This kindness tree from 2007 uses a posterboard and construction paper. Looks like we didn’t get very many hearts on the tree this year, but hey, at least we tried!

Cleaning out my office the other day, I came across these old “kindness trees” I made with the kids when they were very small. It was our February family tradition to go beyond the hearts and candy of Valentine’s Day and instill the love of doing good in our kids. For some reason, we stopped doing it in recent years. But, I’ve decided to resurrect the kindness tree this year. It’s been almost a decade since the first kindness tree, and we’re much busier now with school, sports and activities. It will be interesting to see if we can take time out of our busy days to intentionally do something kind, or if we can notice some naturally occurring opportunities for kindness in our days.

How to do it

The concept is very simple. It is similar to creating a “Thankful tree” at Thanksgiving time (another tradition we really enjoy), but this time, we bring the family’s focus to kindness.

1. Make a tree of cardboard, paper, or real branches. Our first year, we used some scrap cardboard for the background and construction paper for the tree. This year, I’m upgrading a bit with a metal photo-holder tree from Pier One. (more…)

He’s going to want a few videogames to go with it.* You’ll provide some educational and/or fun games revolving around sports, Mario or music . But eventually, your kid will tire of those games and want some new ones. He will ask to go to GameStop to trade in the old games. You’ll go to GameStop and browse the shelves, steering your kid away from the machine-guns-and-death section.

While you’re there, the helpful young person behind the counter will offer you the GameStop rewards card, which entitles you to discounts! You’ll gladly join the rewards program to save a few bucks.

A month or so later, the Game Informer magazine will show up at your house. It will look like this:

You’ll  flip through the pages, more than half of  which contain images of weapons, gore, death or violence. (Really, I counted. In the latest issue, approximately 59% of the pages have such images. Which means every time you turn the page, you can enjoy some pretty scary stuff that apparently passes for mainstream entertainment.) Then, you’ll pitch it into the recycling bin. Or, you’ll call GameStop and ask them to stop sending the print magazine, which they will cheerfully do, although the digital edition will still show up in your email.

Then, your child will come home from school and tell you that “everyone” but him  is getting the latest Call of Duty game. Some of your child’s friends’ parents will actually stand in line at Wal-mart to buy the M-rated  game for their 9-year-old the day it comes out.

You, on the other hand, will explain that you don’t think violence should be used as entertainment. You’ll ask the opinion of your young, hip, twenty-something relatives who served in the real-life war in Iraq. They will agree with you. You’ll research the effects of videogame violence on young brains and teenage behavior. You’ll read other parents’ reviews of the game. You’ll invoke the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  And then, you will make a very unpopular decision.

Your child’s social life will take a hit as his friends spend more and more hours playing the game. After seeing and hearing the game in their own homes, other parents will complain about the violence, but they will not take the game away.

After a while, the novelty will wear off, the kids will come out of their basements and play baseball again, and life will go on.  You’ll wonder if it really mattered after all, that you took a stand. You’ll wonder if you’re wrong about videogame violence, or if the culture at large is wrong. You’ll wonder if your child will respect your decision, or resent it, when he’s older.

You’ll find out soon enough. Call of Duty Black Ops II comes out November 13. And when you give a child a videogame system, eventually, he’s going to want a first-person-shooter game to go with it.

*apologies to Laura Numeroff 


When it comes to kids’ media, there are a lot of bad choices out there. But I’m interested in putting the spotlight on the positive—the children’s shows, series, books, movies, apps and games that educate, enlighten, inspire and entertain in age-appropriate ways. To that end, I’ve created a Pinterest board called Positive Media for Kids. The board is pretty small as of yet, because I’ve tried to limit it to media I have reviewed and can personally recommend. Some of my favorite parenting ideas have come from other parents, and my hope here is to create a robust resource for parents looking for ways to constructively entertain their kids. That’s where you come in! I’d love to add your media suggestions or hear your comments. 

Yesterday, I added a new show to the board: “How the States Got Their Shapes” on H2, (History Channel 2 – which is a hidden gem all of its own). Not everything on History Channel or H2 qualifies as kid-appropriate, but for middle schoolers or teens, this show is everything they wish Social Studies class would be, with quizzes, real-world application of the issues, and humor. Episodes we’ve seen include topics such as red vs. blue states, blue collar vs. white collar, and Hatfields vs. McCoys. Check it out, and check back next week for another positive media recommendation.

Bite it!

If you asked your kids “where does food come from,” what would they say? Costco? McDonalds? The Grocery Fairy? 

With the busy lifestyle many of us lead, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for kids to grow up thinking that everything they eat comes out of a plastic package. The trouble is, the overwhelming selection of “convenient” food options available to today’s kids can make healthy whole foods seem less appealing. If you share my goal of helping your kids learn to select healthy foods. then you want them to know where “real” foods come from. If they can see, touch, and learn about whole foods and have fun doing it, they just might (someday) choose to put healthier foods in their bodies!

So, nourish your kids and your parent-child relationship with these five tips for helping kids connect to their food:

1. Visit a farmers market. What a perfect time of year to see the bounty of the harvest! Take a walk through your local farmers market and let kids see, smell, touch and taste some real food. Many times you can talk directly to the farmer who grew the food. Find your local farmers market here.

2. Get out in the garden – it’s not too late. If you didn’t plant a garden this summer, it’s actually not too late in many areas to plant cold-weather crops such as kale or spinach and watch your food grow.Visit your local nursery or garden center to find out which plants can still be grown in your area. Many urban areas also have community gardens where you can take a tour or volunteer to do a little gardening work. Check the directory here to see if there’s one in your neighborhood.

3. Trace your grapes. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are some fun tech tools you can use to trace your food back to the farm. Check out the HarvestMark app and website to find out where to get produce you can scan and trace. In addition, is a “crowd-sourced nationwide food guide” that lets you trace your food back to the farm or, conversely, find healthy food produced and sold locally. Tip: try searching “pumpkins,” then go buy them at the farm! You might be surprised at the local farms you didn’t know existed.

4. Visit a CSA or farm. Over the summer my family visited Critter Barn, a working educational farm in Zeeland, Michigan. The kids got up close and personal with the animals, and our 13-year-old guide gave us a great tour, explaining about egg production, sheep shearing, and many other aspects of farming with animals.  Beyond the fun of being able to walk a goat, brush a bunny, and pet a turkey, it was a realistic and eye-opening look at the responsibility that comes with eating animal products. I highly recommend it!

In addition, many community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms encourage visitors or host volunteer work days. This ia great way to get first-hand understanding of where food comes from.There are even farms that will come to you! Check out the wonderful work of Truck Farm Chicago – a mobile educational unit that brings the growing farm to your kids.

5. Cook with your kids. Even if they won’t eat those vegetables (like one of my kids), take them into the kitchen and show them how to clean, chop and cook those veggies. They might sneak a taste when you’re not looking!  For ideas, check out the kid-friendly and healthy recipes on

Deepening your kids’ understanding of food is truly rewarding. Not only are you helping fulfill a basic need for survival, you’re also laying the groundwork for health and growth. Ideally, your kids will learn to make healthier food choices by feeling more connected to their food. Have some fun with food this fall!

I’d love to hear anything you’ve tried to get your kids more involved with cooking and eating healthy. Say hello in the comments!

How do you feel about buying groceries at the big- box store or warehouse club? I have to admit I feel uneasy about buying “fresh” food at Target. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Because the store seems so far removed from a “real” grocery store, I feel like I’m getting a product that’s not really fresh, or is overly processed. In an ideal world, I’d grow all my own produce or buy it all at the farmers market from a local farmer. However, that is not always practical in my suburban life, so I find myself picking up apples at Target along with the cleaning supplies, or buying grapes along with the paper products at Costco.

So the other day I was washing some Costco grapes. (As an aside – did you ever wonder about that white residue on grapes? Turns out it’s a totally natural waxy substance, called bloom. It’s not pesticide residue – but wash your grapes anyway!)  I noticed this little declaration on the grapes’ plastic box: “Trace me!” alongside a QR-type code. I tried to scan the code with my QR reader, but it didn’t work, so I went to the website listed on the box:, and typed in the 16-digit code on the grapes package. The website took me to a page about Anthony Farms, where I learned about the origin of my grapes, including the region in which they were grown. I would have liked  information about when the grapes were harvested and packed, but that information was not available. Still, I was impressed with the intention behind this technology, which is to connect consumers back to the farms their food is coming from.

“Food traceability” is becoming a buzz-worthy issue, as it should. Eating safe, healthy food should be everyone’s concern. Knowing where your food is coming from, rather than just accepting the packaged food that shows up at your local store, is a step in the right direction. It’s a way for consumers to take ownership of what they are eating, even if they are unable to grow their own food. HarvestMark, especially when it becomes more widely adopted, will definitely be useful for me as a shopper. I’m concerned about food safety, and I like to buy produce grown in the U.S. if possible, so this is one way to feel more certain about the food I’m buying. Recalls and other issues are also reported on the HarvestMark site (although it should be pointed out that these are strictly voluntary by the food producer).

I also downloaded the  HarvestMark app for my smartphone, which inludes a code reader that enables you scan groceries at the store to see their origin. Here’s where the fun comes in for the kids. Scanning and reading about where produce comes from would make a fun and educational “techy” activity for any home learner. 

What do you think? Would you use technology like this to track your food? Do you care about food traceability? How do you deal with it?

Don’t you just want to pet him? Alas, he’s a fear biter. Use caution!

I’m a dog person. I’ve enjoyed the company of dogs for nearly my entire life (currently the adorable canine pictured at left).  I used to assume every dog was friendly, until I became the owner of a dog that did, indeed, bite someone — actually, two people (yes, that same adorable canine). I love my dog and I am now dealing with his “special temperament” responsibly. I’m happy to say that no one was seriously injured, and we have had no more biting incidents. However, “dog and people safety” has become a constant issue for our family, and one we take very seriously. It’s a terrible feeling to be the owner of a dog that bites someone. Being on the receiving end of a bite is, no doubt, even worse!

Today, I find my approach to strange dogs is much different than it was before my bubble of “dog naivete” was popped. The truth is, all dogs have the potential to bite – out of fear, pain, territoriality, or true aggression. So when I found out that this week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, I wanted to take the opportunity to raise awareness about something that’s a lot more common than we dog-lovers like to think. Did you know:

-An average of 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

-Children are by far the most common victims of dog bites

-Nearly HALF of all dog bites involve children being bitten by the family dog

Even if you don’t own a dog, it’s likely that your child encounters dogs on a regular basis – at friends’ homes, at a soccer game, on the way to school. Please take a few minutes to learn about dog behavior and  educate your kids so they will never have to feel the pain of a dog bite!


There are hundreds of articles online on how to prevent dog bites. Here are some resources from some of my favorite dog experts:

1. An online dog safety program including a quiz from This is a child-friendly review that includes safety tips for situations kids find themselves in daily, such as:

  • If a dog is chasing you while you are riding your bike, stop your bike and put it between you and the dog. Then stand very still.
  • Never try to pet a dog that is behind a fence or in a car. The dog may try to protect his territory and bite you.
  • If your ball goes over the fence, ask the homeowner to get it for you.

2. Check out radio host and dog trainer Greg Kleva on Facebook for some great information and tips on dog bite prevention this week.

3. For dog owners: An audio MP3 (about 11 minutes) featuring Victoria Stillwell (of “It’s Me or the Dog”) on how to deal with an aggressive dog that you own. She says 99% of the dog bites she has seen have been due to the dog being fearful.

4. Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan also has an article on his blog with some tips for protecting your children around dogs. Most important, I think, is the “no talk, no touch, no eye contact” rule for strange dogs. This is a tough one for people to understand, but dogs don’t always interpret our “friendly greetings” – smiles and hugs, for example – as friendly.

5. Intriguing: This Blue Dog Parent Guide and CD claims to be the “only dog bite educational tool scientifically proven to help young children learn behaviors that can keep them safe.” It’s geared for ages 3 to 6. I haven’t personally checked it out, but for only $8 through the American Veterinary Medical Association, it may be worth a gamble.

Have you or your child been bitten by a dog? What triggered the bite? Stay safe, everyone!

Just trying out the “blog this review” functionality on the social reading site I use, GoodReads. I love using GoodReads to keep track of books I’ve read, and, especially, to remember the books I intend to read. I also get a lot of new reading ideas from my friends on the site. I don’t do a lot of book reviews, but maybe I’ll start!

Three Stages of Amazement: A Novel

Three Stages of Amazement: A Novel by Carol Edgarian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love books that try to make sense of life, and for that I give this book due respect. Somehow it managed to capture the essence of “middle marriage” without being trite or predictable (though it skated right on the edge). It brought home some universal themes with great details and a few memorable characters; unfortunately the main character was not one. While I related to the heroine, Lena, I never fully bought her character. I felt that I had to take the narrator’s word for it that Lena was “all that”: everyone else certainly seemed to worship her, but I never quite got the evidence that she was doing anything more than surviving. Ivy and Cal were the best-made characters in the book, in my opinion. I found the author’s voice a little confused at times. Instead of an omniscient narrator, it almost seemed that the characters were omniscient, making comments that were almost unbelievably global and perceptive. Once I suspended my disbelief and moved past that, the book picked up and the story became quite compelling.

I did find it stunning that the author managed to make this book as current as the events of 2009 and handled that context very well. In all, I enjoyed the storytelling and the themes. What this novel depicts well is that wounded children become lost adults who then wound their own children; that we take our mates for granted, “throwing love over our shoulders” while we try to deal with our own demons, and that “being here now” is all that really matters, for we can lose everything in a heartbeat.

View all my reviews

Today I saw a respected feminist writer openly mock another woman on her Facebook page. Not only did she post a picture of the targeted woman’s face, she accompanied the photo with a snarky “quiz” about what the woman’s facial expression showed she was thinking. That is pretty mean, right?  We would expect better from our pre-teen kids on Facebook, correct? Not to mention that the owner of the Facebook page has 9,000 followers and the “target,” while she had agreed to appear on a national TV show, was a regular person and relatively “klout”-less.

Yet this behavior was justified by the poster and many of her followers because the targeted woman was “unenlightened” – as it were.

Here’s what I saw: Mean girl behavior, plain and simple. The owner of the Facebook page, perhaps a little giddy from some recent successes by her and her tribe, simply took it too far.

Was it a funny? Perhaps. Did it give her followers a good bonding moment as they trashed the stupidity of the target? Definitely. Did it set a good example for their daughters? Not so much.

My stomach turned when I saw it. I debated on whether to say anything, because the page owner is someone I respect, and I did not want to start a flame war. But, because I tell my kids to stand up when they see bullying, I called it as I saw it. I was mildly attacked by one commenter, but a few people agreed with me. The page owner, though she back-pedaled a bit by asking people to focus on the issue and not the targeted woman, has not said she was wrong nor apologized.

As adults, we need to be conscious of the example we set with our behavior. We need to make sure our behavior lines up with the values we espouse. And then, if we screw up, admit as much, repair the damage if possible, and try to have better behavior next time. That’s what I tell my kids, anyway.

A big part of parenting now is being involved in kids’ media choices. As pop culture gets pushed down to younger and younger children, parents have to work harder to figure out which songs, games, movies and books are appropriate for their child’s age group. While the proliferation of technology makes our job harder in many ways, technology tools can also help parents in our quest to stay on top of the media our kids are consuming. Inspired by my friend Duong Sheahan’s post on her top five apps for college students, I decided to make a list of my favorite apps for what I call “conscious parenting.” Here are some apps I use to make media choices and to buy or rent books, music and movies.

Common Sense Media If you’ve never checked out Common Sense Media, you are missing out on a great parenting resource. This independent organization provides free reviews, advice and media literacy curriculum to help families and educators make good choices for kids of all ages. I love their 10-point mission, which reads more like a manifesto on “media sanity.” Reviews use child-development principles to determine age-appropriateness, but the site also lets kid and parent reviewers weigh in. The Common Sense Media app lets you read reviews of movies, games, TV shows, music, and more on the fly. Even better, the reviews are sorted by age so you can quickly find what is appropriate for your kid.

SoundHoundEver find yourself wondering whether that pop song on the radio is age-appropriate? Soundhound will help you figure that out pretty quickly. With this instant music recognition app, just let it “listen” to the song for a few seconds. Soundhound will identify the title and artist, and from there give you access to the lyrics. Take a look. Can you read them without blushing? Soundhound is also fun to use for identifying music you like, and finding new music you’ll enjoy.

Now that you know what’s age-appropriate, how to get that media quickly? Most of the parents I know are constantly on-the-go, so it makes sense to have apps that save time, like these: Assuming you already have an account, this app makes it super fast and easy to order books, movies, and music for your family.

Redbox:  If you like to rent movies from Redbox, you’ll love this app. It lets you find the movie you’re looking for at a Redbox near you, make sure it’s available, and reserve it for pickup. What could be easier? Again, it’s the on-the-fly convenience that makes this app so attractive. I’ve used it many times in the car on the way home from a soccer game.

Fandango: I use Fandango to find movie times near me. It also suggests nearby restaurants, if you’re planning a family night out. I  haven’t used it to actually purchase tickets yet. I find it to be reliable and quick, but I’d love suggestions on other movie apps.

Anything to add? What apps make parenting easier for you?

Plush toys aplenty

UPDATE: As of 2/20/12, the WONDER! store has closed. 

I keep my kids out of the mall/Target/ToysRUs as much as possible, partly because I don’t want to promote “shopping as a pastime,” or consumerism, and partly because I don’t want to have to say “no” a million times when they ask for everything in sight. So, when I was invited to the new WONDER! store opening in Deerfield, Illinois, I was a little skeptical. After all, do we really need another big toy store? Wasn’t it just going to be another egregious display of consumerism in the affluent suburbs of Chicago? A company touting itself as “the country’s largest children’s retailer” surely sounds like a place to be overwhelmed and underinspired. So, imagine my surprise when WONDER! turned out to be rather delightful. Yes, it’s slick, but it’s also surprising. Yes, it’s upscale, but it’s also down-to-earth.

Art supplies abound

Targeted mainly at families with kids ages 0 to 7, the enormous WONDER! store features 135,000 square feet of retail space. An impressively large proportion of that space has been devoted to letting kids play, including a 20,000-square-foot interactive play space with “custom topography” (colorful hills to play on). Add to that party rooms and class rooms which are set to feature a variety of educational offerings from art to zoology, and WONDER! has created a potentially hot destination for frazzled parents during a long Chicago winter.

Test track for trikes

The aisles are wide, and play is encouraged, from a bike-and-trike “test track” to the dollhouse aisle, where kids are encouraged to try out the product. When I asked founder Shane Christensen whether WONDER! has a philosophy that helps determine what types of toys to carry, he said the company wants to encourage “unstructured play and imagination.” Though the store does carry mass-market products such as Barbie and HotWheels, he seemed particularly proud of the arts-and-crafts selection, which is huge. It’s definitely the largest selection of Alex and Melissa and Doug products I’ve seen under one roof.

Dollhouses you can actually try

Another feature that makes this a great family destination is the on-premise Bean Sprouts Cafe (soon to be completed). Serving food that is kid-friendly, fun, and healthy is no small feat, but these folks have perfected that art. Bean Sprouts is also nut-free, music to the ears of many parents with food allergies in the family. WONDER! has also opened an online shopping site,, but the main attraction right now is the unique retail space and interactive play offerings. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and shop with your kids. So why not get the job done and have fun?

Dreamy play space

Finally, I don’t see any information about community outreach on the WONDER! website yet, but I hope that’s in the offing. I’d love to see WONDER! conduct a coat or mitten drive to help needy local families, make a donation to an infant needs outreach like First Things First, or perhaps offer some “scholarships” to some of their cool enrichment classes. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt while they complete their massive launch, because WONDER! seems like a store with its heart in the right place. Have fun checking it out with your kids!

Disclosure: I was invited to a blogger event at the WONDER store, where I received a gift card, cookbook and music CD. I was not asked to write this blog post.