Estranged: Navigating Difficult Family Members With Your Kids

Illustration by Ray Mullan © UNICEF Turkey 2006

Another holiday season has rolled past, and along with it the complexity of family relationships that is inevitably intensified this time of year. I am or have been in fandom community in a variety of ways, and one thing I noticed is the abundance of family baggage. I don’t know if geeks have a higher rate of issues with their families or not. What I do know is that we create our own kinds of family through our common interests, and that the geeks I know who have become parents have used those passions to guide their family towards (hopefully) more healthy relationships. Maybe it’s the compassion and solidarity we feel with people who are as obsessed and weird about stuff as we are (and obviously I mean that in a good way), or maybe it’s that the stuff we geek out on have a better sense of loyalty, moral code, and guidance than we got. Regardless, we deal with our stuff and we make our own families.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can move on. For those of us with estranged family members, the holidays (or other important days) can be difficult. At a time when we can sometimes revert into our childhood roles or feelings, those emotions can creep up on us. On top of that, our children get to an age where they start asking questions. So, how does one deal?

My children are old enough to make sense of our family tree. They know that even though they see my husband’s parents less frequently, video calls and letters keep them connected in some way to their grandparents. My mother and grandmother live nearby, and they have built a good relationship, the kind only Italian grandmothers with unlimited food and money tucked into little pockets after every visit can give.

Recently, however, they have started asking questions about my father. It started when they were young, with questions like, “Who is your dad? Where does he live?” I could easily answer them with a name and an, “I’m not sure,” and they would drop it.

Now, however, as they grow older and our own relationships become more complex, they are quite a bit more interested. This year in particular was hard. They wanted to know why they have never met my father, why we never see that side of my family, and didn’t he want to meet his grandchildren?

These questions punched me in the gut. It is not that I don’t have an answer, it’s that the answers are issues I don’t want my children to have to try to understand. The toxicity, alcoholism, and emotional instability that caused me to end my contact with him are not anything my children have any experience with, nor do I ever want them to be exposed to such grief. To them, it makes no sense that a father would not choose their child over anything else and I am so grateful for that. But I still had to answer the questions.

While I have my own ways of dealing with estranged family relationships, I wanted to get a professional perspective, so I spoke with Carrie Katz, MFT, who is a friend of mine and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area. She reminded me that children can bring us to levels of growing we were previously incapable or unwilling to do, and therefore the focus should be on what kind of message you want to pass on to your kids when talking about estranged or difficult relatives.

She recommends staying positive and keeping issues between adults, since our children are not responsible for healing our relationships, nor does it do children any good to internalize people as wholly good or evil.

It is a “sign of health and maturity to hold a person as not all good or not bad,” says Katz, and our energy is better spent modeling compassion and the way in which you want your children to process and talk about the behavior of others. This can be extremely difficult, regardless of how much work, processing, and/or healing someone has done. While it is human to be triggered by family dynamics, even as adults, we need to remember, for the sake of our kids, to act from our adult self, rather than acting from the activated child within us. There will always be a perceived imbalance of power. While this is really normal, Katz says, we must set boundaries and hold them. Not just for ourselves, but because our children are watching and learning from us on how to build healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible to keep your children out of the conflict. Difficult relatives may try to exert their aggression through their interactions with your kids. In this case, boundaries are essential and immediate. If a relative is aggressive or hostile, or negative in any way to your child, you can talk to your him/her about the fact that that person has difficulty in their communication, for example, and that it is not a reflection of anything in the child. This is a concept that you can continue to talk to your kids more about as they get older, and it aligns with the idea above that people are not all good nor all bad, but that some people have something going on internally that makes them lash out or treat others inappropriately. This doesn’t condone the behavior, but it does offer some perspective and perhaps a sense of acceptance.

If you (and your kids) know you cannot change someone’s behavior, and it may be possible that they can’t change their own behavior either, then you can approach any interactions with this person as informed and ready to enforce the boundaries that are comfortable to you. Katz points out that you will be giving your children a blueprint for how they can deal with negativity in other people later on in their lives, which is bound to happen at some point. Setting firm boundaries from a clear place will be a skill they will inevitably be able to draw on in the future. If they can feel you backing them up, it is likely they will be able to borrow and internalize your strength as they grow.

In social occasions, it is important to establish what the child’s relationship to this relative is and differentiate your own issues. What would feel like success? Is either person actively open and trying for reconciliation? Children often give us opportunities to change relationships for the better. “Our most difficult moments have the potential to be moments of growth,” says Katz. “They allow us to stretch, not just for ourselves but for our kids. These moments can be the catalyst and result in relationships that change for the better.”

That sounds delightful, but what about in cases where there is no hope of reconciliation? There are times when it is appropriate to draw the line when the physical or emotional safety of you or your child is in question, as in some cases of abuse. In those situations, says Katz, there is no perfection, but there can be a personal shift of acceptance and peace around the death of a relationship. “It’s important for us adults to take a look at our grief around these kinds of relationships,” Katz gently reminds. “What is unresolved can inadvertently be passed on to the next generation.”

Here are some tips Katz and I came up with to keep in mind:

  • Wait for your children to ask questions, and keep your answers developmentally appropriate. In general, fewer details and more focus on what makes a healthy relationship and how to care for oneself.
  • Older children are able to understand the concepts of bullying and mental illness, but continue to use your own judgement on how many details you give, especially if the child has a good relationship with this person.
  • It is OK to feel sad or angry and to name those emotions to your kids. It is not OK to make them feel responsible for cheering you up or fixing your relationship issue.
  • If you (or your child) get too emotionally overwhelmed or triggered by someone, think carefully about any interactions with this person. If seeing them cannot be avoided, set a limit on time, setting, expectation, and whatever will help you make it through the occasion. Also, remember that kids pick up on our anxiety, so do whatever personal work is necessary to hold your patience and calm. It is like being in an airplane and needing to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help others.
  • You can only control yourself. I know I said this before but it is very important.
  • Set firm boundaries and keep them. Your children are your own. Any boundaries or rules you set around them are also to be respected and held.

Like I said before, my unscientific observations have led me to notice that many others in geekdom have similar experiences to my own, and we tend to choose our family in fandom, especially as we grow our own. We choose people like us, who understand us, who share our passions. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore without children what family means and what are your family values. Just like in families of blood, we have to be able to recognize patterns of unhealthy behavior and accept that all families of all kinds have disagreements. But the act of choosing your family and your community is empowering and can be the kind of example of healthy relationships that will benefit your children their whole lives. The act of choosing to moderate or end a relationship can also be empowering and healthy, and how we approach talking about any of these choices will become their inner voice. While it’s difficult, it’s necessary, and out of all this complexity and struggle, we emerge stronger and changed for the better.

So in the end, I told my older kids what they wanted to know in the simplest way I could. I told them it had nothing to do with them, that the estrangement we have in our family is my way of protecting them, and that I do not regret any decision I have made thus far in the matter. And what I got back was love. They appreciated my candor, they were sad about my experience, and they expressed gratitude for my boundaries. It is my hope that they will remember those things as they grow older and are navigating relationships on their own as adults. I have put on my oxygen mask so I can put on theirs.

GeekMom Holiday Traditions!

The cousins house Photo: Judy Berna
The cousins house Photo: Judy Berna

Welcome to the GeekMom Holiday Countdown! The GeekMom writers have decided that since we all have our own unique family traditions in the month of December, it might be fun to share them with each other, and with you. Feel free to add your own in the comments section or borrow some new ideas from us. Our goal is to keep December a month full of making memories with our kids, not stressing about to-do lists a mile long.

Let me start off the countdown with one of our favorite traditions.

Because I’m not a baker, the idea of making gingerbread houses didn’t appeal to me. Then I saw a magazine article showing how graham crackers can work just as well. After all, the fun in building a gingerbread house is sticking on the candy, not practicing architecture 101.

We learned early on that having a solid base is critical to keeping houses upright and keeping disappointment tears at bay. In the weeks before we do our big build, I collect boxes of all shapes and sizes. Oatmeal packet boxes are a great fit. Circular oatmeal boxes can also stir some creative ideas. Take a peek in your pantry and look at each item as a shape, not a potential menu item. I’ve been known to dump out the contents of a box just to have a great base for a gingerbread house.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

In a perfect world I’d stir up some frosting with extra tartar in it, because that’s what makes frosting turn into cement by the end of the day. But after ruining a few mixers with the hard work that requires, we found that plain frosting from the grocery store can work just as well, especially if you are using it just to stick on candy, not for sturdy house construction.

Of course the table is lined with bowls, filled with every kind of colorful candy we can find. The dollar store is a good place to look for creative, cheap ideas. Don’t forget to think outside the box. Shredded wheat cereal makes great textured roof shingles. Teddy Grahams and Gummy characters make fun people to live in your houses. Stick pretzels make fun fences and thicker rods of pretzels make an awesome log cabin.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

The beauty of this project is that ‘kids’ of all ages will enjoy it. We’ve done building parties at grandma’s house, with the adults working alongside the preschoolers. Everyone has their own flair and their own ideas. It’s a great project for teenagers and their friends. I’ve been surprised by how long my teens will spend working on making their houses just right.

While you’re thinking outside the box, don’t limit yourself to squares and rectangles. A cut down Pringles can makes a great silo. Through the years we’ve seen sheds, garages, pools, streams, tropical huts, and unique cars

made from candy and graham crackers. Here are some samples of the fun we’ve had through the years (and yes, this activity is ripe for great photos!) Check in with us again tomorrow, for another great activity or tradition that comes to you from one of our awesome GeekMom writers.


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Dress Your Little Ones In Geeky Style From We Love Fine

Image: We Love Fine
Image: We Love Fine

We Love Fine has long had a fantastic product line of geeky clothes and accessories for adults and now they’ve got a kids’ shop, just in time for the holidays!

They’ve been introducing kids’ items into their line a little bit at a time, but now they’ve got a dedicated kids’ shop that features all the delightfully geeky kids’ apparel that you, and your kids, are going to love. The sizes range from infant onesies all the way up to youth sizes and feature many of their most popular adult styles so there’s something for every child.

Image: We Love Fine
Image: We Love Fine

The onesies are 100% cotton with snap closures and they are adorable. They gave me a few to check out when I was at New York Comic Con, and I’ve washed them dozens of times and they still look good as new. They’re even a little softer than when they were right out of the package.

Styles range from the classic red, blue, and gold uniforms of Star Trek to My Little Pony, Doctor Who, and Star Wars. Yes, you can turn your child into R2-D2 or even the TARDIS.

Bigger kids have a range of girl and boy toddler’s shirts with all the characters they love. There are costume-style shirts that can turn them into one of the Power Rangers or Chewbacca and even a few with capes to make them feel like superheroes.

Image: We Love Fine
Image: We Love Fine

Your tween can get in on the fun, too. There are plenty of choices for fans of The Avengers along with Hello Kitty and Adventure Time. You’re not limited to t-shirts for older kids either since they’ve even added a few hoodies to the mix.

I spoke with the folks at We Love Fine and they’re really looking forward to giving geek kids, and geek parents, quality shirts with the characters they adore. To that end, they want to hear from you about what kinds of shirts you and your kids want to see.

Image: We Love Fine
Image: We Love Fine

It doesn’t matter if it’s a character, a style, or an age group, tell them! Send their customer service department an email at and you just may see the design you’re looking for show up in the We Love Fine kids shop.

GeekMom received some of these products for review purposes.

A Children’s Music Garden in an Industrial Land

Photo: Karen Burnham

The Gulf Coast of Texas is a blend of beautiful bayou and birding country and industrial wasteland. That was brought home to me as I visited the Baytown Nature Center not too far from my home near Houston. To get there from Highway 146, I drove over the Houston Ship channel (which goes to one of the busier ports in the world) and through a ginormous ExxonMobile chemical refinery (according to Wiki, one of the largest in the United States).

Baytown’s official motto is: “Where Oil and Water Really Do Mix.” It didn’t seem like a promising place to find a children’s playground, frankly.

Image: Google Maps w/ additions by Karen Burnham

But once you enter the nature preserve, all of that changes. Through a trick of geography, the children’s area looks bucolic, not industrial at all. There are tons of birds soaring around and it gets a lovely breeze. You can see the impressive San Jacinto Monument from several vantage points. There’s a lot to love about this park, but I’m going to focus on the Music Garden, and specifically how it captures the spirit of Baytown by using recycled industrial welding canisters for many of its instruments.

Photo: Karen Burnham

The Bayer Music Garden (almost every part of the park is sponsored by businesses or local families) has eight different stations, all of them fundamentally percussive. Four of them use brightly painted welding canisters, cut down to different sizes, to provide an array of drums, bells, or chimes. One series is stuck in the ground and topped with durable, flexible plastic, making a set of bongo drums just at kid height. Another four are strung up with the bottoms cut off and wooden clappers added to make bells.

Photo: Karen Burnham

One of my favorites is two rounded domes set low, each with different patterns cut into them. One looks like whale tails, the other has a star. The way the patterns are cut, the different sections make different tones when struck with the attached rubber mallet. Other stations include welding canisters set on posts that can be spun or whacked, two sets of steel chimes, a large wooden xylophone, and a hollow wooden bench with carved out tonal areas. It’s such a creative idea and use of local material! I’m also impressed with the park’s upkeep and maintenance: when I had been there before, many of the rubber mallets and clappers had gone missing. This time they had all been freshly replaced.

Two caveats: one, the reason the park maintenance can be so good is that the park is fee-based. Unlike most of the free parks in the area, this one has a $3 per person charge, although kids under 12 get in free. We loved the center so much we decided to spring for a $40 family membership, and there’s also a $20 individual annual pass available. Another thing to remember is that Houston has the nickname “The Bayou City,” and bayou is just the fancy French word for swamp. So mosquitoes can be a problem. We went on a rare warm day after a string of cold days, and the little buggers were out for blood. Usually the breeze kept them away, but any instant it died down I was brushing them off my son and he still got bitten several times on his legs and neck. Given that mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue are making a resurgence, it’s probably best to consider bug spray.

Those concerns aside, I haven’t even mentioned the built-up hill and tunnel, the kid-sized animal statues for climbing on, the pirate ship, or the rope spider web. This is a park that offers a lot to explore, but I continue to be especially impressed with the way the Music Garden creatively blends the industrial and scenic characteristics of the area using recycled materials. Something that perhaps other parks can emulate!

The Kid Who Named Pluto & the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

A few weeks back I was scanning the shelves of the juvenile non-fiction section at the local library when a book caught my eye: The Kid Who Named Pluto, and the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science. I had never heard that a kid named Pluto, could that be true? I tossed the book in my bag.

Our son picked the book up a few days later and then asked me to read him one of the chapters titled, “The Curious Girl Who Discovered Sea-Monster Skeletons.” The chapter told the story of Mary Anning, a young girl who grew up in Lyme Regis, England, in the early 1800s. The cliffs of Lyme Regis were filled with fossils. At the time of her childhood, scientists were just figuring out that fossils were the remains of prehistoric animals, and not left behind by supernatural creatures such as dragons.

At age twelve Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Photo by Gaius Cornelius.

When Mary was eleven, her father died and she started to fossil hunt as a way to help the family make ends meet. She was a skilled excavator, and at twelve years old she and her brother discovered the world’s first ichthyosaur skeleton. A few years later she discovered the first skeletal remains of a strange creature that scientists named “plesiosaur.” She went on to discover the remains of a flying reptile, the pterodactyl.

I was blown away. We have no fewer than ten dinosaur encyclopedias in our house, have been to many dinosaur exhibits at well known natural history museums, and we have never stumbled across Mary’s story. I was fascinated and hooked.

There is the chapter about young Robert Goddard. Too sick with tuberculosis to go to school, he stays home for months at a time devouring science books. One day he reads From Earth to Mars by Jules Verne, and dreams of creating a rocket. His father is impressed with his son’s ambition and gets him more books, a microscope, a telescope, and subscriptions to science magazines. Despite being more than two years behind in school, he manages to eventually get his Ph.D. in physics and is now know as the “father of space flight.”

Dr. Robert Goddard, seen here lecturing at Clark University, was a sickly child. He spent months at home teaching himself physics and dreaming of space flight. Photo courtesy of
Dr. Robert Goddard, seen here lecturing at Clark University, was a sickly child. He spent months at home teaching himself physics and dreaming of space flight. Photo courtesy of

The chapter that lends the book its title is full of great astronomy history. In 1929 a ninth planet was discovered in our solar system. The official announcement of “Planet X” to the public was made in 1930, and a wave of global excitement to find a proper name for the planet immediately followed. An eleven-year-old English girl delved into her knowledge of Greek Mythology and decided on Pluto. She told her father her reasons, and he thought they were brilliant. He telegraphed the observatory, and the rest is history.

Each chapter is filled with history and fascinating science facts. Ever hear about the twelve-year-old Midwestern farm boy that found a stack of books about electricity in the attic of the new family home? He became obsessed on the topic of electric currents, and one day while plowing his father’s fields he devised the electrical configuration that eventually led to the invention of television. There is also the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s science fair project that led to her creating a new encrypting code that rivaled the existing system for encoding data. The nine chapters that round out the book include one on Isaac Asimov, and another about Louis Braille.

I was inspired by this children’s book for many reasons. I am a science geek, and I just loved reading about the kids that delved head first into their passions and changed the world. The book is also a great reminder for us as parents to encourage our kids to follow their passions, and the book can inspire kids to follow their dreams. The book is great for kids and adults interested in the history of science. My kids really enjoyed hearing the stories of Louis Braille and Isaac Asimov. They also loved the story of Mary Anning.

In the book’s introduction, the author says that the kids featured in the book, “…had two things in common. They believed in themselves and they worked hard.” I definitely agree. However, there seems to be one additional commonality. The kids featured in the book were encouraged to follow their passions by the adults around them. Isaac Asimov’s parents were poor, but encouraged him to read everything and anything that he wanted to from the library. Many of the kids were also self-taught. Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s family allowed him to tinker and motorize every farm tool. They even lined up, held hands, and let him shock them to demonstrate how a circuit works. While home sick from school for months, Robert Goddard’s parents allowed him to build a lab in the house.

Many of the kids featured in the book worked mostly on their own, guided and encouraged from a distance by the adults around them. They learned complex science and math because they wanted to. They delved deep because their parents and teachers gave them the time, space, and encouragement that the they needed and wanted. They weren’t led to believe that they were “just a kid.” Working hard and believing in yourself is vital, but sometimes for kids to reach their full potential, they need us adults to encourage them, and then just get out of their way.

Easy, Fun, Science Experiments for Kids

Fun with density. Photo by Cristen Pantano
Fun with density. Photo by Cristen Pantano

As we all know, kids are natural scientists. They are constantly observing and asking questions about the world around them. It truly is never too early to get kids exploring with hands-on science activities. Here are some fun, easy, and interesting experiments that I recently found online and tried out at home.

Water Splashes

Kids love throwing rocks in water, looking at the splash, listening to the plop as the rock hits, and staring at the ripples. This is a fun experiment that demonstrates that any object, regardless of the shape, will produce a circular pattern of ripples when thrown into water.

A good exercise to give gives a mental image of what will happen when an object hits water. Photo by Cristen Pantano
A good exercise to give a mental image of what will happen when an object hits water. Photo by Cristen Pantano

The experiment calls for wooden objects of various shape, such as a circle, a square and a triangle. The premise is to throw the different shaped objects in the water, and observe that regardless of the object’s shape, a circular patter of water is displaced.  This happens because as the object hits the water, energy is released from the center of the object, equally in every direction. When a square block hits water, an infinite amount of straight lines of energy are released from the center. A circle is the only shape that has an equal distance from the center to any other place on the circle. This is why regardless of shape when a rock or block hits water, the water is displaced in a circular pattern.

To give the kids a visual of this before we went throwing and splashing, we traced blocks of various shapes, made a dot in the center and drew lines going out of the shape in every direction. If you do this step, make sure that the kids make lines bisecting all the angles. While doing this, a circular pattern of lines will appear.

When we tried observing splashes and ripples with our wooden blocks, they just were not heavy enough to produce a good splash. I opened the bathroom cabinet and we starting throwing random items in the tub. A rectangular bar of soap in its cardboard container made a large circular splash, as did a bottle of rubbing alcohol. The kids had the best time repeatedly throwing in a heavy ring box. This box provided a great circular splash and ripples despite it’s cubic shape.

You can ditch the tub and discuss this idea the next time your kids are throwing rocks in water. Simply collect a pile of different shaped rocks, talk about whether they think the splashes and ripples will be similar or different and let them have at it! It’s a great way to get the kids thinking about how the beautiful and amazing things that they observe on a daily basis can be explained by science.

Floating Egg

This is a really easy experiment with fantastic visuals. It will introduce kids to density and mixtures in a very fun way.

Simply fill two glasses with water, grab two eggs, and some salt. Make sure that both glasses have the same amount of water. Leave one glass of water alone and then make salt water in the second glass.  After the kids make the salt water mixture, have them carefully add a raw egg to the glass with just water. The egg will sink to the bottom. Then add the egg to the saltwater.  The salt water is more dense than the egg, so the egg will now float!

An egg added to salt water will float. Photo by Cristen Pantano.
An egg added to salt water will float. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

The next day, we took the egg out of the glass with salt water and carefully added a few inches of tap water on top of the salt water. Do this step and then have the kids slowly add the egg back. Watch what happens now! (Hint, see top photo)

Kids are innately curious and will probably ask, “Why does the egg float?”  When salt is added to water, the salt dissolves and you now have a mixture. When salt is added to water, it dissolves and sodium and chloride bond with the water’s hydrogen and oxygen. There is now more matter in the same amount of volume, therefore the water is more dense.

With young kids, it’s more about getting them to have fun while making cool observations rather than nailing down the concepts. My kids are young, so I kept the explanation a bit simpler. I told them that once we added the salt to water, we made a mixture. The mixture has more molecules in the same amount of space, and is therefore more crowded, stronger, and dense than water.  Not exactly a perfect definition of density, but enough to get young kids understanding what they see.

If your kids want to play more with density, a great way to visualize density is to layer different liquids on top of each other. Take a glass and pour in the same volume of corn syrup, oil, and water. The heavier (more molecules per volume), more dense, liquids will sink to the bottom, and layers will form. If you have food coloring on hand, let the kids color the water first. It creates a fantastic visual.

Have fun! After all, that’s what learning about science should be about!

Scientists When They Were Little Girls

This post (from October 11; I’m so behind on my NetVibes reader!) over at Double X Science made me so very happy today. They have collected a series of images of scientists when they were little girls, all looking very much like everyday little girls. I think the one that put the biggest smile on my face is the picture shown here, with the simple caption: “Laurie Kauffman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology, Oklahoma City University.”

Today, the International Day of the Girl Child, seems like the perfect day to show you what girls who will grow up to be scientists can look like. Our completely unscientific collection suggests that there might be a slight correlation between making goofy faces and growing up to be a scientist.

The Geek Kids Of New York Comic Con

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

This is the fourth New York Comic Con that I’ve had the joy of attending and this year, more than others, the number of kids and parents enjoying the convention created some of my favorite moments of the weekend.

There were so many adorable cosplaying kids! Sometimes it was just one little kid in a costume with her parents, but there were also groups of kids who had clearly worked together and a few parent-kid cooperative outfits. The one thing they had in common was that they were all having fun.

Who doesn't like a good Cheese Doodle? Image: Nicole Wakelin
Who doesn’t like a good Cheese Doodle? Image: Nicole Wakelin

It’s as difficult to go to a big convention like NYCC with kids as it is to go to an amusement park. There are lots of people and lots of things to see and it’s loud and crazy and in your face. It’s easy for parents to forget that everyone is supposed to be having fun. Fun. Not stressing out because everything isn’t perfect, because the fact that you’re sharing this time with your kid means that it is perfect.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Let them wander and see what they want to see. Don’t worry if they miss Stan Lee walking two feet away from them because they are completely immersed in the booth with those little electric cat ears that move. The ears are cool.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Take joy in the things they find and love, even if this means they discover they cannot get enough of the wonder of Batman and you hate Batman. I don’t know why anyone would hate Batman, but if you do, and your kid loves the guy, get over it and go along for the ride.

He Found Carl! Image: Nicole Wakelin
He Found Carl! Image: Nicole Wakelin

That’s really the key to taking your kids anywhere. Relax. Let them go. Find joy in their discoveries. Oh, and teach them how to cosplay because parent-kid cosplay done right is the most adorable thing on Earth and you’ll have the most embarrassing pictures ever to show their prom dates some day. No. I’d never do that. Just sayin’ it’s an option.

Check out all of my photos of New York Comic Con 2013 on my Total Fan Girl Facebook page.

Extrageektacular Activities: Rolling Robots

extraGEEKtacular activities - Rolling Robots
image by: justjenn

Extrageektacular Activities are geeky field trips that encourage your child’s creativity and are a fun time for the whole family!

If dogs are man’s best friend then surely robots are a close second. Hm, what about robot dogs? The possibilities are endless with robotics. If your child has a love for technology, they don’t have to go all of the way to the Toshi Station to pick up power converters…they can simply head over to Rolling Robots!

Rolling Robotos Technology Workshop
Rolling Robotos Technology Workshop

Rolling Robots was started by George Kirkman (who was recently a competitor on Robot Combat League) and Bin Jiang, both former aerospace engineers who are also parents. Having children of their own, they saw the need to tap into kids’ spirit of wonder and unlock future potential through robotics.

Set up like a workshop environment, kids use creative thinking to solve design-build problems. Working in groups with peers their own age allows kids to feel comfortable in tackling challenges and find success as a team.

Robotics programming
image by: justjenn

The Kid’s Technology Workshops allow kids to progress from basic skills to robotics competition. Once they’ve completed a level, they move on to the next one. Rolling Robots offers classes for every level; circuits, basic programming, even Minecraft hacks, all with hands on learning which reinforces the idea of being comfortable and having fun.

Students with no previous robotics experience can go from learning basic keyboard skills all the way up to Java programming. They are guided every step of the way by knowledgeable staff and can learn from older kids in higher levels. From after-school classes to home schooling lessons, there is even a 3D printing class where kids can experiment and see their designs come to life.

Rolling Robots is a fantastic place for parties because your guests get the unique experience of battling bots in the Robot Battle Arena. They get a lesson in design build as well, where every party guest gets to build and take home a real motorized robot! Best party favors ever!

Rolling Robots takes kids’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and gives them the freedom to grow that passion through creative thinking and building. It’s a unique place where kids can find the support they need to nurture their interests in technology and have fun!

Rolling Robots – Glendale
1800 South Brand Blvd. #101
Glendale, CA 91204
(818) 241-2308

Rolling Robots – Palos Verdes
700 Silver Spur Drive, #101
Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274

(424) 206-9466

Star Wars Reads Day Kids Cosplay

star-wars-reads-day[1]Judge me by my size, do you? October 5th was Star Wars Reads Day, when authors, artists, and fans come together to celebrate literacy and all things Star Wars! There were lots of official events held around the country and I stopped by Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach to check out the party!

Mysterious Galaxy was in full Star Wars fan effect with Stormtroopers that mingled with the crowd, a Death Star backdrop for photo ops and lots of books for sale. In the front lobby they had free giveaways, book readings, and Star Wars origami demos for the kids.

Star Wars shirts
Skywalker Ranch shirts
image by Jenn F.

Since it was 90 degrees in October (what can I say, it’s Southern California) my kids passed on getting dressed up and put on their favorite Star Wars shirts instead. We got these when we visited Skywalker Ranch a few years ago. One of the stormtroopers turned on his voice amp just to tell us that he wished he had one of those shirts.

It looked like we weren’t the only ones with a summer mindset. Most kids followed suit wearing vintage Star Wars shirts or modern Angry Birds mashups. Despite the heat, some amazing geek parents went the extra mile and outdid themselves with fantastic kids cosplay. There were Darth Vaders, Jedi, and Fetts a plenty and the kids showed off their best moves for the costume contest.

leia and jango
Princess Leia and Jango Fett
image by Jenn F.

Bella Risbeck made the most adorable Princess Leia and even had a special stance that she busted out during the costume contest.

baby yoda
Baby Yoda
image by Jenn F.

This little Yoda didn’t have much to say but don’t judge him by his size, he was still adorable!

kid luke
Luke Skywalker
image by Jenn F.

The winner of the costume contest was young padawan Lucas Kicks Moras (that’s his real name) who even brought along with own astromech droid! His mom made the entire costume herself, down to Luke Skywalker’s identical leather belt and pouches! Impressive, most impressive.

The event was a huge success and it was great to see so many little ones reading books and carrying on their parents love of the Star Wars universe!

GeekMom Plays: Mech Mice Episode 2

Welcome back to another episode of GeekMom Plays: Mech Mice. My daughter, codename Jaguar Girl, had so much fun trying out Mech Mice in beta that she asked if she could play through the entire first chapter. If you want to see how the first couple of levels went, check out GeekMom Plays: Mech Mice Episode 1.

My daughter really liked the game. During this episode, we talk about what different things can be done during a turn, and the variety of objects—both good and bad—that can pop-up (literally) during a level. She is 7, and played through the available levels in chapter one with little help from me. The game will still be available in beta for a couple more days. The game will be released on October 8, so time is running out if you want to try it.

Stay tuned for another episode of GeekMom Plays. Next time, my husband and I will be playing Borderlands 2.

Extrageektacular Activities: Duff’s Cake Mix

extraGEEKtacular activities - Duffs Cake Mix
images by:

Extrageektacular Activities are geeky field trips that encourage your child’s creativity and are a fun time for the whole family!

When you have a kid who loves art and drawing there are a lot of ways to encourage their hobby. Art classes and museums are good options, but a unique way that might not readily come to mind is one of my favorites: food! Cake decorating is a great exercise in creativity, especially when you add elements from comics, video games, and books. I took some kids to Duff’s Cake Mix in West Hollywood to put their art skills to the test.

Duffs bakery
image by:

Duff’s Cake Mix is a part of the West Coast operation of Charm City Cakes, a custom bakery made famous by Duff Goldman and his show Ace of Cakes. Here they have a walk-in bakery filled with baked goods like brownies, cupcakes, and some unique items like Peanut Butter and Jelly Cake and their popular Cake in a Jar.

Duffs interior
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The real fun is the attached Decorating Studio. Parties can come and decorate their very own cakes using a Decorating Kit. When we got there we were assigned a decorator helper who told us about the process and how all the stations worked. With the help of an easy-to-use form, you pick your cake and filling flavors, the canvas (base) color type, and medium: frosting or fondant.

fondant on cake
image by:

Watching a professional put fondant on a cake was a sight to behold, they make it look so easy! Once the cake was covered it was off to choose tools and equipment then to the “Goodie Bar” to choose frosting piping bag colors and candy decor.

I took a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 4-year-old. Normally the bakery doesn’t advise having children under seven participate but they do allow it. The older kids were given cake and the youngest was given cupcakes which proved to be the perfect match for his attention span.

A good idea is to discuss ideas with kids beforehand, figure out what they want to make, and visualize how they were going to make it work. This helps a lot in getting the process going. Sketching out ideas is a good way to understand how they plan to execute it.

Minecraft Cake decorating
images by:

The 9-year-old went with a Minecraft theme; of course he did! He started with a canvas of blue fondant then chose to mold a Creeper head out of green fondant, using the same color as accents. Then he frosted a Minecraft pig in the front and added “gunpowder” (silver sprinkles) around the top. A true Minecraft masterpiece!

Batman Cake
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The 7-year-old loves Batman so that cake got the yellow fondant treatment for the canvas. He used the black fondant for cookie cutter letters and the Batman head he cut by hand. The kids really got into the details like the candy pearls to make the cakes look finished.

Duffs Cake Mix - cupcakes decorating
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The 4-year-old (in his own chef’s coat, no less), with a little help from his mom, really enjoyed rolling and cutting the fondant, and using the candies to decorate. Moving from one small cupcake to another was just what he needed to keep his interest. Even though he was young, he worked right alongside the big boys and had a lot of fun. He said the best thing about it was that “I got to do it all by myself!”

The entire staff at Duff’s Cake Mix was so helpful, they happily answered questions and gave tips on easier ways to get things done. Everything at the studio was extremely organized, you never had to look too far for anything. I do a lot of baking and decorating, but I can’t imagine doing this at home. Here the space, the details, and having all the equipment and supplies at your disposal definitely made it worthwhile.

Duffs Cake Mix - cake slice
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Cake decorating was a great exercise in getting kids to think creatively and use the right tools to solve design problems. Using sculpture, drawing, and mosaic they got to have a lot of fun and see their creations come to life. The best part of creating art out of food? Eating it!

Duff’s Cake Mix
8302 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(323) 650-5555

Mon-Thu 11 am – 6:30 pm
Fri 11 am – 10 pm
Sat 10 am – 10 pm
Sun 10 am – 6:30 p.m.

Dine and Draw: Teen Titans Go

Dine and DrawEvery night my kids and I sit and draw/craft/create our favorite things. While I’ve lost the older kid to Minecraft, the 7-year-old and I both like to be creative through drawing. Our art sessions are always inspired by our favorite comic books or animated shows. He likes to draw while I come up with corresponding ideas for geeky recipes.

Currently, DC’s Teen Titans Go on Cartoon Network reigns supreme in our house. The witty humor and adorable characters make this show a hit for both of us. My son decided to draw me the characters while I set to work on creating a recipe inspired by the show.

I always suggest getting ready to draw just as you would in an art class:

1Dine and Draw-Set Up
image: justJENN

1. Set Up:

  • Find a clean, flat place to draw.
  • Google Teen Titans Go (parents, screen the images carefully!) and find the characters and poses that you want.
  • Gather your tools: pencil, eraser, black pen, crayons/colored pencils/colored markers
2Dine and Draw-sketch
image: justJENN

2. Sketch:

  • Start with basic shapes and forms.
  • Then sketch out features.
  • Check back and forth with the image for character attributes.
  • Fill in character details.
3Dine and Draw-ink
image: justJENN

3. Ink:

  • Outline the pencil sketch with a black pen.
  • Lightly erase leftover pencil lines.

Note:  Sharpies are great because of their smoothness and varying points but Sign Pens are also good for smaller hands.

4Dine and Draw-color
image: justJENN

 4. Color:

  • Fill in the lines with colored pencils, crayons or pens.

Note: Even though I’ve provided the kids with my top of the line artist tools they still always go back to good ol’ Crayola Crayons. I don’t blame them; they’re comfortable to use and come in a dizzying array of colors now. (Yes, Macaroni and Cheese is a real color.)

Dine and Draw-Teen Titans
image: justJENN

There you have it – all the Titans in a row! Little ones can sometimes get frustrated when it comes to drawing but mistakes happen. You can always start over and try again. That’s why this pencil to ink to color process is a good method to follow. Sketching before the drawing becomes permanent makes life a lot easier.

Beast Boy Veggie Burrito 2
image: justJENN recipes

With inspiration from his drawings, my edible work of art became dinner: Beast Boy Veggie Burritos!

Drawing is an entertaining, creative exercise and your favorite geeky characters make it a fun way to spend time together!

On Breaking, or Not Breaking, the Harry Potter Spell

One of the many dog eared copies of Harry Potter strewn about our home. Photo: Cristen Pantano

“Oh Potter, you rotter, what have you done?”

Last November my husband began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to our son. After a few chapters, they were both hooked.  Within a few weeks, they were on to book two.

One weekend our son told us that he had been thinking about some things from the first book and wanted to know if he could reread it to himself. This is where it all began.

He reread the first two books, and was then frustrated with the pace at which my husband was reading book three aloud to him. We told him that he could go on and read it to himself.  He was enchanted by Harry and Hogwarts, and there was no stopping him.

When it was time for book seven he dove right in, but,  he put the book down after about three chapters. He has been elusive in his reasons for not finishing, so we haven’t pressed. I’m thinking he was scared; others have suggested that he probably doesn’t want it to end.

When he put book seven down, we thought that after almost eight months of nonstop Harry Potter, he would read something else. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Each day he picked one of the Harry Potter books and carried it around all day long. He would read various chapters and passages at random, then decided to start at book one again. The books have become an additional appendage on his body. They are dog-eared, stained, tattered, and strewn about the house.

At first I thought this was great, he was reading and loving what he was reading. But then, as the calendar moved toward September it hit me that he hasn’t read much other than Harry Potter for almost a year. I asked friends for suggestions: What did their kids read after Harry Potter?

Percy Jackson was a fail, but children’s Greek mythology books were a hit. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, score! Meanwhile, Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys are collecting dust as Harry Potter continues to log many miles.

I decided to ask my fellow GeekMoms if their children had done this with Harry Potter, and whether I should just let it go, or encourage other books. Many responded that their kids had a similar experience with Harry Potter. Some let it go, and some encouraged one other book in between each Harry Potter book. Many also shared with me their own book obsessions. There were also a few responses that stopped me in my tracks.

GeekMom Samantha had this to say, “…there is clearly something he is working out, something he is grappling with that the books are providing for him. Something that only reading them over and over will give him. Eventually, he will move on when he comes to his moment of clarity or closure.”

GeekMom Ariane posed this succinct question, “What’s your concern with this behavior?”

What was my concern?  Honestly, I still can’t  completely answer that question. I guess I would prefer that he read a variety of books.  Maybe I feel that that is what he is “supposed” to do? Maybe I fear an unhealthy obsession? I seriously don’t know. I don’t even know if I am that concerned, or if it’s just that I think that maybe I should be. Ariane stumped me.

With all of the GeekMom responses in mind, and my inability to pinpoint what my concerns were, we decided to let it go but keep other new books available to him.

Last weekend we visited our favorite local bookstore. The owners chatted with our son and helped him pick out some great new books for us to read to him, and for him to read on his own. He has read one and the others are sitting on the coffee table, waiting…

I have asked him many times why he keeps reading the books. He usually just shrugs and keeps on reading. Today I told him that I was going to write about his love for Harry Potter. This time he looked up and said, “I just don’t want it to end.”  With GeekMom Sam’s words in my head, I told him that as long as he keeps reading them, the adventure will continue.

10 Ways to Survive Your Three-Year-Old Son

MVP has crazy eyes. You don't know what this almost 4-year-old will do next!
MVP has crazy eyes. You don’t know what this almost 4-year-old will do next! images: Cathe Post

Hello, I’m Cathé, and I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son (Hi, Cathé!). I love him. But recently, we have had to come home from errand runs early simply because he will stop holding my hand in the parking lot and run off, not keep his hands to himself (in an aisle of glass at a store), scream and hit when he doesn’t get something he wants, or other embarrassing behaviors that I never thought my children would exhibit in a million years. Also, if I hear the word “no” in a whiny tone one more time!

I know I am not alone. I recently attended a BBQ where the parents of a handful of boys (between the ages of 3-and-a-half and 4-and-a-quarter) handed each other another beer and talked about the embarrassing similarities in our boys’ behavior. I came home that evening to an email from a co-worker asking for help with her little boy who was acting in the same manner.

How are we to survive this?! Well, it isn’t easy. But, here are some tips that might help you feel better in the short and long term:

1. Take pictures. Laugh. Delete the pictures…or make a blog: We’ve talked about Why My Son Is Crying. Love it or hate it, the idea of taking pictures during the not-so-happy times can serve a humorous purpose at a later time. For instance, on your son’s wedding day, bring out the bath pictures and the tantrum photos. Okay, maybe that is cruel. But, if you ever have grand-kids who are in trouble with mom and dad, you can show them that dad had hard days too.

Put a geeky drink in a geeky glass.
Put a geeky drink in a geeky glass. All images: Cathe Post

2. Drink: I have heard several parents recently say they never imbibed in booze until they had a three-year-old son. If you like wine, there are geeky varieties for almost any fan. If it is a mixed drink you are looking for, I have a board on Pinterest and there are books available.

3. A Fence: This can be a very geeky way to survive your energetic child. If you have a chain-link fence, you can use Fence Weave to create any 8bit design for a colorful enclosure. Otherwise it is still nice to know that if you let your child loose so you can regain your sanity they will at least be contained.

MVP is more than happy to mail himself somewhere.
MVP is more than happy to mail himself somewhere.

4. Boxes: Put your kid in them, tape them up, and address them to Abu Dhabi like Garfield used to, or let your kid go crazy with the green finger paint so he can pretend he’s the Hulk and smash the box to bits.

It's amazing how fifteen minutes with an educational app can slow down a little body.
It’s amazing how fifteen minutes with an educational app can slow down a little body.

5.Tablet devices: Screen time is a big deal to many parents. But that screen time can also make the difference between meltdowns and angelic behavior on a shopping trip. One GeekMom spied triplets who each had their own iPad Mini on a shopping trip. I even turn to technology like my Kindle to give to my three-year-old in a pinch; this includes keeping him from taking a nap so he sleeps at night, and keeping him from touching all of the trophies at the Taekwondo studio his sister attends.

6. Snacks: If your kids are anything like mine, they graze all day. Enough kids out there graze that there is now a service for it. Yes, Graze is a service where a box of healthy snacks shows up at your house for as little as $5. Other geeky snacks can be found out there. There are Pinterest boards, so they must be real.

7. A garden hose (and other cheap water play): Getting into geekery of the maker variety, you don’t have to have a real Slip N Slide or kiddie pool to have the geekiest and wettest yard in the neighborhood. You can make a splash pad, a kid wash, or even throw in a bit of science with the color spectrum.

8. Broken gadgets: One GeekMom keeps broken gadgets so her kids can go to town with that screwdriver without caring if the device is put back together. There are also books available with ideas on what to do with your broken computer and other gadgets.

Ready! Set! Jump! The kids love jumping on this "crash" cube chair.
Ready! Set! Jump! The kids love jumping on this “crash” cube chair.

9. Save the furniture!: Autism furniture is a great way for kids who have to spend a lot of time indoors from destroying your furniture. One GeekMom recommended a swing that hangs from the ceiling. We have ceiling heat so we have pillows instead. The rule in our house is you sit correctly on the couch, and the coffee table is for eating at. If you want to jump on the furniture, you go to the crash pillow (we purchased from a local company) and get the jumping out of your system. It has worked so well that we asked Santa for a cube last year that has been very popular. We love the autism furniture because it is extremely durable. You don’t need to have an autistic child to appreciate the furniture.

Decorate a kitchen timer with geeky stickers. Set it for a reasonable amount of quiet time.
Decorate a kitchen timer with geeky stickers. Set it for a reasonable amount of quiet time.

10. A kitchen timer: Yes, a simple and loud kitchen timer can save you for up to an hour! My husband received a bell timer for his birthday a few years back. We slapped some Mario stickers on it and mounted it between the kids’rooms. When quiet time is needed, we set the timer for anywhere from five to thirty minutes. When the bell rings, the kids can come out of their rooms. Oh yea—we make them try to go potty before we stick them in their rooms so there are no excuses for coming out early!

Do you have (or have you had) a 3-year-old that’s driving you crazy? Have you tried any of these methods or have any of your own? Let us know in the comments!

ConnectiCon: Gamin’ and Art

Image By Lilianna Angel
Image By Lilianna Angel

ConnectiCon is such a visual treat. As Corrina mentioned in her post, the cosplay is fantastic, usually homemade, and enough to keep you entertained if you just sit and watch the crowd. I kept my giggles in check on the elevators in the hotel because they were always filled with random cosplayers having banal conversations.

Zombie: Have you tried any of the hotel restaurants?
Power Ranger: Not yet.
Wonder Woman: The one near the front desk is pretty good.
Zombie: Thanks.

Image By Rebecca Angel (permission given for photo)
Image By Rebecca Angel (permission given for photo)

Here is a family from The Legend of Korra.

But there’s so much to do! I’ve written about this con in the past, but this year I did something I’ve always wanted to do: play a long RPG. In previous years, I did performances and panels, which made it hard to commit to anything that took up a huge chunk of the day. But this time, I was there to help my daughter at artist alley, make sure my son was busy, and enjoy myself. Part of the fun was getting to talk with some of the guests. I kept exclaiming in delight while reading Jim Cummings’s bio. I had no idea he was the voice of so many characters! And a delight in person. I did not have a chance to see Marina Sirtis, but several friends did and filled me in with how cool she is.

I played Caravan on Friday and after four hours the group was in a walled, rat plague infested desert city surrounded by a tribe of gnolls, and huddled in a ziggurat where we just found a giant spider. Of course I had to go back on Saturday and figure out how to get out of that mess! Lots o’ fun.

TeaPunk. Image By Rebecca Angel
Guy McNorm by Purple Lantern Studios

I spent time with my daughter selling her art and eye swirls, chatting with our neighbors: False Mind, Purple Lantern, and Grinning Narwhal. Rayna of Purple Lantern did a great commission of my current RPG character from a home game: Guy McNorm of the Clan McMahan.

I also met up with friends I only see at this convention, juggled, danced, danced, and danced some more (with glow sticks!) A nod to the first DJ of Friday night who really kicked off the party. ‘Til next year!

GeekMom Counterpoint: Why I Love Why

Why I Love Why
Image source: Melissa Wiley

One of the most delightful things about being part of the community of GeekMom writers is that we’re all over the map—philosophically as well as geographically. I read my fellow GeekMom Ariane’s post, “Why I Hate Why,” with interest, and my reply grew so long it turned into a post.

Here’s why I actually love the why stage:

Because at that age—two, three, four, five years old—language is a magical thing. It’s slippery and malleable and full of possibility, and meanings are hard to pin down. And “why” is the most magical word of them all. It means, “I’m baffled/delighted/scared/excited/an infinity of adjectives but I can’t figure out how to frame this experience in words.” It means, “Do the rules of the world stay the same, or do they shift around as much as it seems like they do?” A chair stays a chair, but water can be ice, water can be the steam floating up from Mommy’s mug of tea. The people who get made to take naps don’t want them, and the people who don’t take naps want nothing more. Uncle Jay is Daddy’s brother and Grandma’s son and THIS IS ALL VERY CONFUSING.

But there’s this powerful talisman, this incredible word that takes all the millions of questions flooding into those tiny, giant-brained heads, and distills them into a form that people understand. Why.

Why is the word that signals: “I need clarity. I need to make sense of this. I need to know what this feeling is called. I need to know if I’m going to feel it forever.”

Why is a chameleon-word that shapeshifts into all the questions put together. Who, how, when, what, where, will. Why is the wonder-word. It collects the flurry of bewildering input that swirls around a small child like leaves in a tornado—and in a single syllable, it tames the wind. It puts form to the formless: When other words are leaping all over the place with their jittery meanings (leaves fall in the fall but snow doesn’t winter in the winter), why stays put. Why is reliable. When grownups all around you are failing to comprehend the very clear statement you’re making about eating opiemeal in the hoffabul, why is a word they understand. Sometimes it’s the only word they seem to understand, so you use it in place of all the other words they can’t quite grasp.

Can being on the receiving end of endless whys grow exhausting? Sure—I’m in the thick of my sixth child’s why stage right now, and that means I’ve been answering this question almost without pause since 1997, when my oldest daughter was two. What delights me is that she is still asking it. At 18, she’s a young woman of insight and curiosity; she probes and counters and debates. She argues with things she reads. She wonders.

At its heart, that’s where the incessant why comes from: a sense of wonder, a sense that the world is a mysterious place but—and this is huge—where there are questions, there are answers. So I respectfully disagree with the notion that some questions—sincere ones, I mean, the kind a child asks—are stupid. The question itself is a sign of that spark that makes us human, our insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding. We don’t take the world for granted. We want to know what makes it tick, what makes the sky blue, what makes freckles and spaghetti and smoke. As we grow, we learn to add more words to the question—but with luck we never lose that sense of the magic of it all, the endless scope for possibility. My kids’ whys have kept me asking questions; they’ve shown me a thousand different ways of looking at things so seemingly ordinary I might have forgotten to notice. Somewhere along the line, I came to realize that their whys weren’t just helping them make sense of an astonishing world; they were making it continually astonishing for me too.

Indiegogo Campaign: TinySuperheroes


I have to thank my mom for pointing this one out to me. Last summer Robyn Rosenberger made a cape for her two-year-old nephew’s birthday. She was also following the story of a little girl named Brenna, who was fighting a serious skin disease. The idea of the cape met the reality of children battling incredible obstacles, and her organization TinySuperheroes was born.

Since making their first cape in January of 2013, they have made 500 capes for sick and disabled children. This Indiegogo campaign (which ends on June 18th!) will help raise money to make and distribute 1,500 more capes in the next year. Their motto is “Empowering Extraordinary Kids – One Cape at a Time!”


A Quick and Dirty Visit to the Phoenix Comicon

Steampunk dude. Photo: Jenny Williams
Steampunk dude. Photo: Jenny Williams

My family and I went to the Phoenix Comicon last Friday. It was an interesting visit because we went without a plan, and it was Rory‘s first time at this kind of con. The kids and I had been to this one twice before. But we purposely went for only a short visit this time, and didn’t even crack open the program.

Bad form, I know. But we only really had an afternoon, and I find I get my hopes up to see too many things if I over plan. So I let Rory run the show. Taking kids to panels is sometimes unpredictable, and usually boring for the kids, so our entire experience was the dealer room and people watching. Because it was Friday, the crowds were quite manageable, and we were able to get to all the tables we wanted to see.

Continue reading A Quick and Dirty Visit to the Phoenix Comicon

SuperMe Kids Bags Uncover the Hero Within

SuperME kids backpack complete with mask to keep their secret identities safe.
SuperME kids backpack complete with mask to keep their secret identities safe. Image: SuperME used with permission.

Just in time for National Superhero Day on April 28, SuperMe backpacks and messenger bags are here! It might seem like a really simple idea to put a cape on a backpack, and to make a functional bag with the entire superhero package and make a quality product for a reasonable price is a lot to ask, but SuperMe has done it. Continue reading SuperMe Kids Bags Uncover the Hero Within

Review: Python for Kids

Python for Kids - No Starch Press
Image courtesy No Starch Press

Python for Kids is a book from No Starch Press that aims to teach kids ages 10 and up and their parents about the Python programming language. Python is a good candidate for kids and other programming newbies because it mostly uses natural language and avoids the more annoying things you can find in some programming language. There’s no need to end every line with a semicolon. Variables don’t need to be declared, nor do they need to stick with the same data type. And if I stopped speaking English about two sentences ago, there’s good news. Python for Kids can still help you learn.

I happen to have an 11 year old daughter for convenient review purposes, so we’ve been working through the book together. I’m bribing her with a Raspberry Pi and pink flexible keyboard, because the Raspberry Pi can be programmed with Python. Might as well use what you learn.

First off, the tone of this book is just about right. We tried Super Scratch Programming Adventure, and while the Scratch book is aimed at a slightly younger audience, it really feels like it’s aimed at a much younger audience. Nobody likes a book that talks down to them. Python for Kids author Jason Briggs manages to successfully describe programming to kids without sounding like he’s dumbing down the content. My one critique as an adult reading this is that the whole book had enlarged print, but if it actually helps struggling learners read, I suppose I can overlook it.

My daughter was able to work through most chapters on her own, but she did sometimes ask for help with global concepts, such as why you’d want to “recycle code” or what an if statement was meant to do. Once she understood the concept she was going to learn in the chapter, she was able to go through the exercises and excitedly brag about what she’d learned. “Mom,  I made a tuple! Mom, there’s a turtle in Python!”

She’s still only halfway through the book, but I’ve read ahead. By the time you finish Python for Kids, you’ll have completed two games and learned the foundations for programming with Python. The lessons are well-constructed and leave the reader with a feeling of accomplishment in each chapter.

If you’re looking for a book to teach your fifth grade or older child how to program, and you’re willing to provide a little guidance here and there, this book (and maybe a Raspberry Pi with pink flexible keyboard) makes a good investment.


Glitch Gone Wild?

I never thought this would be the way I’d have the “Don’t Do Drugs” talk with my kids!

After signing myself up for Glitch, I decided to let my kids develop characters of their own (under my e-mail addresses and with my close supervision). Over the weekend my oldest son took a trip to the dark side of Glitch: “Glitch Hell“.

Simply put, you visit Hell by dying. You can visit Hell several times, and there is even a separate set of achievements you can earn from multiple trips to Hell. Those who are experienced in the game might think that my son simply walked away from the computer, forgetting to “Exit the World.” But in my son’s case, he was mining rocks with another character who offered him a substance called “No-No Powder“.

No-No Powder is Glitch cocaine, my friends. You sniff it, get high, and then encounter this horrible crash that can only be saved from death by another “hit” of the No-No Powder. I have some in my backpack, picked up from someone who left it on the ground. I haven’t used it, but instead was planning to sell it for money.

His avatar sniffed the stuff, experienced the 6 minutes of maximum mood and energy, and then crashed HARD. The avatar died, went to Hell, then resurrected upon completing a task (my son crushed grapes).  Upon resurrection, you have zero mood and near-zero energy and are very close to dying again. My son had very little food, very little currants (money) and no skills to make anything.

Sounds like a textbook drug addict…rehabilitation time!

This was not something I expected to have to do so soon, but I grabbed my arsenal of inspirational, lesson-teaching messages and quickly took over the computer control of my son’s Glitch character. We got Mace Windu fed, educated and built up his account a little under my direction. Then we had to discuss drug use, Internet chatting, the existence of hell and responsible gaming all at once on Saturday night.

“What did we learn?”

“Don’t sniff the no-no powder….”

“When is it a good time to use drugs?”

“When a doctor says so….”

“Will we ever sniff no-no powder again?”


“Do we take stuff from strangers?”


This whole experience — which took about an hour of our Saturday night, also got me thinking about how family-friendly this game might actually be. There’s a lot of…um, sophomoric humor scattered throughout the game that my sons probably won’t understand, but I feel nervous just the same about exposing them to it.

My feelings about my kids seeing Glitch are becoming similar to my concerns about my sons watching The Simpsons, by the way. They really enjoy the humor, but (a) Mom and Dad have to be nearby when they’ve watched it and (b) it has to be a rerun that Mom and Dad are already familiar with so they know what adult themes to expect.

I had written on my personal blog about what fun the family was having developing our respective avatars, but with the Global Chat and IM-ing looming out there, we’ve decided to change things up a bit.  Whereas before I’d let my sons control my avatar with me in the room, I think I need to keep the controls and just keep the kids to the decision making. In other words, if Mace Windu wants to go harvest some allspice, he’ll tell me where to go and I’ll sure he gets there.

6 Reasons to Get Your Kid a Smartphone

A few years ago I would have written a post arguing that no child needs a cell phone, let alone the mini-computing marvel of the contemporary smartphone. But now? I’m a believer.

I got my son a smartphone last year as I was changing service providers and getting myself a new phone. They made me a fantastic offer on the whole package and I didn’t refuse. A few weeks before our upgrade date, my son’s Blackberry went down a storm drain. “Well,” I said, “You have an old flip phone. You can wait a couple of weeks.” By the time the upgrade date rolled around, something funny had happened. I was almost as anxious for my son to replace his smartphone as he was! The convenience of the always-connected family is hard to ignore. So why should you consider getting smartphones for your kids?

1. Location, location, location. Signing up for a location service like Google Latitude or Foursquare allows you and your child to both know one another’s location at all times. Rather than having to call your child, risk being screened, then have to ask, “Where are you? Did you remember to go to Lego Robotics club after school?” every single day, you can just check the map. Likewise, when you’re running late after work, your child can easily see where you are and track your progress toward home. All of the major service providers offer family locator services for standard phones, but these cost an additional fee each month. Smartphones allow you to have the same service, with better features, for free. Continue reading 6 Reasons to Get Your Kid a Smartphone

The Scripps National Spelling Bee: Some Fascinating Facts

We are in the midst of the 84th Scripps National Spelling Bee Week in the Washington, D.C., area.  I’ve watched the competition with interest most years — although not with the same enthusiasm my family watches the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest every July 4thI find it especially cool that ESPN chooses to air the finals every June and this year the preliminaries streamed live on ESPN3.

Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting trends.  I’m a statistics girl, and I find it easier to present you some fascinating facts about the spelling bee:

1. Are the winning words getting more difficult?  Check out the list of winning words here.  Do you see a trend from mostly Germanic words that (to me) are seemingly straightforward to sound out, use in context and use basic etymology…to some serious Latin, Greek and other Romantic language-based words?  Consider words such as fracas (1930), intelligible (1935), and therapy (1940).  Compare those to antediluvian (1994), chiaroscurist (1998) and appoggiatura (2005).  I think this speaks volumes to the increased diversity in the English language as well as the capabilities of America’s 8-14 year olds’ spelling skills over the years.  We trust that our kids are more capable than ever before!

2. Homeschooled students are demonstrating their excellence!  According to this article published on May 31st featuring San Angelo, Texas’s National Spelling Bee contestant, even though homeschooling accounts for only 2.9% of American schoolchildren, 9.8% of this year’s 275 contestants are homeschooled.  Homeschooled students have won the spelling bee four times — will they take home the prize a 5th time this year?

3. Gender.  I don’t consider 45 female winners vs. 41 male winners overwhelming, but it still put a smile on my face.

4. Diversity, at least among Indian-Americans.  I have to admit, before I found the statistic elsewhere (see link in #3), I attempted to discern the split of the genders of the winners over the past 83 years by manually counting the male vs. female winners.  I also have to admit, when I got to 1985, I didn’t know whether Balu Natarajan of Chicago, Illinois, was a male or female.  (He’s a male).  Then there were nine more names whose genders I simply didn’t know (sorry!).  It turns out they are all Indian-Americans.

5. More diversity.  In 1998 Jody-Anne Maxwell of Kingston, Jamaica became the first (and only) non-American resident to win the bee.

6. The Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) sends contestants.  Sponsored by the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which is published for American servicemembers living overseas, students can enter through their on-base schools.  Twelve-year-old Anuk Dayaprema, whose father is serving in the US Army in Vicenza, Italy, is representing DoDDS Europe schools.

7. He’s HOW OLD?  There is an 8-year-old third-grader competing this year! I think about my own 8-year-old being able to spell xanthosis (1995) and my head spins!

8. Our very own GeekMom Jessamyn Tracy was a two-time competitor in 1989 and 1990.  Jessamyn also provided us some insight yesterday about how folks can use etymology to succeed in spelling in this day of autocorrect.

9. Want more statistics?  Visit this link to view even more statistics about this year’s 275 contestants.  They’ve broken down everything from how many are only children vs. with siblings, how many are repeat performers, as well as age and grade distributions.

I certainly plan to watch the spelling bee with the kids this week.  Will you?

Geeky Ways to Love the Iditarod: Build a Better Dog Sled

Image Jessamyn

Talk about an amazing race. The Iditarod dog sled competition, which started Saturday,  stretches more than a thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome, crossing some of the toughest terrain in the world under some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Mushers come from all over the world to compete, but, at its heart, the last great race is a unique competition that captures the very essence of what it means to be an Alaskan. It’s about grit and perseverance, survival and courage. The race also symbolizes compassion and responsibility for our fellow human beings as it commemorates the heroic efforts of a group of mushers who ran the life-saving serum needed to treat Nome’s diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

And there are so many ways to geek out on the Iditarod!

To start, try your hand at building a sled out of anything you have on hand. Others have used Lego bricks and plastic wrap, but we used a broken down laundry hamper.

Some things you may want to consider:

–runners for your musher to stand on
–a space for provisions to sustain you and your dogs
–a harness system for your dogs to pull the sled
–how to improve your sled’s performance
–wheels if you live in a climate without snow

We connected Sherlock and Watson, our little rat terriers, to our sled. Sherlock turned around and stared at the sled, then flatly refused to pull. Watson, the better sport, enthusiastically pulled Sherlock around our house, which led to lots of crashes and barking and laughter.

If you do build a sled, be sure to take photos and send them in to the Build A Better Sled project.

Teachers-Guide-Mystery-on-the-iditarod-trailThere are plenty of other ways to learn with your kids through the Iditarod. You can follow the racers by visiting the Anchorage Daily News each day or check in with ESPN. The official website has a section for teachers filled with learning activities.

You can track the progress of the mushers, do some math, learn some grammar, stage a reader’s theater, and study all kinds of science pertaining to the race. Or you might read about Libby Riddle, the first woman to win the Iditarod, one of the many first-hand accounts of running the race including one by Gary Paulsen, or build a learning unit around The Mystery on the Iditarod Trail. Finally, there are many videos about the race, including Balto.

Sled dog racing is the only professional sport in which women and men compete against each other equally. While many women have run and won the race, Susan Butcher was one of my childhood heroes.  Susan was an amazing four-time winner who, with other women, inspired a common saying and t-shirt slogan.

Alaska – where men are men and women win the Iditarod.

For most of you, Alaska is a strange and far-off place and you probably think I’m joking when I tell you that they didn’t cancel recess until it was -25F. Think that’s tough?  Next time your kids are hoping for a snow day, you can tell them that my elementary didn’t close until the thermometer hit -55F. Building a sled is a great way for me to share with my son – and your kids – a little piece of what it was like to grow up there. There are so many life lessons to take from the Iditarod.

But if your kids learn nothing else, remember: we don’t eat yellow snow.


Learn How to Rule the World With Vordak: The Incomprehensible!

Image: Egmont USA

Have you ever thought, “Gee, I think I can rule the world a lot better than these people. I think I’ll take over! Yes! Muahahah. Hmm.. But how?” and then got a very contemplative look on your face, with it all amounting to nothing? Well, no more! Your day has come! You will triumph!

Enter Vordak: The Incomprehensible: How to Grow Up and Rule the World. Designed as a how-to guide for kids on  growing up and becoming an evil world overlord, I think there is plenty in the book to apply to grown-ups who have the same aspirations. So please do read on, even if you’re over age 18.

Vordak, in his delightfully wicked way, gives his instructions and strong suggestions to help you with your quest. From the dedication page to the endmatter, this hilarious book manual will have you in stitches hatching dastardly plans. Important concepts are covered such as how to be evil, your evil career, “superheroes” (ha), your lair, evil plans, who to have in your evil organization (think scientists and henchmen), what to do once you are ruling the world, and more.

Vordak is quite fond of himself and his delightful evilness, and this comes through in his gripping narratives and instructions. He condescends to teach us how to follow his evil ways. (So he can take over the publishing world, of course. There has to be something in it for him.) There is even a quiz to see if you have enough potential for evil.

This book is filled with advice for taking over the world, and preparing to do so. There are plenty of tips for how to be evil, how to commit evil acts (including step-by-step instructions for many specific cases), and there is even an evil name generator, in case you haven’t chosen your evil name yet. An example of an included tip that you might not find in other so-called “take over the world” manuals is to install hooks for capes in the bathroom(s) of your lair. Very important. Vordak also shares plenty of guidance for picking your costume, including the all-important utility belt checklist. And don’t miss the Commandments of Incomprehensibility strewn throughout this masterpiece. Dastardly plans are shown in detail, for the uninspired few. You’ll recognize many of these if you, like me, are a huge fan of the 1960s Batman show.

So, go out and get your manual now! Though if too many people try to take over the world at once, they’ll have to fight over it first. Hm. Well, one of you go get this now. Vordak: The Incomprehensible: How to Grow Up and Rule the World retails for $13.99 and is the perfect guide for world domination. And if you’re interested in learning more from Vordak, check out his Twitter feed, and visit his website. He’s very witty.

P.S. Don’t forget to round up your minions!

Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes. Perhaps I’ll take over the world? Muahahaha!

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Life With a Spirited Child: A Geek Perspective

Photo CC: Natania Barron – “Who Me?”

It’s the summer of 2006. I am enormously pregnant and working at Barnes & Noble, where the air conditioner keeps breaking, and I am frequently asked (with people staring at the lanyard with my name emblazoned on it) if I work here. No, really, I’m just a crazy pregnant woman wandering the aisles pretending to work in retail.

One afternoon, while working the registers, a mother comes through with her two year old daughter. The daughter is in her arms, screaming bloody murder, and attacking her mother like a feral child. She’s having a tantrum, and the mother is completely ignoring her. I ring up their books, and once they’re out of earshot, I turn to the manager of the store–who has a two year old–and haughtily declare, “My child will never behave that way. Can’t people control their children?” To which my manager laughed and said, “You don’t have kids yet. You’ll see.”

Sometimes I think my son might have been listening at that very moment. My child, from the youngest of ages, has been precocious in every way. He seems to feel things and experience the world on so many more levels than I ever have. He’s outgoing to the point of embarrassment. When he’s angry, it’s like someone’s flipped a switch and there’s nothing to do. Reasoning, begging, bargaining, bribing… nothing works. He’ll go for two weeks with perfect behavior, polite and generous and sweet; then BAM, something triggers an outburst and I’m left wondering how the hell I became such a terrible parent.

For a while, I didn’t know what to do. I figured my husband and I were just failing as parents. I mean, I hung around with other kids our son’s age. Kids who sit still during films, who occupy their time by playing on their own, who take naps twice a day and cuddle with their parents. My first reaction wasn’t that there was something wrong with him, it’s that there was something wrong with me. We had episodes on planes, in cars, in restaurants, at social events, with family, with friends. For a while there, it was almost like being kept prisoner.

So we’re geeks. We tried reading. But something was missing. We quickly learned that when it came to our son, these books just didn’t apply. My kid is not the happiest kid on the block, I’ll tell you. You try talking to him like a Neanderthal and he’ll give you that look like you’ve lost it. This kid, at three and a half, pushed away a sandwich at lunch one day, declaring, “Actually, I’d prefer peanut butter and jelly.” With adult inflections and everything.

Thankfully, my husband, on one particular terrible day, discovered a book called Raising Your Spirited Child.

I won’t say that it was a panacea, but it did help put things in perspective. Our son fits the bill. After all, the subtitle of the book is: “a guide for parents whose child is more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, energetic”. All of these fit the bill for our son. Reading the book gave me a huge sense of relief. I wasn’t a failed parent; he’s just a remarkable child. He never stops asking questions, and every new emotion is like a explosion. Sometimes in a good way–hugging me until I can’t breathe–sometimes in ways that incur bruises, bites, and tears (the latter, for both of us). He’s an extroverted spirited child who wants nothing more than to get the entire world to rejoice along with his most minuscule discoveries. And that can be beautiful and mind-bogglingly frustrating.

I encourage other parents out there to read this book. We discovered that not only was our child one of these spirited kids, but that my husband was one, too. Granted, the totally introverted kind, which explained why he butted heads so often with our son.

But, if books were the answer to getting kids to behave, I wouldn’t still be writing this. I think the over-arching theme of the book is that spirited children, especially in the 2-5 bracket, are the hardest. Every day is a battle. Every moment is a challenge. But as they grow up, it gets easier. They’re often the leaders in life, the ones with charisma to spare. They’re constantly looking to challenge themselves and explore the world around them, something that comes in handy later in life, that’s for sure.

Except now is the hard time. Right before Christmas, my son had one of his tantrums. He had been splendid all day long, and I wanted to reward him with a little one dollar wind-up car. Except he wanted two. When I put my foot down, he decided it was time to go into berserker mode. Mommy rolled high on fortitude, but low on perception. The fight broke out just as we were making for the register. I had to hold onto his arm while he flailed and hit me, and threw himself to the ground. I was that mother. Then, to put the icing on the cake, as we left–just as I let my defenses down–he ran into the display at the store window and tore down every last box.

That was the worst day ever. But the next day, things were better. With a spirited child, it’s about taking each day at a time. About learning to see the world as your child does, and understanding that their perspective isn’t just different than yours, but different than other kids’. Spirited kids rewrite parenting books, continually get you odd looks from people (and friends, I suspect, who thought you’d be a good parent), and garner lots of advice from family and even strangers. They force you to look really, really hard at the way you are a parent.

More than anything, our son wants to feel like he matters. He might only be four and some change, but he feels as if his opinion is just as important as the rest.  Yes, occasionally being his mom is like caring for someone with a drinking problem (slurring, falling down, tantrums, moments of love and incoherence). Yes, occasionally he freaks out for no apparent reason. But he’s almost always upset about things that matter to him, things we take for granted. The more responsibility we’ve given him, the more praise he gets for his accomplishments, the happier he’s been. In the last few months, even as I’ve gone back to work full time and my husband has stayed home (probably the biggest adjustment in our son’s life) he has been flourishing.

So, to all your parents out there with bruises from the battlefield: you are not alone! Your child is not broken. You are not a bad parent. You’ve just been given a challenge. And if you, and your child, rise to that challenge, you’ll all be rewarded.

GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #5: Toys For Most Any Age, Including Grown-Ups

Regardless of what holidays you celebrate, the end-of-year festivities are right around the corner. If you choose to purchase gifts online, you need to order then in advance to allow for shipping time, backorders, and comparison shopping. We at GeekMom are here to help you with ideas for anyone on your gift list, from babies to grownups. We’ll be running a series of half a dozen or so posts, sorted by category or age group, with suggested gifts this holiday season. Many of our writers have contributed to our series of gift guides, so the ideas run the gamut from popular bestsellers to more obscure, interesting gifts with which you may not be familiar. Chances are there will be something that appeals to you. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments below.

This week’s guide is targeted at almost everyone. Babies and very small children won’t get much out of most of the gifts listed here, but there is something for everyone else. And remember to visit our other gift guides that have already run: Week #1: Books, Week #2: Games, Week #3: Small Kids, and Week #4: Larger Kids.

Clock Without a Face
A fun book to read on the surface, Clock Without a Face has hidden mysteries and puzzles. It is a real life treasure hunt, with the solutions to the mysteries leading you to 12 real-life gems buried somewhere in the United States. As of this writing, eleven of the twelve gems have already been found, which means you still have a chance to find the final gem! Still, it’s a beautifully drawn book and is a great mystery to solve with your kids, whether or not you hunt for gems.

The Secret of Pirate Island
The Secret of Pirate Island is basically a kid movie, but it’s like Playmobil meets Choose Your Own Adventure. Geeky, Playmobil-loving grownups will enjoy watching this DVD as much as their kids will, so that’s why it is included in this particular guide. At several different crucial places in the story, decide which path that the two main characters will take, and see where their adventures take them. Then you can watch it again and try different choices.

Get An Action Hero Modeled After You
A hand crafted doll made to look like you or someone you love, dressed in clothes of your choice. Give an action figure to someone important in your life. Your dad. Your kid’s teacher. Your boss. Not just an ordinary action figure, a hand crafted replica based on photos or videos you send to Illinois artist Cyndi Safstrom.

Zometool – Crazy Bubbles
For a whole new angle on building kits, check out Zometool Crazy Bubbles. Construct shapes, then dip them into soap solution to create bubbles. This is an inspiring way for kids to discover principles of math and science while having fun.

The Greatest Dot to Dot Book in the World
If you need another gift idea for a big kid, consider The Greatest Dot to Dot Book in the World. Full of puzzles that go beyond the little kid version of dot to dot, it’s impossible to guess what these creations will be until every last dot is connected. A very addicting game book that will keep older kids and adults captivated (great for long car trips). Retails for $6.95 and has several sequels.

HolidayLogoIIStrawz from NUOP designs
A big hit with kids and adults, a product called Strawz gives a lot of bang for the buck. It’s fun to see how many configurations you can make with the 44 heavy plastic straws and connector pieces that come in the kit. An afternoon of building, then sipping fun! Retails for $15.00.

Minifigure Multipacks/Grab Bags
Remember the thrill and mystery of grab bags? Lego offers that same element of surprise with their new Minifigures Collections. Each collection (so far, Series 1 and Series 2 have been released) includes 16 different minifigures, sold individually in an secret package. What’s inside is a mystery. Series 1 features a clown, a cheerleader, and a magician. In Series 2 you might get Dracula, a Spartan, or a weightlifter. Of course, there are no duds with these grab bags. At just $4.99 each, surely Santa’s snatching these up for stocking stuffers.

Glob Paint
I worry about some of the chemicals in craft supplies for kids. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover glob paints. Available in six different colors, the paints are tinted with fruits, vegetables, flowers, and spices, giving kids the chance to go green in a rainbow of colors. These botanical paints can be used like tempera or watercolors, depending upon how much water is added.

Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti
Many Hands is one of those rare albums that a family really can enjoy together, featuring songs from kiddie music heavy hitters like They Might Be Giants, Recess Monkey, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, and Gustafer Yellowgold. There’s even the hilarious song “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by geek musician Jonathan Coulton. As an added bonus, proceeds benefit the Haitian People’s Support Project.

Natural History Museum RC Rattlesnake
Who doesn’t want to send a rattlesnake slithering throughout the house? With super-simple controls, even preschoolers will be able to send this deadly viper on its way, and laugh (or get grossed out) as its tongue flicks in and out.

Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum
For budding entomologists that don’t necessarily like to touch their specimens, round up insects with the Backyard Safari Bug Vacuum. This vacuum has enough suction to pull bugs into the magnified chamber, but not enough suction to hurt the bugs. This is also a handy tool to have around to remove unwanted household visitors to the backyard.

The Global Puzzle
Many world puzzles are beautiful maps, but don’t teach you much about country shapes and locations. The Global Puzzle has 600 pieces, and most of the 193 countries and island groupings constitute their own piece. Even most of the U.S. states and Canadian provinces are individual pieces. The ocean areas are filled with more information about countries such as capital and population. This puzzle is a challenge, but is great for adults or mid-elementary or older kids. It is an especially great puzzle to do as a group. Previous knowledge of geography is helpful, but not required.

Stay tuned next week for our sixth and final gift guide!

SMACKDOWN! Pokemon Evolution vs. Biological Evolution

for-kate-pokemon-versus-evolution-6-475x475Pokemon fever has hit our household, as it can in even the best of families. For those readers who have been in solitary confinement for the last decade, Pokemon is a collectible card game with hundreds of little creatures that “evolve” from one bodily form to the next. The word “evolution” gets tossed around early and often.

Weirdly, I happen to invest a lot of time thinking about how to explain actual biological evolution to little kids. The result? My kids are world-class experts on the epic, shattering, and inevitable smackdown between Pokemon evolution and biological evolution.

And now, into the wrestling ring with my 10-year-old:

Mom: How much do you love Pokemon?

Son: A lot. Two kilothinks.* They have cool pictures and you can do a lot of things with them. I really get addicted to these kinds of games, and a lot of the kids in my class like Pokemon too.

Mom: What do you think about evolution? What is it?

Son: Evolution is when a creature’s body adapts to the environment surrounding it in a slow period of time. One creature might have a baby that was more adapted to its environment. So that creature would survive long enough to have babies. And its babies would either have better adaptability than that creature or worse adaptability. Through the years, every species would evolve to have whatever the first one had.

Mom: And what is evolution in Pokemon?

Son: When one of the creatures changes to be more powerful. It’s sort of the same concept except without the environment, and it happens in two snaps of a finger.

Mom: Is Pokemon evolution teaching kids about biological evolution?

Son: I don’t think so. Biological evolution is when a creature adapts to its surroundings, while Pokemon evolution is when a creature adapts to nothing in particular so that it can knock out other creatures.

Mom: There’s another big difference I’m thinking of too.

Son: Um….what!?

Mom: Pokemon evolution happens to individuals and real evolution happens to populations.

Son: Oh, RIGHT! Write that down!

There you have it folks. Straight from the next generation: Pokemon evolution has nothing to do with biological evolution!

Pokemon is SMACKED DOWN!

* A “think” is a unit of measure expressing how much mental energy or excitement something generates. Pokemon = 2 kilothinks. New book about monsters = 5 thinks. Cleaning out the cat litter = 1.5 microthinks.

PlanetBox: Lunchboxes for the 21st Century

PlanetBox with Big and Little Dippers

I have long been on a quest to eliminate zip-top plastic bags from my house. They are wasteful. While I admit to rinsing out lightly used bags for reuse, for the most part the bags are used once and land straight in the trash. We have plenty of reusable plastic containers, but frankly, I’m more than a little concerned about the safety of putting our food in plastic. Waxed paper bags work in some instances, but they’re just not as tidy as zip-top bags. My kids are willing to forgo the plastic baggies, but there’s still the constant struggle to figure out how to package their lunch without compromising on their health or the environment.

When I mentioned this to my friend Jennifer Margulis who blogs for Mothering, she pointed me to PlanetBox. Made of stainless steel, the hinged lunch box opens to reveal five individual compartments of various sizes. It kind of resembles an institutional food tray (or, to date myself, one of those old fashioned TV dinners!). The raised compartments in the lid allow you to fill the bottom tray generously and still close the lid. When closed, each food is sealed into its separate compartment (keeping the sandwich from touching the fruit for finicky eaters). The one drawback to the compartments is that the space where a sandwich would fit is pretty small. The grainy bread we eat comes in slices too large to fit in there.

lunch, bpa-free, environment, kids
PlanetBox Carry Bag

Slip the latched PlanetBox into an insulated carrying bag and kids are all set for a healthy, environmentally sound lunch break. The carrying bag has two pockets – one will fit a water bottle and the other has a flap that closes with velcro. Extra containers called Big and Little Dippers hold messier dishes like yogurt or pasta salad and fit neatly within the PlanetBox, as shown in the photo. And for a fun touch? Each PlanetBox comes with a set of magnets to personalize it.

The PlanetBox alone retails for $34.95. The PlanetBox Complete set comes with a Big and Little Dipper and a carrying bag for $59.95. The PlanetBox comes with a five-year warranty and its simple styling will last a kid through years of school lunches without becoming dated. Of course, you might want to switch up the magnets from year to year!