Screen time

Christmas past and Christmas future: Reviewing this year’s holiday to plan the next one

Christmas is a big deal around here. I’ve been mulling over what I liked about how we celebrated this year, and what I want to change. Here’s the breakdown:


Hygge: I learned about this Danish word — hygge — after Christmas was over and the tree was already down. But for me, I realized, hygge is the true meaning of Christmas. Not the Christian story — we are not Christian, and lighting up the dark around winter solstice, giving presents, and bringing green things inside predate Christianity. Hygge seems to mean coziness, comfort, the absence of anything grating, and quiet connection — whether with loved ones or with yourself — from what what I’ve been able to put together. Candles and fire and golden light show up a lot in hygge pinterest boards along with cable knit socks and winter foods and reading chairs. Here’s the board I made.

Next year I want to focus more on the general sense of coziness, connection, comfort and quiet than on the specific day we open presents. I love presents, but I don’t want Christmas to end as soon as we open them. Next year, I want to the decorations and the Santa mugs out longer and keep celebrating.

Giving: This year, our little one still seemed too young for it, but next year we’ll make things together for him to give to the important people in his life. For me, giving is one of the especially warm-feeling parts of Christmas, and I want him to experience it too — to not just see Christmas as a big intake day. Also, this year we gave to a couple of charities, but it was haphazard. Next year, I want to talk about them and pick them out as a family.

Christmas tree: Last year we ordered a tree online from Green Valley Christmas Trees, and the tree they sent was the freshest, most beautiful tree I’ve ever had. The only problem was that it came in a big cardboard box that was hard to get rid of. This year we went to a local lot. It was okay, but nowhere near as nice, and it didn’t last very long. Next year, it’s back to Green Valley and we’ll just deal with the box.

Decorating the tree: Gavin came up with the idea of making a red and green paper chain this year. We put up only fairly robust ornaments and plastic lights, and the tree was looking a little sparse. The chain filled it out and we figured if it tore we could just tape it back together.  We sang Christmas carols (badly) while we were making it and gave our little boy his own short chain to play with. He not only let us make the chain in peace, he also left the chain on the tree alone, so we never ended up needing to tape it back together.

Christmas lights in a ball: Wrangling the tree lights this year was a snap, because last year we rolled them up in a ball. Unrolling them was easy — much easier than in the past when I had carefully worked all the lights back into their original packaging.

Santa mugs 3

Santa mugs: We got these a few years ago at Pottery Barn (you can find actual vintage ones on Etsy, though, and see a bunch on Pinterest, too). We get them out with our December decorations, and usually we drink a lot of hot chocolate in them. This year we were craving lighter fare, so we drank mint tea in them almost every day. For my little boy, I poured a little tea in the bottom of his cup and then filled the rest up with cool water, so it was barely warm. He loved it.

Christmas cards: I love Paper Source‘s designs, especially the cards that say, “Merry/Happy Everything!” And one of my favorite Christmasy things to do is sit in a coffee shop addressing envelopes and thinking about all the people I like and love who I’m sending them to. This year I started a little late because we were traveling around and after Thanksgiving, so I still have some cards to send out (for New Year’s! Or maybe Valentine’s Day…) Next year, I’m starting earlier.

Santa photo: The Petersen Automotive Museum had an old red convertible you could pose inside with Santa this year. It was the best Santa photo (and Santa photo experience) we’ve had so far. One of us ran around the gift shop or museum with our son while the other stayed in line, and once we actually got in the car, our little boy was in heaven checking out the steering wheel and all the buttons. They took a bunch of pictures, and even though our two year old was focused on the car most of the time, they still managed to get a picture where we were all kind of smiling at the camera. For $25 they gave us a thumb drive of all the shots and a print out of the best one, plus free parking. 

Going out to see lights: We went out twice this year. We got a deal on Living Social for a 90 minute trolley tour of the Christmas lights on and around Naples Island in Long Beach.  They gave us candy canes and Santa hats and hot chocolate, and we rode around in an open trolley in our snow jackets. The tour included also a guided walk around Naples Island, and while we could have done that on our own for free, as part of the trolley tour it just seemed more special. Our two year old loved every part of the whole night from running around touching lights to drinking hot chocolate to getting two candy canes to RIDING IN AN ACTUAL TROLLEY!

Another night, we drove to Candy Cane Lane in El Segundo. El Segundo in general goes all out with Christmas deocrations, but in this cul-de-sac every house is covered in lights.  They shut down traffic and people walk up and down the street. A couple of houses have model trains running out on their lawns, and there’s a Santa you can visit, although my little one has only wanted to see him from a distance so far.

Gingerbread house 1

Gingerbread house: Last year we assembled one of the Trader Joe’s gingerbread houses. It was…tricky. This year, we got a pre-assembled one from Whole Foods, along with a tin of candy and some pre-made icing. Much better. I just wished I had picked up a little extra candy. Next time, I think we’ll go with another preassembled house, but we might also decorate ginger bread men that we can eat right away.


This year after we took the tree down, we all sat around the table and broke up the gingerbread house and ate it. It was disgusting, but fun. And as my little one pointed out, the candy part was good.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners: We ordered a beef tenderloin and a goose from Heritage Foods USA. Gavin made the tenderloin on Christmas Eve, and it was amazing. Delicious and juicy and tender. We’ll definitely get another one next year. It was also easy to make and didn’t need to cook forever, which helps make the night more fun.

The goose, on the other hand, took a lot of time to prepare and to cook. I think the recipe I used–Roast Goose with Caramelized Apples–was a good one, but I may not be that into goose. I loved the caramelized apple part of the recipe, though, and I don’t think they need to be made with goose fat to be good. I might try making them in the place of cranberry sauce, and using butter and oil for the fat next time. I also made potatoes roasted in goose fat, and again, I don’t think the fat needs to be from a goose for these to be good. You want to make sure you like raw garlic if you’re going to try these, though.

The next day, I made Cranberry Sauce with Port and Cinnamon to put on my left-over goose sandwiches. It was good, but not the ultimate cranberry sauce. I’m marking down Cranberry Sauce with Port and Tangerine to try next year.

Harry and David’s pears: Someone gave us these a few years ago, and we’ve ordered them every year since. They’re the best pears I’ve ever had, and they’re a special food I can look forward to around Christmas time that makes me feel good instead of kind of sick. I’m trying to ease up on holiday sugar consumption — it doesn’t make me feel that good in the end, although I do enjoy the occasional homemade Christmas cookie, I’m working on tilting the balance so that sugar is a once or twice a holiday season treat instead of a constant overload.

Christmas books: This year the books we read together over and over were Deck the Halls illustrated by Veronica Vasylenko, You Are My Miracle by Maryann Cusimano Love and illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa, and Richard Scarry’s Best Christmas Book Ever!

Slightly less repeated, but also loved were The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg and Peter Spier’s Christmas.

A couple of my favorites that I think my little one might like better next year are Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry and Christmas Farm by Mary Lyn Ray and illustrated by Barry Root.

Christmas movies: The movies we liked watching together the best this year were The BIG Christmas Tree and Arthur’s Perfect Christmas.

Robot stocking Christmas tree stocking

Advent calendar and stockings: This year we used the advent calendar as a decoration, and we skipped stockings altogether. Filling both (or either) up gets expensive, and if I just stick candy or chocolate in them, it ends up being a lot of sugar. I used to sew new decorations on our stockings every year, and I miss doing that. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll have a little more free time before Christmas and I’ll figure out what to put in the stockings that won’t break the bank.

Getting away: A couple of different friends in my Facebook feed took trips to the mountains after Christmas and played in the snow. It looked so cozy and like so much fun. I’d like to work that into our Christmas traditions.

Magda Pecsenye’s Christmased workbook: I didn’t buy it this year, but it looked so good and so helpful. I want to work through it next year. In the meantime, I’ve signed up for her emails to help me think a little more about what I want for next year’s Christmas.

Playing World of Warcraft with the Kids

playing world of warcraft-009Following my youngest stepson through the countryside on our way to the big city.


The first time I logged into World of Warcraft, I felt like a newborn. I saw colors and shapes moving in front of me, but my brain couldn’t make sense of them. There was nothing to latch onto.

“You’re facing me,” my oldest stepson told me. “Those are my legs.”

Then it clicked. I was looking through my character’s eyes, and what I saw were knees. We were standing in a snowy clearing. I was three feet tall, and my stepson was the size of an adult.

Gavin and I had picked gnome bodies, so we were both very short, and the kids — as elves and humans — were comparatively huge. They were strong, too. They had months — maybe years — of experience on us, and they had both traveled to where we would first enter the game to protect us while we got our bearings and to show us around.

But first they had to teach me how to walk. I couldn’t figure it out on my own.

When we could finally maneuver and sort of fight anything that might attack us, my youngest stepson took me on a tour of the countryside and the big, underground dwarf city nearby. I kept losing him and he came back for me over and over. I felt like a little kid — impatient, helpless, confused, and safe all at once.

You know how when you watch a movie, after a minute or two, something happens in your brain and you don’t think about watching the movie anymore — you’re so absorbed you feel like you’re in the movie? The same thing happened for me in this game. After a few minutes, I wasn’t just watching my gnome run around on a computer screen — I was in the game, running through snowy forests in leather boots hunting wolves, smiling at Gavin in his gnome body with his green eyes and green hair, or tilting up to look at the kids, trying to keep up with them. I still have memories of things we did together there — swimming, gathering herbs on the side of the road while Gavin called me to hurry up, walking through grassy plains, exploring cities, and fighting off trolls and giant spiders and strange things under water. They feel like real memories, of real places in real, other bodies. Or like dreams — vivid dreams — that we dreamed together.

After the first week or so, I think the kids got a little bored with us. You can make your characters kiss and dance and hug, and Gavin and I kept smooching in the game and looking into each other’s eyes and jumping up and down at the sight of each other. Plus, we traveled slowly and died easily. The kids moved on to quests with their friends in more dangerous territory while Gavin and I stuck together, figuring out things they already knew how to do and exploring places they’d already seen. When we really needed their help, they came back down to walk us through the hard parts.

I met one of the kids’ friends for the first time when the kids were busy on a tricky quest. Instead of coming to bail us out one of them asked — we’ll call him Brian — to help us.

A huge, experienced warrior, he swooped in to protect us while we fought off the raiders we couldn’t handle on our own.  When they were all dead, we thanked him and he swooped off to wherever he had come from. It was like having a superhero drop in.

A week or so later when I picked one of the kids up from school, he pointed to a boy sitting at a table nearby. “Remember that guy who helped you last week? That’s him. Brian.”

“You’re Brian?!?!” I walked over, awestruck.

In my brain he was that big warrior. But at the same time, here he was also a fifth grader. I knew he was one of the kids’ friends, but still I felt… surprised. It was like something out of a fairy tale — like he was under some kind of body morphing spell. He was both things at once, but it almost seemed like the warrior part was more real.

I walked closer to the table where he sat. “It’s nice to meet you,” I said. I felt respectful. “Thank you so much for helping us.”

He encouraged me about what we’d done so far and gave me advice about the kinds of quests Gavin and I should take on next, and how to go about them.

I listened and nodded, trying to remember it all.

And it felt like while I was seeing him as a warrior, he was seeing me — not as a Charlie Brown sort of adult — but as a person who could use his advice and encouragement. 

I looked up to see Brian’s mom, who had come to pick him up, watching from a few feet away. “I was so glad to see it was you guys that Brian was playing with online, and not weird people,” she told me with a sparkle in her eyes.


Here’s the really weird and wonderful thing, though: something shifted between the kids and us for a little while. Like that moment with Brian, I saw them not just as kids, not just as people who I could help and take care of in this world, but as people who helped and took care of me, and who knew more than I did in that other world. I think they saw me a little differently, too. When we came back into this world, the “real” world, we came out fresher and more tender. I came out with more respect for them — not theoretical respect, but respect I felt at my core.

I came out feeling — remembering? — that our sizes and ages and experience levels in this world weren’t really who we were. Who we were was something else. It felt like we were all spirits together — all sparks of self. How tall or how old our bodies were or how much we knew about this particular world felt less important.

It was exhilarating to switch places with the kids. To be small while they were big and to need their help to navigate and function. I think that while we were switching places, maybe they saw us not so much as quasi-alien adults, but as people, too. Just being people together for a little while was bliss. It felt gentle and glow-y and new. It felt good.

When I think of World of Warcraft, I think of meadows and plains and forests and adventures. I think of getting a taste again of what it’s like to be a kid. I think of seeing — really seeing — and being seen by the kids.

And I think of Gavin’s green eyes and shock of green hair, and I think of him smiling and dancing at me.

Our favorite toddler apps

Truck Tunes – Hammershark Media: This is hands down my son’s favorite app, and it is free. It is a series of music videos about ten different kinds of construction and logging trucks. The menu is difficult to navigate at first if you can’t read, but we’ve discovered that deep love of trucks can drive toddlers to figure out all kinds of amazing things.  (It is formatted for the iPhone, but it can be downloaded onto iPads, too. Be sure you’re searching for iPhone apps when you go to install it, though, or you may not be able to find it.)

Pettson’s Inventions – Filimundus AB: My son has been returning to this one a lot lately. You arrange gears, pulleys, pipes, candles, windmills, and funny creatures that blow air to make fantasy inventions work. He sits in his car seat arranging the pieces and then watching them work over and over. I like playing with it, too.

Miny Moe Car – Blinq: You can drive a car, turn on the windshield wipers to clean off the occasional spot of bird poop left by a friendly bird, adjust the radio, and turn on your blinkers. Other parts of the app let you patch a tire (with bandaids) and pump air back into it or fill up the gas tank. This was one of our top played apps for a month or two.

Mathmateer™ – Dan Russell-Pinson: My son is way too young for the math part of this app, but he can still choose rocket bodies and engines and boosters, blast them off into space, and watch them fly until they eventually fall back to earth. He LOVES rockets and he loves this app.

Miss Spider’s Tea Party – Callaway Digital Arts Inc.: “I wish I could go to Miss Spider’s tea party,” my son told me one day. Because of this app, we had a series of mom and son tea parties where he drank mint tea from a capuchino cup. This is by far his favorite picture book app.

Endless Alphabet – Callaway Digital Arts Inc.: This app has kept my son’s interest for month. You match capital letters to spell a word, each letter makes its sound while you’re moving it with your finger, and then the app tells you the letter name when you match it correctly. Once the word is spelled, there’s a short, silly animation that explains what the word means. This app teaches capital letter sounds and names, it teaches vocabulary AND it is fun for two year olds for a very long time.

LetterSchool – Boreaal: This is a handwriting app, and I think it is the one that first cemented letter recognition for my son. He’s just now starting to try the handwriting part of the game, but he’s been clicking on letters to see pictures of things that start with those letters (and hearing the letter names and sounds at the same time) for months now. The pictures spring up for only a few seconds, so he had to memorize the letters that went with his favorite pictures in order to see them over and over again.


The iPad and our toddler: What works for us

The iPad 2
iPad prepped for toddler use with a puffy case and a screen protector

I thought I wasn’t going to let my kid play with computers or watch TV until he was much, much older. Like maybe sixth grade. I wanted him to get comfortable in the “real world.” I wanted him to run around and use his limbs and his senses. I wanted him to get bored and to learn to entertain himself. And I wanted to be all the way there for him. I didn’t want to substitute screen time for my attention.

Guess what. We let our two-year-old play with the iPad.

I spent the first year and a half of his life with an old school cell phone because I was afraid a smart phone would be too sticky. I went online during his naps, and my internet time was rushed and short. I had always thought that screen time was wasted time — that if I watched TV, surfed the internet or checked Facebook, I was avoiding being fully present.

Then I got an iPhone.

After a year and a half, I was connected again.  It felt good. It didn’t feel like it was changing my parenting. It just felt like I was getting more — and better — brain food here and there. And getting in touch with people more easily. And not needing to print out Google maps before I left the house.

I used to read my kindle or actual paper books when I was nursing. Now I read my iPhone. Pretty soon, my son started grabbing for it. I locked it and let him hold it. Why not let him explore? What could he do?

Within a week or two of poking at it, he pushed the little slider all the way across the screen with his finger, and it clicked unlocked.

I laughed in surprise and grabbed it back.

It turned into a game. He unlocked it and shrieked with laughter while I tried to get the phone back. After a few days, I just let him have it. Why not let him mess around with my phone? It felt… okay. It didn’t feel wrong. Then he started poking around in my email and randomly calling people in my contacts, and I realized I could make us both happier by installing a few games for him. Soon after that, we got a big puffy plastic case and some screen protectors for our iPad and let him play with it in earnest.

He wanted to play with it a lot. I didn’t want to use it as a substitute for my attention, so I sat with him while he played. He loved it. He got really upset if I wanted him to stop and do something else, and I was bored. The amount of time we were spending playing with it bugged me. I knew that if I didn’t add any new apps, eventually he would get tired of it and move on to other things, but I didn’t want to wait for weeks or maybe even months. Left to his own devices, we wouldn’t be going outside or reading books or doing anything other than swiping at screens for a long time. That didn’t feel right.

Around the same time, he started fighting getting into his carseat and stroller. He hated them so much that we stayed home more often than not. That’s when it all clicked. I stopped giving him the iPad on demand and offered it to him whenever he had to be strapped down instead. He was playing with it by himself and I hadn’t wanted to substitute screen time for my attention, but this was different — it felt like substituting one kind of freedom for another and during a time when he wouldn’t have very much of my attention anyway. It worked. Having clear times when he would get to use the iPad (when strapped in) and clear times when the iPad would be put away (when we got where we were going) made it easier for him to stop, and it turned riding in the carseat or stroller into something he liked instead of something painful for both of us.

We went to museums, aquariums, parks, the library, playgroups and playdates. We played in the sun and the dirt and the water. In between, when we were driving or strolling to the places where we could do these things, he played with the iPad on his own and started doing things that amazed me.

One of the apps I thought would be way too hard for him had an activity where you moved four batteries into a toy with the positive and negative sides alternating directions (like how you stick batteries into things in the real world). The next thing I knew, he had it all figured out and was clicking them into place by himself in the back seat. There’s another one — Truck Tunes — that showed music videos about construction vehicles. The menu didn’t have pictures of the trucks — just numbers and text, and the menu was split between two screens. So to choose the backhoe video, you had to touch “Next Screen” and then “7 – Backhoe”, for example. After a lot trial and error, he could navigate it.

He started recognizing numbers. Then, he could kind of count to fifteen. He matched letters. Then he knew most of the letter names. He knew letter sounds. He was two — less than two and a half. From what my friends were telling me, their kids who played with iPads or iPhones could do the same things or even more.

On a touch screen, it was safe to explore and mess up. He wouldn’t get hurt or break something or make a fantastically huge mess. He chose what to try or not to try. He chose when to quit and when to try again. There were fewer interruptions, corrections, instructions, admonishments or directions. It was just freedom — the kind of freedom he almost never got in the real world. It’s not like I punished him or constantly bossed him around, but he didn’t get to walk in the street or squish dog poop between his fingers or pour rice on the floor. There were a lot of things he wanted to try that I pulled him back from. On the iPad, it was different. I could load it with apps that I thought were safe for him, and then let him loose. With this kind of freedom, he learned like crazy.

Watching my son play with the iPad — especially seeing what he could do on his own — took my respect for him to new levels. I still want him to be comfortable in the real world, but I’m starting to feel like reality is more complicated than I initially thought. These days I’m thinking that screens are part of the real world, too.