May 09

Giving starts at home and comes in many forms.

We all need a good kick in the pants sometimes to remind us of what is truly important in this world. I got one today when I attended a tour of the new Ronald McDonald House® in Toronto.  If you’re not familiar with this organization, its very worthy mission is to provide a home away from home for seriously ill children and their families who require treatment in a Toronto hospital. I could easily provide a list of all the details that make this beautiful new Toronto house a wonderful place of comfort and refuge for families struggling with the emotional and physical challenges of treating a very sick child. In fact, I recommend you check out their website to see just how amazing this organization is. But what was more impressive than the building (which, believe me , is hard to beat) is the commitment of all the people working to ease the suffering of the families.

I was especially inspired by the presentations at the conclusion of the tour, which featured a video interview with Craig Kielburger and a live talk by Michael Pinball Clemons, that challenged me to pursue every opportunity to give of myself to those in need. Because the theme of the event was Celebration of Mothers, they spoke passionately about the importance of role modelling philanthropy for our children – the single most significant way to instil in kids a natural desire to give with empathy and kindness.

As Clemons so poignantly explained: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.”

Which brings me back to that kick in the pants. (I received my first kick last week with the tragic passing of a friend who was a pillar of kindness in our community). The kick said something like: Get off your laptop tapping butt and help the world – whether it’s a community event, a regular volunteer commitment, or visiting your grandma in her nursing home – stop thinking about it. Just do it. And, stop doing that thing that you do so well – making excuses.

Today (which happens to be my 40th birthday), I pledge to give more. Whether it’s giving big or giving small, doing it loud or doing it silently, helping a neighbour or helping a stranger, spreading good digitally or spreading it personally. The small voice in my head that has been whispering to do more will no longer be ignored as I step into the newest decade of my life.

This is my commitment. Are you willing to join me?



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Young Woman Awaiting Lung Transplant Shows Power of Social Media to do Good

Mar 19

The power of social media to wield good is irrefutable to anyone who has taken notice of 20-year-old Hélène Campbell’s digital footprint. Diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in September 2011, she now awaits a double lung transplant. Shortly after her diagnosis, Campbell began documenting her experiences on her blog, A Lung Story, which included a move from her native Ottawa to Toronto so that she could be close to Toronto General Hospital when that fateful call arrives.

With her lungs operating at about one-quarter of their capacity, she remains uplifted by the outpouring of support she has received around the world. Justin Bieber was among the first to boost to her social media presence when he tweeted about her #BeAnOrganDonor campaign. About that success, she wrote in her blog:

This is the kind of response we wanted. Guys, we did it. As a team, we used social media, put it into use and for a good cause. I am sorry to those who got in trouble with their teachers in school or approached by your bosses at work for being on your phone, but it paid off.

As a result, Ontario’s Trillium Gift of Life Network website saw a huge leap in new donors and has ever since been averaging more donors per day.

Next, Campbell appealed to Ellen Degeneres with a video she posted on her website. It worked. She appeared via Skype on The Ellen Degeneres Show shortly after, where the host surprised her with pair of tickets to Toronto’s Hunger Games Premiere tonight. She tweeted earlier today to her 9000+ followers:

@TheEllenShow My brother and I are SO exited to see the Hunger Games tonight, my oxygen has been cranked up all day

— Hélène Campbell (@alungstory) March 19, 2012

No one can dispute the success of her blog, where her online presence first grew. There, she states the goals as:

  1. To document the journey of a remarkable, energetic young woman who now needs new lungs to breathe well again.
  2. To permit those who want to help financially by contributing to Hélène’s living expenses in Toronto.
  3. To raise the awareness of organ donation registration and the importance of giving blood.

Her shared experience continues to be a testament to the power of social media to do good. A lesson that is well worth learning for all of us.

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Mar 02

I have a varied past in how I’ve dealt with video games in my household of three boys. By varied, I mean I used to have a slew of threats that I would yell at various times during the day at any one of my boys when they could not pry their glazed eyes from a screen. I was regularly exhausted and emotionally spent from the constant effort I exerted in trying to tame the digital beast that could hypnotize my kids to ignore all sounds emitted from their mother’s mouth.

Over the past year, I have experienced a major change in how I deal with my kids and the digital barrier between us. I came to recognize two important truths. The first of those was that technology never moves backward. That is, screen technology – and all the unsavoury habits that come with it – is here to stay. It didn’t matter how much I wished it away, digital tech was not going to suddenly disappear from our lives. Once I accepted this, I changed my strategy from trying to deny its growing influence in our family to trying to work its existence into our lives in a way that could actually benefit us (or at the very least, not tear us apart).

The next truth, and the more important of the two, was learning the true definition of listening. Ironically, it was a marriage counsellor who taught me how to listen. I soon discovered that it requires far more effort than I’d ever thought. After practicing this intense attentiveness with my husband (which requires a post all its own), I transferred my nascent skill to the relationships with my children.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with technology? The answer is simple: a disproportionate amount of our family rivalries were focused on how we related to the screen. The kids were playing too many video games, I was fighting with them to turn it off, I was on my laptop when they tried to chat with me, I was worried they’d be exposed to “bad things” online. All these scraps converged into an upheaval of continuous frustrations. We each craved our screen time on our own terms, and yet we’d never sat down to think about why or how it was affecting us, much less talk about it.

Communication – that is, face to face communication – was non-existent. Ironically, the need to listen to one another is more essential than ever in the digital age. For example, it helped me share my concerns about the dangers of the internet, which in turn helped my kids be more careful online, which of course led to fewer frustrations. As a screen-obsessed society, parents need to be that much more cognizant of their efforts to verbally talk and quietly listen (not interrupt) while looking at one another (not the TV, laptop, or iPod screen). Listening, I’ve learned, does not count when one person is distracted by a YouTube video of piano-playing cats.

I finally implemented a no-video game rule from Monday to Thursday after discussing my reasons with the boys. They begrudgingly accepted it. The cutbacks on video gaming then freed up time for my boys to talk to me about their day. I also make a conscious effort to stop rattling at my keyboard when one of my sons walks into my office to talk to me. I turn from my screen and listen to his latest announcement. I’ve realized that the topic doesn’t matter. What matters is that he knows I am interested. I am listening.

The screaming and threats that once echoed against the walls of our home have diminished (not disappeared, I’m no saint) and I am working harder than ever at carving out time to discuss any number of issues that we struggle with regularly – from squabbling at bedtime to spending too much time texting friends. The point is: kids will talk if they know their parents will listen.

The prevalence of social media provides parents and kids a new way of communicating. However, we need to beware of our reliance on these platforms. The now famous video of a dad shooting bullet holes into his daughter’s laptop provides a cautionary tale for families who allow the one-sided communication of social media to voice their frustrations. Granted, if the daughter had openly voiced her grievances (whether they were valid or not) she’d likely have found herself in trouble anyways (and I don’t think there’s much reason to believe that their father-daughter relationship is grounded in honest and open communication), but perhaps they’d have had a better chance of resolving their problems within a day than in a drawn-out fiasco that involved millions of viewers worldwide. That’s the power of listening.

The reality is that parenting is hard, freaking work. Adding a digital component that tends to loosen, rather than tighten, the ties that bind only adds to the difficult task that we parents face every day. That’s why I am a firm believer in the practice of listening. I say start young, while they still love to share their ideas and experiences (however silly and seemingly unimportant). I’m hoping that as my oldest son heads into his teens (gulp), he will not stray too far me. And, maybe, just maybe, when I feel like smashing his iPod to pieces, I can gently share my feelings with him before listening to him explain why he so desperately needs to check his texts every ten minutes.


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Oct 27

I’m a big fan of the group gift. It is likely as a result of growing up the middle of five children in a household that valued getting the most bang for your buck. “Hey – this this scarf is on sale! She’ll never know, AND, we can split the cost.” Even today, as my sister’s birthday approaches, I have arranged a shared gift with my other sis. Why buy two so-so presents for twenty bucks each when we can get one awesome gift for forty? Thanks to the latest gift-giving technology (no, not cityville), there need be no more exchange of bills, coins, or cheques. It can all be facilitated online. This is especially useful when the “brothers” are in on the shared purchase.  They’re the hardest to collect from.

Social gifting is the new buzz word for what my siblings and I have been practicing since we were old enough to earn an allowance.  Except it refers, specifically, to chipping in on a gift online.  One such example of how this works is Socialgift – a plugin that businesses can add to their websites inviting purchasers to make a group purchase.  The sucker in charge or organizing the gift simply selects the product, invites others to join in the purchase via Facebook or email, and viola! Each invitee pays their portion and the gift is mailed out to the lucky recipient.

One app (still in beta), called , goes a step further. It offers the recipient of the gift the opportunity to pre-select his or her favoured gifts. Let’s say your best friend is tired of getting the same old thing every year (free dinner at Swiss Chalet, for instance?) She can choose those gifts most to her liking through Friendgift’s enormous offerings and alert all her friends, acquaintances, and people she kinda’ knows (through Facebook, twitter, email) of what she would really, really like.  They then all have the opportunity to chip in.  Sure, an iPad is touch more expensive that a quarter chicken dinner – get enough friends together and it’s actually a lot more affordable than you might think!

All joking aside, it does make gift giving that much simpler for everyone involved.  Will this spell the end of good old fashioned gift-giving surprises?  Will the old adage “it’s the thought that counts” no longer be useful?  I hope not.  But then I again, I also hope I never again unwrap a huge white sculpture of two “adorable” kids in wedding garb. I can think of better things to set on my basement shelf than that.

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Tip #13 Parents: Mind Your Own Screen Time

Jul 13

I tweet.  I facebook.  There… I admit it.  I am one of those. I also admit that both of these digital pastimes can become major time hogs in the life of a parent.  Not only because they foster an addiction (that non-tweeters cannot possibly understand), but the very nature of social media encourages users, like me, to fill those quiet snippets of time that pop up every day with status updates and scrolls through witticisms, links, and gripes by others.  Snippets of time that – in the olden days – would be spent in contemplation, reading (real paper), or watching your kid miss his second grounder in T-Ball.

How much of our lives are we, as parents, sacrificing for our digital updates?  For me, I’d say it’s not an insignificant amount. In fact, “Just a minute” has got to be among my children’s most-oft heard phrases to spew from my mouth, not too far behind “We have to go now!” and “Where are your shoes?”

Like our kids, we parents need to incorporate screen-free habits into our lives. Owning a smart phone makes this almost impossible as we grow evermore reliant on our funky apps and seem disturbingly curious about other people’s mundane lives.  Yet, taking a couple of hours out of every day to set the phone aside and leave the computer idle (maybe even OFF?)  forces a parent to be completely present to the family’s needs.  It also creates opportunity during the snippets of free time, when the dinner is simmering and the kids are busy, to do something other than reach for the phone.  Heck, you may decide join the kids for a while or sit at the piano and play a tune (no matter how bad it sounds). Maybe you’ll just sit in a chair and do absolutely nothing.  And if your son or daughter pops into the room to chitchat, you will not respond with “Just a minute.”  Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?

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Tip #11 Get to Know Facebook

Jun 29

Do you remember when email first arrived on the internet scene? I know… It seems like a hundred years ago. Back in those pioneer days of the web, there was no shortage of people claiming they would never use that newfangled electronic mail. Why type a message when a perfectly good phone was so much easier?  Of course, as the world’s population migrated to the newest form of chitchat (and parents realized they were out of the loop of their grownup kids’ lives without it), the waves of naysayers dissipated.  Know anyone who doesn’t use email?

Social networking is not unlike the email revolution. Facebook is leading the charge as the newest form of online information sharing with an estimated 700 million users.  While another social sharing site may one day take its place, suffice to say that old fashioned email is losing some ground.

Whether the youngest members of the family have yet to join a social network or not, parents should brace themselves for the inevitable moment when the kids take their social life to the web. Or, more aptly – broadcast it to, uh, the world. With a minimum age of 13 years to join, Mom and Dad cannot expect the kids will ask permission to join once they hit their tweens.  It will happen. Best to become familiar with how it all works, then. Right?

“But I don’t care about finding all my old high school friends,” is what I hear from so many parents who are reluctant to join. That, I always tell them, is not worth worrying about.  Most of those keeners looking to reunite with old acquaintances have given up the search.  Facebook is more about staying connected with those who matter most -either in business, family, or community.  Kids are no exception.  They are joining the network in droves (often before turning 13 years old) – eager to keep up with their friends’ lives during those few hours when they’re not at school together.  The upside to this is your phone is always available!

Unfortunately, since any person with a Facebook page can “friend” your child, the number of people viewing his or her personal information could quickly multiply into the hundreds.  Unless you, as a parent, are comfortable with the possibility that your kid is over-sharing with some 30-year-old dude from Alabama who happens to love Black Ops as much as he does, it’s a good idea to know how the most popular social network works.  That means joining, yourself.

A general rule of thumb to follow is: the younger the child, the more involved the parent needs to be on his or her Facebook page.  Parents should absolutely “friend” their kids if they are below the minimum age limit.  That helps police any inappropriate postings on his or her wall, as well as ensures those “friends” are authentic buddies, not the dude from Alabama.  I’d personally recommend “friending” your child regardless of his or her age, but that’s something that each family needs to figure out on their own.

When my girlfriend checked out her 11-year-old daughter’s Facebook page recently, she noticed her daughter’s best friend had posted a highly sexual lyric from a Rihanna song on her wall.  Because my girlfriend has established rules around her daughter’s use of the network (including she cannot friend anyone without her mother’s permission), she was able to view this and hence, contact the girl’s father.  He had the post removed.  These kinds of things happen on Facebook.  Better to be aware of it and deal with it… then not know about it at all.

Lastly, if while reading this blog post you wonder ‘what does she mean by wall, or post, or friending?’ then take that as a huge hint that you need to join.  It’s the new lingo and if you want to be part of that conversation with your kids, you’d best get on board… Remember, you can always ignore friend requests from your old high school acquaintances.  But it’s  not such a great idea to ignore an important new part of your kids’ social life.  I can’t promise it’ll make your kids think you’re hip, but at least they’ll have a tougher time pulling the wool over your eyes.

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