Thursday, October 30, 2014

Five Ways I’ll be Redefining My Family Christmas

Image courtesy of nuchylee at
Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more! - Dr. Seuss, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

The Christmas season is an incredibly special time for my family, especially now that my boys are old enough to have a deeper understanding of the holiday. Unfortunately, many of the holiday traditions they gravitate to are commercial ones: Santa at the mall, chocolate Advent calendars, and presents on Christmas morning.

Last Christmas, my husband and I introduced a new tradition of singing Christmas carols every night with the boys. We printed out lyrics and the boys each got to pick one carol every night to sing together. Afterwards, we talked about what we were thankful for that day, followed by the lighting of an advent wreath and the opening of an advent calendar window.

This Christmas, I hope to build on last year’s traditions by introducing some new customs while keeping my focus on five things that really matter to me.  
  1. An emphasis on non-toy gifts: I don’t intend to be a Christmas Scrooge, but I’ve observed that the more toys the kids get, the less appreciation for each gift.  I spotted this fantastic list of non-toy gifts for kids that I intend to draw upon this Christmas season.
  2. Focus on experiences: Do you remember the gifts you received last Christmas? Probably not. But you likely do remember picking out your Christmas tree or the fun you had decorating that tree. This Christmas, I plan to create more experiences together as a family: doing crafts, baking, going for walks in the snow, playing games. What a great opportunity to talk, share, laugh and have fun!
  3. Find ways to give back: In my view, charity should be a big part of the holidays. Not only does it offset the focus on presents, but it also helps children understand that they are in a fortunate position and, as such, have a duty to help others in need. Every year, we try to participate in food and toy drives. I’ll be looking for ways that the boys can take more ownership of their giving, perhaps by selecting a charity to support, donating toys or by contributing time to a good cause.
  4. Time for family: It is such a gift to get time off to be together over the holidays. I plan to make the most of this time by sharing it with my immediate and extended family. That may mean scaling down some meal preparation or other detractors from the scarce time we have together. It will be worth it just to witness my family sharing in my children’s joy for Christmas.
  5. Discuss the origins of Christmas: I’d like to introduce my kids to the story of Jesus’ birth and explain its connection to Christmas. My 5 year-old son half gets it, but wonders whether Jesus came before or after the dinosaurs. As a child, I was always fascinated by nativity scenes and now want one as part of our Christmas display at home. And while we do go to church on Christmas Day, I would now like to be a more active part of our church community, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
By making a few changes and adding a few new traditions, I hope to make this Christmas a fun and memorable time for my family.

Any special traditions you have with your family?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Five Great Hacks for Busy Moms

Who doesn’t love a good tip about how to make your life easier? Look no further than Pinterest for thousands of clever ideas, tips and shortcuts, otherwise known as ‘hacks.’
Here are some of my favorite hacks for busy moms:
1. Chore Enticement: Funny and clever! The kids get the WiFi password (reset daily) only after all the chores or homework have been completed.

2. Entranceway Organizer: I came up with this hack after moving into a house with no front closet. I purchased a Closetmaid 9 Cube Organizer to hold shoes and purses, a couple of dollar store baskets for scarves and mail and added hooks on the side of the organizer for my kids to hang their jackets. Now we have a tidy spot for all those items that would otherwise get discarded when my family enters the house.

3. Sheet Storage:  Without this hack, my linen closet would be a mess of mismatched sheet sets! Use your pillowcase to store folded sheet sets inside. I also write the sheet size on the tags of all of our sheets. With twin, double and king beds in our house, there are lots of sheets to organize!

4. Car Organization: I’m sure most moms can relate to what a struggle it is to keep your car clean, especially if your kids snack in the car en route to school or activities. Following the ‘everything needs a place’ organization philosophy, use car organizers to store trunk odd and ends, hide garbage and hold kids toys.

5. Label Electronics Cables: Who knew plastic bread tabs had so many uses? Write on the tabs and place on electronics cables to remember which plug belongs where. You can also use bread tabs to label keys, hold the end of a roll of tape and more.  

The possibilities for hacks are endless! Check out the Best Hacks for Moms page I’ve created on Pinterest.

Any great hacks which you’ve discovered?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Less News, More Insights: My News-free Week

 Image courtesy of
Luigi Diamanti

My latest ‘less is more' challenge will have me tuning out the news for a week, and there couldn’t be a better time for it. The news media is ablaze this week with municipal election results, a CBC scandal, and the aftermath of a heartbreaking shooting in Ottawa.

I actually started thinking about doing a ‘no news’ challenge a couple of weeks ago after hearing a radio interview about the international hysteria surrounding the potential spread of the Ebola virus. The interviewee suggested that, in general, people respond too quickly to news without all the facts. After all, it is the primary job of news media to produce and disseminate new information, not to provide insight or perspective. That is the job of editorial and opinion pieces within the media, which doesn’t appear to satiate the appetite of general public quite as much.

When we fail to balance news with editorial insights, our views can become too easily skewed and shaped by the immediacy of social media and the wave of (often unbalanced) public opinion.  I found myself caught up in this wave recently after reading Jian Gomeshi’s well-crafted Facebook post about losing his job at the CBC.  Then, as more details emerged, I realized that there was a larger story to be told that would emerge over time.  I’d like to consider myself media savvy, but it turns out that I still make quick judgments when reading a salacious story.

I used to tease my husband about the pile of old Economist magazines and newspapers that he likes to read in chronological order. Because we lead busy lives with so little free times, he is often months behind in his reading, but refuses to skip ahead to read current newspapers (with the exception of the business section). Unlike me, who will jump ahead to the last chapter of a book, he likes to see stories unfold more naturally.

I sometimes jokingly threaten to drop spoilers and tell him a current news story, but I think this week I will take a chapter from his book. No news through newspapers (unless it’s an opinion piece), radio, TV or social media.

Maybe the world will look a bit different? I certainly hope so.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Simplicity Parenting: Eliminating Distractions to Connect with Kids

Simplicity parenting: the term sounds like an oxymoron. Any parent will tell you that parenting is anything but simple.

In my view, simplicity parenting isn’t about finding shortcuts to make the job easier. It’s about focusing on a critical element of parenting: the connection between parent and child.

By stripping away some of the excess toys, screen time and extracurricular activities, we can focus on sharing meaningful experiences with our children.

I started thinking about the topic after reading a post entitled Simplicity Parenting on the blog Simplicity at Home. This post, in turn, was inspired by a book called Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne.

The post inspired me to apply my simplicity challenge to how I raise my children. If I can achieve these goals, even in part, then I’m certain my kids will be happier, calmer and better prepared for life.
  • Reduce the number of toys: This is a hard one for me. Inexpensive toys found at garage sales or online at Kijiji have trapped me into a pattern of toy overconsumption. My boys, meanwhile, tend to spend 80 per cent of their time with 20 per cent of their toys.  And, while they enjoy independent play, they seem to enjoy their toys the most when my husband or I get down on the floor to play with them. A wise preschool teacher once told me, “an organized home is an organized mind.” With this in mind, I applied the following guidelines (inspired by Payne’s book) to shed 25% of the boys’ toys: broken, damaged or mismatched toys; free promotional toys; developmentally inappropriate toys that seem too young for the boys; and toys that tell a fixed story (from TV shows, movies or video games) and don’t encourage imagination.
  • Reduce screen time: I am guilty of turning to the TV to entertain the kids when I need to get work done around the house.  And then there are other times when the TV is on out of sheer habit. This one is a no-brainer: less TV equals more time interacting with the kids. It also forces kids to find creative ways to entertain themselves. How many great discoveries have been born out of an “I’m so bored” moment? My goal is the reduce screen time by 25% and to rethink TV time in our daily routine.
  • Focus on experiences: For me, this is the big one. There is a great saying: the best things in life aren’t things. When I think back to my childhood, my strongest memories are ones shared with family and friends that were outside of my regular routine. My son’s teacher actually encourages parents to take their children out school for family vacations. She says she usually sees big developmental leaps upon a child’s return from a holiday. Family vacations combine new environments and experiences with intense family time, unencumbered by routine demands. We can also maximize experiences in our daily routine by identifying new places to go, different friends to play with or new activities to try.
For more ideas about how to improve family time by getting back to basics, check out this CTV Morning Live interview with Simplicity Parenting guru Kim John Payne.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Simple Kindergarten Classroom Birthday Idea:
Play-Doh Layer ‘Cake’

I recently tapped into my inner-Martha to create a simple Play-Doh Birthday Layer ‘Cake’ for my son’s 4th birthday. The best part: no baking involved! Just cardboard, tape and a whole lot of little Play-Doh cans.

My son’s school does not allow parents to send food to celebrate their child’s birthday in the classroom. Instead, small little favors (e.g. pencils, erasers, stickers) can be sent along for classmates to help mark a child’s birthday.
I decided to take another route; one that I hoped would be fun for the kids while also helping out the classroom teachers, who are often short on art supplies.

I sent a Play-Doh birthday ‘cake’ made of 80 small cans of Play-Doh with 30 sheets of stickers inserted inside.
Based on the arts and crafts ‘masterpieces’ my son brings home daily, he and his classmates seem to be voracious crafters. They even use Play-Doh to make letters, numbers and shapes. I hoped our gift would help the teachers restock their shelves while also offering something novel to the class.
This was an extremely easy project that cost less than $15 in materials (a bit more if you decide to include items such as stickers inside the cake).

If you wish to try this at home, you’ll need:
·    Small Play-Doh cans. I purchased an 80-pack of Halloween Play-Doh at Cotsco for $12.99.
·    Cardboard for creating layers. I used some old boxes that had been lying around the house.
·    Lots of clear tape.
·    Cellophane wrap and ribbons.
Step 1: Use plates to draw different sized circles on cardboard. Cut out these circles. They will help you to create tiers. If you want to insert something inside the cake (I included sticker sheets), cut out smaller holes inside the cardboard circles.
Step 2: Use clear tape on the bottom of the Play-Doh cans to stick them to the largest cardboard circle. I did a second layer on top of the first using more clear tape on the bottom of the cans.
Step 3: Tape another cardboard circle on top of the two rows of Play-Doh cans, building another layer. As you get closer to the top, you’ll be using fewer Play-Doh cans.
Step 4: If you wish, insert additional items inside the inner circles as the ‘prize’ inside the cake.
Step 5: Embellish as you wish with cellophane wrap and ribbons.
The whole project took me, a novice crafter, about 45 minutes to complete.

I hope this idea provides some inspiration for a fun and simple way to celebrate your child's birthday in their Kindergarten classroom.

Friday, October 10, 2014

So Sweet it Isn't: My Week Without Sugar

Usually, I have an ‘all things in moderation’ philosophy about food. This past week was different as I tried to survive a week without sugar as part of my ‘less is more’ challenge.

I love sweet things. I would grab a chocolate bar over a bag of chips any day. My hope was that by eliminating sugar for a week, I would become more mindful of my eating.

I followed three ground rules:
  1. No eating anything that listed sugar in the first two ingredients;
  2. No adding sugar to anything; and
  3. Natural sugar from fresh fruit was allowable.
It was a tough, but enlightening week. The first couple of days were the toughest as my sugar withdrawal set in, resulting in headaches and a general feeling of sluggishness. However, this challenge, like the others that preceded it, offered many interesting revelations.
  • Hidden sugar is my worst enemy: sugar truly is in everything, from plain pancakes to granola bars to even the most basic of cereals. The two teaspoons of sugar I put in my coffee every morning is inconsequential given the multiple teaspoons of sugar in my morning yogurt.
  • Mindless snacking is second worst enemy: with two children under the age of six, lots of food goes uneaten. I didn’t realize until this challenge how often I mindlessly picked from their unfinished plate. Half a muffin here and half cookie there add up to a whole lot of sugar.
  • Carbohydrates were swapped for sugar: with many of my favorite feel-good, sweet snacks off the table, I quickly turned to carbs to fill the gap. Having consumed two loaves of bread during the week, this challenge definitely did not result in any weight loss.
  • Sugar now tastes sweeter: the first sweetened drink I had after this challenge tasted so sugary that I couldn’t finish it. It appears that eliminating sugar has heightened my taste buds for anything sweet.
While I have no intention of continuing my sugar abstinence, I believe this challenge will help me make better nutritional choices.  And, when I do have a treat, I will make sure to savor each delightfully sweet bite.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cutting My Email Threads

My simplicity challenge this week: less email, more personal interactions. This challenge was inspired, in part, by an article I read recently in The Washington Post about a leading professor of new media who just banned technology use in class. If a digital evangelist was pulling back on technology to ignite meaningful communication and engagement, then maybe I could do the same?

I’ve known for a while that I have an addiction problem. My substance of choice is technology, specifically email. Pre-addiction, I used to pick up the phone and call people. I would meet friends for dinners and they would have my undivided, uninterrupted attention for a whole hour, sometimes longer.

Then a Blackberry entered my life.  It was a slippery slope from there as I needed better and faster technology. With my smart phone, I no longer had wasteful moments waiting at the dentist office or standing in line.  I could just whip out my smart phone for immediate entertainment and distraction.

Next, I started losing touch with some friends. Sure, we were still Facebook friends and would email occasionally, but that more intimate spark of friendship you get from sharing a meal or going for a walk together was no longer there. It was replaced by shorter snippets of conversation over technology that got our point across but relayed so little of how we were actually feeling. This had to change.
So, after a week of less email and more personal interactions, here are some personal conclusions that I've reached:
  • Subconsciously, I’ve predetermined the best channel for every type of communication.  Scheduling, inquiries, and other quick updates are always done over email.  Milestones are communicated over the phone.  Communication for the purpose of building or maintaining personal friendships are always done in person. Right or wrong, I’ve created this hierarchy over the years to address the fact that I have so little free time for lengthy conversations. In the future, I will try to follow this path less rigidly and give more thought to which mode of communication would result in the most meaningful personal interaction.
  • In today’s digital age, telephone conversations now seem like a very intimate thing.  The only people I call regularly these days are my husband and parents. When calling friends, I feel as though I needed to email them in advance (ironic, eh?) to ask if they can set aside some time to have a conversation. I also feel immensely grateful that they would carve out a portion of their hectic day to catch up over the phone, although I’m sure we both feel great after the call.
  • I need to turn off my phone more often and invest in quality time offline.  There is too much temptation to research one last thing or read one final email. This takes quality time away from my family and me. And, I think I need to rebuild my attention span…SQUIRREL (an ode to the movie UP).
My email challenge provided a good awakening for me and, while I’m sure some bad habits will slip back into my routine, I expect to be more conscious about the communication choices I’m making each day.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Garbage In, Gold Out: How Clutter Can Help Others

If all that glitters is not gold, then all that clutters is not necessarily junk. Sometimes, it can help others while also teaching an important lesson. That’s what I learned recently after enlisting my five-year-old to help out with our family garage sale.

It all began two years ago when I’d stumbled upon a garage sale held by two young kids and their dad. My preschoolers were eager to get their little hands on some new toys so I stopped and quickly loaded the stroller with some items. While I was paying for our purchases, I struck up a conversation with the father. He’d told me that all the money raised was going to Sick Kids, and that his kids (one of whom had been a Sick Kids patient) had managed the entire sale. I commended the children on their initiative and then happily continued on my day with my two giddy boys.

At the time, I didn’t realize that a seed had been planted in my head. One of my sons, too, had been lucky enough to get remarkable care at Sick Kids when he was an infant. And, while my husband and I donated every year to the Sick Kids Foundation, I wanted to ensure that my sons understood the concepts of selflessness and, at a basic level, philanthropy.

So, when I held a garage sale last spring to unload some of my household clutter, I decided to get my five-year-old son to help. I reminded him about the garage sale we’d visited when he was younger and explained that we too could hold a sale and donate the proceeds to Sick Kids. To pique his interest further, I suggested that he could hold a lemonade stand at the sale to raise even more money. The event was a great success, with my son expertly hustling the neighbours to purchase some of his lemonade. A few weeks later, my husband and I took our son to Sick Kids to personally deliver the money we’d raised. While there, we proudly took photos of him with the certificate of appreciation he received from the hospital.

Three months later, my son learned about Terry Fox’s heroism in his kindergarten class in conjunction with a run that the school was hosting as a fundraiser for cancer research. My son and I discussed that while Terry Fox embodied heroism on a big scale, even small acts of kindness (such as our garage sale/lemonade stand fundraiser) can make you a hero. After casually sharing this discussion with my son’s teachers, they invited him to share his fundraising experience with his classmates. I was told that afterwards there was a buzz in the classroom about all the lemonade stands the kids were planning to hold for charity next summer.

What had started out as one family’s personal act of giving back had, unknown to them, grown exponentially and had inspired other children to follow suit. And it all started with some clutter.

To learn more about how you can turn your “clutter into kindness”, check out the video below from a renowned decluttering expert, Peter Walsh.

For a list of where to donate your gently used items in Toronto, check out this great list compiled by Beautifully Organized, a local service that helps people better organize their homes.