What’s the one reason you should let your kids watch 13 Reasons Why—the story of why Hannah Baker committed suicide?
It’s because they’ve already watched it.
By the time the school emails and letters were spawned from the reports on CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and the like, that barn door had been opened and cued up for a month.
It doesn’t matter that you have controls on your Netflix account, or that your child doesn’t have a smartphone, or that you have drawn your line in the sand over what is appropriate viewing. Your child has gained access even if they had to watch it in ten minute increments on Billy’s iPhone before batting practice. This show is that much of a phenomenon.
Think I’m wrong? Just ask your kid, “Hey, what does ‘here’s your tape’ mean?”
And believe me, I know the issues with 13 Reasons Why. I already visited this fun house seven years ago when the novel was assigned to my daughter for a book report in seventh grade. She was twelve and her teacher RECOMMENDED this book. Yeah. I spent two days skimming it and gathering age appropriate information on sexual assault and suicide so I could have discussions with my daughter to give her some context for the book’s themes.
I was not pleased . . . but I am grateful. This was my wake-up call: I was no longer my daughter’s filter for the world. My control had been evaporating since the moment she stepped foot on the bus for kindergarten, but I had been too busy to notice just how gossamer it was. Fast forward to when I found out my other daughter had binge-watched “American Horror Story” at a sleepover, and I was primed to accept that forbidding books and shows was like the Little Dutch Boy trying to plug the holes in the dyke. Just when you think you have it covered, another one springs up.
There is a real danger in forbidding certain shows, books, and movies, too. If your child has to sneak behind your back to be part of the pop culture tsunami, you’ve closed off the possibility of discussion. Worse yet—in the case of “13 Reasons Why”—maybe they’ve only had time to sneak the brutal rape and suicide scenes without any of the context of the rest of the series.
I am not campaigning for or against kids watching “13 Reasons Why.” That is already being covered in the news outlets by experts and playing out in PTA meetings across the country. I am acknowledging that it simply is, and it has to be dealt with.
I urge you as a parent to watch it, invite your kids to watch it again with you, or at the very least watch the documentary at the end, “Behind the Reasons,” together. This documentary was filmed as a tool to help parents and teens frame the mindset of the artistic choices made by the creators, and to encourage those at risk to speak up and seek help. This show needs that explanation and discussion. There are some very useful talking points available from the JED Foundation, a teen suicide prevention group, and there is crisis help information on the 13 Reasons Why website.
This is arguably a dangerous series for at-risk youth, but it is not going away. Many summaries of the series claim that the story ends with Hannah’s suicide, but it actually doesn’t. It ends with one of the students reaching out to reconnect with a girl who was once his friend.
This series provoked tears, anger, frustration, outrage, and indignation in my own daughter. However, when asked what she got out of it, she replied, “Well, we all need to be nicer to one another.”
Oh, sigh, It really is all about us, isn’t it? Let’s just say this: it’s a whole lot easier commiserating over things like sippy cups taking over your kitchen and goldfish crumbs smashed into the carpet of your minivan than failed drivers’ tests and low SAT scores. Some of this stems from the truth that your child does not necessarily want you spilling all the details. Respecting your child as a person means that you could and should put a lid on it.
Some of it though comes from a desire to not be judged as a mom. Different methods of handling potty-training or toddler meltdowns can be entertaining. Different methods of handling teen drinking can cause an uproar at Girls’ Night Out. In any case, It’s the height of irony that at the moment when you probably need it most, moms can have a hard time finding support from their tribe. Heck, even finding time to get together with the busy schedules that accompany teen parenting can be challenging. In any case, it can make traveling this stretch of the parenting highway a little lonesome.
All of these ladies are our buddies from our young mom days. It’s tough to find time to see each other but when we do, it’s like no time has passed.
2. You won’t always like your kid.
Love them? Of course! Like them? Well, let’s just say it’s complicated. Kids trying to figure out who they are means that often they are unrecognizable to you. The girl who ate twenty hot dogs at the county fair is now a vegan. But that’s not even the worst thing. The real sticking point comes when she decides to take down the family holiday meal. The 360s that happen can be disorienting, but they are also oddly comforting. There were parts of every stage and age of parenting that weren’t fun or funny. The same is true for the teen years.
But some things never change. Pumpkin patches are always fun.
3. You will feel like you are doing it wrong.
Just know that the moment is coming when you will feel bad about yourself, your kid, every decision up to this point, all of it, every last thing. These are the moments when you will lean into your loneliness from your friends, your sense of alienation from your child, and just need a major chocolate fix. Take that moment to exhale, breathe, regroup. You and your child will live to fight another day. More likely, tomorrow will be rainbows and sunshine, because that’s how things go on Planet Teen.
But they can also save the day, like at Grandmom’s 90th birthday party, and that will make you feel better about all of it. Promise.
4. Things will go wrong.
In the time I have been parenting teens, we have had concussions, car accidents, break-ups, break-outs, heartbreaks, and losses. Expect that balls will get dropped, mistakes will be made, and fenders will be dented. It makes it so much easier to take that phone call when it comes. One of my favorite professors said that a great gift to give a child is a back door. Come up with graceful ways to help your child retreat from situations that get out of hand. Give yourself and your child grace when they do.
5. Things will go right.
The stars will align just so sometimes. At these moments, the grumpiness will recede and all those forgotten aspects of your child’s character will shine through. Forget everything that went wrong. Revel. A lot. Take a picture when you can.
The infamous New Year’s Day hike. Every last teen was not having it, but then the winds changed.
6. Sometimes you will like them so much it hurts.
They are going to be hard to take sometimes, but they are also going to blow your mind with hints of the amazing things to come. Because crowing from the rooftops about their awesomeness is frowned upon by said offspring, you might feel lonely in this knowledge. However enjoy your moment and spread the news surreptitiously. Recently, one of my friends commented about a teen playing kindly with her tween at a swim meet. She was surprised and impressed. While I was happy for her experience, I wasn’t as taken aback by it. I made the point that I have never NOT seen a teen be generous to a younger child they knew. Teens like to keep their goodness simmering below the surface of potential peer review, but there is so much good news to be found. Celebrate the small victories and point out all the good you see.
She did not have to ask them twice to play with her.
7. Sleep will be a luxury again.
Sure you are prepared to lose some zzzzs waiting up for driving teens or worrying about college, but you might not know how much. Adjusting your parenting to adolescent biorhythms means late night Netflix binging and baking chocolate chip cookies at eleven o’ clock at night. All of this is to say that being ready to drop everything and hang means that you might want to invest in some industrial strength under eye concealer too.
Who could say no this face? Why, of course, I will make cookies with you after my bedtime!
8. Friends reign supreme.
Happy families know this. Happy families honor this. Happy teens reward your attention to this important truth.
As you can see, we weren’t really holding back so much as pacing ourselves to reveal the full picture of what it’s like parenting on Planet Teen. In spite of everything, we really are pretty happy here. We think you will be too.
Why are we starting college tours for our second daughter during her sophomore year?
It’s not to freak out my friends or make them feel like they’re behind.
It’s not to draw the scorn of those who are silently screaming: “WHY WOULDN’T YOU START EARLIER?!” (I will go on record saying to chill with the tours starting in grade school.)
It’s because this IS my second rodeo. The April of my first rodeo—also known as my oldest daughter’s senior year—had us zipping up and down the East Coast with her college decision coming down to the May 1st wire. My brain wants to shutdown and take a nap just remembering it.
See, I was so intent on avoiding the competitive college stress spiral that I may have underestimated how little time there really was. I realized that maybe, just maybe, the parents who I thought were zealous were just good planners. I was also lulled by my daughter’s methodical selection of schools based on the major she wanted to pursue. She was so focused on what each college offered that it almost seemed beside the point to visit them.
But most importantly, we didn’t start touring before junior year because of good ol’ run-of-the-mill naiveté. IT WAS MY FIRST TIME! IT FELT LIKE WE WERE GROPING AROUND IN THE DARK!
Most college advice found on the internet was too intense, and while the guidance office was fantastic at meeting deadlines, it was a little light on the guidance. Even friends were not much help. It seems like the college application process is a lot like childbirth: people forget the hours of labor and only remember the outcome. I mean seriously, my daughter ended up at the perfect school for her so I could be spouting “all’s well that ends well” and calling it a day. Luckily for you, I am cursed with a mind for remembering hardships, blessed with an ability to learn from experience, and overflowing with a passion to share what I know. Apparently, I also have a wee flair for the dramatic.
Why I Now Think Touring in 10th Grade is Swell
It all comes down finding free days on the calendar.
You need to tour when students are there. We learned the hard way that a campus can have a drastically different feel when it’s devoid of life and bustle. It’s really the difference between looking at buildings and truly experiencing the campus vibe. So. This strikes holidays, most of December and January, the school’s spring break, and summer from available tour dates. Remember too that spring session often ends at the beginning of May. Now if you’re driving past a school on your summer vacation and want to take a peek, don’t let me stop you, just think twice before making any costly special trips. Even summer session is not the same.
Shifting your child’s focus.If your kid hasn’t already experienced the college process with a sibling or friend, it may seem very unreal to them. Touring some beautiful campuses can be just the ticket to make your literature-loving child realize that chemistry does indeed matter as a means to an end.
Tip: If the times for tours seem to be full for your desired date when you check online, call the admissions department. More times than not, they are very accommodating.
Junior year is crazy crammed . . . andstressful. There’s SATs and ACTs, regular sports and clubs, travel teams, AP exam prep, proms, driver’s ed, and driving tests . . . to name just a sampling. Couple this with the hardest course load your child is likely to face in high school, and your sweetie might not have a day to spare for college tours. On my junior’s few scheduled days off that coordinated with the college calendars, she just wanted to catch up on her work and sleep.
The stakes are lower. Yep, this also has to do with the calendar; hear me out. When you tour a school as a junior, and especially as a senior, the pressure of getting in can loom heavy. We did not tour some of my daughter’s “reach” schools because she thought it would be too disappointing if she didn’t get in. This left us with at least three schools she needed to see after she got accepted in March. They weren’t close to each other—or us— and it was a struggle to see them before commitment day: May 1st. We all agreed that if we had toured some of them in sophomore year, the pressure would have been reduced.
Location matters. If my daughter had visited Boston University in February of her sophomore year, I doubt she would have applied to any school north of the Mason-Dixon line because the cold stunned her. Instead, we were trying to book hotel rooms during the Boston Marathon because that was the only open weekend for us in her senior year. See? Still about the calendar.
Just look at her middle school room redo. How did we not know she was destined to fly south?
One disadvantage of touring in 10th grade: your child might not be focused enough to know their desired major. Tours of specific departments really are invaluable in the selection making process. But even so, the general tour will help your child decide if the school makes their list. Also, school doesn’t necessarily need to be in session for department tours to be informative. Those sessions are more about the facilities, professors, curriculum, and advisers.
So the countdown is on again: we are sending another kid to college. While this means that already tight spring schedules just got “sweet-cheezits-loosen-that-buckle-please” uncomfortable, there is a silver lining here: it’s not quite as rough the second time around. Now don’t get me wrong, I still get a little catch in my throat thinking that this time next year I’ll be the only girl living here besides the dog. And I will miss having my girl’s special blend of spunk and sass on the daily too . But having been in this place before means that I can lean into the excited part a little more than I did the first time around. We can hang out in all the upsides of this big new step for her without wallowing too long in the emotional messiness for me. If I have to keep sending kids out into the Great Beyond known as college, I might as well share some of the things I learned sending another kid to college.
1.There’s more financial aid.
This silver lining that came with the shiny acceptance letters was much appreciated. Oh, the joy! If I could have fired cannons into the air, I would have been that obnoxious neighbor. With one son currently residing on a campus, the gods of FAFSA were kind and benevolent in ways they had not been before. As a mother who will have a child (or two) in college for the next twelve years, this was the best gift ever.
2.There’s less angst.
When I was sending my oldest to college for the first time, I wrote about our emotional fall (read: MY over-the-top emotionally splashy fall), my resolutions (which should have included not tearing up every five seconds), and some things I needed to say to him (cue the tissues) before he crossed that stage into the brave new world of college. I couldn’t imagine my everyday world without him in it. Furthermore, I was bucking at the very idea of it altogether. My people took some time getting used to our new normal too.
Ellen, in her way, was less fraught in the build-up to college, but she wrote beautifully about the change for her household when her daughter came home for Thanksgiving. The truth is that having your child move up and on is a big change. But the more beautiful truth is that moving on doesn’t necessarily mean moving away. We parent differently the ones who aren’t in our nest, but parent them we still do. Exhibit A: the 19 year old calling home from his Canadian Spring Break, because his route home was literally closed due to a freak March storm.
“Help me, Mom and Dad, you’re my only hope.” Nah, he didn’t say that exactly, but that’s what I heard. They are still ours; we are still theirs. Time, distance, and a college dorm room doesn’t change that. Acknowledging this makes it easier to go to the college’s Accepted Student Day and imagine it as your child’s home away from home for the next four years.
3.There’s a different list of Must Haves/Would Likes/Etc
The first time around, my son had a very specific dream of sports journalism and we were laser-focused in our search. While my daughter can fill out a March Madness bracket with the best of them, she has different aspirations. But the college list we built this time wasn’t only different due to intended major. My son liked smaller schools; my daughter thought the bigger the better. He was open to rural; she was insistent on a city. What I really loved this time around was seeing the way she was already starting to spread her wings as she focused on what was important to her. The conversations that evolved over college catalogs were enlightening and let me into her head a little.
4.There’s a better To-Do List
The really great thing about doing this a time or five is that you learn a thing or two. Like . . .
Just how important it is to try and get an ACT and SAT in before the end of Junior year. Honestly, if you have a child on the advanced math track, you could even think about scheduling at the end of sophomore year. Ideally, the best time is when your child has finished Algebra II, and it’s still fresh in her mind.
Create the high school resume as you are living it. No joke. My high school sophomore just pulled up the document he started and added his winter volunteering and sports. It’s so much easier to build as you go.
Build relationships with mentors. College recommendations are important elements of the application. When they come from someone who knows, understands, and likes your child, they could tip the scale to your child’s favor. I encourage my kids to write thank you notes to every coach, teacher, and advisor. When they reach out years later for a letter, hopefully, the gesture will resonate and help that adult remember them positively.
Focus on moving your needle forward. The first time around, we bowed before the cult of the almighty resume. While it IS important, my time spent with many a college
recruiter has changed my thinking. Resumes should tell a story of personal growth, not just be busting at the seams with activities. To that end, we talk to our younger kids about following ideas and exploring pursuits. “You love boats? Have you tried to get your boater’s license?” “You love basketball but didn’t make the team? What else can you do?” In both cases, my kids responded in ways that made them more interesting in person, not just on paper. We also push them outside their comfort zones. “So your friends aren’t doing it? Tell me again why you don’t want to.”
Take younger siblings on college trips. It’s nice to have time alone with your child on these visits too, but if you have siblings that aren’t that far behind, it’s a great opportunity to get a two-fer. The conversations about the school will differ of course, but they are valuable in helping create those future lists. An addendum: if you are already planning travel near a college, swing by and check it out even if it’s just a walk through campus.
5.There’s better downtime
Knowing how things will change means we leap at chances to create memories
together when we can. Whether it was doing an escape room together, hitting the road, taking an international trip, or even just hanging at home watching movies, we focus less on ourselves and more on just being together. Most of the time. We are a regular family and sometimes retreating to our individual corners save lives. But we ARE mindful of our time now in ways that make for an overall better family life.
While it’s true that my family will not be off this college-launching ride for awhile, it’s definitely more fun the second time around. We are happier sending another kid to college not because we love her less, but because we are appreciating the moment more. This time around we have clearer eyes to see what lies ahead: a chance to watch her knock it out of the ballpark. Watch out, world, she’s on her way! Stay tuned for what I learn as we launch 3, 4, and 5!
Oh, you know how we love a good booklist! In fact, our last one was so chock full of good reads that you might want to give it another look. As Erin is currently teaching middle school, we thought it was time to put together a list for the younger set too. Sometimes, tweens are hard sells on a book, but these reads are so good, their stories so compelling, that even the most reluctant reader will succumb to their charms. So here it is: a tween booklist guaranteed to hit that reading sweet spot for your favorite young reader!
Um, an enchanted harmonica. Say what? Trust us on this one. Ryan’s magical tale that spans multiple generations and travels across continents is a new classic. The book dives right into some of the thornier aspects of our history and brings a wide-eyed, open-hearted approach. Sometimes this makes for heart-wrenching reading, but ultimately the story is a triumph and a powerful reminder that we can overcome all with love.
Beautiful and moving, this story set in the shadow of World War II is an inspiration. Our hero Annabelle must withstand the local bully, Betty Glengarry, but her actions set in motion a larger, more important story that one of bullying. This remarkable story is “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the middle school set
Caveat: please read this one before you hand it to a child younger than middle school. That being said, Park handles what could be a very violent book with grace and care. Told from two vantage points and set in 2008, the book follows Nya, a young girl from Sudan who has to fetch water for her village and Salva, a young Sudanese boy whose village is attacked by the rebels in 1985 and who ends up fleeing across the desert to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. This story has true elements to it and the heartbreak of this African village is certainly real, but it’s also an important beautifully rendered account that kids will read quickly.
This book is a true classic and even won the Newbery Award. Set in the South during the Great Depression, this book is hard but hopeful and the characters are bright and entertaining in the face of tragedy and racism. You will appreciate the warm ties and truths as your kids will identify and cheer for the family.
This book is just a great time. Funny, chocked full of adventure, and filled to the brim with heart, there’s nothing not to love here. But the magic is in our protagonist, Tiffany Aching, who sets out on a mission to become a witch. The six inch high tiny but fierce fighting men who assist her help create the magic here. If funny fantasy were a genre, this book would be at the top of it.
Set on our beloved Eastern Shore of Maryland, we would probably have a little love for this book even if it wasn’t so deftly knitted together. Luckily for your young reader, this story of a tragic kayak accident is powerful in and of itself. The moral questions the protagonist Brady must answer as he uncovers the truth behind the accident propel this story past the regret and sadness to another place. As the author steers Brady through some tough moral dilemmas without losing any of the suspense, you are reminded over and over again why the book won the honor of being named a Black Eyed Susan book.
This Texas Bluebonnet Award winner is a wonder in and of itself. The central character August Pullman has a facial deformity which has prevented him from attending a regular school. When he does finally become a student at Beecher Prep, this buoyant tale takes off. Augie just wants to be treated like everyone else, but, well, everyone else might not be ready for that. Told from the perspective of Augie, his classmates, and his family, this anti-bullying story never comes off as preachy, but does allow room to talk about fears and prejudices and, ultimately, the power of kindness. Wonder of all wonders. A must read for all middle schoolers!
Wow. Just wow. This book sticks with you. Melody is the smartest kid in school, but she can’t talk or walk, so nobody knows. When she finally finds a way to communicate, she seems on her way to fulfilling her dream of just being a “regular” kid. But, sigh, middle school is hard, yo. Frank and open, this book takes us inside one girl’s journey with cerebral palsy and, even with detours into some heavy stuff, we are all made better from the trip.
This book reads like Charlotte Rogan’s Lifeboat for the teen set. Poor Robie leaves Hawaii for a trip home to Midway when her plane goes down. Unfortunately, nobody really knows she’s missing or where to look for her. Oh, yeah, and she’s pretty much on her own adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s disaster lit at its best. Your older tween and teen will enjoy this fast-paced easy read.
This series tops the middle school lists. In this dystopian future world, society is divided into five factions named for dedication to five different virtues— (Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). This is the next series for any kid who devoured The Hunger Games and has been hankering for more of the same. This series adds some different elements that make it interesting for sure, but your child should probably have the same level of maturity to really enjoy it. Think of this one as upper middle school.
Set during the Middle Ages, Silvano is a guy having kind of a bad streak of luck. Wrongfully accused of murder, he is sent to a Franciscan House for his own protection. Posing as a young friar there, Silvano can’t help falling for the lovely girl in the nearby abbey. But he just can’t catch a break. More murders threaten to take Silvano’s freedom for good and keep him from his love. Unlike Hoffman’s popular Stravanganza series set in an alternate world that looked like Renaissance Italy, this suspenseful tale is actually set in fourteenth century Umbria. The historical element just adds another layer to this already rich story. Your young readers will swoon.
Ideal for all fluent readers, this series is a runaway hit. Luke is a 12 year old kid who has spent his life in hiding. The Population Police have dictated that each family can only have two kids. As his family’s third child, Luke’s life is in danger so he has never experienced many of the simple joys of childhood. As his world changes, he glimpses others like himself and launches a daring plan to come out of the shadows that gives energy and momentum to the series. Your kids will be so busy trying to keep up with all the plot twists and turns that they won’t even know they just spent their summer reading.
This recommendation cannot come without also calling attention to Anderson’s other wonderful titles Speak and Chains, both National Book Award finalists. Anderson is the master of historical fiction for the Axe and Aero set. This novel takes us to Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic is one of her best. Told from the point of view of Mattie Cook, this tale weaves a narrative around the real-life events and characters of the time. Anderson never treats her young readers like unintelligent ones so the language in the book is just as rich and interesting as the story itself. And there’s an appendix at the end with facts about the epidemic. Sqwee! To a certain reader, it’s kind of like getting a birthday cake on Christmas. Score!
This is an oldie but greatie. Several of us remember this book as one of our favorites from childhood and at least one of us taught this book to our students. Another Newbery winner, this book has been charming readers for over twenty-five years and it still reads as fresh and inventive as it did back then. Sixteen people show up to the reading of Samuel Westing’s will. Any of them could walk away with his millions. The fun is in the unravelling. An absolute delight to read!
Animal-lovers will flock to this book! Zelly is moving to Vermont and she desperately wants a dog. Her grandpa Ace comes up with a crazy scheme to convince her parents that she is ready for one: he makes her a dog out of an old orange juice jug. There is a lot to love about this book. The sweet but complicated relationship Zelly has with her grandpop Ace, her new friend who encourages her to stay true to her convictions even in the face of social pressures, and the subtle themes of responsibility and treating all people (even bullies) with respect woven throughout. The author even inserts some great education about the Jewish faith into the story as Zelly meets two families who are devout Jews in a town that where they are a distinct and noticeable minority. Kids will love the Yiddish glossary at the end!
So you had to know this book was special once you figured out that this sequel won the Newbery Honor Award, but it’s also pretty apparent from the moment you open the spine (without breaking it, of course) and settle into the pages. Thirteen year old Dicey and her three siblings were abandoned by her mother in a parking lot and she has heralded them safely to her grandmother’s house where this story begins. The truth and beauty of Dicey’s voice and story, the pace and strong characters, and ultimately the honesty that permeates from this fast-paced read are all part of its charm. Oh, and it was one of Erin’s favorite books from when she was on the cusp of teendom.
This funny, tender book about being true to who you are doesn’t ever come across as schmaltzy and boys will be laughing too hard at all the crazy adventures of Gabe and his friends at Nerd Camp to notice all the sweet stuff anyway. Gabe’s dad is getting remarried and he is getting a stepbrother who happens to be the very same age. This is great news for Gabe until he realizes that his new brother Zack is a cool skateboarder while he is, well, not. Gabe desperately wants to hide his geekiness from Zack and the story unfolds. In the end, this is a story about accepting yourself for who you are. It’s such a positive, upbeat story narrated by an engaging young voice that tween boys won’t be able to put this book down.
Oh, we love a strong female lead and this book has one in the firecracker protagonist named Mo LeBeau. Big on personality and heart, this book is also a full-blown mystery topped with a little Southern charm. As a read, it goes down like a smooth glass of perfect lemonade. Your kids will be charmed by the quirky cast of characters and the precocious but believable dialogue.
Erin’s kids have been known to fall asleep clutching spy goggles and our friend Mary’s son brought his spy watch kayaking, hiking, and camping last year. Boys LOVE spy stuff. So a book about a school for spies? It has Hogwarts for Future Double Agents written all over it. Even the hero Ben is a little Potter reminiscent. Slow to warm up to the spy stuff, Ben wins in the end—making friends, helping to uncover the hidden mole, and getting his spy groove on. This book brings the action, ninja stars, and combat simulation (in the form of paintball—of course) to the CIA Academy and kids who enjoy a witty tale with a side of suspense will be delighted. This would be a great read-aloud for younger kids too.
I do like a good party. I have even been known to go a wee bit overboard. Not like drop the down payment on a Winnebago overboard, but more like having fourteen four-year-olds crowded around my dining room table crafting with glue and scissors. Rest assured I drew the line at glitter. Never glitter. ::shudders::
For me, it all starts with a good theme I can sink my teeth into, but I am older and more exhausted now. Can you feel me? I now require my themes to be fabulous with a side of easy. So to that end, one of the easiest ones I have hit upon is a Flamingo Party. The best thing? It works for all ages and types of parties: birthday celebrations, baby showers, bridal showers, pool parties, and barbecues. One advantage to this theme is you can extend it cheaply and easily just by using color. Pink balloons, streamers, and netting can really extend the theme to fill your entire space.
My particular party was to celebrate a thirteenth birthday. For me it all begins with the cake . . . or in the case of the parties I orchestrate, cakessssssss.
Here’s the one I created for the family party:
Easy Flamingo Layer Cake
This cake is a great example of a wow factor that exceeds the effort. In other words, it’s easier than it looks. Always a bonus.
Next, frost it up with a base layer buttercream frosting.
Mix up a buttercream frosting and tint it with turquoise food coloring. You can find the food coloring I used here. Pssst, you can also use canned frosting. I won’t tell. Pillsbury even makes an aqua blue frosting that saves you all kinds of time.
If you need help with your frosting game, I recommend this tutorial. She mentions using a bench scraper to achieve a smooth frosting surface. I use this one.
The flamingo is made with fondant icing. I generally make my own marshmallow fondant because not only is it significantly cheaper than store bought, it is so much tastier, too. Your guests won’t be peeling it off into a discarded lump on the side of their plates.
I also find it more forgiving to work with. When you are rolling it and transferring it to the cake, I always have less frustration with breakage than I do with prepared fondant out of the package. This excellent video is EXACTLY how I make it.
She also has a video describing how to color it. Two caveats I have for that one, though. One, I almost always color mine by mixing my gel into the melted marshmallows as she describes in the beginning of her tutorial. It takes A LOT of kneading to mix color into a whole batch of refrigerated fondant. I’m talking kneading on the level of a P90X workout. And two, I always wear vinyl food prep gloves so that my hands don’t get stained.
One other tip: it’s not worth it to make black fondant. It takes forever and a ton of color to make it anything but a weird gray. I did it once, but never again. You can find it here. Keep in mind you can purchase a whole tub of white fondant, too, if you just want to skip making your own altogether.
I used leaf cookie cutters to make the feathers. I free-hand cut out the neck, used a small dish to make the circle for the head, and used the same dish to help gauge the size I needed for the beak. The eye was made from a dab of white buttercream and a speck of black fondant. Because the pieces are relatively small, it’s a much easier decorating process than trying to transfer an entire sheet of fondant to your cake. I have yet to be able to cover a layer cake with a sheet of fondant without curling up in the fetal position from the stress of it all. But just decorating with fondant pieces? That’s a hack I can completely manage.
Now remember I said cakessssssss? In my family, each birthday girl gets her own cake to dive into with abandon.
Fondant Flamingo Cake
This cake was also decorated with marshmallow fondant, but this one is all about the shape. I baked the body of the cake in a Pyrex oven-safe bowl. Once it was COMPLETELY cooled, I sculpted the body shape with a serrated knife making sure to carve out a complete shape that would work for the neck. The rest of the scraps went to the kids who were watching my every move.
The head is a cupcake. That little beaded necklace camouflages the joining of the head to the neck. Because this cake is personal-sized, I could basically pick the pieces up and wrap the fondant around them. In case you are new to working with fondant, you need to actually ice your cake with a buttercream first so that the fondant will adhere to it smoothly. I did not do that with the neck though. The fondant around that is very thick to achieve the rounded look I wanted. I figured there was enough cake-y goodness in the body and head to make it acceptable that the neck was just for decorative purposes.
And then there were the cupcakes . . .
Easy Flamingo Cupcakes
I’m going to be honest, by the time I got to the cupcakes I was TIRED. I ordered some pretty cupcake liners, some flamingo lollipops, let the kids ice the cupcakes anyway they wanted with the remaining blue frosting, and called it a day. See? Easy! You can’t accuse me of being a perfectionist.
But—and this is going to sound radical after the previous several hundred words—great parties need more than cake! Check out these fun ideas to rocket your party into the realm of success!
Flamingo Party Ideas
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Many times in my nearly twenty years of parenting, I have felt the need to adjust my course and reroute us. This weekend was one of those times. Tempers were short starting at breakfast on Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon, we weren’t just crabby, we were ducking for cover. If only I could say what sent us careening off our happy family road, I might have been able to tame the tempest brewing in our midst. But alas, the usual culprits—misunderstanding, miscommunication, misfiring temperaments—were reeking havoc on our normally happy home life with no endpoint in sight. Sleep did not restore my people to their more human selves and Sunday dawned with no respite from the relentless bickering. With nowhere to retreat to, I issued a maternal decree: we were taking a family hike, all hands on deck, and now. Their response was swift and pointed, and it prompted this post: Nobody had the insight to see that they were the very worst versions of themselves. Nobody realized that they were making me long for the days of toddlers. Anyway, a little fresh air and exercise away from screens was just what the Momma ordered. Nature recalibrated my crew and set us back into our reasonably happy routine. This ability to take terrorists and turn them back into fully functioning and fun people is just one of the many reasons that I prefer to parent outside. But there are many more and I feel like I need to share this piece of parenting good news with anyone who will listen. Because this quick fix is cheap, easy, and packs a lot of family fun into its itty bitty price tag.
Other reasons why in no particular order . . .
1. I suck at crafts.
We are all living in a Pinterest world, and ain’t nobody need that kind of pressure. While Ellen can bust out container gardens, repurpose pool noodles like a HGTV host, and turn a picnic table into a coffee table, I am a Pinterest craft fail waiting to happen. Honestly, even simple t-shirts are outside my realm of competence. Just ask my oldest son about the “pink pumpkin” shirts I made for his soccer team to wear in a Halloween tournament. In any case, parenting outside is exactly the kind of hands-free parenting that makes Pinterest go ’round without subjecting me to sticky fingers. Also, I’m at least competent on a trail, not so much with a hot glue gun.
2. The open air wears my kids out.
Seriously, I’m raising puppies over here. Laps around the house are not uncommon. Trails, especially long, hilly ones, are my friends. If you too have offspring with boundless energy, heed this good advice.
3. They talk more outside.
If you have never been stuck on the other side of a sulky teen in a conversation, you might not feel me on this one, but it’s scientific fact. A good walk is the equivalent of popping the pickle jar open. The words which were few and far between in the living room flow free and easy in the great outdoors. There’s no explanation, but who really needs one. Results talk.
4. Nature’s buffer is most appreciated.
The herds whisper more than thunder in the open air. Trust me on this one.
5. I’m a sucker for a pretty view.
Aren’t we all? Well, all the good ones are outside.
6. It’s affordable travel at its finest.
We all have a heart for the wild blue yonder, but this cash-strapped mom with almost two college tuitions to fund needs her adventure to really have some bang come with every buck. Outdoor adventure brings the adrenaline rush without the credit card bill.
7. It’s my passion.
One of my friends said that the definition of joy was when your kids love something you love. Well, even though I have been throwing books at my kids since they were cuddled up in the womb, nobody is a bookworm yet. I love games too, but our competitive natures can turn family fun into bloodsport. And while we all do enjoy a good Netflix marathon, coming to consensus on what to watch can be tough. (Except for Sherlock. We all love Sherlock.) But the one thing we all like/love/tolerate well as a group is time together in the great outdoors. I’m taking this as one for the win column.
8. It’s solid gold for making the memories.
Because most of my life is like this up and down weekend, I sincerely hope in the overall balance of my parenting that my kids can point to mostly positive moments when they remember me and our family life together. The memories where we are stretching ourselves together in beautiful places with no real agendas are the ones that will knit tightly in the fabric of our family bond.
Because while I can’t make all their roads smooth, I can strive to let my kids know that they are not traveling alone. I want the things that stick to be the ones where we enjoyed each other’s company in a simple, uncomplicated way. But mostly, I just really want them to stick. I want, in the final sum of this beautiful family I am making, to find that this cache of memories is hardy and stands up to the harsh sands of time. I want these pieces of our life together to be the things that bolster them in hard times and walk with them on lazy afternoons. I want our special brand of family to burrow into their marrow and become the very fiber of their selves. And nothing, absolutely nothing, makes the kind of teflon memories I’m striving for like parenting outside.
If you think I’m just waxing poetic here, I also wrote about this here and here. I’m all in when it comes to the Great Outdoors.
Any great ideas for bonding with your crew outside? Drop those here.
Five years ago, we had THE TALK. Not THAT ONE, the other one—the one where you meet with the preschool teacher about whether to send the baby to kindergarten. Mothering a brood is supposed to make decisions like this one less fraught. Experience times 4 or 5 should make you wiser, right? Was I really supposed to still be wringing sweat from my hands trying to decide if my child was ready for kindergarten?
Unfortunately, there was no “GET OUT OF THIS CONVERSATION FREE” card for me this time. I promised my husband to muzzle it and let the teacher talk. The main arguments for holding my son back were that he was physically small, has a birthday in the late summer, and the majority of his class cohort has much older birthdays so he looks even younger in comparison. These were fair arguments, just not compelling ones—at least to me. With no concerns about my son’s academic readiness, his social skills, or his developmental readiness, the teacher felt strongly that another year could be a gift to him—another year to play and be a little boy. Who wouldn’t get on board with that? The only thing I said during our hour was “Thank you, we would like some time to think this over.”
And that’s what I did, except when I said “think it over” what I meant was give myself time to read everything I could find and poll every person I know. At this point, I want to be able to say that the research (the paper kind and the people kind) clarified everything, but what I found was. . . contradictory at best.
There were some very good reasons for holding him back. One study found that the youngest students were much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and were three times as likely to repeat a grade. Umm, no thank you. Another study found that the oldest students were most likely to become student leaders. Well, what parent DOESN’T want that? At this point, I started daydreaming about my sweet boy as class president circa Class of 2022! But by far the most compelling argument for another year of PreK was what my mother (former preschool and kindergarten teacher) said: “You cannot underestimate the power of feeling confident and capable in the classroom.” Maybe Momma IS always right.
I was all ready to give him another year, but, of course, then I kept reading. The arguments against another year of Pre-K pushed me right back on my fence. There were negligible long-term academic benefits. The differences between the oldest and the youngest are the largest on the first day of kindergarten, but the advantages decrease over time. Younger students catch up with the oldest by third grade. Even studies that matched each child who delayed entrance with a child of like intelligence who had not delayed entrance did not find any solid proof that this practice made any difference at all.
Wowzers. What’s a good girl to do with data like this? So I shared it with my husband and then with Ellen, who both love a good dive into some research the way I love me a Netflix marathon. In the end, this was the take-away: despite research indicating there is no real benefit, it is becoming a common practice to “red-shirt” for kindergarten. While there are no large studies with good statistical significance to show that it is beneficial to hold back, it is most often recommended to white males with summer birthdays. Quite frankly, there are also whiffs that it is recommended so that schools have better scores on their rankings.
But even after this fair-minded even-handed analysis, I was still undecided. I called my dad, the fair-minded judge and father of 4. It’s his daily work to evaluate two sides of an issue, balance interests, and come up with good solutions. He just said, “What did your mother say? Do that.” Well, that was helpful. Thanks, Dad.
And my girlfriends? I leaned hard on those who had a summer baby that had started school already, but I was open to all advice. The results, while very much appreciated, were mixed and, in the end, not all that helpful. Asking the question did help move the needle a little though. I heard validated time and again what I already knew: all of these kids, including mine, are going to be just fine no matter what side I came down on. The decisions to start preschool or kindergarten and when are important decisions, but they are not deal-breakers. Kids grow where they are planted and nourished and cared for. I knew that. I needed to remember that. And the fifth time around this tree made it easier to see that.
At decision time, despite having to surrender my Good Girl crown, I went against the teacher’s advice and sent my child to kindergarten. This conclusion didn’t arise from any single thing we read or brilliant insight someone shared. The readiness assessments, while they did make us feel better, weren’t the deciding factors either. In the end, our son went to kindergarten, because one night after we put him to bed, Steve and I looked at each other and at the same moment said, “He’s ready.” He went because he was ready, and we both felt that to be true.
So five years later, how did things turn out for us and our boy? Well, there were mixed results for awhile. While he adjusted to kindergarten well and was meeting academic milestones with his peers, when I had a meeting with his teacher in the spring, she still had some concerns. Chief among them was that he was the youngest in his class (sound familiar?) and because this particular class skewed old, he looked young. Was he still appropriate for his age? Yes. Was he a behavior problem? No. Was she concerned about him academically? Not really. Was he driving her a little crazy? Maybe. We repeated this pattern in the classroom for the next couple years. But by third grade, he was doing so well, he earned himself the Citizenship Award that earned him a dog. But that’s a story for another day.
Bottom Line for You: If you plow forward with your summer baby and keep him or her with their birth cohort, you might still be talking about this or thinking about this. For AWHILE. This means that if you follow this path, you may be sitting in the little chairs discussing issues a little more often than other parents.
Remember what the literature said: it can take until third grade until everything evens out. Or not. All kids are different.
We are still putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward taking one day at a time with this child, but that’s honestly just parenting as I know it. Now we ask questions like: is he ready for the next step, challenge, or opportunity? So far, with love and guidance, the answer has been yes.
People are generous with their kind words immediately after you have lost a loved one. Despite death being a inevitable part of everyone’s life, people often feel awkward about what to say; but at least the time and space provided by social norms are there to encourage them.
Unfortunately that window for condolences closes up fairly quickly, and the awkwardness morphs into the fear that they will upset you if they mention your loved one. You are now left with your own awkwardness surrounding how to talk about your grief, how to bring it up. Maybe a prescribed period for wearing black back in the day wasn’t such a bad idea. Black arm bands or those silicone bracelets could work nowadays. It just seems like we could use something to indicate “handle with care.”
“Time heals all wounds” is not so much a falsehood, as it is too simplistic. Yes, the hurt scabs over, and the pain dulls, but the loss is healed with a scar. A scar that tugs and throbs predictably, yet can grab you unexpectedly .
The holidays and anniversaries with their brightness and intensity serve to highlight the voids . . . voids you can often avoid staring into on a day-to-day basis once your grief scar has formed.
“My mom should be here baking cookies with my kids. She always had the patience to make cut-outs.”
“This is where my son’s stocking should be hanging.”
“My father always lit the candles.”
And while you can predict the holidays are going to be tinged with blue, it’s often the little things that surprisingly leave you with the most intensely hollow longing. To prepare for my college freshman daughter’s homecoming for winter break, I was changing her sheets, even though she had only slept in her bed a couple of nights over Thanksgiving and changing sheets is one of the household chores I inexplicably hate the most. I mean, there are so many tasks that are so much worse. Scrubbing toilets anyone?
But as I was grumbling at myself for performing this largely unnecessary task at 11:30 PM, I was overcome. I sank right down on the floor among the pillows and stuffed animals as tears slid down my cheeks. Changing sheets was my mother’s love language of comfort. Sick with a fever? Clean sheets. Home from college, just had a baby, recovering from surgery? Clean sheets. Facing my fourth Christmas without her, I was unconsciously following her script for loving, and grieving anew that she would never give this “love letter” to me again.
Rest assured, you are not the only one “still” grieving. You are not the only one who knows how grief and joy can snuggle side by side, neither diminishing the impact of the other. You certainly aren’t the only one who understands the bitter truth about how time actually heal wounds.
Since I know I’m not alone, this holiday season I am going to reach out to others to give them a space to share. The internet isn’t only about political rants and cat videos. It’s for connecting. I encourage you to try a post as simple as “I miss the way my mother descended on my house a couple of days before Christmas with a cooler bursting with pure deliciousness and a trunk brimming with presents. I miss the way Aunt Ruth delighted us with the latest musical holiday toy from Hallmark each year. What do you miss about your loved ones?” My friend Meredith of The Mom of the Year did this sort of thing in a Facebook group we share, and the resulting comments were uplifting. She is my inspiration.
Follow Meredith’s lead and don’t be afraid to create the space you need for your grief. You never know who you will help as you help yourself.