids. Join in the discussion at the Child Caring blog -- step parents and adult step children, we're especially interested in your points of view!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Poingo: A mighty boredom buster

If you have an early reader in your entourage, the Poingo system is worth bringing along on your next trip -- especially if you don't want to haul around a dozen books but also don't want to read the same one or two outloud eleventy billion times. It's not silent, so you might not want to use it on the plane, but in the waiting area, at the hotel, or in the car? Perfect.

January 25, 2009

Gearing up
The Poingo is mightier

Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

My kids love to read, but it's not practical to bring a stack of books with us whenever we travel. Poingo gives early readers a bit of independence and a great interactive learning experience. The system is easy to use: When kids touch the Poingo pen to pages in a Poingo book, the pen's scanner "reads" hidden symbols in the text and pictures, and words, music, and sounds play through the pen's built-in speakers. The books feature characters from commercial hits like "Finding Nemo," "Cinderella," and "Cars"; you can download content for additional books. The starter pack, which includes two books, costs about $35 (additional books are about $10) at Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys R Us stores, and online at [More]

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Banana bread takes longer with a preschool-age sous chef

It may take twice as long to make, but it's at least twice as good. With a preschooler and a toddler in the house, we almost always have bananas in the fruit bowl -- which means we almost always have several of them frozen solid in the freezer. Which is perfect for making banana bread.

Several people have asked me for my recipe, so I thought I'd post it. I double this recipe to make three medium-size loaves plus a dozen mini-muffins (perfect for lunchboxes!). You can use a GFCF flour blend plus 2 teaspoons of Xantham gum, margarine, and soy or almond milk instead to make a gluten-free, casein-free version (plantain flour works especially well in this recipe).

Lylah's Banana Bread

4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed overripe bananas (about 3 large or 4 medium bananas)
1/3 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour (you can sub whole wheat for 1/2 a cup, if you like)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a loaf pan or muffin tin with non-stick spray.
  2. In a large bowl or using a stand mixer, cream together the butter, oil, and sugars.
  3. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well to incorporate.
  4. Add the mashed bananas, milk, and vanilla. Mix well.
  5. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add it all at once to the wet ingredients (if you're using a stand mixer, remove the bowl and mix the dry ingredients in by hand, otherwise your banana bread will be tough), and mix until just combined -- do not overmix!
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 to 55 minutes (15 for mini muffins, about 30 for regular-size muffins) or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Would you ask your mom to be your kids' Grannynanny?

With Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, moving in to the White House to help look after Sasha and Malia (at least temporarily), I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the idea of the Grannynanny.

A recent AARP study shows that multigenerational households are on the rise, up from 5 million in 2000 to 6.2 million last year, and having your parents help you take care of your kids is not a new idea; plenty of people move closer to their parents as the work-life juggle becomes more intense, and I definitely see the appeal — mostly. But living together for a long period of time? What do you do if your parenting style is vastly different from your mom’s or dad’s? Who is in charge of your kids… you or your parents?

There's more at The 36-Hour Day, but what I really want to know is this: Would you have your mom (or MIL) live in with you to be your Grannynanny? Why or why not?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How much TV do your little kids watch?

My littlest kids are usually doing other things while the TV is on -- playing with puzzles, rolling trains around on the table, wondering why the special "color wonder" markers don't turn the carpet purple. That doesn't make me feel much less guilty about having "Dora the Explorer" in the background so often, though, and it seems that plenty of other parents feel the same way. We're discussing little kids and TV (or no TV) at The Globe's Child Caring blog right now... how much TV does your preschooler (or younger) child watch each day?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Improve your education (for free!)

Today's "Do More with Less" post is about online education for adults and for kids, and I was amazed by the wealth of information that's out there.

If you're an adult looking to boost your expertise at work, review what you learned in high school (so I -- I mean you -- can help your teenager with her homework), research a new potential career, or if you're just constantly hungry for knowledge, the possibilities are pretty much endless on the internet, but I put together my top five sites for you to start your exploration. The entire list -- with details -- is over at The 36-Hour Day, but here's the cheat sheet:

1.) MIT Open Coursewear. This is quite possibly the biggest education jackpot on the internet — lecture notes, videos, and exams on nearly everything the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology has to offer, except for the actual diploma.

2.) Livemocha. This learning community offers free online lessons in 12 foreign languages — Spanish, French, German, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, Icelandic, Hindi, Italian, Portuguese and Korean — and you can practice with members who are native speakers.

3.) With practical offerings such as carpentry and medical billing, GED basics, and remedial courses on everything from algebra to computer fundamentals, is a great place to start studying.

4.) The Library of Congress: American Memory. No formal courses here, per se, but tons of information about, well, everything.

5.) Annenburg Media. This company provides content to many major distance-learning institutions, but you can watch videos on all sorts of subjects for free.

I also found this great piece from Wendy Boswell, pointing out some great individual courses at different colleges, and there are plenty of options for continuing your education that aren’t online as well. Check with your local museum for free-admission days, get a library card and set your own course of independent study, or look up your local community college or vocational school to see what extended learning opportunities are available.

Looking for something for to boost your kids' brains? Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, may schools are cutting back on science education, and some students can really benefit from a little extra experimentation at home. Here are five of my favorite educational sites for kids (again, you can learn more at The 36-Hour Day!):

1.) Exploratorium. More than 18,000 pages and hundreds of scientific subjects.

2.) Zula Patrol. The science and astronomy-focused program is geared towards kids from Pre-K to 2nd grade.

3.) PBSkids. Tying in to Public Broadcasting classics like “Sesame Street” and “Arthur” as well as newer educational programs like “Word Girl” and “Super Why.”

4.) Funbrain. Kids learn most easily when they’re playing, which is one reason why Funbrain is popular with parents and teachers alike.

5.) Enchanted Learning. Enchanted Learning offers easy-to-digest printables for preschoolers and kindergarteners, as well as plenty of craft ideas tucked in among the lessons.

My preschooler loves logging on to for their great games (she's also counting in Spanish now, no doubt thanks to "Dora the Explorer.") What educational sites do you visit? Are there any that your kids love? Please share in the comments here or at The 36-Hour Day!

How young is too young to stay home alone?

Inspired by Miss Britt over at Full Time, All the Time, I've asked the readers at's Child Caring blog at what age they think it's OK to leave kids home alone in this day and age:

My oldest kids are 15, 13, and 10 (girl, girl, boy), and the question "Why can't I just stay home?" has come up more than once. I don't have a problem with leaving our 15- or 13-year-olds home alone for a few hours... but our 10-year-old? Not yet. Maybe with one of his older sisters, but not by himself.

This is clearly a case of "Do as I say, not as I do" -- or used to do. I stayed home alone for brief periods of time -- so my mom could make a quick run to the grocery store or the post office, for instance -- when I was 10, and I was babysitting by the time I was 12. I kept an eye on my two younger brothers back then, too; it was the early '80s, and as long as we didn't turn on the stove or go in the deep end of the pool while we were home alone, it was OK. Times were different then, I guess.

My husband says he was staying home by himself for a few hours at a stretch by the time he was in the 4th grade; he and his younger brother were latch-key kids in New York in the '70s. "They had keys and called me as soon as they arrived home," my mother-in-law says. "They were responsible and I had certain rules that they had to follow."

The National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left home alone, some states have set their own legal minimums (Massachusetts has none). Of course, the child's personality and maturity level has to be taken into consideration, too. (My parents are still leery about letting my youngest brother stay at their place by himself, thanks to his party-hearty teenage years -- and he's married and in his 30s now!)

At what age would you think it's OK to leave you child home alone for a few hours during the day? What about at night? And how old were you when you started staying home by yourself?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Is technology good or bad for work-life balance?

My husband gave me a BlackBerry for Christmas, and I'm afraid I've fallen a bit in love (though I could -- and just might -- be wooed away by an iPhone, if the price is ever right).

The irony here is that I didn't think I needed that much connectivity until I actually had it. And, now that I have it, I'm loathe to give it up:

Now, I completely understand why they’re called “CrackBerrys.” And I still swear that I have absolutely, positively no need for that much connectivity. But being able to check my email while waiting in the parking lot? It’s … very convenient. And being able to text using a teensie tiny QWERTY keyboard? Much nicer than the beep-boop tapping on that flat Razr keypad. And being able to send a Tweet or update my Facebook status? Totally unnecessary — but very, very nice. ... [More]

So, does technology make it easier or harder for you to find work-life balance? And, while I'm asking... iPhone or BlackBerry?

Does your teen text too much?

Over at's Child Caring blog, we're talking about teenagers and text messages. A 13-year-old girl in California sent and received more than 14,500 text messages in a single month.

Yes, you read that correctly. Fourteen thousand, five hundred and twenty eight SMS messages. One kid. That's a lot of TTYLs.

Luckily for them, they had an unlimited text-messaging plan, but still, 14,528 text message seems a bit... excessive, to say the least. Even if that grand total includes incoming and outgoing messages.

A late-2008 Nielsen study of 50,000 US cell-phone users found that most people nowadays text more often than they talk.

"U.S. teens (ages 13 to 17) had the highest levels of text messaging in Q2 2008, sending and receiving an average of 1,742 text messages per month," the study showed. During that same time period, teens made or received an average of just 231 mobile phone calls.

Our 13-year-old definitely fits this bill -- she'd much prefer to text than talk. (though I don't think we've ever reached 1,742 texts in a month, let alone 14,000+). And I can see the appeal: Little siblings can't eavesdrop and then go screeching to tell Mommy or Daddy what you said, you can text under the desk at school (well, in theory) or from the couch while watching "American Idol," you can sit in the car while waiting for your siblings and have multiple miniature conversations with several friends nearly simultaneously.

Isolated incident? Apparently, not... after the 14,500+ story hit the news, a Florida father contacted the media to say that his teenage girl has had more than 35,000 in a month -- twice. Her highest tally was in June, when she racked up 35,463 texts (that's about 1,182 a day).

Like many parents, I'm wondering 1.) How on earth can anyone DO that? and 2.) How can we curb our own thumb-tapping teens before our bills get anywhere near that level?

Does your teen text a lot? How does it affect kids and their abilities to interact with real people in real life (that is, in person, and without using LOL, TTYL, or OMG).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stork Craft recalls 500,000+ cribs for faulty support brackets

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Stork Craft today announced a voluntary recall of about 535,000 cribs. Parents are urged to discontinue use of the cribs immediately.

The metal support brackets that support the crib mattress and the mattress board can crack and break, causing the mattress to collapse and creating a gap that can trap babies and cause them to suffocate. Ten incidents have been reported so far, with one injury and no deaths, the CPSC reports.

These cribs are everywhere -- they were made and distributed from May 2000 and November 2008, cost $100 to $400, and came in several different styles and finishes. They were sold at stores like J.C. Penney, Kmart, and Walmart stores and at,,, and from May 2000 through January 2009.

Parents are advised to stop using the recalled cribs imediately and to contact Stork Craft (866-361-3321; to order free replacement mattress support brackets.

The cribs come in several different styles and colors; here's a sample photo of the crib and the faulty brackets (click to enlarge):

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Now posting at The Boston Globe's "Child Caring" blog!

My newest gig just went live -- I'll be guest posting for a while at The Boston Globe's newly resurrected "Child Caring" blog.

Right now, we're talking about whether the flu vaccine is overrated.

I knew I was in trouble the instant my 2-year-old rubbed his face and then laid his damp little hand on my cheek. No symptoms yet, but the sign was clear: Cold and flu season was in full swing.

A few days later, he was streaming from the nose and I was wishing I'd bought stock in Purell. A few days after that, he was fine but a couple of our other kids were coughing and I'd been felled by a fever so high even I had to call in to work (and, if you know me, you know that I rarely call in sick).

The flu shot is recommended for people with compromised immune systems, including the very old, the very young, and their caregivers, but no one in my family falls into those categories, so when my company's medical department offered the flu shot, but I didn't get it. On purpose. Neither did my husband, nor any of our five kids. Call me crazy, but I'm with the Mayo Clinic on this one: I believe that a good, soapy hand-washing can do a lot to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. I'll take it over the flu vaccine.

Aside from the whole Thimerosal issue (the flu vaccine is one of the few that still uses the mercury-laced preservative, but a nasal-spray version of the vaccine does not), the main reason I avoid the flu vaccine is that it doesn't work for about 85 percent of people who exhibit flu-like symptoms.

Why not? Two reasons.

For one thing, researchers divide influenza into two types, influenza A or B, and "all other forms of influenza." Both kinds produce exactly the same symptoms -- headache, fever, muscle aches, cough, and runny nose -- but the vaccine only works on some versions of influenza A or B, not on the "all other forms."

For another, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the formulation of the vaccine changes every year, kind of a luck-of-the-draw attempt to come up with a vaccine that will be effective against the widest range of A and B strains out there -- and this year, early research out of Canada, the United States, and Britain shows that the vaccine was mismatched. Which means that the strain of flu that the vaccine was designed to protect us against isn't the strain that's making most people sick.

Besides, if I did happen to fall among the lucky few who encounter a form of the flu that the vaccine can prevent, it takes as long as two weeks for your body to start producing antibodies once you've gotten the shot. Which means that you can end up with a sore arm AND a raging case of the flu. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what happened to me the first and only time I got a flu shot, years and years ago.

Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take my chances with my kids and their school and daycare bugs. What I have right now may be the flu -- in which case, I've got some awesome antibodies in development. And if it's not, well, I'll just brace myself for the rest of the season.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments! And if you have a parenting topic you'd like to see addressed over there, please e-mail me -- I'm always open to ideas!

Monday, January 12, 2009

An interview with Michelle Nicholasen, author, filmmaker, and mother of five

With five kids under the age of 7 (including 5-year-old triplets), it's probably safe to say that Michelle Nicholasen qualifies for a.) sainthood and b.) the title of "experienced parent." An award-winning filmmaker for shows like Nova and Frontline, she's also the author of I Break for Meltdowns: How to Handle the Most Exasperating Behavior of Your 2- to 5-Year-Old, in which she and longtime educator Barbara O'Neal share their wisdom on what to do in the most cringe-worthy parenting situations -- and how to cope when the traditional advice doesn't work. (Read more on her blog and on the book's discussions page.)

Leaving filmmaking for full-time motherhood was a choice Nicholasen, 42, didn't have to think long or hard about. "With five kids under the age of 5, I didn’t have time to deliberate about going back to work or not," she says. "I never wanted to stop working, but our situation was akin to a crisis, so I had to do it." She and her husband, Jim, live in Somerville, Massachusetts, with their children Annamira (7), Josie (5), Bevin (5), Lucy (5), and Cian (4).

We sat down at our respective computers for a Q&A about her new book, dealing with public tantrums, and why the phrase "use your words" is overrated.

Tell us a bit about your pre-book career path.
I had a very exciting, dynamic job making documentaries for public television. The last national show I produced had me scaling the side of a cliff, 10 weeks pregnant, at a beautiful archeological site of early modern humans in coastal Turkey. But you take your work home, believe me, 7 days a week. So that doesn’t fit well with raising so many kids.

What led you to write I Brake for Meltdowns?

First, I turned 40. I had been out of the job market for four years and I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t get a new start. So I drew on what I had been living and breathing: I wanted answers to all the questions I had about raising kids. Given all the absurd and impossible situations I found myself in, I wanted to know the best thing I could do in certain predicaments. So I started writing down all the challenging scenes in my home as a way to distancing myself from the intensity.

The other motivation was my frustration with parenting books that give you nice advice but never tell you what to do if it doesn’t work. What if your child keeps stomping out of the time-out area? What if your child sticks his tongue out at you and runs away when you are trying to talk about something serious? Then I met Barbara O’Neal, the Educational Director of Arlington Children’s Center (a job she has had for 30 years). Now, here’s a woman who knows how to say just the right thing to kids at the right time, and she’s seen it all. She is kind and loves to help parents. I knew I had to have a hotline to Barbara, so I pulled her into the book project.

What was your own worst kid-meltdown experience?

Three years ago we stopped at a Mexican restaurant in Connecticut on our way back from a long car trip from Virginia. After being cooped up in a minivan for six hours, my kids came unhinged. One of my daughters took an ornament off the Christmas tree and smashed it. Another one got annoyed with her food and crawled under the table and wouldn’t come out. My oldest daughter, who I think was 5 at the time, got into an argument with her grandfather and defiantly poured her drink on to the middle of the floor. I will never go back there.

Is there anything to the old idea of boys being "harder" or more prone to meltdowns, tantrums, and limit-testing than girls?

I hear just the same folklore about girls being harder. I don’t think boys are harder, but they do, on the whole, have more testosterone-induced energy that needs to be accommodated. They need to be given opportunities to run, and tear around and roughhouse -- preferably outside. Of course girls need some of this, too. As for testing limits, I have four girls, and there is really no little boy I know who can surpass their ability to dig in their heels.

What is your best all-purpose advice for dealing with a public meltdown?

Find the humor in it, quietly, silently to yourself. Imagine a grown-up acting like your child, and you will soon have to stifle a smile.

Seriously though, we have to expect that our little ones will meltdown from time to time, in any possible setting. Assuming you’ve done your best to prepare our child for the trip, take the pressure off yourself -- this tantrum is not necessarily a reflection of your parenting skills. Do you know what is, though? How you react to it. Parents can make tantrums much worse by yelling at their child to stop, or by threatening them. The behavior just gets worse. Best to scoop up your tyke and take her to a place where she can calm down without being disruptive to others. Is it a drag for the parent? Oh, yes, and tiring, too. But wait out the storm and it will pass.

Is dealing with a meltdown in public any different from dealing with one in private?

As parents, we are much more self-conscious about being judged when our child is misbehaving in public. The things that go through our minds are: Am I raising my child to be a wild animal? Have I not taught him enough manners? My child is acting like a little brat; what am I doing wrong? In our book we include some great tantrum-prevention strategies. But even when you do your best, sometimes a collapse will still happen.

What advice would you give to a parent who is dealing with a particularly exasperating youngster?

Find someone you trust and admire, a very experienced parent or early-childhood teacher, and seek advice from them. Ask them how they would handle a particular situation. Ultimately, you may have to take a new approach to interacting with your child. Like letting him have the last word and just saying, “Uh, hum” instead of arguing. If you can’t find a confidant, there’s nothing wrong with meeting with a family counselor or child therapist. It can be so valuable for an outside person to get a perspective on the two personalities a play -- yours and your child’s.

The final thing I would advise a parent to do is get out of the house on a regular basis to do something alone or with friends. Build in regular outlets like this at least once per week. When we can clear our heads, we come back to our children in a better frame of mind.

Are there any popular parenting myths you'd like to debunk?

I am appalled at the popularity of cookbooks that instruct you to hide vegetables in your kids’ foods. It is a bad trend for several reasons. First, it encourages mothers to work harder in the kitchen when they could be playing games, reading or doing something else more valuable with their kids after school. Second, it plays right into the age-old insecurity we moms have about getting our kids to eat right. (I’ll feel better about myself if I can get healthy foods into my kid.) As if we can control what our kids eat! What’s so hard about serving some chopped fresh vegetables and some meat, protein or pasta? They’ll eat what they need. We’ve got a whole arsenal of whole foods out there, why turn our kids into little foodies?

In your intro, you say that the phrase "use your words" is more trouble than it's worth. Why?

When parents overuse any phrase, it starts to lose meaning and at worst becomes like a reflex or tic. Kids will stop paying attention to it, or even get angry when they hear it. Most likely your child is in a situation where she is too upset to talk. Recognize she has to calm down for a few seconds before you give her any orders. And mix it up. “Go ahead and tell him how you feel.” “Are you feeling angry right now?” “Please don’t hit; tell him what you’re thinking.”

Are there any battles that are absolutely worth fighting with your kids? Any worth ignoring?

A big problem for parents it letting go of status or decorum -- for example, the importance of matching tights, a symmetrical hairdo, harsh words between peers, bossiness in your own child, picky eating. We feel we must correct everything or else our child will grow up uncivilized. But kids learn so much from their social interactions with peers, even if many of the interactions don’t seem fair or balanced to us. Don’t forget -- they learn a lot from being allowed to make mistakes. That’s invaluable. Be in control, but not controlling, is what my co-author Barbara O’Neal likes to say. Let stuff play out among kids, and be there to re-direct when things start to get too hurtful or dangerous.

What’s non-negotiable (95 percent of the time)? Getting to bed at the same time each night. Getting to school on time most days. Bathing, teeth brushing, taking medicine. Treating each other respectfully.

How can moms who work outside of the home make the most of your methods?

The entire book applies to both working and non-working parents. It’s hard to do, but working parents need to be consistent about the boundaries mentioned above, even if it means less down-time after work. They must have a stable work schedule so that their child always knows when he will see his parents each day. Parents should schedule some alone-time with their child every weekend (if it can’t be done on week days). And make it pure: no distractions, and no errands.

How do you talk to kids about money when times are tough?

My husband and I both work in print journalism, a field that's not exactly thriving right now. We're facing some tough financial decisions in the next few weeks, and have been racking our brains to figure out how to talk to our kids about money in a way that won't make them feel fearful or insecure.

But how do you talk about money to kids who range in age from “Oooh, something shiny! Can I eat it?” to “But all of my friends have new 8GB iPods” to “What car will I be driving when I get my license next year”?

Throw into the mix the fact that we’re a blended family, and have no idea or control over how money is handled in our biggest kids’ other household, and the discussion can be quite a minefield. Over at The 36-Hour Day, I discuss what's working for us, so far. The details are there, but here are the basics:

1.) Be open and honest. Sharing household budget constraints can make it easier to save money and lets kids feel like they’re helping.

2.) Keep it brief. As a family, we need to be frugal, not insecure or fearful, in order to get through tough economic times. That means not harping on finances 24/7.

3.) Don’t over-explain. Jamie Woolf, author of Mom in Chief, suggests that parents should answer kids’ questions and respond to their concerns, but not delve into all the details. “For example, you may be worried about your college savings, but your ten year-old daughter is not likely to lose sleep over it,” she writes on her blog.

4.) Be consistent. Kids crave stability, and you’re not doing them any favors by deciding to splurge “just this once.” Also, teach your kids about money in general before you focus in on crisis issues.

5.) Show them how to budget. A few years ago, we started teaching them about budgeting by letting our kids each pick out a small bag of their favorite candy and then telling them it had to last a week; now, we set our 13- and 15-year-old girls loose in H&M with a $25 gift card and they make it last for armloads of bargains.

6.) Be willing to compromise. A little. If you budget $25 for jeans and your teenager wants a much more expensive pair, tell her that you’re willing to pay for part of it. According to Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller, authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with a Purpose, saying so “curbs feelings of entitlement and allows children to take ownership for achieving their desires.”

7.) Remember that, as a parent, your job is to set limits. “You’re not depriving your children” points out Dr. Michelle New at, “you’re teaching them important lessons about delaying gratification, earning treats and rewards, and about family finances.”

How are you talking to your kids about money right now?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Frugal family fun at Plaster Fun Time

My brother once took our three oldest kids to paint pottery in downtown Boston years ago, and they had a blast -- but it took me weeks to face traffic and pick up the finished pieces. Working with plaster is much easier and faster, not to mention a lot less expensive. Which makes it a perfect family splurge during these leaner times.

I wrote about a recent visit to Plaster Fun Time in a "Bring the Family" column for The Boston Globe last weekend:

January 10, 2009
Bring the Family

Good, Clean, Artistic Fun

WHO: Globe Magazine staff member Lylah M. Alphonse and four of her five
kids, ages 4 to 15
WHAT: Painting plaster figures on a rainy day
WHERE: Plaster Fun Time, 113 Drum Hill Road, Chelmsford; 978-452-2700; for other locations, go to

On a recent stormy afternoon, I left our 2-year-old at home with my husband and packed our other four kids into the car for a little artistic fun. Artistic fun that I didn't have to clean up myself which, as any parent knows, is the best kind.

Plaster Fun Time specializes in exactly this type of fun. "We pray for rain every day," president and cofounder Joe Selvaggi says. "It's good for our business." Walk-ins are welcome in all eight Boston-area locations, which are open seven days a week.

The cool thing about Plaster Fun Time is . . . well, there are several. The price is based on the size of the plaster figure your child chooses, and the smocks, work space, brushes, and unlimited paint are included. Unlike ceramics or clay, plaster is easy to work with - there's nothing to shape, the paint dries quickly, and the sprayed-on glossy finish means you can take your projects home right away instead of waiting for them to come out of the kiln. If you don't have time to paint things perfectly, you can bring your piece back and work on it later at no charge. Bonus: The staff snap a digital picture of each creation, so if your kids want to share their artwork with friends and family, you can direct them to the company's website, where they can find a photo online (just search by date and store location).

What my kids love: There are plenty of colors and no one "right" way to paint anything - witness my 10-year-old's entirely black Spiderman mask or my 4-year-old's mottled all-colors-mixed-together frog with silver sparkles - and there are hundreds of different plaster figures from which to choose. (According to Selvaggi, the most popular choices are a cupcake and an appealing little puppy, though older kids enjoy painting designs on large plaster letters to hang on their walls.)

What I love: It's inexpensive (prices start at $8.99), fun for everyone from my preschooler to my high-schooler, and I can sit there and listen while the kids, absorbed in painting, open up and talk about what's on their minds. Fun for everyone. [More]

Travel gear for tiny artists: Colorpals

I used to long for trangular crayons, so that they wouldn't roll off the tray table and under the seats when we traveled. I used to dream about finding a way to tether pencils to the car seat so that my toddler couldn't huck them at the windows. And then I found this: Colorpals. My kids take it everywhere, so I had to share the news in my latest "Gearing Up" column in The Boston Globe:

January 11, 2008
Gearing Up
Mind the lines

By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

Until they make crayons that don't roll, parents will be twisting their necks and straining their backs to recapture their children's stray Crayolas. Your body will thank you if you bring a Color Pals caterpillar along on your next trip. The cuddly creature has eight string legs with vinyl caps to hold crayons, making it great for on-the-go coloring. A stretchy loop keeps it on her wrist while your artist is at work.

We love Color Pals at home, too, because my toddler can't get the crayons out easily (though I can), and they don't roll off the table while he's working on his latest masterpiece. The caterpillars are $10.95 each or two for $16.95 at or by calling 407-509-0095. [More]

Friday, January 9, 2009

How to stock your pantry

So, how does buying all of those groceries and keeping them around save you money? Think long-term. For one thing, you will rarely, if ever, have to make a last-minute grocery run. For another, you can take advantage of sales and shop to replenish your pantry (buying in bulk and cooking from scratch costs less). And if you know you can put dinner on the table less than 30 minutes after you've gotten home from work, you may be less tempted to keep buying fast food on the way home.

My latest article is up at Work It, Mom!, and it's all about what you should keep in your pantry and why. Interested in revamping your grocery list? I've also written up a printable checklist of things to buy to stock your pantry perfectly.

What essentials do you have in your pantry?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Survey finds work-life balance a priority in 2009

According to results from a recent survey by the folks at FedEx Office, acheiving work-life balance is going to be a higher priority in 2009 than ever before. Not just for working mothers, mind you -- for everyone:

Now, that really should come as no surprise. As the conomy worsens and job-related stress gets taken to a higher level, the reasons why we work are being hrown into sharp relief. We’re worrying about keeping up with our bills, paying our mortgages, putting food on our tables. There’s a level of resentment to contend with, for some: If your job could be taken away from you at any moment, why pour energy into it at the expense of your family? And when you’re working to provide for your family, as most of us are, spending quality time with that family while you can becomes even more of a priority. ... [More]
Get the details over at The 36-Hour Day; I've run through and crunched some of the numbers for you. Is work-life balance more important to you now than it was before? Why or why not?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Keeping little kids occupied while you work from home

Now that the holidays are over and we've got our noses back to our respective grindstones, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer up a few suggestions for getting your work done while you have little kids underfoot. Because I can't possibly be the only working mom out there with sick kids right now, can I?
It’s a fact of life for most working moms: At some point or another, whether you work from home or out of the house, you’re going to be trying to get your work done with a little one at your side. Maybe your caregiver has the day off. Maybe it’s a school vacation day but you can’t afford to take one of yours to cover it. Maybe your child is sick. Maybe you’re snowed in. Whatever the reason, here are eight things you can do to help keep your little angel occupied while you make deadline: ... [More]

In a nutshell, you can:

1.) Set up a workstation for your child, near yours.
2.) Don't be afraid to use the TV.
3.) Don't expect to work in blissful silence.
4.) Take breaks to play.
5.) Set them up for storytime.
6.) Give them an assignment of their own.
7.) Organize a marathon.
8.) Have them create their own board game.

Want the details? Read the rest at The 36-Hour Day, and be sure to check out the comments -- readers are offering up their own tricks and tips, and we'd love to see yours as well!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Save $100 a month (relatively) painlessly

If your New Year's Resolution is to save money in 2009, I've got just the post for you: Over at Alpha Mom, I offer up five ways to put $100 back in your pocket each month.

You can read the details at Alpha Mom's Guide to Everything, but here are the bullet points:

1.) Learn to love leftovers for lunch.
2.) Make your own coffee.
3.) Ditch the juiceboxes.
4.) Double the recipe (and stash the extras in the freezer).
5.) Stop buying all of those cleaning products.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Resolve to do what you want, not what you think you should

Happy New Year! I usually write my New Year's Resolutions around my birthday, but with everyone talking about losing weight and getting in shape and being more productive, I couldn't help but think about them now. Specifically, about how I still haven't done the ones I set for myself 6 months ago. And I realised that, instead of setting new goals to meet, I had just written out a to-do list of things I thought I ought to get done.

There was this commercial or catch phrase I remember from the ’80s, when I was in high school and alternately inspired or bewildered by everything I was learning about life. It was something like this: You always have boundaries. Set them yourself, and they’re principles. Allow others to set them, and they’re restrictions.

The same idea, I think, can be applied to our to-do lists or, given the date, our New Year Resolutions. If we’re setting our goals, then they’re things we want to do. If we’re listing our obligations, then they’re things we have to do.

Guess which is more likely to get done? ... [More]

Are your resolutions goals or just more items for your never-ending to-do list?