Thursday, September 15, 2016

21 Parenting Blogs to Keep You Inspired, Informed and Sane

Let's face it--parenting is hard at times. Parenthood is the only "job" which involves no formal training, very little background knowledge (for most of us) and the "outcome" involves the people we value most (our kids).

But I've also learned that parenting cannot really be equated to a job, either. It is a relationship, as unique and special as your relationship with your spouse or best friend. As with any long-term relationship, it can have its ups and downs. Add to that the fact that children are under-developed in their "relationship skills."

All this is to say that to thrive in parenthood you need a tribe--fellow parents who have gone down the road you are traveling and can point out the bumps in the road or at least sit by you and help you buckle your seat belt.

Since I am a blogger, I have found support and encouragement from other bloggers along this parenting journey. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite parenting blogs that offer real, concrete, parenthood-is-messy-but-worth-it articles and advice.

General Parenting Resources and Thoughtful Commentary
These blogs offer thought-provoking articles and useful hands-on tips. As a bonus, many are also based in research, which I always appreciate.

- Nuture and Thrive: research-based positive parenting ideas from a developmental psychologist. You can't beat that. Great, thoughtful articles.

- Not Just Cute: Amanda is a scholar after my own heart--trying to bring research into the lives of the people who really need it. I even love the name of her blog. She says childhood is not just cute, it is powerful and priceless. I couldn't agree more.

- Modern Parents, Messy Kids: if you're looking for a "one-stop shop" for all your daily parenting needs, this is it. This blog covers the nitty-gritty of parenting--organization, recipes, parenting articles, gift guides.

- Janet Lansbury: if you are not familiar with RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) then check out Janet's site. It focuses on a thoughtful, insightful parenting approach that focuses on seeing the infant as a whole person from the start.

- Regarding Baby: another wonderful RIE site hosted by Lisa Sunbury, an early childhood educator. Her writings will give you insight into focusing on your parenting relationship and slowing down to understand your child.

- The (Reformed) Idealist Mom: as the title implies, Kelly describes herself as a reformed perfectionist. If you are ready to ditch the idealized notion of parenthood and be real, this is a good place to start. Kelly offers real-life ways to reconnect with your kids.

- Science of Mom: if you ever wonder if some article or post you read about a parenting hot topic is based on any science at all, you should check this site first. Alice is the best at searching out the real science behind common parenting issues.

- Gooey Brains: it sounds funny but it's true--kids brains are gooey. This site offers wonderful resources for helping us understand how we can shape those gooey brains in the right direction.

- Military Wife and Mom: although we are not a military family, I keep seeing Lauren's posts in my social media feed and I love all that I've read. Practical insight into positive parenting ideas that help us get through dinner time, chores, and homework with our sanity intact.

Specific Aspects of Child Development (physical, cognitive, social)
These blogs focus more closely on specific areas such as physical, emotional or cognitive development

- The Inspired Treehouse: run by two pediatric physical therapists, this site offers a wealth of ideas and activities that can help parents understand their child's physical, cognitive and emotional development

- Hey Sigmund: if you need help understanding your child's emotional needs, this is where to start. This site discusses a lot about children's emotional life including anxiety and stress. It's a wonderful resource for understanding our own mental health too.

- Mama OT: another great site who's goal is to share knowledge of occupational therapy with the rest of us. Great information for understand all children's development, including playful learning activities, fine and gross motor skill development.

Education/Learning Activities for Kids
Even if you are not a homeschooling family, these blogs offer learning ideas to enrich your child's education. As parents we are still the first and best teachers of our kids.

- Brain Power Boy: I am a mom to boys so I am biased to sites like this. This is great if you have boys (like mine) who don't usually go for the typical crafts and activities offered on other sites. Sheila has some great insight into the mind of young boys.

- What We Do All Day: if you are a stay-at-home parent, you have probably gotten this question, "what do you do all day?" Well, this is the site for you. Wonderful book recommendations, real hands-on activities that are meaningful and not just fluff.

- Imagination Soup: if I'm looking for any resources related to kids' literacy, book recommendations, or gift ideas, this is my go-to site.

- Totschooling: if you are like me and spend most of your days with a toddler or preschooler, you know that you often need some activities to keep their little hands busy. This site has loads of cool printables (mostly free!) that you can easily prepare for the kids to do.

- No Time for Flashcards: we all know that play is the best learning activity for little ones. This site is awesome at giving us ideas for crafts and learning activities.

- Seeme and Liz: do you see the theme of play being big on this list? This site continues that theme. Great playful learning ideas and resources, especially for the young crowd.

Kids' Nutrition and Healthy Eating
Getting kids to eat something besides chicken nuggets and mac and cheese is often a struggle. These sites offer hope to us that there are healthy options that kids will actually eat.

Super Healthy Kids: I have found tons of good recipes on this site. They also have meal plans and cool healthy eating plates to help kids learn what they should eat to keep their bodies healthy.

- 100 Days of Real Food: another go-to site for me. If you need to expand your child's lunchbox menu, there are a lot of great ideas here. Plus, Lisa just came out with a cookbook so you can have all your favorites in one spot.

- Weelicious: this site hardly needs an introduction since it's been featured in magazines and television. Wonderful kid-friendly food ideas, even for the babies and toddlers.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Spark the Imagination: Picture Books for Older Kids

One of my favorite parts of being a parent is reading books to my kids, especially picture books. Despite their simple structure, good children's books often offer beautiful illustrations, captivating stories and subtle lessons that even the most complex adults books often miss.

Unfortunately, in recent years as the drive to make childhood more academic has taken hold, the value of picture books is becoming lost, at least in some areas. Based on this New York Times article, it seems this disturbing trend started several years ago. Booksellers and publishers are seeing parents pushing their children out of reading picture books as early as 4 years old. Some parents feel picture books are not academically challenging enough or are too "babyish" for their preschoolers.

What a sad state of affairs! What these folks are missing is that picture books actually require quite a lot of brain power and can actually help children develop their reading skills. As librarian Lisa Von Drasek points out, picture books can provide wonderful training for future (or current) reading:
  • Picture books give children practice in visual literacy. Children learn critical thinking skills as they study the book's art, looking for contradicting evidence of the verbal story.
  • The text of picture books is often written at a higher reading level. Children need to hear this higher vocabulary to acquire language before they can read it.
  • On the other hand, while series chapter books are great for reading practice, their vocabulary and sentence structure are simplistic and their plots formulaic.
  • Picture books for older children give a window into history, cultures and communities other than our own with sophisticated artistic representation. 
  • Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of early picture books support the learning of reading skills like phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension and fluency.
This idea was brought home to me lately in a very real-life way. My second-grade son came home from school and was fascinated with Harold and the Purple Crayon. If you are not familiar with this book, it's a class from 1955 about a little 4-year-old boy who uses a purple crayon to draw all sort of adventures. It's a wonderful book that really inspires a child's imagination. I was actually really surprised my 7-year-old was interested in this book. I thought he would think it was too babyish. I mean Harold wears a footed sleeper like a baby in the book. However, my son loved it! He walked around the house with a purple crayon for days pretending to be Harold. Thankfully, his teachers at school obviously know well the magic picture books can hold, even to second-graders who think they are such "big kids."

With that in mind, I've pooled together a list of picture books that should appeal to older kids (ages 6+). Even if your children are reading at or above their grade level, it doesn't hurt to throw in some picture books from time to time. If nothing else, it might prompt some imaginative thinking or good conversations between you and your child. Don't allow these picture books to fade into history!

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Thank You, Mr. Falker: the story of a girl with dyslexia and a special teacher who helped her

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Flotsam: a boy finds some interesting and surprising items washed up on a beach

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The Three Questions: who says picture books are just fluff? You can spend a lifetime trying to answer these three questions

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Journey: I must have been hiding under a rock the last few years because I just heard about this book and it's two related titles Quest and Return. I just checked it out from the library and it is beautiful! Ironically it has some elements that remind me of Harold and the Purple Crayon.

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The Mysteries of Harris Burdick: need some ideas for a creative writing assignment? This is the book for you. Pictures to evoke the imagination of any child.

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One Giant Leap: have a child who loves space? This book shows the moon walk in vivid illustrations.

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Henry's Map: is your elementary child learning about maps or directions. This one is a perfect fit.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Our Secret Weapon to Keeping Kids Healthy

It's back to school time for most of us. While parents are probably (secretly) relieved to send their kids back to school, there is one aspect of school none of us look forward to--germs. It is inevitable that kids will pick up those pesky colds, coughs, and sometimes something worse from their classmates.

We have discovered a couple of things in the past year and a half that I feel has really helped our kids stay healthier year-round. Now you know I make an effort not to promote many products on this blog. I don't want it to be one long advertisement for one item after another. Once in awhile, however, I do like to bring items to my audience's attention that have really made parent-life easier.

Our two secret weapons to keeping kids healthy:

1. Fruit and veggie whole-food chewables. When my older son began kindergarten I expected him to get sick a bit more than normal just from being around a new set of kids. Indeed he was. His kindergarten year wasn't bad, but he had several colds, croup-like illnesses, and things like that. The next year (first grade) we started taking these fruit and veggie chewables from Juice Plus+. That year, he only missed 2 days of school the whole year! I credit much of this to the added fruit and veggies he got.

Being the research geek that I am, I really value products that have hard research to support their claims. These chewables fit the bill. They have over 30 published academic articles to support their health benefits, including the Children's Health Study. This study is an on-going study that has already included 150,000 children over several years. So far, it has shown that children who take these fruit and veggie gummies (or capsules) miss fewer days of school, take fewer prescription medicines, and actually tend to eat more fruits and veggies in their regular diet.

Now we all know that whole fruits and veggies are the best way to get your nutrients, but these products are meant to "bridge the gap" between what we should be eating and what we actually eat. Life gets busy and sometimes we don't eat as many veggies as we should. These chewables just help make up the difference. They are not vitamins. It is actual fruits and veggies powdered and put into chewable gummies that taste almost as good as candy. Powdered produce!

To be honest, I like the product so much, I signed up to distribute it myself. Mostly why I did that, however, was to be able to share the health benefits with more people.

Did I mention that kids can get Juice Plus+ (chewables or capsules) for free (ages 4-18)! When a grown-up places an adult order (chewables or capsules), a child in their life can get their order free when they enroll in the Children's Health Study. All the study involves is answering a survey a few times a year. This free deal extends for four years as long as the adult continues on the product. It also applies to college students if they are a full-time undergraduate student. How awesome!

2. Probiotics. I have known about the benefits of probiotics for years. Thanks to a very nutrition-educated family, I've been taking them for quite awhile. After having kids, I started looking into the use of probiotics even more. I read a few articles about how a child's microbiome develops and I knew that probiotics would be a good addition to my kids' diets as well.

We just use this powder version that you can pour into drinks. There are, of course, a lot of ways to get probiotics into your child's diet. Yogurt (with live cultures) is a great option if it does not include too much sugar. We are finding now that other fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi can also be a good source of probiotics too (as long as they are unpasteurized) My kids are not big fans of either of these, so we stick with the powder, but there are plenty of options.

I find probiotics especially helpful when stomach or intestinal sicknesses are floating around school. I have seen that even if the probiotics don't prevent illness, they can help kids get over the stomach problems faster.

These are just a couple of items that have helped our family stay healthier recently. Both of these products have a strong basis in research and that is why I feel good using them and recommending them.

Here's to a healthy school year ahead!

**this post includes affiliate links

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Dory and Nemo Can Teach Us About Parenting

Summer is quickly coming to an end and ours has been a busy, enjoyable one. My boys (ages 3 and 7) are finally old enough to (mostly) sit through a movie in an actually theater (imagine that!). I took advantage of that feat this summer and we enjoyed a couple of kid movies during those long, hot afternoons. Like millions of others, we went to see Finding Dory.

At first glance, it appeared to be just another fun movie about fish on an adventure. However, later as I thought more about the movie I realized it actually illustrated some interesting parenting issues. As I discuss this, some spoilers might slip out, so take note if you haven't seen the movie.

In this latest adventure, Dory is still friends with Nemo and his dad Marlin. Early in the movie she realizes that she really wants to find her parents who she long-ago got separated from. You may remember from the first movie that Dory suffers from short-term memory loss. So most of the movie involves Dory trying to find her long-lost parents with the help of Nemo and Marlin. During the process, there are numerous flash-back scenes to the story of how Dory came to be friends with Nemo and Marlin.

Here's where it gets interesting from a parenting perspective--Dory and Nemo, as you may remember, both have physical challenges. Nemo has one fin that is smaller than the other, while Dory has short-term memory loss. What we see throughout the movie is how each of their parents handle their challenges in very different ways.

We learn from the flashbacks that Dory's parents realized her challenges with memory at a young age. They talked to her about her memory loss and explained with much repetition (as necessary with memory loss) and were very patient with her.

Nemo's dad Marlin handled his son's physical challenge in a very different way. In the movie he tends to be very overprotective and wanting to limit Nemo's activities and not let him go far from home.

What struck me about these two different fish families is that we can easily see ourselves in each of these scenarios. Regardless of whether our children have any apparent challenges or disabilities, we all at times have probably taken on the role of Dory's parents or Nemo's dad. 

What is even more revealing is how each of the "children" (Nemo and Dory) respond to the different parenting strategies. With the guidance of her very patient parents, Dory is able to learn to explore on her own and develops ways to find her way back home. Her parents give her tools and strategies like songs and sea shell trails to help her do things independently. They know they might not always physically be with her, but their voice becomes the mantra in her head to guide her home. Instead of limiting her, they give her the skills she needs to be brave and explore.

Nemo, on the other hand, has a very different response from Marlin's overprotective nature. He rebels. He feels that his dad is limiting him and his exploration. He knows he has a physical challenge but he doesn't want it to limit his abilities. Instead of listening to his dad, he simply rebels to the point of taking dangerous risks (e.g., touching a boat and getting captured). In other words, his dad's over-protection stifles him.

What can we learn about our own parenting from these two scenarios? Although it is just a movie, I think it portrays somewhat realistic situations. Being the child development geek that I am, I always return to the research. Is there research that can inform us about these two different parenting strategies?

Dory's parents took what I would call an authoritative parenting approach. Authoritative parents provide age-appropriate limits and guidelines but are not overly intrusive. They offer a balance of both responsiveness and control. Research dating back to the 1960's consistently shows that this approach (which is easier said than done) is most likely to give children the best chance at being psychologically well-adjusted. One of the most compelling aspects of this approach is that parents change as the child develops. They gradually give the child more autonomy and allow appropriate risk-taking as the child meets growing challenges and decisions. This is what gives children, like Dory, confidence. A real, lasting confidence that cannot be easily shaken.

Nemo's dad, in contrast, is what I would call a helicopter parent. Of course, given his history of trauma, it's not surprising that he took this approach. We know from research looking at recent generations of young adults, that this helicopter approach does not really serve our kids well. If they don't rebel, like Nemo, then they often reach college-age lacking the resourcefulness and grit to face tough decisions and challenges. As child psychologists describe it, the parents have become a "crutch" for the child.

There is a neurological basis for this too. When young children face challenges on their own, their brain actually becomes more complex and more neural connections form. One researcher describes it this way,
"As children explore their environment by themselves—making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration—their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated. Dendrites sprout. Synapses form. If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”
In reality, we've all had times when we were more like Marlin with our kids and other times when we took the approach of Dory's parents. It is good, however, to be aware of these different approaches and the impact they may have on our children's development.

Just keep swimming...