Friday, November 16, 2018

How To Make Bird Seed Ornaments

As a parent, I both love and loathe doing crafts with my children. I want them to make stuff. I just don’t have anywhere left to put the stuff they make, and my kids don’t want to get rid of anything, ever.  This conundrum was solved with the Birdseed Ornament we made with our moms year after year. 

Bonus: doing something for backyard wildlife is a nice way to introduce some kindness into a season filled with grabby hands and dreams of material objects. Plus, making something that hangs outdoors is an excellent way to keep your house from getting cluttered with one more holiday craft. Winning. 

How to Make Birdseed Ornaments

1. Obtain an assortment of decent-sized pinecones.

Send your children into the wilds of your neighborhood and task them with finding pinecones. Any kind of pinecone will work, but the bigger the better. Sure, you can always buy pinecones, but we’re trying to teach kids something about not buying everything. The money you save by collecting your own pinecones can be spent on something more valuable, like secret Mama chocolate hidden on top of the fridge and only eaten when the kids aren’t looking. 

While the beloved children are collecting the pinecones you can take a nap. Winning! Conversely, you could accompany the children on their quest and “help” them collect pinecones, but we all know this means Mama will collect all the pinecones while the beloved children throw pinecones at each other, find the only spot of mud in the neighborhood and roll in it, or collapse on the sidewalk in a heap while they insist that their legs are too tired to go any farther. 

If you choose to give up and buy pinecones at this point, not only will I not judge you but I promise not to tell anyone, ever. 

2. You will need birdseed.
Preferably the assorted kind that has both sunflower seeds and those teeny-tiny round seeds that will get stuck in the cracks of the floorboards and make rattley noises when you vacuum them out of the carpet, since If you have carpet, it’s a sure bet that birdseed will wind up in it. Birdseed is like glitter—it multiplies and sticks to everything. It’s also slightly less delightful than glitter but healthier for birds. 

3. Also, peanut butter. 
 If you are wondering if birds can eat peanut butter, they can. I googled it for you before I wrote this article, because it turns out a lot of things we did in the 1970s turned out to be not the best ideas. I’m looking at you, Lawn Jarts. 

I’d recommend buying a new jar for this. Or using your current jar for the craft and have a new jar handy for your personal peanut butter needs, because the seeds will get in the peanut butter no matter how loudly you yell about cleaning off the knife. If you are buying peanut butter just for birds, it can be either crunchy or creamy, but it’s probably better to get the organic, less additive-more-natural kind. We don’t want the birds pecking at your window looking for their next fix of high fructose corn syrup. 

4. Some sort of containers.
Like maybe a shallow pan to pour birdseed into, and then dump on their sibling’s head. 

5. Children. I assume you already have those.
Let’s be honest, they aren’t actually necessary or even helpful, but since they are roaming around the house anyway, you might as well put them to work. 

6. Also, string, yarn, or maybe twist ties.
At some point you will hang these in the yard. If you have read this far and now can’t bear the idea of finding one more thing, just tuck the finished product amongst the branches or set them on a big rock or something. Hooky-type-things are not mandatory.  


Hint: You would be wise to tie the string/yarn/twisty on the top of the pinecone before rolling it in peanut butter. If you somehow missed this step, see #6, above.

Step One:  Apply the peanut butter to the pinecone. You can use a butter knife, spatula, spoon, whatever. You can also roll the pinecone in peanut butter. Let’s be honest, the kids are going to use their fingers anyway because they are kids and fingers are way more efficient than utensils at a certain age. 

Step Two: Roll in birdseed. Or drizzle birdseed over the peanut-buttered pinecone. It’s your vision, I’m not going to boss you. 

Step ThreeFour: I just realized that the helpful hint about the string was actually step one, so that means this is really step four, not three. Hang on a tree/bush outside.

Step Five: Spend the rest of the day cleaning up spilled birdseed and cursing this blog for even suggesting you tackle such a thing.  Or blissfully watch the birds out the window while hugging your child in a Norman Rockwell moment. Up to you.  

Note: It seems like probably a good idea to hang the birdseed ornaments out of reach of your toddlers, if you don’t want them to grab them off the tree and run around the yard with them. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Cry Valve

There’s a mechanism in your throat I call the cry-valve. It’s that thing that swells and chokes your words even when you’ve successfully convinced your eyes not to release tears. I don’t know about you, but mine broke back in pregnancy and has never formed a tight seal ever since.

It started with little things, back when I had a baby in my womb. Once there was a commercial for a security system. During the ad a woman and her children were home while a burglar attempted to break in. “She must have been so scared!” I tried to say, but my cry-valve was stuck open and so my words came out garbled.

After my kids were born, it didn’t get any better. The world hurts differently once you have children. In my opinion, eye wetness can be excused with allergies or hidden behind sunglasses, but it’s that leaky throat cry-valve that is a dead giveaway every single time.

When my eldest son took to the stage for a School of Rock performance I knew to seal my lips tightly. I cried when he first took the stage. I cried when the high school singer did her solo, even though I have no idea who she was. And I cried when a very good drummer took the spotlight, although I had never seen him before, either. But it was dark, and as long as I didn’t try to talk, I was able to hide it from my youngest child who sat beside me.

When my boys were little, I didn’t dare cry in front of them. I was their whole world, and if I crumbled, the entire foundation of our family might’ve fallen. Nothing made me more frantic and afraid then when my own mother cried when I was little.  But my kids are 10 and 13 now. Why do I still want to hide my emotions from them?

Maybe it’s because I tear up over every dang thing. Parades. Little League. A kid landing a jump at figure skating practice. Any event that showcases kids trying really hard causes my cry-value to swell up.

The world is a harsh place, and we have many conversations about it. Most of the time, my cry-valve stays tight for these. It’s when I try to take Mr. Rogers’ advice and “look for the helpers” that I lose it. Stories of bravery and kindness do me in every time. You might think it would be better to just cry in front of them and explain why I’m crying, but I cry way too often. I am—I’ll admit it—an over-crier.

Do I want them to grow indifferent to tears, numbed by their frequency? Or worse, think their mother is emotionally fragile and therefore veer away from me? Plus, I don’t want to open the door to teenage eye rolls and “mom’s crying again” distain. There’s an assumption that parents of teens must refrain from showing any weakness.

But maybe that’s just an excuse. Perhaps my two boys would benefit from knowing that sometimes people cry both when they are sad and when they aren’t, and that’s OK.

There’s a part of me that thinks crying in front of them might make them more sensitive to all the other over-criers out there. Maybe it’s time I try to make space for sadness, emotion, things other than happiness and smiling faces. Are parents not the first people to teach our children to smile when they aren’t happy?  Isn’t that really just asking them to hide who they are to reassure ourselves? Is that how I really want to parent?

Next time, I’ll try to trust my children a little bit more. I’ll try out brave new words like, “crying just means I’m overflowing with pride/love/something meaningful.”
Who am I fooling? I can’t make it through a Disney soundtrack let alone movie without needing to go blow my nose and wipe my eyes from “allergies.” I’m afraid if I open the cry-valve completely, I might never get it shut again. 

First appeared on

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

7 Tips to Teach Kids About Gender Equality

This post first appeared on Modern Parents Messy Kids 

I feel teaching gender equality is essential, even though I have boys, not girls. Yet, I’m historically awkward when it comes to large and important discussions on character development. However, I’ve had a lot of success with guerilla tactics—deploying relevant snippets of conversation in everyday situations. 

Here are 7 tips to teach kids about gender equality.

1. Banish all gender-based put-downsaround your child. You throw like a girlis a prime example. Of course, I don’t have control over other adults, like coaches and ex-husbands, but I call it out when I see it—not to the adult, of course. I’m not that brave. But I will say to my kids, something along the lines of: 

I don’t like how the coach said that only girls cheer for their teammates. Everyone needs encouragement and it implies that being a girl isn’t as good as being a boy. 

2.Get rid of the notion that toys/colors are gender specific.

No Grandma, pink bunny sleeping bags aren’t for girls. They are for anyone who likes bunnies. Who doesn’t like bunnies? 

Boys still get more flak from playing with dolls than girls do for playing with trucks, because society still equates femaleness with weakness. But in this day and age we expect our husbands to participate in child-rearing.My sons’ father changed diapers and fed the baby. Why wouldn’t my son want to play with dolls and model that behavior? 

Give toddlers a wide array of toys to choose from.I’m a hoarder, so I still had some dolls and a few plastic My Little Ponys from my own youth. These went in the playroom along with the trucks and crayons and everything else. An old nightgown got thrown in the costume box so they had another option in case they—or a friend coming over—wanted to be a princess, or a wizard, or a ghost, or anything else that required long flowy fabric.

3. Ifyou have a husband, tell him he has to vacuum for the sake of the children.If you don’t have a husband, any brother, father, or other male-type person will do.  I jest—most people have gotten the memo that cleaning is everyone’s job, but we often fold the laundry or run the dishwasher when the kids are in bed and there are no witnesses.  I get it—it’s faster to get things done without the help of small people. But seriously, let them see it happen on occasion. 

4.  If you were hoping #3 meant you get to lie on the couch and eat bon-bons while honey-muffin vacuums, I have some bad news. Lawn care is everyone’s job as well, so make sure the little darlings witness you mowing, shoveling, or taking out the trash as well.  If you have a traditional break down of roles in your house, you don’t have to mix it up all the time—every once in a while is adequate. 

5. Don’t worry, everyone can lie on the coach for the next tip: Watch TV with your children and interrupt their viewing with running commentary.  My feminist mother banished all TV shows that had an overtly misogynistic message—well, she tried, but it was close to impossible in the 1980s. But her ban only made me want to watch the shows moreand resent feminists for taking away my television. (I never claimed to be a sweet natured child.)Instead, I watch TV with my kids, and we discuss the characters. 

For example, my kids love Phineas and Ferb. There’s some cool stuff going on (blended family, building stuff, platypuses), but my sons know how I feel about Candace, who is just as smart as her brothers but she spends the majority of her time chasing Jeremy instead of doing cool stuff of her own.  When the remake of Richie Rich comes on, they get a double lecture on materialism and the impracticality of Irona’s black French maid outfit.  

6.  Point out gender inequality when you see it.I have sons, not daughters, but I still get involved when I see gender inequality in their school. For example, at their old school, girls got more uniform violations than boys. We talked about the boys they knew who wore sweat pants on non-gym days with no repercussions and the girls who got written up for  skirts that were an inch too short or untucked shirts. Train their eyes to see injustice even when it benefits them. 

7. Be aware of what messages the kids overhear in your household. For example, my workout DVD touts the value of “sleek, sexy arms” or a “nice firm booty.”  Now, I love my exercise video and I’m not going to stop using it, but since my kids are often in the room when I exercise, I make sure to tell them that, 

I don’t exercise to look sexy. I exercise so I’m strong enough to do a pull-up at the playground.

And then when we go to the playground, I do that pull-up and show them that I am strong—strong as a mother.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

7 Things Your Kids Say You're Getting Wrong About YouTube

This post first appeared on Modern Parents Messy Kids

My kids only watch TV at the kitchen table. They get their entertainment from YouTube, and they aren’t the only ones. DubbedThe YouTube Generation, one estimate puts them in league with over one hundred trillionother young people who feel the same way. 

On a family trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park this summer, the park broadcast YouTube compilations to entertain people who were waiting in line for rides.  This was my view of YouTube—funny fail videos and cat compilations. I was wrong. 

1. YouTubersaren’t just unknown jokesters—they are the new celebrities, admired just as much as Hollywood stars by young people. In some ways, the self-made aspect of their success makes them more appealing. And, in case you didn’t know, You Tube is making movies and other original contentthat competes with Netflix or Amazon Prime. Like all stars, kids look up to them and want to emulate their behavior.  

Earlier this year, I happened to catch a brief news story about a YouTuber named Logan Paul who posted a video posing with a suicide victim. Logan Paul is 22. My youngest son is 10—so I was shocked to learn that my son not only knew who he was, but was a fan.That was when I started paying closer attention to what exactly he was watching. 

Unlike with traditional celebrities, though, I’m unlikely to catch wind of YouTuber controversies through the traditional news sources I use. After Logan Paul, I started asking my kid who their favorites were, and I follow them on Instagram so I can get a glimpse into who these people are and what exactly their appeal is without having to watch every video they post.

2. YouTuberand Gamerare real careers—at least as much as “Movie Star” or “Rock Star” are actual career paths.  My friend taught ESL in an elementary school, and she confided to me that the kids all wanted to be YouTubers when they grew up, and she felt bad that “they didn’t even know that wasn’t a real career.” But she was wrong. 

The likelihood of becoming a famous YouTuber and actually making money off of it may be small, but some people actually do it, and the kids know it. Not only are YouTubers paid for ad views, but also from selling merchandise and tickets to events to meet them in person. 

My youngest son has asked for the same brand shoes as his favorite YouTuber wears. His favorite car is the same model the same YouTuber drives. I don’t know if this particular person is being paid for product placement, but many are.  

When we tell them being a YouTuber (or gamer) is not a real thing, kids roll their eyes, because they know we are wrong. And then they stop listening to everything else we say about YouTube, since they’ve already proven that we know less about it than they do.

3. They discover new content mainly through auto-playand recommendations from friends.Many kids have phones now, and they are constantly showing each other the funniest/most amazing you tube clips. Even my Amish neighbor who has no cell phone at all was hip to the latest YouTube sensations from working on a construction site. In other words, not having a phone is not protection.

4. It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. Sometimes kids use YouTube to voluntarily learn things. YouTube has taught my kids how to:

  • ·     play the guitar
  • ·     solve a Rubik’s Cube
  • ·     play online games better
  • ·     improve pitching/batting
  • ·     put on makeup
  • ·     perform magic tricks
  • ·     ollie on a skateboard

It turns out that watching clips over and over may have quantitative value. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal credited watching YouTube clips with improving basketball players’ performance

5. YouTube videos are laden with advertising.  I used to hang around the beginning of a video to help my child skip the commercial, then went back to whatever else I was doing. It’s no longer so simple. Ads no longer play just at the beginning of the video—I was watching one of my son’s favorite YouTubers attempt a back flip, and just as his feet left the ground—at the pinnacle of tension—an ad starting playing.

In fact, in April 2018, Google came under firefor collecting data about kids in order to better advertise to them. And unless you pay for YouTube Premium, you can no longer skip ads. As my twelve-ear-old explained to me, 

“if the video is ten minutes long, it will most likely have three ads in it.” 

What are these ads for? Some content seems to be tailored to their interests specifically— but a lot of ads are geared towards adults. In the words of my 10-year-old, “this week, there’s a lot of Advil.” It seems that the same two or three ads run on any video they watch for about a week, then they change. The only frightening or questionable ads my kids have seen are a for movies, all PG-13 or R, which younger kids might find frightening.

6. Content filters actually do work—as long as your kid doesn’t turn them off.I asked my 12-year-old—who actually does not want to see inappropriate content—how often the auto play or search feature returns an inappropriate video. “Never,” he told me, “as long as you enable restricted mode.”
However, I’m quite sure he has a savvy friend who knows how to subvert it if he really wanted to. My kids are not allowed to watch YouTube in their rooms or on their phones, although “everyone” watches clips on the school bus.

7. If your children are in elementary school or older, they most likely have at least one friend who has their own YouTube channel. Kids are posting videos both with and without the assistance of parents, so if you don’t want your kid on the internet, you might want to ask about it before dropping your kid off for a playdate. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Why We Need Darkness in YA Literature

I buy books for my sons. I read reviews and get recommendations and thrust books into their hands and walk away. I don’t generally pre-read the books before I give them to the boys.

Every now and then (and a lot more often, lately) my kids will give a book back to me and insist that I read, too, because it was “so good.” I always want to know when they love something and why they love it, so I push it to the top of my TBR pile and dive in. 

Ya’ll, YA is dark AF. 

Let me break that down: 

Ya'll = I apologize for culturally appropriating “ya’ll” as I was raised in NY and live in Ohio and have no right to it. But in my defense, my Grandmother lived in West Virginia and my second mother grew up in West Virginia so I grew up hearing the word at home on occasion. Plus, please also consider that my best friend currently lives in West Virginia and gave me permission to use it. To be honest, there is no better word to refer affectionately to a group of people. 

YA = Young Adult literature, geared for readers aged 13-18 but enjoyed by all ages. 

is Dark AF = smoking, drinking, pornography, lying, death—things I did not think my son was ready to read about and yet were contained in the book I bought my son. 

But this is the world he lives in. I can’t protect him from the darkness of the world. And I shouldn’t try to. He’s going into high school this year. He needs these stories.

The truth is that my lectures don’t have as much value as I wish they did—and I pride myself on my very fine lecturers. I’ve had a lot of very useful experience with the darkness in life and I want my kids to benefit from the wisdom I’ve accumulated without having to experience it themselves.

And this is why we need drunk driving accidents in books about baseball. This is why all the darkness is necessary.  I can tell my kids that my brother’s best friend died in a drunk driving accident, but they don't know what that feels like. I can talk to them about standing up to peer pressure, but my lecture won’t allow them to vicariously explore both acquiescing and resisting a friend inviting them to make a terrible decision. Literature can. 

They can place themselves inside a story, enter through the protagonist’s eyes, cry if they need to as they turn the pages. (I certainly do.) And they can get an idea of what the stakes really are in life. They can feel how the world breaks your heart in a million different ways, but one step removed.

Whether they are ready for that or not, heartbreak is barreling down at them in a thousand forms—some tiny, others monumental. And maybe books will help my kids be a bit more ready for it when it hits.  Oh, that’s unrealistic to hope for, I know. Maybe these stories will show them that in the end, no matter how much it feels like grief will overwhelm you, eventually you go on. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

My Son is Starting High School as a 12-Year-Old and I’m Not Scared at All

OK, maybe I’m a little scared, I can’t lie. But overall, I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea than I ever imagined I would be.

I hadn’t planned on grade-skipping my son.  My son’s September birthday meant that he was already young for his grade.  Here in Ohio, the cut-off date for kindergarten varies by district—anywhere from August 15th to September 30th —so many kids in his class were already a full year older than him. But when we switched from a self-contained gifted school to the public school down the street, we didn’t have much choice.

The problem was math. Full disclosure—I hate math. Math makes me cry, but luckily computers have made it so that the amount of math I have to do in my head is practically zero. My son, however, loves math. It’s his favorite thing. He loves it so much that in 4th grade he worked independently and completed two years of math in one school year, and the school already had an accelerated program. Therein lied the problem—he was now going into 7th grade but taking 10th grade math, which my local school couldn’t figure out how to fit into his schedule.

The conversation went like this:
Gifted Coordinator: Can he just repeat Algebra? 
Me: No. He got an A+ in Algebra. He can’t sit through the exact same class again. 
Gift Coordinator: I don’t know how to make his schedule work. 
Me: Gifted students fall under special needs protection. You have to figure it out.

A few days later she called back again, and asked if we wanted to discuss whole-grade acceleration. There’s a long and involved process for grade skipping, it turns out. The child has to place two grade levels above the current grade (not just one), and there are lengthy conferences about all the dynamics in play: sports, siblings, physical stature, and emotional maturity.

The middle school principal asked,
“How will you feel next year, when he’s sitting in math class next to sixteen year olds, able to overhear their conversations?”
I had no good answer—because that was something I did worry about tremendously.
In the end, though, after reading everything I could find online, taking to every adult I knew who grade-skipped as a child or grade-skipped their own child, and talking with all my teacher-friends, we decided to go for it.

I will admit that my eyes misted up watching my eleven-year-old walk into school at the start of his eighth grade year—I was so afraid that the world would break my  son’s spirit. A year later, we all agree that it was the right decision.

Here are my takeaways from our year:

The first comments most people make about grade-skipping is in regards to athletics. First of all, I never planned on raising a professional athlete. There is nothing wrong with professional athletes, but raising one was never a personal goal of mine. That being said, my son had played baseball since he was seven, so I spoke with my son’s little league coach (who is also the high school varsity baseball coach) before I decided to grade-skip my son. It turns out, his daughter had grade-skipped as well.

“There are more academic scholarships than athletic scholarships,” he said. “You should always grade-skip. He’ll be fine in baseball.”
Now, I don’t know if he’ll make the freshman baseball team, but he is currently holding his own on the 14-year-old travel team as a 12-year-old.  Size definitely matters, but so does heart, focus, and the desire to work hard. He was a top player on the team for his actual age, and is still near the top of his current roster. Besides, if all else fails, he can continue to run cross-country—a multi-grade sport with no try-outs—and play baseball for the rec department team.

Gym class was fine. He likes sports, and has played a variety of them since he was little, so he’s pretty coordinated. He was never last-picked for a team—but then again, kids weren’t allowed to pick teams in gym class at his school. The only issue he had in P.E. was getting from the third floor to the gymnasium in four minutes.

Social Needs
Some kids treat him as a peer, and some kids treat him as a little brother/mascot, but so far, no one has bullied him.  On the first day of school, another student saw him eating alone, and pulled him into his group. My son now has as many friends at the new school as at the old one.

He’s managed to find kids with similar interests and emotional maturity in his new grade-level. While I worried a lot about dating, drugs, etc., it hasn’t been an issue.
Kids hit puberty at different ages no matter what grade they are in, and he’s not the only one of his friends who isn’t much interested in dating yet. He may not have slow danced with anyone at the formal but he wasn’t the only one who didn’t, and he still had an awesome time.

My son got all As and one B+ this year—he didn’t struggle with the work. The only place where the age-gap created a problem was in Health class—he was a little young for the subject matter. Even though he was uncomfortable, he had to get through it.
He’s going to need to know about relationships, drugs, and healthy sexuality going into high school, no matter how young he is. And that class spawned a lot of awkward conversations between the two of us—conversations that we needed to have before high school and I was shirking on.

Here’s the thing—middle school isn’t only filled with sweet young children eager to learn. He’s already witnessed other students acting out and experimenting with risky behavior, and he knows where he stands, and who he wants to stand next to. He’s more sure of who he is now than he ever has been before, and that’s a great place to be as a Freshman.

So now that my 12-year-old has survived eighth grade, I don’t have as many fears for high school. He’s got a group of friends that I both like and trust. I know he can handle the academics, and he’s got as good a shot as anyone in making the freshman baseball team. Whole grade acceleration may not be right for everyone, but so far, it’s worked out well for our family.

First Appeared June 29, 2018 on Modern Parents, Messy Kids.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Special Announcement

Caption by Big Pants

I am so excited to announce that Skyhorse Publishing has signed my second book, Mama, Mama, Only Mama! Stories, Blogs, and Hacked Recipes for the Newly Single Mother for release in early 2019!

Book description: 

Being a single mother means relaxing your cleanliness standards. A lot.

Being a single mother means missing your kids like crazy when your ex has them, only to want to give them back ten minutes after they come home.

Being a single mother means accepting sleep deprivation as a natural state.

Being a single mother means hauling a toddler, a baby and a diaper bag while wearing high heels and a cute skirt, because you never know when you’ll meet someone.

Being a single mother means finding out you are stronger than you ever knew was possible.

Since birth, Lara Lillibridge’s children wanted, “Mama, Mama, Only Mama!” whether they were tired or just woke up from a nap—whether they were starving or had just finished a bowl of goldfish crackers. Over ten years later, not much has changed. 

Written in the style of a diary with blogs, articles and recipes tucked between the pages, Mama, Mama, Only Mama follows Lara Lillibridge and her two children, Big Pants and Tiny Pants, out of divorce, through six years of single parenting, and into the family blender with a quasi-stepfather called SigO. Complete with highly useful recipes such as congealed s’more stew, recycled snack candy bars, instant oatmeal cookies and a fine chicken casserole that didn’t pass Tiny Pants’ “lick test,” Lillibridge grows into her role as mother, finds true love, and comes to terms with her ex-husband.