Friday, July 31, 2009

Save money and still stay cool this summer

This week, I'm over at Yahoo's Shine, sharing my tips on keeping your house cool this summer without blowing a bundle. Here are my 10 tips:

Use a programmable thermostat to adjust the temperature automatically when you're not home. According to the folks at Energy Star, the average U.S. household spends about $1,100 heating and cooling costs. A properly set programmable thermostat can save about $180 a year. (Not sure how to set yours? Here are some guidelines.)

  1. Set the air conditioning to kick in at 80 degrees instead of 78 degrees (or even higher, if you can stand it). That tiny two-degree difference can shave 2 to 6 percent off of your electricity bill, depending on the size of your home and how long you keep the AC on.
  2. Seal off AC ducts in unused rooms so you don't spend money cooling them. Why keep the guest room at a comfy 80 degrees -- I mean 78 degrees -- if no one's there?
  3. Don't use the AC at all. Fans use less energy than air conditioning units; they keep you cool by moving the air around, though they don't actually change the temperature in the room. If you can't bear to live without air conditioning, consider using a fan at the same time so you'll feel comfortable even with the AC set at a higher temperature.
  4. Draw the curtains and blinds on your south, east, and west windows to keep sunlight from warming the rooms during the day. If you still want the light, but are worried about the heat, try applying heat-control window film to the glass -- it blocks UV rays and reflects back much of the heat.
  5. Wash clothes in cold water. If you're still worried about germs, use warm water for the wash and switch the rinse water to cold -- you'll save up to 4 percent on your energy bill, and your clothes will be just as clean. If you have the space and the time, try hanging your clothes up to dry instead of using the drier -- it'll lop another 5 percent or so off your bill.
  6. Cook outdoors on the grill (or opt for salads and don't cook at all) to keep the heat out of the kitchen. Can't cook outside? Cook in the microwave; it uses about 65 percent less energy than your stove. (Still not sure what to make? Here are a few easy summer recipes that won't leave your roasting in the kitchen.)
  7. Upgrade to more-efficient appliances. It costs more now, but you'll save money over time.
  8. Plant trees to shade your house (and your AC unit). According to researchers at Colorado State University, a tree in full leaf can block 70 to 90 percent of solar radiation. You can also plant trees and shrubs to create a wind-tunnel effect, channeling breezes into your house.
  9. Take a shower using a minty body wash (Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Liquid Soap is a classic) to make warm air feel like a cool breeze on your skin. OK, fine, you can't necessarily jump in the shower several times a day. Try holding an ice pack to the back of your neck; it lowers your body temperature by cooling the blood as it pumps through your carotid arteries.

How are you keeping cool this summer? Share your tips in the comments!

Lylah M. Alphonse writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and Work It, Mom!, and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Octomom: Stop spying on me (but watch my new reality show)

I'm discussing the latest in the Octomom saga this week over at Child Caring. Nadya Suleman, who in January gave birth to the world's longest-surviving set of octuplets, has agreed to have all 14 of her children star in a reality TV show.

According to the contracts with European production company Eyeworks, which are still waiting for a judge's approval, the deal will earn each child $250 a day for filming of the show over the course of three years. Filming is slated to start Sept. 1, though there's no word yet about which network will run it.

The kids, who are all younger than 8 years old, don't stand to make a bundle -- only about $250,000 all together. But they won't be working many days or long hours, either -- the first year of the show calls for just 36 days of shooting, with 21 and 14 days in the second and third years, according to the Associated Press story. Eyeworks is the company behind such gems as "Breaking Bonaduce" and "The Biggest Loser."

While I'm no fan of reality TV shows, especially ones involving kids, I kind of feel sorry for this woman. There's no point in debating whether she should or shouldn't have had the kids; they're here now, and need to be cared for. And Suleman just can't win: When she was using food stamps and state aid, she got slammed for relying on the taxpayers to take care of her kids. When, in February, she told Ann Curry on The Today Show that she would provide for her children "probably just with the student loans," there was a huge outcry. Now, she's providing fodder for reality TV, and there's speculation that maybe stardom is the real reason why she had so many kids to begin with (after all, she has said before that she was hoping for a multimillion-dollar TV deal).

But, on the other hand: She's already facing legal action over a video of her kids she allowed to be shot for a website. (That hearing started today.) Her own mom said in an interview that "The truth is Nadya's not capable of raising 14 children." And a few months ago, she fired the nurses who were providing her with free help and nanny training, claiming that the they were spying on her.

Now, with this new reality show, she'll be letting the whole world take a look. It's difficult to reserve judgement when she's the one who keeps putting herself -- and her kids -- in the public eye.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Can you to save "real" money with coupons?

A few months ago I chatted with Kathy Spencer, founder of How to Shop for Free, for an interview with Work It, Mom. I've got a profile of her coming out in the Globe next month; in the meantime, we chatted again about whether one can really save money by clipping coupons -- the answer is over at The 36-Hour Day. Even if you don't think the savings can be significant, it's worth clipping them anyway -- your savings can make an impact on someone else's life.

I started clipping coupons when I was a dirt-poor college student, having to decide whether to spend and extra 60 cents on a couple of packages of Ramen noodles or use that money for bus fare to get to work. (Sounds terribly dramatic, but it's true. It was Syracuse, N.Y., and it was worth going without dinner in order to avoid a three-mile walk home in the snow at night). Back then, the quarters I scraped together went a long way -- a couple of coupons could yield savings equal to the amount needed to wash a load of laundry -- and so the sorting and clipping was definitely worth my time.

I still clip coupons, but now it's more an exercise in frugality, as well as a challenge to see how little I can pay for the things I usually buy anyway. Every once in a while I hit a jackpot -- a buy-one-get-one free item for which I have coupons, for instance -- and I find myself wondering: What if I did this all the time? Can you really save that much money with coupons?

Kathy Spencer says yes. And she can help teach you how.

The Boxford, Massachusetts mom spends less than $10 a week to feed her family of six -- plus several pets. "The trick is stockpiling," she told me, via email. "Look at the expiration and figure out how much you think you will need between that time frame and stock up!"

There are other tricks, of course. Kathy is the founder of the online couponing community How to Shop for Free, and she knows them all.

"Once you establish a stockpile, you can go weeks without stepping into a grocery store," she points out. Joining a community like hers can make a difference, too. "We all work together so the sales get posted and you can see what will work out free and not even have to look at the sale paper if you are lazy that week. We also post some sales a week in advance, which gives time to get coupons for them."

Wait a minute... "get coupons?" How?

Turns out you don't have to wait for the Sunday paper -- or buy several of them -- to get multiple coupons. You can buy them on eBay... just do a search for the product you're looking for. "You can buy coupons for your daily Dunkin Donuts or your favorite brand of makeup, or order 20 coupons for free cat chow and only pay a couple of bucks and get hundreds in savings," Kathy says.

Don't really need to save money by clipping coupons? Lucky you. But consider... you could buy items for next to nothing, and donate them to people who really do need help. Members at How to Shop for Free have donated surplus stockpiles to food pantries, neighbors, churches, family, and friends. "We just get too much for free and have to give it away! It has been amazing how many people have been helped just through coupons," Kathy says. "It just seems to snowball! The more people I helped, the more they help, and it goes on and on. No one should have to go hungry or have to choose heat versus food. My children love to donate and especially love the Staples penny sales, where they can buy a bag full of stuff for under a quarter and donate it to the local Community Giving Tree, where it goes to help less fortunate children have school supplies."

That last idea put coupon clipping in a whole new light for me. I'm going to take a closer look at the circular when my Sunday paper comes this weekend, and I'm taking Kathy's tips to heart.

Want to learn more about how to save money using coupons? I've pulled together a list of 10 easy ways to do it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

How to cope when your teenager criticises you

Over at Child Caring, we're talking about dealing with negative feedback. It's something parents encounter regularly, whether it be from other parents in a Mommy Drive-By setting or from coworkers or a spouse. But it's especially difficult to deal with when the harsh words are coming from your own kid.

I chatted with author Sam Chapman, whose new book, "The No-Gossip Zone," offers tips on dealing with negative feedback in an office setting; the advice can easily be applied to parents and kids as well.
Teenagers are feeling their way into adulthood with hormones raging and moods roiling; they get angry for good reasons, but every once in a while they seem to be in a bad mood just because the sun has the audacity to shine that day. They lash out -- and you, the parent, are often the closest target.

It can be stressful to hear negative criticism from your teen, but if you tune it out
automatically, you miss what could be an important gift, says Sam Chapman, author of "The No-Gossip Zone."

Stop looking for the diplomacy from your teenager. Your teen is someone who knows you well, who doesn't have that filter, he points out. "Who's going to give you the real truth? That child."

Some say that teenagers act like children if you don't treat them like adults, but Chapman disagrees. "I actually think they’re acting a lot like adults. Just badly behaved adults," the father of three boys says. "Our job is to show them the boundaries. But, during the process, you can’t ignore their feelings. Three or four years of hormones and arguing... they’re still one of your closest family members, and they still know you better than anybody. Ignore them at your own peril."

Chapman's book is geared toward establishing a healthy work environment in the corporate world (he's the CEO of Empower Public Relations in Chicago), but his suggestions for transformational learning translates easily to family life. While you can't glean much good from straight criticism or insults -- and you'll probably hear some of those at some point, too, with teenagers in the house -- actual feedback is very important. If your child yells "You love my brother more than you love me!" listen, and respond by accepting the feedback and making change, Chapman suggests.

“My child is telling me he needs more love. He’s blaming me -- that part’s not important," Chapman says as he explains the thought process. "What’s important is that I’m someone in his life who can give him more love, and he wants it so bad he’s angry about it.”

Here are four tips from "The No-Gossip Zone" for learning how turn negative feedback into something positive:

1.) Accept the feedback. By accepting (even just slightly) that everyone has something valuable that they can teach us about who we are, we open up to a realm of creativity, growth, and success that we never thought possible. This means accepting negative feedback with an open mind and discovering what it is that you need to improve about your performance.

2.) Try not to be defensive. This will take some practice. It is our natural reaction to immediately leap to our own defense whenever someone puts us down. We immediately come up with several different rebuttals, all of which are aimed to prevent us from taking a single iota of responsibility for the situation at hand. However, if you can take a step back, a deep breath, and remove yourself from the situation for a moment, you might realize that you are being told something worthwhile, something which can help you grow personally and professionally.

3.) Don't get swamped by your emotions. You have the right to get upset whenever you hear negative feedback. It is perfectly natural to feel sad, angry, or any variation thereof when you hear that your performance needs work. Allow yourself to feel those emotions, but don’t allow yourself to become them. Otherwise, you will be so busy “being” angry or sad that you won’t have the emotional energy or wherewithal to realize where you stand to improve.

4.) Make requests, not complaints. At the end of this process, you are more than welcome to share your feedback with your giver; just make sure your feedback
isn’t in the form of a complaint. The gift is much easier to receive when it’s in the form of a request instead.
Do you have a teen or a tween at home? How do you cope with the negative feedback they give??

Friday, July 24, 2009

Does your child get enough sleep? (We know you probably don't!)

Few parents expect to get much sleep for the first year or so of their childrens' lives. In fact, once you become a parent (whether through birth, adoption, or marriage), the phrase "a good night's sleep" takes on a totally different meaning.

As our kids get older, we assume that they're getting plenty of sleep. But how much sleep do they really need? And what happens if they don't get it? I'm tackling those questions over at Child Caring.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, children age 5 to 12 need about 10 hours of sleep within a 24-hour period. (Preschoolers should get 11 to 13, toddlers need 12 to 14, and babies need even more.)

"Sleep-deprived kids are unable to learn," Cornell psychology professor James B. Maas, Ph.D., a leading sleep researcher and author of Power Sleep, points out at "Memory, concentration, communication skills as well as critical and creative thinking are all adversely affected."

A child who is not getting enough sleep may not appear to be tired. According to the National Sleep Foundation, "when sleep is poor, children won't necessarily look sleepy during the day. Sometimes they have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) symptoms: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. They need to create a stimulating environment to keep themselves awake, because they need to stay awake to learn. They will do anything to change their environment, including displaying aggressive behavior."

What can you do about it? Start by establishing a bedtime routine at an early age. If both parents work outside the home, it can be tempting to let a little kid stay up later in order to get some play time with Daddy or Mommy but, unless your preschooler is taking a really long nap during the day, staying up late does her more harm than good.

What's the bedtime routine like at your house? Are your kids getting enough sleep?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Are you a night owl or an early bird?

Over at Work It, Mom!, I'm wishing for an actual 36-Hour Day...

I've always been a night owl. When I was a kid, I hung a small dry-erase noteboard and a pen next to my bed, so I could doodle when I couldn't sleep (reading after lights out was not allowed). As a college student, I found it easier not to go to bed at all some nights than to get up early for class or work. And when I was in my 20s, I was working nights -- I slept until 10 a.m. in order to get seven hours of sleep, not because I was sleeping in. It was always easier to stay up late to finish (or start) my work than it was to get up early.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An extra bag that's ready when you are

I love my reusable grocery bags -- when I remember to bring them with me to the store. And, when I travel with my kids, I can always use another bag or, well, seven. I was pleased to try out The Joey Tote -- actually, "pleased" is a bit of an understatement. The three-bag set has taken up permanent residence in my purse; it's strong enough to hold heavy items when I'm shopping, folds down into it's own built in pouch (which is roomy enough for another tote or two), and small enough to slip into my pocket, if need be. I spread the word in my "Gearing Up" column for The Boston Globe recently:

Gearing Up
A Pocket for a Purse
By Lylah M. Alphonse

Whether you’re taking an overseas trip and want to carry your surplus souvenirs, or taking the family to the beach and want to keep the sandy stuff separate, Joey Totes are just what you need. The machine-washable, ripstop nylon bags hold up to 40 pounds and fold down into a built-in pouch small enough to carry in your purse or pocket. The large size is $8.50 and just right for slinging over your shoulder; the small is $7 and comfortable to hand carry. Available at

Monday, July 20, 2009

A gallery of great gear for traveling with kids

For years now, I've written a product-review column for the Boston Globe's Travel section. It's called "Gearing Up" (it used to be "Get in Gear" and "Shop Online") and it highlights gear and gadgets that make it easier to travel with kids in tow.

The experts at have created a great gallery of 25 of my favorite kid-related picks, including Bib Clips (pictured at left), Water Wow books, Feltopia travel sets, and the OverTote system. Click through to check it out!
You can read recent reviews of these and other products here at WriteEditRepeat.

I can't believe I just said that!

I keep a running list of things I never thought I’d say as a parent. Today I added another sentence to it, courtesy of my 2-1/2-year-old son: “We don’t kiss the walls during karate class.”

As if it’s perfectly OK to kiss them at any other time.

I wonder if I let more slide with my youngest kid because he’s a little boy — and, as such, more prone to sweet-but-lunkheaded actions — or because he’s the youngest of five and the things that seemed worth doing something about when my older kids were his age just seem not worth freaking out about now. Case in point: When our now-11-year-old son was 3, I’d have to fight the urge to coat him in hand-sanitizing gel if I saw our dog licking him. Now, a dog — not just ours — slobbers directly on my younger kids’ faces and I consider wiping the dog’s mouth because, ye gods, little kids are germy.

But “Things I Never Thought I’d Do As A Mom” is a totally different list. Here are a few of the things I never thought I’d hear myself say:
  1. “Don’t lick the floor.”
  2. “Do not help the dog eat his dinner.”
  3. “You are not an elephant. That is not your trunk.”
  4. “Your brother is not a napkin.”
  5. “The dog is not supposed to bite you. Take your arm out of his mouth, please.”
  6. “It doesn’t matter if they do it in The Little Mermaid, you may not comb your hair with that fork during dinner.”
  7. “Where are your pants?”
  8. “Put your uncle’s beer down, please.”
  9. “Lick your hand first, and then I’ll put Bacon Salt on it for you.”
  10. “Only eat leaves that Mama or Daddy give you.”
What's on your "I can't believe I just said that!" list?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Adventures in parenting, ingestion edition

No matter how conscientious you are, and no matter how thoughtful and mature your kids seem to be, at some point, they'll have a lapse in judgement at the exact same instant that your attention is elsewhere. Case in point: That's an X-ray of my preschooler's gut. With a small lock in her stomach.

My 4 1/2 year old found a little Tiffany's pendent on the playground at school. She stuffed her new-found "treasure" into the pocket of her jeans, and was just as excited to rediscover it days later when the washing machine started sounding clunky and I fished it out of the filter.

Thank goodness it was clean, though. Because I don't know what made her think it was a good idea to put the tiny padlock in her mouth. And then swallow.

My husband spent that Friday evening hanging out with her in the ER, while I raced home from work to help with the other kids (who were hanging out with their teenage sister). Now, I fully expected us to end up in the ER with a child who had ingested something at some point -- as a toddler, our now-11-year-old son had an uncanny ability to find the single penny on the floor in any room and take a taste -- but I honestly thought it would be my 2 1/2-year-old son, who puts everything in his mouth, not my preternaturally serious youngest girl.

She's fine -- the lock was closed, it wasn't snagged or stuck anywhere, and the doctors told us to let nature take its course. Which it did, about 40 hours later.

I keep a running list of Things I Never Thought I'd Say As a Mom. There's another list in my head, of Things I Never Thought I'd Do As a Parent. The tiny-padlock-search-and-rescue mission ranks high on that list, as well as my "Things I Really, Really Never Want to Do Again" list. (Why? It involved a special container from the hospital, a disposable wooden chopstick, running commentary from my preschooler about her nether regions, and lots of gagging on my part.)

(Other things I never thought I'd do: Catch vomit in my hands, because that's preferable to having it land on the rug. Consider leftover chicken nuggets -- leftover, half-eaten chicken nuggets -- an adequate meal for myself. Think three consecutive hours equals a good night's sleep.)

The lock is currently sitting in a small bowl filled with hand-sanitizing gel, though truthfully I don't know if it'll ever be sanitary enough for me to look at it without wincing. It's a constant reminder of the unpredictable nature of parenting, the need to be constantly vigilant, and the understanding that, no matter how careful of a parent you are, you will slip up. As well as a reminder of how very lucky I was, this time.

What's on your Things I Never Thought I'd Do As a Parent list?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Trying not to be a helicopter parent

When you're a step parent, you're forced to give up some of your helicopter tendencies, at least for part of the year. You can't control situations that you're not privy to, no matter how much you'd like to try. But I don't think the hovering counts completely if you're kid is still in preschool.

On a typical summer Saturday, you'll find the kids in my neighborhood kids out on their bikes, and my youngest two want to join the fun. But my little son is only 2 1/2, and my tall daughter just 4 1/2 -- younger than any of the other kids by at least a year, in spite of her height.

So I helmet them up and let them grab her scooter and his trike and push them into the cul-de-sac, and I stand there, by the mailbox, watching them try hard to keep up with the others. They can't, of course -- the difference between 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 can be steep, for some things -- but they're not discouraged. They try, and I watch, and then I notice... I'm the only adult out there.

Overbearing or just cautious? At what point can you -- should you -- stop hovering?

Over at's Child Caring blog, I've put the question to readers. I'm guessing, though, that times have really changed since I was a kid. My brothers and I played outside without supervision all the time, when we were as young as 6 or 7, venturing off our front lawn and well into the woods at the end of the street. We followed my parents rules -- no bike riding on the busy road, no building forts deep in the woods during deer hunting season (really! A neighbor's kid nearly got shot once!), no going off without telling an adult where you're headed -- but it was the '70s, and things were different then.

Now, when my older kids (ages 15, 13, and 11) want to go to the park down the street by themselves, I let them — as long as they bring a cell phone and check in. I’d be willing to drop my teenagers at the movies with some friends, and only be a little tempted to spy until I was certain they’d entered the correct theater. And of course, it’s not a problem, for me, if they’re hanging out in the cul-de-sac. But the little two? I don’t feel comfortable letting them too far out of my sight just yet. has a quiz you can take, to see if you’re a helicopter parent at heart. (My results indicate that I’ve “found balance,” which is funny, because it sure doesn’t feel like it.)

When it is OK to be a helicopter parent? And how old do you think the kids should be before you stop?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where do you work when you work from home?

At Work It, Mom!, one of the questions that comes up time and again is about how people manage to work from home with little kids. Recently, I looked that that question from another angle: Where do you work when you're working from home?

Once upon a time, I had an actual home office. It had a desk and file cabinets and a door that closed, and I shared the space with my husband, whose stuff took up the far side of the room but left me with plenty of space to spread out.

Then that room became the nursury when my youngest daughter arrived. My husband's desk moved to the family room, which was fine as he preferred to work on his laptop rather than at his desk, and mine went into the guest room, which was fine, too. Then the guest room became our oldest daughter's bedroom when our youngest son arrived. And my desk and file cabinets and papers and, well, crap all got stuffed into a niche next to my closet. Where I hated to work because it was away from the rest of the family and, juggling two jobs, I always had some work to do when I'd rather be spending time with the kids.

Fast forward a couple of years. The desk in the niche is covered in dust and dominated by an enourmous computer monitor that I never use; my 2008 Mother's Day present and I camp out at the dining room table, surrounded by a swath of papers and clippings and products I'm preparing to review. It's an imperfect system -- much clearing out must be done in order for us to sit down to dinner some (most) nights -- but if I have to work from home with the little kids around, they're pretty happy playing fort under the table while I type.

Many work-at-home moms flee to a local coffee shop to work, ponying up $5 for a latte and free Wi-Fi in order to be able to work peacefully for a few hours. Others have dedicated office space (and a tax deduction) in order to separate work and home. But still others are nomads, like me, camping out in family space or wandering the house and neighborhood with laptop in tow.

Do you have a home office? How do you keep things organized, and how do you keep your work life and home life separate if you can't simply close the door between them?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sanity savers: On the road, with the kids

We took a road trip to Washington, D.C., and I came back feeling like our time there was too short but the drive was waaaaay too long. And that's even with the kids being relatively good in the back seats. At The 36-Hour Day and at Child Caring, I'm asking parents to weigh in with their best car-trip tricks. Of course, I wouldn't ask if I wasn't also willing to give! Here are some of mine:

1.) Plenty of room. Smaller cars are more fuel efficient, but I’m willing to give up a few gallons of gas in order to have a more peaceful ride (also: you can't fit five kids and two adults in a Prius). We drove my husband’s gigantic Suburban. I balked, for a moment, until I realized that the price of diesel is about the same as the price of regular gas right now, and the truck’s diesel engine gets more miles per the gallon than does my Honda minivan. Pre-Suburban, we’ve actually rented a larger vehicle to let the kids have enough room to ride comfortably.

2.) Plenty of snacks. Pack individual lunchboxes for each child (a full meal plus a snack or two and an extra drink). It seems like a lot of extra work, but the moment one of your kids says she's hungry and then gets herself a snack without disturbing you or anyone else, it'll be worthwhile. Don’t forget the ice pack, and keep some treats (lollipops and fake fruit gummy things, in my case) hidden for doling out as bribes or rewards. (I know, there's plenty of options on the road, but I'm one of those who is reluctant to stray from the route and, with kids and food allergies to consider, I'm not a fan of fast food.)

3.) Some cool apps for your iPhone or iPod Touch. My husband is a NPR junkie, and the minute we cross the border from Massachusetts into Connecticut and he loses his favorite station, he starts twiddling with the radio, looking for his fix as the stations fade in and out. This trip, we hit the dead radio zone and I pulled up a great little live-streaming public radio app on my iPhone. Best of all: It was free. On the way back, I downloaded a few cool (also free) games to keep my 4- and 2-year-olds whine-free; you can check out my great slideshow of free iPhone/iPod Touch apps at Work It, Mom!

4.) A portable DVD player and a bunch of DVDs. Not everyone will agree with me on this, and my parents certainly didn't hook up the Videodisc player in the car when we drove from New Jersey to Canada, but I let my kids watch videos on long car trips. I got my dual-screen DVD player at Target; the screens strap to the backs of the front seats, and they’re connected to each other so that two kids can watch the same movie. Important detail: Each screen has its own headphone jack, allowing my preschoolers to watch “The Wiggles” while my nearly 16-year-old listens to her iPod behind them without going crazy from the yummy yumminess.

5.) A power inverter. This handy contraption plugs into your car’s power source (formerly known as the cigarette lighter) and allows you to plug anything else into it using a regular plug. (Like my techno-speak?) The big reason for bringing one of these along is that you can recharge your cell phone or laptop or iPhone or whatever you don’t have a car adapter for.

6.) Non-electronic entertainment. Even with a power inverter, there’s only so much battery-powered entertainment you want to deal with. Stash a few new (or new-to-you) age-appropriate books for your kids in the car, and pull them out when the whining starts. Also bring blank notebooks and pencils – they’ll come in handy for anything from writing a short, silly story (each person in the car contributes a sentence, one person reads it out loud) to a game of I Spy where the players have to write down (or draw pictures of) what they see. Other excellent car-ride choices include Water Wow books (paint with water, let dry, do it again), finger puppets, and magnet boards.

Share your tips in the comments, please!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sarah Palin, working moms, and perception

As much as I hate to admit it, how you're perceived plays a key part in your career. Working moms have plenty of stereotypes to contend with, but the perception that we're somehow less dedicated to our jobs than non-parents -- or less capable of doing them -- lingers, no matter what we achieve.

So last week's announcement by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin triggered an immediate response from me: She's just proved her detractors right. After championing working moms and campaigning on her working-mom chops, she's bowing out by offering a jumble of reasons, all of which leave many people with the perception that she just couldn't cut it. I write about how and why at The 36-Hour Day:

The speculation has been rampant since Sarah Palin announced Friday that she will be stepping down as governor of Alaska.

After her time in the national spotlight with Senator John McCain, she didn't seem nterested in running a state, The Asssociated Press suggested. Being governor during a recession -- and when there are 15 ethics charges and budgeting squabbles hanging over your head -- is a chore, quipped. She says she doesn't want to "embrace Lame Duck status," even though the next election is 16 months away, Ed Morrissey points out at Hot Air.

But it's probably best to consider what Palin herself said about her decision: "Life is too short to compromise time and resources. It may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along... but that's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out."

As a working mom who compromises her time and resources daily, I beg to differ.

As Rob Schlesinger at US News & World Report points out, "Political success is about hard work and working hard. And progress is made through compromise. But in Friday's speech Palin dismissed hard work and compromise as … the quitter's way out."

Working hard, compromising, sacrificing in order to juggle career and family... is for quitters?

If she's eying a run for the White House in 2012, I don't see how that will play well with her with her working mom base. Or with anyone else, for that matter -- by insisting "It's about country" (Hmmm... her new slogan?) and then explaining, on her Facebook page, that she's putting her family first and implying that she ought to be commended for her bravery in doing so, she's throwing herself, and all working mothers, under the bus. Every one of her detractors who wondered if she'd be able to handle the demands of a high-profile government position while also being a hands-on mom just got their answer, and directly from her: She's choosing not to.

I'm not saying that women who choose to opt out of the workforce are doing something wrong. Not at all. And I agree with Palin that it's a difficult, personal decision. But campaigning on your working mom chops, reaching out to working mothers, insisting that you understand what we deal with and vowing to champion us, and then opting out makes it look like you -- and, by extension, the rest of us -- can't handle the pressure.

It doesn't help matters that her announcement came on the eve of Independence Day and right on the heels of a scathing profile in Vanity Fair. Her decision doesn't show that she can, indeed, govern effectively during a crisis. And playing the "poor little me" card on Facebook isn't much of a maverick thing to do: “And though it’s honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make. But every American understands what it takes to make a decision because it’s right for all, including your family.”

It is difficult to decide to opt out. And we don't know for sure what Palin plans to do next. Whatever it is, I hope she doesn't have to compromise time and resources, since that, apparently, is anathema to her. But I think she'll have a difficult time finding a "higher calling" that doesn't require her to do so.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Organizing kids' toys: What are my options?

I've written about my tendency to clutter and my husband's tendency to go on cleaning tantrums, so it should come as no surprise when I tell you that, once again, we've reached a clutter crisis at home. This time, my stuff isn't causing (as much of) the problem; this time, we're full up on kids' toys.

Tiny plastic cars and farm animals that my youngest kids still play with nearly daily are competing for space with my big kids' (and husband's) XBox paraphernalia -- not to mention all of the books and puzzles and ride-ons that seem to multiply with each passing birthday.

Over at The 36-Hour Day, I'm asking readers for advice, and I'd love to hear yours, too. How do you keep the kids' toys under control?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Moving? Make sure you evaluate your new school district

A Child Caring reader wrote to me recently, asking for some information. "One topic I would really love to see covered is how to evaluate a school district," she wrote. "Although I have some idea of how to research this on my own, I feel that I am at a disadvantage since I didn't grow up here."

I didn't grow up in the Boston area, either, and remember feeling more than a bit bewildered as my husband and I were trying to decide where to move. My tiny condo in Brookline was much too small for all of us (my husband came with three kids), and we couldn't afford a larger home there, but were loathe to leave the town's excellent schools.

When it comes to evaluating school districts, you first have to evaluate your family's needs. If full-day kindergarten is not available, what will you do for before- or after-school care? Are you willing to pay more for extracurricular activities? Do you have a child with special educational needs? Is your teenager looking for college-prep or vo-tech?

Once you've figured out your own requirements, here are a few things to consider when evaluating different school districts:

1.) Check out the school’s report card. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not make district report cards available to the public -- districts are supposed to provide the information to parents -- but you should be able to find the information on the school district's website (if not, call the superintendent to request it). You can get also find standardized testing results, student-to-teacher ratios, economic and ethnic data, and articles about why the numbers are (or aren’t) important at websites like and

2.) Take it to the state level. It's hard to tell what those standardized test results really mean unless you compare the district's results to the state as a whole. The No Child Left Behind Act report card for Massachusetts is a good place to start.

3.) Delve into the details. The Massachusetts Department of Education website has a wealth of information about the state's teachers, graduation rates, per-student spending, and more. But you should also dig as deeply as you can into the districts themselves. Have any of the schools been identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring?

4.) Find out about the finances. How much are parents expected to shell out in additional fees (for sports, arts, transportation, lunches, etc.)? Which programs in the district receive the most funding? Does the town rely on private foundations or grants to support the school, or is it entirely funded by state money? Any major projects recently completed or in the works (or have recently been put on hold)?

5.) Visit the school. If you have an idea about which school your child might attend, it’s a good idea to take the time to visit the school -- with and without your child -- while it is in session, if possible. Talk to the teachers and staff, find out if they can connect you with other parents who might be willing to talk about their experiences.

6.) Talk to the teachers and staff. Do they send their own kids there? Why or why not? What issues are they facing and how might they impact your child?

7.) Talk to parents, if possible. Ask the principal to connect you to parents of current students or, if you can, try to connect with a few on your own while they're waiting in the pickup line before the bell rings. Not comfortable with that? Ask the principal when the next PTO meeting is, and try to attend.

8.) Read up on local news. Check out the coverage of the school district in local newspapers, and be sure to take a look at the letters to the editor for feedback on what the locals are really saying.

9.) Consider your child's current and possible future needs. Does your child need any special services? How established are the ones offered by the school district? Are there new ones being considered, or any that have recently been eliminated? If services for your child are eliminated, will the state help you secure those services in a private or parochial school instead?

10.) Look for red flags. Districts often save money by cutting arts and music programs, or by increasing the fees for participation in sports. If class sizes are increasing while town populations are staying the same, that could signal a problem with school resources.

Want to know more? I've pulled together a check list at Work It, Mom! with 10 questions you should ask when evaulating a new school district.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Are kids capable of making their own medical decisions?

13-year-old Danny Hauser is angry. Though the court-ordered chemotherapy has shrunk his tumor "considerably" after just two rounds, the teen does not want to continue treatment. His parents -- who, in order to avoid chemotherapy, had gone so far as to run away with their teenager when the courts first handed down their ruling -- won't say whether they think chemo is helping, but admit that "something is working."

What struck me in this case is that the parents weren't withholding medical treatment for their teenager, per se -- they were rejecting conventional therapies. They weren't sitting by and letting their son suffer -- they wanted to avoid causing him additional misery. And who wouldn't want "a better treatment plan" for their child? That doesn't sound like neglect to me.

So, I'm wondering: Should authorities take over when a child needs medical intervention and the parents disagree with the methods the doctors recommend? If the child himself doesn't want the treatment, is it still considered neglectful for the parents to avoid it?