More on the Cell Phone Thing

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Last week I wrote about my attempts to use my smartphone responsibly around my children. It makes sense to address the other side of this issue.

Though my eldest daughter is not quite ten, it has already come up. She has a running list of things that she wants to have and/or do as soon as we deem her ready. In addition to being able to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which beckons portentously from a high shelf, she would like to have a phone. It is not an urgent need, and as she is home schooled she is probably missing a lot of the social pressure she would otherwise be experiencing to be “connected.” She is only tangentially aware of Facebook, and she still thinks that her mother and I sometimes communicate telepathically when we are actually just texting. But she knows what a useful and desirable device it is, and after all we have been modeling its use for as long as she can remember.

What we decided is that when she is 16, and has earned her driver’s license (something that has not yet appeared on her list, as far as I know), she can have a phone. So we’re a ways out from this occurrence.

This leaves a lot of questions unanswered, however; among them: just how smart does her phone need to be? It used to be easier to separate the calling and texting functions from the games, apps, internet and social media. But there’s not stopping the hyperspeed evolution of technology. In fact, six years from now it will surely have developed in ways we can’t imagine. Which makes questions of limits and safety all the more important.

This article is typical in its approach to these questions, and it’s useful enough that I want to quote it at length.

“Just remember: When you hand kids phones today, you’re giving them powerful communications and production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to Web sites. They can broadcast their status and their location. They can download just about everything in the world. If you think your children’s technological savvy is greater than their ability to use it wisely, pay attention to the gap. Times may have changed, but parenting hasn’t. We’re still the parents. And it’s our job to say ‘no, not yet.'”

Our decision to wait until she is in her mid-teens is a common one, but as with most things it depends on your own child and your family’s situation. And it’s okay to experiment and make changes to the arrangement, allowing more or less access according to how safe and responsible they can be.

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The Real Social Media

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Here’s what I hope my children don’t say about me when they’re older:

“But he was always on his phone.”

I am of an age. I went off to college with an electronic typewriter, and this is what I used exclusively for the next seven years. It had a little screen that showed one line of text, and when I hit “enter” it typed out the line. I started using email after I graduated from college. I did not become familiar with the internet until I was out of grad school, and working the swing shift at the front desk of a library. I became an adult, ostensibly, without the benefit of this technology.

I didn’t even have a cell phone, in fact, until I became a parent at 32. It was not a smart one; that came a couple of years later. Once I met my iPhone, though, it was love at first sight. There was no turning back.

My phone was extremely useful to me as a parent of small children. I could look up the lyrics of bedtime songs. I could read in bed while the toddlers drifted off beside me. I could fire up Netflix when the baby woke in the night, and watch Battlestar Galactica while rocking her back to sleep. Before my phone had a built-in flashlight, I used an app.

The trouble started later. It was all too easy to be staring at my little screen instead of looking my children in the face. Somehow, I was always terribly busy finding out about something. Now Facebook was a thing. It is a lot for a child to compete with.

I would like to say that I put my phone away now when I need to be present as a parent. I’m not there yet. For a variety of reasons I left Facebook sometime last year (for one thing, I realized that it’s not healthy to argue with strangers; for another, I just don’t need to have an opinion about everything). This has helped tremendously. But I still find it all too easy to pick up my phone and let it soak up my time and attention. I imagine that this is a common experience.

Is there a middle way? I wanted to learn about how parents could use their devices in a moderate and balanced way. I found a lot of useful information (on my phone, of course). Some articles are more alarming than others. But I have also been working on some principles of my own.

  • If I’m going to spend time reading in the presence of my children, let it be a book. Having books around, reading and holding them, showing that they have value, is a much clearer and more powerful way to model literacy for kids.
  • Writing is also an important thing to model, and I’m often making lists or jotting down notes. I try to do it on paper. Handwriting is in danger of becoming a lost art (heck, a lost skill). As with books, showing the work brings it into the physical world and children notice and will emulate it.
  • When I want to spend time on my phone, I can do it when they’re sleeping, or when they’re occupied elsewhere, or when I’m taking a break in another room.
  • Since my phone is obviously such a useful and fascinating machine, I can use it to share things with my kids. Look things up when they ask questions; show them photos of animals and planets and works of art; let them watch tutorials and documentaries and, yes, videos of cats. They love that.
  • Most importantly, I can put my phone down during times in which I value our being together. Meal times, for example. I would not want them to have devices at the table, and they will do what they see much more than what I say.

Face to face conversation: that’s the real social media.

On Chores

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There are a lot of ways to present chores to kids. They can be tied to allowance or to other privileges, and this is fairly common. But I would like to propose a different approach.

I grew up under a straight system of chores for allowance, and given my comic book habit this worked nicely for me. However, this arrangement encouraged me to cultivate a somewhat mercenary attitude: I failed to see the use of raking and bagging leaves, for example, other than as a source of income; and if I did not have plans for the money my enthusiasm for the job was…lacking.

More useful, though, was my weekly job of mowing the lawn for my grandparents: the expectations were clear, and the wage ($10 per job) allowed me to steadily accumulate funds for movies and role-playing game modules. More importantly, it prepared me for the exchange of labor for pay that goes into any future job, particularly of the sort available to teenagers. I was expected to show up each Saturday morning, and my grandfather was good enough to inform me of when I needed to do the job with a different emphasis or with increased vigor.

As a result of these experiences, I have come to see the use in framing a job as a job and chores as something else entirely.

In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what need to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life. It is important for chores to be age-appropriate, and there are a number of resources that can help ensure this. I like this list put out by Montessori educators, and it has served as a useful guide.

Recently, inspired by a Nurturing Parenting training, I decided to formalize the process. I bought a whiteboard (though a piece of paper, or any of a number of online templates, would serve as nicely) and created a chart, with chores listed down the left-hand column and days of the week along the top (no chores on Sunday, as we go to Church in the morning). I found a set of magnets and labeled them with names, with two magnets (two daily chores) per child. I rotate them daily so that they are performing different tasks each time—their preference—and place them according to age. I allow the girls to write and/or illustrate each chore.

Here is the current list of chores for our household:

Ages 4-6

Trash patrol (gather bits of paper and other detritus and put in trash bin)

Sock matching

Sweeping

Dusting

Laundry patrol (gather clothes and put them in hamper)

Ages 8-10

Put away dishes

Sort and put away clean laundry

Vacuuming

Library (gather and shelve books—we have a lot of books)

Take out trash

Clean bathroom (Scrub sink and bathtub, tidy and clear floor)

Making beds is a daily chore for everyone.

Sometimes we assign “big girl” chores to the little ones with the expectation that an older sibling or adult will assist them. This helps to familiarize them with tasks for which they are not yet ready.

We have been using this system for a month now, and it seems to be working. The kids are more willing to do their part when they see that it is consistent and part of an organized system. I expect that changes will continue to be made, which is why I use a whiteboard and dry-erase markers.

This is not the only way to do it, and it may not be ideal for your family. I encourage you to explore resources, talk to other parents, and come up with something that suits you.

The Daddy Date, and Other Sacred Spaces

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As our kids get older, a lot of things may start to place themselves between them and their family. Their social circle extends ever further beyond their home and their siblings. They want to participate in new activities, take on new experiences, explore ever-widening territory, identify and hone their skills, talents and interests. All of these things are good and healthy and help our kids to establish their own identities. But this can make it harder for us as parents to maintain that connection that used to seem more natural. Just as we discover about making and keeping adult friends, it becomes work.

Often parents find that it’s harder to bridge the distance between themselves and their children as they grow into teenagers and young adults. Part of this is due to a phenomenon which is largely beyond our control, but important for to keep in mind: in today’s culture, our kids are finding themselves more and more among their peers. It starts to happen from an early age and only intensifies as they get older. In the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, authors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté suggest that this phenomenon is a relatively new one, and that it makes staying connected to our tween or teen children that much more challenging. In fact, it renders any connection between children and adults—even trusted, nurturing and mentoring adults such as teachers and coaches, more difficult. They write:

“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role—their own peers. They are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from adults. Instead, children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.”

This phenomenon is termed by the authors peer orientation. We want our kids, in the common parlance, to be socialized, to have experiences with a variety of people and to accept and honor differences among them. But we place them in a variety of situations—otherwise valuable and necessary settings such as public school, extracurricular activities, sports teams, camps—in which they are more likely to be influenced by people their own age, and as a result they may not be getting the adult guidance they need in order to grow and extend their skills and knowledge. And of course, parents are feeling this disconnect most strongly.

What can we do about this? We are busy as well, and often find that to be in the same place in the same time with our kids is a rare and precious commodity.

One answer is something to which we keep coming back around: routines. Establishing times in which to be together with our kids that is protected, even sacred, can never happen too early. When they are young it comes easily, in things like bathtimes, bedtimes, reading and play. But it is just as important to keep these times sacred and continue them as our kids get older.

  • Eating together, if at all possible, is one of the most basic and powerful ways that families can maintain that bond. For many families, in which parents work or go to school at different times, and kids are busy with their own activities, this is not always manageable. But even to set aside one night a week in which the whole family gathers together for a meal can forge a connection that runs through whatever changes may occur.
  • Family meetings are another valuable way to set aside time that strengthens family bonds. This can be accomplished in any number of ways, and can work according to each family’s needs; daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, even yearly. They can be as structured or as informal as you like, and incorporate Powerpoint, a whiteboard, a piece of notebook paper, or…not. The Nurturing Parenting program has some good resources on how to start and manage family meetings.
  • A few years ago I instituted the Daddy Date, in which I, with one of my four daughters, leave the house and spend some deliberate time together. We might go to a coffee shop and read books, run errands or shop for groceries, go for a walk or a bike ride. The important thing is that this time is for us, and that my focus remains on the child. Daddy Dates are not always consistent or regular, and sometimes I find to my dismay that months go by before we can reestablish them. But my girls will take the opportunity whenever it is offered, and often make their own plans for one. The best part is that there will never be any reason to discontinue them; there is no growing out of this sacred shared time.

The Talk

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Not to alarm you or anything, but it has become increasingly common for girls to enter puberty at an earlier age. There is a great deal of speculation about why this might be, but few definitive answers. It may be related to diet, or to the chemical makeup of contemporary foods. It may be influenced by environmental factors, and triggered by stress, trauma, major life events, birth order, or any combination thereof. The fact is that girls’ bodies are often no longer waiting for the teenage years to start those hormonal engines.

My oldest daughter, aged nine, unceremoniously entered puberty a couple of months ago. This should not have been a big surprise, as both her mother and mine were also notably early bloomers. Both of us had talked to her about what was likely to happen, and from her reaction it seemed that she was better prepared than I was.

Case in point: when it happened I was volunteered to go shopping for her first tampons. Armed with specific instructions regarding the number, size and thickness of feminine hygiene products I was to seek out, I found that the industry had beaten me to it: there was in fact a “tween” brand prominently displayed on the shelf. It was as if they had confused consumer dads in mind.

I asked my wife when she had first had “the talk” with our daughter, and she told me that it had been coming up in conversation since she was a toddler. Rather than a single instructive talk, the preparation for puberty has been an ongoing dialogue. After all, when four girls and a mom are sharing a bathroom, certain things are noticeable. Nor was this dialogue connected necessarily to the larger—and often dreaded—”birds and bees” talk (does anyone call it that anymore?). There was no need to get into the mechanics of baby-making.

So, talking to our girls about puberty was part of a larger conversation about getting older, bigger and taller. This is an occasion for pride and excitement. I had been approaching it from my own experience with puberty, particularly around the acne that plagued me with some regularity into my early twenties, and which prompted, by advice from my dermatologist, my inaugural attempt at a beard (it was…inconsistent). I figured it was important for my daughters to know about the hair that would be growing in new places; the sweat; the kaleidoscopic surfeit of thoughts and feelings; the sudden variety of odors and bodily substances that are part of the package of growing up. Our eldest was already a veteran applier of deodorant, a fact which has been a source of curiosity, even admiration, for her sisters.

It was a natural progression. In order to mark this event as a cause for celebration rather than fear or trepidation, we have since allowed our eldest to get her ears pierced. Thus we have instituted a tradition particular to our own family culture. No doubt your family will have its own.

Spanking: The Debate, Sadly, Continues

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According to a recent article in the Washington Post (thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for bringing it to my attention), “Millennials – the most recent generation to have been children – aren’t leading any attitudes change [sic] on the issue of spanking… If anything, they are slightly more supportive than their elders.” The article goes on to explain that the age of parents does not seem to have a strong influence on this attitude, but the fact remains that spanking continues to be seen as an effective form of discipline in spite of well-known and widespread research that indicates otherwise.

Because of the continued prevalence of spanking as a practice—and especially the fact that the younger generation of parents is even more likely to find it acceptable than their parents did—I would like to briefly address it here.

There are several generalized reasons given for the effectiveness of spanking children.

  • Some of them are based on personal rationalization, along the lines of “I was spanked as a child, and I turned out okay.” It is difficult to respond to this justification other than to point out that a major effect of being spanked as a child is that it leads to a likelihood of spanking one’s own children. One could argue that this counts as having “turned out okay.” It is okay, if spanking is a good practice, and, well, not so much if it is not.
  • According to the study cited above, religious beliefs play a part in the acceptance of spanking as well, in particular the Biblical passage regarding “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” As a practicing Christian I do not find this to hold water; neither do I wish to get into it here. Suffice it to say that spanking is a prevalent cultural practice among certain religious communities.
  • What is left, then, is the attitude that spanking is, in itself, an effective tool of discipline. And this has been discounted by decades of parenting research. We could apply any of a variety of models to question this attitude. I go to the “4 Questions” formulated by the organization Parenting Now!, because they’re easy to remember and apply to a variety of situations:
  1. What do I want my child to learn?
  2. Is what I’m doing teaching that?
  3. Are there any negative results from it?
  4. If so, what can I do differently?

I think you will agree that the answers are pretty clear. If we are wanting our child to learn any number of things—whether it be a skill, respect for authority, self-control, decision-making, what have you—then spanking does not lead to acquisition of the skill. As adults, do we learn better when faced with the threat of physical pain? Do we respect those we fear, or who hurt us and violate our personal boundaries? Does causing pain teach a skill? Other than that force is an acceptable way to exercise our power?

As for the negative results: are they not obvious?

That leaves the question of what our other options may be. And that is why organizations like Parenting Success Network are here. There are numerous blog entries, articles and resources dedicated to providing positive, nurturing and non-violent tools for disciplining our children. A quick online search for “positive parenting” or “positive discipline” will bring up a wealth of information, most of which is more likely to be useful than not.

I want to add that all parents, and I must include myself, have done things they regret because they feel they have run out of options. This is not the same as working from the assumption that physical discipline is a desirable or effective practice. But knowing the options can help in either case.

When All Else Fails

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Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time.

Bedtime routines are a cornerstone of parenting in our house. We have worked out, over the years and with a lot of experimentation, how to give our children what they need to have a calm, predictable and nurturing routine in the evenings. And when things change—for example, the clocks Fall Back—it can throw everything into disarray. Suddenly bedtime no longer looks like bedtime. It’s not even dark yet! And it feels like starting all over again. Tonight my four-and six-year old had an exceedingly difficult time going to sleep.

This post is not about bedtime. It’s about what happens when this job that we do, surely one of the most difficult jobs around, suddenly seems too much to bear.

I am employed as a “Parenting Expert.” When I tell this to people, particularly the families with whom I’m working, I can’t help but put it in air quotes. After all, I am equipped with every tool available: the latest research, the best strategies, the right language; all the tricks of the trade. I spent much of last week attending a Nurturing Parenting Facilitator’s Training, where I was surrounded by experts and picked up more information than I know what to do with. And tonight, it just got to be too much. Those kids were not going to sleep. They were going to cry and scream. They needed help, and at some point I simply forgot everything I had learned.

I failed, people. Parenting fail, big time. So I reached for the last tool I could find. I gave myself a time out.

When all else fails, and a parent feels that it is no longer effective or even safe to remain in what looks to be an impossible situation with a child, it is the parent that needs a time out. Walk away, find a quiet place, take some breaths. When I did this I felt like I was giving up; as a “Parenting Expert,” I was ready to turn in my proverbial badge.

Ten minutes later, when I returned to the bedroom, The Situation was more or less the way I had left it. The screaming was in full effect. Nothing had changed except that I had done the only thing left for me to do. And I had just enough charge left in my parenting battery to try it again. To be the calm presence, to assure them that they were safe. To apologize for the words I had used and to offer better, kinder ones. To hold a toddler’s hand.

They’re sleeping, for what it’s worth. And tomorrow is a new day.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

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In many parenting books and articles, I’ve come across the statement “you are not your child’s friend.” It always makes me wonder what the author’s definition of “friend” is. Because I do consider—and have considered almost from the moment they were born—my children as my friends. Why? Here is how I define friendship:

A friend is someone who I know and who knows me

A friend is someone I’ve experienced events or activities with

A friend is someone I can have fun with

A friend is someone I have common interests with

A friend is someone who I help and who helps me

A friend is someone I can share joys and sorrows with

A friend is someone I can trust

Here are some of the definitions of “friend” in the dictionary:

  1. a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
  2. a person who gives assistance; supporter
  3. a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile:
  4. a member of the same nation, party, etc.

So why would some parenting experts advise against friendship? I assume it is because some friendships are unhealthy; and because friends often play a role (such as a confidant) that would be inappropriate in a parent-child relationship.

Examples of unhealthy “friendships” include:

  • “Friendships” in which the fear of losing affection overrides concern for the safety or well-being of the other person or for yourself.
  • Inappropriately exclusive and/or controlling “friendships.”
  • “Friendships” where the needs of one person dominate, to the detriment of the other person.

These “friendships” are familiar; most of us have been involved in one or more of them, particularly as we were growing up and experimenting with how to be in a relationship with another person. These mistakes helped us learn what not to do as a friend. Sometimes relationships survived these mistakes and became healthy friendships; other times we were able to form healthy friendships with new people.

What helped us to learn what to do as a friend? It’s not enough to learn what not to do. Parents who have healthy friendships with other adults provide a model for their children. I believe that having a healthy friendship with your child also helps him or her to learn about friendship.

So what is a healthy parent-child friendship?

  1. There are appropriate boundaries—the parent is still the parent and provides protection and guidance.
  2. The child is allowed to be a child, not forced into an adult role.
  3. The parent has adult friends and healthy relationships with them.
  4. The parent encourages and facilitates the child’s contact with and friendship with other children (and with other adults when appropriate).

My friendship with my children evolved as they grew into adults. There are still boundaries I’ve set, and additional boundaries they have set. I still have the urge to provide protection and guidance to them– they usually tolerate this, sometimes gently reprimand me about it, and occasionally request it. Our friendship will evolve still further as I age. I have good memories of times of fun and friendship with my own parents before their deaths. I hope one day my children will have similar memories of our friendship.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to two boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

Teaching Kindness

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Tanya Pritt. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Tanya.

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I have always been intrigued by other people’s stories. In the treatment centers I work in, Milestones Women’s Program (for women and children) and YES House (for adolescents), one of the first questions I ask is “what happened to you?” Sometimes the question alone evokes a tearful and very sad response.

I listen to stories of pain and loss and of people just trying to survive in what is often an unkind world.

As a mom I always felt honor-bound to teach my boys kindness for others, no matter their presentation or circumstance. As we were driving we would see people holding signs at freeway entrances or grocery parking lots. Most of these signs said “Homeless…need help” or “I am hungry, please help me.” Because of my life experience I could often identify the Viet Nam veteran, the mother or father simply trying to do the best they could.

I carry dollar bills in my car and I give what can when I encounter people needing help. It’s not much; I don’t have that much extra, but I always can spare a dollar, or two, or five. I have taught my sons to do the same thing. Holding a sign asking for help in the rain or in the hot sun is hard work. I have heard others say “Why don’t they get a job,” as though that could be the answer. These people are faced with barriers that we don’t truly know or may not be able to understand. It is not mine to judge. And, thank God, my children don’t judge either.

One of the proudest days I remember is when my youngest was about twelve years old. He and a friend of mine were in the Albertson’s parking lot in Albany when they encountered a woman in a wheel chair. She was holding a sign that read “Please help”. My son read the sign and after passing her turned around and approached the women. “Here, I want to help,” he said, and handed her a ten-dollar bill. She smiled and thanked him for his generosity. They apparently spoke for about five minutes, and he asked her about her wheelchair.

I didn’t witness this act of kindness: my friend told me about it. I talked to my son later that evening and told him I knew that he had given his money away. I asked why he didn’t tell me. He laughed and then said, “I didn’t think I had to.” We spoke more and he shared that he saw she didn’t have legs and wanted to help in any way he could. He repeated the lesson I had taught him, that “she was working as hard as she could.”

Everybody has a story. We generally land where we do in life because of the help we receive or the help we don’t. There are many ways to give. Teaching children to give, to share, and to serve brings rewards we can’t count.

Tanya has been the Director of Milestones for the past 21 years.  She has been working in the field of addictions for over 30 years. 

Little House, Big Family

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We live in a small house. We’re okay with that, but two adults and four children—who continue, inexplicably, to get older and grow in size—in two bedrooms and a converted garage can be a challenge. We spent the three-day weekend doing what we traditionally do, which is to rearrange the entire house. Thanks to this year’s tax refund, we rented a dumpster and got rid of as much of our dilapidated furniture and any items not fit to donate as we could. One Ikea trip and three full days of work later, this house is a little more habitable.

Our previous house was a bit larger, and the one before that was bigger still. What I found was that the more space we had, the more stuff appeared to fill it up. We didn’t even have to buy it; furniture arrived from friends and family to take up residence there, often for “safekeeping.” Toys seemed to breed overnight. Each successive move lead to more stuff filling less space. Thus the dumpster. I prefer small, thank you.

What makes a small house work for a family? A place for everything, and everything in its place. We make extensive use of baskets (I don’t even know where they come from): baskets for shoes, baskets for wooden blocks, baskets for sweaters and coats. These hanging closet organizers are surprisingly effective. Shelves and bins for the various things girls collect. And because we’re a family of readers, the bookshelves are finally cleared for books! Plus lamps, because of the reading, and tables to hold them. Our kids need floor space to build and play—blocks, Legos, puzzles, board games, sketchpads—so we try to make as much room as possible.

Most of the time, a two-bedroom house is cozy. But things come up. There are already lines for the bathroom, and none of the girls are teenagers yet. The nine-year old must have read somewhere about privacy, and is lobbying to move into the garage. Further rearrangement is in order. And a single couch can lead to territorial disputes if someone (for example, a toddler) is not in the mood to share her personal space. I try to stay on my feet as much as I can, and save my couch time for when they’re sleeping. I’m sitting right now! It’s nice.

I think that mostly a small house works because of the yard. It was sunny and warm today, and lunch was served on blankets on the lawn, surrounded by stuffed animals. While the parents shifted furniture and bagged clothes, the kids ran, played, gardened (planted sticks in the lawn) and found endless uses for sand, stones and mud.

Whatever space you share with your family, I hope that it works for you. Stay cozy.