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Christmas Countdown

By Karen Hendricks

The mantra I keep hearing and repeating from all of my friends who are moms this holiday season is… “Let it go.” With Thanksgiving falling so late on the calendar this year, there just wasn’t as much time as usual to prepare for Christmas! Whether it’s holiday decorating, cookie baking, gift wrapping, or tree trimming, many of these holiday traditions are falling by the wayside this year. We are all in the same boat–flying by the seat of our pants this holiday season!

About a week ago, I decided to give in to the fact that I can’t and won’t be able to do it all this year… and I gave myself a gift: the gift of forgiveness and grace. After all, what is the true meaning of Christmas? The most important factors in the holiday season are family, friends and togetherness… not so much the number of decorations throughout my house or the number of cookies in my cookie jars (practically zero–and not because we ate them all!).

So for the first two weeks of December, the extent of my decorating included a wreath on the front door (thanks to my husband for hanging it up–although it was upside down for a few days at first, LOL), my beloved Santa painting over the mantle (shown in last December’s post Holiday Heart and Soul), candles in the windows (also thanks to my wonderful husband), and lights outside thanks to the dynamic light-hanging duo of my son & husband. And two additional time-honored traditions, the Advent calendar (check out my blog post Christmas Nostalgia here) and our December countdown calendar.

Dec Countdown

I purchased the fabric for this wall-hanging nearly 20 years ago, back in the mid 1990s, when my oldest daughter was a baby. I remember what a chore it was, to carve out some time with the sewing machine and actually stitch it up one November or December, so that we could begin using it. Back then, it was hard enough to find five minutes to take a semi-shower! But from the time it was stitched and hung in our kitchen, it was a hit. It’s always hung close to our kitchen table, so that every December morning at breakfast time, someone had the honor of moving the red fabric frame, attaching it via velcro, on its march toward December 25. The first few years, daughter #1 was in charge. As daughter #2 and then our son entered the fray, there were often competitions over who could wake up the earliest, beating everyone else to the breakfast table, and therefore have the honor of moving the marker. Really. I think there were even tears shed over this honor.

Fast forward to December of 2014. The oldest sister was away at college until a few days ago. My son, now 14, as the youngest in our household, has had the complete honor of counting down this special month. His sisters have relinquished this highest of holiday honors to him, whether it’s because they are mature, or more likely because they don’t care to compete with his early-as-a-rooster habits. They are “letting it go.”

I can see a time coming when they are all away at college, and at least for the first half of December, it’ll be me moving the red fabric frame as it outlines those early, lazy days in December when Christmas still feels so far away. By mid-December, when they all arrive home from college and the pace of December increases to a frenzy, I’m sure they’ll all enjoy taking a turn, slipping back into their childhood tradition and moving the red frame once again. As we countdown to Christmas this year, I feel another countdown creeping into our lives… the countdown towards the close of their childhood.

Cherish all the joys of the 2014 holiday season with your families, cherish your children at whatever ages and stages they are in, and if  you are feeling stressed remember to “let it go.” Merry Christmas!

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Family Reunions: A Summer Tradition

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

By Karen Hendricks

Every year, the last Sunday of June, we head to the mountains surrounding Penn State’s Happy Valley area for my husband’s annual family reunion. It’s a tradition that has been upheld for as long as I’ve known my husband—I attended my first reunion before we were married, probably 25 years ago! Now our kids have grown up with this tradition—a great way to reconnect with family members and keep family ties intact.

My mother-in-law, one of 13 children, absolutely lives for family reunion day. It’s consistently one of the highlights of our summer as well. My husband is one of 40+ cousins, and now our children are some of the “next generation” of cousins. What a great tradition!

IMG_8241R

Gathering and getting ready to enjoy a family potluck luncheon

It seems like once a reunion has been established and planned for so many years, it is like a well-oiled machine that keeps on rolling. Here are some tips from our reunions that might inspire you to create or redesign your family gatherings:

  • Try to keep a consistent date every year
  • Also keep the location consistent from year to year. Our reunion was held at a family farm for many years, but now we rent a fire hall adjacent to a park with pavilions, playgrounds, ball fields, etc.
  • Share in the planning process by asking various families to oversee different aspects of the reunion.
  • For example, one family can send out postcard or email reminders; maintain email or physical addresses for family members.
  • Designate someone to organize activities/games for children. Our reunion traditionally ends with a piñata full of candy for the kids. We have some creative relatives who design and create a piñata from a cardboard box every year!
  • Another family organizes a traditional activity for “kids” of all ages: guessing jars filled with candy. The person who makes the closest guess to the amount of candy, without going over, wins the jar. Last year, we snagged about 6 jars between the 5 of us, and despite the rumors, we did not have any “inside information!”
  • Ask every family to bring a covered dish. Somehow it all works out and there’s always plenty of fried chicken, a variety of salads and side dishes, and plenty of desserts including the traditional Pennsylvania whoopie pies.
  • Ask every family to bring their own place settings.
  • Have one family prepare and bring large coolers of water, iced tea, etc.
  • Pass a hat every year to collect donations from each family, to pay for the next year’s expenses—rental of the venue, kid’s activities, candy, drinks, etc.
  • Although it’s good to plan activities, it’s also good to allow free time where you can talk and catch up with relatives. Isn’t that the main purpose of a “reunion?” 🙂
Pinata fun!

Pinata fun!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque... the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque… the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Our family takes the "guessing jar" game very seriously!

Our family takes the “guessing jar” game very seriously!

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the "winners"--kids of all ages.

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the “winners”–kids of all ages.

Until next year...

Until next year…

Please add your tips and suggestions in the “Comments” section below… we look forward to sharing your ideas and ultimately, strengthening family bonds!

Summer 2014: Through the Lens

“Making Memories” – Isn’t that what summer is all about?

Here at Off the Merry-Go-Round, we’ve been busy making memories, enjoying summer, with our families. We’ve gathered some of our favorite summer snapshots to share with you. Click on any photo to open a slide show… Enjoy!

I Can’t Wait to Hold Your Hand

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Photo Credit: Licensed under the Public Domain by the National Cancer Institute.

Photo Credit: Licensed under the Public Domain by the National Cancer Institute.

Ah, sweet summertime… those lazy, hazy days. The days are lighter and brighter, the pace of life seems to slow down, and families get to spend more time together. And that’s what all moms and dads look forward to, right? Time spent with their children.

Funny, though, I don’t always hear that from parents. In fact, many times I hear quite the opposite. In May, I attended a fellowship dinner for my church. The conversation soon turned to children—about how fast kids grow and about the many changes they go through.

I sensed where all this was going because many times while talking with a friend or family member, at some point during the conversation they begin complaining about their children. Now, I do realize that this is likely not ever meant in a derogatory way; nor is it an expression of these parents’ true feelings for their kids. They probably just feel comfortable venting their frustrations to me, and unloading their feelings about their children’s antics and behaviors. Sometimes, these parents may even use humor in their ranting in order to defuse conflicts with their children when they later interact. That is actually a positive approach to dealing with many family situations.

Honestly, though, I have never really known how to respond to this manner of complaining simply because I don’t share these feelings about my son. My husband and I were no less than tortured for years by the many circumstances, and seemingly unending losses, surrounding the building our family. When our child was finally born and ready for us to adopt him, we were so overcome with emotion and filled with joy that we didn’t even have words. Although perhaps it will be hard for some to believe this, my husband and I used to “argue” over which of us wanted to get up with our son for the next middle of the night feeding. No, I am not kidding!

Sometimes, we would resolve to getting up together and sharing in this late-night ritual because we knew it was a special, treasured time that would all-too-soon be gone. And, it was. For our son began growing—sometimes in faster spurts than others—and never stopped. He has continued to grow up and fill out. We also know that once he reaches his destined height, he will continue his growth emotionally and spiritually.

We never can turn back the hands of time.

Speaking of hands… In reference to her children’s rapidly growing bodies over the years, one woman in our fellowship group said:

“One day you go to hold their hand and you see that it is actually—a hand!”

The talk continued, round the dinner table, with every member contributing toward the “kids these days” conversation. It seems that at every stage of my child’s life, I hear something from someone about how I should prepare for what lies ahead – what lies “in wait” (cue the Evil laugh–heh heh heh–here). I have already passed many of these supposedly dreaded stages – the terrible two’s, which is the year of public meltdowns and tantrums; the threshold three’s, which is when your child is older yet not old enough; the ferocious four’s, which is the year of independence wars; and the stage I’m in now ….. the fighting five’s, which is a year that will bring more I-can-do-it-myself battles. And through this all I wonder: Just when will these behaviors drive me to the brink of, well—complaining?

I do recognize that all of the behaviors observed and described by child development experts, and many parents, are categorized as general attitudes and behaviors that will likely be seen at some point during a child’s second year of life, third year of life, etc.; as well as in varying degrees of frequency and intensity, within that given year. However, I truly do feel as though my son and I do not fit in with the: My-Kids-Drive-Me-Nutty Club simply because… well, he doesn’t.

From the moment I brought my son home, and as I have watched him grow, I can honestly say I have enjoyed every age/stage/phase/and “fad” that has shown itself in his development. Initially, I did think I would have a hard time “Saying Goodbye to the Baby Years,” especially since my son is an only child.

Yet, it seems that as he grows, my son only becomes more wonderful—more adorable and fun to spend time with; more intuitive and sensitive; more curious and inquisitive; and more helpful and loving. So, I honestly can’t complain when the complaining wheel begins turning around my social and professional circles.

As I wake up each day to my beautiful little boy, growing big... I look at him, grin, and think:

I can’t wait to hold his great BIG hand!

We're "keeping it under our hats"... truth is, we have no complaints!

We’re “keeping it under our hats”… truth is, we have no complaints!

How do you handle being on the receiving end of parents’ complaints about their children? Do you perceive these “vent sessions” as a healthy, positive coping strategy? Or as having a negative effect on one’s parenting? Do you participate in, or even initiate, these kinds of discussions? Also, do you have tips for dealing with the inevitable growth and moving on of our children? How can we keep our relationships with our kids warm, loving, and strong – without causing them to feel “smothered?” 

We look forward to reading your thoughts!

 

From Beth’s Kitchen: Patriotic 4th of July Trifle

By Beth Heeschen

The Fourth of July.  The celebration of the birth of our nation.  A time for patriotism, fireworks, parades, slow pitch softball games, and water guns.  A time for fire flies in mason jars, sparklers on the lawn, waving of flags, and musical tributes.  Picnics filled with grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken.  Overflowing sides of potato salad, corn on the cob, baked beans, seven layer salad, and watermelon.

Double Delight: the famous Jell-O flag mold as well as the USA (picture it in Jello-O)!

Double Delight: the famous Jell-O flag mold as well as the USA (picture it in Jello-O)!

AND… the absolutely essential, must-have… patriotic red, white, and blue dessert.  There are many forms this dessert can take.  Iowa, in the 1970’s, favored the layered Jell-O mold approach.  Yes, LAYERED PATRIOTIC JELL-O MOLD.  The white layer was some sort of cream cheese concoction.  It’s the stuff nightmares are made, that we ate by the bowlful.  Fortunately, the Jell-O Company expanded on this theme in the 1980’s, and invented the flag Jell-O mold, which they dispensed for free in your neighborhood grocery store. So thoughtful of them.  It consisted of red Jell-O for the mold, Reddi Whip for the stripes, and blueberries for the stars.  It was truly a thing of beauty.  I however, flunked Jell-O making 101, and am not real big on making desserts anyway.

I needed something fast, easy, and red, white and blue.  Enter the magnificent, easy-to-prepare, looks impressive, Fourth of July Trifle.  Everybody, and I mean everybody loves this.

Edible patriotism at its best!

Edible patriotism at its best!

EASY 4TH OF JULY TRIFLE:

1 store bought angel food cake, cubed 1” squares (or make your own)

1 box large instant vanilla pudding, made according to package

1 container Cool Whip, defrosted

1 large container strawberries, washed, dried, and sliced

1 large container blueberries, washed and dried

3-4 sliced bananas

Glass container/bowl

Begin by putting a light layer of prepared pudding in the bottom of the bowl.  Top with cubed angel food cake (It is important to keep in mind, at this point, that a trifle is a layered desert, and you want to get the maximum effect from the size dish that you are using).  Next: a layer of pudding, a layer of sliced strawberries and bananas, and a layer of Cool Whip.  Follow up with a layer of pudding (lightly spread to keep the layers intact), and a layer of blueberries and bananas, followed with a layer of Cool Whip.  Repeat layers for a red, white, and blue effect.  End by spreading Cool Whip on top of cake (like frosting), and topping with sliced strawberries and blueberries.

A Plus:  You can make this “light” by using sugar free pudding, and light Cool Whip.

Enjoy!!!

How to Keep Your Child Interested in Learning and Reading through the Summer

Childrens'_books_at_a_library

Choices, choices! Photo Credit: ProjectManhattan

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

When I checked my email this morning, I saw a message from my son’s lower school principal titled – “Summer Reading and Enrichment Resources.” Ah, yes, it took a moment for my former elementary school teacher brain to register … just because it is summer does not mean we stop reading and learning!

I wonder if any of you share the following experience raising your children:  My son is an enthusiastic learner who loves school and absorbs so much around him like a dry sponge soaking up water. However, usually if I try sitting him down for more structured learning – as in, “We’re going to learn about the – ch diagraph now;” I find him balking at this “academic” time.

Even at such a young age, my preschool son takes school very seriously and loves to learn.

Even at such a young age, my preschool son takes school very seriously and loves to learn.

I get so much more from his young mind if we learn through play; or at the very least, weave learning time into playtime. One afternoon, we were drawing pictures on our sidewalk with chalk. My son began making the –sh sound for the beginning diagraph he learned last week, as we wrote our last name and talked about the sound that starts it. When I casually wrote “ch” on the sidewalk next and asked if he had learned this letter-sound combination (which I knew he had), he immediately rattled off a long list of beginning –ch words he had learned!

My parents were leaders in the field of education and learning was of great value in our household. Yet, it was a fairly structured experience and my mother’s school teacher job continued through the summer – if you know what I mean. I don’t think I lost any interest in learning because of this. In fact, many times I even enjoyed it since I was born loving to read and write. However, now I do admit that sometimes it could be a drag.

My little boy just turned 5 years old, and he had a very successful preschool year. This was due to several factors. For one, he has very supportive and involved parents – go us! Second, the philosophy of the private school he attends is grounded in just letting children “be” and grow into who they will be – of course with the support, guidance and nurturing of amazing teachers. Third, between school and home he was not taught, but not “pushed” to the point where learning became stressful and not fun anymore. Of course, there is a structured academic program and curriculum at my son’s school; and the education actually is fairly rigorous – just through a different approach. As in: Struggling with a weak pencil grip and forming your letters? We’re certain that with a little breathing room and some practice you’ll be writing with no problem as you fill out your college applications!

So, how do you keep your child from disconnecting from all he or she learned throughout the school year? How do you get them to want to read? How do you decide which books are best for a young reader – a “pre-reader” as they are commonly referred; and how do you find books that will spark your child’s curiosity and imagination, and keep your child interested in the world of books … without any “nagging” on your part?

Don’t let reading and learning – no matter what time of the year,

become an overwhelming experience for your child.

Read on to learn more!

Parents genuinely want their children to have an interest in books and learning; however, sometimes accessing those pathways to learning can be daunting – even in a place as seemingly benign as a library.

In libraries and bookstores, the children’s sections can actually be overwhelming, especially when your child is just beginning to show an interest in books. This can be especially tough during the summer when other activities and experiences beckon your child to take part – summer camp; swimming lessons; “pee wee” (insert name of sport here); weekday playdates; parties and picnics; vacations and day trips; etc.

The question parents need to ask themselves is:

How can I generate, support, and nurture a love for reading and learning in my child

without it becoming overwhelming?

Even a Superhero needs to know how to read!

Even a Superhero needs to know how to read!

Below are several ideas and tips for how to choose, or help your child choose, books that will engage them; and have them seeking time to read, think, and learn!

In their online Week of January 6, 2014 edition, ‘Baby Center’ published an article called “How to choose the best books for your pre-reader,” which shared six suggestions from reading specialists, teachers, and experienced parents. Here they are below:

Read rhyming and word pattern books. Preschoolers love to hear books with rhymes and word patterns, especially ones that are easy to memorize. They love to join in when they know how to finish a sentence: “One fish, two fish, red fish, BLUE fish!”

Look for books with short, rhyming sentences and predictable structure: Nursery rhymes, counting books, alphabet books, and poetry books. Books by authors such as Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, and the poet Shel Silverstein are good choices.

Share your childhood favorites. Winnie-the-Pooh, Goodnight Moon, and Go, Dog, Go!: Yes, they’re still around!

Browse through the library or bookstore and look for the books you loved when you were starting to read. Find out whether your parents still have your first books packed away. The classics never go out of style.

Encourage your child to read about his favorite characters or topics–even your childhood favorites such as Pooh and Piglet!

Choose books with colorful illustrations. Words aren’t the main attraction for pre-readers. Pick out books with vibrant colors and beautiful pictures, and talk about the pictures with your child.

When you’re reading the story to your child, stop once in a while to discuss the picture and how it relates to the story. This prepares your child for the early reading stage, when he’ll use pictures for clues about what each page says.

Pick books that fit your child’s interest. Choose books about his favorite subjects: Cars, trucks, zoo animals, kids his age — even television characters such as Dora the Explorer or Elmo. The idea is to develop a love of reading, not a love of reading a certain kind of book.

Take your child along with you to the library or bookstore. Don’t restrict your child to one age group or subject. With reading, anything (within reason!) goes.

Look for books your child can manipulate. Pre-readers are drawn to books that do things. Show them how fun reading can be with bathtub books, pop-up books, big books (oversized books are often sold in teacher supply stores), squeaky books — anything to keep your child turning the pages.

Seek expert advice. Librarians and preschool teachers know from experience what kinds of books preschoolers love. Ask for their recommendations.

What experiences and advice can you offer our Off the Merry-Go-Round parents and community for capturing and keeping your child’s interest in books, reading, and learning? Was there a time in your childhood when you recall your love of books started to develop? Whether you are a reading specialist, a parent, an educator, or even a grandparent who reads with their grandchild – we will appreciate hearing your thoughts!

 

Saying Goodbye to the Baby Years

Final school concerts, awards assemblies, graduation ceremonies… chances are your family calendar is dotted with these events over the next week or so (maybe longer, if you’re making up lots of snow days, ugh!). Along with these milestones and rites of passage, come lots of welcome changes but also bittersweet moments for us as parents. We thought it was the perfect time to revisit Jennifer (Smith) Schuler’s blog post “Saying Goodbye to the Baby Years.” Sniff….

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

If You Have to Say Goodbye

When you are only able to have one child (for whatever reason), simply put–you treasure him extra much. It’s not that I love my child more than anyone else loves theirs, it’s just that there is no little one coming behind him as a distraction from my sadness at seeing him grow up and move forward in his life. I think I just hold him a little tighter sometimes because of that.

I have always relished snuggle time with my little boy.

I have always relished snuggle time with my little boy.

This fall is going to be so incredibly difficult for me because I do not want to let my “baby” go. Although I was able to stay home with him and have a lot of quality time together, I don’t think parents ever feel as though they have had enough time for that. And no matter how hard you try to slow time down, it still won’t stop.

Kalli Dakos’ “goodbye poems” can bring comfort to children and their parents during difficult times of loss and change. Still, I can’t freeze my son in time. This fall, he is beginning a Pre-K program at a private school where he will attend through 12th grade. Don’t get me wrong – we found an amazing school that incorporates all the educational and personal philosophies we want for our little boy. Once we looked at the benefits to our son having a whole-child education in a smaller classroom and campus environment, it was a no-brainer.

My son’s new school also offered a 5 full day summer camp program with different weekly themes. What a great way for him to adjust to his new school in such a fun way! Perhaps the fall, then, would be less of a shock. We chose two sessions separated by a week between. The beginning of the first week was somewhat hard for my son to acclimate to, especially the first day. He was in a new environment and experiencing a rather long day even though rest and quiet time was built in. After a couple of days, he adjusted fine yet every once in awhile he would fuss at morning drop off–wanting me to walk him to his group’s classroom meeting place instead of going through the carpool line.

I was so torn in these situations. I knew that having him become comfortable with this drop off routine would benefit him for the fall, yet he is still so young and I didn’t want to force him nor upset the start of his day. I decided to go easy and help him adjust slowly over a two week camp experience. After the two weeks we had an opportunity to enroll him in the final two weeks of camp, and he was very excited! He had done it. He had successfully adjusted, and enjoyed his time at camp and on the school campus! This Monday, drop off was a snap…for my son.

It was me who did not fair so well. Sigharen’t you going to miss me? Luckily my fellow blogger, Chris, wrote a wonderful piece on adjusting to the “emptying nest” and I found her tips applicable to my situation too. Her blog also offered fresh perspective on what these early years have really been about – and they weren’t always easy for sure!

Let me add a few suggestions for those of us sending young children off to Pre-K or kindergarten this fall. We can do this!

Saying “Goodbye” with Grace

* Pack plenty of tissues! Don’t leave home for that first day of school without them, or walk your child to the bus stop without a wad stuffed in your pocket.

* Try hard to wait to cry when your child is out of sight. This is something I likely will not achieve, yet it is a noble goal. I am pro showing-your-feelings-in-front-of your-children (within reason), yet at such a young age kids sometimes still confuse emotions. And, you really can’t explain “bittersweet” to them. The more cheerful, upbeat and excited you are, the more likely they will follow suit in their responses to going off to school.

* Establish sacred alone time. Carve out time for just you and your child amidst the busy school week in any way you can. Sneak in a moment of reading time cuddled up on the couch, sing songs while your child sits in the bathtub, listen to their school experiences while you’re cooking dinner. You don’t have to spend large blocks of time staring into your child’s eyes to have spent quality time together.

* Use weekends for “regrouping.” Spend some quality family time together – better if it doesn’t involve big plans or a lot of running around since the school week will have held plenty of that. Just be together.

* Make your child’s bedroom a haven. No matter how much money you have to spend on your child’s bedroom design, there are many things you can do inexpensively to keep their room current to their age-specific interests. It also doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep it organized and clutter-free. If your child has a clean, calm place to retreat to for quiet rest, reading and play he will know where he can go to relax and recharge his energy.

My son is relaxed and comfortable in "outer space!"

My son is relaxed and comfortable in “outer space!”

* Get involved in your child’s education. There are many ways to do this, even for busy working parents. If you can’t volunteer in your child’s classroom or serve on the PTA, you may be able to take off a day from work to go on a field trip or offer to prepare learning materials at home. You are supporting your child’s learning experience as you sit down together to review homework assignments and prepare for the next school day.

* No matter how many children you have…You’ll always be sad when they leave the “nest.” There are many phases of your child’s life. You will say goodbye to them all.

One morning, I went into my son’s room to make up his bed with clean sheets. As I smoothed out the covers and neatly arranged his soft pillows, I realized that although he seems to be growing up more every day he still needs me. And in one respect or another he always will. So I might be saying goodbye to my son’s “baby” years, yet he will always be my baby.

No matter how old my son gets, I will never stop holding him and rejoicing in who he is becoming.

No matter how old my son gets, I will never stop holding him and rejoicing in who he is becoming.

What was it like for you saying goodbye to the baby years? Did you find some ways of coping that we can all benefit from? If so, please share them with our OTMGR community!