Low Expectations Days

While I’m all about adventure and discovery and getting out and doing fun stuff, I also think that a crucial element to living is the ability to simply “be.” This is a common theme in articles and web sites devoted to simplicity and wellness.

But some days, I take the middle ground.

Yesterday, a family emergency required that I chuck every last one of my best-laid plans (column due, three kids on three school schedules, shopping to do before a friend’s wedding, a recipe to test for said column) and declare a “Low Expectations Day”–I would get done what absolutely had to be done and no more.

It wasn’t easy, but at the same time it was sort of liberating, kind of like the day last week when a tornado touched down nearby. As I herded the kids downstairs, I looked around the main floor of our home – camera, laptop, bills, knick knacks – and decided I needed none of it, I had everyone of value to me headed to the basement.

Next time you find yourself mid-crisis (kids barfing in tandem, car won’t start, elderly parents injured or sick), declare a Low Expectations Day, do what has to get done and let life blow the rest away. It’ll all be waiting for you when you return, and you may even find that some “priorities” didn’t need your attention after all.

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New Year, New Ideas

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I’m excited about the turning of calendar pages to a new year for many reasons, one of which means some new regular features here at Bring the Family, including:

Mini Adventures – I’ll drag bring the family somewhere new in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest, with an eye toward learning or trying something we’ve never experienced before.

Stuck Indoors – Ideas for days when illness, weather, or your wallet keep everyone stuck at home.

How To – multimedia segments on subjects like: how to pack a day pack for a short hike, build an igloo, learn to snowboard, take memorable photos, and more. Let me know what you’d like to see here!

Doing It Right – This will center around communities, organizations, families, and individuals who are keeping the spirit of exploration and adventure alive in their corner of the world.

Guest Bloggers – Have an adventure or idea you’d like to share with Bring the Family’s readers? Email me at ToniTravels AT gmail DOT net to sign up to do a guest post (with video and/or photos, if that’s your thing).

Product Reviews – We’ll test gear our family actually uses and provide honest reviews (with giveaways of products we endorse, too).

I’m considering putting some of these items up for a vote – especially mini adventures – where readers get to pick where we go and what we do next! From kayaking the Chicago River to touring the Trek Bicycle Factory in Wisconsin, we’ll pick fun, affordable things to do locally.

Here’s a cute little kickoff for the new year that demonstrates what you can do when you combine a 9-year-old, a sloping driveway, and an inexpensive starter snowboard from a sporting goods store.

I’d love to hear from you about how to make this site more useful to families; post your requests and suggestions in the comment section.

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The Gift of Saying “Thank You”

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My family is fortunate to have a small-town school district with a forward-thinking superintendent and caring, professional educators and support staff. Our district’s budget is not only consistently in the black, but is known statewide as one of the finest in terms of accommodating children on the autism spectrum (including one of our boys). And while there are many families hovering near the poverty line in our little town, I’ve seen administrators and staff members take their own personal time and money to ensure that their students have boots in winter or can attend a field trip with the rest of the class.

My kids are getting a fine education and I am deeply grateful for this. During the holidays, I express that gratitude with handwritten notes or cards telling the teachers how much our family values their hard work and dedication to our kids.

In recent years I’ve noticed a trend toward giving gift cards, cash, or extravagant holiday gifts to offset what teachers spend on their classrooms throughout the year. However, many parents I know donate time, classroom and party supplies, and support fundraisers throughout the year, and many teachers earn decent (though seldom extravagant) salaries with great benefits and pensions. Some districts have even banned parents from giving gifts to teachers to prevent undue influence and/or to spare families on tight budgets from feeling bad for not being able to contribute.

Truthfully, our family would love nothing more than to shower everyone in our world with gift cards from our awesome indie book store or some handmade loveliness from the talented peeps on Etsy.com. But for various reasons, including our family’s annual cash-only holiday budget, we don’t.

Instead, we say thank you.

This year, my plan is to bake some mini pumpkin loaves and make photo cards with personal notes to my kids’ teachers and some other staffers.

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Wait! Come back!

Don’t panic about the handmade gift ideas; this is not about being the parent who can out-Martha all the others, just as it’s not about being the parent who can spread the most gift cards around. Holiday giving shouldn’t be about running yourself ragged, stretching your family’s budget, or worse–going into debt in order to keep up with those spendy Joneses. The bottom line: don’t make obligatory or competitive gifting part your holiday grab bag. If you have the means to shower everyone with gift cards, great. But if you don’t, know that it’s possible to honor the spirit of this season with a heartfelt thanks.

I mentioned the “to gift or not to gift” issue to my friend, Kelly, who teaches third grade. She wrote:

I know that a note of appreciation for the job they are doing and the impact they are having on your kid means SO much more than ANY gift. I have a drawer filled with notes I have saved. When I am having a rough day in the class … nothing is better than pulling one of them out and reminding myself why I do what I do. I have no idea what gift was given to me by what family last year. Don’t spend your money… take the time and write a note!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and ideas for meaningful ways to give thanks to our educators and others in our communities.

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Meaningful Holidays

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This is the first of a series of entries I’ll be writing this month about celebrating the holidays with your family, whether that family was born, chosen, or a little of both.

There’s tremendous pressure on everyone during this time of year, and the essence of the various December holidays gets lost in a jumble of lists, receipts, and a steady parade of obligations. Is it even possible to push back against the forces crying, “Spend! Compete! Consume! Please Everyone!”? I’ll admit that I get caught up in that stuff, too; we are social creatures and following societal standards is normal, but it can also be a hindrance because it can be tough to swim against the tides of peer influence.

Over the next week or two, I’m going to post some ideas to get you thinking about some simple ideas for feeling connected to our families, friends, and communities in meaningful ways, with an eye toward cutting out the B.S. (can I say that on a family-friendly blog? I hope so).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on some of these topics and I hope to learn from you readers as well. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover, please chime in and I’ll see what sort of conversations I can start. More soon . . .

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Staycations – All You Ever Wanted?

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Sure, the term “staycation” is kind of annoying, but I’m going to argue in favor of the idea of a “stay-at-home-vacation,” if not its shorthand term-du-jour. Call it something else if you’d like, but there are benefits to “traveling” close to home during these tough economic times.

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Create your own getaway by exploring your own back yard

For one – this should get your attention – if you play it right, you’ll save money. While I realize it’s just as easy to drop a ton of cash in your own back yard, right now people are holding on to that cash–which is probably a wise move. If you think about it, money spent on air fare or car rentals could easily fund a fabulous local getaway. Send half of that money to your savings account or use it to pay off debt, and you get to enjoy yourself while also benefiting your family’s bottom line. (Maybe we should call it a “smartcation” instead).

Second, local independent businesses need our support now more than ever. After all, nobody is bailing them out; they must swim within a far lower-risk business model or sink, as many are doing.

Third, not shelling out money to an all-inclusive resort (something my family isn’t really into anyway) removes the creativity and spontaneity from travel. While it’s perfectly fine to do so in some instances–or all the time, if it’s your thing–we like to think of ourselves as explorers in our family and we love customizing our vacations. Finding new things in our area becomes a unique challenge, not something that makes us feel deprived.

Fourth, Traveling close to home – whether in your own neighborhood, town, or in nearby major cities – requires you to think like tourists and view well-traveled destinations and attractions in a new light. Taking a staycation is a great opportunity introduce your kids to museums, parks, and restaurants you might otherwise take for granted. Contact your area’s convention and visitors bureau to see what they suggest; you might find a few untapped surprises in your midst.

Next month, my husband and I were going to spend a long weekend at a swanky spa resort, but after we did the math, we realized that we could vacation at home (with a mandate to not work or do anything but necessary chores) without the kids and go exploring for less than half the cost. I’ll write more about what we decide to do when we’re done planning our staycation.

Are you traveling more or less this year, and is the economy affecting how you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And if you hate the word “staycation,” suggest a better word and if I like it, I’ll adopt it here from now on!

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You Can Also Bring the Family . . .

To vote! I brought my two younger boys this morning (where our neighbors at the polling place spoiled the boys with bakery doughnuts so I could concentrate) and my husband is off with our oldest son this evening.

We really wanted to stress the importance of voting and it’s led to many interesting conversations about how government works. It’s also been interesting hearing what the kids have absorbed already – I got a Hillary Clinton question this morning from one of the boys. Of course, my kindergartener has already felt the sting of his first election loss. It seems his peers felt Clifford the Big Red Dog would make a better leader than his choice, Duck for President. He still proudly wore his “I voted” sticker and understood that it still mattered that he voted.
I read today that while many are talking about this being an historic election, we should keep in mind that every election is historic. Brilliant thought, that.

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Virtual Getaways–Affordable Family Fun

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Here’s a travel money-saver you might appreciate: virtual travel. Let’s say you’re researching an article and feeling generally sorry for yourself because your family has no big travel plans in their immediate future (ahem). Why not take an eTour or even an eHike of Glacier National Park, courtesy of the National Park Service web site? Yeah, I know it’s not the same thing as being there, but 1) it beats a sharp stick in the eye and 2) there are far lamer things you could be watching, on or offline.

So far, it looks like Glacier is the only park with what they’ve dubbed eTours and eHikes, though I found a few video podcasts while procrastinating searching around the various park web sites. An eHike or eTour is a great family activity; many of the slides on the eHike I took today featured clickable sound clips with wild bird calls and other sounds of the forest. There are video clips showing rangers explaining natural phenomena (have kids look for the Smoky Bear icons) and other videos showing waterfalls and other points of interest on the hike.

There are also free podcasts about Glacier National Park (available for download via iTunes and other MP3/MP4 formats), and many other parks, like Katmai and Grand Canyon, also offer them (search nps.gov for “podcast” to download tales about your favorite parks). I’m thinking about bringing a handful along on my next walk around our city park.

Again, eHiking is no substitute for the real thing, but they’re fun teaching tools for kids and their parents, and I think they’re a great idea. I hope more parks decide to get in on this.

What do you think? Have you come across any fun sites featuring virtual tours? Share your thoughts, links, and ideas in the comments section.

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