Musings On Spring Break

We used to have a rule in our family: no traveling over Spring Break. Places were too crowded, rates were more expensive—it just didn’t make sense.  I mean, why venture somewhere when so many families and college students are trying to do the same thing, all at the same time? We would stay home, and the kids would do fun things around town, like visit nature centers or go to tennis camp. Then one year, our school district scheduled an earlier-than-normal spring break, and we took off for Disney World. It was great—not too crowded, and lines so minimal we could ride things twice in a row if we wanted. Thus started our family “tradition” of traveling over Spring Break, even though the dates have never been as early since.   Now six years later, I am finally wondering, “What were we thinking?”

We only went about 130 miles from home this year, but definitely felt the crowds this time. No, the giraffes don’t want to come feed out of your hand (and your car) at the wildlife park, or have much to do with you at all, because the 30 cars in front of you have already fed them. And petted them.  And taken their picture. And no, you can’t tour the Dr. Pepper bottling plant because all the people who got there before you booked up all the tours for the entire day.  And yes, when you walk across that riverbed at the state park to see the dinosaur tracks, you will have to share those wobbly boulders with many other people who are walking back across. Excuse me while I flail my arms wildly to keep from falling in!!! How did we manage to travel happily over Spring Break for the last six years and not feel the pinch of the crowds much until now?

I have been thinking back on our previous trips, and I think the key to avoiding Spring Break crowds and lines is to do things that aren’t “typical”. For example, staying at a beach all-inclusive that’s not near a lot of tourist sites, with lots of activities on the property just for guests, and far away from the hot spots frequented by college students. Or, doing offbeat or traditionally “adult”-type things that kids actually like, too—some of the historic Hot Springs, Arkansas bathhouses, for example, welcome kids, and since not many families know that, ours enjoyed them crowd-free during Spring Break 2008. In 2007, we ventured to Hollywood, but didn’t do the typical bus tours, which I’m sure were crowded, and instead opted for less-publicized things like touring the Kodak Theatre (not crowded), riding in a whale watching boat off the coast of nearby Long Beach (also not crowded), and walking around the Hollywood Bowl during the day, letting the kids run among the seats and go on stage (we had the whole place all to ourselves).  On our trip last week, my favorite excursion was going to a drive-in movie theatre— a great experience for all of us, especially our exchange student, who’d never heard of them before.  Again, something offbeat and not listed in any of the brochures I found at the hotel, and we had no trouble getting a spot. (Internet research definitely pays off!)

We’ve also found that doing anything athletic, like biking or hiking, at a place not known for that, also usually means less crowds.  In Hollywood, we hiked up to the Griffith Park Observatory (rather than drive or take a bus) for one of the best views in town (and a great along-the-trail view of the “Hollywood” sign), but saw hardly anyone else on the way– definitely a nice contrast to the masses we met once we got to the top!  Last week in Granbury, Texas, known more for its antiquing and B and B’s, we biked through town along a beautiful paved hike/bike trail called “Moments in Time”—and encountered no other bicyclists. (Again, not publicized in any of the slick, four-color brochures, but found on the Internet, after considerable “digging”.)

True, the more a place/activity is talked about, the less obscure it is, but I think as long as the majority of American Spring Break travelers keep gravitating toward what’s traditionally mainstream, we offbeat travelers will always be able to find a place “far from the madding crowd”…

Spring Break 2007:  Allison and Emmie onstage at the Hollywood Bowl

Spring Break 2011: An uninterested giraffe

At least Emmie got to feed an ostrich at the end of the tour!

Beyond Babysitting and Lawn Mowing: An Easy Way for Kids to Earn Big Money

Have you ever gotten a phone call from someone who wants your opinion about products or services? Next time, you might not want to hang up.  Legitimate, professional market research companies will pay you and your kids to come to their offices and give your opinions on all kinds of things–and usually, they pay you cash on the spot and not a check that’s mailed later.  Over the last several years, everyone in my family has been a market research participant, and it’s not only a great way to earn money, it’s fun.  I’ve taste-tested tortilla chips, frozen dinners, and orange juice, given my opinions on a local park, and ranked refrigerated biscuit ads, among other things;  my husband has participated in focus groups on oil filters, lawn fertilizer and electric companies, to name a few.  Emmie earned $100 in a kids’ focus group on dolls; Allison did the same in a teen group on cell phone apps.  Together, Emmie and I once earned even more by taste-testing applesauce. 

The How-To-Do-It is simple– just sign up online to be a part of a market research firm’s database (and they’re always looking for more people) and they’ll call and/or email when they have a study or focus group for which you might qualify. After you answer a few questions, you’re given the times/days for the study and if you qualify, you pick a date. (Sometimes, you don’t qualify, for a variety of reasons– you might not be familiar with the product they’re testing or don’t buy it enough even if you are.  Usually, you’re always disqualified if you or a close relative works for an ad agency or market research firm.)  On the designated day, you go to their offices (which, at least for the firms we’ve visited in the Dallas area, are in very nice office buildings) and spend about an hour, sometimes more or less depending on the study.  Some even give bonuses if you arrive early to your appointment (and yes, shockingly, we actually have, at least once!!).

The firms we’ve worked with are Focus Pointe Global, Peryam and Kroll, and Savitz Field and Focus.  Focus Pointe has locations in 11 U.S. cities (; Peryam and Kroll ( is in four– Chicago, Dallas (Plano), Santa Ana, CA and White Plains, NY; and Savitz ( has more than 25 locations, including Phoenix, Des Moines and Boston.  A friend recommends Bryles Research (– they’re in Dallas, Chicago, and Springfield, Missouri. While smaller towns don’t have these companies, they just might have their own local or regional version, and it’s worth web surfing to find out. 

For kids, it’s worth it because the pay is good for a minimal amount of effort and time (not to mention that paid jobs for kids are often hard to come by), and it’s also worth it because they get a bit of knowledge about the world of market research, something they’ll probably be coming into contact with again if they major in business, marketing, advertising, communications– even law.   If they get to preview a product that hasn’t hit the market yet, they also get some satisfaction when they eventually see it in stores and in ads: “Hey, look, Mom– I helped make that happen!”

Raising Girls Vs. Raising Boys: The Debate Continues

Who’s easier to raise—a girl or a boy? The topic comes up often among parents. I remember a boy mom reacting with envy when I told her how my baby girl would often wake up in the morning, sit quietly in her crib and play with books if I needed to take a shower before breakfast.  “My boys would never let me do that,” she said wistfully.  I remember when my daughters were preschoolers and I used to sit at the playground relaxing on a bench while they’d be engrossed in playing in the sand with dolls or sliding down the slides.  I’d feel sorry for the “boy moms”, who never seemed to have a moment’s rest—they couldn’t look away or sit down for two seconds or their boy might be running away from the playground and down the street.  “Aren’t you glad you don’t have boys!” we all-girl moms would say ‘knowingly’ to each other.  When the teen years hit a decade later, my words switched to  “Isn’t it interesting how things even out over time.”  But…does parental stress really even out between boy parents and girl parents?


Hmmm…one parent has about four breathless years of chasing after crazy-active toddlers/preschoolers.  The other has 6-8 years (or more, I’m told) of being called worthless and a loser and having their pocketbook drained on a regular basis…  A mother of three girls (two of them teenagers) told me last week that she doesn’t think it comes close to being even at all.  “Now that I know what raising girls is like, if I could have done something to influence the x and y chromosomes back when I was thinking of getting pregnant, I would have,” she told me at a recent high school parent meeting.

Hmmm…and in addition to sass and spending, there’s also the emotional drama.  I just got back from two days helping lead a Girl Scout campout that included 8 preteen girls and 13 9th grade girls and, amidst a lot of fun, we definitely had our share of drama—some tears, some name-calling, some bossiness, one older girl threatening to throw a used tampon at a younger girl…do Boy Scout campouts ever even come remotely close???  Geesh, I’m glad I’m not a drinker or I think I’d go on a major bender right about now…

But then I think of what another mom said one summer while we waited for our kids to finish swim lessons. “It’s good to have girls,” she said, “because they’re the ones who take care of you when you’re old.”  She went on to say that she had brothers, but that if she hadn’t been born, her mother would probably be “sick, homeless or dead by now”, since they don’t visit her or care as much about how she’s doing.


When Kids Steal

One day last week after I picked up Emmie from school, while concentrating on navigating the aravan out of the parking lot and keeping with the school zone speed limit out on the street, I caught the words “hundred dollar bill” as she chattered about her day.  It took me a few seconds for it to fully register on my brain.  “Wait a minute—back up,” I said.  “What did you say?”

“Frankie gave me a hundred dollar bill today,” she said. Of course I’m thinking it was one of those fake bills, like the old $3 bill with Bill Clinton on it, but I asked to see it anyway.  She passed it up to me, and I almost pulled the car over.  It looked, smelled and felt like a real hundred dollar bill (not that I handle a lot of those on a regular basis, but this was definitely not something out of a Monopoly game…)  

I examined it further at the stop light.  “Emmie, this is real, and this is weird,” I said.  “Why would he do this?” She shrugged her shoulders.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “He said something like he felt bad that people give presents to each other and that he hadn’t given me a birthday present, so he wanted me to have it.” It still didn’t make sense.  Emmie’s birthday was four months ago. My mind raced—it had to be that he felt guilty having it and needed to get rid of it.  Either he’d found it when walking to school or on the playground, or had taken it from someone in his family.  “I should probably go ask the principal if anyone has reported lost money, or ask the teacher about this, or talk to his parents,” I said. “Someone is missing this money, and you shouldn’t be keeping it.”  She burst into tears. And not because I was talking about taking it away from her. “Please don’t,” she begged.  “I don’t want him to get in trouble.” This was a kid whose family was known for harsh punishments—he’d definitely shared stories with his classmates of past “whoopins”.  “Please, just let me give it back to him tomorrow,” she pleaded.  “But Emmie, a hundred dollars is a lot of money,” I said, and explained to her that he might not do the right thing with it if he got it back, and that someone may not be able to pay their rent, or buy groceries, if they’ve lost it. “But what if it’s really his money, and he just wanted to give it to me?” she asked. I told her n that case, his parents should still know, because if it’s his, he’s probably not supposed to be giving it away.  “That might be a gift from a grandparent or someone else,” I explained.  “And if it really is his to give away as he chooses, we’ll find that out.”

I stopped by the principal’s office first. No money had been reported lost, so I went home and called his parents.  His dad said he’d look into it and call me back. It turns out the child admitted he’d stolen the money from his older brother, who had been stowing away cash under his bed while saving to buy a laptop.  Surprisingly, the father sounded perplexed rather than matter-of-fact mad, as I’d expected.  “I don’t know what to do,” he said.

I could relate.  Emmie is the big saver among our children and sometimes stashes cash in easy-to-reach places, and Allison has stolen money from her on at least two occasions.  After Andy and I had gathered enough evidence to convict (and our sleuthing skills were definitely worthy of an episode of CSI), I remember being completely flabbergasted.  I mean, with our kids, we’d dealt with backtalk, temper tantrums, noncompliance…even broken windows, but never stealing. I had never been a stealer or a liar as a child and neither had Andy.  While we required her to pay back the money (and in the second case, pay it back with interest), I never felt like we’d done enough.  Yes, I know a lot of kids steal at one point in their young lives (a friend of mine who is a great mom/outstanding citizen recently told me she once shoplifted a bathing suit when she was a teen) but I still have a hard time coming to terms with stealing, knowing the right way to address it, and it sounds like Frankie’s dad does, too, and probably other parents. 

So, today I surfed online and read many “expert” opinions on the topic.  Here is a good one I found, one I wish I’d read two years ago:  I’m sure going to use some of its advice if this ever happens again in our family. But I sure hope and pray it doesn’t!

Some Brief Thoughts About Charlie Sheen

In the midst of all the Charlie Sheen craziness—doesn’t your heart go out to his family? How painful it must be to see your son, father, brother say such embarrassing things in such a public way.  Every time he opens his mouth, it just keeps getting worse.  John Stamos summed it up nicely the other day after it was rumored that he was replacing Sheen on Two and a Half Men: “I am not replacing Charlie Sheen on Two And A Half Men.  However, Martin Sheen has asked me to be his son…”

I know, I know—Charlie’s an adult and it’s not anyone’s fault but his own, but I’m sure his family is still wondering where they went wrong…and they’ve probably been wondering for a long time, long before his cars were driven off cliffs and long before he called his boss a “worm”.  Does anyone remember that he co-founded a high-end children’s clothing line in 2005? No, not with one of his wives.  He collaborated with another guy who was a “childhood friend and experienced fashion executive”.   I remember first learning about it when watching an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show .  There he was, talking about “children’s couture” and trotting out precocious kids to model his line of “sturdy yet stylish” fashions.  Huh? Called “Sheen Kidz”, the clothes “demonstrated beautiful hand-designed embroidery, shirring and pleating, and unique graphic design”.  (This from a guy who prides himself on being a macho party animal?) The company’s website is still up, but the clothes haven’t been made for about three years.  All I could find in a quick online search was a Girls Size 5 Tank Top on ebay with a starting bid of $3.99 (and zero bidders).  Eeew—I don’t care how fine the fabric—would you really want your child wearing something that probably helped pay off Charlie Sheen’s  gambling debts or prostitute tabs? 

Sheen Kidz might just go down in history as the most unlikely celebrity product endorsement ever, even weirder than Jimmy Johnson hawking Extendz on late-night TV.  Um, maybe celebrities would be smart to just steer clear of all products with a “z” at the end of the name!

Race to See “Race to Nowhere”

A few months ago, Allison started saying what many teenagers have probably often said:   “I hate school.  School is stupid.  They give us tons of homework and make us memorize a bunch of useless junk that we’re never going to use—what’s the point?” And I reacted the way many parents probably react:  “Yes, some of it does seem stupid and useless but you have to play the game.  You have to study and do good on tests so you can move on and get to college, where the real learning happens.  I didn’t like all of my classes, either, but my goal was to get out and move on.”

But that conversation kept nagging at my brain.  Even though she was tired and burnt out when she spoke, her words had a grain of truth in them.  Maybe she’s right, I thought (and don’t kids have a way with cutting to the truth?) Maybe there is something inherently wrong with the way we educate our kids … but the overwhelming nature of that thought eventually put it out of my head.   I barely have time to do my laundry, let alone change the world.

Then last week, my PTA president invited me to a screening of the new documentary, Race to Nowhere.  And I decided I can no longer be complacent when it comes to education.

I challenge every parent of a child enrolled in public school to see this new film and see if you feel it’s like This Is Your Life, or gives you, as I call it, a “Killing Me Softly” moment.  I cried.  I’m sure the teenager sitting next to me thought I was a total freak.  On second thought, that kid was probably crying, too, only on the inside.  Because the documentary examines our current state of being when it comes to education, and it’s not a pretty picture.  Hours of homework each night for kids starting in early elementary grades;  tired, stressed out, overachieving, overscheduled kids; parents who are hyper-obsessed with achievement; administrators who are worried about  federal mandates, rankings and scores; burnt-out teachers who are required to “teach to the test”; and the alarmed professionals who are seeing the effects of it all—kids cheating, kids using drugs, kids committing suicide, and kids who aren’t really prepared to be the next generation of great thinkers and problem solvers.  And, families who hardly spend any quality time together any more (“Since when did school dictate what happens after the bell rings in the afternoon?” is one memorable quote from the film).  While documentaries often come under scrutiny for being skewed one way or the other in order to bring the audience to a certain opinion, this film, made by a concerned mom, is spot on.  I see its content every day, every week.  Young children who once loved school and now hate it due to the homework.  Parents who talk about their kids and stress all the time—just this past weekend at a dance competition, I shared a table with a total stranger from another community who started telling me about how stressed out her 17-year-old daughter was, getting only 3-4 hours of sleep each night and putting herself under tremendous pressure to make all A’s.  Friends of mine who are talented teachers have been telling me for years about not being able to teach outside the box, and no longer enjoying their jobs.  Allison has long said that kids copy homework and cheat on tests in order to keep up their GPA.  Parents all around me, myself included, have become more and more achievement focused and worried that if their kids don’t make all A’s they won’t get into a good college. 

But I never put it all together before, all those pieces, and that’s what this documentary does.  It’s a sobering wake-up call.  In our race to “beat other countries” in academic excellence, we’re actually doing the opposite.  We’re raising kids that aren’t taught to be independent, critical thinkers, but rather, kids that are told what to study, what to memorize, and then they promptly put it out of their minds when the course is finished  (one teen in the film is jubilant that her last French test is over and she’ll “never have to speak French again”).  Some points from the film were particularly eye-opening:

-In Asian countries where they have high achievers, they do not have the amount of homework that American children do.  In fact, many teachers don’t give homework at all.  They teach what needs to be taught in the classroom, and their countries offer incentives to draw top students to becoming teachers. In one segment of the film, an American AP Biology teacher decided  to see what would happen if he gave less homework—and his classroom scores actually went up.

-The top money earners in our country did not attend a “top college” and many didn’t even graduate.   In fact, they show that attending a top college does not give students an earnings boost over those that attend an “average” college.  Nor does taking all AP courses in high school.  Higher earnings were affected more by qualities such as determination and (surprise?) the ability to think outside the box.  So if people are under the impression that they’d better go to a top school in order to earn big bucks, they are essentially believing in a myth.

The documentary does not leave the audience feeling hopeless, however.  It (and its website, offer many suggestions that can be implemented immediately by parents, students, teachers, and others. (The parental suggestions include things like not enrolling your kids in all AP courses and making time several nights a week to eat dinner together.)  Its sister website,,  offers further ways people can get involved to make changes (and also lays out the research behind the statistics in the film).

I hope that everyone gets a chance to see this ground-breaking film—it’s currently on a 6-month public screening tour, and it’s exciting that it’s being shown at schools and theaters across the country.  (In the Dallas area, it will be at the Lewisville Studio Movie Grill this Sunday, March 6.) The Race to Nowhere website has a map so you can quickly see if it will be in your area.  Eventually, DVDs will be available for purchase.