Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Decorations On the Cheap

I consider myself to be, without a doubt, a horrible holiday decorator.


I have an aversion to chachkis, knick-knacks, and the kind of miniature curiosities that always made a holiday at Grandma's house so much fun.

I am not Grandma. So, I need a little push now and then.

My problem is that I love having holiday parties, especially at Halloween. And when you have a party, you simply must decorate for it. Having a fun-looking house makes it feel like a party, even when it's just cousins in costumes having pizza before we go trick-or-treating.

I have a few cheapie tricks up my sleeve that I use every year.

1. Decorate with things you plan to use on Halloween Night. Every year, I decorate my dining room with useful things like the jack-o-lantern shaped candy buckets my children will hold their candy in on Halloween night or the witch's hat I wear at the front door as I hand out treats. Such things are always bright and make a big statement when our guests walk into the room.

2. Use disposable items when you can. I make a bright display with our Halloween dinnerware to make our party room look more festive. Sure, the plates and napkins will be used and thrown away by the end of the night... but then you won't have to spend time cleaning them up, dusting them or storing them, will you? I also have several rolls of plastic table-cloth in various colors. For Halloween, I cover my everyday table cloth with my roll of black. There is no need to worry about mess, and it still helps the table look nice and spooky.

3. Balloons and streamers are always a hit. I am always amazed at my children's reaction to crepe paper decorations. They ooh and ahh over $1.99 worth of paper and 20 minutes of my time. It cracks me up, but they love it. And we always keep balloons in our party supplies. If you choose the right colors, they are a fun addition to the crepe paper. (Here's a hint: save your breath and blow them up with a bike pump. Even the kids can help with that job!)

4. Never be afraid of homemade. For the last three years, my children have made the decorations for the large picture windows on the front of our house. The first year, we made shadow-shapes that would show black when the interior lights were on. Last year, my children wanted to make scary masks, so they drew them with white chalk on dark paper and we lit the porch with a black light so the scary faces would glow. This year, we grew tiny pumpkins in our backyard garden, so the kids have been drawing pumpkins for a week now. We'll cut them out and tape them up on the windows to go with our many jack-o-lanterns. It is so fun to see the ideas my children come up with; homemade decorations really help to spark their creativity.

5. Cheap and cheesy can equal spooky if done right. Remember the $1.99 crepe paper? Well, it's pricey in comparison to a bag of spider rings or a couple of packages of flossy cobwebs. Dimly lit areas get a little extra spook factor when you scatter them with creepy crawlies or drape them very thinly with cobweb -- just enough to brush a person's face as they walk past. I have seen more adult heeby-jeebies than I can count as a result of the cobweb trick. And when kids come to our doorstep, it is fun to tell them they can venture into the darkness to get a spider ring, if they dare. Some of them really have to muster their bravery to get their prize!

6. Try Luminaries. A great way to make your home more visible is to line your walkway with luminaries. We do it every Halloween, and it really brings the kids to our door. All that's required is some paper lunch bags, each with a shovelful of sand and a small tea light. The total cost for a real wonder of a decoration is about $6. I cuff the top of the lunch bags to keep them open (and to keep the paper away from the flame) and light the tea lights with a butane stick lighter (to keep my fingers away from the flame!) I light the lights at dusk, and by the time trick-or-treating is finished, most of my tea lights are going out. I bring in the bags and turn off the porch light when we're in for the night.

So, if you're like me and consider yourself decorationally challenged, remember: Halloween doesn't have to be gory or disgusting or super-expensive to be fun. I hope you enjoy these ideas, and more importantly, I hope you enjoy yourself!

Have a happy and safe Halloween!

-Midwest Mom

Friday, October 24, 2008

Getting Ready for the Freak Show

Yesterday afternoon I opened up our box of Halloween decorations. It is always fun to do, but never more than when the costumes and masks come out of the box.

A few years ago, I purchased a pack of 20 masks that was on clearance. It's nothing too scary; there are animals and monster-movie monsters like Frankenstein and a werewolf. They are made out of craft foam. We bring them out about a week before Halloween, just to get the kids psychologically ready for the freak-show that will come straight to our front door.

I will never forget my oldest son's first Halloween. His teeth were starting to come in, so I made him a black satin cape with red lining and painted a red onesie turtleneck with the words "Baby Dracula." I was so proud of him, and incredibly eager to have him with me when I handed out candy at our front door.

Unfortunately, he was just starting into the "stranger anxiety" phase. When the first trick-or-treater came to our front door, I went temporarily deaf in my left ear. The next day, my neighbor Janet joked that our house was the spookiest. "The screaming was so realistic."

After that, I decided to spend a little time preparing the kids before the big day. We make lots of opportunities for them to wear their costumes or experiment with new ones. Sometimes they choose to scare each other or just to play together. But after a while, even the scaring becomes playful. Last night, one of my sons wore a tiger mask with Dracula teeth and bugged-out googly-eye glasses. It was a hoot.

So, if you happen to come by our place anytime in the next week, don't be surprised to find some pretty spooky looking creatures. I've seen a mummy wandering around here someplace. He even had toilet paper wrapped around his head.


- Midwest Mom

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rainy Day Craft: Caterpillar Friends

I love caterpillars. So do my children. In fact, now they keep them as pets. I'll explain.

Last week, we went to pick pumpkins with NanaJane and Grandpap, and my youngest daughter found a bright yellow beauty laying in the grass. It had eye spots on the top of its head that made it look almost cartoonish. She wanted to hold it, so we had her hold her hand out flat, hoping she wouldn't squish it.

She was fine until the little fella started to walk across her hand. That funny feeling gave her the willies and she turned her hand upside down and vigorously flung the little guy to the ground. (Fortunately for him, she doesn't stand too far from the ground.) He fell into some soft hay and quietly crawled away.

When we got home, we looked our caterpillar friend up on the computer and found out that he will become a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

A few days later, we had a rainy day, and my children started talking about our caterpillar friend. My seven-year-old is crazy about bugs, so he was wishing he'd brought the little guy home. I decided to do this small craft with them so that they would each have a caterpillar friend -- and no creepy crawly feeling!


Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors

Yarn puffs in various sizes and colors

Googly eyes

Elmer's school glue (I use the gel. It's easy to work with and less messy.)

Have your children choose 5-6 puffs and line them up to make their caterpillar. Glue them in a line on the tongue depressor. Choose which end will be the head and glue on the eyes. Allow the project to dry for at least 12 hours.

Once the caterpillars are dry, the popsicle stick will help your children to play with it without ruining it. They are simple, fun little friends, and it is so cute to see how they will bring their new "little buddy" around with them to play.

- Midwest Mom

Monday, October 20, 2008

The New Workout: Home Repair

I am now buff.

(That is, if "buff" means so sore I can barely move.
Maybe what I meant to say is "I'm old.")

For the past week, my husband and I have been working on our house. We've been up on ladders scraping and painting, re-glazing wooden windows, and putting up new soffits. (That's my new vocabulary word, by the way. It means the horizontal piece that connects the outer edge of the roof to your house.)

And now I understand why roofers are always, well, buff.

Balancing on a ladder and working above my head has tired out muscles I didn't know I had. Every night this weekend, my husband and I turned into zombies in front of the fireplace, not moving because we were too sore or stiff. And when we got up in the morning, we did it all again.

Now, hubby is replacing the roof on the garage. He's working furiously to finish the project before it rains on Wednesday.

My work is only half-done. I'm scraping, priming, and painting our front porch -- even though my arms feel just about ready to fall off.

The kids have thoroughly enjoyed this week. They've been playing outside from breakfast until sunset every day, collapsing in a tired heap along with us. I can't help feeling that today will be different for them, though. They're back to school for the first time in three weeks. Our Fall break is over, and it will be back to the books. They'll come home full of energy just as I am dragging my limp-noodle arms behind me into the house.

Pray they don't decide to get in a tickle-fight later.

In my newly "buff" state, I don't think I could defend myself.

- Midwest Mom

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Great Toy #1: Christmas Shopping Guide

Christmas is not far away, and just about every Mom I know has been setting aside a thing or two already.

From now until Christmas, I will showcase one toy idea per week to help inspire parents to make their best choices when they have a personal pow-wow with Santa.

There are a few guidelines I follow when choosing toys for my children. Great toys must:
  • be Age-appropriate -- I don't get Barbies for a one year old. I don't get the Playschool telephone for a twelve year old. That's just common sense.

  • Teach something -- I love toys that teach a concept or require intellectual input from a child. Problem-solving toys are a favorite, as are skill-building toys.

  • Inspire creativity -- Imagination-building toys or toys that allow children to pretend are fantastic. They definitely have a place in my household.

  • be Flexible -- The more flexible a toy is in its use (i.e. not a uni-task toy), the longer it will hold my children's attention. There is nothing worse than buying a toy only to have it fall into disuse. Toys that can be played with in many ways help children to be inventive, and that's just more fun.

  • be Well-made -- I prefer toys made in the United States or Europe. Sometimes that can mean they are more expensive. But a toy that will hold together and take punishment (and one that is sure to follow good safety standards) can last through all THREE of my children. That's a good investment, in my book.


The first toy on our list is:K'Nex building sets

K'Nex is a plastic building set that is available for a wide range of abilities, from preschool on up. The building set has plastic rods, gears, and connectors that allow children to create just about anything. My seven year old has made a motorized working car, a Ferris wheel, or even a grandfather clock with his set. My five-year-old makes hand-held snowmobiles, planes, and cars. My youngest fits pieces together to make fish or other animals for much simpler play.

K'nex sets are entirely manufactured in the United States. Their website has a place for kids to share designs or print off instructions for new projects.

K'nex is a toy that has engaged my children's minds and encouraged them to use their creativity. Playing with it helps them to develop fine motor skills and spatial thinking. It has been fun to see the little engineer come out in all of them, in entirely different ways. The sets we have are far more flexible than the Legos I played with as a child, and far more affordable.

-Midwest Mom

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Talent Search:

Developing your Child's Gifts

My five-year-old son is an artist -- an avid artist. He spends part of each day transferring the pictures in his mind onto paper. When I talk to him about his work, he is clear about what he wants to create and how; he has a remarkable ability to know exactly how to create the finished product he wants.

My seven-year-old is a writer. His stories have remarkable action and a clear voice. He often complains when writing for school that he can't possibly just fill one sheet of paper. Couldn't he write chapters instead of just a paragraph?

I do my best to encourage them both, even if they don't do the best job at encouraging each other. Earlier this week, my oldest forbade his brother from drawing because he wanted to play outside with him instead. "Can he do that?" my younger son protested. I assured him that his brother was not in charge. He relaxed, "Good, because I really love art. I am thinking that it is my special talent."

Brotherly conflict aside, I think it is important to help children develop their interests. It can be a great way to develop the bond of parent-friendship with your child. Here are a few ways to go about it:

  1. Keep it Fun - Often, young children learn best when they are in charge. Don't be in a rush to bill your child as the next Mozart or Monet. Enjoy the fact that they are enjoying what they do. That enthusiasm is its own reward.
  2. Make Space - If you can, devote some space in your home to your child's passion. An art table stocked with supplies, a music corner or reading chair can be comfortable places for your child to pursue what they like when they choose. Outdoors a soccer goal or basketball hoop invites your child to develop his or her skills on his own. I have seen my sons outdoors inventing their own football plays or winning the imaginary World Series. All they require is a little equipment and the space to pursue what they love.
  3. Learn Together - As my children have developed independent interests, it has been so fun to learn together with them. We visit the library for books on art technique or to search for exciting, inspiring writing. We attend sports practices and games as a family, learning along the way. My husband, especially, makes the effort to learn enough about our children's' interests to teach them, but he also listens as they explain new things they've learned. The exchange is exciting to watch, and it helps us build our family friendship on shared experiences.
  4. Give Appropriate Praise - Without going overboard (no sky-writing, please), praise can be an excellent motivator. When my children are frustrated with a new skill, a little praise can go a long way. I never push them, and I try not to turn their successes into my own. But I do give them a quiet look of encouragement, a hand on the shoulder, a word when they need it. At home, we have a kitchen art gallery filled with drawings from all the children. We have video of them and photo collages from their sports teams. These small things say, "I am proud of you."
  5. Find Opportunities for Growth - When a child has an inner drive to pursue a gift, parents should find ways to help them develop. My artist loves trips to the museum. My soccer player loves going to college soccer games. My ballerina loves seeing a real performance with grown-up dancers. Camps, magazine subscriptions, clubs, and school organizations can help your talented kids grow. Exposing your children to new and varied experiences can also be a great way to help them develop new interests.

As always, parents should try to be tuned-in and show good judgment when thinking about their children's' gifts. Not every youth basketball player is going to make it to the NBA. Not every young ballet student will dance professionally. But each experience we give our kids, every opportunity we give them to pursue what they love, will help them grow as strong, gifted individuals.

Besides, I am still waiting to find out my 'special talent'. Maybe one of these days, one of my children will help me to discover it.

- Midwest Mom

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My First Blog Award!

Thanks to Geoffrey at Geoffrey's Farrago for my very first blog award.

Won't my sons be surprised! I'll just set this baby up near the baseball and running trophies and see whether they notice.

(If I could just figure out how to get it off my screen!) - MM

Friday, October 3, 2008

Avoiding The Blame Game

My name is Mom, and I'm a blamer.

Human Beings are known for several strong instincts. The Survival instinct is one we've all heard about. What about the instinct of a mother to protect her child? Who among us hasn't experienced that one?

There is an instinct, however, that is less well known. It has been passed from parent to child for generations. It is the Blame Instinct.

The Blame instinct is the tendency human beings have to seek out and identify, sometimes quite loudly and passionately, the person or thing directly responsible when things don't go our way.

As a parent, I find that I am constantly battling the blame instinct. I come by it honestly. My parents were great blamers. With six children, Mom and Dad had to sort out some pretty difficult lines of culpability. Often, the responsibility for bad behavior fell upon the oldest child involved in whatever shenanigans we got caught up in. Other times, particularly when something potentially fatal was narrowly avoided, Dad or Mom would assign blame to whomever was closest at hand.

"Dad, there was a fire at school today."


"Yeah, it was right outside our classroom. We had to escape out the window."

"Oh my God!" Dad would hold me tight, "Why didn't someone call me?!? And what were you doing in that classroom in the first place, young lady?!?!!"

I laugh at myself when, as a parent, I do the same exact thing. Mostly it is a sign of just how frightened I actually am. And if a person is not available, I will even blame an inanimate object.

Last weekend, my daughter fell right next to an upturned rake. Scooping her up, I said loudly "What idiot left the rake on the ground with the tines up?!? She could have put out her eye!"

My husband speaks up. "Honey, weren't you using the rake?"

"Stupid rake." I muttered, bringing my daughter inside. "Rakes should be illegal."

It wouldn't be so funny if it weren't so true. What disturbs me is that I see the same blame tendency coming out in my children. The couch is responsible for a stubbed toe. A broken toy is the fault of the toy itself. It goes on and on.

I must say, that as a thoughtful parent, an educated, mature adult (neither of which I seem to be when danger is present), I don't think blaming serves much purpose. It just makes the blamer feel better or justified. It is rarely an honest search for the origins of the problem and more a case of scapegoating (even if the scapegoat happens to be a rake.) So, I'm trying to be more conscious of it in myself in the hopes that I can teach my children to avoid such an unproductive (and potentially embarrassing) trait.

I am trying to teach my children to take responsibility for what they do. By teaching my children to own up to their actions, I am hoping they will become more aware of the consequences of their behavior.

But I also teach them that sometimes accidents do happen.

I want my children to grow into careful, thoughtful adults, so I am teaching them that the absence of malice does not prevent a person from being hurt. Their first response to any accidental hurt should be to care for the person being hurt. Blame can wait.

It has been interesting to see them minister to each other to heal hurts first, without accidents being turned into a shouting match of, "Watch where you're going!" "It's his fault!" "I didn't mean to!" Just postponing the issue of blame and encouraging my children, regardless of circumstance, to care for one another has been an amazing step for our family.

I have also started to teach my kids that blaming inanimate objects is not productive.

It may feel satisfying sometimes to blame the bike when you fall off, but ultimately lying to yourself by blaming an object isn't helpful. (I've made a concerted effort to remember this one myself.) My children are often seething and angry. I help them to talk about the anger they feel and together we solve the issue of whether or not we can avoid a future hurt.

We are a team, a problem-solving team.

When I put it to them that way, their need to blame often fades to the background. I try to help them feel really listened to in the process of solving problems. I hope that will lay the groundwork for future situations with the potential to be much more serious than a skinned knee or a stubbed toe.

Time will tell where our family goes with the blame instinct. They say admitting the problem is the first step to getting help. It may be, as long as I can teach myself with as much clarity as I seem to be able to teach them.

Wish me luck.

-Midwest Mom