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How to give your older kid more freedom

Lisa Kadane | posted Monday, Jun 27th, 2016

On summer days, my 10-year-old daughter, Avery, often rides her bike by herself or plays at the park with friends, unsupervised. Come September, she’ll walk the three blocks home from her Calgary school alone, or she’ll leave with a gaggle of grade-five kids to attend an after-school program.

Avery delights in her growing freedom and especially loves inventing games with a neighbourhood posse. It’s a chance for them to make up and enforce the rules without adults present to impose limits on their fun.

The benefits of unsupervised, unstructured play are well-documented. “Kids need practice making decisions, coming up with something to do and getting themselves out of boredom, and that practice comes when they are in charge of themselves and their activities,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). This kind of independent free time also gives kids a chance to problem solve, compromise and communicate with other children across ages and genders, she says.

Is my child ready? The best gauge might simply be your child’s eagerness. Jennifer Pinarski considered her eight-year-old son’s pleas for independence based on his enthusiasm alone. “Isaac’s been begging me to go bike riding by himself for a long time,” says the mother of two, who lives in a rural area outside Kingston, Ont. Isaac already uses public bathrooms by himself and plays unsupervised on the family’s one-acre property. So this summer Pinarski is preparing Isaac to ride the 2.9 kilometres to school with a 10-year-old friend when he starts grade four. They practise paying attention, and looking and listening for traffic.

But there are no definitive signs of readiness for this milestone. Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia in the area of human development, learning and culture, says readiness comes down to the child, the family and their values, and ultimately, the neighbourhood. For example, some parks simply aren’t safe because of criminal activity. If that’s your reality, look for other ways to foster your child’s independence. “Maybe it’s being dropped off at the community centre and meeting a friend to take a class,” says Vadeboncoeur. Giving a big kid more freedom can also mean trusting him to babysit a sibling or fly solo in the kitchen.

Prepare them: There’s not much more to it than teaching your child how to cross a street safely and making sure she knows the route to and from her destination, says Skenazy.

You can also ease into it. With Avery, we started gradually. First we let her walk the dog, then go to a friend’s house, and it grew naturally from there. And we of course had the “strangers” talk. Skenazy says it’s important to teach children that they can talk to strangers—kids might get lost or hurt and need help—but not go off with them.

“My boys know not to help a stranger find a puppy,” agrees Calgary mom Robin Meckelborg. Her 14-year-old son, Tyler, took a babysitting course and a Strangers and Dangers workshop through Child Safe Canada, which puts her mind at ease when Tyler and his 10-year-old brother, Kohen, are playing at the park or riding bikes. The brothers started walking to school together when Tyler was 10 and Kohen was seven, and their boundaries have expanded as they’ve grown and proved their competence.

What if something happens? Tyler and Kohen know to stay and wait for help or ask a stranger for help if someone gets hurt. “They’ve been taught not to leave a man down,” says Meckelborg, who also sends them with a cellphone if they’re going further afield. Meckelborg says letting go was hard at first, but she’s so glad she did it. “It’s good for them to get a sense of how to behave in public spaces without our guidance,” she says. “They have the freedom to make their own decisions.”

Should you quit your job to be a stay-at-home mom?

Claire Gagne | posted Thursday, Jun 9th, 2016

Nadia Bechai was in her early 30s and working toward making partner at a boutique downtown-Toronto law firm when she got pregnant with her first child—but it didn’t slow her down. She continued to put in long hours, taking on files that would advance her career, and she planned on jumping right back into work after five or six months of maternity leave. “I was very career focused,” she says. “I was not the kind of woman who envisioned myself really enjoying children and children’s activities.” But Bechai’s feelings toward motherhood—and her career—changed after her son, Noah, was born.

Not ready to leave her baby with a nanny as soon as she’d planned, Bechai extended her leave. She went back to workwhen Noah was 11 months old, but longed to be at home with him. When she went on mat leave with her twin girls, born two years after Noah, she was up front with her bosses about not coming back before a year. Eleven months into her leave, she resigned.

Quitting her job wasn’t an easy decision: Bechai was raised to pursue a career, and most of her friends were lawyers or other professionals. She saw throwing in the towel on her job as a sign of weakness. If other women managed to juggle a career and kids, why couldn’t she? After months of trying to quash her true feelings, she admitted how she really felt: “Iwanted to be home. I wanted to be the one to have the challenges of motherhood, and I wanted to be the one to have the joys.”

Julia James, a career and life coach in Victoria, says there’s a lot of pressure on moms today. “There are expectations that women are to be there 100 percent for their kids, and there are expectations that they will push forward with advancing in their careers,” she says. Those conflicting ideals can weigh heavily on a mom who’s torn between her career and her kids. But James says the decision should ultimately come down to what you want to do, assuming your financial and child-care situations allow you some choice. Even when you block out external voices, it’s easy to get bogged down with your own thoughts and feelings. Here’s what you’ll need to think about to make the right decision for you and your family.

You first
Your decision to work or stay home with the kids will affect many people, but think hard about what will make you most happy, not what you think should make you happy. Picture your days in both scenarios: If you’re working, you’ll have the benefit of camaraderie, lunch breaks and drinking coffee while it’s hot. As a stay-at-home mom, you’ll have more freedom on one level, but your days will revolve around nap times, meals and playdates. “That’s not to say you can’t develop a new network with parents in your community, but the get-togethers are different. They’re more sporadic and the conversation may be less stimulating,” says Sara Dimerman, a psychologist who counsels families in the Toronto area. On the fence? Think about how you feel (or felt) being on mat leave. Are you bored, isolated and frustrated, or do you love the freedom from deadlines and a cubicle?

There’s more to think about than how you’ll be spending your time. Being at home with your kids all day is challenging in a way you can only understand after you’ve done it, and for some, it takes a toll on their mental health. A 2012 Gallup poll conducted in the US found stay-at-home moms worried more and experienced more sadness and depression than those who were employed. Linda Duxbury, who researches work-life balance at Carleton University in Ottawa, says women who quit their jobs to focus on their kids suffer from what she calls the “all my eggs in one basket” phenomenon. “The more meaningful roles you have in your life, the more likely it is that if something is going wrong in one role, something else will be going well in another,” she says. If you quit your job because you think it’s going to make others happy, you may find yourself resentful when things get tough (because they will). On the other hand, if you want to stay home with your kids, try to ignore external pressures to do otherwise.

The kids are OK
After a year at home with your baby, it can be hard to imagine balancing all that with a job. But people do it, and talking to other moms who’ve gone back to work can help. Feeling nervous about dropping your kid off at daycare for the first time or guilty that the nanny will be taking him to mom-and-me classes? Research shows kids who are looked after by caregivers thrive just as well as those cared for by their mothers. In fact, a US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study of more than 1,000 kids found no difference in the development of children cared for by their mothers compared with those cared for by others (including their fathers) during the first four and a half years of life. And consider what you’re modelling: A study out of Harvard Business School, which looked at data from 24 countries, found that women whose moms worked while raising their kids were more likely to have a good job themselves and earn more than those who grew up in homes with a stay-at-home mom. And men who had a working mom were more likely to contribute to household chores and spend time taking care of family members.

Research aside, for some parents, having their kids with a caregiver during the day simply doesn’t sit right. “It just felt natural to be at home while the boys were little, and I’m glad we were able to financially support that,” says Michelle Williams, a mom in St. George, Ont., whose two sons are now in school.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that your kids are in a loving, stimulating and stress-free environment. If you can and want to provide that, great. But a daycare or nanny is just fine, and you can still have a great relationship with your kids—remember that quantity doesn’t equal quality when it comes to time together.


Financial realities
You can’t ignore the money. Depending on your situation, you might take a financial hit if you quit your job, or you might find staying at home makes sense if the cost of daycare is high in comparison to your income. When you’re crunching the numbers, don’t forget to factor in no longer having benefits (unless your partner has a comparable plan), as well as losing out on raises and promotions, which can have a compounding effect on your finances later in life. If your company contributes to a pension or RRSP account on your behalf, think about those retirement savings losses. And don’t discount lifestyle: If you want to travel or have your kids in extracurricular activities, the money to pay for that has to come from somewhere. One of the reasons Angela Lecompte works is to be able to give her three kids, ages seven, four and two, certain experiences. “I like being able to afford to live in Toronto and also that the girls have the opportunity to be in dance and violin and summer camp,” she says. It helps that Lecompte really enjoys her job as a disabilities counsellor at York University—even though it’s hard missing days with her toddler and school drop-offs and pickups.

For Bechai, money was an important factor because, at the time she quit, she was earning more than her husband, who’s a business manager for a mining company. But Bechai’s desire to be at home with the kids outweighed the lifestyle changes they had to make, like eating out less and waiting to buy clothes on sale. Still, Dimerman cautions against downplaying a financial hit, whether it’s a loss of income or high child-care costs. “You have to measure the kind of stress that can result from being in debt,” she says.

Career goals
The hard truth about quitting your job to stay home with your kids when they’re young is that it will affect your career. “We’re pumping out smart university grads, and technology is growing exponentially right now, so your skill set after five years out of the market is going to be hard to sell,” says Duxbury. She suggests women who’ve spent time and money on their education and building a career should strongly consider what they may be giving up if they take time out of the workforce.

Denise Darling, a videographer at an ad agency in Winnipeg, went back to work after a year off with her daughter. “We would probably be OK financially if I didn’t work, but I didn’t want to let go of this side of my life yet,” she says. Bechai, on the other hand, was confident she could go back to practising law later on. “We felt strongly that I wasn’t becoming a person incapable of earning an income by making this decision,” she says. “I wasn’t losing the years of education and work experience I had under my belt, and I was also not losing my drive and determination.”

If you want to focus on your kids now, rather than your career, Duxbury suggests having a plan for keeping your skills sharp and staying on top of changes in your profession, as well as thinking ahead to how you might re-enter the workforce. Bechai, for instance, thinks she’ll start working again at some point, but she doesn’t see herself in the same role. “I envision myself working from home and doing something—like a small law practice or freelance writing—where I could manage the workflow myself.”

Flex arrangements
The silver lining in this debate is that you don’t always need to make an all-or-nothing decision. Part-time work, reduced hours, contract jobs, freelancing or job sharing are great options. Robyn Brown, an early childhood educator in Winnipeg, decided to work part-time so she could be with her son but still maintain a bit of income and keep one foot in her career. “It’s nice to feel like someone other than ‘Oliver’s mom’ two days a week,” she says. Once Oliver is in grade one, she plans on picking up more hours. Duxbury also points out that the question of career versus family doesn’t have to be limited to you. If you do want to focus on your career, now or five years from now, there’s no reason your partner can’t take a step back from his or her career so you can focus on yours.

Whatever you decide, be kind to yourself. The truth is, you can have it all—a happy family life and a fulfilling career—but you can’t do it all. If you’re working, you’ll be pulled in a bunch of directions at once. Look for ways to relieve the burden, like regular babysitting, using pre-made foods or hiring a cleaner. Have a candid discussion with your partner about divvying up household and parenting tasks, and be sure to take some guilt-free time for yourself. And when you’re home with your kids, turn off your phone and enjoy it. On the flip side, being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t mean you have to be a supermom. If you like making themed bento box lunches, great—but it’s not required. And you’ll also need me-time and a few nights out with friends. At the end of the day, your kids will be fine either way. You’re guaranteed to find moms who’ve made different decisions—that’s OK. Own yours.

The most important thing is that your kids are in a loving, stimulating and stress-free environment.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue with the headline “Quitting time?,” p. 35-37. 

Things to do with the kids over the holidays

Today's Parent | posted Tuesday, Dec 22nd, 2015

Sasha Emmons from Today’s Parent shares her top things to do with the kids over the holidays.

Planet ROM for the Holidays


  • Check out a Mars Rover prototype
  • Touch a meteorite
  • Place space-inspired video games
  • Space gloves on loan from Chris Hadfield
  • Dec. 26 to Jan. 3
  • Adults $17, Kids 4-14 $14, Kids under 3 free

Children’s Discovery Centre


  • Great for little kids with camping, grocery market, a “boom room,” an art hive plus 6 other discovery centers
  • All based on imaginative and creative play
  • General admission for adults and kids over 1 $13; infants free

Magical Toyland at Casa Loma


  • Meet Olaf and Sven!
  • Breakdance shows
  • Santa
  • Cookie Decorating
  • Carollers
  • Scavenger hunt
  • Through Dec. 30
  • Adult $27, Kids $17 

Legoland Holiday Bricktacular


  • Holiday Hunt
  • Ornament build and special holiday Lego structures and building
  • Saturdays and Sundays until Dec. 27
  • General admission $17.50 if you buy online; kids under 3 free


Evergreen Winter Village


  • Local maker market and live music
  • Learn about winter trees in the children’s garden Dec. 26 and 27 (free)
  • DJ skating Dec. 23 and 26, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Blue Mountain or Horseshoe Valley Resort

  • Places like Blue Mountain and Horseshoe Resort have re-opened their Fall activities
  • Blue had their mini putt, ropes course, mountain coaster
  • Horseshoe has the mini putt, maze, and climbing wall
  • Fingers crossed for colder temps so they can start making more snow

Ice skating the Harbourfront Center


  • Free skating right on the water
  • DJ skating on NYE and Jan. 2, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Should kids write thank-you cards for holiday gifts?

Sasha Emmons and Chad Sapieha | posted Thursday, Dec 10th, 2015

Sasha Emmons, Mom of two

Ah, the holidays. A time of peace on Earth, good will toward men…and total, unmitigated greed. I love hanging with family and having an excuse to eat cookies, but I could do without the raging case of the gimmes my kids, Chloe, 10, and Julian, 6, come down with every single year, as toy catalogues and TV ads convince them the big guy in red’s there to shower them with whatever their hearts desire. And that’s just the Santa gifts. As the only little kids on my husband’s side of the family, by Christmas morning they’re drowning in packages from relatives.

The antidote to all this stuff-itis is to make them write thank-you notes. Shopping for, wrapping and delivering a present requires effort, and I think it should be acknowledged with a little effort in return. My family is spread across the US, and in some cases this gift and note exchange is the kids’ only tangible touch point with far-flung relatives. I know it’s a bit schoolmarmish of me to cling to this old-fashioned custom, but in this screen-centric world, where it’s hard to get kids to look up long enough to even have a conversation, I worry about my kids losing old-school manners. And recognizing thoughtfulness never goes out of style.

Now before you let years of unwritten thank-you notes haunt you, know that I’m right there with you. We start strong, ticking names off the list and signing adorably scrawly signatures. But a few notes in, the kids and I start to butt heads. They hate sitting and thinking of what to say, and I hate sitting and making them do it. Before long, we’ve lost the list of who gave what, and too much time has passed for my feeble mom brain to piece it back together. (To anyone reading this who’s owed a thank-you note, I want you to know we loved the gift and appreciate you thinking of us.)

So should kids write thank-you notes? Yes. Do mine? A few make it into the post and hopefully make someone’s day. And this year I’ll be asking Santa to give me and them the perseverance to finish them all.

Chad Sapieha, Dad of one

My wife, Kristy, is a wonderful woman with boundless social grace and the best of intentions. So it came as no surprise when she decided a few years ago that our daughter, then around four or five, ought to send a thank-you card for every Christmas gift she received. Kristy purchased multiple packages of cute cards upon which our little girl was to scrawl her name and whatever semblance of gratefulness she might manage.

This proved challenging. We have a ton of friends and family, so our daughter receives a lot of gifts. Writing notes of thanks for all of them is time-consuming. Getting our daughter to do it required multiple sessions over several days, each one an exercise in frustration.

It hasn’t gotten any easier. Turns out fourth graders have as little interest in sitting down for an hour to write polite missives as kindergartners do. Go figure.

But Kristy refuses to give up. Each year she buys more cards. And each spring, I reach to the bottom of our overflowing stationary basket, grab the oldest cards and dump them into the recycling bin. It’s like tossing last week’s produce to make room for the new: expensive and wasteful.

Look, thank-you cards are wonderful in principle. They teach kids to express gratitude and they help improve their penmanship. But they’re just not practical. Why not just text the gift giver a picture of your kid opening the present? Better still, Skype or FaceTime the moment. These alternatives are quicker, cheaper and more memorable.

The simple truth is that you can’t dictate gratitude. When you receive a thank-you card from a kid, you have no idea if he was actually grateful. Reading the note, you probably don’t think, What a thoughtful and considerate child! You think, What thoughtful and considerate parents.

I’m not into these social shenanigans. I’d rather spend the time wasted on thank-you cards building a Boxing Day snowman with my daughter.

A version of this article appeared in our December 2015 issue with the headline “Should kids write thank-you cards for holiday gifts?” p. 104.

Read more:
How to raise an appreciative child>
Teach your kids to appear grateful (even if they aren’t)>
How to avoid spoiling kids at Christmas>

Holiday calendar: 31 festive activities

Laura Grande | posted Thursday, Dec 3rd, 2015

December 1: Bring out your advent calendars and deck the halls of your house!

December 2: Have a “crafternoon” making our winter wreath and holiday garland.

December 3: Mail letters to Santa nice and early to ensure he has enough time to respond!

December 4: Start making (and freezing) those early batches of holiday cookies.

December 5: Find a local toy drive and make a holiday donation!

December 6: Today marks the start of Hanukkah. Make our easy DIY menorah.

December 7: Decorate the outside of your house and warm up afterwards with hot chocolate.

December 8: Bake (and decorate!) a gingerbread house!

December 9: Choose the perfect Christmas tree and decorate it!

December 10: Watch a holiday flick with the family.

December 11: Stay on budget! Make sure you’re tracking all your holiday purchases.

December 12: After dinner, bundle up the family and go for a mini-hike.

December 13: Get your Christmas cards written and stamped.

December 14: Hop in the car or go for a walk and take a Christmas-light tour with your family. Hanukkah ends.

December 15: Get your kids feeling festive by making your own holiday wrapping paper.

December 16: Schedule a date night with your partner before the holiday madness kicks in.

December 17: Today is the cut-off for out-of-province holiday mail delivery.

December 18: Go skating!

December 19: Take some “me time” today, even if just for an hour.

December 20: Have a screen-free evening. Read your family’s favourite holiday books.

December 21: Today is the cut-off for local holiday mail delivery.

December 22: Schedule a date night with your partner before the holiday madness kicks in.

December 23: Take a deep breath (and avoid the mall!). The Christmas madness is about to begin!

December 24: Put on a holiday playlist, hang up those stockings and listen for Santa’s sleigh.

December 25: Merry Christmas!

December 26: Boxing Day. Kwanzaa begins.

December 27: Play your favourite board game!

December 28: Declare today National Pajama Day. Play games, watch movies and stay cozy in your PJs!

December 29: For those eager to get their house back to normal, set some time aside to start taking down Christmas decor.

December 30: Make your New Year’s resolution and stock up on anything you need, the stores will be crazy tomorrow.

December 31: Prepare to ring in the new year! Host a family-style NYE bash.

Read more:
10 tips for baking with kids
Craft: No-sew Advent calendar
3 tips to getting a great picture with Santa

8 recipes for turkey leftovers

Today's Parent | posted Tuesday, Oct 13th, 2015

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