In case you’re wondering, I survived my 20 year high school reunion last month. The next thing I have to survive, however, is equally daunting when you have 3 kids: Summer.

True, we’ve got our usual awesome vacay to Colorado planned. But before that, I—like most of you—am forced to juggle the camps and the swim team and the playdates for about 2 months. As any parent knows, that can be a bit overwhelming.

Sooo…in the spirit of de-stressing as much as possible, I thought I’d share five fun ways you can use technology to simplify your travels, camps, and family adventures. Enjoy!

  1. Ultra Translator. For the speech-capable iPhone 4S and the new iPad, this app puts the awesome power of the Babel Fish in your pocket. (Don’t know what the Babel Fish is? Go download The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on your Kindle. Talk about fun summer reading!)

 

Featuring written translation functionality for dozens of languages, as well as vocalized translation for eighteen popular languages, Ultra Translator will help you and your kids gain confidence in foreign lands. Simply set the languages you’re translating from and to (i.e., English to French). Then press the microphone button (available on iPhone 4S only) to say what you’re looking to translate. It’s immediately written into the app. Hit the “Translate” button, and you’ll be able to read the result written on the screen in the other language and press a button to hear the result spoken out loud. You’ll never feel lost asking for the bathroom in Swedish again. This app by Scintilla costs $1.99 and is available on iTunes.

 

  1. Groupon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you plan to travel this summer, sign up now for Groupon (and other coupon sites) wherever your destination may be. You could catch some incredible deals at restaurants, hotels, theaters, and theme parks—not to mention pet sitters, airfares, car rentals, and more. You can store multiple cities in your Groupon profile, and turn them on and off at will. Plus you can put Groupon on your smart phone and have mobile access to your coupons from wherever you go. Sign up at www.groupon.com.

 

  1. AppleTV. If you don’t have one of these, seriously, I’m not sure how you survive. We have—literally—five of them in our family. This is a ridiculously easy-to-install-and-operate device. You simply plug one cord in to your TV and another to an outlet, and voila! You have the power of iTunes on your TV, along with instant access to on-demand movie rentals and purchases, both through iTunes AND Netflix.

 

The best part? It’s tiny and portable—so you can take it with you when you travel! All you need is WiFi and a modern enough TV to plug into (some old-school motels or condo rentals might not have the right HDMI input socket, so double-check what’s available), and you can bring all your movie and music access to whatever TV you have on hand. Seriously useful on road trips when you have three tired kids in a hotel room who want to watch a movie after a long day in the car (and you don’t want to pay $18 for it). AppleTV retails at $99 and is available at the Apple Store, Best Buy, or online wherever Apple products are sold.

 

  1. GPS Drive. No nav system in your rental car? No problem. This handy app from Motion X gives you easy-to-read GPS navigation functionality—and more—right on your iPhone or data-plan-activated iPad. The basic app includes full direction and multi-route capabilities based on the latest NAVTEQ maps, plus live traffic updates, social sharing (i.e., tell your Facebook friends where you are), iPod integration (so you can still easily listen to music while using the app), and 30 free days of turn-by-turn voice prompt control.

 

If you want to continue using voice prompts, just pay a low annual fee after your trial period expires. And for another small fee, you can add your choice of a variety of HD-quality voice characters, so you never have to settle for some annoying robot chick. GPS Drive by Motion X is available for $0.99 from iTunes. Under a current promotion, you can purchase a year of voice navigation prompts for just $9.99. Download it from the App Store, and don’t forget one of these nifty dashboard stands that let you prop your phone up for simple and safe hands-free viewing.

 

  1. iCloud Calendar. You can actually use a number of calendar programs, including Google, to share your family’s calendars, but we like iCloud in my house. When you’ve got multiple kids, multiple camps, and many summer obligations, it’s a good idea to make sure everyone’s on the same page. If you go to www.icloud.com, you can log in to your Apple account (sorry, I’m only speaking to the iPhone users again…sorry, but it’s what we use!), and view your iCloud calendar. (Don’t use iCloud yet? Learn about how to set it up here.)

 

If you sync your iPhone to iCloud, you should see your phone’s calendar on your computer. It automatically updates when you add an event from your phone (and vice versa). Next to your calendar’s name on the left, click the little icon that looks like a volume button. That will enable you to share your calendar with other iCloud users. Type in their email addresses, and you’re good to go. Crazy easy. Now your husband can have straightforward access to where everyone is supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there, and you can keep tabs on when he’s planning his next golf outing. If your older children have phones and calendars of their own, it’s also a great way to keep tabs on their plans when they forget to tell you what the weekend holds.

Got other summer tips and tricks to share? Post them in the comments below!

 

 

You will never confuse me with a frugal person. In my opinion, money is made to be spent. It’s like a transmogrification miracle: Spend it, and money literally becomes something else. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it becomes something fun. Or shiny.

 

Money in a bank is never shiny. Money in a bank is boring and abstract, like The Economist.

 

This is how I justify shopping.

 

But fret not. While I’m clearly a four-year-old when it comes to balancing checkbooks, there are few things I love more in this world than a good deal. If I’m going to spend my money, I want to get the absolute most for it—which is why I’m thrilled with all these new email coupon lists that have cropped up. Do they deliver gold mines every day? Sadly, no. But if you are on the right lists and you keep your eyes open, you’re likely to spot a winner at least once a week.

 

How do they work?

 

It’s pretty simple: Businesses agree to offer a big discount on something because they expect a bunch of people to buy it in advance. You sign up online to receive these discounts daily via email.

 

Some sites, like Groupon, have a minimum number of purchases required before a deal is “unlocked.” Other coupon companies don’t have a required minimum. On all of them, though, you pay first and then receive a redeemable voucher.

 

What’s wrong with scissors?

 

Clipping coupons is fine—if you’re living in 1974.

 

In all seriousness, though, email coupons aren’t just better because they don’t require sharp tools. Here’s why they’re helpful:

 

  • They’re location-specific. For those of us in the bubble, that means deals often come from our favorite down-the-street stores and restaurants. That means value is extended to local retailers, who can now get targeted advertising without paying the big bucks.
  • They typically offer much greater savings. Most email group coupons start with 25% discounts and can go up to 80% or more. No more piddly 30 cents off here and there.
  • They’ve got heart. Fundraising is the new trend in email coupon lists, with percentages of purchase prices given back to local schools or charities.
  • They’re interactive. You can click a few buttons and share your deals with friends—not possible with traditional paper coupons.
  • They’re easily portable. No more carrying a big coupon binder in your purse. Many coupons lists let you use your smartphone to present your deal to merchants.

 

Ready, set…be smart

So you’re intrigued. You want the deals. What next?

 

  • First, check the company’s reputation. Before you offer any personal information—including your name, email address, or zip code—pop onto Google and check out the company behind the list. Better yet, see what your friends have to say.

 

  • Follow the directions for signing up on a site, but pay attention to what you click! Never give a site access to your address book or friend lists, or you’ll super-spam everyone you know. And remember, it’s okay to connect to a site through your Facebook or Twitter accounts so you can get extra incentives, but it’s never cool for a site to post or tweet as you. Click “no” to that option if it arises; this shouldn’t affect your ability to share deals.

 

Want more value?

 

  • Leverage the incentive programs. Most coupon sites offer ways to earn “bucks” for sharing your deal through social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes, when you’ve made enough purchases through a site, you earn coupon codes that up your discount further. Investigate these options (look for “referral program” links) and discuss them with your friends.

 

  • Find charitable kick-back opportunities. Many sites give portions of purchases back to local schools or nonprofit organizations. Shop and support your local community!

 

  • Buy in bulk. Some sites limit how many coupons you can purchase, especially on great deals. Last holiday season, for example, Southlake Town Square did a $20 gift card for $10 through Juice in the City, but we could only buy one per person. (Everyone in my house bought one, so we managed a few extras. If they hadn’t limited it, though, I might have bought $500 worth. Darn you, Town Square.)

    If there’s no limit, though, go to town—like my friend Meredith did a few weeks ago, when another coupon site offered a fantastic deal for four-hour vouchers at Adventure Kids. After chatting and discovering there were codes we could earn to knock 20 to 30% more off our cost, Meredith ended up with over a dozen vouchers at a huge price break. She’s set on childcare for a while!

 

  • Shop other locations. We’ve got a good thing nestled here between Dallas and Fort Worth, so sign up for both city lists and get double deals! Going on vacation? Get on coupon lists in other cities. Give yourself a few weeks’ lead time. You might spot deals you can use while you’re traveling! And don’t forget to look at non-featured daily deals—you know, the ones that pop up on the sidebars that might be from neighboring communities. My friend Amy spotted an incredible deal from Virgin Airlines that way. She was able to scoop up three plane tickets for her Spring Break trip to Tahoe at an unbeatable price.

 

  • Buy through eBates.com. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention more of Amy’s online shopping brilliance. (She’s a professional “bean counter,” so her advice is probably better than mine.) She recommends setting up an account on eBates.com (free); then look for coupon pages like Groupon through this site. You’ll earn quarterly cash rebates on each purchase, which can add up over time if you’re a mega-online-shopper (like Amy is).

 

My Favorites

 

With over a dozen major coupon lists in play, which ones should you join? Take a look at this nifty table to see which sites I prefer. [INSERT LINK TO GRAPHIC coupontable.gif]

 

Comments, questions, or corrections? Please share them! And remember, if money runs short, it’s not because you need to spend less. You just need to make more. Happy deal-shopping!

With summer vacation in full swing, and a vacation in my family’s near future, I decided to set my 9 year old up with her own blog. Blogs have a lot to offer that private diaries can’t provide, and the interactive potential can be healthy for kids if properly supervised. Writing about their experiences online, for example, teaches kids to position their thoughts for public consumption. They learn how to formulate thoughts appropriately, defend their opinions politely, expand their horizons to other viewpoints, and even moderate discussions.

I thought, “Hey! Blogging for kids—that will make for an interesting article this month.” So I showed Emma how to log on to our family Web site. How to create a new post. Gave her some ideas to get her going. Showed her how to tag her topics. Then I walked away, eager to spy from across the kitchen as her creative juices began flowing.

Instead, what I watched was a lot of index-finger hunting and pecking. I think her first entry was about 12 words long—and it took her 15 minutes. The reality was clear: My poor kid couldn’t type. And that was going to be a problem.

I flashed forward five years to a frustrated teenager hunched over her laptop, battling recalcitrant fingers that refused to find the right keys. What would happen if she still struggled to put her thoughts into words on the keyboard? Would she opt for less complex paper topics, fewer words, because typing was too frustrating? At what point, I wondered, would her teachers expect her to just magically pick up the skill?

Well, forget that. I sat down with Emma at the computer again, this time with a new agenda.

“This summer,” I told her, “you’re learning to type.”

So far, we’ve started with the basic beginner stuff. A lot of “ff jj fjf jfj” and so on. I’m using a site called www.FreeTypingGame.net, and she seems to like it. There are both lessons and games, and the site helps you set goals and skill levels. It even calculates your child’s word-per-minute score, so you can track progress. The point is the repetition of basic movements with the hands; you want the muscle memory to become so ingrained that eventually, when the brain thinks “s,” the hands move to the “s” key without thinking about where it is.

Another decent site is www.learninggamesforkids.com. As the name implies, they have a lot of typing games, but not as many lessons—and I think kids should have at least some practice in basic keyboarding before trying these out. Most of the games require a bit of skill, and the last thing you want is to add frustration.

I have to admit I’m not impressed with the way our schools approach the typing dilemma. On the one hand (no pun intended), they want students exposed to computers and computer skills as early as Kindergarten, which is a good thing. On the other hand, though, spelling at that age is rudimentary, and most young children’s hands aren’t developed enough to reach all the keys yet, so teaching typing the typical way can seem sort of pointless during early elementary school. Unfortunately, this means we’re ending up with a bunch of students who are really good at using computers badly. They’re learning that the ends of using the computer are more important than the means.

Tsk, tsk. Imagine a child learning to play the piano simply by being taught just the notes to a song. She’s expected to play that song so that it sounds right—but she isn’t taught how to hold her hands, what the notes are called, where they are, any of that. It doesn’t make sense.

Add to this problem the fact that many of our younger children are now texting with regularity, and you have a new set of bad habits to break. What happens when kids are more comfortable texting shorthand with their thumbs than typing properly on a full QWERTY keyboard?

I’d like to challenge our schools to put new emphasis on keyboarding instruction designed for today’s elementary school children. Surely there’s a way to encourage good habits, to lay the foundation for proper typing that kids can grow with as their dexterity improves. After all, if we’re going to require that they learn to use computers, we should require that they really learn to use them—keyboards and all.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my online lessons and games. Hopefully, Emma can conquer some of her hunt-and-peck instincts and get a few good blog entries out this summer. I suppose, if her entries start to reach the multiple-paragraph point, you’ll know she’s learning.

Welcome back, my friends. This is the season of go-go-go, of speed-breakfasting, bus-catching, and teleporting between home and school and dance and soccer. This is the resurgence of 20-minute stand-up dinners, bedtime warnings, homework checking, and nag-nag-nag. This is that place where your hands are cuffed to iPhones and car keys, where you learn to juggle kids and spouses, work and dirty kitchens. This is the time of first-grade mobiles and second-grade book reports and third-grade TAKS tests and mountains of unfolded laundry. This is the familiar highway with no exits.

 

Thrilling, isn’t it?

 

Okay, I admit it: I do thrive a bit on this feeling of perpetual motion. It reminds me of when I worked in a real office, spinning a chair between my desk, the computer, the file cabinet, the phone, the white board, doing thirty things at once and feeling very important. Very productive. I still feel that way sometimes when I enter school dates into my Outlook calendar, check school lunch accounts online, then turn to my newly minted third grader and oversee her intense project of gluing dog kibble into a jelly jar lid, and turn back to the Web site I’m working on for a client. I feel like I am gettin’ it done, man. I’m going. I’m moving. I’m telling my two-year-old to pick up the forty yards of curling ribbon he just unspooled throughout the whole downstairs, and I’m making lunches, and I’m planning neighborhood parties by email. I am the productivity master.

 

Well, I thought I was. Then I heard this guy on the radio the other night, and he blew it for me. He said that all my multi-tasking, particularly multi-tasking that involves all my beloved tech devices, might boost some productivity, but it also could be hurting my brain. Apparently there are neurologists who are studying what happens to us when we over-connect and try to do too much at once, even if all we’re doing is checking a quick email while we’re waiting in the grocery checkout line. He said something about how we could be losing the ability to form memories. And our ability to truly focus. (Or something like that—I was only half listening, and I can’t recall what his precise words were.)

 

Anyway, what I do remember is that he had specific advice from the brain doctors about how to remedy the situation. We apparently need downtime. And not just any kind of downtime. We need off-the-grid, longer-than-three-day VACATIONS. Regularly, he said.

 

 

So, my friends, as you get back in the swing of things this school year, and you start to feel like a cartoonist would draw a caricature of you as a spider, all eight appendages affixed to some child or remote control or a frying pan or a homework assignment, remember this (if you haven’t yet lost the ability to remember): You need to take an honest-to-goodness break from time to time. Go camping with the family and (I’m chastising myself here) stop documenting it hour by hour on Facebook. Take a weekend trip with your husband where neither of you checks email once. Stop telling yourself you can’t schedule it in or feeling like you don’t deserve it. You absolutely can, and you completely do. After all, you’re hurting your brain—and by consequence, your family—if you overwhelm yourself with the influx of data that happens this time of year.

 

Now, you’ll never catch me saying our reliance on technology is bad, particularly as it makes so many things easier on a mom during the school year. And sometimes, for me, downtime is the ten minutes I spend reading the newsfeed on Facebook after four hours of looking at “real” work. I don’t have to digest the information. It’s okay if it goes in one ear and out the other. But like this guy on the radio said the other night, technology is like food. “We know that some food is Twinkies and some is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems,” he explained. “Similarly, after, say, 20 years of glorifying all technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, I think science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies, and some technology is Brussels sprouts. And if we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much food, it can have ill effects.”*

 

Makes sense, right? I think so. I’m going to make it my mission this school year to power down at least an hour a day and focus on one thing and one thing only for the entire 60 minutes.

 

And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll sell my husband on this vacation theory.

 

 

 

 

(*For those who are interested, the radio program I’m referring to was the August 24th edition of “Fresh Air with Terri Gross” on NPR. Her guest was Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times, who is currently doing several series involving the topic of “digital overload.” You can read the transcript of the show here: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=129384107 )

 

I know it’s no laughing matter, but I have to admit I thought it was a little bit funny. I have this friend who just had her email hacked—after which every contact in her email address book (hundreds) received a mysterious message. The subject line simply read, “HELP!” And the body of the message relayed, in grammar and punctuation that was less than perfect but far from atrocious, that she was in crisis. It seemed she and her family, while on vacation in Scotland, had just been mugged at gunpoint. All wallets and tickets were stolen. They apparently had no help with their credit card companies, and now they couldn’t access enough money to purchase their new tickets back home. They needed some “financial assistance.”

To me, the message was blatantly fake. That might be due in part to the fact that my husband makes a living as a network security director. It might also be due to the fact that this particular friend is also my neighbor, and that very day, my mother-in-law was babysitting her children. I knew they weren’t on vacation anywhere, let alone in Scotland. Yet throughout the day, I received multiple calls, emails, and in-person questions from people who just needed to be sure this wasn’t real. My friend had the same experience; her cell and home phone practically rang off the hook all afternoon, largely from people she hadn’t spoken with in forever, who thought it was a hoax but were willing to help if it was real…but they weren’t certain.

That evening, as my friend and I sat with our husbands over a beer, we commiserated about this awful email hacking problem. We all know someone who’s been through it. The victims always wonder what they did wrong, why were they targeted, what do they cancel, and are they safe? My friends had to cancel numerous things, change email addresses, chide Google (who was rather unhelpful, to say the least), and generally step up security—it really was not funny. It was a violation.

Except, on one level, it was slightly comical: How ironic that, some 15 years after most of us ought to have formed a rather intimate relationship with communication via email, we still have just the tiniest smidge of difficulty discerning truth from fiction when corresponded with electronically.

Ah, email. You clever, handwriting-less, tone-less, ambiguous faux letter, you. You trick us with your convenience, your speed, your seeming efficiency. But how many times have we—as employees, friends, or family members—been just a teensy bit baffled at that double exclamation point, the random winky face, or that one correspondent who insists on using ALL CAPS? Is that anger we read? Humor? Condescension? Flirtation?

So, sure, I get it. You see an email from a close friend, or maybe just the agent who sold your house a few years ago, and it says, “HELP!” and begs you, in a roundabout, quasi-plausible way, for money. And it doesn’t tell you where to send it, and it seems…well, it’s Scotland. We’re in Southlake. It seems like a place that someone you know might go on summer vacation. More believable than, say, Nigeria? I don’t know. It’s just enough to confuse you. So you write back, and you ask, “Is this for real?”

And then they have you. Ta-da! They immediately follow up with instructions on how to get the money to them, maybe drop a few more tidbits they picked up from your personal profile on email, or the Facebook account they also hacked into, enough to convince you they’re legit, and they get $50 from Aunt Beatrice and $250 from your old college frat brother, and so on… and that’s how they do it.

There are several morals to this story:

1)      The cynics out there (ahem, my husband) will tell you first to never, ever use (or repeat) a simple, predictable password for any account you use online. You can download an application called a password manager that will randomly generate and then store all your passwords for you. You won’t ever have to create or remember a single one. I personally think this won’t do much to protect you from those who just buy illegal password databases on eBay (yes, they do that!) or the “bots” (the automated programs that spew out possible letter/number combinations between usernames and passwords until they reach a match), but I suppose it’s sound advice. Remember that a password broken in a “harmless” account can many times open a path to a more valued account. If you are ever hacked anywhere, change ALL of your passwords.

2)      Just as important as the whole password thing: Try not to check private accounts when you’re communicating over an unsecured network. I’m talking about that bookstore or coffeehouse with public WiFi when you’re on your laptop or cell phone. The walls have ears, if you catch my drift. Paranoia? Perhaps. I’ll let you talk to my friend about that.

3)      Tell all your friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors that you will never, ever send them an email asking for money if you are in a serious jam. That’s why we have cell phones, pay phones, police stations, and the like. If you’re a James Bond type and envision some dastardly scenario in which there’s a fraction of a chance you might EVER ask for cash by email, come up with a passphrase that only you and your close friends and family—you know, the ones you might actually go to in a pinch—will know. The hackers are getting better at their English grammar, and one day, they might confuse even the most cynical among us if we don’t have an extra safety measure in place.

4)      Trim your contact list. If you’re going to get hacked, do you really need the 800 people you emailed over the last 10 years to know about it? It’s not a Facebook friend count, it’s your address book. No prestige here, folks.

5)      Practice good email etiquette. If you are going to communicate by email, then learn how to write it and read it. Believe it or not, there are entire books written on the subject. Because we cannot gauge handwriting or hear voices, we have to rely on the visual in email: punctuation, capital letters, the use of images, and so on. Establish an email identity for yourself that’s uniquely yours—akin to the way you’d wave your hands while telling a story, or dot your i’s and cross your t’s. The people you correspond with will learn how to understand your tone by your consistency, and they’ll never confuse you with a spam artist.

All the security stuff aside, I should mention that I’m writing this from Brazil, where I happen to have misplaced my purse, and I was wondering… could you send me some money for a 5-star hotel?

Someone recently forwarded my husband a link to an episode of “South Park” where the primary topic is Facebook. Now, I’m sure there are many who take offense at “South Park” humor, but I admit, I’m a fan. (For those not in the know, I’m talking about an animated TV show on Comedy Central, whose main characters are adolescent boys living in the fictional town of South Park, Colorado. The show is known for its, shall we say, satire and vulgarity. I’ll leave it at that.)

I don’t watch “South Park” anymore, but I did in my post-college/pre-kid days. So of course, I had to turn around and look at my husband’s laptop the second I started hearing it play the familiar voices of Cartman, Stan, and Kyle. And then I couldn’t stop watching. It was typical South Park humor, and fairly hilarious—but it was the subject matter that got me thinking.

Here’s a recap from the popular social media guide Mashable:

The episode, titled “You Have 0 Friends,” captured perfectly how obsessive Facebook can be. Stan, the lone child not yet on FB, is forced to join at the behest of his friends, which leads his girlfriend to jealously pour over his profile (we’ve all been there) and his father to insist that he add every one of his relatives — and to “poke” his grandma.

When he deletes his profile out of frustration… well… let’s just say he probably should have opened an Entrustet account. Meanwhile, Kyle friends a FB loser, which leads to a steady stream of unfriending and a breakdown of sorts.

Now if that doesn’t get your interest as an avid Facebooker and mom, I don’t know what will. I started wondering how I would act if my children wanted—or, later on, didn’t want—to join Facebook. Would I monitor every second and action? Would I let them friend people I didn’t know personally? Better yet, would I let them see my page—my sacred outlet and connection to the world? Would I make them friend my friends, or would my friends friend them without telling me, and then they’d become confidantes without my knowledge? Ah, what a mess.

And how would my kids act? Would they judge themselves or others by their number of friends? Would I judge them?

Honestly, I have no idea. I personally (and thankfully) feel all three of my children are way too young right now at 2, 6, and 8. But it seems that, when it comes to kids and technology, our standards of acceptance fluctuate a great deal as social norms change. So I put on my reporter hat and posted a note on my wall, trying to round up insight from my mom friends who already had kids on Facebook.

I asked them how old was old enough for Facebook, and how young is too young? I asked about parental supervision, and about how much they share their own details with their children. Finally, I wanted to know if moms thought their kids shared the same notion of the meaning of “friends” on Facebook.

I have to say, I got some really thought-provoking and wise responses.

Regarding age and Facebook, most of my friends found it appropriate and somewhat unavoidable for a child to have his own profile somewhere between the 9 and 11 year old range. As one mom cautioned, though, “It depends on each child and their maturity level.” She monitors each of her children differently, according to their personality. Sage advice.

Most of the moms also agreed that regular and complete monitoring of a child’s FB page is necessary. And it’s not just a matter of safety—it’s about reputation. “Anything that I should not be seeing,” reminds one mother, “college recruiters or future employers should not be seeing as well.” How far should you go in administering the security of your child’s page? Pretty far—and fortunately, Facebook makes it easy to control privacy settings down to a very specific level. One friend of mine offered this description of her involvement in monitoring her children’s pages: “I am the one that set up their accounts and set their passwords (which they do not know). They are logged in on their laptops but cannot log in anywhere else, including friend’s houses, etc. and cannot make any administrative changes. Only friends can see their pages (not friends of friends).” She takes it a step further by having her children understand that the use of Facebook is a privilege to be earned, stating that she “can temporarily deactivate their account for any reason, such as bad test scores, not doing chores, etc.” (Good thinking—that would certainly motivate me!)

My friends were a bit split on whether or not to let their kids see their own pages, however. One mom who is very active on Facebook and who, like me, uses it in a rather cathartic blogging kind of way, said no outright. She doesn’t want to edit herself, which I can understand. Another mom, though, wholeheartedly supported her children seeing everything on her page. “If it isn’t appropriate,” she wrote, “then I probably shouldn’t be writing/saying/posting it in the first place. If it is private, then I send a message.” I also agree. Still… I am possessive of my page. Already, I can see myself creating an alter ego with a separate profile….but I digress.

One of my biggest concerns personally with young kids on Facebook is that they don’t think of the idea of “friend” in the same way we parents do. This is readily obvious when you go to, for example, a parent’s page and find they have in the neighborhood of 100-300 friends, on average—and then you look at the pages of high school students, and they typically have upwards of 700. Could it be they have that many actual friends? Not likely. Most of us moms who discussed the topic agreed that kids on FB tend to accept any (and sometimes every) acquaintance in the world as a FB friend for the purpose of driving up the count, whereas parents tend to be more discerning. Says one mom, “I have ignored people who I didn’t really know that well.” Same goes for me—and I admit that I also tend not to seek out people I work with on a regular basis. The Facebook side of me is not, ahem, always that productive. (And that’s what LinkedIn is for!)

But what does it say that our kids are equating friends with acquaintances? Or that they, like the South Park kids, are judging each other based on their friend counts? I think these trends simply point to the evolution of semantics and normalcy that comes with changing social media technology. Facebook makes it so easy to speak in shorthand and to connect immediately that we can be tempted to over-connect if we’re not careful. Moms need to help their kids see that Facebook, like most social arenas in life, is a place to exercise moderation and good judgment. And moms also need to understand that the openness of the forum can present many new opportunities for disturbing behavior, including cyberbullying. It’s our job as parents to educate ourselves about the reality of the Facebook world.

All this said, most of my mom friends agreed that Facebook is still a wonderful invention that brings us closer to friends, family, and neighbors. I’ve used it many times to host impromptu gatherings, schedule random playdates, bump into friends when we realize we’re out and about in the same place at the same time. Lots of moms are using it to keep tabs on their kids, but also to play games with them and “meet” the people with whom their children spend time—which can sometimes be more informative online than in person (because online we can peek at their profiles!).

Is it an easy and well-defined road to walk? Probably not. And I have a few years before I’ll be on it. But I’m thankful, in the meantime, to have my Facebook mom connections to guide me. Who knows where I’d be without them! In fact, I better go post that in my status…

Last year, my oldest daughter turned seven—and, if you recall my article here on SouthlakeMoms.com, she desperately wanted an iPhone. Tech freaks though we are in this house, we ended up saying no. The poor girl didn’t know how to make phone calls yet, so what was the point in getting the fanciest cell phone out there? Instead, she got a regular old phone that plugs in the wall, which thrilled her. For a while.

 

Times change, as do little girls. And moms.

 

For a year, my daughter practiced making and receiving phone calls, and she proved herself pretty responsible—with one small exception, when she left her phone plugged in during a party at our house and someone’s child (we don’t know whose) apparently called 911. (Yes, the police paid us a visit.) At any rate, she learned how to dial the numbers, how to politely address adults who answer the phone, and how to ask for her friends. (We’re still working on the finer points of ending a phone conversation. Apparently second graders, like characters in movies, like hanging up directly when they’re finished talking.)

 

This year, for her eighth birthday, my daughter scaled down her request and asked only for an iPod Touch. (Only. Sigh.) Yet, despite the cost, we felt this was now do-able for her age and the effort she had made over the year to increase responsibility. (And we were excited about one fewer kid in our house asking to play on our phones every minute. Even our two year old son wants in on the action.)

 

Then my husband had his genius idea. Turns out he was due for an upgrade on his iPhone. He could get himself the latest model for $199—exactly the cost of the Touch. Meanwhile, his old phone, when deactivated, still offered WiFi connectivity and could play apps and music. In other words, we could give our daughter what she wanted (essentially a Touch), and it wouldn’t cost us a dime. (Or at least not a dime my husband wouldn’t have spent anyway!) And the best part? It’s still an iPhone! When she is ready, my daughter will now have a cell phone that can easily be reactivated on our family plan.

 

The most brilliant aspect of this gift, however, is what she is now doing with it: connecting with her parents in a new way. I recently became addicted to the app called Words with Friends. For those who haven’t yet played, it’s just Scrabble on your iPhone. Plain and simple. No fancy music or graphics. You get your letter tiles, you make your words, you get a score. And now, equipped with her iPhone/Touch gizmo, my daughter is playing Scrabble with her parents every chance she gets.

 

I have fond memories of board games with my parents when I was a child, Scrabble among them. There was something elevating about being able to compete with people you hold in high esteem, largely because it means they hold you in high esteem. It means you are growing up. Becoming worthy. The problem nowadays? Finding the time to actually sit around a table to play a game like this, start to finish. I’m sure plenty of families do manage this, but our kitchen table seems to spend more hours serving as a laundry holding and folding zone than it does as a meal location. Between my work, my husband’s work, the distraction of a two year old son, and the older girls’ activities, our best efforts at family time often fall short. So I am thrilled to find another way to share something with my daughter that lends convenience, educates her, and speaks to the fact that we are among changing generations. Words with Friends might sound like a cheesy way to connect with your child, but it works for us. We can both start games whenever we choose, take our time on turns, swap knowing smiles when one of us gets a new word and sends it on—it’s just good fun. My daughter is even playing Scrabble games with other kids that have iPhones or Touches now. Try coordinating that on a family game night!

 

I should mention there’s a downside here. We have another daughter about to have a birthday. She’s only turning six. And now she wants a deactivated iPhone, too. Good thing I’m also due for an upgrade.

 

Several weeks ago at the bookstore, while waiting on kids and poking lazily through the new releases table, I found a title that intrigued me: The iConnected Parent. I grabbed it because I thought it was one of those diatribes against technology and children, and I always get a kick out of seeing how people think my precious gadgets are undermining my family values.

 

Well, you know what they say about judging and book covers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the selection was not subjective, but rather a research-based account from Dr. Barbara Hofer, a professor of psychology at Middlebury, and Abigail Sullivan Moore, a journalist on various adolescent topics for The New York Times. The subject? An interesting phenomenon occurring between today’s uber-wired kids and their parents when the kids leave home for college.

 

The twist is that the authors weren’t looking at how children were over-using technology or frying their brains; they were looking at how parents—having become accustomed to communicating with their children anytime, anywhere—are having a harder time letting go when kids fly the nest. They were curious to see how our new forms of constant connection might affect a child’s ability to become independent at a time when, traditionally, independence is the ultimate four-year degree.

 

Before I go any further, I want to state that I haven’t yet read this book in its entirety. I intend to, but (shockingly) I haven’t had time. I have, however, read about the book in several locations, and I’ve read interviews with the authors. And frankly, I’m fascinated by the subject because I have three young children of my own. It comes down to this: If they are writing about what today’s college students are facing thanks to ubiquitous cell phones and the ease of email, what on Earth will go on when my own kids are headed out the door? Today’s freshmen didn’t grow up watching SpongeBob on the iPad, Skyping between upstairs and downstairs, or texting each other at age six while sitting on the same sofa.

 

What am I in for?

 

Back in my day…

 

When I left home for college in the fall of 1992, 18-year-olds did not have cell phones. Most did not have laptops. I had never heard of email. I took with me a Smith-Corona word processor, which I thought was pretty darn cool, plus a bunch of boxes and a bicycle. I flew from DFW to the San Francisco airport, and in a matter of hours, I was in a new world and a new time.

 

When I checked in with my mom and dad later that evening, I did so with a hasty call on a corded white telephone with large black number buttons. I remember that phone well. Over the course of my first year away from home—a year that saw so many changes for me and for my family—that black and white phone was how we stayed connected. In fact, with the exception of a few care packages and cards, and one or two in-person visits, that phone was the only way we stayed in touch. We spoke maybe two or three times a week.

 

Through that phone, on an October evening, I delivered the news that I wasn’t going pre-med after all. A killer organic chemistry midterm dashed my hopes and drove me to new studies. Through that phone, I was summoned home rather abruptly for Spring Break when I hadn’t been planning on going home at all, only to learn when I arrived that my mother had breast cancer. Through that phone two months later, on my birthday, I called to check on my mother and heard her weak voice trying to sound something other than pained as she—prostrate on the bathroom floor with chemo nausea—wished me a happy day. And through that phone, I immediately called a florist and had get-well flowers delivered; it was a pathetic attempt to offer relief and love from across an unbearable distance.

 

Constant Contact Generation

 

Needless to say, things are different these days. Most kids who leave for college look like they just robbed Best Buy and the Apple store. But more important than the devices they bring with them is the way kids and parents have come to depend on those devices for round-the-clock portable communication with each other. Moms can check up on their children by cell phone, by email, by calling professors, Skyping, Facebooking, logging on to school grade systems. And rather than look for their own answers, kids can contact moms and dads so easily for any kind of question imaginable.

 

Let’s look at some of the findings from the group studied by Hofer and Moore in The iConnected Parent:

 

  • On average, students and parents communicated with each other 13.4 times per week; the students were initiating the contact almost as frequently as the parents. (To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice a day, every day of the week. For some, it was even more often.)
  • Conversations were mostly between kids and their moms, and this did not vary by socioeconomic status or other variables. (It’s interesting to note, though, that almost a quarter of the research group indicated they’d like more contact with their fathers.)

 

After I read these statistics, two questions came to mind immediately. First, what on Earth are they communicating about every day? And second, is it a badthing for kids to be so in touch with their parents?

 

Hofer and Moore looked at these questions as well, and they found there was an apparent link between how often students and parents communicated, what they talked about, and how the students felt about their control over their lives away from home. In an online interview with Inside Higher Ed on September 10 of this year, Hofer explained:

“Some of these students have parents who are using the calls to continue regulating their [students’] behavior as they did in high school, reminding them what and when to study, for example, and these students are the least satisfied with the parental relationship, describing it as controlling and conflictual. Others report a ‘best friend’ phenomenon with their parents, wanting to talk to them daily to tell them everything that is going on, and these students seem to be trading off autonomy for closeness. By contrast, there are families with moderate contact who have learned how to maintain a connection but in healthy ways that permit growing independence of thought and behavior.”[i]

 

So the long and short of it is that parents are tempted to use 24/7 contact options like email and cell phones to stay on top of what a child is doing while away at college, much the same way they did while the child lived at home and went to high school. While this is an admirable thing—to want to see your child succeed and help them manage the often daunting workload—this is not always what a child wants. Nor is it what we have traditionally allowed to transpire when kids leave home. They need to make mistakes and learn to handle responsibilities. If we interfere too much in this process, we risk robbing them of valuable life skills and lessons. And frankly, I think we go against what we, as parents, have been guiding them towards since the day each child was brought into this world: independence.

 

Hofer and Moore also found that students were equally guilty of running back to their parents for assistance with schoolwork or other problems. The less independent kids would sometimes email papers back to Mom and Dad for a final check before turning them in—which some students and professors thought of as cheating, while other students, according to Moore, “simply saw it as one more resource to which they had access.”[ii] And this dependence didn’t always end when students graduated from college. Says Moore:

 

“The close connection between parents and their college students carries over into the work force, with parents accompanying kids to interviews or trying to help negotiate salaries. Parents are also pushing the boundaries of standard business etiquette. For example, in lieu of a spouse or significant other, some young employees bring their mom to the office holiday party, summer barbecue or on a business trip. One young employee got reprimanded for spending too much time on Facebook while at work. His excuse? He had to respond constantly to mom’s comments via Facebook.”[iii]

 

Really? I’m not sure I buy the excuse, but I can see how there would undoubtedly be some weird, new response instinct that forms when parents and children have years of experience communicating via instant social media. Your phone dings at you—and you know you have a comment to reply to, a text message to reply to… how do you ignore it? Should you ignore it? After all, it’s Mom.

 

Building self-sufficiency in a wired age

 

In The iConnected Parent, Hofer and Moore offer some valid suggestions—based on research—about how to avoid some of the traps that today’s round-the-clock technology has set for us. Here are some of their tips:

 

  • Be mindful of who is initiating communication: let your child take the lead. If your child sounds annoyed when you call, back off.
  • Before you pick up the phone, decide who will benefit from this call: you or your child.
  • Give your kids space to lead their own lives at college, and know the boundaries. Respect their privacy.
  • Know how to recognize and respond to venting. Listen, but don’t rush to problem solve.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your kids stumble or be unhappy temporarily.[iv]

 

I’m still baffled by how this will unfold for my children. They are so young, with so many years ahead of them for even newer forms of communication to emerge. Ultimately, I think I have to ask myself what “independence” means today, and what it will mean in the future. Is it a state of emotional well-being, where kids are mentally prepared to handle life’s challenges on their own? Is it the maturity to know when to go it alone and when to seek help? Is it the ability to cram seven whole days into a one weekly phone call with the parental units—and feel okay with the idea of not sharing every little thing?

 

In all honesty, I think it’s a realistic combination of all these things, and it’s something that parents start practicing very early, when we are forced to make difficult decisions regarding discipline. That’s because, as I see it, discipline is a thing that reminds parents that we, too, must learn to be independent from our children from time to time. We, too, must make hard choices on our own—and it’s not always easy.

 

Here’s an example. When I was almost four years old, my friend Emmy and I thought it would be tremendous fun if we “washed” her mother’s good dining room chairs with shaving cream. They had blonde-toned straw seats, and the shaving cream felt delicious as it squished between the coarse strands.

 

Until Emmy’s mom walked in and caught us in the act.

 

I don’t remember what she said or did, but I remember fleeing like a bandit with Emmy on our Big Wheels. We pedaled frantically over the gravel driveway and down the cul de sac to my house, where we went into hiding.

 

I often reflect on this stigma from my past. What did Emmy’s mother say? Did she tell my mother? What did my mother say? I’m curious, of course, because I now have a three-year-old who is quite capable of committing such an act (or worse), and I wonder what I would do in the same situation. Laugh it off? Ground someone? In my memory, I can only recall looking for a safe place. I wanted to find my mom and some comfort because I was scared of getting into trouble, even if my mom was the one punishing me. Did my mom and Emmy’s mom allow anger, frustration, and love to coexist peacefully?

 

To me, this is the toughest parental challenge: teaching independence without sacrificing the idea of home, of safety, of Mom and her apron strings. We want our kids to learn right from wrong, how to stand on their own two feet, but at the same time, we know there will never come a time when we wouldn’t offer a hug to a child in need of one. I’m 36 years old, and I still need hugs from my mom. We call, and we email, and sometimes it’s mundane. But it’s always meaningful. When you leave home, after all, you don’t go back. Whatever conversation exists beyond that point is not just the entrance to a new relationship—it is the relationship.

 

So why didn’t anyone tell me that the last night I spent in my bedroom before leaving for college would be my last actual night as a child in the home of my parents? At the time, it just seemed like I was going to sleep on the night before a trip. I was merely packing and moving some things, getting on a plane to California, and heading to a different school. No one pulled me aside and said, “Hey, you do realize this is it, right?” No one asked me if I was ready. I didn’t know it was time to be ready. I wasn’t sure what I would need to be ready for.

 

I think that’s how independence washes over us, like a slow and subtle sunrise; it isn’t until the sky is fully light that we realize the darkness has disappeared. We can’t pinpoint the moment that it happened, or how we felt, but it takes place nonetheless, and there is no turning back. I didn’t begin a transition to independence on that morning I left for college. I began 18 years earlier, learning day by day by day how to walk that fine line between “I need you” and “I’ll do it myself.”

 

That line doesn’t end. We never completely sever the apron strings. I think—whether they are phone cords or Ethernet cables—we’re okay if we just untie the strings and let them dangle, loose enough to be unrestricting, but easy to grab onto when we all need something to hold.

 

[i] http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/09/10/hofer (Golden, 2010)

[ii] Ibid.

 

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

School is now in session. Let the chaos begin!

 

Mind you, I’m not just talking about school mayhem. Some of you, like me, have extended obligations beyond your children to include “paying” work, volunteer commitments, and community involvement—all of which seems to pick up in September. And maybe a few of you, also like me, have some trouble saying no to activities. It’s not because you feel cornered by the people who ask for help. It’s because you want to be out there, doing things. You want to meet people and put your hard-earned skills to use.

 

The problem? You can end up overwhelmed with scheduling hassles and numerous deadlines when school season begins anew. First-time school moms might really feel the pain, as they struggle to find new balance between work, family, school, and self.

 

I’m not one of those people with a built-in clock for dealing with my many chores. I need help. (Ask anyone who knows me.) And over the years, I’ve learned that without the right strategies for managing my time, I will lose sight of what’s going on. Allow me to share a few tips on how everyday tech tools can help you tackle this new school year full-force.

 

  1. Put it on the calendar. When I was a little kid, I loved using those teachers planning books. As I got older, I tried migrating to a DayRunner. But I was awful at writing things down. And, as with handbags, I acquired too many planners—and never had what I needed when I needed it. Nowadays, I stick purely to my Outlook calendar on my laptop and my iPhone, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s worth mentioning again, simply because Outlook is one of those things that gives your schedule portability. Google and Yahoo also have portable calendars you can access from phone, laptop, or desktop. Wherever you are, keep a calendar within reach. When you are handed an important date—and this is the key part—put it in the calendar right away. Your computer and phone will sync later, and your calendar will be updated everywhere. If you’re the one booking an event, use your calendar application—or even Evite, if you’re throwing a big shindig—to send invitations to others involved. It’s a great way to track RSVPs or meeting attendees. Plus you can be green and save paper!

 

  1. Make a big to-do. Whether I’m feeling overwhelmed or totally in control, I always make a list of what’s on my plate every day. In fact, I’m so ridiculously in love with lists, that I sometimes make lists of my lists. I do them on paper that I carry in my purse, or I type them on the computer and print them out. There’s just something about seeing what I have to do in numbered order in front of me that makes it all more manageable. And there’s no greater satisfaction than crossing off that last item. (I even make lists for my husband.) Another great thing about Outlook (Microsoft should be paying me right now) is that it offers a “Task” function where you can manage to-do’s with timelines, categories, and more. The application sorts lists whichever way you choose and reminds you when due dates approach. I find this handy when trying to juggle unrelated things like school pictures, work deadlines, homework assignments, board meetings, and teacher luncheons. And yes, the popup reminders go through to my iPhone, so wherever I am, I am not allowed to forget.

 

  1. Use Web sites and email lists. This being 2009, most organizations and schools now offer information on their Web sites, updated regularly. Many also make use of email newsletters to communicate important items. Sign yourself up! Instead of wondering when things happen or who’s in charge of what, use these resources to answer questions quickly—even during non-business hours. And, as the person managing several local organizational Web sites and email lists, let me also say this: If you find a site or newsletter isn’t useful, doesn’t answer your questions, or isn’t updated often enough, please let the responsible group know. Feedback is very useful in making things more user-friendly. Be aware, though, that most of the people behind these resources are volunteers. We do what they can, when we can—and we could use help if you’re savvy! Incidentally, if you weren’t aware, CISD has a weekly eNews list. <Sign up here.>< http://www.southlakecarroll.edu/cisd-news.aspx>

 

  1. Don’t throw caution to the wind. As you get immersed in the multitasking thing, watch out for cell phone calls and texting while driving. True, it can be tempting to conduct business at every moment to save precious minutes, but don’t let the need to be prompt or to know everything supersede your need for safety—especially if your most precious cargo is in the car. Remember, Southlake now bans all cell phone usage while driving in school zones. Put your phones down in the car!

 

  1. Forgive yourself. No matter what, you cannot do everything. There will always come a time when you have to say no to something you wish you could tackle, but do with it the understanding that you’re making the right decision from a time-management perspective, from a family perspective, or from a personal perspective. You don’t do anyone any favors when you let the ball drop because you bit off more than you could chew. Know your limitations, and live, happily, within them. Reassess your schedule from time to time. And if you make a mistake, own up to it, forgive yourself, and move on.

 

  1. Turn yourself off. Remember that, like an overloaded computer system, you too can crash. Power off for a while. Give yourself the opportunity to feel obligation-free for at least a few minutes—if not hours—every day. Sometimes the best technology is the button that turns on your Jacuzzi or your blender. If you feel like you’re spending too much time on the kids’ schedules or in front of a screen, try carving out some hours for community activities or to simply visit with other adults—your friends, your spouse, whoever keeps you sane. Most neighborhoods in Southlake offer social gatherings for women and men every month. I know mine has groups for bingo, bunco, book club, and more. Check your neighborhood Web site for details.

 

Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to be a full member of your community or school, or to branch out into some type of work (or pursue advancement in your current career), simply because you’re afraid of scheduling conflicts or overload. With the right tactics in play, you can take on the world. Or at least look like you can. And sometimes, the appearance of control is just as effective as the real thing.