Nov 14, 2010

Preparing Your Preteen To Spend Time Home Alone Source: Tween Parent Staff

Now that your child is a preteen, staying home alone is an option. Perhaps, you’ve already left them alone for a few minutes while running an errand or picking up a sibling. Older tweens often enjoy the independence, but may not know how to take care of themselves in an emergency. has come up with some tips and ideas that we think will help you prepare your preteen to stay home on their own.

Things to Consider Before Leaving Your Tween Home Alone


  • Does your preteen want to stay home alone or will they be frightened?
  • Does your tween show reasonable behavior when choosing independent activities?
  • Is your tween reliable and responsible while doing daily activities and chores around the house?
  • Is your preteen self-sufficient? (Do they recognize when they are hungry and can they prepare small meals and snacks by themselves?)
  • Does your tween follow rules and instructions?
  • Do you trust your preteen not to panic in unexpected situations?
  • Is your tween comfortable using the telephone?
  • Does your preteen know how to handle emergency situations?
  • Has your preteen ever played with matches, fire or other dangerous objects?
  • Does your tween have a medical condition that would make them vulnerable if left home alone?


Teaching Your Preteen How to Handle an Emergency


  • Give your tween a lesson in first-aid 101.
  • Show your preteen how to call 911.
  • Teach your tween what to do in case of a fire. Remember that fire department rules for apartments are different than houses. If you live in an apartment check the fire department’s recommendations for your building.
  • Find a reliable neighbor that your tween can go to and/or call in the case of an emergency.
  • Establish a meeting area outside your home in case your child needs to leave in the event of an emergency.


Lists For Your Tween


  • Important Contact Information – Include your telephone numbers and a neighbor’s number. A grown up should always be available for your preteen.
  • Emergency Numbers – All the basics; 911 for fire and first aid, the poison control center, and your doctors and dentist’s information.
  • Home Address and Phone Number – In an emergency, your tween may be too flustered to remember even basic information.
  • A Chart of First-Aid Procedures – Easy access to this information will help your child make good choices.

Our Recommendations For House Rules While Home Alone


  • Preteens should not tell anyone that they are home alone. However, if your tween gets caught in an awkward conversation, it’s important for them to know that it is okay to fib to strangers about being home alone.
  • Tweens should not answer the door while home alone.
  • Consider not allowing any friends in the house without your permission. Keep in mind that you don’t want to get the reputation of having the house without grown up supervision.
  • Make rules about answering the phone. For example, you may want your preteen to pick up the phone only if they recognize your voice on the answering machine or see your number on caller ID.
  • Structure your tween’s time. Write a list of things you expect to get done while you are away — homework, chores, make a snack.
  • Decide what kitchen appliances your kids are allowed to use. Most people feel comfortable letting their preteens use the microwave and toaster, but not the stove.
  • Establish clear guidelines about using the computer, TV, or playing video games while you are away.
  • Decide if your preteen needs to have permission to go outside.


Home Alone Tips


  • Have easy to make snacks and food readily available for your preteen.
  • Show your tween where the first aid kit, flashlights and batteries are kept.
  • Remember to lock the door on your way out.
  • Warn your preteen never to go into their home if something looks out of place. A broken window, open door, forced lock or ripped screen could be a clue to a robbery.


Transitioning Your Kids


  • Go out for only five to ten minutes the first time you leave your tween alone.
  • Structure your preteen’s time. They may feel more comfortable if they have something to do.
  • Talk to your tween about how they feel about being left alone. If they have concerns, this is your cue that they are not ready.
  • If there is stress in your household, wait until things are “back to normal” before leaving your preteen alone.
Nov 10, 2010

Cooking With Preteens

Getting your preteen acquainted with the kitchen can be beneficial in so many ways. Aside from giving you a break from being responsible for every meal, learning to cook builds confidence, vocabulary, and tastes, as well as reinforcing basic math skills. You may have already been baking and cooking together since your preteen was small, but even if you haven’t, it’s never too late to start. So often we let our busy lives interfere with our willingness to prepare a meal. By encouraging your child’s interest in cooking, you are empowering them with important life skills.

Browse through some cookbooks together

Giving your preteen the freedom to pick out a recipe builds their excitement. Plus, it gives them ownership throughout the process. Finding a kid-friendly cookbook is easy, the question is, which one? The recipes should be simple and straightforward, and should use uncomplicated ingredients. There should be pictures, lots of pictures, and vivid descriptions illustrating how to do certain tasks. Emeril, Rachel Ray, Williams-Sonoma, and Better Homes and Gardens have all released great cookbooks for kids. My favorite children’s cookbooks are fromMollie Katzen. She makes cooking fun, delicious, and healthy for both kids and adults.

Prep work

It’s important to know what you and your tween are getting yourselves into. Explain to them the importance of reading an entire recipe before beginning the process. Make sure you have enough time, the proper equipment and ingredients. Show your tween how to decipher the recipes. Words like “simmer,” “broil,” and “dice” might be foreign to your child. If you come across terminology that you do not recognize, you can look it up in the food dictionary at When doubling recipes, ask your tween to show off their math skills by telling you the new amounts of ingredients needed. This will help boost their culinary confidence.

Going grocery shopping as a team

Once you know what you’re going to be making, pick up the ingredients you need at the grocery store. Study food prices, labels, and quantities with them. Have them practice shopping on a budget by using a calculator to add up the food prices as you go. Let them pick out a few things, outside of the recipe, that they might be interested in trying.

Utensils 101

A kitchen Q & A session is important so that your preteen knows where things are, what to use, and how to use them. Turn it into a fun family trivia game, if you’d like. This is a good opportunity to find out what your child already does and does not know about the kitchen utensils, tools, and appliances. Don’t underestimate them – they probably know more than you might expect. Don’t overestimate them, either – they might know what something is, but have no idea what it’s for or how it’s used. Maybe you have something hiding in your utensil drawer that they’ve never seen before. Have you ever actually used your lemon reamer?

Safety in the kitchen

A talk about safety is mandatory. Try to keep at least one eye on your preteen, at least until they are comfortable around the knives and heat. You don’t want to scare them, but rather guide them about the proper way to hold and use a knife for chopping. Use your judgment about whether you think your child is mature enough to handle a sharp knife, otherwise stick with safer tasks such as measuring, stirring, and cracking eggs. Give your novice chopper something easy to practice with, such as a stalk of celery. Celery is a great practice food because it can lay flat on the cutting board and is easy to grip. Don’t worry about your preteen having perfect Food Network-esque knife skills, as long as they are comfortable. Some important safety tips to communicate to your child are:

  • Long hair should be tied back.
  • Sleeves should be rolled up past the wrists.
  • Potholders should be clean and dry, and always easily accessible. (Wet potholders conduct heat.)
  • Pot handles on the stove should be turned inward, to avoid being accidentally bumped.
  • Hot pots or pans should stay on the stovetop to cool, before being transferred to a countertop or the sink.
  • Kids should be tall enough to see inside the pot before attempting stovetop recipes. Never leave the stirring utensil in the pot. That’s what those adorable little spoon rests are for.
  • Kitchen = electricity and water in the same general area. Proceed with caution, and be sure the two never mix.
  • No metal in the microwave. That means no aluminum foil, forks, etc.
  • If raw meat, fish, poultry or eggs have touched a cutting board or utensil, explain why you should not use it again to touch raw foods without washing it thoroughly with warm soapy water. Same goes for your hands.
  • Above all, encourage a lot of communication in the kitchen. If a sharp knife, or a hot pan, is being moved from one location to another, speak up!

Getting Messy

Let your preteen take charge. Having your preteen act as head chef allows them to take ownership over the process and eventually become independent enough to do it themselves. You can participate as sous chef and offer advice when necessary. Follow are some tips you can share with your preteen to get them started.

  • Create a clean working space.
  • Review your recipe.
  • Preheat oven if necessary.
  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water.
  • Get all the utensils and ingredients set up on the counter.
  • Rinse and dry all fruit and vegetables before you use them.
  • Measure and chop ingredients so they are ready to cook.
  • Clean up spills, load the dishwasher and soak pots as you go along.
  • Have fun!

Enjoy your meal

After bonding with your preteen in the kitchen, enjoy the fruits of your labor together! Regardless of how the dish turned out, be sure to give your child lots of praise and positive reinforcement so they are confident about trying new things in the kitchen and new foods on their plates.

Jun 12, 2010

Facebook 101 for Parents of Tweens

We were in the midst of creating an article highlighting Facebook etiquette, for the benefit of parents interacting with their kids and their kid’s friends on Facebook. And while we believe that it’s a topic worth publishing, we realized after speaking with many readers and subscribers, that there are still a fair amount of parents that have managed to avoid the whole Facebook craze! Some even state their lack of knowledge and interest as a source of pride! Others cite technology intimidation as a barrier. So, we decided to first offer a very basic primer on what you need to know and do to get up-to-speed on Facebook! While you may disagree with it’s premise or question it’s value, as the parent of a tween, it’s important to be aware of Facebook’s power and impact. For those of you who are active on Facebook, stay tuned for an upcoming article focused on etiquette!
Brief History of Facebook

Launched in February 2004, “thefacebook” was founded by (then) Harvard Student, Mark Zuckerberg as a social networking tool on campus. The idea quickly spread among students at Harvard, then Stanford and Yale and throughout colleges in the U.S. and Canada. In August 2005, “thefacebook” was officially renamed Facebook and the rest is history in the making!
As a Parent, Why Join Facebook?

If you don’t think your tween is aware of Facebook, think again…with over 250 million active users (and growing exponentially), awareness isn’t an issue! Without a doubt, the vast majority of older tweens (and some younger ones as well, despite the age criteria of needing to be 13 years old) have Facebook accounts. As a parent, it’s hard to debate the importance of knowing where your pre-teen is spending his/her free time. It might help to think of it like this…since you’d most likely want to check out a destination where your tween was going, the same should hold true for the internet. As a bit of a bonus, when using Facebook, connecting with current or past friends from yesteryear can be a trip down memory lane!
What Does Facebook Offer?

The updated, current version of Facebook offers a secure means to interact and connect with friends, relatives and people with similar interests. In order for someone to view your profile, except for the information you choose to share with the overall community, they need to be approved by you; they need you to friendthem. Once you’re friends, you can regularly view the information your friendspost as well as the profile they created about themselves; and they can see your profile and postings as well. You can reach out to find others. Or, you can wait for others to find you.

Not only is Facebook a social network that enables you to share insights and information with friends in a mass way, you can send a private message to afriend. Another outstanding feature is the ability to share photographs through a very simple uploading process. Note: be careful about “tagging” photos (i.e., don’t identify people in photos, especially your children by name). While security is of paramount importance and Facebook pride’s it’s organization on trust and integrity, since there’s little value in doing so, it’s best to avoid “tagging” altogether.


Facebook Security

While any public domain is hard-pressed to completely avoid the potential for hacking, security is taken very seriously by Facebook. In fact, there’s a “Chief Privacy Officer” whose team is responsible for staying ahead of the curve in keeping your private information private! And, unlike the first incarnation of Facebook where most everything that you published was for general consumption, now there are plenty of limitations that you can place on your profile. Facebook’s privacy settings allow you filter what information from your profile can be seen when someone searches for you. You can configure your settings so prospective friends can see only your name and photo, or you can choose to include other information, like a list of your current friends. And, you can control what kind of information your friends have access to. While you may want some details to be viewable by all of your friends, you have the option to designate certain aspects of your page (your photos, for example) as viewable by only certain friends or family members. The choice is yours and the options for customizing your page based on privacy settings are plentiful.


Sign Up On Facebook

While getting started on Facebook can seem daunting to those unfamiliar with the site and its capabilities, it’s very easy to get started. Once you have your account and profile set up, the rest is fairly straightforward. Exploring Facebook, once signed in, is all you need to do to gain a level of comfort.

1. Go to the website and complete the basic information required to register (e.g., name, email address, gender, password, etc.).

2. Add other personal information to make your account robust and representative of you (paying close attention to what information you want others to have access to).

3. Add a current picture. Make it one you like, since you’ll see it every time you post (as will others)!
Begin Creating Your Network of Friends

Once you explore a little, you’ll find that the site is user friendly and easy to navigate. You can begin to find friends with a search focused on a geographic area, high school, college, hometown or other affiliation. And once you findfriends, you can take a look at their friends to find other past contacts. You may be surprised whom you encounter. While you’re making effort to find friends and build your network, others will likely be simultaneously reaching out to add you to their network. You will periodically receive invitations from others to become theirfriend. When you accept a friend invitation, you are added to your friend’snetwork and they are added to yours.
Facebook Jargon

Friend – someone you’ve invited into your network or whose invitation you accepted to connect with.

Wall – a virtual bulletin board where friends can post comments for you (and others) to see. The postings usually come in the form of quips about your recent postings!)

Messages – between you and a designated friend (like email, only from your Facebook account).

What’s On Your Mind/Share – a text box (with the option of attachments) to create postings informing friends of what you’re doing (or have recently done), as well as thoughts you want to share.

Poke – a silly gesture that let’s the person know that you noticed something on their page or are teasing them.

News Feed – the stream of friend postings that show up on your page.

May 28, 2010

10 Ways to Help Your Preteen Son Open Up and Talk

“How was school today?”
“What did you do?”
Is this how conversations usually go with your preteen or teenage son? If so, this is typical. The little boy who used to talk your ear off has suddenly given way to a young man who won’t open his mouth — except to shovel in food! Don’t take it personally. A greater desire for privacy is perfectly normal at this age. However, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t encourage your son to communicate with you. It just means that you have to learn a new approach. (And it has nothing to do with nagging!) Following are ten tips for getting your preteen or teenage son to talk:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Pose a question that requires more than a one-word answer. Instead of asking, “How was school today?” ask your son, “What projects are you working on in art?” To your son who’s reading Huckleberry Finn in literature class, say, “I haven’t read that book. Can you tell me what it’s about?”
  2. Don’t lecture; just listen. When your son is sharing something with you, listen without judgment. Don’t tell him that he didn’t handle a situation well or launch into a story about how you did a similar thing as a child. Pay attention to his cues. If he starts shutting down mid-conversation, chances are you’re doing too much talking and not enough listening.
  3. Timing is everything. Pouncing on your son as soon as he walks in the door will usually not get him talking. Gauge his mood. Look for signs that he’s happy and willing to interact. Talk to him when he’s not distracted by a TV show or video game. Many parents find that discussions can be more easily initiated in the car on the way to soccer practice.
  4. Seize the moment. If your son comes in the room and starts talking to you, give him your full attention. Get off the computer, turn down the TV set, and be grateful for this opportunity to connect with your son. These moments probably don’t happen very often, so cherish them.
  5. Don’t grill him in front of friends or siblings. Your son might be responsive to you at home, but turns into a stranger when he’s with his friends. That’s okay. It’s important for a preteen to be accepted by his peers. He doesn’t want to be labeled a “Mama’s boy.” Save the heavy discussions for when you have no witnesses.
  6. Respect his privacy. When I was a young girl, I remember hearing my mom discuss something I had told her with a friend on the phone. Do you think I opened up to her again? No! Your son has to feel he can trust you with his thoughts or he won’t reveal them. If he knows you’re a blabbermouth, forget it. And don’t snoop for information in his room unless you have a legitimate reason to do so (such as realistic suspicions of drug use). If your son catches you reading his emails or digging in his backpack, he will never open up to you again.
  7. Respect his opinions. Your son is probably not going to be a “mini me.” His interests will be different from your own, and that’s healthy. If he thinks a certain band is awesome, ask him what he likes about them. Don’t launch into a discussion as to why their music is terrible. (Of course, if he consistently listens to music that’s racist or sexist, a different kind of discussion is in order.) Honor your son’s taste in clothes, music, movies, etc., as long as there’s no harm done. You grew out of your passion for bell bottoms, and your son will move on eventually, too.
  8. Don’t get mad when he clams up. Oftentimes, when a boy won’t talk, it’s not about you. Perhaps someone said something negative to him at school. Or his favorite team lost. Young men often need time to themselves to process a disappointment before they’re willing to talk about it. Give him that space and try to get him to talk later.
  9. Communicate like he does. Whether you agree with it or not, kids talk to each other today through their phones and computers. Learn how to text and send emails. If your son’s out with friends and you text him, chances are good that he’ll respond. Instead of nagging him to work on his science fair project, send him a friendly email! (And always reflect before you send. A nasty email or voice message may come back to haunt you later and will cause him to ignore the next one you send.)
  10. Love him anyway. Private hugs and pats on the back are still important. Your son may seem less approachable now, but don’t give up. Your “I love you” as he walks out the door may not get a response at this age, but it builds up a sense of security in your child because he knows that love and acceptance are waiting for him at home.

The preteen and adolescent years can be frustrating for both parent and child as they struggle with new ways of relating to each other. Excessive conflict, extreme personality changes, or talks of suicide warrant a call to a family counselor. But most of the time, your son’s sudden lack of communication is a very normal sign that he’s officially a preteen! You do have to accept this new reality, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t make it better. By using these techniques, you have a much greater chance of encouraging your son to talk with you, as well as keep the lines of communication open throughout the teen and young adult years.

May 11, 2010

The New Cyberscourge for Preteens and Teens

Last week, a Long Island high school senior committed suicide, and the website is suspected as a cause. Yet most parents don’t even know it exists. Formspring is the latest cyberscourge for teens. It lets you open an account and allows your anonymous audience – usually your classmates – to communicate with brutal honesty. By which I mean breathtaking cruelty.

Formspring takes cybercruelty to a new low by making it appear consensual. You sign up for your own account, literally inviting others to bash you with their “honest” opinions. Because it appears consensual, it no longer seems like cybercruelty at all. It just becomes another avenue for teens to communicate, and it desensitizes them to what they’re doing.

“I hate you,” writes one peer.
“You’re slutty,” opines another.

Account holders are always able to respond, and most act as if they don’t care.

“I’d f*** you,” muses one.
“thanks I mean very blunt but still flattering,” responds the account holder.

Remember, these are often friends writing the comments. To wit:

“I’ve known you for a long time. you’re not even that good at soccer. you just had one really good season…”

As you might expect, cyberbombs like this usually launch the account holder into an extended freak out about who could have written it. Imagine walking the halls or sitting in class, never knowing who is saying what on your Formspring. Not exactly conducive to good focus on your studies, if you get my drift.

I suspect girls are especially vulnerable to Formspring for several reasons:


  1. Most girls are passionately invested in their friendships and what others think of them. At the same time, they constantly second guess their peers about what they really think and mean. As I showed in The Curse of the Good Girl, the ubiquity of “just kidding” and the pressure to keep friendships conflict-free force lots of truth underground. Girls know it. Formspring gives you a perverse chance to “really find out what others think of you.”
  2. Many girls define social success as being liked by everyone. Despite my best efforts as a speaker, educator and mentor to tell girls that it just ain’t gonna happen, Formspring lets hope spring eternal: you can open an account and maybe, just maybe, you won’t get a mean comment. You’ll be that girl who everyone really loves!


There is zero, and I mean zero, value in this website and no girl or boy should spend a minute on it. Formspring creates unnecessary emotional risks. It legitimizes cybercruelty and divorces kids from responsibility for their words. You can pretty much file Formspring along with wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to-stand-on the-railroad-tracks-and-jump-right-before-the-train-comes and I’m-sure-no-one-will-notice-if-I-just-pocket-this-one-mascara.

So what to do? Here’s what I suggest. Start a conversation with your daughter about Formspring. Ask her if people at school use it (don’t start off by grilling her about what she does or she may scare and fly away). Ask her what she thinks of it. Then ask her if she uses it.

If she says yes, tell her she’s banned for life from the website. Period. Here’s what I tell kids when I suggest they stop using it:


  1. It’s an invitation for people to be evil to each other without taking responsibility, which means people will exaggerate and even outright lie just to hurt you.
  2. By inviting people to say harmful things to you, and spending time reading about it, you disrespect yourself.
  3. There will always be haters. You will never be someone who is 100% liked by everyone. That doesn’t mean you need to set up a website to catalog who those people are. Focus on the relationships that bring you happiness and security, not people who tear you down.


Even if your daughter says no one has ever said anything mean to her, hold your ground. It’s only a matter of time.

If your daughter denies having an account, open your own account here (it’s very easy) and begin searching for your daughter by her name. Most kids include their full names in their accounts.

If you know me, you know I’m not in the habit of telling you to go behind your kid’s back. You can imagine how dangerous I find this website if I’m urging you to do it at all.

Apr 28, 2010

Discover Colorful Chinatown on a Family “Staycation”

Is your family’s budget tight? Do vacations seem like a luxury of the past? If so, consider planning a “staycation” – a vacation at home or close to home. Being a tourist with your preteen is a great way to rediscover your city. What better place to start than Chinatown?

Start your day with a Chinatown photo scavenger hunt. Challenge another family for extra fun. The family with the most photos of found objects wins the hunt, and the losers buy dinner! Your scavenger hunt list might include:

  • A Hello Kitty t-shirt (a popular Japanese character – but should be easy to find in Chinatown)
  • Live eels/turtles/crabs (eek!)
  • A golden cat figurine (a symbol of good luck)
  • Green guava candy (delicious!)
  • Dragon fruit (hint: it’s hot pink with green tips)
  • A Chinese magazine (bonus points if you recognize any Chinese celebrities)
  • Dried squid (a pantry essential)
  • A hand-painted scroll (China has a rich tradition of symbolism – locate a scroll with a black dragon for luck and wealth)
  • A kung-fu video (an ancient meditation and art)
  • The number 8 (on a storefront – 8 is lucky in Chinese culture)
  • A bamboo shoot (boil or braise for a stir-fry or a hearty side dish)
  • A historical landmark (bonus points if you uncover some of the history behind it)

Exploring the winding streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown is a vibrant and delicious journey. Chinatown is bustling with crowds and energy and is well suited for tweens, who find the liveliness exciting. If it’s food you’re interested in, you’re in the right place. Within Chinatown is an array of seemingly endless markets and restaurants. If you and your tween are game for something different, try the beef tripe or oxtail – many restaurants and street vendors offer these Chinatown menu staples.

There are a few streets (and treats) that shouldn’t be missed.

  • Mulberry Street is home to Lung Moon Bakery (83 Mulberry, South of Canal); with classic Chinatown treats such as elegant moon cakes, buns, and sticky rice balls that are too good to pass up.
  • Bayard Street will bring out the kid in you. At UiUi Bubble Tea (49 Bayard) Homer Simpson greets you with a smile, and at The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard) flavors like Red Bean, Lychee and Peanut Butter and Jelly will pique your youthful curiosity. Find a street vendor for some fish balls – a favorite snack of many Chinatown kids.
  • Mott Street is the soul of Chinatown, with amazing restaurants, bakeries and shops, all worth exploring. If you’re in the market for a set of chopsticks with a back-story, then you can’t miss Yunhong Chopsticks (50 Mott). Off Mott Street is Pell Street, and off Pell Street is the narrow Doyers Street…a secret passageway that will lead you to Chatham Square, the heart of Chinatown.
  • From Chatham Square, wander along East Broadway and check out the offerings at the East Broadway Mall. If you are on the scavenger hunt, you’ll find many of the items here under one roof.
  • Don’t miss Aji Ichiban (23 East Broadway; another location at 37 Mott Street) for endless snacking fun. From wasabi peas to spicy dried shrimp, try as many new munchies as you dare.
  • Dim sum, Chinese cuisine with a wide range of light dishes served with tea, is a good option for sampling. There are great dim sum places all over Chinatown; try The Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway) where most of the dim sum dishes and desserts are $3.75 each.
  • When you reach Allen Street coming from East Broadway, head North to make your way back to Canal, but before you do, take a Lower East Side detour over to Hester Street (off of Allen; North of Canal) and head East to 63 Hester Street. There you’ll find The Sweet Life, an adorable candy store with a whimsical Wonka-like feel. So if your tween wasn’t thrilled by the assortment at Aji Ichiban, some familiar treats from The Sweet Life might be a nice break.
  • When you finally make your way back onto Canal Street, take one last detour up Bowery, where you can pick up a carbon steel wok at one of the many restaurant supply stores, and then go East on Grand Street. Turn South on Elizabeth Street to find one of Chinatown’s hidden gastronomic gems, Malaysian Beef Jerky (95 Elizabeth).
  • One last stop at the new Hong Kong Supermarket on the corner of Hester and Elizabeth, for some fresh fish to take home for dinner, concludes your Far East Side adventure.

To get to Chinatown, take the N, R, W, J, M, Z or 6 trains to Canal Street, and head East on Canal to Mulberry Street. On your way, you can stop at the intersection of Canal and Baxter, cross over to the big information booth in the middle of Canal to pick up a map for more highlights of Chinatown.

Apr 28, 2010

Interview With Gail Carson Levine

Newbery Award winning author, Gail Carson Levine, talked to about her experiences as a young adult novelist and shared advice for aspiring writers. As well as penning Ella Enchanted, Fairest, Dave at Night, The Wish, The Two Princesses of Bamarre and the Princess Tales among others, Gail also wrote Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly to help young authors avoid writer’s block and develop a process. If your tween is interested in creative writing or is a fan of Gail’s books, we highly recommend sharing this article with them.

How did you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I wrote as a kid, but I never wanted to be a writer particularly. I had been drawing and painting for years and loved that. And, I meditate. One time when I was meditating, I started thinking, “Gee, Gail, you love stories – you read all the time. How come you never tell yourself a story?” While I should have been saying my mantra to myself, I started telling myself a story. It turned out to be an art appreciation book for kids with reproductions of famous artworks and pencil drawings that I did. I tried to get it published and was rejected wholesale.

That book led me to a class on writing and illustrating for kids, and when I went into it I thought that I would be more interested in illustrating. But I found that I was much more interested in writing and that I didn’t like the illustrating at all. I had always been the hardest on myself when I drew and painted. I am not hard on myself when I write. I like what I write, so it is a much happier process.

That’s how I got started. And then everything I wrote was rejected for nine years.

Wow, that must have been difficult. What was the process of rejection like? Were you able to glean any positive lessons from rejection?

I belonged to critique groups and took classes, and my teachers and fellow students liked my work. It was a happy time for me – I felt supported, so rejections didn’t sting as much as they might have in other circumstances. Some of the rejections were actually quite encouraging, when editors would write little notes to me that they liked my work. Form rejection letters give you no help and are just discouraging, but if an editor writes you a note, it means they believe in you even if they happen to be rejecting that specific piece of yours.

Is rejection something you still have to deal with today?

I just got rejected from an adult poetry class! Getting rejected is not easy no matter when it happens or what circumstance it is.

What is your favorite part about being a writer?

I love it all. I love having written. Sometimes I love writing. I love to revise. Revising is my favorite part of writing. I love working with kids and seeing kids over a real span of time. I am very interested in seeing who they turn into. Getting to know these great kids has been a joy.

Is there anything that the kids you work with have taught you, or ways that working with kids has enriched your writing life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot, and that kind of stunned me when I started teaching kids is how they just leap into writing. I give the kids a writing prompt and they just start. They don’t agonize over it. I find this very freeing.

Some of the kids I’ve known for ten years. I’ve gotten to watch them grow up and fulfill themselves, which is very rewarding. Besides, working with kids is just fun!

What is your most important piece of advice for young writers?

Save everything you write. I think kids abandon stories all the time. They start stories and get frustrated or get a different, better idea. I think that it is more worthwhile to stick with a story and revise it and try to finish it than to abandon ship. Revision, for any writer, is the name of the game.

On your blog you said that revision is your favorite part of the writing process. Do you revise as you go along, or do you write the first draft straight through and then revise later?

My method isn’t methodical. Many, many, many, and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way; it’s just my method.

What is your daily writing routine like?

I don’t have much of a daily schedule, to be honest. I have a computer on the kitchen table and I always write while I eat breakfast. But my daily schedule varies depending on what I’m working on at the time. Today, for example, I worked on a speech I am giving in a couple weeks. I am also taking physical therapy because I strained my neck, so I did those exercises. Then I ate lunch, and then I revised my latest manuscript, a fantasy mystery for kids, until I started talking to you! So it varies every day. The point for me is I have to get the work done, and so I get it done.

Your books are so imaginative. How do you come up with your ideas?

I don’t think of myself as someone who has a lot of ideas. I have to work for them. When I get to a point in the story where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I list all the possibilities that I can think of. Eventually, something pops up. I write a lot of notes – through writing notes, ideas come. When I’m really in the grove, I’m thinking about what I’m doing a great deal. Taking a shower is a good place to get ideas; doing something very repetitive and boring is a good place to get ideas. Your mind is freed through repetition, so new ideas tend to pop up.

What are some of your favorite books for tweens?

The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
The Birthday Room by Kevin Henkes
The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer

What was it like to see Ella Enchanted made into a movie?

It was great! It brought the book to a lot of new readers, which was very fun. I also got to go to Ireland to watch three days of the shooting! The movie is very different from the book. I had very little to do with making of the movie, though they did talk to me a bit and listened to things I said, about the dialogue for example.

What are some of your favorite moments in your books?

In The Wish, I loved the parts with the dogs – I am especially proud of the dialogue. In Ella Enchanted, I loved the letters between Prince Char and Ella. In Princess Tales, the humor – I always am delighted when I write something funny. And Dave at Night is a very important book to me. The character of Solly in Dave at Night is one of my favorite characters. (Editor’s note: Dave at Night is based upon the childhood experiences of Gail’s father spent in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City; it was named an ALA Notable Book and Best Book for Young Adults.)

Thank you, Gail! It was a pleasure to speak with you.

Thank you!

For more advice from Gail Carson Levine about creative writing, you can visit her blog or you can contact Tony Hirt at HarperCollins Children’s Books ( to arrange for her to speak at an event.

Apr 15, 2010

10 Steps For Helping Your Tween After a Melt-Down or Blow-Up

If your tween is upset and willing to talk to you about what’s going on, these steps can help you help him/her calm down and figure out the next best move. If your teen is not yet ready to talk, respect that and check back with him/her later. If your son/daughter is unwilling to talk to you for whatever reason and your gut tells you they need to talk to someone… get the help of another adult that you and your child trust.

  1. Encourage your tween to ACKNOWLEDGE what he’s feeling and what triggered it. He doesn’t need to tell you, “I’m stressed/pissed/worried, etc. and here’s why.” You certainly don’t want to pressure him by insisting he puts feelings into words. More stress is not what your tween needs right now! What matters most is that your tween tells himself the truth, AKA “I’m upset about _______.” That’s much better than pretending he’s not upset when clearly he is. Also, naming the emotion and the trigger helps to move your child from a purely reactive place into a more reflective (thinking) place. Exactly where you want him to go.
  2. Your tween needs to STOP. Tell her calmly and firmly to put on the brakes. This is especially important if she’s in the middle of an argument on the phone, online, or in the real world. Continuing to fight will only escalate the situation (on both sides). No good will come of it and your tween is more likely to do or say something she will later regret. You are more likely to do the same. So stop yourself from reacting then tell her to STOP. If she won’t, you may have to take away the phone or computer for an enforced time out. If she’s arguing with you, simply remove yourself from the situation by saying, “I need a break. Let’s talk about this later when we’ve both calmed down.” Then make sure you revisit the conversation soon.
  3. Tell your tween to CALM DOWN. Assuming he’s put on the brakes on his behavior, he now needs to chill in the emotion department. If your tween asks “Why should I?!” The simple answer is: “Because it’s the best thing you can do right now for yourself and the people around you.”
  4. Take a BREAK. Or take a walk. Take a nap. Take a shower. Breathe. Count to 50. This advice works for you as well as for your tween. Make sure your tween knows that whatever it takes to calm down is good as long as it’s legal, healthy, respectful, and not against your core values. Make sure you model those rules in your own life. Explain that if your tween won’t calm down, stress will control them and they won’t get to Step #5 where solving their problem really begins.
  5. THINK about your goal. Ask your (now calmer) tween: “What are you trying to do?” In other words: “You’ve got a situation here… what’s your idea for the best outcome?”
  6. Ask: “Does someone need to change in order for you to achieve your goal?” If someone else must start doing something different then your tween’s goal is out of her hands. To pursue it is to set oneself up for more stress! Remind your tween that all we can ever control in life is our own response to what’s going on. When your tween can identify something she personally can work on, she’s ready to proceed to #7…
  7. Ask: “What are your OPTIONS for reaching your goal?” Help your tween make a list of all the options for improving the situation. For each option, encourage him to predict what might happen as a result of choosing that option. Don’t evaluate your tween’s options! Keep your mouth closed unless he asks for your opinion. Guide him by asking: Will what you’re thinking of doing create more or less stress? In you? In a friend? In a group? Important questions to consider before any action is taken! This is an exercise in critical thinking. Let your tween take the lead, think through his options and come to his own conclusions. Your job is to facilitate the process not run it.
  8. Ask your tween to CHOOSE the option that best HELPS the situation.Advise her that options which intentional hurt or embarrass other people, anger them or put you in danger will only make things worse. They’ll also create more stress and will bring your tween back to Step #1. Instead, encourage her to move forward. HINT: The option that makes the best sense for improving the situation is usually accompanied by feelings of empowerment and increased self-respect, if not immediately, then in the long run.
  9. TAKE ACTION. Your tween should be ready to act. A viable (and mature) course of action may be to opt out of an ongoing argument. In other words, to choose “not take the bait.” In many tween social dramas, this is often an excellent move for your child to decide on. On the surface, it may look like doing nothing, but it actually is accomplishing a lot. And it often takes tremendous courage and/or self-control.
  10. CONGRATULATE your tween for calming down and thinking things through. That’s so much healthier and more mature than reacting without thinking.


Apr 1, 2010

How To Talk So Your Pre-Teen Will Listen

We all do it at times: nag, preach, go on and on whilst getting tired of listening to our own voices.  But there are lots of easier and more effective ways to communicate with our kids to get them listening, chatting and engaging with us more positively.

As you know, a major part of discipline is learning how to talk with and to your children. The way you talk to your child teaches them how to talk to others.  Here are some simple but really effective talking tips to try out with your kids:

Connect before you direct
Before giving your child directions, look into your child’s eyes and engage your child in eye-to-eye contact to get their full attention. This helps them to know you are talking directly to them and helps to focus their attention on what you are telling them to do.

Be aware of your body language and your tone of voice so your child knows you mean what you say – be clear – be firm – be calm and be specific.

Address your child clearly by using their name
This makes sure your child knows that you are actually talking to them and gets rid of any misunderstanding. Often children are really engrossed in what they are doing so using their name grabs their attention quickly and easily. So start your request with your child’s name, “Charlie, I want you to…”

Stay brief
Use the simple but effective one-sentence rule and put your main point in the opening sentence. The longer you ramble, the more likely your child is to become parent-deaf!

Too much talking is a very common mistake parents make when talking with kids about an issue. It gives the child the feeling that you’re not quite sure what it is you want to say. If they can keep you talking they can get you sidetracked. Also it cuts to the chase and stops the whole situation from turning into just a nagging session.

Ask your pre-teen to repeat the request back to you
This way you can be sure that they’ve heard you.

Be positive
Always speak in the positive, so instead of saying “no running,” try: “Walk around inside the house, but outside in the garden you can run.”

Begin your instructions with “I want.”
This works well with children who want to please but don’t like being ordered about. By saying “I want,” you give a reason for being obedient rather than just giving an order.

When your homework is finished, then you can watch TV.”

“When,” implies that you expect obedience, and works better than “if,” which suggests that your tween has a choice when you don’t mean to give them one.

Legs first, mouth second
Instead of shouting, “Turn off the TV, it’s time for dinner!” walk into the room where your child is watching TV, join in with your child’s interests for a few minutes, and then, during a commercial break, get your child to turn off the TV. Going to your child conveys you’re serious about your request; otherwise children interpret this as a mere preference.

Keep your expectations high
Kids shouldn’t feel manners are optional. Speak to your children the way you want them to speak to you. The earlier you start the easier it will turn into a natural habit.

Be aware of the language you use
Threats and judgmental remarks put children of any age on the defensive.

“You” messages make a child clam up. “I” messages are non-accusing.

So instead of saying “You’d better do this…” or “You must…,” try “I would like….” or “I am so pleased when you…”

Instead of “You need to clear the table,” say “I need you to clear the table.”

Don’t ask a leading question when a negative answer is not really an option. “Will you please pick up your coat?” Just say, “Pick up your coat, please.” It is more specific and kids know where they are with clear instructions and will respond to what you want them to do faster.

Write it
Constant reminders can evolve into nagging so easily, especially for preteens who feel being told things puts them in the slave category!

Without saying a word you can communicate anything you need to say. Talk with a pen and paper for a new approach.

Leave humorous notes for your kid to find. I used this approach with my teenage son who had a mountain of drinking glasses by his bed and it really worked. “I’ve heard the dishwasher is a really exciting experience just like going on Space Mountain – Love Your Glasses” Then sit back and watch what you want happen! Just don’t patronise – aim to be humorous and light hearted and see what happens.

Empathising with your child
Sometimes just having a caring listener available will really calm your child down as they feel heard and understood and their anger or tantrum melts away. If you come in blaring too you have escalated the problem and you’ve got two tantrums to deal with. Be the adult for your child.

Settle and calm down the listener
Before giving your instructions, bring back a sense of calm and emotional equilibrium and balance, otherwise you are wasting your time. Nothing sinks in when a child is an emotional wreck.

Let your child complete and process their thoughts
Instead of “Don’t leave your mess piled up,” try: “Marc, think of where you want to keep all your football stuff so we don’t all fall over it all the time”

Letting your child fill in the blanks is more likely to create a lasting lesson.

Use “When you…I feel…because…”
This strategy works with any age kid as it expresses how you feel but also explains why you feel the way you do and takes the blame from the situation.

When you don’t phone when you say you will I feel worried becausesomething may have happened to you.”

Close the discussion
Sometimes you have to be the adult in the situation as you have your child’s best interest at heart and you are there to guide, nudge and teach them. If a matter is really closed to discussion, say so. “I’m not changing my mind about this. Sorry.”

You’ll save wear and tear on both of you so reserve your “I mean business” tone of voice for when you do and your child will know that’s it non negotiable and behave accordingly.

Dec 29, 2009

Why is My Tween Afraid to Leave Home? Understanding Chronic Anxiety

It’s puzzling and scary for Ryan’s parents. It seemed as if overnight their once happy, social 10 year old did not want to leave home to go to school, or go out and play with friends the way he used to. Ryan can’t explain it himself. “I just get nervous about it and then my stomach hurts, I get cramps, and feel like I have to go to the bathroom.” Now Ryan worries about getting a stomachache whenever he’s away from home.

Tiara who is 11 was always a shy, cautious child who had separation anxiety every year when school first started, but managed to eventually adjust. But this year, she’s having a tough time with math and the homework load often overwhelms her. Tiara worries almost all the time about school and that she may be called on to go to the board to do a math problem, or that she’ll never be able to understand the homework. Though she goes to school without complaint, Tiara suffers in silence.

Symptoms of Anxiety Pack a Wallop

Both Ryan and Tiara are developing chronic anxiety. And once a child experiences the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, and it happens over and over again, it’s understandable why they don’t want to go out the door. First the physical symptoms of anxiety are powerful and disturbing:


  • It starts with a heart-pounding adrenaline rush which includes other stress hormones.
  • Breathing becomes rapid and shallow making it tough to catch your breath, often leading to feelings of being smothered or trapped.
  • Dizziness, numbness and feeling faint are common symptoms.
  • Muscles tense causing headaches, or chest pain and body aches.
  • Voiding of bowel and bladder occurs, causing cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Sweating occurs as the body cools itself, a hot flush may occur too.


The mental symptoms pack a punch, too, playing havoc with cognitive functioning making it difficult to think clearly, reason and learn. Anxious children may complain about feeling frightened, helpless, and out of control. Some kids feel like they are having an out of body experience, others get angry or feel ashamed and isolated.

Symptoms vary from mild to severe, but even milder symptoms can be distressful. Avoiding places and situations often seems like the only option for an anxious child. Look at it from Ryan’s point of view. He says to his parents, “If I go to school or a friend’s house I may get a stomachache, but when I stay home I feel better.” Tiara feels better on Friday afternoons. . “On Friday after school I can take a break and not have to think about math or school at all.” But when Sunday afternoon comes around, Tiara begins to worry about Monday morning and her anxiety starts to build.

Worry is a Culprit

A main ingredient of anxiety is worry: thinking or obsessing about past experiences and worrying that they will happen again. When Tiara thinks about being in school she replays embarrassing moments in class when she couldn’t work out a math problem on the board, or failed a math test. Then she projects those memories into the future: “What if my teacher calls me to the board?” “What if we have a math quiz again?” Ryan worries too. “What if my stomach hurts and I feel like diarrhea in class and I can’t leave the room?” “What if it happens at a friend’s house?” And it’s worry that jump starts the fight or flight–one ounce of worry and the symptoms are raging.

What’s Happening to Me? It’s the Fight or Flight

A first crucial step in helping your tween is to explain why the symptoms are occurring. Symptoms occur because of something called the “fight or flight response” that is an alarm system located in the nervous system. It warns the body of physical danger and activates a reaction to avoid injury or death. In anxious children, this alarm goes off when a perception of danger is present, for example a math test. It’s only a false alarm though because the brain cannot distinguish between a real physical threat to life and limb, or to the fear of something benign.

The fight or flight has allowed humans to survive to this day. But its purpose is to act as a short-term response to a physical threat, not as a continuous state of mind and body leading to chronic anxiety. And when your child’s fight or flight revs up while she’s taking a test, or sitting in the classroom, there’s no outlet for this response, no relief, no running away, no battle to win. Your child has to sit there trying to deal with an internal hurricane.

The False Alarm Explanation

An easy way to explain the fight or flight is by using a home smoke detector. Show your child that you can set off the smoke detector either by frying something in the kitchen or by pushing the button on the detector. Say, “See, the detector thinks there is a fire and the alarm is going off, even though there is no fire. But the detector doesn’t know we’re fooling it. It gets the message that a fire is occurring and does its job. That’s what happens to your brain, it thinks the math test (or other fear) you’re worrying about is a real physical danger and the alarm goes off to protect you.”

When Ryan understood what the fight or flight was, and he began to make his way out to play with friends again, when he felt anxiety begin he learned to say to himself, “I don’t like the way I feel but it’s nothing more than an adrenaline rush.” This helped him to take control of his fears of the symptoms. Hearing the false alarm explanation helped Tiara too. When she felt anxious she pictured little firemen (or firegirls) running around inside of her, seeing no fire, and turning off the alarm.

In the end, for many children it’s the fear of the symptoms that turns anxiety into a chronic condition and makes kids want to feel better and safe by staying home. Also tell your child, “I know that what you feel is disturbing and can be frightening, but these are just feelings and they can’t hurt you.”