Game of Slurs

Game of Slurs

image: tawnynina

Interactions in my family are, for lack of a better word, droll. Have been practically since the kids could talk.

droll       drōl      adjective
  1. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement.

That extends to improbably silly games. There were the word-nerdy ones my kids played using the dictionary and the ones they played on unwitting participants. There were games played while doing chores (for example, sliding across floors they were washing together) and, as they got older, ever drier commentary on each other’s interests. One long-standing game, played for at least a decade, is one my kids made up on their own. It’s a clever way to get around adults’ pesky rules about being “nice.”  I (being impartial) think it’s quite clever.

Fair warning, the game is not for everyone. I suppose it could be titled something pleasant like Creative Name Calling but this unnamed game is really a Game of Slurs.  To play you need two people. Two siblings, two friends, or a parent and child. What these two do, pretty basically, is take turns calling each other amusing insults. (I said it wasn’t for everyone.) So it might go this way between two five-year-olds.

“You’re a donkey nose!”

“Oh yeah, you’re a stinker butt,”

“Well you have ants in your pants.”

“You have ants and wasps and beetles in your pants and your pants are falling down.”

As you might imagine, this can go on. Kids are thrilled to call each other humorous names without getting in trouble. “We’re playing a game Mom!” Somehow, at least as we’ve played, it never crosses over the line into truly hurtful name-calling. That’s the beauty of made-up games. If one participant is nasty, the other participant won’t want to keep playing. Game over, fun over.

Game of Slurs doesn’t consist simply of name-calling. It has a momentum that drives it to an inevitable resolution. That’s the most clever part. Because the winner is the person who ends the game by saying something over-the-top nice when it’s his turn. Super sloppy wonderful superlatives. For five-year-olds it’s something like,”You’re the best, most wonderful brother in the whole world.”

“Awwww!” the other ones shouts, because HE didn’t give in to the desire to win first.

That’s the tension that gives the game it’s momentum. But participants are getting away with something that feels illicit and they don’t want to stop. They’re caught up laughing at what silly names the other person is calling them and what they’re going to say back. They know either of them can win at any time but that’s counterbalanced by a desire to keep playing, to call out one more insult and then one more after that. Such a game helps develop all sorts of valuable skills like tempering one’s words appropriately, improving verbal acuity, and delaying gratification. These things are learned more fully in play than in instruction.

In a way, Game of Slurs reinforced the usually decent levels of civility between my kids. Name-calling, when it happened outside the game, led right into the game. If you give it a try, play carefully the first few times. Find the humor and dance well away from insult. I bet you’ll find it fun too.

Oh, by the way, teens are even better at this game. Hilariously better. I swear playing it serves as a tonic for the inevitable annoyances of family life. Game of Slurs between parent and offspring may be the most deliciously fun of all.

When Children See a Parent as a Person


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Every evening at church camp was the same. We tidied up our cabins and then met back at the lodge. There we were taught songs and led in quiet games. Ours was a reserved sort of Christianity. The Presbyterian church  I was raised in proffered no talk of hell or being saved, no witnessing. The congregation was friendly in a formal sort of way. (Even so, I don’t think they entirely deserved the denomination’s nickname—“God’s Frozen Chosen.”)

I was nine years old that summer. My father had volunteered to serve as one of the camp counselors and bunked halfway up the hill in a cabin with the older boys. I was assigned a cabin at the bottom of the hill with the younger girls.

On our last evening of the week-long camp we were called out of the lodge after the final song. There stood our recently ordained young minister. He held flaming torches in his upraised hands like some illustration from a storybook. He passed them out to the counselors and told us to follow.

This was highly irregular. Fire? Hiking after dark? Staying up past bedtime? Our speculative whispers were unsuccessfully hushed by the grown-ups. We arrived at the clearing where morning worship services were held. It looked different at night. Shadowy trees loomed over the ring of log seats. Adults leaned their torches toward a dark stack of wood until a bonfire flared.

The minister offered a prayer and then talked about faith. I was so caught up in this out-of-the-ordinary moment that I didn’t pay close attention to his words. Who would? Kids know grown-ups like to go on and on about things. It’s best to let them. Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by the flames and how different our faces looked in the firelight.

Then the minister asked a question, something about how we knew God in our hearts. Silence settled over our group. None of us were familiar with faith discussed in such personal terms. The pastor looked around the circle with an expression kids know all too well. It’s the look teachers get when they are going to call on someone.

I was so timid that I tended to blush even for other people. One day in school, after his family had vacationed in Hawaii, Doug Bloomfield brought a grass skirt to Show & Tell. He cheerfully clicked on a cassette of exotic music, pulled the skirt over his pants, and demonstrated a hula dance. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. In my third row seat I blushed a red so deep that kids actually looked away from the hula spectacle to stare at me.

Until now I’d liked this strange after-dark event. The cool night air scented with burning wood felt magical. But I was pretty sure asking people to talk about their own religious experiences was rude. Already I felt flustered on behalf of whoever might have to answer. The minister stopped waiting for one of us to volunteer. He chose someone.

The person he asked was my father.

My dad, a quiet and low-key man, wasn’t one to speak up in front of others. There was a long pause. I was sure I could feel his distress. Then my father spoke. He talked a little about growing up in the country where he spent time in the woods and fields. He said he still felt closest to God not in church, but when he was out in nature. He finished by saying he liked silence and that was a way of praying too.

A moment comes when a child begins to see a parent as a separate person. This was such a moment. I knew my father was drawn to the outdoors. He took us hiking, showed us how to skip stones across the water, let us get muddy. But this was a larger context. I saw he had his own reasons to spend time outside. I recognized my father as a man whose life was bigger than I’d imagined.

Although this was my first glimpse of him as a person in his own right, I also I felt closer to him. That’s because what he spoke my truth too. In the little forest behind our house I liked to go to a particular spot by myself. I didn’t have the words for it, but when I sat quietly there I had a sense of being in a sacred place. I looked across the circle at my father and loved him more than ever. He looked back at me. His face was luminous in the firelight.

seeing parent as a person, church camp,

The Wearing of Nostril Straws


straw up nose, kids wearing straws, toddler humor,

I don’t buy straws.

Yeah, I’m cheap, but I prefer to believe I’m making an ethical stand.

Straws have one purpose: to spare us the workout of lifting a drink to our lips while tilting the glass slightly.

Each of these miniature plastic pipes are used for a few minutes, then discarded to burden the environment for decades. I think they should only be sold as medical supplies for people who physically cannot perform the lifting/tilting maneuver.

Naturally, straws fascinate my children. Their grandmother, who thinks I’m an extremist for picking up crying babies and limiting screen time, keeps several jumbo packages of straws in a low cupboard where my children can get them any time they choose. Because she lives with us, that’s all the time.

This afternoon two-year-old Sam ran full speed from grandma’s cupboard with not one, but two straws.  I might have paused to wonder what lesson on physics my darling could learn while trying to get a drinkable airlock around both straws, but my attention was diverted because this precious child was wearing the straws shoved mightily up his nostrils.

Such behavior might be funny among a certain type in college. Not so much by a running toddler. I picture a fall drastic enough to force the straws up into his frontal lobes. Doctors would shrug sadly and comment on how the child would now be among those who cannot physically perform the lifting/tilting maneuver.

I believe parents can make stuff up if it’s for a good cause. So I grab the straws and say in a melodramatic you-scared-Mama voice, “Oh no!  If you fell, these straws could get stuck in your nose!”

Unconcerned, he countered, “I like to put things up my nose.”

“You do? What things do you put in your nose?”

“I put food in my nose all the time.”

Now I’m thinking major medical. Is he the child I hear snoring at night? Is there a lima bean acting like a flapping valve cover in some inner chamber of his respiratory system? What kind of traumatic scope-down-the-nose emergency room procedure might have to be imposed to discover this?

I ask sweetly, “Why would you put food in your nose?”

He says, “Horses live in my nose. They get hungry.”

Clearly there is a kid rule; they can make stuff up if it’s for a good cause. Anything to avoid hearing mom’s philosophy about straws.

I’ll raise a glass to his nose horses as I practice some lifting/tilting maneuvers of my own this evening.


A post from the wayback machine. 

Making Memories Through Music



Do you attach any significance to songs that start playing in your mind? I do. Maybe that’s because they often get stuck, becoming earworms that loop around for what seem like hours. Sometimes they even wake me in the middle of the night.

I can’t help but wonder why the underpinning of my consciousness loads a particular piece of music. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out because my husband was whistling it or it was playing at a restaurant or I heard a slice of it when a car stopped next to me at a traffic light. Most of the time it seems too random to be chance. So I try to figure out what the song tells me in lyric or mood or memory.

Today, simply walking into a room, my mind’s playlist came up with a tender song I haven’t heard in decades, “Never My Love.”

It took me right back to my childhood home. Most evenings my schoolteacher father sat in an armchair grading papers. I liked to sit on the floor with my back against his chair reading a book in the same warm circle of lamplight. On those nights he played music like  “Only You” by The Platters, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Cherish” by The Association, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, “So Far Away” by Carole King, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, and just about anything by Burt Bacharach.

My father loved all kinds of music. In college he was nicknamed “Pitch Pipe” – a play on his surname Piper and an homage to his perfect pitch. When my siblings and I were tiny he’d turn the stereo up so we could dance to big band music, the score from a musical, or a classical standard. He’d sing along, harmonizing against the melody. Without a shred of self-consciousness he’d lift up his arms to conduct a particularly tantalizing portion of Bach or Mozart. And sometimes after dinner a song would come on the radio and he’d dance with my mother, both of them smiling as they swooped around the kitchen linoleum.

My father’s father died when my dad was only five years old. The only thing my dad owned of his father’s was a guitar, which he taught himself to play. Supervising little kids’ baths was one of his chores in the parental division of duties, so he’d sit on the toilet lid singing and strumming that guitar while we played in the tub. My splashy siblings and I sang right along with him to tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” We also sang songs he remembered from his college days, lyrics edited for little ears.

I don’t know what it means that I’m hearing “Never My Love.” Most likely something below the surface of my awareness triggered a childhood memory. But I prefer to think it’s a form of connection that lasts even when death separates us.

I’m singing it aloud Dad. I’m singing it for you.

11 Reasons Sing-Songy Names and Rhymes Are Important

benefits of nursery rhymes, chants for preschoolers,

We make up silly songs and even sillier rhymes in my family. Mostly it’s for fun, but I notice that it ushers in all sorts of other positives. It eases tension and creates fond memories. Sometimes it’s even a strangely effective method of shorthand communication.

You probably do this too without even noticing. Maybe you call your partner and kids nonsense names. Maybe you naturally make up tunes to ease a frustrating experience. Maybe you recite the same chants you learned as a child. Here are some reasons why this is so beneficial.

1. Sing-songy names and rhymes span generations. Your great-grandmother may have said “See you later alligator” when she was a girl. She probably also played finger games like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Passing along these traditions preserves a language of play shared from oldest to youngest.

2. They are a form of cultural literacy. Many of these simple refrains are hundreds of years old, nearly identical to those recited in Shakespeare’s time. As children get older they’ll will be surprised to learn the historical roots of nursery rhymes like “Ring Around the Rosy” and “Humpty Dumpty.”

3. Playground rhymes and chants are part of what sociologists call “folkways.” Even when children don’t know one another, they know how to settle who goes first using “Rock, Paper, Scissors” or “Eenie Meenie Miny Mo.” These classics have surprising staying power and become norms in a child’s world.

4. Hand-clapping rhymes and songs not only promote motor skills and coordination, they’re also linked to academic skills. Research demonstrates that young children who take part in hand-clapping chants become better spellers, have neater handwriting, and better overall writing skills. A round of “Say, Say, Oh Playmate” anyone?

5. Nursery rhymes, songs, and clapping games can advance social skills and confidence. Young children feel comfortable with patterned singing, dancing, and playing because these activities proceed with a predictable sequences of words and actions.

6. Rhyming ditties can teach basic skills (such as “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”) and reinforce positive attitudes (such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

7. Rhymes help young children expand their vocabularies, become familiar with grammatical structure, and use sound patterns such as alliteration. The rhyming words themselves foster understanding of word families—groups of words with different beginning letters but the same ending letters. When children already know that “ball” rhymes with “call” they quickly recognize that “wall,” “fall,” and “small” also rhyme. This establishes a groundwork for later spelling and reading. 

8. Action rhymes like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” or “London Bridge is Falling Down” foster full body movement, always a good way to expend energy.

9. Rhymes aid in establishing routines, from clean-up songs to “Teddy Bear Say Good Night.” Familiar tunes and cadences ease transitions from one activity to another in a comfortably upbeat manner.

10. Rhymes are easily customized to fit the moment. Lyrics for “Wheels on the Bus” can be expanded to include such amusements as exhaust on the bus, clown on the bus, and so on. “This Little Piggy Went to the Market” can be played with toes that instead are destined to go to the park where they swing on swings, slide down the slide, drink from the water fountain, and whatever else the child likes to do at the park. The next time it might be played as “This Little Piggy Went to the Beach.” Personalized hand-clapping games, rhymes, and names make play meaningful and memorable.

11. Songs and chants are so essential to our development that we’re coded to recognize them in utero.  Start singing!


Originally published in Holistic Parenting

Public domain image,

Public domain image,


Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Understanding Children Through Imitation

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Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children were asleep. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

Family Stories Form Us


My mother kept family stories alive by folding them into our lives as we grew up. She’d remark, “This would have been your Uncle John’s birthday,” and then she’d tell us something about him. Like the time he taught her how bad cigarettes were. That day he took her behind the garage and let her smoke until she was sick. (She was four years old.) Or how he skipped out on his college scholarship and pretended he didn’t have a bad back so he could sign up for the Air Force. His plane was shot down on his 47th mission, his body never found.

She told us about a great-great-grandfather, left to take a nap under a shade tree as a baby. He was taken by passing Native Americans, who may very likely have thought the tiny boy was abandoned. His parents didn’t go after him with guns, they brought pies and cakes to those who’d taken him to ask for him back.

She told us about a tiny great grandmother who expected other people to meet her every need, but when a candle caught the Christmas tree on fire that same helpless little grandmother immediately picked it up and threw it out the plate glass window to keep the house from burning down.

She told us about her Swedish grandmother who was widowed not long after coming to this country, but kept the family together by taking in laundry. And about the only son growing up in that family who ran away as a teen. They didn’t hear from him till he’d made a new life under a new name, years later.

My mother didn’t just talk about long-gone family members. She told us about people in our everyday lives too. She talked about dating our father, saying he was still the most wonderful man she ever met. She told us about meeting his sister and her husband for the first time—they were on the roof of the house they were building together, hammering down shingles. And she shared inspiring stories from friends, neighbors, and people she’d only read about. She never said it aloud, but her stories gave me the sense that I too had within me the sort of mettle and courage to handle whatever came my way.

Turns out there’s more value to stories than my mother might have imagined.

1. Child development experts say young children who know family stories have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, more family cohesiveness, and stronger internal locus of control. When mothers were taught to respond to their preschool-aged children with what researchers call elaborative reminiscence, their children were better able to understand other people’s people’s ideas and emotions—a vital skill at any age.

2. Family storytelling provides remarkable benefits as children get older. Preteens whose families regularly share thoughts and feelings about daily events as well as about recollections showed higher self-esteem. And for teens, intergenerational narratives help them to shape their own identity while feeling connected

3. Researchers asked children 20 questions on the Do You Know Scale, such as:

  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know the story of your birth?

Results showed that the most self-confident children had a sturdy intergenerational self, a sense they belonged and understood what their family was about. This sense of belonging was called the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

I’ll admit, the stories my mother told throughout my childhood didn’t skimp on tragedy but always highlighted positive character traits. It wasn’t until I was much older that more shadowed family tales slipped out—stories of mental health problems, alcoholism, and lifelong rifts. Those stories are just as important.

Our family tales are simply stories of humanity. All stories help to remind us what it means to be alive on this interconnected planet.  Every day that passes gives us more stories to tell. Even better, more to listen to as well.

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image: Navanna


Create Lasting Family History: 8 Ideas


My family, probably like yours, has only a few pieces of tangible family history. Receipts saved by a great great grandfather. A nearly illegible diary written 70 years ago by a young soldier. Recipes with notations in my grandmother’s handwriting.  Solemn photographs, many unidentified.

Still we recently managed to trace part of our lineage. We found it exciting to uncover a family tree reaching back dozens of generations. Maybe having a Nordic ancestor named Malcolm the Big Headed explains my protracted labor with our very-big-headed third child. But discovering the names of ancestors isn’t entirely satisfying. We want a wider glimpse. We long to know what sort of men and women these people were. How did they feel about the events of their time? What were the stories that made up their lives? What personal traits did they pass down to us?

Our ancestors may not have left us much to go on, but chances are we’re leaving even less for our own descendants. The richest details of family history come from sources that are rarely if ever utilized these days. Families once saved newspaper clippings, but there aren’t many local newspapers reporting the details of club meetings or family reunions. Few of us are avid letter writers with copies of our correspondence. The tradition of travel journals and daily diaries are largely forgotten. We may have extensive digital material but there’s no real assurance that our videos, photos, blogs, and social media sites will be saved let alone accessible in 100 years or more.

There’s a solution.

Create family memorabilia intentionally. This isn’t a one-shot deal, it’s a long-term approach. Working together on any of the following following projects not only promotes close ties, it adds to a storehouse of rich family memories. Choose the methods that work best for your family.


Write Annual Autobiographies

Each year help your young children make a new “All About Me” book. Start with a scrapbook or blank book. Include a self-drawn portrait as well as photos. Write about favorite foods, activities, and places. Use the same prompts each year such as “What makes me happy,” “What I am good at,” “What makes me mad,” and “What I want to be when I grow up.” Don’t show surprise or dismay over any answers, just help with writing, transcribing if necessary.

As your children get older, encourage them to keep up the tradition. These books are an invaluable record of growing self-awareness. You might write one of your own too.


Save Online Journals

Many of us post entries on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, blogs—well, you know. These regular updates are a form of journaling. They detail our struggles, joys, and interests—compiling exactly the sort of material family historians adore.

A simple way to preserve your blog or other online material is to turn them into books. Print out your most memorable posts on acid free paper and slide them into archival sleeves. Or bind them into books yourself (put the terms “book binding instructions” in a search engine). You may prefer to submit the pages to a custom book service such as,, or Consider making copies for each family member.


Keep a History Cache 

Designate a special trunk or storage container as a personal history cache for each person in your family. Use it to store photos, once-favorite toys, copies of medical records, a few baby teeth, letters, artwork, stories written by your child, special ticket stubs, whatever you deem memorable. Whenever possible put items into acid-free bags, wrap fabrics in acid-free tissue, and slip papers into archival sleeves. Add important items to this cache throughout the decades.


Pass Around a Family Journal 

Once a month or so, your family may enjoy adding entries to a large-format, acid-free journal. This journal might include hand-drawn cartoons and sketches, observations about current events, and diary-like entries. Consider lists such as “things I want to invent,” “places I want to go,” and “people I’ll be friends with forever.” Each family member can respond to the same journal prompt such as “my idea of a perfect day,” or “the best part of my week.” Keep this activity light-hearted and non-critical to ensure that kids of all ages continue to take part. Such journals provide a messy and charming look at our unique families.


Make Collaborative Scrapbooks 

If you are one of the many talented scrapbookers carefully keeping photos and memorabilia, you’re ahead of the family history game. But make sure you include more than photos and themed decorations. To really capture the essence of your family you’ll want to include envelopes in your scrapbook pages where you can save letters (try having each member of the family write a letter to an older version of him or herself), lists, and notes about each child. You can also fill the pages with your child’s artwork and creative writing.


Put Together Family Zine 

A family zine or newsletter is a lively way to keep your extended family and friends up-to-date on your news. Include updates, inside jokes, funny quotes from the youngest ones, photos, family trivia (measure the circumference of your heads or all the proposed names for the new goldfish), memorable moments, favorite recipes. You may decide to create a monthly, seasonal or twice yearly issue depending on time constraints. Encourage each child to contribute something each time. Make sure you print out plenty of copies to save on acid-free paper.


Seal a Time Capsule

A time capsule is a great way to get to know what is important to each of your family members. Choose an airtight, heavy duty container if you plan to store it long-term. Ask everyone to contribute items they find personally and historically relevant. This might include photos, toys, artwork, coins, and magazines. For extra protection put each item into separate airtight acid-free bags, folders, or boxes. Include an inventory explaining the items; otherwise the significance of that plastic movie monster may be lost!

You may also choose to leave a written message for whoever will open the time capsule, even if it will be your own family in thirty years. You might want to write about an ordinary day, your concerns, your views on the news, current trends, and predictions for the future. Before sealing, toss in a few desiccant gel packages (these are often found in new electronic goods or vitamin supplements) to absorb damaging moisture.

It’s best to store your time capsule indoors. If it’s hidden, keep track of the location by noting its GPS coordinates. You may choose to schedule an opening at a special date or occasion, perhaps upon the birth of your first grandchild or New Year’s Day 2040. Send those GPS coordinates and plans to as many people as possible for safe keeping. Also, register your time capsule with the International Time Capsule Society.


Keep a Memory Jar

This is the easiest idea of all. Write the label “Memory Jar” on any large container and keep it visible. Or use a locked box with a slot. Encourage family members to scrawl memories, even a sentence or two, on any scrap of paper. Each one needs a date and name before folding it to tuck in the jar. Decide in advance when the jar will be opened. Once a year? After a few decades? Here are more ideas for keeping a Memory Jar.


As you work together on the projects you’ve chosen, you’ll find that making intentional memorabilia is fun. It’s also highly educational, builds family closeness, and creates irreplaceable resources for future enjoyment. Now that’s a legacy.


Published by Natural Child Magazine  March/April 2014

Leaving Little Love Letters

mother's love notes,

Image: Ebineyland

My mother regularly wrote little love letters to her children.  They started appearing on our pillows when we could first read, at least one every month or so. Sometimes her notes would reference something we did or said but mostly they simply gushed with affirmation. Her standard ran along the lines of, “You are the nicest, most wonderful seven-year-old in the whole world.”

Her one or two sentence notes were usually written on a scrap of paper. My mother made “scratch” paper out of junk mail and school fliers. She tore paper on the fold lines, getting three pieces out of a standard letter-sized sheet. This made the flip side of her little love letters unintentionally quirky, with references to bank policy or reminders about choir practice. My brother and sister got their own notes but we never mentioned them to each other. They were a private and cherished connection between mother and child.

By the time I was nine or ten years old I wrote little love letters to her too, hiding my notes in her shoe or tucked into her jewelry box. It was easy to tell when she’d found one. She’d dole out a big hug and whisper a line I’d written back to me.  It seems these notes meant as much to her as they did to me. After she died I ran across some of them stuffed into her favorite cookbook, effusive words penciled in my best handwriting.

I know all too well that family life sometimes scrapes us like sandpaper against those closest to us. We don’t talk enough about what amuses or delights us because we’re busy saying that the towels aren’t hung up, shoes are blocking the door, and food is left out on the counter. We may also be dealing with doubts kindled by worry and annoyances that can spark into anger.

Sure, we linger over tender moments that we wish could last forever. We praise the effort (as all those relationship experts tell us to do). But there’s something special when we take the time to write down our very best feelings for one another.  A note is a tangible expression unlike any other.

I won’t kid myself that I’ll ever write as many tiny love letters as my mother wrote in her life. But today I’ll be writing a few sentences to my loved ones and hiding those notes where they’ll find them. I know there’s a sense of completion when we say what’s in our hearts.