Family Kindness Challenge: Talk about an ethical dilemma

Kindness really shines through in the most difficult of situations. All too often, we freeze up or turn away when we’re most needed.

Thankfully, we can help our kids prepare for those situations by talking about them or role-playing before they ever happen. Discussing these situations also helps kids build emotional intelligence and practice empathy for others.

For younger kids, you can talk through a scenario where someone acts unfair or unkind. Some scenarios could include seeing one kid push another, grabbing a toy from another kid, or calling someone a name. Small children have a very strong sense of fairness, starting even before they’re a year old and peaking in third grade. While little kids frequently do things to us that seem unfair, they only do that because they lack the big picture thinking to realize it (it seems fair to them!) or they lack the self-control to stop themselves (haven’t we all had those days?). If you ask them to imagine it happening to them and what they would want someone to do, they can gain that perspective more easily than we realize.

For older kids, you can tackle pricklier situations. These can include:

  • What do you do if you hear a friend using a racial slur or making a racist joke?
  • What do you do if you see someone inappropriately touch someone else against their will?
  • What would you do if one of your friends is being bullied?

Be sure to listen more than you talk. Also, feel free to admit that you don’t know all of the answers! Even the conversations with little kids can be challenging.

Family Kindness Challenge: Do something kind for animals or the environment

You can extend kindness beyond just humans! With stuffed animals and animal characters in children’s books, kids are inherently inclined to be empathic towards the natural world.

Before today’s activity, talk to your kids about their impact on the environment and animals. If they’re younger, you can start with visible impacts like how animals can eat litter and get sick. For older kids, talking about wider environmental issues like climate change or water pollution will probably be more engaging.

Then, do an activity that shows kindness to animals. One of our favorites is making homemade feeders for the birds.

Peanut butter

Tie a string around the pine cone in a loop, so you can hang the pinecone from a tree branch or fence post. You will probably need to tuck it under the scales. Use a knife to coat the pinecone in peanut butter. Use enough so that the birdseed will thoroughly stick to it. Roll the pinecone in birdseed. Hang the pinecone in a tree or a bush where birds are likely to see it. Wait for the birds to show up! It may take a few days, but it will be gone quickly once they do.

Alternative activities include picking up garbage on a nature walk or setting up composting in your yard.

Family Kindness Challenge: Start or continue a tough conversation about privilege

Just like peace isn’t an absence of war, true kindness isn’t just “being nice” to people. It’s also about showing all people respect, making freedom from hate a reality, and providing access to opportunity. While individual actions are great, breaking down systems of inequality and injustice are essential.

A big piece of learning to be kind is understanding your own privilege. Although this can feel like a tough topic to parents, kids understand it better than we give them credit for. It’s tempting to think “just let kids be kids,” but parents of kids who aren’t privileged – like LGBT parents, parents of black kids, poor, and/or non-Christian kids – don’t get that luxury.

The first step is simply stating that some people have advantages over others in society. The classic text for understanding privilege is White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, but I find it a little difficult to wrap my own head around that article.

Instead, I rather like “The Dollar Bill Hanging from the Ceiling” exercise that Bailey Koch describes on the website Her View from Home. In it, she hangs two dollar bills from the ceiling and then invites two kids – one much taller than the other – up to grab them. The kid who grabs theirs first gets to keep both dollars. Of course, the tall kid grabs it first and receives both bills. Right away, kids realize that even though both kids have access to the same thing, they have different opportunities. She then goes back and gives the shorter kid a chair to stand on, making it so both students have the same opportunity. While she uses the dollar bill exercise to illustrate how students start with certain academic advantages or not, I think it’s a great physical illustration of privilege out of the classroom as well.

If you relate to video games, John Scalzi’s Lowest Difficulty Setting is a great metaphor. The article makes it clear that having privilege of any kind doesn’t mean things will always be easy. In fact, you’ll almost certainly encounter things that are hard. But if you’re privileged, those things won’t be as hard to handle as someone in a less privileged position.

Obviously, the conversation here is going to vary widely depending on the age of your child. For our four-year-old, it’s a simple as telling him that people have different lives than we do. Some people have less money, some people have difficulty walking, some people don’t celebrate Christmas, some people have different color skin than we do. We’ve also edged a bit into the fact that people treat others worse because of these differences. If nothing else, his constant questioning “Why?” has forced our hand in the best way possible. The more we as adults think “Why?” about systems we take for granted, the more we can break them down and build something better in their place.

The next step to understanding privilege is seeing how someone can be privileged in one area and not in another. Similarly, someone can be non-privileged in several ways that interact with each other. For example, a black woman is treated differently (and often worse) by society than either a black man or a white woman is. This is called intersectionality. This comic does a great job breaking down intersectionality and what it means for people.

What types of privilege you discuss obviously depends on your own circumstance. For us, economic privilege is the easiest to start with because it’s easy to see how some people have less money and the material impact that has on their lives. With race, we’re talking about the history of the Civil Rights movement and starting to provide some modern-day context about the work that still needs to be done.

The resources you can turn to depends on the sort of privilege. There are a ton of great resources for talking to kids about race: Raising Race Conscious Children, Embrace Race, and Raising an Advocate. Some of the other topics don’t seem to have as many good resources available, unfortunately.

This is a tough thing to tackle, so good luck!

Family Kindness Challenge: Read a story about someone who is different from you

The heart of kindness is empathy. As Brene Brown says in this great video, empathy is being with someone, not having pity or trying to give advice. One of the best ways to develop empathy is to see things from another person’s point of view.

While in-person conversations and real relationships are the best way to do this, books can also play an important role. Reading about people who have radically different experiences than me has opened my eyes to so many perspectives.

Fortunately, children’s literature offers a wide variety of experiences if only you look for them. Obviously, which characters will be different from you will depend on your own situation!

But here are a few ideas for great picture books featuring children from a variety of backgrounds and experiences:

Unfortunately, my knowledge of current chapter books is pretty limited right now! A librarian in the children’s section of your local library can be an invaluable resource though.

Outdoor Gifts for the Little and Big Kids in Your Life!

If you want to buy fewer toys and enable more adventure, here are 12 outdoor gifts for the kids of all ages in your life.

Outdoor Gifts for the Little and Big Kids in Your Life! (Photo: White child in a hat with moose antlers, Who Pooped in the Park? book cover, plastic bug light, water bottle, children's bike, and Camp game display(

“We are not buying a whole bunch of toys for Christmas,” I said to my husband last year. In fact, that’s pretty much what I say every year. We’re not always successful, but generally try to focus on gifts that support our values of simplicity and adventure. Outdoors gear does both while also getting our kids more excited than ever about going out in what can be frigid weather in our area.

Adding some of these gifts to your kids’ (or your own) Christmas lists can help winter feel more fun and spring feel closer than ever. Here’s gifts that are great for our three favorite outdoors activities: hiking, biking, and camping.

Outdoor Gifts for Hiking

Water Bottle:  My kids are obsessed with water bottles. They make my 18-month-old feel older because he doesn’t have to use a sippy cup. My four-year-old just loves them. This particular water bottle is so popular with them that my younger son kept grabbing them off the shelves at REI last weekend. We had just thrown out our full-sized one because of mold (not a product problem, a not-washing-often-enough problem), so we ended up buying this one as a replacement. Also, if your kids destroy the straw top like mine do by chewing on it or sticking their fingers in the hole, they do sell replacements.

Winter Hats: My husband and I are both originally from upstate New York, where I can truthfully state that I trudged uphill a half-hour through the snow to class. (In college, but still.) So we know the value of extra-warm clothing. While it’s not as chilly here in Washington D.C., the damp, windy cold can be brutal. Warm hats are a must.

For babies, Joobles makes beautiful Fair Trade animal hats.  For toddlers, I have this hat featuring moose antlers on my eighteen-month-old’s Christmas list. It’s absurdly cute and the sale also benefits the National Wildlife Foundation. We just purchased this Turtle Fur-lined hat for my four-year-old, who proclaimed, “I love this hat!”

Socks: Socks are the ultimate “grandma” gift. But they’re kind of nice stuffed in a stocking or partnered with some other outdoors clothing. Smartwool is expensive, but awesome. I wear Smartwool for everything from hiking mountains to biking to the Metro for work. These kids socks look super warm and comfortable.

Backpack: Having kids carry their own stuff is such a relief! Even if they can just carry their own water and a few snacks, it’s that much less that you have to haul as a parent. Plus, kids love it. On our recent vacation, my four-year-old hauled around his own backpack very proudly. This kids’ backpack from REI looks great and has wonderful reviews. It’s a little big for my son now, but we may be getting it for his birthday!

Who Pooped in the Park? books: One of my favorite things about hiking is looking for fascinating bits of nature to point out to my kids. From fungus to animal holes, I’m always saying “Look at that!” While I have some knowledge of natural history – thanks, Field Biology class – there are some things that are blanks. One thing that my knowledge is pretty bad about identifying is “scat” – aka animal poop. The “Who Pooped in the Park?” books can come to the rescue! These hilarious and informative books help you identify what kind of poop you’re looking at. The authors have put out a bunch of different books for various national parks, including Yellowstone and Acadia.

Outdoor Gifts for Bicycling

Woom Bike: If you’re looking to get your kid a bike this Christmas, be sure to consider bikes by Woom. Yes, they’re wicked expensive. Yes, they’re worth it if you can afford them. We purchased the Woom 2 for my four-year-old for his birthday and he adores it. It’s light, it handles beautifully, and he gets legitimately excited about riding it. You can’t ask for much more from a bike. If you can’t afford a Woom, website Rascal Rides has a great set of kids’ bike reviews.

Giro Scamp: When I was looking for a bike helmet for my younger son, I knew I had to do some serious research. While my older son’s helmet was safe, it was really hard to get on and off. I wanted to do better. With the help of great website Two-Wheeling Tots, I picked the Giro Scamp. It’s comfortable and has a special new safety feature called MIPS. If only it could get my eighteen-month-old to enjoy riding in the trailer!

Outdoor Gifts for Camping

Safety Whistle: Losing my kids while camping is a huge concern for me; they both love to wander. While the little one is too little to even understand when he’d be lost, this safety whistle will be making an appearance in my older son’s stocking.

Green Toys trucks: You shouldn’t be too concerned about your kids being bored while camping. Dirt, sticks, and a couple of balls are pretty much all kids need. But if you’re going to bring some toys, the Green Toys Trucks are amazing. They’re sturdy, easy-to-clean, ethically-made, and environmentally sustainable. Perfect for futzing around in the dirt.

Camp Game: But what if it’s raining? Getting stuck in a tent can be a whole lot of not fun, but the Camp Game can make it a little better. It also works if you’re stuck in the house during a crummy weekend. It’s great for kids of all ages – it provides natural history and outdoor skills questions at four different difficulty levels. The lowest level is easy enough that my four-year-old can answer many of the questions; the hardest level is hard enough that there’s a number of them that I don’t know even though I was a Natural Resources major in college.

Micro Flashlight: Having a good flashlight is key when you’re camping. While an ordinary flashlight is exciting in and of itself for kids, this micro-flashlight that looks like a super-cute bug is even better.

The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids: If you want to camp with your kids, but don’t have a clue where to start, the Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids is a great guide. Even if you’ve been camping a lot pre-kids, there are a lot of considerations to think about when you add little ones to the mix. With a comprehensive run-down of all things kids-and-camping and a ton of checklists, we found this book so useful.

Among all of these gifts, I hope you find one or more that work for your family. Especially if you’re like me and have said to your kids at one point, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes!”

This gift guide is part of a larger effort from a number of different outdoors-oriented parenting blogs. Check these recommendations out as well!

If you’re looking for even more options, be sure to check out last year’s Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Families. If you’re looking for gifts that are specifically ethically-made (Fair Trade, Made in the USA and more), check out my Ethical Toys Holiday Gift Guide!

How to Help the Environment While Making the Most of Your Time

Do you want to do what you can to help the environment but can’t find the time? Here are eight ways you can do both!

How to Help the Environment While Making the Most of Your Time (Photo: A photo of a green tree in a field with a clock superimposed over it)

“I don’t have enough time!” I lament to my husband, as I stay up too late washing the dishes yet again. I’m certainly not alone in this cry, as anyone who raises small children knows. The days may be long, but it still feels as if there are never enough hours. But despite all that, our family still lives in as environmentally-friendly a manner as we can. As many “green” activities take more time than conventional ones – I’m looking at you, dish rags that we need to wash – how do we find the time to help the environment?

Some of it is reorganizing our priorities. But in many cases, I’ve found some shortcuts to save time and still help the environment.

Make big purchases count

Much of the average person’s environmental footprint is driven by big, occasional purchases. These include the cars we drive, the houses we buy (both the location and size), and the appliances we use.

For example, a car that gets 40 mpg uses 225 fewer gallons of gas a year than one with a 25 mpg fuel economy, saving $560 in fuel alone annually. An Energy Star refrigerator uses up to 15% less energy than one that’s not. Little actions can add up to make a big difference, but big actions get you a lot more energy and carbon savings for the effort!

Set it and forget it

Some of our green choices have actually saved us time compared to the conventional alternatives.

When we installed our solar panels, we received a major discount on our bill if we signed up for auto-pay. That was something I had meant to do with our utility but never got around to. Now it’s one less bill that I need to keep track of.

Similarly, once you set a programmable thermostat, it will do the work of adjusting the temperature to save energy automatically. The Nest thermostats even eliminate that step, setting themselves based on motion sensors that can tell when you’re home. (Admittedly, they’re really expensive. We got one for free with our solar panels.)

Buy in bulk

“Buy in bulk” is a common “mom blog” refrain to help you save money. I ignore this advice most of the time because our small house doesn’t have anywhere to store giant bundles of toilet paper or even cereal. But I do make an exception for some “green” products. Because I have to buy some of them from our natural foods store, which we don’t go to as often as the regular grocery store, buying a slightly larger size can save us a trip or two. I particularly like when you can refill your own container, as some places offer for dry goods and even soap.

But I do make an exception for some “green” products. I have to buy some of them from our natural foods store, which we don’t go to as often as the regular grocery store. Buying a slightly larger size can save us a trip or two. I particularly like when you can refill your own container, as some places offer for dry goods and even soap.

Embrace active transportation

Confession: I’ve never gone to the gym since my younger son was born over a year-and-a-half ago. There’s simply no time! Nonetheless, I still get some exercise. I either walk or bike to the subway every day. In addition, when we run errands or go out, we try to walk or bike.

I know this option heavily depends on how pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly your area is, but it’s worth giving a try if you can. It will take longer than driving, but you can the two-for-one of exercise and transportation. It’s definitely more fun than running on a treadmill!

Pick brands you like and stick with them

My aunt once wondered how I found time to do research on the sustainability and ethics of different brands. The answer is that I did that research once and now have brand loyalty like everyone else. Admittedly, some information changes over time, like what corporation owns a particular company or the formulations of “green” cleaning ingredients. But for the most part, we just buy the same stuff every time we go to the grocery store. It’s often easier because the “organic” brands are all grouped together.

Make your way to help the environment part of yours and the kids’ routines

Composting (especially with kids) is one of those things that seems like it takes a lot of time but actually doesn’t. We keep recycled quart yogurt containers near the prep area, so Chris just puts vegetable scraps in them as he goes. When there are two or three (or when we’ve been derelict in our duties, four or five) containers full, we bring them out to the composter.

When we bring them out, we rip up some newspaper and toss it in. Sprout loves ripping up the newspaper with me so much that he told me he missed it the other day in the middle of our annual break from composting. (We let everything break down for about six weeks from September through October.) Once a week, we turn the composter, which takes about five minutes.

You can even make older kids responsible for some activities. By making sustainability activities part of the kids’ chores, they can learn about how to be green while taking some of the burden off parents.

Do the “lazy” version

“Lazy” is in quotes because parent who does any of this is actually lazy! But there are often simpler or less time-intense versions of a lot of “green” activities. For example, lasagna gardening actually results in a more low-maintenance garden than traditional vegetable gardening. Serving your baby peas as a snack can be faster than dealing with baby food.

Some of it honestly is just not judging yourself based on other people’s standards. We use a lot fewer cleaning chemicals partly because we don’t clean that much. We buy less “stuff” so we don’t spend as much time shopping.

Don’t get dragged into shame from the other direction either. Taking concrete steps to be more sustainable is important, even if you can’t do them perfectly. Back when we used cloth diapers, we also had disposable on hand just in case we were behind on laundry.

Do one thing really well

No one can do everything. Colin Beavin, aka No Impact Man, had the income from a book deal to support as radically green of a lifestyle as possible and he still couldn’t do it fully.

But everyone can pick a single thing they’re interested in and learn how to do it well. The more you can involve your kids, the better! For some parents, it may be growing their own food or going zero waste. For others, it may be giving up their car. Activism may capture the hearts of some. Even though I do a mish-mosh of things, my one true love is communicating about it.

So if you too are in the depths of dish-washing despair about the lack of time in your life, I totally understand. If I figured it out, I’d be getting a lot more sleep. Nonetheless, I hope these ideas will help you find those moments to be a little more environmentally sustainable each day.

If you want to learn some easy wins for being “green,” check out my post on 10 Easy Ways to Go Green that Make a Big Difference. To meet and chat with other environmentally-minded parents, be sure to join our Green and Sustainable Parenting Facebook group

Connecting With Who My Baby Really Is

Connecting With Who My Baby Really Is (Photo: Small child standing in a field, touching a sunflower)

“Do you want socks on?” I asked my nineteen-month-old son, raising an eyebrow. His feet were cold, but that was a pretty sophisticated question. He wouldn’t be able to understand it. Right?

He bobbed his head up and down, blond hair flopping. An unmistakable yes.

I moved my own mouth up and down wordlessly a few times. I finally said, “Okay,” and went to get him socks. My baby wasn’t going to be a baby for much longer.

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The Absolutely Best Ways to Donate to a Food Drive

Want to give effectively to a food drive to a local food bank?

The Absolutely Best Ways to Donate to a Food Drive. We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So (Photo: Cans of food stacked in very large piles)

You rarely have the opportunity to decide how to spend your co-workers’ hard-earned money. But as the one responsible for running our yearly food drive, I wanted both them and the food bank to get the best bang for their buck. Just randomly picking out whatever I felt like at the grocery store wasn’t going to cut it. But how could I donate in the most effective way possible?

I’m not the only one who struggles with this question. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the “food drive holidays,” where everyone from churches to Boy Scouts troops are collecting cans to donate to food banks. Unfortunately, the donations to these drives aren’t as helpful as they could be because people just aren’t aware of the most effective ways to give.

Between my experiences running the food drives and reading up on the subject, I’ve found some really handy rules to guide your food drive giving.

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Behind the Scenes of My Living Room Floor

Behind the Scenes of My Living Room Floor (Photo: A somewhat messy living room with a couch, table, overturned chair, and several items on the floor)

I used to worry I’d be judged by the contents of my bookshelf. Now as a mom, I know better. Now I know I’ll be judged by the contents of our living room floor.

This state of being was rather inevitable. As a kid, my bedroom floor was littered with books, papers, toys and more books. These days, we have an 18-month-old whose main goal in life is to pull anything on a shelf off of it.

But like all messes, our disorganized living room tell a story about who we are. A story that’s about a lot more than our messiness. In the spirit of cultural anthropology, here’s what we see:

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How To Stay Sane When You Travel With Kids

How to Stay Sane When You Travel With Kids. (Photo of white mom holding a blond baby on her shoulders, walking down a path with trees.)

2014: Holding my one-year-old, I stared up at fireworks and started belting out Let It Go. Tears streamed down my face. It was the end of a week-long trip to Walt Disney World, during which I spent most of the time imagining my kid getting trampled. Earlier that week, my hands shook and mind went blank in the Tomorrowland snack bar as I had my first identifiable panic attack. That perfect girl is gone, indeed.

2017: Leaning over my four-year-old in his car seat in a parking lot in Nevada, I thought, “I hope he’s okay.” Right on cue, his cheeks filled, he leaned forward, and spewed out water and pretzel bits all over me. Touching my hand to my hair, it was wet and sticky. We were half-way through a three-hour car ride to Zion National Park. I breathed deep and said, “Hey honey, it’s going to be okay.” Then I got out the baby wipes and went to work cleaning up everything up.

What on earth happened in-between? In that three years, I had a second kid, started dealing with my anxiety, and grew so much as a parent. But I also learned a ton about traveling with kids. In-between the trip in 2014 and the one in 2017, we’ve been to Las Vegas, Cape Cod, multiple camping excursions, and so many day trips. While the anxiety still flairs, adjusting my expectations and my own behavior has helped me stay sane when we travel with kids.

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