Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks for December

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The Dream Gates of the UnderworldHeading the year-end recommendations is Lisa Sniderman’s What Are Dreams Made Of? A wildly creative brew of story and song by the San Francisco-based 2012 finalist for the John Lennon Songwriting Award, among other honors, Sniderman provides a sequel to Is Love a Fairy Tale?, which follows the adventures of Aoede the Muse and her adventures in Wonderhaven. What Are Dream Made Of? is an imagination-inspiring, sometimes trippy journey through the “land of darkness and light” that sounds like something Pink Floyd, Regina Spektor, and J.R.R. Tolkien might dream up if they were aiming for elementary-school age kids.

Gift for SophieIf you’re looking for more story-and-music blends that appeal to the preschool on up crowd, sample the wares from The Secret Mountainwhich releases a range of projects that travel across diverse cultures. Available in book-CD or e-book packages are W is for Wapiti: An Alphabet Songbook and Songs from a Journey with a Parrot – Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes from Brazil and Portugal. A Gift for Sophie, one of The Secret Mountain’s newest productions from Canadian singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault and illustrator Stéphane Jorisch, offers insight into the power of gift giving in the tale about two friends. Musical guests include Martha Wainwright, Thomas Hellman, Paul Campagne and Jessica Vigneault.

Posted in Books, Children's Music Reviews, Creativity, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Family Music Reviews, Music | Leave a comment

Michael Gurian’s New Book Embraces Adult Development

Author/marriage and family therapist/researcher Michael Gurian has written a number of books with the word “wonder” in the title. This is partly because he has an endless curiosity about the complexities of human beings and living in the modern world. In particular, he, along with his colleagues at the Gurian Institute, has reached into the intricacies of science as it relates to gender and produced such bestselling books as The Wonder of Boys, The Wonder of Girls, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, and Leadership and the Sexes. These guides have helped countless parents and educators understand children and help them navigate growing up.

With his newest book, The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After FiftyMichael Gurian trains his considerable research and analytical skills on people who have already grown up, yet continue to develop in ways often over-looked by society. Especially because we are fortunate enough to be able to live longer, Gurian’s book takes on greater significance as he addresses such topics as community building, stress reduction, illness, sexual intimacy, and death. What makes the author so effective, here, is his constructive, positive approach and down-to-earth tone on the topic of aging. This is the kind of book worth reading for anyone, even before hitting 50, who wants to better comprehend his/her own changing life in order to live it with less fear and more fullness.

Posted in Adulthood, Aging, Blog, Books, Gender, Health, Perspective | Leave a comment

David Code’s New Book on Socializing to Reduce Stress

Saying that modern parents are stressed out is nothing new. What is new is the emphasis that David Arthur Code has in his book, Kids Pick Up On Everything. Code, who is a marriage and family coach as well as an ordained Episcopal minister, has lived in several countries around the world, which is how he came to see that socializing was a key element in the effort to reduce stress in parents. In writing his book, Code studied neuroscience in addition to collecting his own observations.

Here are three of his top points from the book as articulated by Code:

“1) Parental stress is a major factor in the increase of child disorders today.  His research shows that kids soak up the stress in a household until their developing nervous systems hit ‘overload.’

2) Being stressed out is The New Normal for parents, and the main cause of our increased stress is NOT our jobs, or technology—it’s social isolation. Humans are social animals, with a primal need to bond.  That’s why our increasing isolation has left us more anxious and irritable, eroding our relationships as we escape into our screens.  Research shows we are far more isolated than only two decades ago.

3) Parents need to get a life! ‘If I could wave my magic wand and reduce the stress of today’s parents, I would give them a glass of wine, a friend, and a ‘piazza’–an Italian village square to go socialize in every evening.’ Sure, exercise buffers our stress, but socializing is #1.”

Another important idea Code discusses in his book comes from the fact that, while he observed families in South America, he learned that “it’s a myth that ‘the more attention you give your kids, the better they’ll turn out.’ Rather, the more time you socialize with other parents while your kids play together, the better they’ll turn out.”

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What Dads Need to Know: How Is the Strong-Willed Child Wired?

Adapted from You Can’t Make Me by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias

I’ve been writing and teaching about the strong-willed child (SWC) for more than twenty-five years. During that time I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of strong-willed people of all ages on six continents, in all walks of life. What you are about to read is a consensus among this diverse population of strong-willed individuals (including me) who agree on some basic fundamental truths about how strong-willed minds are wired.

Three crucial truths about how we think

1. It’s not authority we have trouble with; it’s how the authority is communicated.

Even some of the most openly rebellious strong-willed kids insist they don’t have trouble with authority. We SWCs wouldn’t respect our parents if they drew the line and moved it. We wouldn’t respect the government if there were laws, but no one enforced them. It’s not the issue of authority; it’s how the authority is communicated. What sets us off is your finger in our face as you tell us to “do it or else.” SWCs know you’re not really the “big boss”; we always have a choice whether to obey or take the consequences. If you use your authority in a way that suggests we don’t have a choice, there’s almost always going to be trouble.

We usually don’t respond well when you simply issue orders to be obeyed. We want to be treated with respect, and we respond best to a voice that’s calm and firm. If your authority is transmitted to us by shouting or with angry words and gestures, we tend to simply tune you out—and prepare for battle.

When I was growing up, my dad was the ultimate authority in our house. My SWC nature did not question him when he laid down the law. But you see, Dad intuitively knew a parenting technique that is critical for dealing with the SWC. If he said, “Stop now!” I just stopped. I didn’t question or argue. I knew my dad wouldn’t talk to me like that unless it was essential that I obeyed. And that could save my life if it stopped me from stepping in front of a speeding car. If he had talked to me with the same urgency and firmness all the time, I would have tuned him out and probably not done much of anything he asked.

Here’s the point: If you use the same angry tone of voice for everything—“You get upstairs to bed!” “You eat the rest of that dinner!” “You get dressed right now!”—you’ll find your SWC arguing with you about everything.

Some parents think it will signal weakness if they speak politely to a child instead of bluntly “laying down the law.” The fact is, you may be amazed at how much easier it is to get strong willed children to cooperate when, instead of angrily shouting,

“Get downstairs right now and get in that car!” you calmly say,

“The car leaves in two minutes—let’s go!”

2. Strong-willed children don’t need to control you; they just can’t let you take all control away from them.

Remember, we know we always have a choice. That means we have ultimate control over what we will and will not do. When SWCs are told, “You will…” or “You’re going to…” or “This is how it’s going to be…,” we may interpret that kind of speech as an attempt to take all control away from us, and we can’t let you do that. SWCs need to keep at least some control over our own lives. So when we feel cornered, we may end up exercising the only option we have left—even if it’s unpleasant or harmful.

3. The quality of the relationship we have determines the effectiveness of your parenting strategies.

In the heat of the battle, parents often forget the most critical component of effective parenting: if you have the kind of relationship with your child that she wants to preserve, you have some valuable leverage. If SWCs really enjoy spending time with you when we’re not in trouble, we’ll do our best to stay on your good side. On the other hand, what do we have to gain by obeying if you’re always yelling at us anyway? What’s the up side? One bonus here is that you don’t have to be the best parent in the neighborhood; you don’t have to be the most creative, energetic, or intelligent adult in your child’s life. The other bonus? If you work at keeping a healthy relationship, your child will have the best reason in the world to obey you and follow your guidance.

When it comes to building and maintaining a quality relationship, here are three key elements to remember:

Relationships will always matter more than rules. If we have a good relationship with you, we’ll follow your rules even if we don’t agree with them. We do it because we love and respect you.

Home should be a place we always look forward to coming back to—a safe harbor where we are understood and valued for who we are. We know you want to prepare us for dealing with a hostile world, but if you don’t provide a safe, warm place for us, who will?

We need to know that you’ll always be there for us, no matter what. That doesn’t mean you should let the SWC take advantage of you. It means your love for us is unshakable and unconditional. That same love must sometimes be tough, and it doesn’t just bail us out when we get in trouble. Above all, no matter what we say or do, no matter what consequences must be faced, we have to know your love will never disappear.

Excerpted from You Can’t Make Me by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Cynthia Ulrich Tobias is the founder, manager, and CEO of Apple St. L.L.C. (Applied Learning Styles) and president of Learning Styles Unlimited, Inc. Cynthia is a popular speaker and the best-selling author of The Way They Learn, They Way We Work, Every Child Can Succeed, Bringing Out the Best in Your Child, and Do You Know What I Like About You? Cynthia, her husband, and their twin boys live in the Seattle, Washington area.

Posted in Books, Family Communication, Featured Moms & Dads, What Dads Need to Know | 1 Comment

The Power of Stories: Flying Books and Ticking Clocks

By Gregory Keer

I’m sitting on the couch at 7:30pm, unable to do anything but stare at the TV changer, which is two feet in front of me, yet seemingly miles away.

“Must reach remote,” I say to myself. “Workday done. Dishes washed. Kids occupied. Basketball game starting…”

I muster the energy to lean forward when my mop-topped eight year old explodes through the living-room door.

“Daddy, let’s read!” Ari demands.

“Aren’t you old enough to read on your own?” I implore.

“No, I want to read with you,” he says, jutting out his lower lip to make a face he thinks tugs at my heartstrings.

It does.

Glacially, I rise from the couch, as if every muscle has been in hibernation for a season.

“Hurry, Dad, it’s getting late!” he shouts as he dashes ahead of me. Where does he get his reserve energy?

I make it to Ari’s room, moving like I’m underwater. I climb onto his bunk bed, clumsily arranging my adult body between stuffed animals and errant toys to get comfortable.

Then, we read William Joyce’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, about a writer whose library flies away in a hurricane. He is transported, Wizard of Oz-like to a world where he meets living books he comes to care for and that care for him as he grows old.

As grumpy as I was about having my me-time suspended, I generate some presence of mind to melt into the moment. It’s nice that my second grader, who loves devouring chapter books on his own, still wants his reading time with me.

When we finish, Ari asks, “Cuddle?”

Barely able to keep my eyes open, I agree, turn off the light, and proceed to fall asleep.

When I wake up, I’m as disoriented as a wayfarer who regains consciousness in a strange forest and curse myself for having lost 45 minutes of the evening.

I stumble from the bed, apologize to my wife — who’s working at the computer — for disappearing for so long. I check on my other sons, who are busy with homework and texting and my stomach churns over the fact that my plan to chat with them evaporated with my unexpected nap.

Bleary eyed, I break out the laptop to power through emails I just couldn’t finish during the day and don’t look up until I realize everyone in the house is asleep but me.

Lying down, I kiss my wife’s forehead, still bearing the frown of a complicated week and — can’t fall asleep. Knocked out of whack by the nap, I’m left with thoughts racing through my mind about everything I didn’t do and will likely be unable to do with so few hours in the day and so little energy in my aging body.

And then, I think about Morris Lessmore. Like Morris, I am often caught up in a hurricane of life. It carries away my days and, along with it, my ability to take stock in my children’s ascension to maturity. All too often, I find myself rushing my kids out in the morning and into bed at night just so I can get to – what? The end of the day, which will just bleed into another day of careening through responsibilities?

It’s a battle to leap from the cyclone, but it does happen for me, particularly when it comes to appreciating stories. It occurs in the moments I push myself past exhaustion to read a picture book with my youngest, watch and discuss a classic film with my oldest, and take in (with tears of pride) the short stories my middle child writes.

While not everyone is a writer, we all have the power to read books, watch movies and TV programs, and even to tell stories to our children, on everything from their days as infants to our own adventures through the years. Stories allow us to press the pause button on life and reveal our observations about what has happened and might come to be. While the whirlwind continues to whoosh around us, stories transport us to a quieter place of being together and acknowledging the tiny details that otherwise go unnoticed.

With the four days that Thanksgiving allows me with my family, I plan to do more cuddling with the kids — from the teenager to the second grader — to read, watch, and tell stories. Sweeter than any dessert, those moments will complete a holiday intended to help us all slow down and relish the most precious yet fleeting thing of all — time with those we love.

Posted in Activities With Kids, Books, Columns by Family Man, Holidays | Leave a comment

Family Man Recommends: Barney Saltzberg and LeVar Burton

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

My children have grown up on the the books and music of Barney Saltzberg, author of nearly 40 books for kids and someone I feel is a true parenting-resource Hall of Fame for all he has done to make children laugh and help parents be sillier and more understanding of where kids are coming from. So, it’s a pleasure to recommend his latest book, Arlo Needs Glasses. The tale is about a shaggy dog, who one day discovers he can’t see too well. He ends up visiting a doctor who fits him with spectacles, which help him go back to doing all he loves to do. With pop-ups, clever words, laugh-inducing illustrations,  and a message that allays fears and speaks of the benefits of glasses, this is a marvelous book for the one of out five kids who need glasses and anyone who knows someone who wears specs.

Another kid-education advocate worthy of parenting-resource Hall of Fame status is LeVar Burton, the actor and long-time host/producer of the PBS series, Reading Rainbow. Many of the advantages of that literacy and imagination promoting TV show get new life in an iPad app that offers dozens of books and video field trips to help digital-savvy kids — ages 3-9 — enjoy all the colors of reading. The app download is free (allowing you to exlore the app and read one book for no charge) and there are subscription fees to allow access to the growing library of books and videos.

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April Highlights Autism Awareness and Child-Abuse Prevention

April is both Autism Awareness Month as well as Child-Abuse Prevention Month. Both of these concern the welfare of children and deserve our attention whether they affect us directly or not. As a father and educator, I have met a number of children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism. As I write this posting, I know I need to teach my own children more about the friends they have who are affected by autism, though we have had discussions about the need to include people with differences in our lives rather than separate from them.

The Autism Speaks site explains that, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.” The site goes on to explain that “the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 88 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years.” The CDC also cites statistics to show that autism is diagnosed more commonly in boys than in girls. To learn more about autism, a couple of key Web sites include the one for Autism Speaks and the Autism Society.

With regard to child-abuse prevention, this topic is more relevant than ever, given our needed increase in sensitivity to children bullying other children. One reason bullying exists is because kids are abused, either physically or psychologically by the adults in their lives. A new book is coming out that has an interesting approach to making us all more sensitive to the subject. Written by Magdalena Gómez and María Luisa Arroyo, Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confessions and Catharsis (Skyhorse Publishing, May 2012) is an anthology of stories, poems, and plays that help illuminate the experience for children, from an inter-generational and multicultural perspective.

Please share your thoughts and suggestions about these topics by posting a comment whenever you wish.

Posted in Anger Management, Blog, Books, Child Development, Health, Protecting Children, Special Needs | 1 Comment

New Michael Gurian Book on Helping Boys

As the father of three boys and a longtime educator of high school students, I see the challenges boys face in growing up amidst changing ideas about male identity. This is not to say that girls have it easier, certainly not, but there is clearly a need to approach the uniqueness of gender as kids grow up, which is something often lacking in the worlds of education and even psychology.

This is why I highly recommend the books of Michael Gurian, who has become one of the foremost gender experts as a result of decades of work as a family therapist, researcher, and educator. Gurian has written such tomes as The Wonder of Boys , Boys and Girls Learn Differently, and The Wonder of Girls, and has now released How Do I Help Him? A Practitioners Guide to Working With Boys. This book is not just for mental health professionals, though, as it offers assistance for parents who are seeking help for their sons, fathers who need help, and couples looking for marital or relationship counseling that includes men. Gurian’s writing goes beyond the usual pop-culture obviousness and offers real insights for those who want to help raise healthier boys and make the lives of men better in general.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Books, Child Development, Gender | Leave a comment

Dating Dad: Rabbit Stew

By Eric S. Elkins 

Simone and I have had pretty much the same bedtime routine for most of her life. It goes something like this:

1.  She gets ready for bed (“brush face, wash teeth, jammies on”) while I make her some Yogi Bedtime Tea

2.  She crawls into bed and I lay beside her, bedside lamp on, and I read a chapter of some epic novel to her (voices and all), while she drinks her tea out of a sippy cup

3.  I find a place to stop reading, she grouses about “one more page,” and then I turn out the light

4.  She sings the sh’ma, a very important Jewish prayer, and then we snuggle for a few minutes before I kiss her head and leave her to her slumbers

Many, many months ago, I decided it was time for us to read “The Hobbit” together. It took at least a month or two to get through. But we both loved it so much, we went right into the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy without even taking a break. After we’d finish each book, we’d watch Peter Jackson’s movie version.

Little did I know that this foray into Middle Earth would turn from a nighttime routine into a lifestyle decision for my daughter.

I wrote recently about the nascent geek goddess living in my house, but I didn’t explain just how deeply Simone loves the world created by Tolkien — not just the film versions, which were so well-wrought, but the books themselves. She re-read “Fellowship of the Rings” at least three times this summer, crafted her own hobbit tunic from a large T-shirt and fabric markers, and has even taken to reading the many pages of the appendix at the end of our collection — pages and pages of Middle Earth minutiae that she can recall at will. This includes the pronunciation guide, the backstories of several characters, and even some of the history of regions in the fictional world.

So it was Simone who brought it to my attention that September 22 was mentioned as both Frodo and Bilbo the hobbits’ birthdays in the novels. And she was the one who figured out the crazy coincidence that we would most likely finish the last book in the trilogy on that exact date! In fact, Simone had some specific ideas about how she wanted to celebrate her favorite characters’ birthdays.

And, once she told me what she had in mind, I knew I really had no choice but to make it happen. I mean, how could I deny a real-life celebration of the end of our literary adventure, especially when the date was so propitious?

So, the week before the big day, I started researching recipes. The day before, in spite of an unreal amount of work on my to-do list AND a speaking engagement at a local Tedx gathering (video to be posted soon), I found myself driving across the city to find the special ingredients I needed. Exhausted from a full day, after we read the penultimate chapter in the novel and Simone was settled in bed, I stayed up late making Lembas cakes (the elven food our heroes ate on their long journey).

After I woke Simone up early the next morning (and she opened the little elf leaf clasp I ordered for her, to wear to school that day), I made her an omelet with three kinds of mushrooms (she loves, loves, loves mushrooms, and so do the characters), and packed the Lembas in her lunch, wrapped in paper towel “leaves.” Once I dropped her off at school, I came home and taught myself how to make rabbit stew with ‘taters (another staple of Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins).

We walked through the door that evening, a comfortable rustic scent of sage and thyme filling the house.

We filled our hobbit bellies with savory rabbit stew and fresh bread before starting our bedtime routine. And we finished “Return of the King” that night…the last chapter takes place on September 22, so it was all very lovely and poetic. For Simone, it was the perfect culmination of our time reading the book together. For me, it was a gesture of devotion; creating happy, memorable experiences for my little girl.

Friends and Twitter peeps who learned of my efforts were generous with their kudos — they saw me as a wonderful father who was creating lifelong memories of dad/daughter experiences for my little girl. And I appreciated those words of support. But I also couldn’t help wondering if I’d gone overboard; if I had taken on too much, more than I should have, considering how over-committed my life is right now, with work and my community organization and obligations and everything else. Was I spoiling my girl at the expense of my own well-being?

No. I don’t think so. Because making Simone smile, and feeding her passions (whether it’s dinosaurs or monotremes or geek lit) is good for her development and supremely satisfying for me.

Which got me thinking about something else…I just might make a kick-ass boyfriend someday.

Because being the kind of dad I am — one who goes to great lengths to identify and create opportunities for growth and joy for my daughter — comes from being a good listener. I know how to do fun stuff with and/or for Simone because I pay attention.

I’m betting that I’ll be able to do the same thing for a grown woman, too — I’m already in the habit of listening and scheming and coming up with little details and big surprises, so why wouldn’t that translate to a grownup relationship?

Actually, I know I have it in me already, because as early as the first date with someone I like, I’m listening for preferences and passions. Before the first kiss good night, I’m already thinking about gestures both grand and goofy that would make her smile. If it’s one of the rare occasions when I’m being smart, I’ll keep these ideas to myself until a later time when it would be appropriate to share. But…well…I think it’s established that “appropriate” is not an adjective that resonates for me very often.

But it’s interesting to wonder if being a father is also preparing me to be a better partner. Some women I’ve dated over the years have opted to not stick around because they wanted to be the number one person in my life. They didn’t relish the idea of sharing me, or knowing that I put Simone first. But there have been many more who saw my dedication to my daughter as a positive thing — a promise of something good that ran deep in me.

But what if it’s even more than that? What if my daily challenges and struggles (internal and external) to become a better father are actually strengthening my ability to sustain an adult relationship? What if my intention around raising Simone could make me a better spouse some day?

That’s some exciting stuff to think about.

I also learned this summer that having someone around who pays attention to me and the things I love and am interested in is pretty fulfilling, too. But that’s a story for another time.

Eric Elkins’ company ( specializes in using social media and ePR strategies to develop constellations of brand experiences, delivering focused messages to targeted segments. He’s also the author of the young adult novel, Ray,Reflected. Read more of his Dating Dad chronicles at , or tell him why he’s all wrong by emailing

Posted in Books, Dating Dad, Divorced Dads, Featured Moms & Dads | Leave a comment

Family Man Recommends: Quick Picks in Word, Image, and Sound

Celebrate Jewish Lullabies – Volume 1, featuring project producer Craig Taubman, fits any night of the year, but seems especially appropriate with the Jewish High Holy Days coming up this and next month. Check out soothing songs by the likes of Taubman, The Pop Ups, and David Broza.

More goodies come in the form of Sing Along, the new album from Caspar Babypants (the kid-music monicker for Chris Ballew, who had pop success with the Presidents of the United States of America). These are tunes for the baby to preschool set that are alternatingly funny, smart, and sweet. Guests include “Weird Al” Yankovic, Frances England, and Recess Monkey.

Family music legend Trout Fishing in America created a storybook and CD pairing for Chicken Joe Forgets Something Important. Musicians Keith Grimwood and Ezra Ildet are joined by illustrator Stephane Jorish for this witty and rousing project about a cat who sleeps in a henhouse but dreams of music rather than dinner.

Party Day! is The Laurie Berkner Band’s first DVD of new videos.The strumming and singing family music superstar (who is often featured on the Nick Jr. channel) delivers 12 videos and a five-song bonus CD, with the song “My Family” as a highlight.

My last recommendation for this FMR: Quick Picks edition is ScribbleMonster, a group I’m just catching up with as I just did with Look Both Ways, their tribute to Sesame Street. Sample such songs as “What Babies Are Called” and “Just Happy to Be Me.”

Posted in Books, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Holidays, Music, Video | Leave a comment