Archive for April, 2010

Toys for a Three to Four Year Old

My daughter is exactly three and a half years old. Yesterday, she broke something of mine that she wasn’t supposed to touch. It was no big deal, really, but I expect that she can learn the concept of respecting other people’s things at this age. In order to give her a logical consequence (or at least related consequence), I told her that since she had taken something of mine without her permission, she would have to lose a toy of hers for a week. Then I scanned the toys in our living room, looking for the right one — something that wasn’t too dear to her, like a favorite doll, but something that was still relevant and not mostly a toy her younger brother only uses. As my eyes ran over the shelves and bins, I had a dawning realization… our toys are, for the most part, grossly inappropriate for her age. They literally range from something you would give a 3 month old, like soft fuzzy balls, to those sorting boxes.

My son is 18 months, so, theoretically these toys are relevant to him, and my daughter does still play with them… but that’s probably because she doesn’t have anything better! We tend to keep her “crafting” related (messy / tiny bits) toys in her room, but she literally has nothing age appropriate in our main play / living area.

So, now I’m on a quest to find some good toys. We get a lot of hand-me-down toys (yay!) and the few we do buy we almost always get used. After the first months of having a newborn, I couldn’t stomach the amount of new stuff I kept buying and starting hunting Craig’s List instead.

Here’s my list so far… I’m going to add to this post as I go and use it as a reference point, though, in reality, we’ll maybe end up with only three or four  new toys for the next six months or so.

Neurosmith Music Blocks
A few years ago, I saw a preschooler playing with this toy. It’s amazing, especially for children who are tuned into music. I can see both of my children enjoying this for years, and actually regret not having one earlier in both of their lives. Apparently the newer version pales by comparison (read this review to get a good understanding why), but you can still get the older version on eBay. This link is to the new version, since it’s a more stable location on Amazon.

Musini Magic Sensor

My daughter loves music and dancing, and my son is just figuring out how to bop along, so this looks like a great way to let them have control of the music they’re grooving to. All too often I end up putting on a mix of music for them that doesn’t suit their moods. I’ve also seen this on eBay for the “used” price listed on Amazon – shyuh! Like I’ve got $100 for new children’s toys!

The Retro Fisher Price Teaching Clock

I think my daughter will LOVE this. $16

The Butterfly Pavillion

This looks so cool and would be great to bring to her preschool next year.

Sprout and Grow Window

Again, this would be great at home or preschool. I love that, like an ant farm, they can see exactly how the plant is growing.


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I was reading about Sanctimommies, and it got me thinking about types of moms and marketing. We live in a post-feminist era (this is not news, of course). The wonder of women entering and excelling in the workplace has long-since ceased to be a phenomenon and is now a general expectation. In the present state of the state of motherhood, there seem to be two camps – the “working” mother and the “SAHM” (stay at home mother). In general, both sides seem to feel a bit of jealousy for the other, as well as judgement, and this push-pull / dichotomy is a a classic reason why women have a hard time unifying for common causes, though we all have so much in common (like the desire for our children’s welfare). As with so many things female, this division isn’t readily visible – it rests like little faultlines under the surface of the women’s movement. After all, no one wants to offend, and no one wants to come across as overly sensitive. Ask the average mom in the park or boardroom if she feels this jealousy or judgement, and she’ll likely breezily brush it off as nonsense, that she’s happy with her position, and then finish her dismissal with examples of why her life is balanced. Ask an intimate mom-friend, however, and you’re likely to get a more honest appraisal.

Here’s how it breaks down: on the one hand, the “working” mothers feel judged that they are not home more with their children, that this somehow makes them less of a mother. Even if they don’t feel this way about themselves, they feel that this is how SAHM’s see them. On the other side, stay at home mothers feel like they’re missing out on career and being valued (financially) by broader society. Our culture gives lip service to the work of the mother, the all-importance of raising children, our future, blah, blah, blah, but at the end of the day, one glance at the way our social security program is structured or how swiftly we lop off education programs from public funding shows how highly valued this work is. So, SAH moms sit on the “undervalued” side of the fence, wondering if they’ll ever apply that education, be able to achieve the professional heights they may have gotten to had they not had children, etc. And, yes, they do feel judged by the working moms – judged and begrudged.

In between these two camps, you’ve got the “perfect mother.” We all know this one – the ultra-achiever hell-bound to do it all. To me, this kind of mom is a holdover from the eighties, the woman that tells herself she can and will have it all — not just a “job,” but a full, high-achieving career and spend every other minute of her live involved with her children. This is all very well and good… except… where’s the woman, the actual individual? How does the woman foster herself? To me, the concept of the “perfect mother” is far more damaging than the June Cleaver model. The elusive “perfect mother” exists somewhere out there, along with the Easter Bunny and Lochness monster… and we all hold her ideal up as an example of where the rest of us are falling short.

None of these ideas are novel. I’ve known that, but I still haven’t gotten a space to express this for myself until now. What I didn’t know, until today, was that these ideas are SO un-novel that they’ve even made their way into an advertising whitepaper for Ad Age entitled “The Rise of the Real Mom.”

I’ve only been able to briefly scan the whitepaper, but a lot of what I’ve just stated is there — the notion of the “perfect mother” the super-mom, the june cleaver…

So, here’s my question… as with the creation of the “tween” demographic” (did they exist before they were marketed to?), the marketing machine behind the “me” generation (remember all those “I am…” ads of the late 90’s?), or the Virginia Slims “Long Way Baby” campaigns capitalizing on women’s independence… Do marketing campaigns follow and further define facets of society, or create them? As a mom, do I think of myself as a “real mom” struggling with comparisons to the “perfect mother” ideal because I’ve been marketed to, or do marketers pursue me in that way because I’m part of the demographic?

Either way, this white paper is cause for pause and insight to an insidious industry. Why insidious? It’s not just about what products I may or may not buy as a result of an effective campaign… but how I may even think of myself and my role in society!

Here’s a link to the full white paper (opens a PDF): The New Female Consumer: The Rise of the Real Mom

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Let me preface this by saying that I am not one of those moms who trawls the Internets in search of information about anti-vaccination, unlearning and rationalizations to never brush your children’s teeth. I’m sure there are plenty who see me as fairly fringe in my views, but where I live, I’m actually extremely…moderate!

One of my big rants, however, is about food — its production, particularly the predominance of corn byproducts in our food system. That’s all a diatribe for a different time, however. The simple point is that, from a food perspective, I try to feed my children as healthfully as possible. I wrestle with the idea of giving them sugar, yet also recognize that it’s important to expose them to all types of food, including (*gasp!*) junk food. I grew up in a mostly sugar and tv-free household, which was great… until I could get my grubby little paws on candy with my allowance money, or whenever I went to a friend’s house with more liberal tv standards… I had no idea how to moderate my “consumption” of sugar or tv whatsoever. I’m now in my mid-thirties, and I still don’t, for that matter, which is why we only watch tv online and I moderate how much sugary food I bring into the house. If I don’t have it in the house, I’m not going to eat it, and I’m also not going to give it to my children.

As a parent, I wish I could guard my kids from the pernicious effects of television and junk food completely. Unfortunately, unless I plan on locking them down in a commune-setting for the rest of their lives, this tactic doesn’t prepare them for the real world. Even the some Amish communities are smart enough to let their children, upon entering young adulthood, experience the world beyond their realm and choose for themselves (Rumspringa). At a certain point, you have to trust that your children will be able to navigate the world and all its pitfalls… but you can only do that if you’ve taught them how to read a map.

So, food is, along with the topics of gendering (princessing, for girls), raising an unbranded citizen, facing religious crossroads and cultivating character in my children, a complex issue for me. We belong to a sustainable CSA, where we get most of our meat and a fair amount of our vegetables. We have a small backyard garden, mostly so my children can be have an intimate understanding of where food comes from and an excuse to get their hands dirty. I try to involve my children in cooking as often as possible,  and have them help me select produce at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Yet, I get caught in the same food traps as anybody else — the picky eater who will only have quesadillas every day for lunch, leveraging food “treats” as a means to get decent behaviour from my three year old, passing limitless little baggies full of peanut butter pretzels and goldfish to the shorties in the backseat, etc. For someone who bothers so much with thinking about good food, you’d be amazed at the the low quality of many of our daily nutritional devourings.

On second thought… after reading that last paragraph… maybe I am one of those moms and just don’t know itdamn that’s scary! Let me qualify so you can see the “moderate”: my daughter has had McDonald’s french fries (c’est horrible!!), loves fish sticks slathered in *non-organic* (gasp!) ketchup, prays to God every night that she’ll have a popsicle the next day (sacre bleu!!!) and has had almost all the recommended vaccinations (mon dieu!), though I regret having given her some. My son, at 19 months, races to the couch whenever we put the tv on to put on an episode of “Sid the Science Kid” or “Mr. Rogers” (c’est la vie.)

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This is a great article. I’m so encouraged. I’ve always wanted my children to have a solid background in philosophical understanding, as I believe it sets you up to do so much in life (have the ability to think critically, be able to analyze your problems, begin to understand that your thoughts and perceptions are not you… just part of “you,” have moral guidance, understand the importance of character, etc). Now I have access to some great resources on the subject!

One of the elements of public schools that I’ve often bemoaned is the dearth of philosophical education. It seems that, in this day and age of standardized testing, the focus is ever-increasingly on information-regurgitation rather than learning critical thinking skills. I’d always assumed that at some point in my children’s teenage years, I’d go through philosophy, discourse and debate with them, but after reading the New York Times article on philosophical reasoning at charter schools, I have a new appreciation for starting earlier than that… much earlier.The article gives a wonderful overview of the process of teaching philosophy to children. I differ in my perspective of The Giving Tree, however, as I don’t see the tree as representative of nature, but of “mother” and, by extension, God, or the essence of unconditional love.

I can’t wait to read the book, Big Ideas for Little Kids, by Thomas Wartenberg, that’s referenced in the article. It’s exactly in the vein of a number of things I’ve been thinking of and looking for! Too bad there aren’t any customer reviews yet. I usually get a lot out of reading them.

The other two books paired with Wartenberg’s work look very good too: Little Big Minds, by Marietta McCarty and Philosophy for Kids, by David A. White.

Finally, I found these other potential gems: the Teaching Thinking Pocketbook and the Teaching Children Philosophy website has a wealth of information on the subject.

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Last winter, we were pretty house-bound during the rains. We had a young infant, but I also had a toddler crawling the walls and you can only go so long before you want to flip on the tv just to numb out.

I picked up a few books from the local library with information about “Montessori activities.” I’d like to say that I poured over the books and had daily educational projects set up for my daughter, but I’d be lying.

I did glean a few nifty project from my quick skimming, though, and one of them was this: a spice “tasting.”

Basically, I pulled out a whole bunch of spices and let my daughter sniff them. I also let her sample the ones that would taste fine without being cooked. We’d talk about each spice and she LOVED the experience! We did this a few times over the winter and even now, a year later, she requests being able to sniff the spices.

Outside of this being a fun way to spend some time, I feel like it’s stimulated one of the first building blocks to raising someone who will cook their own food – a passion for spices!

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I started watching this new show on Hulu, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” It’s kind of schmaltzy, but I’m interested to see his approach at getting people, particularly children, to eat fresh, local food. I’ve only seen two episodes, but they are pretty illuminating — first graders not being able to identify a tomato, the fact that most of the food a family eats is brown or yellow (pizza, chicken nuggets, waffles, etc).

One of the things Jamie talks about is that children need to know what food comes from – that the processed food they mostly get fed is an end product not a beginning ingredient. I agree that knowing how to grow and cook food are increasingly rare skills in our society – skills that every person should have, not just children. There’s a scene in the second episode where Jamie is mortified that school children aren’t given knives to eat with. Apparently, in England primary school children get knives and have their teachers supervising them during lunch, literally teaching them how to eat. Oliver’s point is that, with no knives up until middle school, that means the most convenient foods to give the children are processed — it literally hobbles them into being given processed foods only!

Anyway, I’m just glad on a whole new level that we started this garden a few years back and it’s already reaping its small rewards.

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I’m a haphazard gardener at best. Before children, I would usually think to buy a basil plant in late October. Although we live in an area that generally has year-round growing, even here it’s too late for basil at that point!

When my daughter was old enough to start getting dirty, we started a garden. I am not a talented gardener, by any stretch. Most things I plant don’t make it too long, not even cacti. Those that do are the ones that can thrive with neglect. Yet, we started this garden so our children could have an intimate understanding of where their food comes from – of what food is and what goes into getting it to the table.

Last year, we had tomatoes and bell peppers, an attempt at corn, some lettuces and herbs. At the beginning of the summer, my daughter, then two, wouldn’t eat tomatoes. By the time the tomatoes were harvesting, she LOVED them. She thrilled at picking them herself and most of the smaller varieties never made it to our kitchen – she gobbled them up as she went. Even now I’m surprised when we’ve had the occassional off-season cherry tomatoes in the house and she says “Oh, yay!!! Tomatoes!!! I LOVE them!,” because I just remember how adamant she was about them a year ago.

This year, we’re a little more ahead of the game in terms of early planting. We have some incredibly small lettuce heads just barely peaking out. After her nap this afternoon, just before dinner, I asked my daughter to help me collect some lettuce for a salad. There really isn’t enough in the garden to serve more than a 3 year old, so I let her pick and choose her own leaves. I gave the tiny handful of leaves a light wash and added a little dressing. At dinner, she ate exactly one leaf and I was delighted with that. It was a mesclun mix leaf, not a crunchy butter lettuce or some other more kid-friendly affair. Even if she didn’t like it (which she claims she did), I’m just glad she tried it!

At the rate of things dying under my gardening care, it’s unlikely we’ll have a lusty bounty of lettuce this year, but I think I may just keep buying starts as I need to and pop them in our garden to keep her interested in the process.

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