Create a holiday book together

boys with gingerbread houses

It’s hard to believe that once again the holidays are sneaking up on us and will be knocking at our doors before we know it. Last year I posted a book list for children of different ages from newborn through 18 months. If you’re looking for children’s books to give as gifts, please take a look at that article.

Like many of you, my husband and I took pictures of the special times together with our children during the holidays. We took pictures of selecting our tree and decorating it, baking cookies, visiting Santa at the mall, and the list goes on and on, culminating with the arduous task of taking down our tree. We did little with those pictures until the following Christmas, when we would look back at them and reflect on the special times we had together and the people in our lives that made our holiday so special.

Then one year I decided to capture all of our special times together and make our own book. Each time we did something for the holidays with our children, I captured those special moments with a photograph. Throughout the holiday season, we collected several dozen pictures. When the holidays were over, we looked through our pictures and chose our favorites, then put text with the pictures. I used my kids’ words and ideas. We even added a page with our puppy’s paw print.

That book became our coffee table book that year and the children looked at every day. It also seemed to be the book that houseguests gravitated to; they commented on it and asked questions. It was truly our family’s favorite holiday book. It was the last decoration put into the holiday bins, so it was the first item pulled out each year.

In January after the holidays are over, we often find time to do things that we weren’t able to do in December. Preparing for Christmas and Hanukkah is time consuming, so January is the perfect time to reflect, look at photos and make a special book together.

So this holiday season, capture those memories and enjoy them for years to come. There are several companies and apps that can help you accomplish this, including Shutterfly and Snapfish. Your book can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like it to be.

Head over to Tom’s Guide for several ideas and updates on how to do this. The site also ranks the various photo book services. One service in particular, Mixbook, offers a step-by-step direction guide to first time book makers. However, look at the reviews on the website to find the place that works for you. Tom’s Guide also ranks the companies that are available for you to create a book that your children will love.

Happy reading!

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.

My favorite day in November

Christmas decorations in mall

For most people, Thanksgiving is about family, food and tradition. That’s true for my family too, to some extent. But for us that’s even more the case for the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday is the day that I celebrate my mom and pass on some of things that were important to her to my kids. We embrace her traditions, and we have started some of our own.

Mom passed away almost 22 years ago. We lost her 14 months before my oldest child was born, so my kids never got to meet her. They do know her though as I’ve made sure that she is still a part of their lives.

One day when we especially do this is Black Friday. My Mom loved shopping. She was a master of it. In some ways it was her faith – so much so that when Somerset North opened, she called it “the cathedral.” Where shoppers go to worship. Clearly then Black Friday was a favorite day of hers.

Understand that this was before Black Friday leaked into Thanksgiving (she would not have approved). My mom would get up at the crack of dawn (she usually did that anyway) to be there when the stores opened to take advantage of all the great deals. She taught me to appreciate the value of a good sale, and it was something we did together. The year we lost her, she was too sick to shop on Black Friday, but she made a list and sent me off with my best friend to practice what she had preached. From that Black Friday forward, I’ve continued to shop with my best friend and we started taking my daughter when she was old enough. That kid is now 20 and she is her grandmother’s girl – a shopping superstar practicing her faith on the biggest shopping day of the year.

When we finish shopping, it’s time for breakfast. Yes, I said breakfast. Mom used to say that you had to get done early before the “amateurs” came out. That is when we indulge in a tradition all our own:  Cinnabon. Some years my husband would wake our kids up and bring them to meet me at the mall, but now we pick up a pack of the calorie-laden treats and bring them home to our non-shoppers. Those of us who have been raking in the deals since dawn need a boost, and the others will need their energy for what comes next: decorating!

Another of my mother’s favorite things in the world was Christmas. I think that may be because of the child-like wonder with which Mom always viewed the world. With a sparkle in her eye, even in her 50s, she delighted in the joy the world had to offer. But never so much as at Christmas.

The official start of the Christmas season at my house is Black Friday. Christmas music isn’t allowed on the radio before that day, but starting that Friday we embrace the joyous Noel. We put up seven (yes, seven) Christmas trees, yards of garland, thousands of twinkling lights, and some of my other favorite decorations. My mom’s “Christmas in the City” collection goes on the mantle. We talk about how her favorite pieces were the cathedral and Hollydale’s Department Store. Then there’s my crèche – the one my Mom and Dad got (the very last one!) for me on the day after Christmas, 27 years ago for half-off because I fell in love with its peaceful simplicity. And the only ornament I place on our living room tree: the little green and white angel who represents my mom watching over my family.

After all that hard work, we need some sustenance. And that brings me to my final favorite of my mom’s for the day: good food. Mom was an amazing cook. Every day was a feast and holidays were even more glorious. But she never really ate much at Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t understand that until I took over the family meal when I got married. After spending all day making all that food – I guess neither of us really wanted to eat it. That wore off by the next day, however. Is there anything better than Thanksgiving leftovers?! Our special tradition for the day after Thanksgiving is my Mom’s creation: Mush-Mush. Yes, I know how it sounds, but trust me, it’s delicious. Mom would take the leftover mashed potatoes and leftover broccoli and mash it together in a frying pan with a ton of butter. Frying it up until it was golden brown; it was and still is my favorite thing to eat from the Thanksgiving feast. Now my husband is the one who makes Mush-Mush as he honors the woman who never used the term “in-law” when she called him her son.

It’s almost Black Friday now. As I type this, I’m smiling and my eyes are a little shiny with unshed tears. I love that I have a day that has such strong happy memories of my beautiful Mom. Ones that I can share with the grandchildren she would have spoiled rotten, but who still feel her love. I hope that your holidays are filled with beautiful memories, and traditions – new and old!

– Nicole Capozello, Parenting Program staff

Nine reasons to cook with your children

little girl in kitchen with pot, spoon and chef hat

With the cool, crisp air of fall, now is the perfect time to take to the kitchen with your child. The bursting flavors of fall are unlike any other. Apples, cider, pumpkins, and spice are seasonal flavors we crave, making this a great time of the year to help the most finicky of eaters try new foods and develop his/her palate. Taking time to cook with your child may be the most valuable time that you spend together.

1. Cooking is an essential life skill.

When children learn to cook at an early age, they see how individual ingredients are mixed together and transformed into a delicious dish enjoyed or shared with the family. Cooking teaches children that it is a process involving planning, shopping, prepping, the actual cooking, and clean up. This also gives parents and children the opportunity to shop together for the freshest ingredients to enjoy healthy foods.

2. Cooking helps build and maintain relationships.

First, taking the time to cook with your child means plenty of time to engage in conversation about his day and what’s on her mind. Second, you can show the value of teamwork behind a delicious recipe. Give your child a spoon to mix the ingredients while you chop the vegetables. Building and maintaining relationships can happen at any age and what a better place than in the kitchen together.

3. Cooking together increases reading skills.

Children spend most of their reading time either being read to or reading fiction books. Reading a cookbook or recipe provides a valuable skill in learning to follow step-by-step directions. I suggest reading through the recipe together first, allowing your child to ask questions and make sure he understands the process. This will also show you the level of assistance she may need as you move through the cooking process together.

4. Cooking strengthens math skills.

I can’t think of a more natural place to bolster math skills than in the kitchen. Real-life opportunities are provided in counting, addition, temperature, and especially understanding and applying fraction skills. This is the a perfect time to learn that a fraction is part of a whole! Through my years in education, I saw that children who spend time in the kitchen may be more proficient in math in the classroom.

5. Cooking improves language skills.

Cooking introduces new vocabulary words. Whether you are reading the recipe to your child or if he’s reading it independently, the recipe can introduce real-life vocabulary in a real-life experience. Homonyms—words that are spelled differently, sound alike and have different meanings—are a perfect example. I found the following list of cooking homonyms at

  • Pear, pair, pare
  • Mousse, moose
  • Steak, stake
  • Cereal, serial
  • Whey, way
  • Meat, meet
  • Leek, leak
  • Thyme, time
  • Peaks, peeks
  • Flour, flower
  • Lean, lean (a true homonym)
  • Pea, pee
  • Grate, great
  • Two, too, to
  • Fowl, foul
  • Piece, peace

This list shows that it’s easy to understand how children must be provided opportunities and learn the words to be proficient in the kitchen. Children’s language skills grow exponentially when given opportunities to cook with you.

6. Cooking together fosters healthy eating.

Children given the opportunity to cook have a sense of ownership and pride with the finished product. This makes a great time to introduce new and healthy food choices. Research shows that healthy eating habits developed at an early age will last a lifetime.

7. Cooking teaches children about the world.

When cooking, you use ingredients from around your state, our country and the world. Visiting a local farmers market or orchard shows children first-hand that many fresh food products are available locally. Living in southeastern Michigan, we used to travel to Traverse City in the summer to attend the Cherry Festival, where my children learned that many products available in our state are sent around the globe for others to enjoy. If you are making a dish with rice, talk with your child about where the rice is from and how far it had to come to get to your local market.

8. Cooking together creates memories and helps keep family traditions alive.

In our family, nothing is more important than keeping our family kitchen traditions alive. I learned them from my mother and grandmother and I’ve shared them with my children. Inviting your child into the kitchen while talking about the past creates memories of people and time spent together. In addition, following well-loved recipes from family members is fun for children, as well as the anticipation of a holiday and the foods that we associate with it.

9. Cooking with children increases their confidence.

Many people who don’t know their way around the kitchen proclaim to be poor cooks. Providing cooking experiences for children at an early age and continuing this together into the teen years may alleviate that, providing the confidence to prepare food for themselves and others as they grow. When others provide positive feedback on what we cook, we are likely going to cook more and try new things. When people we cook for give the “thumbs up,” children feel proud and look forward for the opportunity to cook again.

You may be wondering, “When is a good time to start cooking with my child?” I say the earlier the better. Read the recipe to your child and model the action you’d like him to do. Avoid giving  a knife or sharp object to cut ingredients to your child until you know that she can handle it safely. Please keep young children away from heat sources, such as stove burners or ovens, until you know they can handle them safely as well.

As a parent, you know that your child may ask you to read a book to him multiple times. The same is true with cooking. If she has success with a recipe, she may want to make it several times. That is OK. Like reading a book, once your child feels that he has mastered it, you will move on to a new recipe.

Cookbook suggestions

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.

Family fun fitness

woman and young girl doing yoga

image credit: Airman 1st Class Heather M. Forrest, U.S. Air Force.

Challenge: Bring the family together and having fun with fitness activities on a regular basis, while enjoying the people you love.

Wow, that’s a huge challenge! With children of different ages and interests, and parents with varied work schedules, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Stressful jobs that may or may not include sitting for long periods, school schedules that vary, and perhaps even sports activities for various members of your family. What makes sense for you?

May I suggest yoga?

Yoga is a format that includes stress relief; stretching exercises to minimize injuries in other sports or strenuous work; natural movements and breath integration for a thorough workout; mindful integration of the mind, body and spirit; and constant reminders to be in the present without regrets for the past and/or worries for the future. It’s a healthy lifestyle of movement and breath, along with integration of techniques for breathing and positive mindfulness.

When could this happen for your family and how? Perhaps 30 to 45 minutes of yoga before dinner. Or before work/school (I know that sounds crazy difficult, but it’s well worth it). Alternately, pick a time after dinner later in the evening (at least an hour after dinner and before bed). It’s the difficult challenges that build character and pull families together and make them a strong unit. Making it fun will be the ultimate goal!

A newborn in your midst? No problem, there’s yoga to include newborns (at least 6 weeks old) with parents as a part of baby yoga. There are also poses for parents to stretch and tone. Several yoga studios will cater to your needs along with personal trainers who would be happy to get you (and possibly your group) started. Crawl and roll your baby into this awesome way to health and calmness.

Where do I find yoga for families? Well, of course, you can go online and find yoga flows; maybe that can be part of the fun. Give each person in the family a chance to find a flow that they want to share then put it up on the TV or laptop. Then take turns giving another person the challenge of finding a theme or quote for the flow. Maybe you join a yoga studio together and become part of their family of yoga activities. Getting a yoga family instructor to come to your home can also work wonders to get the flows going. Whatever you decide, be creative and make it fun. Make it a family decision.

If yoga is not your thing, take the initiative to find another venue to do something together that is creative and active for all of you and make it a part of each week. If you love it, you’ll find yourself doing these activities alone, at work, and even suggesting this to other families. If you don’t love it, start it anyway, and find something in it that brings a sparkle to your eye and a lift to your step. Bring your passion to it and see what happens after a few months. Re-evaluate, revise, and keep it going.

Give yourself an incentive. OK, now we’re talking! Everyone loves a prize at the end of a challenge, be it a paycheck, an award, a certificate, a diploma, etc… What will your family smile for? Try to make it an activity, rather than a material thing. Maybe add a friend to the activity or invite another family to come to join you and have dinner together afterwards. Or make a video of your family doing yoga. Add music to the activity and have different family members make a musical flow or just all join in and make the playlist together and name it after your family.

Food is key! While working on fitness, find a healthy nutrition program and start some new recipes to bring the family around to a healthy foods lifestyle. There are several programs out there that are ready-made. Or you can research on your own to bring about this change. Getting away from processed food, going vegetarian or vegan, and eating less meat and lots of fruit and vegetables, can add healthy years to your life.

Whatever you do, make it non-regimented fun, something that makes you giggle, laugh, hug, look into each other’s eyes, and feel grateful that you’re together.

Namaste (my soul greets your soul).

– Marie Demres is a yoga teacher (RYT200) and Parenting Program volunteer.

Learning while we laugh

child jumping in puddle

Sometimes in this fast-paced world, we parents get caught up in making sure our children have all the skills they need to succeed—to the point where we over-schedule and stress our children and ourselves. From organized sports to lessons in language, art or music, not to mention school and educational apps or games, it can become overwhelming!

Here’s some great news: Good old-fashioned play has a multitude of benefits and involves lots of learning as well. Through play, kids model what they see, work out conflicts, build physical mastery of their environment, generate new ideas, and problem solve.

Sometimes unstructured play is thought of as not being as useful as lessons and classes, but it is actually essential to creativity and building perseverance and tolerance of boredom. When we are bored, we get creative and explore our environment, searching for something of interest. Educational television shows, websites or applications are fine in moderation, especially if you watch together and talk about what you see and learn. However, free-flowing, unstructured time is a must for both parents and kids.

There are lots of ways to make learning fun that don’t necessarily require set-aside time. Beyond the more obvious learning aspects of a toy or game, you can teach your kids to be curious and explore dramatic play or unexpected/silly play. Be creative and see what fits your family.

  • Take a walk together and explore a local park or even your neighborhood. It can be an open-ended exploration or set up like a scavenger hunt or I Spy. Really look around and see what you notice. Interesting flowers, scampering squirrels, crunchy leaves underfoot, piles of snow to climb, puddles to stomp in—all year round, there are things to appreciate and learn about, right outside your door.
  • Cook or bake something together and talk about all the ingredients (their different tastes, smells and textures) and how they combine to make the meal taste good. Practice using different units of measurement. You can even make cleanup fun with lots of bubbles, fun music, and good-smelling soap. Kids love to help and will have a sense of mastery and enjoyment over doing something we may take for granted. As they get older, they can help more and more, and can even cook (and clean up) the whole meal when they are old enough. Now that is a joyful moment!
  • Use sidewalk chalk and draw outlines of each family member on the pavement. Measure heights as well as hand and foot sizes. You can even make silly pictures out of the outlines.
  • Have races and use a stopwatch or timer to see how fast everyone can hop on one foot, run, walk, crab walk, crawl, walk backwards. Chart the times on a graph to teach graphing and comparison skills.
  • In the store, play I Spy for items you need. Have your children help find items in reach. Have them guess how much something costs and see who is closest to the actual price. Let them check items off your list. At the grocery store, have them help you pick one new healthy food to bring home and try; pretend you are curious scientists learning about the new food, and sampling its taste.

– Lori Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, Center for Human Development and Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s

Kindness counts

"be kind" in chalk

Sunday marked the beginning of “Random Acts of Kindness” week. Knowing it was coming up, I decided to run a two-week experiment in our household; I’ve heard it takes two weeks to make something a habit.

Our family dinners always include a report of the day by each family member. My husband and I ask our kids to share a banana split (something good about their day) and a banana peel (something hard). A few weeks ago, my husband decided to also ask the kids, “What was something kind you did for someone today?” In theory, this was a great idea! Unfortunately, we sometimes got side tracked by our banana splits/banana peels and forgot to follow up with the kindness question.

For the past two weeks, my husband and I recommitted ourselves to asking our kids every evening at dinner, “How were you kind today?”

Here are some highlights:

  • By the third night, the kids were reporting their kind act without being prompted by the adults.
  • The gestures progressed into more authentic acts of kindness as the two weeks progressed. For example, “I held the door open for my teacher” became “I asked John to sit with me at lunch because he looked unsure about where to sit.”
  • One act of kindness became several acts of kindness throughout the day.
  • By participating ourselves, we modeled a variety of kind acts and that encouraged our kids to show kindness in different ways (to a friend, to a stranger, to themselves, to a pet, etc.).
  • The kind acts began — and I use that term lightly 🙂 — to filter into the kids’ relationships with each other.

In our house, kindness counts. It’s a family value and now it’s become something we all practice daily.

– Andree Palmgren is a licensed professional counselor with a private practice in Westport, CT. She is also a mom to a 15, 13, 10 and 5-year-old.

Love scavenger hunt

scavenger hunt clue

Valentine’s Day used to mean I looked forward to flowers and candy from my hubby (And I still do like those things if you’re reading honey,) but besides my husband’s modeling this for my two young boys, I questioned how do I explain this holiday to them?

Anyone could look up the history behind St. Valentine and end the discussion there. However, I’ve been on a mindfulness journey recently and taking an extra minute to really think about the decisions I make for my family. Do I want to show my children that this holiday is another event for candy? (There are just too many of those already!) Along this journey, I’m also paying extra attention to the lessons and traditions that I start for my family. After all, this will shape their lives and eventually how they celebrate this “holiday” in their own adult lives—maybe even one day carry on the traditions with their own children.

Instead of candy, giant teddy bears, or a love explosion concentrated in one day, I started the tradition of a Love Scavenger Hunt.

I created little rhymes and riddles that lead my oldest son, who is almost five, on an adventure throughout our house to highlight the everyday kind of love we have in our family. Once my youngest is old enough, he will get his own set of clues to play detective and join in on the fun.

My husband will tell you that I’m not the best at rhyming, as evidenced by my constant questions of “What rhymes with …..” in bed while writing the clues, but I’m the best at being grateful for everyday moments with my kids. I’m a big fan of gentle tickling my little ones wake them up, bedtime stories, card games at the kitchen table, and movie cuddles. So why not highlight these ordinary moments of love to show my boys that my love isn’t overflowing for them on Valentine’s Day? My love for those two rambunctious boys overflows for them every day.

I will disclose that at the end of the scavenger hunt my 5-year-old boy gets a big prize of dinner and movie (both his choice) with mommy or daddy. I feel this prize is fitting because it highlights that the importance of Valentine’s Day isn’t on the present or candy, but with the people who you love.

– Stephanie Babcock is an IFS coordinator with the Parenting Program. She’s a proud mom of two.