My Secret Weapon

I had several alternate titles for this post:

Why I’m Judging Your Parenting

The One in Which I Brag About My Verbal Child

Why My Kids Are Smarter Than Your Kids

Take your pick.  But, seriously, this is a post you should read.

There are probably a lot of things that I could have done better as a parent.  But, occasionally, I have hit it out of the ballpark.  Baby sign language has got to be among the top 10 of my successes.  I have NO IDEA why not everyone in the world does this with their babies.  We started it with Sam and used it with Eleanor.  I felt like it was very successful and our kids had a larger-than-average vocabulary when they started pre-school.  But here’s where I have to brag.  We brought Lucy home at 10 months of age.  She spoke no English and had not been exposed to it at all.  She spoke no words (according to the nannies) in her native language.  At 12 months, she was evaluated for speech (along with a slew of other things) and was found to be way behind in her verbal skills.  Never fear.  We started using sign language, and by 18 months she had completely caught up with her peer group and now (21 months), she is ahead of where Eleanor was at the same age.  I attribute all of this to our use of baby sign language.  If you’re not using this with your toddlers, you are making a parenting mistake.  Yes, there it is…I am judging you.

Here are some facts:

  • Research confirms that signing babies have fewer temper tantrums.  This makes sense, because if babies are able to express themselves through a sign, they can tell you what they want.  It takes the guesswork out of your job.
  • Baby signers speak earlier than babies who don’t sign.  Babies learn that a sign is something that stands for something else.  This leads to the natural next step, using a word to represent that same thing.  Babies can understand words before they can say them, but sign language provides a bridge until they learn to vocalize.
  • Studies shows that babies who sign, have larger speaking vocabularies earlier than their peers. They even do better as they get older and start school. One study showed that eight year olds who learned baby sign language as infants had an average IQ 12 points higher than non-signers.

Here are some clips of Lucy using signs.  Most of these were in November, so she would have been about 19 months.  These are a little random, because I wasn’t very good at capturing them, but let’s face it, any video with Lucy in it is always popular.

Sign Language Clips from Kristin W on Vimeo.

The amazing thing about this is that it’s EASY to do.  It doesn’t require a big investment or a lot of time.  You simply start by doing the sign when you say the word.  Then repeat.  Eventually, the baby will start mimicking the signs.  Easy peasy.  There are a ton of books, websites, videos, and apps that can help you get started.  After you read up on how to introduce signs, I’d recommend the app “My Smart Hands.”  Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 2.33.01 PM

It has video clips of most of the words you’ll want to use and she explains why the sign looks the way it does (to help you remember).  I kept it on my phone and when we wanted a new word, it was easy to find.  I would not recommend the tons of flash cards that are available.  Learning signs shouldn’t be schoolwork, it should be incorporated into your daily routine, using the words as you would normally use them.  That said, if you want a video to keep the little one occupied, we used “Talking Hands,” which all of our kids liked.  It’s a little slow, but the repetition is important and as an added bonus, the signers are multicultural.  I think it’s out of date, but I found a DVD on ebay (to replace the VHS we had when we started with Sam…it’s been a while).

Lucy is now 21 months and we’re starting to move away from sign.  She can now easily pick up new words and is rapidly adding to her vocabulary.  Last month, we tracked all the words she could say (and use appropriately), and she was up to about 80 words.  As a comparison, Eleanor had 62 at the same age.  I am truly astounded at how a baby so far behind can so quickly catch up.  I think sign is fabulous for any child, but especially for those whose language acquisition was interrupted by international adoption.



I am a big believer that our kids need chores.  They need to feel like they are a vital part of the household and they need to learn some skills so they won’t still be living here when they are 30.  So, over the years, I have come up with about 10 different ways to assign and track chores.  Needless to say, they all start off great, then tend to fizzle out.  In addition, when we added two more kids to the mix, it became overwhelming for me to keep track of who was doing what (and how well).

But, since it’s a new year, I am trying once again to light a fire under my kids butts.  First, the big kids.  At 11 and 9, they are clearly able to handle more complicated chores, however with swimming, baseball and an enormous amount of homework, they just don’t have a lot of time.  At the beginning of the week, I print out a checklist with daily chores, and they each get 2-3 per day.  This is no different than it used to be.  However, I’ve now added “bonus chores” for which they can be paid.  At the beginning of the week, I put magnets on the fridge with the job and how much they are worth.

DSC_0056I bought some plastic envelopes at Office Depot and cut off the flaps.  When they do a chore (first come, first serve), they move the magnet into their envelope.  On Sundays, I pay out for whatever is in the envelope.  They also both get an allowance (one dollar for each grade level, so Sam’s up to six dollars a week), but that allowance isn’t tied to any chores.  Since Eleanor is very motivated by money, this has been great for her.  In the first week, she was able to double her allowance.  I’m not sure how long the motivation will keep up, but she is trying to save up for the new American Girl doll, so that should buy me some time.  The things that I pay for are things that I would normally do, so if they don’t get done, I don’t sweat it.

Since Ayub can’t read, I made a picture chore chart for him.  Of course, it had to have a Captain America theme, because I’m pretty sure that Captain America is good about finishing his chores, don’t you think?

ayub chartHe has two columns: to do and “I did it!”  There are pictures in the “to do” column each day and when he is finished, he moves it from one side to the other.  I tried to make the pictures as understandable as possible and to include what type of tools/supplies are needed so that he could remember how to do it.

Untitled-1The first week was tough, because I had to show him how to do each task.  At first, he was very excited about getting to help out and having chores like the big kids.  He made it to Thursday before he told me “I don’t wanna do that…chores is boring.”  See what a smart kid he is?!?!?!  But, we’ve stuck with it and most of the time he will complete his tasks.  And sometimes they are even passable.  But, hey, he’s five, so we let it slide a little.

Lucy has only one chore…to feed the dog.  For those who didn’t see it on Facebook, here’s how excited she gets about doing her part around the house.


Lucy’s Chore from Kristin W on Vimeo.

Me and My Shadow

I face the same dilemma that many photographers do.  My photo albums are filled with pictures of my family, but it looks as if I never existed.  Always being behind the camera means that there are no pictures of me.  Part of my photography goals for the year was to include myself in more pictures and to make sure that I had pictures with all four of the kids.  Today, I started with Lucy.  I am still working on learning my new flash, so these were a bit of a stretch.  I used a remote, which I plainly forgot to hide in some of these.  However, since Lucy and I spend our days together every day, I am still glad to have these to prove that for at a least a year, we hung out every day.

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DSC_0085 velvet peachSo what did I learn from this?  Self-portraits are hard.  Self-portraits with a toddler are even harder.


Eleanor is NINE

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My big girl turned nine this week.  My gorgeous, outspoken, dramatic, insistent girl has been around for nine years.  I always get a little nostalgic on her birthday, probably because hers was such a difficult pregnancy.  I went into pre-term labor at 27 weeks, but after much bed rest, three hospitalizations, and numerous medications to stop contractions, we made it to 36 weeks.  It’s something I don’t think much about, except on her birthday.  If I had known then that this was just her “I want it my way and I want it right now” personality showing through, it might have made things easier.  But, it was a very tough time, and her birthday was the end.  The finish line.  [Insert sigh of relief.]

But, on a light note, I made the most fantastic pancakes for her birthday breakfast.  You can find the recipe HERE.  They really are as good as she says.  Eleanor loved them, as did the rest of the family.

DSC_0029And for her cake, Eleanor wanted a Thor cake.  She told me I should go to Publix and “tell them I’m a boy so you can get an Avengers cake.”  UGH!  Eleanor has an older brother and a dad who are superhero fans, so it makes sense that she has developed a love for them.  She has a book with all the Avengers biographies and has educated herself on every one of them.  But she still thinks it’s not alright for a girl to be so interested.  For a long time, she didn’t mention it at school because she was afraid the girls would laugh at her.  Now she has reached out to a few friends and learned that maybe it’s okay.  What is wrong with this picture?  Why are we (still) raising little girls who don’t think they can play with certain toys or be certain things when they grow up?  I’m pretty sure she’s not getting these ideas at home, but how do I fight against the rest of the world?  Eleanor is smart.  Really smart.  And, she is a little manipulative.  Not necessarily in a bad way (although sometimes), but it’s more that she reads people well enough to know what buttons to push to get what she wants.  She really could grow up to be anything.  Yet she thinks that only boys can have an Avengers cake.   So my daughter is nine.  I have had her for half the time she will live with us.  (This, in itself, is a crazy thought for me.)  I only have nine more years to instill in her the confidence that will allow her to take on the stereotypes and change the world.  So look out, media, friends and society in general.  I am declaring war on you.

Random Acts of Kindness

Before I forget, I want to recap how we spent part of our December.  I wanted to stress to the kids (especially the big ones) the spirit of giving this year.  At the beginning of December, we brainstormed some ways that we could do Random Acts of Christmas Kindness around town.  We made a list of 25 things, and although we didn’t keep to our initial plan of doing one a day, we did make it through quite a few.  Some were more labor-intensive than others, but all were relatively inexpensive or even free.  Here’s a list of what we did, along with some photos, although I didn’t take photos of most things and some are from my iPhone, so not my typical photo quality.

  • Made Christmas Cards for people at a retirement home.




  • Cleaned off our bookshelves and donated the extra books to the Children’s Home Society.
  • Gave one of the books to our mailman (a joke book, since he likes to tell the kids jokes when he sees them).
  • Made cookies for our neighbors.




  • Hid dollars at the Dollar Tree for others to find and use.


  • Read Christmas books at the kids’ old preschool.
  • Put quarters in the gumball machines at the mall.


  • Volunteered at Children’s Home Society to help sort donations to go to families.  (Sam and Eleanor did this one on their own.)
  • Gave hot chocolate packets to the library workers (delivered through the book drop).




  • Put candy canes on the windshields of the cars at Target one afternoon.




  • Paid for someone in line behind us at the drive thru.
  • Asked a cashier what her favorite candy was and then bought it for her.

Because I got sick for about a week while Andrew was out of town, we kind of took a break mid-month.  I didn’t want this to become something that was a chore.  But the kids really enjoyed it.  They had a great time coming up with ideas, and once we got started they added other things to the list.  They even did a few nice things for each other.  (Honest.  I was shocked.)

Overall, I’d say that it was a success.  If nothing else, we had a little fun and spent some time doing something together as a family.  It was interesting to me to see how differently the kids approached things.  Sam wanted to be super-stealth and make sure no one knew it was us.  For example, he wanted to put the joke book in a different family’s mailbox, because if we used our own, he would know it was from us.  Eleanor just wanted to do projects that were oriented around money (the Dollar Tree and the gum ball machines were her favorites).  It made me realize how much that child would like to find money somewhere.  Although it didn’t go exactly as planned, they got the point of enjoying generosity and started to think about doing nice things for others. Now that the holidays are over, I’m looking forward to finding some other ways to keep them thinking about helping others, but we will definitely do this again next year.



Why I Love Santa Claus

I’ve read a lot over the past few months, and I’ve sat by silently.  I’ve read a lot of blog posts about people “don’t do Santa” for one reason or another.  Maybe it’s because they want to focus on the religious meaning of the holiday.  Great.  Maybe it’s because they want to steer away from commercialism.  OK.  Maybe it’s because they don’t want to lie to their kids.  Bravo.  Maybe it’s because the parents want to take credit for the things they spent their hard-earned money to buy.  Shallow, but your call.  Or maybe it’s because their kids are from a country where Santa didn’t come to visit and they think it will be confusing to the kids.  Believe me, I totally get it.

I sat back and read all these posts.  They make sense.  Santa is a commercialized lie.  But I love that fat, jolly man, and so I’m going to make my case about why Santa is the greatest thing ever.

I tried to keep it small.  I tried to not make a big deal about Santa.  But it’s hard.  Of course, I drug my kids over the Thanksgiving weekend to sit on his lap.  (Necessary photo op, right?)

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At first, we tried to downplay the “naughty/nice” thing.  But let’s face it, that pesky elf tradition is everywhere, including school, so in the end we went with it, too.  And here’s the thing…I don’t think Ayub ever questioned why Santa hadn’t been to see him in Ethiopia.  So much of the past year has been all new to him that this was just one more thing.

In no particular order, here are the reasons that I love Santa.

Santa is magical.  Childhood is short…too short.  Kids grow up too fast.  Believing in Santa means believing in flying reindeer, elves who makes gifts, and a single trip around the world in one night.  There is just something wonderful about the ability of children to believe.  On Christmas day, after Santa had visited us, Ayub was outside with Andrew and wanted to check out the chimney from the outside to see where exactly Santa had entered.  That’s just cool.

Santa teaches kids the spirit of giving without expecting in return.  Santa doesn’t expect anything (ok, well maybe a few cookies) in exchange for his generosity.  He does it because he loves to give.  This is a lesson that my older kids have really embraced since finding out the truth.  They love being able to pick out gifts for the little ones and know they won’t be thanked for them.  But it’s their favorite thing to do.

Santa is the best kept secret EVER.  When you think about the millions (billions?) of people who know the truth, but don’t ruin it for little kids, doesn’t that amaze you just a little.  I mean, what other secret is so well-guarded?  I am seriously blown away by the fact that for hundreds of years, people have been telling their kids this same story.  And now, I get to tell it to my kids.  And one day, they will tell it to my grandkids.  It’s a real circle-of-life thing that actually gets me a little choked up to think about.   Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus.

Santa has the ability to make wishes come true.  The best Santa presents are the ones the kids think they have no chance of getting.

Anticipation is one of my favorite things to watch.  The waiting.  The counting down.  The inability to fall asleep on Christmas Eve.  I love it.

This year, Santa came to our house.  Although I started with a “let’s keep this small” attitude, in the end, there were once again more presents than my kids need.  Now I’m cursing myself while buying storage bins and rearranging closets.  But my kids have magical memories that will last a lifetime.  Some day, I will have to tell them all the truth.  But, if I’m lucky, I’ve got six more years.

DSC_0020 2 DSC_0024So till next year…Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.