Monday, December 23, 2013

8 Things I Learned from my Coworker Without Realizing It.

The best kind of teacher is one who doesn't appear to be teaching you at all. 

Before my daughter was born I had the privilege to work in a preschool classroom with such a person. Glenna is a skilled Early Childhood Educator with many years of childcare experience under her belt, but she let me work alongside her as more of an equal than an apprentice. It wasn't until she went on leave with an injury that I fully realized the extent of her guidance. It was not through authoritarian lecturing that she imparted the following wisdom, but through kind conversation and a good example. All ECE's are instructed to teach their children in such a manner, but the wisest of teachers apply it to their other childcare providers and parents as well.

Here are the eight concepts that have resonated with me the longest, and it is these which come to mind most often with I ask myself "WWGD?"

1. You should praise the action, not the child. "'Good Boy' is something I say to my dog," Glenna joked, my first week on the job.  Rather, something like, "Good work on that block tower" lets a child know exactly where his skills lie and keeps him away from unnecessary labels.

2.  You don't have to be loud or emotional to get your point across. I never once saw a child who could get Glenna ruffled, though boy they tried! She was as calm and stoic as a person could be who got sassed, peed on, and screamed at on a daily basis.  When you remain calm, what happens after a period of time is that you end up with children who don't want to disappoint you. Because they learn that causing you to react means you have done something especially heinous and they feel bad for upsetting you. On the other end of the spectrum, if you scream and holler all the time, they don't even hear you. 

3. You don't have to solve all their problems.  In fact, solving children's problems, especially interpersonal problems, just teaches them not to rely on their own abilities. Once they get to be four or five, most children already know the right thing to do and don't need to be lectured, just trusted.  Glenna used to have conversations that sounded something like, "Oh, he hit you did he? And what did you do? Do you think that was the right thing? What should you do now?  Okay, go ahead!"  And then she would send the child back to take responsibility without ever having to shout or apply punishment. This kind of mediation is one that requires a lot of grace and skill to pull off successfully, and it comes hand in hand with the previous tip.

4. You don't need to be fast or agile to work with children.  Because of her medical issues, at that point in time Glenna wasn't as mobile as she would have like to be. Sure, it's convenient to be able to scoop a 40 pound screaming, stubborn child up under your arm and place him where you want him to be. But there is also a lot to be said about getting "hands off" from time to time.  Instead of running after children, Glenna had an uncanny ability to beckon them over with a few quiet, well thought out words. While most childcare workers will tell you that you need to squat down on the floor to reach children at their own level, Glenna taught me that it's more important to lower your mindset to their level to get a greater understanding of what they're thinking.

5. You need to learn to improvise, and throw away any need for perfection. Glenna wore an upside down coat for pants one day when the weather suddenly turned cold. (And I respect her enough I won't post a photo.) The kids found it hilarious, and it was a good example for them of putting personal needs ahead of other people's opinions.
It was Glenna who taught me to improvise and sing out loud all the time, even if it's made up. Kids don't care if it's a real song.  They don't care if it rhymes or if it has more than five words. Improvising gives kids permission to express themselves creatively in the same way.

6. You can never have too many hobbies. Glenna has tremendous skill and patience in many creative pursuits, from baking to embroidery to paper crafting.  While people will all have different interests, of course, having a passion for any personal hobby will help keep you from losing yourself amongst the busyness and stress of raising children.  Many moms and childcare workers just give and give of themselves and forget to pursue any interests of their own, until one day they hit a tipping point and have an identity crisis.

7. Cherish your relationships while they last. Your kids won't stay kids, and you won't be around forever yourself.  Neither will your own parents. Life is too short to sweat small stuff or harbour  grudges, so end each day on a peaceful note.

8. You can do everything right and sometimes things still go wrong.  Accepting that children will ultimately make their own choices is one of the best gifts you can give them.  What they choose to do with that gift is up to them, and it's not necessarily a reflection on how you raised them.

Thanks, Glenna! Perhaps I'll have the good fortune to work with you again someday, and if not, I hope I can pay it forward.

Author's note: I have worked with a lot of great people. This post isn't meant to undervalue their skill or influence; I simply chose one person who was able to connect with me in a way I was particularly receptive to. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

8 Ways to Avoid Baby Gift Overload

People love to give babies presents. People can't help themselves. I don't really understand this, since babies are the people who are least likely to appreciate presents. Nevertheless, if you've got a baby in your house who wasn't there last year, odds are, he or she will soon be getting truckloads of stuff.

Now if you reading this but you are actually someone who is struggling to make ends meet and you are worried about how you are going to make baby's first or second Christmas special, you need not concern yourself with a lack of lame first world problems like "too many gifts."  You're in a better position to enjoy what Christmas is really about. Plus, babies have no expectations, they're usually terrified of Santa, and they'll be happy to receive an empty box or a set of old car keys.

If you still really want to have something to mark the occasion, consider asking for assistance from a select few friends or a gift giving organization.  You don't need to feel ashamed or guilty. Like I said, people love to give babies presents. If you give a shopping enthusiast an excuse to buy fancy baby things, you are doing that person a favor. You'll satiate someone's need to buy tiny things that make people go "Awwwwww. Lookatthosewiddleshooooes". They won't have to get pregnant just to have little feet to fit into those adorable little shoes.  It's win-win. 

Gift clothes from 1 holiday!
As for the rest of you, especially those with large extended families, brace yourselves.  Christmas day might be epic.

On Blue's first Christmas she was six months old, and she was the first grandchild for my parents, and the first grandchild in over a decade for my husband's parents. We began opening gifts at 7:30, and with brief breaks for naps, we continued unwrapping well into the evening.  We eventually gave up and opened more gifts on Boxing Day.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has experienced First-Christmas overload. Here are some tips to help first time parents keep Christmas from being overwhelming.

1. Before Christmas, do a purge of all unneeded clothes and toys.

2. K.I.S.S.  Keep it simple, Santa. Buy your baby one really nice gift instead of lots of little things, and if relatives ask, suggest they do the same. If you accidentally go overboard, see if there is anything you  can donate to the angel tree or another charitable organization.

3. Don't wrap necessities.  Your baby won't care if he uncovers a toothbrush, socks, or clothes. If you must buy these things and save them for Christmas, put them all in one basket under the tree.

4. Spread out the gift opening over a few days. If you have purchased a number of fun toys that you know will keep your child captivated, open some on Christmas Eve or Boxing day so she has enough time to explore each one. If you have aunts and uncles dropping off gifts for your little one, open them right then and there.  The gifter will get to enjoy seeing you open it.

5. Don't remove a new toy from your baby's hands in order to make him open or play with the next present. He will cry. He doesn't know what's going on. There will be lots of time later to open or introduce the next item.

6. Consider giving your child an experience instead of an object. Babies who love music will enjoy sitting on your lap at a kid friendly concert or theater show.

7. Play light Christmas music on low volume while you open gifts.  Or play nothing at all. You don't want your baby to get overstimulated or a crying jag will ensue. Nothing puts more holiday stress on you than hearing,"Ding Christmas Bells! Ding Christmas Bells!"

8. If your baby is old enough to enjoy unwrapping gifts but he lacks the dexterity, try this trick: Tape a Christmas ribbon along the length of the paper. All he needs to do is yank.  I thought this up while simultaneously wrapping presents and eating Babybel cheese.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Make Gingerbread Men like a Boss

I can't believe all these Mom bloggers who come out of the woodwork at Christmas. I don't know how they do it... pumping out recipe after craft after activity like idea sausages.

Not me. I'm a one-trick-pony when it comes to holidays.  All I do is gingerbread men.

But I rock it.

So can you.

Gingerbread cookies have been a family tradition since I was young. What I love about making them is that this is one of the few activities that is appealing to every age category. Here are a few of the perks:

• The dough is very easy to make, and little ones love all the stirring and kneading
• You can't overmix it or screw it up easily
• It contains no egg products so it's safe to eat
• The smell of the spices and the texture of the flour, dough, and molasses make a wonderful sensory experience for young tots
• Plain gingerbread cookies are great for teething toddlers who need to gnaw
• The decorating process can be as easy or difficult as you want it to be, depending on the skill level of your child. I like to divide the dough-making, cookie cutting, and decorating into three activities to do over three days to match my two year old's attention span.

I have memorized the recipe after more than 30 years of doing this, but I think originally I got this from a book. I probably owe the credit to my good old Jean Paré Company's Coming "Cookies" edition. When I was a cookie-obsessed child, that book was second only to the Bible in our house.

This dough recipe makes 40-50 cookies, or if you want you can cut it in half. Remember, though, you may lose some gingerbread men to crumbling, spontaneous amputation and overeating.

Gingerbread Dough

1/2 cup Butter: room temperature for best results
1 cup White Sugar
1 cup Molasses
2/3 cup Water

2 tsp Baking Soda
2 tsp Ginger
1 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Cloves
1 tsp Salt
6 1/2 cups Flour


 1. Cream the butter and sugar together.  Have your child add the molasses and water and give it a stir with a big wooden spoon. He or she will enjoy watching the molasses swirl slowly out of the measuring cup. Your dough will soon look like porridge and cola.

2. Mix in all the other ingredients. Make sure you let your little one smell (not snort!) the different spices as you add them. Stir it as best you can with the spoon, but you will soon need to get in there and make it into a ball with your hands.

3. Eat a little dough. Yum.

4. Cover and place in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.

Cookie Cutting Tips

•Look for classic cookie cutters when you purchase. The ones with outlines only. The gimmicky types with inside lines or molds never turn out right, and even when they do, they limit your creativity.

• If your dough has been in the fridge overnight, warm it on the counter for at least 30 minutes.

• For best results, you need surface with an even coating of flour. I prefer to use a wooden cutting board instead of the finished wood of my dining room table because the flour spreads more evenly.

Flour play
• With little children, you may not need to go any further. You'll have them at flour. Sprinkle a little on the table top for them and let them smear it around.

• Rub flour on a wooden rolling pin, and over the surface of the dough. Begin to flatten it into a large oval, checking occasionally to make sure it's not sticking to the wood. Roll to a uniform thickness of about 6-8 millimeters. Show your child how to put the cookie cutter close to the edge (good luck with that!) and do the "press and wiggle". If all goes well, the dough should stick to the inside of the cutter when you transfer it to the pan. If not, use a flat spatula. The cookies will grow slightly so leave a half inch or more clearance around each cookie. Most kids will do a couple cookies and get bored, then you'll end up doing the rest while they try to play with it like play dough. That's okay.

• The dough doesn't get overworked all that easily. You can ball it up and re-roll it four or five times so don't worry about a few mistakes here and there.

• Bake at 350°F (180°C) for at least 8 minutes, or more if your dough is thick. Cooking for longer will give you a stronger cookie but it might be tougher to eat.


There are two good methods of decorating: coloured chocolate or icing. (Please don't message me about the "u" in coloured this time. I'm Canadian and I'm not taking it out!). The coloured chocolate is easier for children to work with, less messy when done, and I find that it tastes better to adults who don't enjoy loads of sugary icing.  The downside is that it takes a fair bit of skill to get it to look good.
Icing is traditional, it looks great and can be really fun to squeeze, but it can also be messy and more work to make.

Coloured Chocolate

Nothing could be simpler. First hit up the Dollar store and get some plastic paintbrushes and small
Blue, "painting" cookies at 18 months.
bowls- I prefer ramekins. Get one for each colour. Then head to the Bulk Barn or a bulk food store of your choice and buy some chocolate melting wafers. Microwave the wafers on medium heat and stir occasionally with a Popsicle stick until just melted. If you do it right, the chocolate will be liquid but not hot enough to burn your child. You can use a pan of hot water or a hot plate to keep the chocolate melted when not in use, but I find it easier just to pop them back in the microwave every 10 to 15 minutes. Use a different paintbrush in each dish and, if multiple people are making cookies, try to pass the children one dish at a time or else they will just slop all the colours together.

Children will apply the chocolate just as they would apply paint to a craft. They can also add sprinkles if they are quick enough to do it before the chocolate hardens.
Some Chocolate ones I made


Making: I'll admit this is one of those things I never bother to use a recipe for. You can google buttercream icing and find something lovely, I'm sure. But all I do is pour some icing sugar into a bowl, add some butter and some liquid- milk for cookies, or egg white for gingerbread houses or anything that needs to act as edible glue. I sometimes use egg white icing to repair gingerbread limbs. You will also add a flavour and color of your choice, and I also like to put a touch of cream of tartar to keep it from tasting too sweet. Mix until it is pasty and stiff. If it's runny, add more icing sugar, and if it's doughy, add more butter or milk.

Mixing: If you are mixing a number of colours, start with the lightest colour and work towards the darker ones. That way you don't have to wash out your bowl between colours. I like to start with white (I use shortening instead of butter to keep it white), then I make light yellow, very light orange (or caucasion skin tone), dark orange, red, then brown.  You can add cocoa to the remnants of the red icing to make brown. Then rinse the bowl and make green, blue, then purple, then black.

For best results, use Wilton Gel colour, especially for red, purple and black. Use a baby spoon for scooping it out if you have one, or a flat toothpick.

Squeezing: You can use pastry bags if you want to get fancy, but I find it easier just to use small plastic bags.  Turn the bag inside out, apply a spoonful of icing to one corner and then turn right side out. Add an elastic or twist tie, then snip off a tiny hole in one corner.
For young children, just give them enough icing for one cookie at a time or else they may end up with a mountain of icing. Have them squeeze it onto the cookie, add decorations and allow it to air dry.

Spreading: If you want to cover a large area of cookie with a solid color, squeeze the icing all around and the apply a wet butter knife to spread it around. Be careful not to spread too hard or the icing will separate from the cookie. It may help to slightly dampen the cookie before you begin to help it stick, or you can pre-prime the cookies with corn syrup and apply icing while it's still tacky.

Get creative: If your goal is to serve cookies to children, use lots of color and candy. You can try to make recognizable figures like Dora, Cinderella, or Optimus Prime if you're really talented. If you're not so talented, Elmo and Cookie monster are great for novices.  You can even buy candy googly eyes at the Bulk Barn.
Cookie Monster and Elmo, as conceptualized by an 18 month old.

The Icing covered cookies Blue made at age 2 1/2
If you are giving the cookies to grown ups, less is more. Adults always tend to go for the cookies with the least amount of toppings, so your classic gingerbread man is your best bet. I like to do a simple white outline and a couple candy buttons, then I add a touch of individualism with Groucho Marx glasses or a beard.
The rabbit and wreath are adapted from an armless, decapitated gingerbread man.

Displaying: In my own family tradition, we made the cookies into a long chain and hung
them on either side of the inside threshold of our home. Visitors to the house would each get to cut off the bottom cookie and take it home. Spread out a long line of plastic wrap on the floor- at least 8 feet. Place the dried cookies face down in the centre of the wrap and carefully fold in the sides. Do this when your children and pets are safely occupied elsewhere or else you're in for a world of trouble.  Once folded, tie Christmas ribbons in between each cookie. If you want each cookie to stay sealed, tie two ribbons in between each one and cut between them.

Follow up: Sit down with your child and eat your gingerbread men while drinking a nice glass of milk, all while reading your favourite version of the "Gingerbread Man" story.

Merry Christmas!