Who I Want to Be as a Mom

I’ve been in a life coach program for about 8 months (JodyMoore.com), and I have learned so much about thoughts, feelings, relationships, and embracing all of life, including the difficult parts. Through this program I have learned that my definition of a successful parent needs to be about what I do and how I show up and not about any result outside of me and my control. I envision a space in front of me where I have my thoughts, feelings and actions, and then my part ends. Whatever happens beyond that space—meaning my children’s thoughts, feelings and actions—belongs to my children, not me.

After listening to Jody’s podcast on parenting (Better Than Happy episode 167), I sat down and wrote this article. Of course, I’m not perfect at all these things, some I’m better at than others, but this is kind of my parenting aspirations, my manifesto. You may not agree with all the ideas, and that’s fine. They are just that: ideas. But I hope it helps you see parenting in a new way and helps you to go easier on yourself and your kids!

Who I Want to Be as a Mom

I’m a mom who offers help when I see my kids are sad. I don’t need to also feel sad or mirror their emotion.  I can offer help and interact with them and know that their sadness is okay. All is as it should be. It’s okay for them to have negative emotion because that is part of the human experience. I offer to listen and offer to help them work through it. I don’t give the impression that their feelings are wrong (by saying things like, “don’t be mad/sad,” “why are you feeling that?!”). I won’t try to get them out of the circumstance (this is now called “lawn mower” parenting). I won’t think to myself that there is something wrong with their situation or their feelings. I have a new outlook on struggles, difficult circumstances, and negative emotions in my kids. I see now that these are all for their benefit. Difficult times are times of growth. It’s okay for them to struggle. Life isn’t always easy or comfortable. I also see that making the struggle into something bigger (this shouldn’t be happening, why are they/we unlucky?) just makes it worse. I choose to believe that the universe is constantly conspiring in my and my kids’ favor.  If this is happening, then it is just what is supposed to happen.  We don’t know why, and we don’t need to know why. I choose to not resist reality.

I’m a mom who creates routines, rules, and guidelines for my kids. However, I don’t believe that my children “should” follow those rules and guidelines all the time.  The purpose of growing up is to try out all the different options of behaving. Whatever behavior my children choose is okay.  I don’t need to make that behavior mean anything about my parenting, or their personality/fixed character, or their future. If it’s happening, then it is supposed to happen. We can all learn from it. Kids will and should make mistakes.

I have rules and guidelines for my kids because I believe that children thrive with a little structure. But I also believe that children should also be able to discuss the rules and guidelines with me if they have a difference of opinion. We can have a calm, respectful conversation. If I say no to a request, I can do it without getting angry at them for asking (they’re supposed to ask for more and more!), without feeling guilty, and without believing that their negative emotion is a problem. If I choose to give in, I don’t need to worry that this will “ruin” them or make them more irresponsible in the future. Whatever happens is okay.

I’m a mom who sets up our family life such that religion is a central part.  We go to church, hold callings, participate in church activities, have family scriptures and Family Home Evening on a consistent basis.  I do this because I enjoy these things and I enjoy spending time with my family.  I don’t do these things so that my kids will behave a certain way or be a certain way when they grow up.  They can and should choose their own path, choose what they want to believe and how they want to act.  However they act doesn’t say anything about me or my parenting.

I’m a mom who gives a lot of love to my children.  I do nice things for them, listen to them, and try to accommodate their needs. I do this because I choose to and not because I require anything from them in return (such as gratitude, telling me about their lives, or obedience).

I’m a mom who gives my children a lot of latitude in how they feel and behave. If they are grumpy, that’s okay. If they are acting out/having tantrums, that’s okay.  I see the noise they make as construction noise: not my favorite but I’m not making a big story about what it means (for example, thinking there’s something wrong with my parenting). I know I can feel however I want to feel regardless of how they are acting. It’s natural to feel negative if they are grumpy or to be irritated with them when they are irritated with me.  But I try to remember that I can choose my thoughts and therefore my feelings, and I don’t need to mirror them. Once I’ve done what I feel is right in the situation (offered to listen or help them work out their problem), I don’t really even need to notice how they’re acting.

I’m a mom who loves whomever my children love.  Whatever friend they are hanging out with, whomever they are dating or marry, I will love that person also. I can choose to feel love for the people my children want to spend time with. I will accept them and treat them with kindness.  Whatever happens in that relationship will be just the right thing for my child. I don’t know how their lives are supposed to go, so I don’t need to worry that something is going wrong.

I’m a mom who chooses to believe that my children are on their own journeys and the best thing I can do is love them and allow them to be on those journeys. If they are struggling, I don’t need to make that mean anything about my life. I control myself and my emotions, and the best thing I can do for them is to take care of my own happiness and peace and give them the space to act and feel however they want. I believe that it is not my job to make my kids happy, and I realize that the reason I want them to be happy is so that I can be happy.  But I can feel that emotion whenever I choose.

My weaknesses are part of my kids’ growth and journey. I’m the perfect mom for them (even with my imperfections). Also, whatever interaction they have with their dad, sisters, or grandparents is just right for them.  I can’t and don’t need to manage that, and I will end up feeling resentful if I try to.

Teach Children Mediation Skills

I’ve been working in the nursery in our church (a class for 18-month-old to three-year-old children) and it’s such a joy. I love to watch the way the little ones interact. Most of the time they are cute; they do and say darling things, but it’s even more entertaining when they are mean! They grab toys aggressively, pull or push another child down for no reason, or hit with surprising force when they want a toy. Of course, I find this entertaining because these are not my children, but I also enjoy these moments because I have a secret weapon! I have the most powerful tool for these situations, which I have written about before, but being around these children reminded me of it and I wanted to reemphasize it and share it again.

In a nutshell, the tool is “use your words,” but you must give the child the exact words to say.  A two-year-old doesn’t know what to say to solve these problems, and if we come in and solve the problem for the children, they don’t learn what to say. I’ve always felt that it far more important to teach children to keep the peace than to teach them to share. If they know how to keep the peace, they have mediation skills, and these can serve them in a variety of problematic situations.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  For clarity, I’m going to use T and S for the names of the children.  Let’s say that T is playing with a toy, S comes over and grabs it, and T starts to cry or fuss.  As the leader/parent I come over and gently hold S’s hand that is holding the toy.  I say, “Ask for the toy, say, ‘Can I have it?’” S then repeats “Can I have it?” (Or sometimes she looks blankly at me and I repeat the instructions.)  If T seems like he won’t mind giving it up I instruct T to say, “Sure, you can have it.”  If T appears upset at losing the toy, I say to T: “Tell her, when I’m done you can have it.” Again, the instruction might need to be repeated if T doesn’t understand.

It is amazing to watch the transformation that occurs when this process is followed.  The children relax, as if they are relieved that there is going to be a peaceful solution.  Just by saying “can I have it?” tensions are calmed and the atmosphere becomes friendlier. Saying those words, even though they are simply copying you, empowers the children and gives them a sense of control.

Sometimes I might explain to T: “If you’re done with it you can say yes, but if you want it for longer, you can tell her she can have it in a minute.” If S continues to fuss about wanting it, I will ask T, “How many minutes to do you want it?” If no answer is forthcoming I’ll offer some ideas: “Five minutes?” Eventually T will say, “Yeah, five minutes.” Then I instruct T: “Tell S, say, ‘You can have it in five minutes.’”  It literally does not matter the number of minutes chosen.  Knowing that there is a time limit gives both children peace.  Usually T will give up the toy before it’s even close to the five minutes. As we all know, the allure of a toy is when someone else wants it.  Once that is diffused, the child usually moves on to another toy.

I don’t believe that forcing a child to share makes the child kinder in future situations. Being forced to share creates a feeling of resentment and a sense that sharing results in unhappiness. It’s much more effective to gently encourage sharing while teaching children how to get along in general, using tactics such as finding another toy of that type for the friend who wants your toy or finding a way you can both play with the toy. Teaching your child how to use words to get what he wants and to resolve conflicts takes more time in the short term, but in the long run you will be mediating fewer conflicts.  And your training will give your children strong personal relationship skills that will be beneficial throughout their lives.

For more on this topic, see Use Your Words.

The Power of Family History

The idea that telling your children about their family history is important could have been included in the Family Unity post.  But I felt it was so vital I wanted it to have a post all its own.  I always believed that telling children stories about your life, as their parent, would help them see you as a real person, someone who made mistakes and learned from them, and this would in turn help you have a closer relationship now and in the future.  However, I did not realize the great significance of telling these stories and those of extended relatives and ancestors, until I read a book review of The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler.

One of Feiler’s main “secrets” is to tell your children the story of their family.  Feiler refers to research studies showing that children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Knowing more about family history turned out to be the single biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being!

In this New York Times article he describes why and how he started trying to find the secrets to happy families, and how he was surprised at the large and lasting effect telling children their family stories had.  He discovered research from Dr. Marshall Duke who, with his colleague, developed a scale called “Do You Know?”  It asked children if they knew where their grandparents grew up, where their parents went to high school and how they met, about an illness or other tragedy in their family, and many other such questions.  The researchers were astounded to discover “that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

It makes sense that knowing these stories helps children feel a part of something bigger than themselves and gives them something to hold on to in times of difficulty.  Children know that people in general crossed the Atlantic and came to America for freedom (at various stages in history), but to know that your ancestor specifically was one of them – to know a detailed story about their difficulties on the trip and getting settled once they were here – can be very impactful.  It gives children a special connection with someone who has overcome great odds.  They come to believe that they have the same strength – it is in their blood.  That is just one example of a story you might tell. Every family and every person has had triumphs and difficulties.  It is so important to share these with your children.

Some parents might want to emphasize the successes, but learning about the struggles is what really sticks with children.  The “overcoming obstacles” stories from your ancestors teach them that when challenges come, if we keep on working, things do get better eventually.  It is not abstract knowledge; it is just not a lesson you sit down and present to your children about how hard work pays off. It is a first-person account, a family story of someone they are related to, and the power of that cannot be underestimated. It is huge!  Additionally, telling your children these stories will draw you closer together because they are your shared history.  They link you to each other as well as to your ancestors.

Tell your children about your life, about their birth and life, and especially about the lives of their grandparents and ancestors.  This might require some research on your part.  Reach out to relatives and ask them to tell you (or your child) about their lives. You can also ask those relatives how you can get more information about your ancestors.  Build an intergenerational story that shows your children they are part of something large and meaningful.  Be sure to include the happy moments and the difficult ones; you will give your children the skills and the confidence they need to overcome their current or future hardships.

Family Unity

Much of what is in this post will probably not be new to you.  But hopefully it will be a good reminder of how to create positive feelings and memories in your families.  Those positive experiences can strengthen you and your children as you go through the more difficult times.  Family unity is so important because everyone wants to be a part of something.  If children don’t feel their families are something special and important to be a part of, they will find other groups where they feel included and wanted.  Family unity can come from many different sources, and it’s okay if your family doesn’t do all of these things listed below.  I’m going to talk about traditions, family pride, and family culture as ways to build family unity.

Family Traditions

Most people have family traditions and know of their importance.  It means a lot to children to do the same thing each year at certain holidays or seasons.  Sometimes you will continue the traditions you or your spouse had growing up, and sometimes you will change them to fit your family’s needs.  It’s important to be deliberate (as opposed to sporadic) about these traditions – write them down and make a note to do them every year.  It doesn’t matter so much what you do or how many traditions you have, as long as you have something and do it consistently. Children will start to notice the traditions and look forward to them.

One yearly tradition we have enjoyed is having “special time” with each child.  Once a year we plan a one-on-one time between each parent and child (so 8 combinations in all) where the child can choose what to do. We used to do this more often, but as schedules got busier we felt like once a year was the right balance. It almost always involves a meal or a treat, and the other activities have ranged from visiting the nature center, going bowling, going for a bike ride, or going to the mall.  It is a designated time to talk individually with that child, build the relationship, show her how important she is, and give her an opportunity to talk about her life.  Hopefully we have good communication with our children throughout the year and keep up on what is going on with them, but knowing we have this once a year “check-in” is important to both us as parents and to the children.  It has been very rewarding and sometimes very meaningful.  It takes some advanced scheduling and prioritizing, but that demonstrates to the children that they are significant to us.  These same activities (going for a treat or on a bike ride) come up spontaneously throughout the year, but there is something powerful about a scheduled event for the child to look forward to.

Picking raspberries on our Special Time
Picking raspberries on our Special Time


Another annual tradition that has been worthwhile to us is reviewing our Family Timeline.  We do this once a year at one of our weekly family meetings, around the time of our wedding anniversary.   We put a long line of masking tape across the carpet and set papers with different years at intervals.  We place pictures, scrapbook pages, and other mementos along the tape to designate the important events in our family: our wedding (the creation of our family), graduations, moves, births and baptisms of children, anything that has importance.  We talk about these events and what they meant to us.  My husband and I tell stories about how we met and about our wedding day.  It is so fun to share these things with our children and teach them about the creation and building of our wonderful family.  We usually end up looking through all the scrapbooks, talking, laughing, and reminiscing.

It is also beneficial to have a tradition of creating and reviewing family and individual goals.  This could be done at the beginning of the calendar year or the school year.  Goals help your family define where they are and where they want to go.  We all know the importance of articulating our goals and setting a vision for what we want to do and achieve in life.  Family and individual goals can be long term (all family members will go to college), and these can be reviewed every year.  Short term goals can be extrapolated from the long term goals (get 3.8 GPA, for example), and other short term goals can be identified, also (such as, learn to ski).

In addition to annual family traditions, there are also weekly and daily family traditions.  Going to church, having a family meeting, or going for a Saturday bike ride can be some of your weekly family traditions.  Daily traditions might include regular family dinner; a routine for waking up, saying goodbye, or going to bed; or family prayer.  Being purposeful about these smaller, more frequent traditions means making them a priority and making them a meaningful part of your family.  All these activities will provide positive interactions between you and your children and become the fabric of who your family is.

Family Pride

The next category of family unity is family pride or family identity.  This involves creating an individualized spirit for your family and getting your children excited to be a part of it.  One idea to build family pride is to have a family motto.  The family motto and other elements of family identity can be decided upon and reinforced in your Family Meetings.  Because we have four daughters, our family motto is, “Sisters forever, friends for life.”  It reminds us of our uniqueness in having all girls, and how we can and will be friends for our lifetime and a family forever.  I have the girls say it every morning as we have hugs and prayers before going out the door to school.  Some families also create a family flag, song, cheer, or mission statement, depending on the personalities and desires of the family members.  Corporations know the importance of mission statements and mottos to give all those involved with the company a sense of pride and togetherness, as well as a vision for where they are going and what their goals are.

Beyond our main family motto we also have 6 family values.  We created these based on our family interests and priorities and things we hoped our family would become.  Some of them are: Hoelzers love to learn! Hoelzers are hilarious! Hoelzers are happy!  These add to our family identity and help our children feel a part of something bigger than themselves.  They have responsibilities to this family and they receive benefits from being a part of it.  I can refer to these values in various circumstances for motivation and positive reminders.  For example, if a child doesn’t want to go to school I can say, “Hoelzers love to learn! The best place to learn new things is at school.”

Family Culture

The last method for building family unity that I want to talk about is creating your family culture.  You create a family culture by doing your regular, everyday things, whether you are aware of it or not!  What types of foods you eat, what songs you sing, what topics you discuss at dinner, these all combine to make up who you are as a family.  There are many ways to build a positive family culture, if you will be aware of and take advantage of the opportunities.  You can sing songs with your children while doing dishes, doing hair, in the car, or brushing teeth.  Children love music and singing teaches them a lot about speech patterns and sentence structure, as well as creates positive feelings.  I like to sing “positive message” songs to young children, such as “When We’re Helping, We’re Happy.”  Sometimes I make up words to familiar tunes to teach or reinforce a positive behavior.

You can learn new songs or poems as a family while traveling.  You can continuously be looking for ways to teach children new things or tell them stories.  I’m not very good at making up stories, so I often resort to books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen.  It’s a fun and creative challenge to take the story down to their developmental level! It’s also important to tell them stories about yourself and other family members.  See more about this in an upcoming post titled the Power of Family History.

Part of the family culture is also the home environment.  Family pictures and other pictures or important quotes on the wall and around the house can be silent teachers.  You don’t have to say, “Our family is important” because the presence of the pictures will say it for you.  The same goes for displaying children’s artwork or family history mementos.  Walk through your house and ask yourself, What message is this room giving my children?  What can they learn from just looking around?  This is the environment your children will be in for many hours of most days of their lives.  Make sure what they see around them is giving them messages you want them to receive.

Doing all these things to create family unity shows your children they are important to you and that your family matters.  Children feel safe and secure knowing that they are a part of something important and fun and that traditions and activities will be the same week to week, year to year.

I’m Bored!

This is just a quick idea for helping children find ways to entertain themselves.  When their friends are all busy and nothing sounds fun, it’s hard to get kids engaged in an activity.   For times like these I created an “I’m Bored” list and taped it inside the cupboard door.  The list is based on my children’s current interests and toys.  I try to update it every few months to reflect their recent birthday or Christmas presents and/or the season (summer/winter).  When my children complain of being bored I refer them to the list for ideas.  I encourage them to pick one and try it for at least fifteen minutes.  Often their choice from the I’m Bored list leads them to another idea and then another, and their boredom problems are gone!  I’ve heard of other moms who cut up the ideas on the list and put them in a jar. This would be fun too, but I prefer a list that the children can look over and see which idea jumps out at them.

I will include my list, but of course yours will be tailored for your children’s needs and interests.  Take a moment to write your own I’m Bored! list, and it will save you time in the future.

  • Play Legos
  • Play Yahtzee!
  • Take pictures with your camera
  • Do make up
  • Put on a dance performance
  • Listen to music
  • Play Trivial Pursuit
  • Play Electronic Battleship
  • Play Taboo
  • Paint a picture
  • Have a tea party
  • Look at your white binders (filled with crafts they’ve completed at school and home)
  • Play American Girl (new outfits!)
  • Draw on your white board
  • Play Lite brite
  • Go on Starfall
  • Go on Tumblebooks
  • Call a friend
  • Play house
  • Color
  • Play School
  • Do crafts
  • Make a treat
  • Play dress up
  • Play in the princess tent
  • Play a card game (UNO, Old Maid, Go Fish, trash can, Mexican poker)
  • Read a book
  • Sew with your sewing kit

Family Meetings

Many parenting experts recommend having regular family meetings of some sort.  There are a variety of ways to do this – different timing, formats and structures – but the overall purpose is to gather your family at a consistent time, touch base with each other, share information, and provide a forum for communication.

Modern families have so much going on and keep such hectic schedules; it’s imperative that you have a regular time to stop all of that activity and come together for a moment to regroup.  The stated purpose of these meetings usually has to do with planning the week, but the benefits extend beyond organizing schedules. Having a consistent time set aside to gather with your family will ensure that you and your children communicate frequently about many things.  The discussion of schedules can and will lead to other topics such as what happened in school last week, how they feel about their soccer team, or what they are studying in math.  If you go about your daily lives and never stop to spend time together, these kinds of discussions don’t have a space to come out and end up getting swept aside.

In your weekly family meetings (sometimes called Family Council), you could discuss any of the following: each child’s schedule for the week, family news or business, chores, problems, family decisions, family or individual goals, school successes, or rules.  Some weeks you might simply set forth information (“Here are your chores for the week”), and some weeks you might have more of a discussion (“How do you feel about your weekly chore assignments?”).   You could have each family member share something good and bad that happened in the past week.  You could talk about your family budget, maybe in regards to school clothes or upcoming vacations.  Some families hand out allowances at this meeting.  You could give a compliment to each child or have each family member say something they like about another family member.  Tailor the content of the meetings to fit your family’s needs and desires.

Everyone in the family should be allowed and encouraged to voice their opinion or thoughts on these during the meeting. These discussions can teach children how to listen to others and have a respectful conversation.  It gives family members a time to find out what is working well and what is not working well, and what they could focus on in the week ahead.  Every family meeting might not be an amazing experience, but having this consistent time to talk will help your family grow closer and will give you an insight into your children’s lives that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You will find out valuable and helpful information from your children.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), our family calls these weekly meetings Family Home Evening.  We have them every Monday night.  We use the meeting time for many of the above purposes, but we also have a lesson each time.  Members of the family rotate giving the lesson.  The lessons are usually centered on a religious concept, such as prayer or giving service, but they can be on other nonreligious topics as well, such as healthy living or the importance of education.  We’ve had lessons on the Supreme Court Justices and the beauty of nature.  Sometimes we do lessons on family unity and just play games together.  We always have a treat at the end of Family Home Evening.  The person who did the lesson the week before gets to choose the treat, and I try to accommodate whatever they want as a reward for their efforts.

I have often been quite impressed with the quality of lessons my children prepare.  The younger ones are excited to be like their older siblings and give a lesson all by themselves.  It is so rewarding to see the time and effort they will put in, even if the overall product is not as refined as an adult’s lesson.  Admittedly, this enthusiasm for lesson planning wanes in the teenage years.  I always have some easy-out lesson ideas if my older girls are busy or having a grumpy week.

Certain lessons have become yearly traditions for our family.  Every year, around the time of our anniversary someone does a lesson on our “family timeline.”  We put a long piece of masking tape on the carpet and label the years when our family started (when we got married), and all the important subsequent events.  My husband and I tell stories about how we met and our wedding day.  The kids love hearing about our lives before they came along and how our family came to be.

On Memorial Day we have a lesson on our family history.  Whoever is on lesson reads through our family history stories and creates a family tree or researches one ancestor’s life in specific.  It is very important for children to have a sense of where they came from and to whom they belong.  Hearing about ancestors and other family members overcoming hardships gives them the strength and security to get through their own struggles.

Another tradition we have started is having someone pick a quote for the week.  I’ve created a file folder full of quotes that I’ve gathered or printed out, some spiritual and some not.  The quote is read at Family Home Evening and also each night the rest of the week.

Even if you don’t have a religious component to your family meetings you could still have a rotating assignment for a lesson and have that person present information on healthy living, an educational topic, budgeting, or communication. If you are noticing a problem your family needs to work on, you can give a lesson on that (cleanliness, speaking respectfully, etc.).

Bruce Feiler is a bestselling author and public speaker.  He wrote a book called The Secrets of Happy Families, which I will discuss more in a future post.  He also has a highly entertaining and informative TED talk where he explains how having family meetings can help children grow in independence.  I hadn’t previously thought about this specific purpose of family meetings, but it makes sense and is another valuable reason for holding them.  He suggests that during family meetings parents should encourage children to plan their own goals, set their own weekly schedules, and evaluate their own work.  If you do this from the time children can understand the concept of goals and schedules, they will be in the habit of thinking about their own needs and working on improving themselves continually.

In our family we also have a daily family meeting, which we call family devotional.  We sing hymns, read from the scriptures, and have a family prayer.  It takes about 10-15 minutes, and it is definitely time well spent.  For us, family devotional extends the benefits of the weekly family meeting: we are able to check in with our children, briefly discuss any issues that might have come up, and spend a short amount of quality time with them, showing them what is important to us.  I have been so grateful for this habit because occasionally a longer discussion will result from this time together, where our children open up and talk about what is going on in their lives.  I know this would not happen if we were not in the habit of spending time together daily.

When your children are little, these family meetings will be short and sweet.  Don’t expect too much from young children, and have conversations and lessons that fit their age and stage.  Be kind and calm as you encourage them to pay attention or share their feelings.  The habit of regular family meetings will bring great rewards as your children get older.  Young children tell their parents all about their lives; sometimes parents want them to talk less!  But older children don’t share as willingly and are busier, so you spend much less time with them.  Having set family meetings that they are expected to attend provides a time to be together and a forum for them to express themselves.  I know my family wouldn’t be reaping the blessings of cooperative children and great family conversations during our family meetings if we didn’t hold them consistently, or if we’d been angry and upset about their behavior during the meetings.

The benefits of family meetings are many, whether you hold them weekly, daily, or both.  It is so important to take the time to gather members of the family and formally discuss news, problems, and successes.  Think of it as a “staff meeting” for your family.  Whatever format and content you choose for your family meetings, be consistent with them and over the years you will have a well-run family and a great relationship with your children.

Books on CD

In 2006 I had one of those change-your-life conversations.  We were heading to Jacksonville, Florida for a 3 month rotation as part of my husband’s residency training.  We would drive our family there (from Minnesota) and back, as well as make multiple trips to Orlando to go to Walt Disney World.  A friend of mine had done the same rotation and recommended listening to books on CD during the long drives. This suggestion had a huge impact on not only that rotation but the rest of my parenting career!  From then on, we have listened to books on CD anytime we had a long drive, and we learned to love them.  We were able to “read” so many more and different books than we could read at home. Listening to books on CD provides many of the same benefits as reading aloud to your children (see Read to Your Kids).  Children are enriched and educated by listening to the stories and the language. They easily absorb the vocabulary and syntax knowledge.

In preparation for our road trip and three month rotation, I borrowed or downloaded a stack of books on CD, and we had such a great time listening. I can still hear in my mind some of the voices and sounds from those books.  It made the car time fly by!  And, as an added bonus, bickering between the girls was greatly reduced.  They were so enthralled by the books that the time went by quickly and they didn’t think of arguing with each other over small problems.  My girls loved listening to books on CD so much that they started asking me to rent them so they could listen in their rooms.

A road trip is the ideal time for listening to books on CD, although sometimes it’s fun to do around town. However, hearing snippets of a book in between errands isn’t as attention-grabbing as listening to an hour or more at a time.  Try to find books at your children’s listening level.  This is usually a step or two above their reading level.  Look for books that your child will be interested in, and think about the length of the book, also.  If you read to your child often, he will be able to listen to longer books.  There are picture books on CD at the library that come with the book.  Thumbing through the pages of the actual book could help younger children listen longer.

There are various ways to get books on CD: buy them, borrow them from the library, download them from the library to your computer and burn onto discs, use an app like Audible and purchase audio books, or use an app like OverDrive and rent audio books from the library.  The restaurant Cracker Barrel has books on CD for purchase, and you can return them to any other Cracker Barrel in the country and get a refund, minus a small rental fee.

Our love of books on CD began before DVD players/TVs in cars were common, so we didn’t have as many options for car-ride entertainment.  But I would still recommend listening to books on road trips.  Watching movies can be a good way to pass the time and entertain children, but books on CD have substantially more educational benefits.  As I wrote in Read to Your Kids, words that children hear repeatedly will be easier for them to recognize when they start learning to read.  Having them listen to books on CD adds words to their listening vocabulary reservoir, which eventually overflows to the speaking, reading and writing vocabulary.  Listening to books will fill their brains with the sounds of words and get them accustomed to standard, grammatically correct English.  Movies have conversational English, which doesn’t have the same variety of words or structure of sentences that books have.

As an additional benefit, many of the books we listened to were interesting to us as well as the kids.  It was a shared experience for the whole family.  We could talk about the book together and look forward to the next chapters.  When we began making road trips from Minnesota to Utah every summer we created a 3-part system: listen to a book on CD for two hours, watch a DVD (usually 90 minutes to 2 hours), then have “quiet time” for 2 hours (reading, coloring, playing with toys or sleeping).  It worked great.

Below is a list of the books we’ve listened to and loved and would highly recommend!

Peter Pan
House at Pooh Corner
Mary Poppins
The little Princess
Black Beauty
Five Children and It
Ginger Pye
Wizard of Oz
Tom Sawyer
Where the Red Fern Grows
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Magician’s Nephew
Prince Caspian
Ella Enchanted
Ballet Shoes
Pinky Pye
Cricket in Times Square
Dear Emma
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Freddy the Pilot
Freddy and the Popinjay
Freddy Goes to Florida
All of a Kind Family
Trumpet of the Swan
Uncle Remus
Scarlet Pimpernel
Return to Goneaway
Freddy and Ignoramus
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler
Unusual Suspects
Million Dollar Shot
Just Grace
Porcupine Year
River Secrets
Silver Crown
Tale of Despereaux
101 Dalmatians
Salamander Spell
Salamander’s Spell
Frog Princess
Dragon’s Breath
Once upon a Curse
No Place for Magic
Dragon Princess
Dragon Kiss
A Prince among Frogs

Read to Your Kids/How to Raise a Reader

I chose to combine these two topics because the main way to raise a reader is to read to him as a child.  This is the number one and most important factor in encouraging kids to read later on, and it greatly increases their chances of enjoying individual reading.  The benefits of reading aloud to your children can not be overstated.  The US Department of Education Report on the Commission on Reading declared, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” And, “It is a practice that should continue throughout the grades.”

I was thoroughly convinced of this fact after reading Jim Trelease’s influential book, The Read-Aloud Handbook.  This post will go over the main benefits of reading aloud that Trelease outlines in his book; all of the quotes are from this book. If you have a deeper interest in this topic I highly recommend reading the whole book.  It is divided into two parts.  The first section reviews the research and reasons for reading aloud.  The second half is a “treasury” of read aloud book titles, including reading level and a summary of the content.  This list is immensely helpful for choosing books to read to your children.

There are two reasons reading aloud has such an impact on future reading skills: it builds vocabulary and it associates reading with pleasure or happiness.  Listening to books naturally and easily builds a child’s vocabulary.  They hear you speak the words of the book over and over, and those words come to mean something.  But there is another reason reading to children is far superior to speaking for vocabulary building.  There are thousands of words used in books that people do not use in day to day speaking.  The large majority of words used in normal conversation with a child come from the most commonly used 1000 words.  Even adult to adult conversations use only 5,000-10,000 words.  No matter how intelligent a parent is, the vocabulary used in books is much more varied that what he or she speaks to a child.  “Regular family conversations will take care of the basic vocabulary, but when you read to the child, you leap into the rare words that help most when it’s time for school and formal learning.”

Words that children have heard repeatedly will be easier for them to recognize when they start learning to read.  “Inside the ear words collect in a reservoir called the listening vocabulary. Eventually, if you pour enough words into it, the reservoir starts to overflow – pouring words into the speaking vocabulary, reading vocabulary, and writing vocabulary.  All have their origins in the listening vocabulary.”

Furthermore, “Written words are far more structured and complicated than spoken words.  Conversation is imprecise, rambling, often ungrammatical, and less organized than print.  In listening to stories being read aloud, you’re learning the standard English of books, the classroom, and most of the workplace.”  Watching TV or listening to every day conversations is not going to teach your children that type of language.

At the same time you fill your child’s brain with the sounds of words, create the listening vocabulary reservoir, and acquaint her with standard, grammatically correct English, you also connect reading with enjoyment and happiness.  Trelease states, “There are two basic reading facts: 1. Human beings are pleasure centered. 2. Reading is an accrued skill.”  In reading aloud we condition the child’s brain to associate reading with pleasure.  The comfort of having a nightly reading routine, of sitting cozily next to mom or dad, and of listening to the voice of the person they love the most is highly enjoyable to children.  Creating this pleasant experience night after night is a great investment in your child’s future love of reading.  When he gets to the difficult, boring parts of learning to read he will have the happy memory of reading together with mom or dad to sustain him.  He will have the determination to continue trying until reading to himself becomes as pleasurable as listening to his parent read to him.

Hopefully it is clear to you that nothing else you do as a parent has as great an impact on your child’s future reading ability and enjoyment as reading out loud to him does.  It is essential to his education.  It is also a loving, bonding act that can be highly enjoyable for both parent and child.

There are a few other ideas Trelease mentions to “raise a reader.” First, have a variety and a large quantity of printed materials in the home – books, magazines, newspapers.  There are studies that show that fathers reading the nightly newspaper have a large, positive impact on their children’s future reading.  I’m not sure how that will be affected by online newspapers.  Also, take children to the library regularly.  The library is like the reading store.  Going there shows your child the importance of and your commitment to reading.  It gives the child the opportunity to browse and be exposed to a larger variety of books than you could have at home.  Lastly, be an example of a reader.  Parents who read tend to have children who read more and who enjoy reading.  Talk about books with your children – ask them about theirs, tell them about yours.

I can confirm the immense power of reading aloud to children.  My husband and I knew the importance of doing this from the very beginning.  We made sure to read to each child individually each night, usually for 15-30 minutes, in addition to many sessions of reading books during the day.  We read out loud to them until they were in fourth grade.  Obviously they could read to themselves by this time, but we enjoyed this time together and knew the benefits of reading aloud well beyond the time our children learned to read.  Our girls have come to love reading independently and have done very well in school.  It has been a routine we loved doing with and for our daughters and have been grateful to see the ample rewards of our efforts.

To conclude this post I want to list some books that we have enjoyed reading to our children over the years.  These are our favorites that we have made sure we read to each girl.  Many of them might appeal more to girls than boys, so I apologize that I don’t have an equal list for both genders. I’m not including any picture books, although obviously that is what you will be reading to your children from birth through about 1st grade.

I would love to hear about books you have enjoyed reading to your children – picture books or chapter books!  Leave a comment!


FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN (preschool-2nd grade)

(All of these have a series of books)

A to Z Mysteries (Roy)

Magic Tree House (Osborne)

Horrible Harry (Kline)

Cam Jansen (Adler)

B Is for Betsy (Haywood)

Judy Moody Gets Famous (McDonald)

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (MacDonald)

Trouble according to Humphrey (Birney)

Time Warp Trios (Scieszka).  Similar to Magic Tree House but a slightly higher level. The trio of friends goes back in time and learns about different cultures, etc.

Amazing Days of Abby Hayes (Mazer)

Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo (Krulik)

FOR OLDER CHILDREN (1st-4th grades)

There are a few different ways to find out the level of individual books.  You can look them up in the Trelease book I mentioned.  You can search for them on lexile.com.  Or, some school or public libraries have AR levels or another way to level books.  This can get complicated and difficult, but one easy way is just to start reading the book to your child.  If it holds her interest, it’s the right level!  Try some higher level books occasionally, you might be surprised.  Don’t worry if she doesn’t understand all the words or concepts.  It’s good just to be exposed to them.

Caddie Woodlawn (Brink).  A prairie pioneer story – more interesting and succinct than Laura Ingalls.

Hattie Big Sky (Larson)

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Konigsburg)

The rest of the books have many books in their series or the author has other great books.

First Farm in the Valley (Pellowski).  A series of four books all set in Wisconsin, about a Polish-Catholic pioneer type family that immigrates to America.  The books are all based on the author’s ancestors, and there is even a family tree in the front cover of one of the books.  The series takes you from the first farmers to almost modern day.

Birchbark House (Louise Erdrich).  A series of three books about the Ojibwe Indians in northern Minnesota.  The stories are so interesting and you learn so much about the Native American culture.

Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfield).  A series of three books all set in London in the 1940s – about three adopted girls and their experiences in ballet, theater, dance.

All of a Kind Family (Taylor).  A series of five books about a Jewish family with four daughters living in the tenement houses in the upper east side of NYC, around 1910.

Little House on the Prairie (Wilder).  These can be hard to read because she explains how they do everything down to the last detail.  But if your child has the patience for them they are very interesting.

Betsy-Tacy (Lovelace).  Many books in this series, all of them wonderful.  They chronicle the lives of two little girls growing up in a suburb of Minneapolis around the 1920s.

The Saturdays (Enright).  Four-book series about a family in New York City and then the countryside, about 1930s.

Ella Enchanted (Levine)

Ramona (Cleary)

Ginger Pye (Estes)

The Penderwicks (Birdsall)

Princess Academy (Hale)

Mary Poppins (Travers)

Wizard of Oz (Baum)

The Great Brain (Fitzgerald)

Sibling Fights

A friend of mine suggested I do a post on sibling arguments.  I want to use this as an example of how we can take any parenting problem and apply the different principles from this blog to find solutions.

If you are concerned about your children’s arguments, start with the following basics.

1. Build your relationship with each child separately. Help each child feel secure in your attention and love.

2. As they fight and bicker, remember that’s just how kids are, and practice patience. Siblings are going to fight. It’s normal, so don’t blow it out of proportion. Arguing with siblings helps children learn and practice communication and problem solving skills.  Stay patient, kind and calm.

3. Point out the good. Find 5 times in the next week when your children are getting along or being nice to each other. Say, “I’m so happy you guys are playing nicely together. There’s a good feeling in the house;”  “I like the way you are speaking kindly to each other today;”  or “Thank you for using your words to ask for that toy instead of just taking it.”  Try to think of the specific things they do that create arguments (grabbing a toy, poking or pinching) and then find times when they do the opposite and comment on the positive behavior.

4. Teach your children how to use their words. Tell them the exact words to use as you guide them through solving the problem. It takes a lot of parental time and involvement in the beginning, but soon they will start doing it more and more on their own.


Beyond those basics, there are a few other things you can do to help your children get along with each other.

Let’s start with what I call The Three Steps to Apologizing.  If one child (Jane) has hurt or harmed her brother (Tom), and Tom is upset, I have Jane say three specific things:

First, “I’m sorry I ____” (fill in the blank with whatever she did. Make it a sentence, not just two words).

Second, “I won’t do it again.”

Third, “Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Having the offending child say these three things creates a conversation between the two of them instead of just an unrepentant, “Sorry.”   It helps Tom (the one who got hurt) feel better, and it reinforces in Jane’s mind “I won’t do it again.” I tell Jane all these words and have her repeat them.  It seems a little contrived at first, but it teaches them what to say, and it diffuses the situation.

If Jane has physically hurt Tom, then we have a talk about that, also.  I will tell her, “It is not okay to hurt someone else in our home.  No one is allowed to hurt you, and you aren’t allowed to hurt others.”  Jane might be thinking (or saying), but I wanted that toy!!  She is not developmentally capable of generating a different method of getting what she wants other than grabbing and hurting. I know I need to teach her other solutions or tools for getting what she wants (which is what Use Your Words is all about).

If using words is not getting her what she wants (and her anger is rising!), she needs a backup plan.  This is how I teach my children to handle these difficult situations: “Jane, when you want something, the first thing to do is to use your words.  Don’t just say, ‘Give me it!’ but tell him what you want and why you want it.  Use lots of words and sentences to let him know why you need it.  If that doesn’t work then come get me to help.  I will help you solve the problem.  Remember, it’s not okay to hurt your brother when you don’t get your way.”

This formula of use your words and then come get me is something we talk about a lot when conflicts come up.  So after a while I might ask her to repeat it back to me; I could say, “What are you supposed to do when you want something?” and encourage her to tell me the two steps (use your words, then come get mom) with the added stipulations use LOTS of words, and never hurt or hit.  This simple format not only gives them the skills for solving their own problems, but also provides a secondary plan for help when needed.

Teaching your children this method implies that you are willing to be involved in their conflicts.  Many parents respond to sibling arguments with, “Don’t bother me with this!  Go somewhere else; figure it out on your own.”  I think those parents are missing a great opportunity to teach children about conflict resolution and to train them to stay calm and use words instead.  When you are present and involved you can help them diffuse the situation, calm hot emotions, and find a solution that everyone is happy with.

We often focus on what to do when siblings fight, but you can prevent contention from happening by being proactive and teaching children how to get along.  Teach them specific skills such as how to initiate play, how to find activities they both enjoy, how to gently decline when they are not interested, how to be less bossy (older children) and less passive (younger children).  Some theories say that sibling fights are based in a conflict over parental love, but really they are simply arguments over toys!  If you work on skill-building, the conflicts will diminish.

Competition between siblings is another form of conflict.  Going through the four basic principles at the top of this post will help with this problem, also.  It won’t make the competition go away necessarily, but it will give you the peace of mind that you have a plan and are doing the right things.  There are two other pieces of advice I have about reducing sibling competition.  The first is to avoid any comparisons between your children.  Most parents realize they shouldn’t say, “Why can’t you be like your brother?!” but there are some more subtle comments that can also tear children down.  If one child is feeling bad about something he didn’t do as well on as his brother, don’t say things like, “He’s good at basketball, and you’re good at drawing.”  You don’t want to pigeon-hole children or discourage them from continuing to work at something they are not currently excelling at.  You never know what each child’s potential is and you don’t want to do anything to stifle it.  It’s better to avoid any comparisons at all.  Only refer to the child you are speaking to.  Console him by saying statements such as, “Sometimes you do well at basketball games and sometimes you don’t,” or, “Some things comes easily to you and some you have to work a little harder at.” It’s okay to tell him some specific things to work on or gently ask what other boys on the team do to develop their skills. But don’t say, “Your brother shoots baskets every day; that’s how he improved.”  Just leave his brother out of it!

The second piece of advice is to not play up one child’s achievements in front of another child, especially if the second child is sensitive about his abilities.  When one kid brings home a report card with all As and you get all excited in front of the other kid, it sends the message that good grades is what makes mom happy, and the other kid feels like he won’t be able to bring mom that same happiness.  This is tricky because of course you want to celebrate the first kid’s successes.  But when there are sensitive issues try to celebrate away from the other child.  You could say, “Let’s go in the living room and look over your report card!”

Try to create a family culture of succeeding.  For instance, “Browns are great at piano!  You’re a Brown, right?”  This is better than saying, “You’re just as good as your brother!”  You don’t want to give the impression that he needs to live up to his brother’s achievements, but you do want to have a family culture of high expectations and excellent performance.  An even better statement is, “Browns work hard at piano and that hard work pays off!”  Focusing on the hard work instead of the outcome gives children a sense of control and greater motivation.

Watching sibling disputes and mediating between children can be frustrating and exasperating.  Much of the time parents need to be patient and suffer through the bickering and nit picking.  To deal with this or any parenting problem, start by applying the **Basic Principles.  Then move on to strategies specifically aimed at helping children solve their bigger disputes: teach them the three steps to apologizing and exactly how to use their words; remind them that if words don’t work come get mom (or dad); teach them proactive ways to reduce contention; and avoid sibling comparisons.  Remember, the problem solving skills they learn and practice though their sibling interactions will benefit them in all their relationships.

How to Prevent Messes

Every parent has a different level of cleanliness – the state of the house where we feel comfortable and “done” with cleaning.  And everyone goes through the same cycle: your house gets dirtier and messier and you feel overwhelmed, and then when you get time (and energy) to clean it and get it back into shape, you feel calmer.  There is a range or spectrum of normal cleanliness, and wherever you are on that range is okay.  You know where you feel comfortable and how much energy and time you want to or are capable of putting into it.  Your level of cleanliness comes from the type of house you grew up in and the habits you have developed over the years.  It takes a lot of work and energy to raise your overall level of cleanliness, and I’m not suggesting that is necessary.  There are pros and cons to being super clean.  Your house looks great and you avoid embarrassment when people pop by, but you also can get frazzled about messes and be overly strict with your children about cleanliness. I’m not saying everyone has to be perfectly clean, or that doing so will make you happier.  But I did want to share with you some ideas of how to prevent messes, with the understanding that your housekeeping methods may be different than mine, and that is okay.

I like to be organized and have everything in its place. But I don’t really enjoy cleaning, as in getting out the cleanser, spraying, wiping – deep down cleaning. Therefore, as a parent, one of my main goals is to prevent messes! If I can prevent a mess I will not have to do as much cleaning up afterwards and I will have fewer loads of laundry, which not only saves time but also uses less water, soap, and energy.  My motivations for preventing messes are somewhat selfish, but teaching children to be clean is beneficial to them (creates good lifelong habits), and it can lead to more interaction and time spent with your children.

There are three areas of the household you can focus on to prevent messes:  the kitchen (eating), the bathroom, and toys and activities.  Because we eat so often and eating can be so messy, meal times are the main opportunity for avoiding messes.  To help contain the mess and give children structure and order, have rules about where, when and how children eat.  Examples of such rules are: ask before getting any food; only eat in the kitchen area; sit down on a chair at the table to eat; wash hands after eating.  After these ground rules are set you can encourage them to eat as cleanly as possible: take small bites, lean over their plate, use their napkin.  All these skills take years to perfect, of course, and there is a certain amount of messiness inherent in feeding children.  But the point is you have a goal in mind.  You want to encourage and teach these practices all along the way, and eventually they will be natural to your children.

You also have to model these habits yourself. Eat purposefully, which means make your meal, sit down to eat, turn off the TV or other electronics, and enjoy time with your children.  This approach to eating has many benefits. It is better for your health – you end up eating healthier foods and less overall food.  It is calming rather than stress-inducing.  And it creates built in time with your children.  What starts out as a selfish endeavor aimed at having less cleaning and laundry is actually the ideal way to have a meal as a family.

Focusing on preventing eating messes can be a strength and a weakness. It’s important to get children in these good habits, but you don’t want to get too uptight about it.  Children have a developmental need at different ages to play with their food, touch their food, or feed themselves.  These are trying times for a clean parent!  You have to balance your need for clean with their need for exploring their food.  But you have the goal in mind to teach them, over time, the clean way to eat.  When your children are eating, stay close by with a rag or wipe to clean their hands and face before they touch furniture or their clothes.  If they are always seated (and hopefully supervised) while they eat, their clothes have a greater chance of staying clean.  Little by little you teach (but don’t expect) children to not throw their food, to not smear it in their hair, to take smaller bites that fit into their mouth, to not spill food on the floor, etc.

Another place that gets dirty quickly is the bathroom.  Kids + brushing teeth = huge mess!  I didn’t want to be wiping down the bathroom sink all the time, so I taught my kids to be clean when brushing their teeth.  I brush their teeth until they are about six years old, and after that I teach them to not use too much tooth paste, spit close to the drain, and wash down the spit when they are done.  If there are any globs of toothpaste in the sink I have them wipe those down with water and their fingers.  They don’t like doing that and learn quickly how to avoid creating those globs.

We have four girls, so our toilets don’t get very messy.  Some families with lots of boys teach them to grab a wipe and wipe down the toilet seat (one or both, depending on where the pee got) every time they go (once they start standing up to go).  This sounds extreme, but even with my little exposure to boys’ bathroom habits, I think I’d adopt that rule!

Lastly, children can be taught to be cleaner with their toys, activities, and other possessions.  Try to get children into the habit of putting away whatever game or type of toy they were playing with before getting out something else.  Also, teach them to ask you before they do a messy activity like painting or beads.  That way you can supervise them properly.  Another prevention tactic is to keep certain toys out of children’s reach.  Toys with lots of small parts like Legos or Polly Pockets can be kept up high.  The child has to request to play with them, and then you know (try to remember) that they’ll need to be cleaned up and put back up high when she is done playing.  You can see that teaching children these habits requires you to supervise them closely and continually remind them.  Children who are taught to stay out of certain cupboards or drawers will cause fewer messes.  I know this all sounds slightly ridiculous, as if you can just tell a child once to stay out of a cupboard and he’ll never open it again!  But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m just saying you can try.  Improvement in behavior happens over months and years.

When you walk into your child’s bedroom and see a huge mess, often there is part of you that knows you could have prevented this.  You could have checked on them more often instead of being on your computer or phone call.  You could have asked them to clean up the one game before moving on to another.  It’s a trade off: if you are more present and aware during the time they are playing, you’ll have less work to do afterward.  Sometimes it’s worth it to let them make a big mess, but it’s important to know that it is possible to prevent it.

In summary, you don’t have to prevent messes, but if you want to, there are strategies to decrease your time spent cleaning and doing laundry.  Try to help your kids learn clean habits (in a kind and calm way!) and you will reap the benefits.