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Snowbound kids a test of parenting skills

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Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; 1:00 PM

With more snow in the forecast, many area parents have already exhausted all their tricks for keeping a snowbound child entertained writes Post columnist Petula Dvorak. She discusses the up-and-downs of being trapped with kids suffering from cabin fever.

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Petula Dvorak: Can you see your floor? Are you wading through a sea of puzzles, toys and books? How is quality time -- vast quantities of quality time-- going with your kids during our Great Snowstorm? Would love to hear your thoughts, tips, survival stories, tactics, rants. Welcome. No wine, I'm afraid, but at this point, it's cool to whine a bit here...

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Bandera, TX: Keep the kids busy helping to clean the house would be my option.

Petula Dvorak: If you could make it an endless loop--clean the house, mess it up, clean the house, mess it up--that might work!

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Frederick, Md.: I don't have kids but I brought my neighbors' twins, 10, over on Sunday afternoon and I taught them both to knit! Bruce is making a belt and Angela is knitting what she says will be a poncho. Most kids love to "make something" and even if it is not perfect, it is a fun new skill for them to try out. Plus it gave my neighbors a bit of a break

Petula Dvorak: Petula Dvorak: Can I move next to you, terrific neighbor? This trumps shoveling a sidewalk any day, you are terrific! Knitting lessons! What a gem. And I have to say, the back-and-forth here is wonderful between folks in different life stages. Lots of folks are looking out for their elderly neighbors. We shoveled the sidewalk and steps for our's and I baked her some banana chocolate-chip bread (activity!! the boys LOVED mashing bananas) this morning. But one reader today suggested stopping in to check on folks with small kids is a great idea too, just as important as stopping in on the elderly. For example, if I tried to give my boys knitting lessons, I'd be tied down, Gulliver style. Who would know to save me?

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Cough Syrup, the Old Reliable: Is that a tickle in your throat, honey? Maybe you should take this...it tastes like grape!

Petula Dvorak: Just like they are certainly sick before they get on a loooong plane flight, right? LOVE this...desperate times...

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Gaithersburg: I'm just going to go ahead and admit it now. We could not possibly survive this purgatory without video games. Wii and X-Box Live are the only things keeping us sane, and I just hope we don't lose power. There is only so much time you can spend playing in the snow and doing art and board games before massive boredom sets in for the kids. Go ahead and flame me if you must.

Petula Dvorak: Flame you? I kiss the ground you walk on for admitting the things that work. That is important. The very fact that you are coy about it shows you're an awesome parent who knows a child should not be raised on video games, but a little sanity-inducer helps everyone around. It's OK to press PLAY every so often. REALLY!

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a single mom with a two-year old. We were doing quite well until today, and it's clear that he's had enough. He's just a big pile of whine. We've gone out each day, except Saturday, just to walk a couple of blocks to somewhere. Yesterday was very good, as we sat down to lunch at Cosi. The mess was somewhat minimal. Even though we live in a high-rise, there aren't any other toddlers in the building, and this kid needs a play-date, badly.

The plus side is that he's had a massive language explosion since we've been locked in -- going from one or two word phrases to sentences and commands. Too bad his favorite command at the moment is "Mommy, COME!"

Please, Lord, let Arlington Schools be open on Friday.

Petula Dvorak: Yes! The great linguistic explosion of SnOMG 2010! Maybe scientists will do a study in 15 years trying to determine why there's an unusually brainy crop of kids going through the school system in DC at that moment. They were all smartened-up during the storm of 2010...wonder if there will be a baby boom in 9 months too.

It is difficult with little kids in particular. I remember loving snow days when I was an older kid, but when they're little, they need your attention all the time and it's just a tough thing to do in a small space. Period.

We've been doing mini-trips too, just to get an outing in. I insisted on a 4-block trek yesterday because we were out of peanut butter. We could've done without it, but it was a mission, and they had fun.

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College Park, Md.: Cooking lesson time...we did chocolate chip cookies last night and now the 10-year-old is going to help me make chicken stew (after a snowball fight). Getting desperate though...may whip out the extra practice math homework she has in her backpack.

Petula Dvorak: Yes! Cooking is always good. Check out this amazing list I got from a reader this morning:

-Try making "Alphabet Pretzels" from the Zoom website which has tons of other ideas. They can make them for their friends also and it helps them learn their letters.

-Making your own picture book is fun also. You can put a bunch of words like "Dragon" Forest etc. depending on what your kids like and have them pull ten and then either make an illustration or small picture book using those words. Make sure not to have over half a page if doing a book so it won't be overwhelming.

-Edible clay is also fun. We make chocolate and peanut butter.

-Kids also like to clean mirrors and use tank vacuums. -After a bath or shower have them write a secret message in the steam - you can read it when you take yours and then they can clean the mirror so they can send you a new message the next day or you can send one back

- We put out food for the birds as well and identify the kinds and songs of the ones we see.

-You can also make homemade dog biscuits for the neighborhood dogs for valentine's day. The kids roll out the dough and use cookie cutters and it doesn't matter how tough and chewy the biscuits are - dogs love them all - can send you the recipe if you like.

-There is always the secret fort under the dining room table as well.

Can I send my kid over to her house? Or maybe, I just want to be one of her kids!

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Washington, DC: I guess I don't see why spending time with one's own children is so horrifying a prospect. Is this time longer than spring, winter or summer breaks? That's assuming kids are in school. Unexpected, yes, but not unprecedented to have to entertain kids for several days. Soo... what's the big deal anyway?

I do have some constructive suggestions. When I was young there wasn't even any Internet. I remember playing for hours with a tape recorder, doing my own "TV show" (do tape recorders still exist?). Made an entire city out of paper on the dining-room floor with Matchbox cars going down the streets. That could consume entire days. "Plowed" street maps into the snow in the back and front yards (there was ALWAYS plenty of snow in winter where I come from). In the basement, I organized the pantry into a "store" and invited whoever was home to come shopping, and I was the cashier. Some of these require others' participation, some not. I guess those are for slightly older kids who are content to be on their own for a while, with a bent for urban planning or journalism or retail, but could be useful.

Petula Dvorak: Ah yes, of course we'd hear this...You have some fantastic suggestions at the end, I remember doing some of these things too. The tape recorder in particular. My mom loves playing those tapes when I come home. And some of the imaginary role play is what makes for the best kind of entertainment--right on!

And sure, my parents weren't entertaining us 24/7. But I don't think kids simply got brattier because the Internet came around and we parents are slackers. You plan for vacation and spring break. On weekends, I hate being in the house, we are hiking at Roosevelt Island, checking out the giant squid at the Museum of Natural History, catching plays at Glen Echo, rolling down the hills at the Arboretum.

The tough part here is none of these things are options when the weather is awful and transportation is dodgy. And when kids are teeny tiny, not old enough to be thrust outside with a "don't come back until dinner or your nose falls off", the snowy outdoors doesn't provide much activity.

And add to this, hundreds of thousands of people here in the Washington region are parents who also have jobs outside the home. So while the kids are trying to love yet another art project, mom and dad are online trying to answer questions from the boss, finish a project, do something productive for work because school is closed and they have to stay home from their jobs YET AGAIN...

(I'll be right back, I have to go settle a Tinker Toy dispute and refill the grape supply)

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Rockville, MD: With our 8 and almost 11 year old, we've been doing cooking lessons around mealtimes. In the mornings, it's math time. Both kids need extra practice with math and I've been printing off worksheets from: Math-Drills.Com. Great site. Then there's shoveling time and movie time. And then the great, empty expanses of time in between...

Petula Dvorak: Great suggestions. I love those websites. Also, DCPS just sent out an email reminding parents that the museums have great websites which are good to visit with kids too.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My boys and their friends are going through A LOT of food.

And...yes, they are making me nuts.

Can they PLEASE open the gov't so I can get out of here?

Petula Dvorak: Escape to work! Don't let your boss know how excited you'll be to come back...

And yes, I need to learn to stock up better next time, the boys are eating and eating and eating...

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Fairfax, VA: My son is actually disappointed he was snowed in at his father's house, because all they do is watch tv & play computer games. At my house, we throw darts, make snowmen, trek in the snow, cook tasty foods, have impromptu dance parties, and of course I try to win at Guitar Hero! Just because we're parents doesn't mean we've lost our inner child. Right?????

Petula Dvorak: Awesome! Yet again, a family I want to be part of. Can we come and play? What are you dancing to?

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Woodbridge, Va: Does anybody make one of those sumo suits in kid size? You know, something that's filled with lead or some other heavy material that will kinda weigh them down so they just basically lay there on the floor?

Petula Dvorak: You are our next multi-millionaire genius...marketed as "the Parent's favorite snow-day suit!"

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Falls Church, VA: I've told my kid that if she tells me she's bored, she has to do her homework. Fortunately so far she's been happy to read, but pretty soon we're going to need to take her out and dodge cars (since the sidewalks aren't shoveled) and huge slushy puddles. Lots of baths here.

Petula Dvorak: That's a great tactic to avoid the "I'm boreds".

We don't have that to use as a stick, kids are too little, but I've been timing out toys by the dozen. Last night, I looked at the top of my fridge (where the timed-out toys go), there were 3 drumsticks, two whiffle bats, a ladle, a wooden spoon, a tent pole (?),several sets of chopsticks, a rubber pirate knife and a length of rope.

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Gaithersburg: Little kids who don't know how to take care can't be blamed for their lack of direction. BUT, the teens are too much. They play the "bored" line on a loop, do nothing but sleep, make messes and don't clean up, think the idea of doing homework is outlandish, and generally don't help with any of the snow cleanup. Figure it out!

Petula Dvorak: So....it doesn't get easier when they get older?

Oh, man.

My editor says she nixes her teens' cell phone rights when they get this bad. Is that an option? Is that the only way teens are surviving this storm, texting their friends relentlessly?

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Keep the Kids Busy: While we have also baked banana bread and cupcakes, I also put our three girls--11, 8, 6-- to work preparing food for the birds and squirrels, stale bread spread with peanut butter, bits of apple, any and everything to keep our feathered and furred friends going. They both like to get the food ready and go out to 'serve' it twice a day so the animals have enough to get through the day and night. They have made up menus and schedules and are very responsible about getting the food out and then watching to see who comes to dine. It gets them thinking about how others, not kids, are coping with the snow too.

Petula Dvorak: How sweet!

Again, there are times like this when we get to know about some terrific families out there.

I remember I tried doing that during a snowstorm once when I was little, only I put all the birdfood in the road and had to go all the way back around the block collecting it when my father pointed out that the birds would get run over eating it. Duh. I forgot that the neighbors were out pulling their kids around the block on a sled tied to their pickup truck. Is that legal? Safe? Does anyone do that anymore?

We just had a warning published on one of my urban mommy listserves that this kind of generosity inteded for squirrels and birds will also attract rats. So, if you're in the city and close to dumpsters, maybe take the snowfeast to the park, right?

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Washington, DC: We have stayed sane because of an endless loop of videos. I let my nearly four year old rip up the apartment, then we clean it up. We have slept in, stayed up late, and treated this like an extended vacation. He loves it...but I am going to need some serious ME time by this weekend! I agree one hundred percent, it's not that I didn't expect to entertain my child, we are just normally not housebound for SEVERAL DAYS! So this has been a real challenge to a California native; I feel altogether ill equipped to deal with the weather challenges.

So long as we get two quality activities in (reading, practicing writing numbers and letters, or merely cuddling and conversing) a day, then I feel okay. Oh, and I just stocked up on some dessert beer for bedtime!

Petula Dvorak: Yes, California mom! (I'm a Cali native too...we are serious outdoors people, right?)

Sounds like you're doing great stuff.

I find that the unfettered time-- reading because we have an afternoon to kill, not because it's bedtime and the clock is bearing down on us and we will fight because they want 4 books and it's late -- has been the most delicious part of the day.

The moments when they are willing to kill one another over who gets to hold Count Dooku? Not so yummy.

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Fairfax, VA: Thanks, Petula! You're welcome any time, as are any kids you may want to bring. We dance to everything - my son loves classical, Elvis, the Beatles, heavy metal, and everything in between. As a result, the dancing is everything from waltzing (my son is fabulous at this) to headbanging (not quite the same since I cut my hair short)....

Petula Dvorak: Fantastic! We thought it would be cool to introduce our boys to some of our favorites ('80s punk rock) and had to cut some songs short REALLY fast.

"He said 'truck', honey. 'Truck! Truck! Truck!"

But once we found songs that were either clean or so garbled you couldn't tell what they were saying, the boys came up with seriously awesome "pump rock" moves.

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Arlington, VA: Language-explosion mom here again. I just had a delightful (horrible) realization of where this burst of language is coming from -- the non-stop television watching! We've had some variation of Sesame Street, Curious George, Word World, or Baby Einstein on during this storm, and by today he's counting AHEAD of the countdowns and adding more numbers, and more speedily picking out his letters (which he'd been doing for a while, but now he's all over those suckers). He's describing back to me verbally everything happening on the screen. He's absorbing this with great abandon.

Stick that in your hat, smug parents who won't even turn on the boob tube before they're two.

Petula Dvorak: See...not all television is awful!

Hey, I grew up speaking another language (Czech) and all my English before school came from Sesame Street. It puzzled the teachers that I always had to yell "is for cookie" every time they said "C"..but I knew it! How funny.

(Our discovery was commercials. My kids had no idea commercials existed before this weekend.)

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Germantown, MD: Re: teenagers. You've got to be kidding! Who's in charge? You have to work the supply and demand system. I'll supply you with food and shelter - you do what I demand (clear sidewalks, help out in the house). On the flip side, you supply the whining sass, and I'll demand the phone, Wii, television remote.... not too difficult. They are pretty quick to catch on.

Petula Dvorak: Good to know...

See, so many more tools to keep kids in line these days.

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McLean, VA: Not to sound too old fashion, but when I was a kid I'd kill for weather like this. We spent 1/2 our time playing in the snow and the rest making money shoveling driveways. My neighbor has 3 boys ranging from 8-12 and not one of them shovels their own driveway, let alone makes a buck working the neighborhood. I even offered one of them $20 to shovel my sidewalk thinking they'd jump at the chance. The response was - "no thanks we're going to Tim's to play video games".... great parenting.

Petula Dvorak: Ouch!

Another example of how America's lost its edge...

No lemonade stand in the neighborhood either, eh?

Maybe they've got some commerce cooking on eBay.

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Bethesda, MD: My girls are 14 and 8. I'm kinda going the off-and-on route - every other day they can eat junk all day long (we've been through several boxes of brownie mix), and every other day they can watch TV or play video games all day long. That way it's only semi-vacation mode, and I don't totally lose my brain. Today is an "off" day so they've been reading and hanging out together. The older one has consented to a long game of Barbies for the moment, and they are singing The Star Spangled Banner at the top of their lungs a-la Ethel Merman. Laughter is good since yesterday they were fighting after a good long sledding session.

I say throw some junk food at them occasionally, say "yes" when they least expect it and let the house go to pot. Next week we'll straighten ourselves out again.

Petula Dvorak: Exactly. Breaking rules will make this so much more fun.

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Arlington, Va.: I loved the column, despite the holier than thou commenters at the end.

We are home with our 6 and just-turned-2 year olds. I think they are handling it better than we are. I'm sure we will finally be settled into a routine in time for everyone to go back to work and school.

Petula Dvorak: Thank you so much. I think the kids are LOVING the lack of routine.

We're the ones who need it, right?

It'll be a challenge when things return to normal, I fear.

I guess we need to get back to bedtimes soon.

Thanks for the support, it's very much appreciated.

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Vienna, VA: Ok, so I'm assuming that Fairfax County schools are going to be closed the rest of this week. That means I will have been stuck at home with my 5 & 8 year olds 10 of 14 days! AHHHH. Don't get me wrong, I love them, but even a rational parent wants to go postal after that much "quality time". We've tried the whole play in the snow, then watch a movie then read books/work on upcoming book report. Even that routine is starting to wear thin. We even invented some new games - "free yourself from the duct tape" was my favorite. Any other suggestions?

Petula Dvorak: I LOVE the Duct tape game...

We did toilet-paper-the-Mummy contests the other day, recycled from Halloween.

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Petula Dvorak: Thank you all so much for the great suggestions and fantastic humor.

My youngest, AKA "The Sgt", just came in with his brother's underpants on his head. Have no idea what the root of that was. Must investigate.

Have a great day and good luck surviving your children.

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