Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks for February 2012

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The month of Valentines would not be the same without sharing a few more albums I adore.

My first pick is from Katherine Dines, one of the very first family artists I had the chance to introduce to my children. WIth her gentle voice and developmentally focused songs, Dines is a perfect choice for babies and preschoolers, though a number of her tunes suit grade-schoolers as well. On her collection of best-loved songs, Hunk-ta-Bunk-ta…Music for Growing Families, some standouts include “All the Way Around the World,” “Dad on Diaper Duty,” and “Sweet Shakin’ Bed Quakin’ Belly Achin’ Wide Awake Blues.”

Farmer Jason, whose real name is Jason Ringenberg, has won a host of honors, including an Emmy award for the children’s program he did in Tennessee. It’s easy to see why this fella is so praised since his storytelling and bluegrass-based music is full of so much life. On Nature Jams, his ode to having a good ol’ time in the great outdoors, Farmer Jason is joined by special guests (including musicians from R.EM., The Black Crowes, and Cheap Trick) as he rollicks through “Can You Canoe,” “Dison the Bison,” and “Have You Ever” (with Brandi Carlile). A DVD accompanies the CD, making it twice the natural fun.

Stephen Simon has been making marvelous albums that blend stories with classicial music for the Maestro Classics series. Two recently released examples are The Soldiers Tale (featuring the music of Igor Stravinsky) and My Name is Handel (spotlighting the composer’s “Water Music”). Both of these productions will hold children (ages 5-12) spellbound as they listen, learn, and are moved by the music.

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Surviving Shopping with Kids

By Gregory Keer

I am usually a last-minute shopper, which makes things even more intense. But as life gets busier, I’ve found that thinking ahead — if not shopping in advance — can go a long way toward making gift buying much easier. I’ve tried all of the following (though not always in the same year), which can help you manage this crazy season.

1. Have Fun

First, if you really think about, shopping for kids is one of life’s true pleasures. Buying something you worked hard to pay for and that you chose just for your child is wonderful. It’s also a way to live vicariously through your kids, buying things you would’ve liked to play with and certainly items you want to use in interacting with your kids. That being said, this is all a stressful proposition that you should plan for, so…

2. Lower Stress

Start early and shop at odd hours to lower the stress level. And don’t shop hungry — low blood sugar or high blood sugar can be dangerous (for you and the kids)!

3. Money Isn’t Everything

Set a budget and perhaps a number of toys you plan to get. Remember that grandparents and friends may give gifts, so do not feel pressured to ply your child with too much. They will ignore most of their toys within days if not minutes. You might even consider giving your little one a box to play with. No joke, but kids can hide, make puppet shows, forts, and more with just a big old box.

4. Age Appropriateness

Especially for younger kids, opt for items that require children to manipulate them. Too many electronic games do stuff automatically. Children develop motor skills and cognitive skills with toys they can build, stack, and color. Toys that multitask and can be combined with other things. Imagination is key – cars, character sets, i.e., Rescue Heroes and Barbies.

For the older kids, video and computer games are hard to avoid. Decide how much violence you want them to see in these games. Some research says these games are actually healthy, though never in large doses. Older kids tend to also like clothes, music, DVDs, and even cash to spend how they wish. With younger kids, you will shop with them, but older ones might like to get a budget and shop for themselves. Giving them money helps them focus on the task at hand and may get them in the spirit of giving. They may even do some additional chores to earn extra money.

5. Balance What They Want with What They Should Have

If you want guaranteed smiles, be sure to buy kids at least something that they asked for. On the other hand, you can select one or two things you think they should have, something education or challenging. If you’re really clever, you can lobby onto your child’s wish list if you make subtle suggestions like, “Your friend Jacob has a chemistry set. Isn’t that cool?”

6. Gender Gap

The gap is thinner than it used to be now that young boys will play with dolls and young girls covet baseball mitts. Even older boys are more into clothes than they used to be. Still, young boys favor trucks, superheroes, and trains while girls love dress-up clothes — princesses are bigger than ever — dolls, and fashion accessories. That being said, a creative purchase for boys or girls is costumes for imaginative play.

7. Types of Stores

Toy stores, video game stores, book stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, sporting goods shops. Bookstores are especially fine places to shop and not feel guilty. Think about balancing your list with items from the above kinds of stores.

Fun Ways to Make Lists

1. Stay Focused

Go in with a list to limit the tantrums and negotiations. You will probably have a fair amount of repartee with your child, simply because toy stores are meant to overwhelm parents and kids with all that can be had. So don’t expect a pain-free experience. On the other hand, do expect to have a good time. Pay attention at birthday parties; see what kids get and like. Pay attention at playdates and other social visits. What does your child love? If they can write (or need the practice), have them write their own list.

2. Prioritize

Kids ask for things all the time. On the list, prioritize those items that they ask for more than once or twice.

3. Written Promises

Whatever your child doesn’t get, write the item down on a new list for their birthday or next year. This will lessen the crying and whining

A Nifty Trick & A Warning

1. Try hiding some still-packaged toys and pulling them out of the closet for well-timed opportunities throughout the year.

2. Regarding toy safety, it’s best to stick with box recommendations and use your good sense about potentially dangerous toys.

While anxiety is an organic element of holiday shopping, these suggestions can truly help you minimize some of the big issues. The more you plan in advance, the more this experience will be about spending time with and teaching your kids a few things about the world of commerce.

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What Dads Need to Know: Five Ways to Raise an Athlete

By Terri Orbuch, PhD

When I was younger, I played competitive tennis in the fall on my high school tennis team, played on the badminton team in the winter, ran for track and field in the spring, and taught tennis in the summers to young children.

As a result of being an athlete, I learned coordination, leadership, team spirit, physical strength, and interpersonal skills. I learned how to cope with loss, frustration, and sheer exhaustion. I was taught to respect my coaches, support my team members, and challenge myself. In fact, sports taught me lessons and skills I would not have easily learned elsewhere. Besides, being an athlete was fun.

That’s why I was saddened to read that, according to the National Alliance for Sports, 20 million kids register each year for youth hockey, football, baseball, soccer, and other competitive sports, but about 70 percent of these kids quit playing these league sports by age 13 — and never play them again. The number one reason they quit, says Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, “is that it stopped being fun.”

That’s a shame, because the benefits for kids of staying active are many. How can we as parents help our children have fun being athletic? Here are some guidelines.

Get to the root of the issue.

If your child announces that she’s quitting the team, gets anxious before practice, or decides not to try out, find out why. Is she getting harassed by older or better players? Does she routinely get benched or yelled at by the overzealous coach? Is she feeling pressure to perform — either from her teammates or possibly even from you? Some questions to ask: How do you feel about the other kids on the team? How’s the coach treating you? How do you feel about your skills and how you’re doing on the team? Is it fun? If not, why not?

Become more involved.

If you suspect bullying by peers or unfair treatment by the coach, consider attending some practices to see if you can observe the problem firsthand. Another strategy is to get involved with the team, by manning the snack bar, hosting a team party, or being a volunteer scorekeeper, team photographer, or equipment manager. Coaches and teammates appreciate involved parents, and it’s great for your child’s morale.

Keep an upbeat attitude.Your child’s participation in sports is strongly affected by your attitude, so be aware of your words and behavior toward the sport, the coach, the referee or ump, and his teammates. If you’re overly concerned with winning, it sends a negative message to your child. But when you have a positive attitude about his participation (even if he loses, sits on the bench, plays people who are way out of his league, or fails miserably), he’ll imitate your behavior. Don’t be the parent who yells at the coach or refs. And be proud of your child for giving it “his best,” even when he loses.

Find a “sport” your child loves.Not all kids perceive themselves as athletic or oriented toward “sports.” The key is to identify an activity that resonates for your child. For example, does you child love to sketch? Then maybe hiking and birdwatching with a portable easel is the ticket. Is your child noncompetitive? How about biking or skateboarding for him? Is your child theatrical? Sign her up for hip-hop dance studio. From pep squad and marching band to archery and rock climbing, there are so many “sports” for kids that you and your child should be able to come up with something your child loves that develops physical skills. As for competitive team sports, think creatively: ping-pong, badminton, ultimate Frisbee, and bowling are some examples. If it’s not offered at school, find a community organization that sponsors one of these teams.

Keep them engaged with support.Don’t forget that children who are happy in their chosen sport need support too. You can encourage them to stay on course by taking an interest. Just like anything else your child does, your involvement is key to their success in that activity. You don’t have to be the coach, but try to go to their games, practice with them at home, help them pick out the right equipment or clothes, and make sure they get to practices. Even though they may love to play, they want you to feel proud of them too.

Keeping your child connected to sports they enjoy and helping them become passionate about physical activities they love is a gift from you that keeps on giving. Just as kids who grow up eating healthfully eventually adopt these good habits later in life once they’re on their own, being physically active and having positive associations with sports during youth encourages children to remain physically active as adults.

Terri Orbuch PhD, known as The Love Doctor, has been a practicing marriage and relationship therapist for more than 20 years, and is a popular love advisor on radio, TV, Huffington Post, and, most recently seen on NBC’s Today. A research professor at the Institute for Social Research at University of Michigan, and a professor at Oakland University, she is author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great (Random House), as well as a forthcoming book on finding love again after divorce. Find out more at

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What Dads Need to Know: The Long Ride Home

By Laura Diamond

The following is an excerpt from the journal about Laura Diamond’s cross-country experience with her husband and kids. You can read her entire travel journal at her Web site, linked below.

Moving from Stowe to Burlington, Vermont, meant moving up in population size from 5,000-ish to 40,000-ish. Like astronauts acclimating to earth’s gravitational pull after time in space, we were visiting increasingly larger places so that Los Angeles would not crack us upon re-entry.

Burlington, a bustling college town with views of Lake Champlain, was a boon to our license plate game.  Students gearing up for the start of classes at University of Vermont came from all over the country — Washington, Tennessee, Iowa, even California. Church Street Marketplace, several pedestrian blocks of stores and restaurants, was reminiscent of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, minus the buskers. We walked along the bluffs of Lake Champlain, and could all but convince ourselves we were on Ocean Avenue looking at the Pacific Ocean, but for the minor fact of New York’s Adirondack mountains in the distance.  Our adjustment process was progressing.

Until we visited Shelburne Farms, a 1400-acre working farm, national historic site and nonprofit environmental education center located on the shores of Lake Champlain, which welcomes guests to milk a cow, gather eggs, watch cheese being made, and enjoy food grown on its grounds. Two steps back toward small town goodness.

We left Burlington loaded with goodies from Shelburne Farms’ gift shop – wine, maple syrup and chocolate – to enjoy and share with friends and family who would be hosting us on our path. We decided to skip Boston and gratefully accepted an old friend’s invitation to visit her in Amherst. It had been nearly twenty years since we’d seen each other. Among other things, one of the highlights of this trip was the chance to renew friendships, and inaugurate new ones between our families.

The next day, racing against Hurricane Irene’s arrival, we aimed to arrive in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania in time for dinner. The route we chose was, nonetheless, along a path less taken.

Forgoing speed, we charted a course through Redding, Connecticut in order to visit the setting of My Brother Sam is Dead, a book we were reading to delve into American revolutionary history while in that neck of the woods. (Teacher extraordinaire Mr. Miguel Espinoza had pointed the way to, which pointed the way to the places in the book, as did Redding’s own town website).

Despite initial griping, Aaron took the helm of the camera, and documented the places from the book, including gravestones of the real people we were reading about.

We continued on smaller roads, through New York towns like Chappaqua (of Clinton fame) and Tarrytown (of Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow fame), crossing the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge. We arrived in Washington Crossing in time for dinner with grandparents, aunt, friends and dogs, and hunkered down for Hurricane Irene. When the coast was clear, we bade farewell and set off to complete our journey.

The boys could smell home, just two days away. They’d had it with history. With sightseeing. They were done. But we had two days, and the wealth of potential activities in Washington, DC tormented me. How could we choose? Bicycle tour of the monuments; visiting the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; tour the Bureau of Engraving & Printing to see money being made, the International Spy Museum?! These were all on our list of want-to’s. But time ran out, and they’ll be on our list again next time.

We decided to venture past Washington, D.C. (okay, we accidentally went to Virginia while looking for parking near the National Mall – my fault), to visit the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, and historic Alexandria, Virginia.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Mount Vernon. On the one hand, I was curious to see how the first President lived, see the faded wooden floors where he stood, the chair where he sat, the bed where he died. On the other hand, I was sickened by imagining the horror of being enslaved there, as I walked on the same paths as the human beings he dominated to keep his house painted, his chamber pots cleaned, his family well-fed and pampered. I looked at the massive stately tomb of the most revered American, knowing that paces away nearly 300 slaves were buried without so much as a gravestone.

So, that was fun.

We lightened things up later that afternoon in Alexandria, eating crepes outdoors by the Town Hall, cruising the Potomac, and browsing some of the 62 artists’ studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. We drove our rented Chevy over cobblestone roads past charming brick buildings. I soaked up the other-ness of it, anticipating the mini-malls and wide avenues of L.A. in my future.

The following day, our last full day of this summer adventure, we spent with friends at the Newseum, a gleaming treasure trove of history and temple to the First Amendment.

Here’s a place I could visit again and again. The kids were enthralled by “the Death Tower,” one of the checkpoints the museum had imported from East Berlin along with sections of the Berlin Wall. They listened with astonishment as to its purpose — for guards to see and then shoot fellow citizens trying to escape to the other side — and noted that the West side of the wall was painted with murals and graffiti, the East side was dismally blank.

In another exhibit, I listened to a radio report of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1932 Berlin Olympics, then watched Tom Brokaw reporting the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone had a chance to try their hand as TV news reporters, joining their cross-country friends.

And then it was over.

We boarded an airplane headed for Los Angeles. On my right, the kids watched a Harry Potter movie for the tenth or twentieth time. On my left, Christopher read a magazine. In the middle, I typed these words. When we pulled up to the California grandparents’ home, they were waiting for us, along with the cousins and sister we’d missed more and more every day.

Everything is as it always was.

Thanks for reading.

Laura Diamond is the mother of two (frequently healthy) boys. She is the editor of the best-selling anthology  Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, and is now at work on her first novel. Read more of Laura’s essays at Laura Diamond Writes On…

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Movie Aliens and Captains Offer Family Lessons

Maybe it’s the fact that my sons are getting older so I can take them to more films above the G rating, but I do feel this summer has offered a slew of worthwhile movies to see with my kids. Hard to pick a clear favorite at the moment, especially since timing issues have prevented me from seeing the last Harry Potter flick (I’m a bit fanatical about seeing it in just the right theater and with at least one of my children). But Captain America was a winner for my entire family. The Joe Johnston- (October Sky — which is well worth renting or downloading — and The Rocketeer) directed actioner paid homage to old Hollywood films as it centered on a WWII-era story of heroism, patriotism, and identity. Great line from the movie was Steve Rogers’ response to Dr. Erskine who asks if Steve wants to kill the enemy. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.”Nice lesson to kids who come to the theater to see “The First Avenger” and get a message that it’s not about looking to kill people but about standing up for yourself and preventing aggressors from victimizing others

I’m also a fan of Super 8. J.J. Abrams and his crew told a good Steven Spielberg-style tale of kids being better attuned to others (even aliens) and saving the world. It’s a thrilling movie that gave me a true bonding experience with my adolescent son, particularly because of the father-son storylines. One question, though: why do Hollywood movies and TV shows kill off moms in order to show dads bonding with their kids? This film, by the way, makes me want to show Stand and Deliver to my eldest.

Gonna try to see Cowboys and Aliens this weekend. Not as high on possible lessons, but looks like fun.

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Tripped Up

By Gregory Keer

I am geographically challenged. As a child, my navigational deficiencies surfaced when I got lost in shopping malls and grocery stores. I regularly made the milk-carton waiting list for missing persons.

As a teenager, my directional disorder extended to my driving. I often criss-crossed the city, missing freeway off-ramps, making panicked calls from payphones, and being late to dates because I couldn’t find my way to a coffee shop without a Bat Signal or police escort.

Even after two decades with a wife who rivals the Thomas Brothers for route-making mastery, and despite the benefits of online map programs, I still can’t drive far without wondering if I’ll need a search-and-rescue team to find me hours later.

All of this explains why leading a road trip with my children gives me a palsy shake.

Spurred by my desire to overcome my failings in the name of giving my kids memorable experiences, I prepare for a three-day trip to San Diego with my youngest sons (my wife is working out of town and my oldest has plans with his grandparents). I print directions from Yahoo! Maps for each proposed stop and pre-load Google directions onto my phone. I even have the benefit of having made the journey before, albeit with my wife navigating, so I have some sense of how to get there. How could anything go wrong?

After 20 minutes on the freeway, my heart palpitates. I call my wife long distance.

“I’m lost,” I say edgily.

“Are you on the 405?” my wife whispers from a meeting across the country.

“Yahoo says to take the 5 and there’s no 5,” I stammer.

“Turn around and get on the 405,” she says. “It’s easier for you.”

“What do you mean, ‘easier for me’? I reply defensively.

At this point, my precocious nine year old looks up from his video game.

“Daddy, take the 405,” Jacob instructs.

“I can handle this on my own,” I say with forced confidence.

Of course, I double back for the 405. Two hours, countless map checks, and several surface-street U-turns later, we reach our destination. 

“We’re here,” I announce proudly.

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Jacob remarks.

“The parking lot has animal signs!” Ari (6) confirms.

The San Diego Zoo is well worth the stress of traveling there and I maneuver around the park fairly well as we observe all manner of beasts, including the lions Ari favors and the performing seals Jacob loves. When we ride the aerial tram, I look over the surrounding area, thinking that everything seems easy to get to from a bird’s eye view.

Following a night in which I take 30 minutes to find the seafood restaurant that is three minutes from our hotel, we arrive at our next day’s location, Legoland. This is an amusement park meant for me — small enough that it’s simple to re-orient myself when I end up in Pirate Shores despite the plan to find The Dragon roller coaster. All day, Jacob tries to take charge as our guide, but I successfully lead us for seven fun-filled hours.

On our trip’s last morning, I feel grand. I’ve entertained, nourished, and rested my sons without mistakenly stumbling across the national border. We rejoice with the reward of a room service breakfast (how does a bowl of oatmeal end up costing $15?) for cooperating with Daddy, even during his most anxious moments.

A visit to the Fleet Science Center at Balboa Park rounds out our itinerary in apt fashion since we’re supposed to get lost in the interactive exhibits. Still trying to prove he can navigate better than me, Jacob finds a whole wing of the museum few visitors know about.

It’s 8pm by the time we head home. My hope is that the kids will fall asleep quicker than it takes for me to suffer my inevitable panic attack about changing freeways.

“Daddy, do you know how to get back?” Jacob says groggily.

“I sure do,” I promise.

“Thanks for taking us all over the place,” he yawns.

I smile into the rearview mirror as he drifts off to slumber.

An hour later, I frantically negotiate through surprising traffic to get to a gas station before we run out of fuel. Then, I have a heckuva time finding an onramp and almost miss the freeway switch — twice.

But we do get home. And nobody needs to know how we got there, right?

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Father and Son Are ‘Dinorific’

In the interest of creating a “time capsule of creativity,” Michael Sgrignoli wrote a series of ten poems about dinosaurs that he then had his son, Ethan (then age 8), illustrate. The result could’ve been a simple keepsake for Mike and his kid, but the poetry is funny, the words cleverly chosen, and the content quite educational. Along with Ethan’s adorable pictures, the book makes for a fun read with your kids. More than that, it’s the kind of thing that might inspire you and your own child to do something similar. My own six year old made me sit down at the computer after we read Dinorific Poetry and we wrote a few verses. While it’s certainly not as polished as Mike (who also sells advertising and plays drums on weekend gigs) and Ethan’s work, I am grateful for the incentive to write something with my son. Check out the efforts of the Sgrignoli team and see what imagination roars for you.

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