Want Your Kids to Turn off the Screen? Then Listen

Sep 12

Last night my 12-year-old son asked if he could stay up later than his two younger brothers to watch TV with me and his dad. Since he’d just come home from hockey (later than usual), I said yes. It would be nice to share some personal time with our oldest son. No sooner had I sat on the couch to start my DVR recording of Master Chef, he walks in with his iPod in his hand and earphones on his head.

“Whoa,” I set the remote control down. “I thought we were watching TV together?” I asked. Then repeated it. Louder. He had the volume up too high to hear me the first time.

He guffawed. “What difference does it make? We’re both watching screens, Mom.” Yes, he had a point. I couldn’t argue that, could I? Visions of sitting with my family watching Different Strokes and The A-Team paraded through my mind. Those were some good memories. Sure, we shushed eachother when the commercials ended, but still, we laughed together and shared the same appreciation for one-line quips that only a 1980′s sitcom can deliver (Whatchoo talkin’ bout Mista D?) That counted for something. Didn’t it?

I insisted he turn off his personal screen and watch Master Chef with me, despite my reservations whether this could really be considered quality family time. He groaned his consent and tossed his electronics aside. Then he took me by surprise. He started talking. Like, really talking. I held the remote in my hand, ready to press PLAY. Yet as my son continued to talk I realized what an amazing opportunity I would be squandering if I silenced his chatter with my TV program. You see, 12-year-old boys aren’t a particularly chatty bunch.

He talked about what happened during school that day, sharing information about a new student in his grade who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He’d never heard of that before, he explained. And continued to describe what he’d learned about this condition. I kept the show on PAUSE and listened intently to everything he said. I was amazed by his compassion and interest in this new student. And I was eager to let him express his intrigue and concern about her. We had an amazing conversation. I was happy to let my TV show wait.

My husband eventually joined us in the family room and started the TV show while we continued our conversation (he, understandably, fell into the habit of just turning on the screen without thinking).

As our conversation drew to a close, I marvelled at how freely my son chatted with me. (This is not a daily occurrence.) The night , however, could have played out very differently if either of us had tuned into our own screen.

Instead, he talked. Instead, I listened. If that’s a by-product of shared screen time, then I’m going to insist on doing it more often.

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Teaching Kids Science of Density at Home

Aug 26

With school a mere ten days away, I thought it an opportune time to get the boys back in the kitchen for some awesome science experiments. Because their days will soon be filled with desk-sitting, textbook-reading, don’t-raise-your-voice hours, I’d rather not pull out the curriculum-based workbooks to prep them for academics (just yet). I say let them have fun while they learn.. while they still can.

This first experiment called Liquid Layers (from the book Science Rocks!) is super easy. It helps kids understand the concept of liquid density and molecules.

You need: A tall clear glass, water, cooking oil, molasses, food colouring, and some a few different small object of varying weights (i.e. marble, strawberry, M&M)

Step 1: Pour water up to about one-third of the glass. Add food colouring. Then pour similar amounts each of molasses and cooking oil.

teach innovation

teach kids density

Step 2: Drop in the various solid objects and give it a good stir. (The kids love this part.)

science for kids

Step 3: Leave the glass for about half an hour, waiting until it settles into separate layers. Eventually three layers will appear, starting with the heaviest liquid (molasses) at the bottom, the water in the middle, and the oil on top. Notice where the objects sink. Lighter objects will float stop one of the higher layers, and heavy objects will sit at the bottom.

fun science for kids

Note to parents: This experiment left us with only two layers, which was slightly disappointing. The boys, however, had a blast pouring the liquids and still became familiar with the concept of density. I highly recommend this.

The second experiment we performed is called Float Your Boat (also in Science Rocks!) This also teaches density and is easy enough for a child as young as six to complete on his or her own (although it can get a bit frustrating for uncoordinated fingers.)

You need: marbles, bowl of water, modelling clay, and some patient encouragement for frustrated kiddos.

Step 1: Drop a marble into the bowl of water. Then drop the ball of clay. Notice that they both sink. (It gets better, I promise).

teach kids innovative thinking

Step 2: Remove the ball of modelling clay and press it out into the flat sheet. Then mold it into the shape of a small boat, making the sides high enough to prevent water leaking into them. (This is the part that can get quite frustrating for a child – namely a certain 12-year-old. You may need to help them, or show them how you do it on your own.)

science experiments for kids

Step 3: Put the newly constructed boat into the bowl of water. It should float. If it does not… back to the frustrating step 2 (which may need to be repeated several times if you have a stubborn child who refuses your help. Ah well) Once the boat is floating, place marbles one at a time into the boat.

kids science

Although this doesn’t sound particularly exciting, it is a lot of fun for kids to try to pile up the marbles before the boat sinks. By the end of the experiment, my kids had an understanding of how real boats are able to float, even though they are made of heavy materials.

Both experiments were virtually mess-free and required minimal supervision. Although they experienced frustration during the process, this is actually a good thing. It helps them recognize that a big part of experimentation is making mistakes… and having to start all over again.

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Why Novelists** Make Crummy Bloggers

Jul 03

I feel awful. I haven’t posted on my blog in over a month. I’ve thought about it. In fact, since early June, I’ve scolded myself daily for not logging into Porridge Report to update the blogosphere on my latest exploit or rant about the deleterious effects of digital media on kids (most of which I’ve experienced through first-hand observation of my three boys.)

I do have an excuse. Well, two excuses. One is that it is summer. And my three kids create a never ending stream of distractions when I write. As of now, my ten-year-old is asking me what extra virgin olive oil means as he stares at our barren cupboards looking for a snack. (Really??!)

I respond: I don’t know… it’s really good olive oil. Does it matter? I’m trying to concentrate here…

But I digress.

The second excuse is that I have been writing daily – on a manuscript. Because the middle grade story I’m writing takes place in a fantasy world, I find that the few crumbs of creative energy remaining after a bout of writing aren’t enough to write a decent blog post. Hence, the neglect.

I imagine that’s why many novel writers find blogging more akin to slogging. When the passion for writing is dedicated to the creation of a well-written book, it’s hard to squeeze in another hour of pithy blogging. My plan had been to complete the manuscript and begin querying agents by the third week in June. That plan fell by the wayside when my online critiquing group informed me that my last two chapters should be scorched alongside my kids’ marshmallow s’mores.

So, it was back to the laptop to bang out a more creative/feasible/mind-blowing resolution to my story. Now, the summer has arrived and I have the boisterous company of my three sons (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) to add more delays and distractions.

Thankfully, my manuscript is now complete (well, dependent upon how many more times I re-read it over the next few weeks and reconstruct various components). I should be able to return to responsible blogging. Then again, I have this amazing idea for a Young Adult novel… Priorities?

**FOOTNOTE: I am not an “official novelist” as I’ve not been commercially published, but in this post, I am counting anyone who is working extensively on a novel as a “novelist”. So there.

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Teaching Kids Innovation Includes Teaching Failure

Jun 02

Nobody gets more frustrated than me when something doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to. And, believe me, I’ve had my share of such experiences (something called… parenthood). But the ability to overcome those feelings of failure is an essential part of anyone’s journey to success. As those who follow my blog know, I’ve started an Innovation Project that involves weekly (okay, I’m lazy – almost weekly) experiments and inventions to stir the imagination and brain cell configuration of my three boys. In other words, I don’t want them to turn into a Picketing Montrealer bitching about lack of jobs and a small tuition hike (they’ll be too busy forging their own paths to success).

When I’d started this innovation project (a lengthy few weeks ago…) I assumed every experiment would run smoothly. Duh. Our latest project completely, utterly sucked. We followed the rules to a tee. Read and re-read the directions. Tried various options. Still, the experiment had one outcome. FAILURE. Now, there’s no way I could post this crapola project on my blog. Who CARES about an experiment that fails?

Surely, nobody is going to be interested in the experiment, itself, but every parent and child might be interested in learning that they’re not the only ones who experience dismal failures against the backdrop of high hopes. And, although our vacuum missile device sucked (figuratively and literally), my boys did learn something: that not everything turns out the way you plan. So, here is the low down on my failed innovation experiment with the caveat: DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME.

This experiment is called Suck It To ‘Em. (Yeah, suck it to me. A waste of one hour of my life.)

I was drawn in by its relatively simple set up. All you need is duct tape, two long cardboard tubes from wrapping paper, old socks, vacuum cleaner, small square of cardboard, and scissors.

Step 1: Create a missile by squishing a sock or two together and wrap them snuggly with duct tape so that you create an oval shaped ball that fits inside one of the tubes, but isn’t so big that it gets stuck inside of it. (Good luck with that, by  the way!)

vacuum experiment for kids

Got one sock in there.

Step 2: Cut one cardboard tube to about 30 cm long and cut curves at one end to fit it neatly against the second tube. With the other tube, cut a hole about 10 cm from the end. The first tube will attach to that one, so make sure the hole is no bigger than the end of your first tube. Then attach them so they are perpendicular to one another using a load of duct tape. (I know this is utterly confusing, but here’s the thing: I don’t expect you to follow these instructions because the darn thing doesn’t work!) Check out the photo below for clarity should you wish to try it anyways.

Vacuum experiment for kids

Attach the two wrapping paper tubes.

Step 3: Insert the second tube into nozzle of the vacuum cleaner (you need a vacuum that has a tube attached to it). Seal it with more duct tape.


Innovation lessons for kids

Attaching the tube to the vacuum hose

Teaching innovation to kids

Ready to fire! Not.

Step 4: Turn on the vacuum and cover the back opening of your “launcher” with a square piece of cardboard. Then look out! At this point, it did not work.

Innovative projects for kids

Let it fly! Not.

This experiment is better called: Failure to Launch. After re-jigging the size of the missile, the timing of the vacuum, and various other possibilities, we gave up. Some plans just don’t work out. However, the boys still had fun putting it together (what kid doesn’t love using too much tape). This project, however, is not recommended.

teach kids innovation

Discarded launcher

The experiment was taken from the book: Science Rocks! by Ian Graham

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Why Rejections Have Made Me a Better Writer

May 24

“I don’t know how you keep writing and writing,” my husband said to me last night as I lay reading a book in bed. “You’re so self-disciplined, it’s impressive.”

I laughed lightly. “Or I’m just impressively delusional.”

We were referring to my latest manuscript project. I call it project because it has spanned the last four years (with another manuscript and several other writing projects in between) and has undergone more surgical procedures than Joan Rivers’ face. Now, I’m heading into my third round of querying, which is a huge undertaking all on its own. The book’s first submission effort (three years ago), resulted in a modest number of rejections. I was a real newbie at the time and had already suffered the rejections of my first kids’ chapter book a year earlier.  But this time, I was sure, the agents would be lining up with their offers. It was that good.

When all my queries were rejected (probably around 40 in all), I was heartbroken. I did what most starting writers do at this point in the game: complained that the submission system was unfair to new writers. I railed against the agents and editors who didn’t recognize a good book when they saw one. Then I licked my wounds and moved on to my next writing project. So convinced in the quality of my middle grade book, I wrote a sequel to it.

Through the course of writing it, a funny thing happened. My writing improved. A lot. I forced myself to write almost daily, studied books on the craft of writing, and revised, revised, revised. By the time it was complete, I had an even better book than the first one. Maybe the first one wasn’t as good as I’d initially thought.

I shopped around the sequel to a handful of agents. Wrote up a killer query and tried to sell the two books as a package. Then the rejections came. Again. But this time, I received a few personal notes rather than the usual cold form letter, as well as a request for the manuscripts for further review (which just delayed the rejection). However, it was an improvement. I knew I was getting better at the game. But still, I’d taken a beating and decided to give up on these books and move on to my newest story idea (a Young Adult novel).

As I worked on my newest manuscript, those darn middle grade novels gnawed at my consciousness. Maybe I needed to give it one last chance. In November of last year, I decided to follow my gut and re-work the first book. Change the characters’ names, re-do scenes, raise the reading level. I didn’t think it would take long. Wrong again. The more I delved into the manuscript, the more I realized its weaknesses. Determined to make it the killer story I envisioned, I wrote daily, joined a children’s literature critique group, studied more writing resources, opened myself to advice from veterans. And, did I mention I wrote daily?

And something funny happened, again. I realized why my book was rejected three years ago. It wasn’t, um, as good as I thought. Today, I am more confident than ever that this middle grade book is awesome. Yeah, I said it. Awesome. Is it good enough to be picked up by a publisher? I’m not sure. I’m painstakingly crafting my query right now. Time will tell if all my work has paid off.

When my husband asks me how do I keep going, I usually shrug and shoot a finger at my temple (POW). But, deep down, I know the real answer. I see my writing improve, and along with that, my opportunities to be published do, too. The rejections are a call to action: write more, write better. Don’t. Give. Up.


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Mothers Day Reminds Us Why Paper Will Never Be Replaced by Digital

May 13

Nothing says Happy Mother’s Day like a child’s artwork made by their own hands.

This would not mean as much to me if it was made digitally

From my 10-year-old

Made with love by my 8-year-old


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Video Round Up: Call of Duty Advertisements

May 12

Today’s videos feature advertisements for the wildly popular video game, Call of Duty by Activision. My boys have begged for this violent video game countless times and, so far, I’ve not allowed it. Many of their friends, from ages 7 to 12, own and play the game regularly (even though it is rated M for Mature).

The following trailers for Call of Duty are brilliantly designed ads and their violent nature clearly indicate why Call of Duty is a Mature-rated game. I can see why millions of adult gamers are enticed by this game. Unfortunately, I can also see the allure for boys – weapons, shooting, explosions, soldiers. For now, though, my kids will have to make do with Mario.

The first two videos are both for the Call of Duty Black Ops 2

Creepy, huh? Hard to believe that this is just an ad, and not a true documentary (although it sure sounds believable).

This next celebrity-studded video is a TV commercial for Call of Duty: Black Ops, titled “There’s a soldier in all of us”

The final video is for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, titled “The Vet and the n00b”

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