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Weekly Message from the Editor

Family Editor's Welcome

Enduring Cheap Entertainment

By Nicole Mullis, Raising a Family Editor

I have a place in my house for annoying toys – the dusty top of the refrigerator. My kids know if I put something there, it is dead to us. This shouldn’t work, but it does.

Current top-of-the-fridge residents include a cap gun, a megaphone that makes your voice sound like a robot, a light saber, the cooking implements for the Easy Bake Oven, and a harmonica. They are up there because they’ve been dangerous or annoying or fought over to the point of bodily harm.

My kids are older and I haven’t added to the fridge collection in some time. A couple months ago, a stray balloon turned up in our yard. Simple, blue, filled with nothing but carbon dioxide. My son picked it up and proceeded to drive me bonkers with it.

Together with my youngest, they invented a volleyball-type game. They pushed back my coffee table. They took an old stuffed snake from the chest of forgotten toys and made a centerline in my living room. This was where the banging and sliding and shoving took place.

Every slap, tap and smack of this balloon echoed through the house, along with the screams, bangs and shouts of kids competing. I hate the squeal made by pinching a balloon. I wanted to confiscate the thing but they were entertaining themselves. And, judging by the violence of their entertainment, the balloon wouldn’t last long.

The next morning, my son came to breakfast with the balloon. He prodded my youngest through her cereal and the game resumed. Arguments erupted every few minutes as the rules grew more complicated. It was now part hockey, part congressional hearing, and all annoying.

The next day a pink balloon showed up in our yard. It was cupped near the door in a purposeful way. I started thinking someone was playing a joke on me – maybe a neighbor or a bored circus clown. Turns out, my kids found it floating in the neighborhood and left it there for later.

This was when my oldest got in on the action. Initially, she was irritated. Now she wanted to improve the game. She suggested a “double-tap” rule and demanded they be able to spike the balloons over the coffee table.

This resulted in the overturning of my rocking chair, the stubbing of several toes, the fleeing of the dog to the laundry room and, once, the near-fiery end of my house.

I keep candles in the living room because I like them and it’s a living room, not a gym. One of the balloons drifted over the fireplace, where I had three candles burning. My son barreled into the mantle to prevent losing his double-tap while my youngest shrieked, “IT DOESN’T COUNT!”

I was done.

I tried hiding the balloons at night but they were too floaty to stay hidden. Why couldn’t I bring myself to banish them to the fridge? True, they were dangerous, annoying and being fought over to the point of bodily harm. But my kids were playing happily for days. Together.

Eventually, the balloons popped and my kids moved on to driving each other up the wall, plugging into the computer, dying of boredom, and begging to go places.

As their summer vacation drags on, I find myself checking the yard for stray balloons.

And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

The Beauty of Because I Said So

By Sarah Hamaker, Raising a Family Editor

Are you comfortable with saying those four words, “Because I said so,” to your child? Most parents would answer no, that those words can damage a child’s self-esteem and the parental relationship with the child.

That much-maligned phrase has become the pariah of parenting, the one thing you never want to be caught uttering to your children. Rest assured, dear reader, that I have uttered those words many times to my children and the sky hasn’t fallen.

But I will lay out my case for making “Because I said so” part of every parent’s vocabulary. Here are four excellent reasons why sometimes, it’s the only answer to a child’s question or comment.

  1. “Because I said so” reaffirms parental authority. Parents shouldn’t have to explain themselves constantly to their children. Let’s face it, our explanations are not going to be acceptable anyway because children aren’t logical beings, so we save ourselves—and them, too—from fruitless conversations or arguments.
  2. “Because I said so” gives a child an honest answer. Sometimes, the reason is only because you, the parent, want something done a certain way. That’s all there is to it, and using those four words conveys that to the child.
  3. “Because I said so” eliminates needless arguments between parent and child. Children are not going to understand our reasons for most things we do until they are parents themselves.
  4. “Because I said so” says the parent knows best for the child. Children have no concept of what’s in their best interest, so parents have to step in and guide them until the child reaches adulthood.

Keep in mind that “Because I said so” should never be shouted at a child, only delivered in a warm, resolute voice. The words are essentially asking the child to trust the parent to do the right thing. Kids don’t know what is the best thing for them—they are governed by emotions and wants.

As with any child-rearing method, use “Because I said so” sparingly, as it’s not right for every situation. Having a stock phrase like “Because I said so” will benefit both parent and child when it’s used judiciously, appropriately and lovingly. I encourage you to add it to your repertoire today.

And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

Cutting Back on Kid Commutes

By Nicole Mullis, Raising a Family Editor

I’d like to propose a law. 

Minors who cannot drive themselves will be limited to one extra-curricular activity per week. Fines for offenders will double during the months of May and June.

I know. It sounds a little unconstitutional, but hear me out.

As any parent will tell you, May and June is when a child’s school activities and summer activities converge like two opposing storm fronts, creating a great funnel cloud of chaos. Classes, rehearsals, recitals, tournaments, practices, lessons, sessions, fittings, field days, field trips, double-headers, etc. At the eye of that cloud is a car. And driving that car is a sleep-deprived adult.

And we all know what happens when funnel clouds move.

Between rush hour, construction crews, and unpredictable weather systems, we are perpetually late for something. Every red light, every orange barrel, every grey cloud stirs our anxiety. Main roads or back roads? Chance the train or backtrack to the bridge? Stop for a Big Mac or make due with Tic-Tacs? One wrong guess and you have a disappointed and possibly malnourished child.

And I don’t want that. No parent does. It’s our job to make sure our kids are well-rounded, which culturally means running around, changing lanes and parking badly. We’re a well-intentioned but scary bunch of people and we’re all on the road between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.  

If we pass my law, all those parents could go home and take a nap, reducing traffic volume, childhood obesity and our dependence on foreign oil.

Plus, my house could have toilet paper.

I’m not kidding. One morning, while reviewing the day’s events with my semi-conscious offspring, my oldest announced, “There’s no toilet paper in our bathroom.”

The other two perked up over their Fruit Loops and chimed in that my bathroom was also out of toilet paper.

I stopped reviewing.

I picked up my grocery list, which had nothing on it, and wrote toilet paper. My eyes strayed to all the to-dos, which were basically the same: run, Run, RUN! Panic hummed like caffeine through my brain. Unless TP was in my glove box, I was doomed.

And that’s when it hit me. One person cannot effectively be the driver, the cook, the tutor, the counselor, the errand girl, the finder-of-lost things and the replenisher-of-toilet-paper. It’s too many hats and not enough driver’s licenses.

I’m not saying I want my kids to drive sooner. My son’s been pretending to race cars since he was two and my oldest shrieks horror-film style whenever we have to merge on the highway and there’s a truck. Just imagining them behind the wheel makes my auto insurance premiums rise.

Still, I can understand why my parents were as keen for me to drive at sixteen as I was. They needed boots on the ground, well, in the car. They needed someone to buy milk and get my brother from karate and drive my sisters to dance. And who better than an eager teen who was clutching her cassette tapes to her chest just dying to get in the car and DRIVE.

I would love to have such a person right now. Better yet, I’d like my law to pass. I could whittle down my kids’ calendar without guilt and buy toilet paper in peace. No insurance hikes required.

And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

The Creativity of Boredom

By Sarah Hamaker, Raising a Family Editor

Can anything good come out of being bored? The answer may surprise you.

With summer right around the corner, parents will soon hear cries of “I’m bored” from their children. But is being bored such a terrible thing?

Boredom is a relatively new thing, as children of previous centuries had not free time in which to be bored. In fact, if a medieval times child had displayed boredom symptoms, the person would be charged with committing “acedia, a ‘dangerous form of spiritual alienation’—a devaluing of the world and its creator.” Acedia was labeled as sin, what with all the things a family had to do for mere survival during that time period.

With the many labor-saving devices of our American households, most U.S. children have the luxury of free time, which they tend to fill with electronics. However, that constant stream of electronic stimuli has breed a new boredom epidemic, one that’s fueled by an ever-growing need of kids for constant electronic amusement, from video games to television and movies to Angry Birds to iPads and computers.

Parents are partly to blame for this new, negative form of a numbed mind because of their lack of tolerance for any whining from their children. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen toddlers in a grocery cart, their eyes fixed on the screen of their mom’s smartphone, oblivious to the world around them. At the first peep from a young child at the doctor’s office, out comes the smartphone and into the little hands goes the electronic babysitter.

Of course, we as parents are no different, are we? We numb our own minds with electronic stimuli all day long, from constant Facebook and Twitter checks, to texting while walking, driving, sitting at a traffic light, at the table, at the store, etc. It’s starting to be the exception when you see a grown-up in public who’s not tethered to a phone or tablet (that would be me!).

When our kids see us always being “entertained” and plugged in with electronic devices, it’s no wonder they beg for the same pacifier. We’ve forgotten how important the right kind of boredom can be to stimulate creativity and spurts of pure fun and genius.

There’s “an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book or build a fort or pull out the paints … and create or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball,” writes Richard Louv in his excellent call for kids to be outdoors, Last Child in the Woods.

This summer, I challenge you to unplug your kids for a week. No TV, no video games, no movies, no smartphones or computers or tablets. Just them and their world. Sure, the first day will be spent with them saying they have nothing to do, but if you persevere and don’t give in, soon they will find their imaginations again, and that will be a beautiful thing.

For non-electronic ideas, check out my ebook Boredom Busters. Only 99 cents on Kindle and iPad, Nook and other devices.

And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

Nobility and Cupcakes

By Nicole Mullis, Raising a Family Editor

Grade-schoolers love to party. Every holiday, every class event, every birthday requires a celebration. And celebrations require food. And food requires parents.

There was a time I embraced this call to the kitchen on my children’s behalf. Not to brag, but baking is in my blood. The first recipe I mastered was for chocolate chip cookies. Then I moved onto pies, cakes, muffins, brownies and eventually dabbled in the “official” food groups one has to eat to get to dessert. I was ready for my oldest to party at school.

Or so I thought.

I baked all day, pouring batter into cute little cupcake wrappers purchased just for the occasion. I frosted the cupcakes a kid-friendly pink and dusted them with sprinkles purchased just for the occasion. And when my recipe that promised to make 24 cupcakes made only 21, I returned to the store. And when I dropped one of the cupcakes, needing a 25th cute little cupcake wrapper, I returned to the store.

I was done around midnight – hating all things cute and cake.

The next morning, I had to transport my masterpieces to school. Moving 24 top-heavy, frosted pastries wasn’t simple. I scrubbed out my muffin tins and reinserted the cupcakes as if they were enriched and slightly unstable uranium. I laid protective cellophane over the top, which clung to everything but the pan and gouged a cupcake. I remedied this by dipping it in sprinkles. Sprinkles cover all sins.

The cupcakes needed babysitters to survive the car ride and my babysitters were all babies. Fortunately, I’m a resourceful control freak. I drove 20 miles under the speed limit with a cupcake tin balanced on my lap, another wedged in the passenger seat, and an angry commuting mob riding my bumper. It wasn’t safe but I was no longer rational. Those cupcakes were my calorie-laden children.

Getting to school was one thing. Getting the cupcakes into the building was another. Both my kids and my baked goods required me to ferry them across the parking lot. I decided to take my kids across first. Barely. After conscripting the school secretary to watch them, I delivered the cupcakes to the classroom. I went home exhausted, coated in frosting and splattered with sprinkles.

Repeat this about eight dozen times and you get the last eight years of my mommyhood. Always midnight, always frustrated, always leaving in a powdered-sugar huff.

I remember the first time I saw a mother dropping off a box of purchased cupcakes professionally sprinkled according to the occasion. She looked relaxed – like she had slept, showered and drove the speed limit. I couldn’t help thinking, CHEATER. Now I think, SMART!

I’ve discovered kids only care about three things when it comes to party treats:  I want one, I want the best one, I want another one. They don’t care if you or the Keebler Elves made them. Besides, after extra mixes, extra eggs, extra tins, extra frosting, extra sprinkles (which are the price per ounce of gold), and extra-strength Tylenol, the elves beat you on price every time.

Baking is noble, but the only thing required for a successful grade school celebration is enough identical goodies for every kid in the class. Nobility has its line. And for class parties, that line starts at the bakery.

And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

Parental Vision

By Sarah Hamaker, Raising a Family Editor

How would you describe your child at age 30? How you answer that question tells about your parenting vision for your children.

I can almost guarantee not one of you reading this blog said:

  • Graduate at the top of his high school or college class
  • Get into an Ivy league school
  • Play a professional sport
  • Have a fancy house or a high-paying job.

I’ll bet you listed things like:

  • Honest
  • Hard working
  • Responsible
  • Respectful
  • Loving
  • Godly
  • Truthful.

All those are characteristics. These are character traits, not achievements.

Think about the vision you have for your children and then think about how you are parenting. Do your decisions as a parent reflect the vision you have for your kids? Do the things you encourage your children to accomplish build toward the vision you have for them as adults?

When you have a clear vision for your children, then your parenting decisions will come easier. Taking the long view of raising kids will help you in the short term.

I encourage you to talk with your spouse and write down the vision you have for your child as a 30-year-old. Then post it somewhere in the house for you and your spouse to look at on a regular basis.

Now whenever you wonder what to do about discipline, consequences, addressing behavior, and virtually any parental decision, think about that vision. For example, if your child shirks his chores, remember that you want him to be hard working and responsible. That should assist you in your correction of his behavior.

If your child is being mean to her sibling, keep in mind you want her to grow up to be loving and act accordingly. If you aim the parental arrow of discipline to the bulls eye of that vision and shoot, even if you miss the center, you’ll still be shooting within the range of your vision.

Having a vision for your kids and keeping that vision in mind as you parent will get you over both the rough and smooth patches of child-rearing. What is your vision?

Do you have a parenting question you would like to see answered on this blog? Email Sarah with Parenting Question in the subject line. Sign up for Practical Parenting, Sarah’s a free, monthly e-newsletter with commonsense advice on child rearing, by visiting www.parentcoachnova.com and clicking on the newsletter tab.

Sarah Hamaker is a certified Leadership Parenting Coach™ through the Rosemond Leadership Parenting Coach Institute. She’s also a freelance writer and editor. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.parentcoachnova.com and follow her on Twitter @novaparentcoach.

And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

Being a Mom Practitioner

By Nicole Mullis, Raising a Family Editor

My son awoke with a 102.6 fever, dizziness and no appetite. I took one look at his throat and called the doctor.

“What’s he coming in for?” the nurse asked.

“He has Strep Throat.”

Not “I think he has it.”  I know he has it. He needed antibiotics, probably Keflex, or my whole house was going down.

Sure enough, three hours later, the doctor called it a “textbook Strep case” and some time after lunch, my son was grimacing down “the pink stuff”.

Look, I’m not a doctor, but I am what I like to call a Mom Practitioner. I never went to medical school but after a dozen years of nursing my kiddies through sore throats, bad coughs, troubled tummies, itchy rashes and Spring Fever, I can triage like a pro.

Pink Eye? First try. Stomach Flu? Know what to do. Influenza? No problema.

My fellow Mom Practitioners and I know how to clean a wound, clean an ear, clean a nose. We know what to feed a kid to get them to go, to stop them from going and to regulate their going. We can take a temperature in three different places on the body and dose Tylenol to weight. We know when to check for fever and how to tell the difference between a viral rash and an allergic one. We know the loose cough, the tight cough and which one requires a doctor’s trip.

I didn’t always know these things. When my eldest was born I was both clueless and squeamish. My hands shook when I tried to trim her fingernails and I fretted when a hic-cup spell lasted longer than an hour.

My medical training came through the school of mistakes and overreactions—unnecessary doctor visits, frantic phone calls to after-hour hotlines, ill-advised trips to the ER, being told 912 times, “It’s a virus.”  I paid my dues in wasted co-payments.

I’ve been hood-winked by bad doctors, educated by great ones, and enlightened by dozens of nurses. I’ve done my rounds in the sleep-deprived fields of parenthood, learning to read my children’s eyes and attitudes as well as their temperatures.

I discovered kids become asymptomatic in front of a doctor, so I take good notes. I know my oldest can run a 103 fever without blinking an eye but if my son runs the same fever he is on the verge of death.

More times than not, I know who to see, when to see them and, most of all, what can be handled at home.

This means I go to the pediatrician less now than ever. If I’m in the waiting room, you know it’s way beyond a humidifier and a Tylenol.

As I waited for my son’s positive Strep results, I started thinking. What if they gave us Mom Practitioners a Commonsense Antibiotic Pass?

If we know what it is, let us call it in. If we have one kid down with Strep or Pink Eye, trust us to know when the other kids have it. Why come in the office, take up precious appointments, and PAY for what we already know? This way there would be more time for the doctors to deal with the really scary stuff.

And less time my poor kid would have to wait for the pink stuff.

How do you handle TV viewing in your home? And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

Taking a Hard Look at TV

By Sarah Hamaker, Raising a Family Editor

I’ve always been amazed by how so many parents get so defensive about their children’s television viewing habits. I’ve heard impassioned speeches of why watching Sesame Street is okay (“He learned his numbers!”), why Animal Kingdom is fine (“Last night was all about lions!”), and why Dora the Explorer is good (“She heard about why sharing is important!”).

Then there’s the parents who can’t imagine how anyone with a toddler or infant got anything done around the house without TV. “I had to take a shower,” or “I needed to cook dinner” have been frequent reasons for why said child is parked in front of the television.

Now research is catching up to what our grandmothers know instinctively: TV viewing should be a treat, not a daily occurrence. (And before you ask, yes, the TV in our house stays off for the entire day most days—even in the evening when the kids are in bed). Here are some highlights to get you thinking about your own TV viewing—and that of your children.

Early childhood viewing has been linked to later attention problems, including ADHD, while the American Academy of Pediatrics gets it right when it advises no TV viewing at all for kids under 2. Television often replaces reading. The University of Michigan Health reports that “Kids from families that have the TV on a lot spend less time reading and being read to, and are less likely to be able to read.”

TV viewing’s impact on school performance has long-term effects, such as increasing the chances of dropping out of school and declining chances of graduating from college. As one study put it, “All television shows, even educational non-commercial shows, replace physical activity in your child's life.”

A December 2012 Science Daily report found that the average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 sat in front of the television around 4.5 hours a day. Four and a half hours daily. “There was a stronger association between having a TV in the bedroom versus TV viewing time, with the adiposity and health outcomes,” wrote study co-author Dr. Amanda Staiano.

“A bedroom TV may create additional disruptions to healthy habits, above and beyond regular TV viewing. For instance, having a bedroom TV is related to lower amounts of sleep and lower prevalence of regular family meals, independent of total TV viewing time. Both short sleep duration and lack of regular family meals have been related to weight gain and obesity,” noted Dr. Staiano.

Another 2012 study reported in The Huffington Post found that children have exposure to background TV close to four hours daily, which expert say would likely hinder their development. “The sheer amount of exposure is startling,” said study author Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, an assistant professor with the Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the University of Amsterdam.

Even more troubling, children under the age of 2 had more exposure to background TV daily: five and a half hours. “Experimental studies have shown that background TV exposure has been linked to lower attention when kids are playing and weaker parent-child interactions,” said Piotrowski in The Huffington Post.

Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center on Media and Child Health, noted that background TV effects both parents and kids. “We do know that when parents have a TV on, the level of communication drops dramatically,” he said. “We can't just say, 'Oh, it's nothing. It's just background [TV].’ It's in our field, and it's designed to grab and keep re-grabbing [children’s] attention.”

What do these studies mean for parents? At the very least, I think we should all take a good, hard look at all TV viewing—educational, recreational and background—and curtail the amount of time our kids are exposed to television.

How do you handle TV viewing in your home? And don't forget to check out the current Raising a Family Writing Contest.

Family Editor's Welcome

Bracing for Braces

By Nicole Mullis, Raising a Family Editor

I heard the words every parent dreads.

“Your child needs braces.”

I knew it was coming. I don’t know a parent who, after playing Tooth Fairy for years, doesn’t think their child has messed up teeth.

Fortunately, our dentist is a practical man. The one time I dared ask about the crooked smile on my sweet child, he told me he would keep an eye on it. Jaws grow and it takes a while to know.

Well, guess what? This winter, he knew.

I’ve never had braces, which is as close as I’ve come to winning the lottery. My baby brother and I had naturally straight teeth and spot-on bites. My other five siblings, however, had braces, retainers, palette spreaders, headgears and all sorts of medieval-looking devices.

Although I didn’t experience it firsthand, I helped with the dumpster diving that went into recovering retainers left at restaurants, waited hours at the orthodontist, and took advantage of my siblings being in too much pain to play with their sorry-you-had-four-teeth-pulled Rubik’s Snake.

The truth was I felt bad for my kid.

We met with the orthodontist. He said if we didn’t correct the problem, the teeth would continue to shift, causing bite problems, health problems and eventually tooth loss. He laid out his game plan. It wasn’t too awful. No oral surgery or headgears or spreaders. Just 18 months of braces and a lifetime of retainer wear.

He stressed to my son that wearing his retainer would be key, otherwise all the work would be for nothing. True. My brace-wearing siblings who were not retainer-wearing adults all experienced this shift.

So far, this sounded like a solid plan. The orthodontist left the room and his cheerful assistant sat down to discuss the cost.

This is where I blacked out momentarily.

She laid out an 18-month plan of lumps sums, monthly payments, penalties and paperwork. I nodded absently, thinking of my parents.

How did they do this five times over? No wonder my father hasn’t retired yet. And why are all my siblings still alive? Because I would have murdered the child who didn’t wear her retainer after I plunked down that much cash.

The lady gave my hand a little squeeze, a sympathetic smile on her face.

“I know. It’s a lot.”

Then she asked when I wanted to schedule an appointment.

I looked at my son, whose face held enough little boy to pull my heartstrings. Of course, I didn’t want him to lose his teeth. If only there was an Orthodontist Fairy who left C-notes under the parents' pillow.

I went home and broke the news to my husband. We talked about things that would have to wait – like saving for a cottage or screening in the back deck. Depressing.

That weekend, we celebrated my father-in-law’s birthday. My son was enjoying his last hours of unrestricted eating. My father-in-law watched his grandson consuming tortilla chips, recalling the day he found out both his sons needed braces.

“I called it my bass boat.”

My husband’s grandfather called his sons’ braces the second car.

For some reason, this made me feel better. We’re not the first parents wrestling tight budgets, simple dreams and crooked teeth. Like them, our kids come first, which means putting our money where our…well, our kid’s mouth is.

Family Editor's Welcome

Parent Watch

By Sarah Hamaker, Raising a Family Editor

Whenever we go to the indoor playground at my local mall, I find myself watching the parents more than the kids. During a recent visit with my four-year-old son, I saw at least six different types of parents.

The Follower. This is the parent who hovers a step or two behind their child. The Follower is quick to help the child overcome any obstacle. This parent is quick to lift him to the top of the climbing structure rather than letting the child try to do it by himself.

The Documenter. This parent sticks close by the child with the intent to record the child’s every “accomplishment” no matter how minor. The click of a camera follows the child’s every move, like the child has her own entourage of paparazzi.

The Commentator. Similar to the Follower, this parent keeps up a running patter to accompany the child’s circuit of the play area. The one-sided conversation sounds like a radio sports broadcaster describing a game on the field: “Oh, you’re going to the train. What sound does a train make? Wooh, wooh. Are you a conductor or a passenger?”

The Player. This is the parent who gets down on his knees to play with his child. The Player interacts with the child constantly, doing ever sillier things and directing the child’s play, forgetting that the parent is not the child’s peer.

The Referee. This parent jumps in whenever there’s the tiniest conflict between her child and another. The Referee rarely allows the children to figure out things on their own. She orchestrates the makeup and will usually make the children play according to her rules.

The Relaxer. This parent sits on the sidelines, checking on her child every once in a while, but trusting that the child can solve his problems on his own. She prefers to let the kid do the playing, while she reads a book.

Which type of parent are you?

Read Past Editor Letters