Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finding childcare that works for your family

It's a predicament that all working parents have to face at some point, whether your kids are tiny and you have to go back to work or your children are older and you're trying to figure out how to handle the hours after school: How do you manage child care?

Not every family can afford to have one parent stay at home, and it's rare that a blended family can get by on one income. In our case, our finances dictated that neither my husband nor I could put our careers on hold and still pay the mortgage. So, for years one of us worked nights, the other worked days, and we traded off with the kids in the middle.

It was tag-team parenting at its finest. And it was a stress fest. My husband and I rarely saw each other. The kids had plenty of time with each of us, but very little time with both of us together. To make matters more difficult, my husband and I only had one day off in common, and that day was filled with each of us trying to "get stuff done."

We had two more kids together and figured we'd manage with our wonky schedule for a few more years, until the littles were old enough for kindergarten, but in 2007 my husband got a job offer with daytime hours that was just too good to pass up. I had just returned from maternity leave and felt like I had already used up any good will I had banked at the office, along with all of my vacation and sick time. Our big kids were older (and much more independent) by then, but I couldn't take time off while we figured out childcare for our youngest two kids. What were we going to do?

Evaluating your childcare options can be difficult even when you have plenty of time to prepare. Can you afford to stay home for a few years? Should Mom stay home, or should Dad? What do you ask the directors of a daycare center? How about when you're interviewing a nanny? Can you share child care with someone in your neighborhood? Is a home-daycare situation the right fit for your child? Should you look for part-time or full-time care? (You can benefit from my research: Here are a few things I wish I'd known when I was looking.)

We combed through our finances and examined our options and ended up choosing a new branch of an established daycare and preschool that had opened up in our town.

Fast-forward nearly two years. The initial guilt I felt about having them in "someone else’s care" was eclipsed only by the shock of the first monthly tuition bill, and both feelings were replaced by relief and amazement when I saw how they were thriving. They're so active and social -- much more so than when I was home with them during maternity leave (that's another blog post). Is it easy to drop them off at care each day? Not always. But it was absolutely the right choice for our family.

What do you do about childcare? How did you decide what worked best for your family?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Too much connectivity? Not anymore

Around Christmas last year, when my husband gave me a Blackberry, I wondered whether connectivity helped or hindered work-life balance. I ended up giving it back during the 30-day trial period and getting an iPhone instead, thinking that the iPhone seemed a little less business-like, a little more fun, a little more likely to stack the odds in favor of life rather than work.

And then, last week, as I was writing a blog post on my iPhone while waiting in an airport parking lot, it hit me: Techonology may be the fulcrum upon which my work and my life are currently balanced.

Read the post at The 36-Hour Day, and tell me: Does technology help you make the most of your time? Or is it making it harder to spend time wisely?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Should schools be able to strip-search students?

The recent Supreme Court ruling, that in 2003 an Arizona school violated the rights of one of it's students by strip-searching her while looking for contraband over-the-counter medication, spurred some interesting discussions at Child Caring and at Yahoo's Shine, where I wrote about it for their Parenting section. Here's the lede:
Remember what it was like to be 13? Awkward. Gawky. Embarrassed by your changing body. Worried about social pressure, fitting in, and being bullied by mean girls." Now imagine being strip searched in front of adults who are practically strangers. At school. ... [More]

The school's policy prohibits the use, possession or sale of any drug on school grounds, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. A week before the search, a student became sick after taking pills from a classmate and said certain students were bringing drugs to school. Which makes their reaction toward Redding and the possiblity that she had smuggled in some Advil a bit easier to understand, if not accept.

I understand the need to protect students, to ensure their health and safety, to eliminate the possiblity of drug abuse. But where do you draw the line?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Do allowances really teach kids about money?

Does getting an allowance teach kids to manage money, or does it just condition them to expect a handout? Should you tie the allowance in to chores, or should chores be considered a non-negotiable family responsibility? We looked at the pros and cons of giving out an allowance over at Boston.com's Child Caring blog recently; here are some of the reactions:

Jayne: Allowances seem to be one of many my parenting pitfalls. For a year and a half, I faithfully gave my kids a $3/week allowance and in no time they accumulated more money than I had and were always talking about what they wanted to buy. Both of these made me uncomfortable. I stopped the allowance and haven't gone back. ...

DMa: Absolutely not. I will not pay my children to do things they should be doing anyway. It's called being part of a family...

Ricardo87: I never gave my daughter an allowance. She had chores such as laundry, helping with dishes(no dishwasher), dusting, vacuuming etc. When she needed money for something, I gave it to her...

BMS: We do give our kids a very modest allowance. If they want anything outside of birthday or Christmas gifts, they have to use their money...

Do you give your kids an allowance? Why or why not?

And how much should a 10-year-old get, anyway?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mean girls: How to help your daughter cope

Bullying is a perennial problem for kids of any age. We hear the word "bully" and tend to think of aggression, physical abuse, and hazing -- and we tend to think "boy." But girls can be bullies, too. They might not resort to fist fights after school, but the psychological warfare "mean girls" wage can have just as devastating an effect, leading to self esteem issues, anxiety, poor grades, drug use, depression, and eating disorders in young girls.

Over at the Silicon Valley Moms Blog, Joanna posted about attending a recent lecture by Rachel Simmons, the author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and Stand Up! What Every Parent Needs to Know About Cyber Bullying (which you can download for free here).

"I remember feeling bullied and left out, and those feelings have a lasting impact on me," Joanna writes in her post. "To this day I feel some hostility when the names of some of those girls come up in conversation."

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, a typical girl who bullies is well-liked by parents and teachers, does well academically, and may even actually be friends with her victim. Instead of physical violence, "she spreads rumors, gossips, excludes others, shares secrets, and teases girls about their hair, weight, intelligence, and athletic ability," a NCPC report on girls and bullying points out. She often persuades other girls to join in the bullying and, because she's usually well-liked by adults and generally popular with other kids, adults tend not to realize that another child is being victimized.

It's tempting to give the bully's parents a piece of your mind or to try to protect your child by reprimanding the bully yourself -- I know I certainly wanted to when one of our older kids was being bullied in school. Parents also tend to tell their kids that the bully is "just jealous," which may be true, but isn't very helpful.

So, what should you do if your daughter is dealing with a bully? I'm not an expert, so I turned to a few people who are.

Simmons suggests that you don't over-emphasize, over-dramatize, or internalize the problem, and don't ask your daughter what she did to provoke the incident.

Michelle New at kidshealth.org suggests teaching kids to avoid the bully, "stand tall and be brave," feel good about themselves, and "get a buddy and be a buddy."

Carly Young at Lifescript.com suggests finding a positive role model, not trying too hard to be part of a group that doesn't accept you, and finding an activity or goal that gives you a bigger sense of purpose.

Former teacher Erin Willer tells Inside the School: “We tend to socialize girls that it’s not OK to be overtly angry with people and we’re supposed to be nice and good girls – sweet and kind. And when we reinforce those behaviors, girls tend to act out their anger in ways that teachers and parents might not see.” She suggests that teachers ask targets: What can I do to help you? Do you want me to get involved? Do you want me to call your parents? How about I walk you down to the counselor’s office?

Have you or your child had to deal with a "mean girl" or with bullying in general? How did you handle the situation?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is your child ready for a sleepover?

Last week, on the Child Caring blog, I was chatting about sleepovers -- when kids are old enough to go to one, when they might want to host one, and whether parents are ever really ready at all.
My oldest kids are old pros when it comes to sleepovers, but my youngest kids (age 4 1/2 and 2 1/2) aren’t really ready yet. Which is kind of a relief, frankly, because I’m not sure I’m ready yet, either -- in terms of them sleeping somewhere else or having one (or more) of their friends sleeping over here.

But my 4 1/2-year-old is a social butterfly, and she's rapidly approaching the age of the slumber party -- if not with her little friends, then at least with her cousins and grandparents.

“I think they’re really important to kids, because it gives them just a taste of independence -- supervised independence,” Dana Loesch of Mamalogues says in a recent Momversation on kids and sleepovers. "They get just far enough from mom and dad... whether or not they’re in your house, they can stay up and eat junk food and watch video games, and they get to have their own guests and they kind of get to dictate their own time, and it’s really healthy for them to do that."

Ann Douglas, author of several books including The Mother of All Parenting Books: The Ultimate Guide to Raising a Happy, Healthy Child From Preschool Through the Preteens, tells WebMd that once you feel comfortable with the sleepover, give your child the skills he or she needs to feel secure. One of the most helpful things you can do is to make sure your child knows that it’s OK to call home and that, if she’s uncomfortable, you’re willing to come and get her.

There’s no fixed age when a child is ready for a sleepover. Kids mature at different rates, and what’s exciting to your daughter at 9-years old might terrify your son when he’s that same age. Their (and your) comfort level depends on everything from the length of time you’ve known the other family to how much sleep your child really needs at night.

At Gagazine, Jane Heiza writes: “When your child asks permission to attend his first sleepover party, the most important thing that you need to consider is his safety. Find out how many kids will be attending the party, and it may also be a good idea to get in touch with the host parents.... Go ahead and discuss things like safety issues and health concerns. While you cannot entirely judge their values and parenting approach after a short meeting, it can help settle your growing apprehension. Being parents themselves, they can definitely understand your actions.”

And don’t forget that there’s a simple way to give your child what she wants while keeping your mind at ease: Offer to host the sleepover yourself. Sure, you’ll probably get very little rest, but if you’re child is new to the whole sleepover routine, at least you’ll be able to keep an eye on things easily.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Teens, plastic surgery, and self-esteem

Most teenagers -- male and female -- wrestle with self-esteem and body-image issues. And parents will do almost anything to help their teens feel better about themselves. But is paying for elective plastic surgery taking things too far?

I'm not talking about reconstructive surgery, I'm talking about plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons: Rhinoplasty (nose jobs). Liposuction. Breast enhancement. Botox. You know -- procedures that are supposed to "improve" one's looks and, many people assume, bolster one's self esteem.

I tackled the issue a few weeks ago on Boston.com's Child Caring blog, but it's worth expanding on here:

In "Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem, a survey of more than 1,000 girls in the United States showed that 70 percent of girls ages 8 to 17 believed that they "are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members." The survey, which was sponsored by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund (part of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty and in partnership with the Girl Scouts of America), also found that 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem have eating disorders or engage in negative or risky behaviors like self mutilation, smoking, bullying, or drinking (in comparison, only 25 percent of girls who felt they had good self-esteem engaged in those behaviors).

The number of cosmetic procedures performed on patients under the age of 18 has actually declined since 2001, but the most-recent (2008) stats from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons show that while the numbers for invasive procedures like breast augmentation and liposuction have dropped since 2007, minimally invasive procedures -- injections, laser skin resurfacing, chemical peels -- are on the rise. Part of the reason may be the cost: Single-site liposuction can run as much as $4,000, while a laser skin-resurfacing treatment averages about $400.

Dr. Yan Trokel, a cosmetic surgeon in New York and the founder of the Yan Center for Corrective and Cosmetic Surgery, tells me that his younger patients (under age 18) come to him for corrective, not cosmetic, surgeries (like rhinoplasties, orthognathic/jaw surgeries, and otoplasties/ear reshaping surgeries). "The procedures I perform on individuals under the age of 18 are those procedures that address anatomical imperfections," he says, adding that he will not perform rhinoplasties on patients younger than 16.

"I would be reluctant to perform a surgery for purely aesthetic reasons, such as liposuction, without first having counseled them on necessary lifestyle changes such as improved diet and exercise to achieve optimal, long-lasting results," he says.

His youngest patient, a 5-year-old, came in for an otoplasty, a procedure in which the ears are reshaped and redefined. That may seem terribly young, but it's in line with a current trend: The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery's 2008 Procedural Survey found that 27.7 percent of otoplastys are performed on patients age 13 to 19. (It's worth noting, though, that the AACS survey focused only on patients treated by AACS members, and the response rate for the survey was only about 16 % -- only 219 surgeons out of 1,398 participated. So it's impossible to tell whether there was a spike in the number of otoplasties because more kids are requesting them, or because the surgeons who participated in the survey are the main ones performing them.)

So, would a plastic surgeon recommend a procedure to boost his own child's self esteem? Dr. Trokel, who has a baby boy on the way, says yes. "I would permit my child to undergo plastic surgery to increase their self-esteem given that the cause of concern is of an anatomically flawed nature," he says.
But not all of the teens who want plastic surgery are good candidates for it. "A surgeon should properly assess physical/anatomical and psychological maturity of a potential patient and discuss possible risks and side-effects before proceeding with any form of treatment/procedure," Dr. Trokel warns.

The real parent trap: Moms vs. non-moms at the office

So long, Gender Gap. Hello, Motherhood Penalty.

An article in Business Week points to a study showing working mothers are offered an average of $11,000 less than non-mothers for the same jobs. But I think that the pay difference one of two big workplace inequalities faced by working mothers: Working moms often aren’t only struggling for equal pay, they’re struggling for equal respect as well. And that may be even more difficult to come by.

In “The Motherhood Penalty: Working Moms Face Pay Gap Vs. Childless Peers,” sociologists Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik used fake resumes to conduct two separate experiments. The first looked at how mothers (who were identified as such on the resumes) were evaluated by prospective employers. The second measured the chances that mothers would land an interview or be recommended for hire, compared to childless women, fathers, and childless men.

Women who identified themselves as mothers were consistently rated as less competent and less committed to their jobs than non-mothers, while men who identified as fathers were rated more positively than non-fathers. And the researchers found that the non-mother "candidates" were 2.1 times more likely to get called for an interview than the ones who said they had children. (Parenthood didn't affect male "candidates" at all, with fathers and non-fathers receiving about the same number of calls.)

There were a couple of things that made me pause when reading the study, and I go into detail about them at The 36-Hour Day at Workitmom.com, but the biggest thing was this: If you’re not applying for a job that requires experience with children, and unless you’re opting back in to the workforce and have a career gap that warrants an explanation, why mention your kids on your resume at all?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jon & Kate Plus 8: Cashing in on their kids?

Where do you draw the line between entertainment and exploitation? A thoughtful post at one of my favorite parenting blogs, Looky, Daddy!, and the most-recent controversey over so-called reality cable TV program Jon & Kate Plus 8 prompted me to pose the questions to my readers at Boston.com's Child Caring blog recently.

The problem I have with reality shows is that they're rarely realistic. But when the shows involve kids, I really have a problem.

The hub of family-focused reality TV is the cable channel TLC, formerly known as The Learning Channel. Some of their most popular shows offer a peek into the lives of large families like the Duggars (18 Kids and Counting), the Hayes (Table for 12), and, of course, the Gosselins of Jon & Kate Plus 8.

Jon and Kate have been in the media cross-hairs lately, as the more sordid aspects of their private lives became public. Once "news" of their respective affairs hit the tabloids, it seemed like every formerly off-camera moment in their lives became up for public debate. For example: Kate was recently photographed spanking one of her daughters, and thus yet another controversy was ignited.

But is trying to be a supermom in front of the camera while having a ton of help (and personal problems) off-stage really "reality"? And is watching the Gosselin family "fall apart before our eyes" offering us an important glimpse into another way of life, or is it just voyeurism? (For the record: Jon Gosselin tells People Magazine that he thinks his show doesn't exploit his children.)

Brian of Looky, Daddy! writes: "There is a fine line between chronicling the daily harm that comes both to and from children and exploiting it. Sometimes I wonder on which side of that line I am."

I'm not on reality TV, but I blog about parenting. I blog about juggling full-time work and parenthood. I blog about career and finance issues. And, in doing so, I write about my kids -- to an extent. I don't publish easy-to-identify photos. I might use something they did to illustrate a point, but they're never the point of the post themselves.

Do you blog (or, for that matter, post videos of your kids online)? Which side of the line do you think you're on -- and have you ever crossed it?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Male caregivers, yea or nay?

My youngest children's preschool just hired a male caregiver, and I couldn't be more pleased. Our last experience with a male caregiver, at my kids' previous school, was so positive that I was as sad as the children were to see him go.

Other parents don't feel the same way about a male professional taking care of their young children, as evidenced by a heated discussion on Parenting.com, which I wrote about on Boston.com's Child Caring blog.

In the Parenting.com discussion, the parent of a preschooler wonders about a new male teacher in the toddler "potty trainer" room. The school hired a male teacher for the 4- and 5-year-old classroom, which raised a few eyebrows, but this parent is particularly nervous about having a young man help her 2-year-old daughter in the bathroom. "I just don't understand why a young man would want to be a daycare teacher," the parent writes. "It makes me think they have an ulterior motive or something.
Here's the thing I really don't understand: Parents don't complain when female caregivers help potty train male children; they don't bat an eye when fathers change their daughters' diapers. How can we expect our husbands to be hands-on parents if we don’t trust professional, trained caregivers just because they happen to be male?

My now 4-1/2-year-old daughter had a male preschool teacher for a while when she was about 3, and I'll admit that, upon meeting him for the first time, I wondered why he was there. Would he be working directly with the kids, or in the background? Was he studying early childhood education? Were his certifications up to date? Did he just really like working with kids?

The answers were easy enough to get via a quick chat with the preschool director, and any trepidation I felt about him vanished when I saw the way the kids -- especially the little boys in the class -- related to and listened to him. He helped out in the toddler room as well, and the 1- and 2-year-olds followed him around like a flock of happy baby ducks. My kids adored him.

"I know i may exaggerate but i don't even trust my husband giving my daughter a bath! I know i may be wrong on not trusting him but thats the way i think!" one parent commented in the Parenting.com discussion, leading me to wonder if perhaps the issue is rooted in the parent and not the childcare provider. Others posted that they’d feel comfortable with a man providing certain aspects of care, but not others. "If a male teacher were employed in the next room, 4-5's, I think I would be okay with that. It's the whole potty training area I wouldn't be comfortable with. And the fact that my little toddler wouldn't be able to communicate she was touched improperly..." another parent added.

When it comes to hiring a caregiver for a daycare center, “gender shouldn’t be the consideration; overall qualifications are the key criteria that should be judged,” writes Robin McClure at About.com. And there are other issues to consider as well; Dr. Janet Rose Wojtalik, author of The 7 Secrets of Parenting Girls, points out that it can actually be a very positive thing for children, especially girls, to have a male caregiver. "The media and society place so much pressure on girls to conform to typical 'gender roles,' that being exposed at an early age to both men and women who challenge the typical stereotypes is a good thing," she writes.

The discussion going on in the comments section of my post at Child Caring are particularly interesting; check them out and jump in with your opinion. Would you be nervous about leaving your preschooler with a male caregiver? Why or why not?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hindsight is 20/20: What advice would you give your younger self?

I started working as a journalist when I was 16, when I landed my first paying job writing for the tiny, twice-weekly newspaper in my hometown. I didn’t really have a mentor, 20 years ago -- or even 15 years ago, when I started working at The Boston Globe, and in retrospect, I could have used one — as a young woman, as a woman of color, as a journalist, as a professional. I could have used a primer on office politics (who couldn’t?), some guidance on setting goals, a reminder that work-life balance is important even when the only think on the “life” side of the equation is yourself.

Which prompted me to ask, over at The 36-Hour Day: What career advice would I give to myself, 20 years ago?

Here are the top five things I would say, if I were mentoring my younger self:

1.) Travel more. Not just on vacation, though that's important, too. Travel for conferences, volunteer for off-site assignments, just get out of the building and see what else is out there.

2.) Network more. Hanging out with the music critics was fun but attending meetings for various journalistic associations would have been fun — and smart, too.

3.) Don’t work during your downtime. I rarely took all of the vacation time to which I was entitled. I should have. The office runs just fine when I’m not there.

4.) Set new goals constantly. They don’t have to be work-related, either.

5.) Don’t be so afraid of failure. Sure, there’s a price to pay for not doing things perfectly right off the bat. But it can be one of the best way to learn something, to push your boundaries, to set new goals.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Keeping ears in the clear

One of my sons had near-constant ear infections as a small child; these earplugs, which I wrote about for my "Gearing Up" column in the Boston Globe, would have been great, back then.

Gearing Up

First their suits, then their earplugs

By Lylah M. Alphonse

Beach season is here, and all that watery fun can leave children with a serious case of swimmer's ear, an infection of the skin covering the outer ear canal caused by water trapped in the ears during swimming or bathing. It's uncomfortable and painful, two things you don't want to deal with on vacation. ClearEars earplugs can help parents avoid the problem. Made of an FDA-approved polymer that absorbs water from the ears, ClearEars provide relief in 5 to 10 minutes. More travel-friendly than ear drops, a package of five pairs costs about $7 at CVS and other drugstores, and online at Cirrushealthcare.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kindling my social life -- with my daughter's

I've written about working moms and play dates before, but after a few more laps around the Mommy Dating Pool, I took another look at the mom-friend phenomenon in this week's "Parenting Traps" column in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. (Incidentally, it's nearly impossible to find a decent stock image of a moms socializing with kids who are not toddlers? What gives? I can't be the only one who's not yet ready to let my 4-year-old go on a playdate all by herself!)
June 14, 2009
Play date for moms
By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

I went on a date recently. Without my husband.

I was nervous. I didn't know what to wear. I was taking my 4-year-old to play with a friend from school, and while her friend's mom and I had connected briefly over the phone, we had never spent time together in person. As I drove to the play date, I worried: Our kids adore each other, but what if we moms don't hit it off? ... [More]
Read the rest at Boston.com/Magazine, and share your playdate experiences in the comments.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Father's Day gift ideas at Work It, Mom!

I've pulled together a great little slideshow with 10 Father's Day ideas the dads in your life will love. You can read up on all the details at Work It, Mom! -- it's organized based on the type of dad you're shopping for -- but here's a quick list of my picks:

1.) Plane Quiet Platinum noise-reducing headphones, $99.95 at ProTravelGear.com.
2.) A Rubik's cube personalized with six family photos, $29.95 at Personalization Mall.
3.) A subscription to Grassroots Motorsports Magazine, $19.95 at Grassroots Motorsports.
4.) Decadent handmade chocolates, $32 for a 20-piece box at Knipschildt.com.
5.) Battleship, Star Wars-style, $69.95 at Hammacher Schlemmer.
6.) The Beer Book, $16.50 at Amazon.com.
7.) A 12-pack from Dale & Thomas Popcorn, $49.95 at Dale & Thomas Popcorn.
8.) Wireless steering wheel for Xbox-360, $99 at Xbox.com.
9.) Kyocera ceramic knife sharpener, $16.95 at Ming.com.
10.) BBQ Sauce of the Month club, $59.85 to $215.40 at AmazingClubs.com.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Are you OK with your husband's work wife?

My husband has a work wife -- two of them, actually. Though we work at the same company, neither of his work wives are me. I'm fine with that, and I talk about why at The 36-Hour Day:

When it comes to work, we tend to operate independently — and his having a work wife makes that a lot easier in many ways. For instance: Right now, our company is going through what one might call “a rough time,” and my husband and I have been communicating like crazy with coworkers — and sometimes with each other — via Facebook. Which means that for late-night work-related discussions, he and I are often in the same room, on separate computers, posting nearly simultaneously, from separate accounts, on the same site. It’s funny to describe, but it doesn’t faze us — or anyone we work with — because we’re not really thought of as a unit in the office. ... [More]

What do you think about the work-spouse relationship? Have you had one that went wrong -- or that affected your real-life relationship at home?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Winning combination

It's far easier to remember a short word than it is a four-digit number -- especially when you already have umpteen passwords and access codes kicking around in your brain. Wordlock's letter-coded travel, bike, and padlocks are perfect for those who have a hard time keeping track of their codes, or for locks that only get occasional use (like the ones on your suitcases). I was pleased to be able to test a few, and wrote about them in my Gearing Up column in the Globe's Sunday Travel Section recently:

Gearing Up
May 31, 2009

Letter-Perfect Lock
By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

We have so many personal identification codes nowadays, it can be tough to remember the one that you use just for your luggage. And the last thing you want when you're on a long trip is to be faced with a locked bag and no way to get inside. Wordlock's TSA-approved travel locks let you customize them with easy-to-remember four-letter codes. They're about $11 each and come in four colors. You can find them at many Target, Ace Hardware, and Walgreens stores, by
phone at 800-381-5109, and online at

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Winner wines (for $15 or less)

I just put together a great little slideshow over at Work It, Mom!, with tasting notes for 10 great wines that each cost less than $15. There are five different whites and five different reds in the list, and when I say "different," I'm talking grapes, not just wineries. My current fave is the Trapiche Broquel Malbec, which tastes like a more robust Red Zinfandel.

The Winning Whites:

Solaire Chardonnay
Developed by famed winemaker Robert Mondavi, Solaire Chardonnay from Santa Lucia Highlands is crisp, with bright, clean flavors of citrus and pineapple; the eight months it spends aging in 100-percent French Oak is represented by a soft, smoky note.About $15; to find a retailer, visit Solaire.com.

Valentin Bianchi Elsa Torrontes
Food & Wine magazine calls the Torront├ęs “Argentina’s most interesting white grape”; this wine by Valentin Bianchi has soft melon flavors and citrus notes; it’s bottled without any oak, so the finish is bright and clean. It costs about $12.

McManis Family Vineyards Viognier
This California wine offers sweet honey, tropical fruit, and apricot scents, rich enough to take on sweet-and-spicy barbecue flavors. McManis Family Vineyards Viognier costs about $11.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling
Washington-state winemaker Charles Smith is known for his insanely delicious (and pricey) Syrahs, but this floral, pear-scented semi-dry Riesling is wonderful -- and, at about $12, much less expensive.

Voga Italia Pinot Grigio
This Pinot Grigio by Voga Italia is lush with ripe apple and pear aromas and a light, crisp finish. Plus, the bottle is really cool. About $13.

The Winning Reds:

McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Merlot
This lush Austrialian merlot has a hint of vanilla to balance out the mocha-cherry finish. It’s perfect for grilled beef and burgers, of course, but will also shine on pizza night (or just on its own). The McWilliam's Wine Estate has a winner on its hands, at about $9 a bottle.

Trapiche Broquel Malbec
Malbec is an Argentinian grape that recently came into it’s own. Often used in a blend with other grapes, the Malbec has an intense fruity flavor, a full body, and a smoky finish. Trapiche Broquel’s 2006 vintage is a bargain at about $14.

Ravenswood Vinter’s Blend Red Zinfandel
Full bodied, with deep berry flavors and a tart bite, this all-purpose Red Zinfandel by California powerhouse Ravenswood should be a staple in a frugal wine-lover’s cellar. It costs about $10, but taste like a more expensive wine.

Solaire Cabernet Sauvingnon
Robert Mondavi and his vinters offer yet another fabulous wine that’s both sophisticated and affordable. The Solaire Cabernet Sauvingnon is rich with dark, fruity notes – currant, blackberries, ripe plums – and promises to more-fully develop in flavor over six to eight years of cellaring. About $15; to find a retailer, visit Solaire.com.

Oxford Landing Shiraz
Chocolately, floral, and unexpectedly, wonderfully spicy, this South Australian Shiraz by Oxford Landing retails for about $11.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Getting kids to eat their vegetables -- without tricking them

I happen to have quirky kids who love vegetables, but most parents aren't so lucky. Getting kids to eat something green has been a struggle for so long that it's become a cliche that shows up even in kids cartoons, with broccoli portrayed as a bad guy to be subdued by vats of cheese sauce (really... see the Powerpuff Girls in "Beat Your Greens").

In an effort to avoid taking a healthy vegetable and dousing it with unhealthy fats, some parents have taken to grinding veggies down into colorful purees and blending them into everything from pasta sauces to cakes and cookies. But is subterfuge really the best way to instill healthy eating habits in our kids?

Tanya Steel, co-author of "Real Food for Healthy Kids," takes issue with the practice of sneaking vegetables into other, traditionally veggie-free foods -- like adding pureed spinach to brownie batter. "As a mother of twins and a food professional, I was appalled by this deceptive and sneaky idea," she writes at Epicurious.com. "Not only are we teaching our kids to 'eat your brownies, they're good for you' (in a country where a third of kids are obese or overweight and perhaps the first generation to not outlive their parents), but we are lying to our kids and signaling, either implicitly or explicitly, that vegetables, in particular, are so yucky, they have to be hidden."

At Boston.com's Child Caring blog, I've asked parents to comment with their favorite vegetable recipes, and I started the ball rolling by contributing my own favorite for cooking carrots. Here it is:
Honey-ginger carrots

Wash and peel the carrots, and then slice into thin disks.

In a medium-size pan, heat one teaspoon of butter with one teaspoon of
olive oil; add the carrots and stir to coat.

Drizzle with two teaspoons of honey or pure maple syrup, and sprinkle on
about 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger (or 1/2-teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger)
and a pinch or two of salt.

Add 1/4 cup of water, cover, and cook on low heat until the carrots are

How do you make sure your kids eat their vegetables?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Banishing summertime brain drain

There's been a lot of debate about whether parents overschedule their kids, and that might be the case when it comes to extra curricular activities but not, apprently, when you're talking about academics. A study by Dr. Harris Cooper, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that students lose one to three months worth of learning over a typical summer vacation. At Boston.com's Child Caring blog, I'm asking readers to weigh in: How can parents help minimize brain drain without ruining their kids' fun and relaxation?

Math is the biggest subject to take an academic hit during the summer months. Dr. Susan Canizares, senior vice president and publisher of educational publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, suggests having your child track his or her favorite sports team to keep his or her brain practicing math skills, critical thinking, and analytical skills. Teaching kids to cook can sharpen math skills as well (recipes are full of fractions), and planting and tending a summer garden is a hands-on science lesson waiting to happen.

It can't hurt to hone a kid's math skills in general, though. Here are my favorite websites that help kids keep their academics and interests sharp.

Exploratorium. The physical Exploratorium is housed inside San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts and was founded by Dr. Frank Oppenheimer; the web version sprawls over 18,000 pages and hundreds of scientific subjects. A kid could get (wonderfully) lost without every having to leave her desk.

Funbrain. Kids learn most easily when they’re playing, which is one reason why Funbrain is popular with parents and teachers alike. The teacher’s page directs you to practical things like flash cards and curriculum guides, but parents who are looking to give their children a more casual learning experience can head right on over to the free games section.

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. The picture dictionaries are especially cool for budding linguists.

The Kids Know It Network. This site allows kids to explore a number of subjects, from human biology to spelling to astronomy; there's also a database of free, downloadable songs in MP3 format to help kids reinforce what the kids are learning. The site's animal database is a great virtual trip to the zoo!

PBSkids. Tying in to Public Broadcasting classics like “Sesame Street” and “Arthur” as well as newer educational programs like “Word Girl” and “Super Why,” PBSkids.org offers games that are so much fun, little kids won’t even notice they’re learning.

Scholastic. There so much here that it's hard to know where to start. Scholastic has compiled an amazing teacher's resource that parents can also use for free, with subjects and lessons geared for everyone from pre-kindergarteners all the way through 12th graders. Browse by grade and subject, and be sure to check out the red-starred offerings.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Online videos and kids: Where do you draw the line?

For all the flak mommy bloggers get when they post about their kids, I have to think that it pales in comparison to “reality” shows like Jon and Kate Plus Eight. If having a film crew follow your family around all the time isn’t exploiting your children for money, I don’t know what is.
But what about your own videos, posted on YouTube, Vimeo, and the like? You intend those clips to be seen by far-flung family and friends, but what happens when a video of your kid goes viral?

Over at The 36-Hour Day, we're talking about how (and why) we choose to handle pictures and videos of our kids on line. Join the discussion!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Nurturing relationships between siblings

Siblings: One minute they're best of friends, the next minute they're complaining that someone is looking at them/breathing their air/in their way.

As anyone with more than one child knows, bickering and competition between siblings is pretty much a given, no matter how old they are. When you're parenting across a wide age range, or in a very large family, those squabbles can be a near-daily occurrence.

Mary Ostyn, who blogs about her home life at Owlhaven, is an author and a homeschooling mother of 10 children, age 21 to 3, six of whom are adopted from Korea and Ethiopia. Eight of them still live at home. In a recent post on Boston.com's Child Caring blog, I asked her how she manages the inevitable squabbles.

"I usually give consequences to both children who fight, since it always takes two to fight, and it is usually hard for me to sort out who is more to blame," she told me. "In a case where blame is obvious, I'll assign that child to complete a job for the hurt child, which is a big deterrent. I also remind myself that sibling relationships are a long-term project. Most of us don't really appreciate our siblings until we are grown." Proof positive, she says, is seen in the way her oldest daughters developed a whole new appreciation for their younger brothers after some time away at college. "That gives me hope for the future with the younger ones," she says.

Mary's book, A Sane Woman's Guide to Raising a Large Family, was released this spring. "Don't be too discouraged if it seems to take years for sibling relationships to grow," she advises.

In her book, she describes some of the tactics she uses to quell disagreements and nurture relationships between her children. "Some kids have a hard time admitting their own part in a disagreement," she points out. "With a child like that, it is often more productive to ask the child to forgive than to say sorry. Saying sorry is an extremely difficult thing to do in the heat of anger."

Another tried-and-true method: Urging kids to just back off. "Disengage. Step back," Mary advises. It's "a perfect response for anyone when they're realizing a loved one is starting to lose it."

Having your older kids help out with your younger ones from time to time can enhance their relationship -- or, at least, teach the big kids a valuable lesson. "They learn to be more nurturing, and the little kids learn from the example of the bigger ones," Mary points out. "I also joke that having kids at different stages and maturity levels means that there's never a time where everyone is mad at me at once!"
You can read my entire interview with Mary at Work It, Mom!, or see a short review of her new book, A Sane Woman's Guide to Raising a Large Family, right here at Write. Edit. Repeat.

Do more with less: Bringing your lunch to work

We're always looking for ways to save money; bringing your own lunch to the office can save you a bundle, even taking into consideration the fact that you'll be buying more groceries. You'll save even more if you learn to love leftovers.

Steak and Bleu salad: Fresh greens, cherry tomatoes, and thin slivers of leftover london broil, pot roast, or even shredded roast beef from the deli. Fill a small container with bleu cheese dressing and drizzle it over the salad just before you eat it. (Don’t have any small jars? A zip-top plastic bag can keep the dressing contained; to drizzle, snip of part of one corner with scissors and squeeze like a pastry bag.)

Chips and dip: Believe it or not, low-salt tortilla chips, a small bowl of refried beans, and a small bowl of guacamole can be a perfectly healthy (and filling) lunch. Make your own beans, or choose a premade version without lard to keep the fat content low.

Deconstructed sandwich: The thing I dislike about sandwiches that they always fall apart when I try to take a bite — usually spilling something ugly onto my shirt or jacket. Packing the components seperately can mitigate the mess, and it tastes as a good. My current favorite: smoked turkey, thinly sliced Granny Smith apple, cheddar cheese, and marble rye bread.

Bag o’ snacks. Sometime, I don’t even have time for lunch, but its easy to keep hunger at bay if I graze throughout the day. Apple slices, peanut butter, dried fruit, nuts, carrot sticks, celery sticks, whole-grain crackers, and some low-fat string
cheese fit the bill. Too much like what’s in your child’s lunchbox? Think “appetizers” instead of snacks, and pack frozen potstickers (Trader Joe’s has some good ones), breadsticks wrapped with ham, cubes of cheese, and slices of bell pepper with dressing as a dip.

Fried rice. Transform leftovers at home into fried rice and bring it to work. It’s easy: Leftover rice + slivers of leftover chicken or a quickly scrambled egg + the odds and ends of leftover veggies + soy sauce + sesame oil. Heat in a pan — or, if you’re really out of time, in the microwave at work.

Be sure to click over to The 36-Hour Day to read the comments; people are offering up some great ideas, many of which I'll definitely be trying out!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The 10 Laws of Working Motherhood

Last week at The 36-Hour Day, I listed my 10 Laws of Working Motherhood. They're kind of a combination of Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong, will), the Law of Averages (everything evens out in the end), and Newton’s Third Law of Motion (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) -- with a little something else that only working parents can really appreciate. To wit:

1.) If you have an early meeting, or if the children need to be at school early for a field trip or other event, someone will be up at least twice during the night — which means you will be, too.

2.) The toddler will sneeze mightily in your face the day before he comes down with a ferocious cold.

3.) Your kids’ school or daycare will shut down due to Swine Flu the week after your kids have been out sick with a cold. (Corollary: Your kids will not have the H1N1/Swine Flu virus.)

4.) You will spill coffee (hot or cold, doesn’t matter) on yourself if, and only if, you wear a freshly pressed white blouse to the office.

5.) If you are the working mom of an infant, you will discover a cascade of dried spit-up on the back of your jacket, but only after you’ve worn it for at least two hours (or to at least one meeting).

6.) Any electronic device that’s absolutely necessary to your sanity will be a.) missing or b.) out of batteries when you most need it.

7.) If you carry a purse, you will always have some sort of kid-type food in it, which you will discover when you are looking for something, like your ID. What you will not have in it is whatever you were actually looking for, like your ID.

8.) You will slave over an amazing meal that the kids won’t touch, and you will throw together a last-minute “gotta get them fed” meal that they devour.

9.) If you are a nursing mother who is pumping at the office, your pump will be loud — teeth-grittingly, terribly loud — no matter which kind you buy or what you do to muffle it.

10.) You will go to work more than once with a sticky, kid-applied kiss on your cheek — and you deliberately won’t wash it off.

Do you have a law to add to the list? Leave it in the comments!

Monday, June 1, 2009

How to use LinkedIn effectively

LinkedIn is a lot like a very detailed job board. Headhunters search it, looking for people with the right experience; colleagues can expand their networks and round out their contact lists with people in other fields. The most basic level is free to join, and offers everything you need to begin networking effectively. Here are 10 ways to use LinkedIn to boost your visibility and help your career:

1.) Use LinkedIn for professional networking only. No cutesy quotes or status updates here, and make sure you use an email address that sounds professional. Think of it this way: LinkedIn is to Facebook as your business card is to a scrap of paper with your name and phone number scrawled on it. Don't post anything you wouldn't want to be asked about -- or have held against you -- in an interview.

2.) Input all of your resume information. It's not like a paper resume, where you're encouraged to keep the information to a single page. Take the opportunity to detail as much as you can, and go as far back into the past as is relevant -- you're not limited to your most-current experiences. Keep the language professional, but feel free to add your awards, accolades, and additional skills -- this is your chance to shine.

3.) Add to your contacts. As you increase the number of people to whom you are connected, you also increase your visibility on the site, showing up at the top of search results and in the email notifications that go out to people in your network.

4.) Ask for recommendations. Recommendations are like those references you're supposed to provide upon request -- except that they've visible for all to see, all the time. You can customize your request, if you like, but the site also has a handy, automatic email that you can send out, which eliminates any awkwardness.

5.) If you have another professional blog, link to it. Think of it as a chance to show off your online portfolio. If you don't have a professional blog, link to examples of your work instead. Linking to your current company's website is fine, especially if it showcases some of your accomplishments. Linking to your family's online photo album is not.

6.) Direct people to your LinkedIn profile. Don't just use the default URL that came with your profile -- change it to something easily recognisable, like your name, and use it along with your signature at the bottom of emails.

7.) Take the time to look over your contacts' contacts. It becomes like Six Degrees of Separation -- If A is networked with B, and B is networked with C through G, then A also has access to information from C through G. Your access to each contact person is better if you ask them to network with you directly, though (you wouldn't want to send personal emails to people with whom you are not directly networked).

8.) Maintain your profile. Have you just completed a major project? Update your profile with the information, and include a link to the project, if possible. Mastered a new skill? Update your profile. Changed your email address or other contact information? Update your profile.

9.) Keep an eye on the home page. Once you've logged in, the home page can help you keep tabs on changes within your network, give you general information about who has checked out your profile, and give you ideas about new people to whom you should reach out.

10.) Check out your competition -- or potential employer. Use the reference check tool to see what others are saying, and the "search companies" function to find out more accurate information about where you work (or want to work). If you're on the interview circuit, be sure to look up the name of the person with whom you are interviewing.

For more tips, be sure to check out Guy Kawasaki's excellent post on the subject.