Just Eat It

By Gregory Keer

I look forward to the Winter holidays for many reasons and eating ranks second after enhanced family time. It’s not like I need a special incentive to eat myself into a coma, but the festivities offer an excuse to pad my waistline if only out of respect for all the people who have cooked for me, from my wife to that commercial baker who went to the bother of whipping up those frosted cookies.

Really, I’m very popular at parties since I’m the guy who consumes everything. Have a dip that nobody seems to be sampling? I’ll load it up on crackers. Need that brisket to be finished lest it crowd the fridge? I’ll scarf it up for you. Want someone to try that spicy Moroccan veggie dish? I’m the fella who’ll brave blowing out my sinuses just for the experience.

You’d think that with my passion for all that strikes the palate, my children would have inherited a similar love of food. Well, not so much. If there’s one thing that spotlights my ineffectiveness as a parent, it’s food, as this holiday meal scene shows.

“Ari, eat the chicken,” I say two minutes into dinner.

“I hate chicken,” my seven year old replies.

“But this is the breaded chicken you love,” Wendy offers.

“I don’t love it anymore,” Ari says.

“You say you hate everything at dinner,” Jacob (age 10) interjects.

“Shut up!” Ari snaps back, threatening to toss a string bean.

“Jake, mind your own business and eat all that food on your plate,” I say, remarking on the heaping helpings my son always seems to put in front of him. He rarely eats much of it.

“How about those latkes (potato pancakes), Benjamin?” I remark to my teenager, who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.

“I’m not that hungry,” he says.

“I don’t know why I bothered to cook,” Wendy bemoans.

“Mommy, we love your cooking,” Jacob says.

“I like Daddy’s cooking,” Ari mutters with a sly smile.

“Daddy hardly ever cooks,” Wendy shakes her head, indignantly.

“No, Daddy just eats. A lot,” Benjamin cracks.

“At least I eat,” I growl. “When I was your age, I could pack away two steaks at a sitting.

“Isn’t that called gluttony?” the smart ass zings.

“I want dessert,” Ari says, dropping his tired head on Wendy’s lap.

“You’re kidding, right?” she replies.

“I ate all the chicken,” he lies, as if we can’t see that nothing has gone into his mouth since the conversation began.

“No, he didn’t!” Jacob states. “He should not get dessert!”

“It’s not fair,” Ari cries, running to the couch.

“We’ve got it covered, Jacob,” I say. “And you’re not getting dessert either if you don’t start eating.”

“We’re not opening up presents tonight if we continue like this,” Wendy threatens.

“Do I have to finish my food?” Benjamin mumbles. “I ate a big lunch.”

“You mean that PB&J sandwich that is half-eaten on the kitchen counter?” I point out.

“The bread is really filling,” he says.

“You know what’s really filling?” I grumble. “The bull poop you’re speaking, right now.”

“Well, now I’ve lost my appetite,” Wendy remarks, as she leaves the table.

“I have to pee,” Jacob blurts out. He takes off before I can say anything.

Benjamin swiftly gobbles up a toddler’s portion of his meal and announces, “I’m done. May I be excused?”

I nod, holding up the white flag.

Alone, I survey the leftovers and do the only thing I do well in this situation. I eat.

As with a lot of other dinnertimes, Wendy and I managed to pull the kids back to the table and get them to eat enough of a well-balanced meal to keep them nourished. Yet I’m not proud of committing so many parenting sins, from being too pushy with my kids about food to resorting to threats.

It’s just that, at holiday time, when cuisine should make everything so joyous, why must we have the same battle we have most every night? Given how much I adore the variety and abundance of good grub, I always thought my role modeling and DNA would be enough to get them to eat happily. Instead, it’s a chore. Food to them is too often a means to an end, not a pleasure in and of itself.

For this holiday season, I’m wishing for a little magic around meal times. While I know a lot of this magic must be self-created in the form of unlimited patience and acceptance that my kids aren’t a chef’s dream, I wouldn’t mind a few twinkling lights of delight in their eyes over the edible bounty they are blessed to have placed before them.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Food, Holidays | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Activities With Kids, Blog, Holidays, Parenting Stress | Leave a comment

Feeling Full

Contrary to what scientists have told us about the psychological makeup of a turkey, I believe this bird feels a fair amount of pressure in November. The poor guy has enough to bear, what with that hideous piece of skin flopping around below his chin and the whole missed opportunity as America’s national bird. November, or earlier for those fowl friends headed for the frozen meat case, brings all the stress of when that axe is going to drop.

For Tom Turkey, the anxiety comes to an end before the actual Thanksgiving feast. For me, the harvest holiday represents decades of agitation over making the parental units happy.

As a product of divorce, I’ve been challenged by Turkey Day since I was 11, bouncing between my parents’ homes from year to year. Each holiday meal has had the sweet of good times with one side of the family with the sour of the other side feeling pained without me being there. Even in my teen/early-20s years when my dark moods could eclipse the sunshine of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the left-out contingent would exclaim, “But I miss your scowling face at my table.”

So I’ve attempted to make it up to whoever doesn’t get me by doing some combination of awkward apology, attendance for a pre- or post-Thanksgiving makeup dinner, a drop-by for dessert, or just a guilt-ridden phone call.

I know none of my parents intended for me to be in the middle of an annual November custody battle, but the pushing and pulling happens nonetheless. It usually leaves me feeling like the Scarecrow of Wizard of Oz fame – my stuffing (turkey pun intended) gets scattered.

Once Wendy and I became a couple, the tug-of-war over my Thanksgiving family allegiance added a third direction as my in-laws vied for our attendance at their table. They’ve been gracious enough to invite my parents to join the meal on numerous occasions, which in turn has encouraged my folks to do the same. While that’s happened a few times, various factors have prevented it from being a regular thing. Even when we’ve ventured to combine all the parents at our home, it hasn’t worked out to be the complete family picture that makes everyone, let alone me, feel right. Let’s just say, the scene has been more Jackson Pollock than Norman Rockwell.

Actually, when it comes to Thanksgiving and family, nothing is regular. Over the past 30-plus years, marriages, divorces, and moves to other states have changed the cast of characters and made the holiday gathering look like a biological cell that divides, multiplies, and subtracts.

Now that my own nuclear family has grown, the concern for my sense of unity at the festival table has turned outward. The funny thing is, my kids could care less.

For my sons, Thanksgiving is not about what’s missing at the table – unless it’s candied yams, the lack of which has been known to cause them to riot. To them, the ever-changing groups of relatives makes the holiday more interesting, not depressing. They’ve never known it any other way than to have a Lazy Susan-style schedule of meals in which they cycle through each set of grandparents.

Largely because of the divorce after-effects, I never wanted my children to feel responsible for making a whole out of a segmented family experience. My wife and I have used good luck and hard work in our marriage and family experience to give our kids something connected in a world of increasing splintered parts.

All of this being said, my children, in fact most kids, have amazing powers of stitching together the good parts of a family situation such as a divided holiday. It’s the adults, like me, who have the difficulties. Rather than worry over what’s missing, I need to see what and who is right there in front of me or else no Thanksgiving can ever feel fulfilling.

As usual, I’ve learned this lesson from my sons. To them, the Thanksgiving tradition involves rotating around to the various grandparents who love them dearly. At Bubbie and Zaydie’s, there’s the chance to eat lemon mold before going off to wreak havoc in the play room. At Nana and Papa’s, it’s about the joys of the kids’ table followed by the hugs from the grown-ups’ section. At Grandma Judi and Great-Grandma Jenny’s, it’s about a road trip to Arizona for enough grandma kisses to last a year.

It all works together to create a different kind of whole for my boys. Because of their appreciation for what they see as variety where I had seen chaos, my days of feeling something’s missing at the holiday are fading. For this, I am truly thankful.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays | 1 Comment

Monster on Board

By Gregory Keer

For years, my 13 year old looked the part of a skateboarder. Benjamin rocked the latest Vans shoes (is it me or do they have a shelf life of three weeks?) and RVCA shirts (can we work on catchier acronyms, people?). He could also spout specifics about longboards versus short ones and explain why certain wheels were better for tricks than others.

Funny thing is, he wouldn’t actually step on a piece of rolling wood. Not even to go across the back patio.

But recently, after his long stretch of feeling too clumsy to look cool on a board, Benjamin found friends willing to show him patience as he learned to wheel around the neighborhood on plywood and pituitary power. As long as Benjamin demonstrated caution and good judgment, we allowed him to travel everywhere from his friends’ houses to the mall.

My wife and I delighted in the exercise and confidence he gained in his jaunts around town. He was never much of a cyclist, so this was a real advancement for him. And there was the added benefit of not having to drive him everywhere. Yay for us, we thought. We were shedding our overprotective nature to allow our son to spread his wings.

Then came the scrapes and bruises from minor tumbles on concrete.

“You should wear your helmet the next time you ride,” I suggested to my son, following his longest skateboard trek yet.

Whatever goodwill I had built up for giving him his four-wheel freedom rolled away.

“No one’s parents make them wear a helmet,” he shot back.

I thought about this for a moment. He was right. I never saw kids wearing protective skull gear out on the streets.

“Helmets look ridiculous,” he pointed out.

“Accidents look worse,” I scored.

“Only people doing tricks at skate parks have to wear them,” he added.

Another point for the 13 year old.

I relented. I know, I know, it was the wrong decision, but there’s still time for me to redeem myself.

Another week went by. Wendy and I discussed it ad nauseum and decided to put our collective foot down.

“I’ll buy you the coolest helmet on the market if you’ll wear it,” I offered.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he replied.

Still, I brought him to the skate shop nearby where I asked the sales guy to convince Benjamin about helmets.

“Uh, most kids don’t wear ‘em,” he droned. Well, that wasn’t much help.

Walking out of the store without a new helmet, Benjamin threatened us.

“I won’t skateboard ever again if you make me wear one.”

I have to hand it to the kid. He knew we might cave if we thought he’d return to his traditional couch potato lifestyle.

We stuck to our guns. Benjamin stuck to his — for two days before asking me to bring the board to the park, where he was helping younger kids in after-school groups. He was hoping I’d forget about the helmet so he could skate to his friend’s house after work.

I brought the board and helmet to him at the end of the day.

“I’m not wearing this thing,” he groused.

“Do you know how many parents we’ve talked to who have given us horror stories of kids they know with brain injuries?”

“Not from riding on the sidewalk,” he snarled.

“Even from riding on the sidewalk,” I said. “One boy hit a stupid pebble, landed on his head, and is still in a coma.”

“Well, it’s your problem for talking to other parents,” he reasoned.

We argued back and forth with me finally throwing up my hands and leaving him in the parking lot, the helmet hanging limply from his hand.

Seconds later, I received a text: “I hate you! I’m not going 2 talk u 4 the rest of the week.”

As ridiculous as that sounds now, it stung when I read it at the time.

“I don’t hate you, though,” I texted back. “I just want you to be safe.”

“But I hate u,” was all I got in response.

I stewed in self-pity and anger until my wife got home.

“He said what to you?” she fumed. “That’s it. Play date’s over.”

We picked up Benjamin from his friend’s house and told him he was grounded until further notice.

Now for my redemption. Benjamin didn’t complain about being embarrassed in front of his buddy. He apologized for his rudeness to me. At home, he hugged me a lot.

This is not to say that our son hasn’t tried to raise the helmet issue again, but he has made wearing it a habit. He’s also been a nicer kid to us than he has been since adolescence kicked in.

I’d like to think that it’s because we set boundaries for him. While it’s often painful to bicker with our beloved child and uncomfortable to curb his burgeoning independence, my wife and I are doing our own growing up as parents. We’ve learned that however monstrous our son may seem in fighting against us, we’d rather avoid the scarier consequences of not drawing the line on safety.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Sports, Teens | 1 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

4th of July Songs for Kids

Music maven Dave Sloan has posted his picks for a 4th of July playlist. It includes some unexpected (no surprise with Dave) selections from Violent Femmes, the Pogues, and more. For kids, there are plenty of patriotic songs worth cranking up while you fire up BBQs. Some more conventional but worthwhile choices include Ray Charles’s “America the Beautiful,” Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land.” Every year, someone (I believe it’s the invaluable TCM cable channel) airs Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biopic of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, with James Cagney in the title role. I highly recommend this classic for its unabashed positivism and patriotism about the man who wrote such songs as “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” Make sure to catch the black-and-white version if you can. What are some of your favorite 4th of July songs?

Posted in Blog, Family Man Recommends, Family Music, Film, Holidays, Music | Leave a comment