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12 Gifts That Will Help Your Family Stay Crap and Craft-Free

When I think back to childhood Christmases, my best memories have nothing to do with the presents I received and everything to do with the experiences I shared with my family in the days leading up to December 25th.

The list of activities on Christmas Eve day alone was enough to send me into fits of spine-tingling glee, tempered only by a reckless launch into a snowbank or a spirited jump on the bed. The sheer sensorial overload of it all kept my brothers and me awake for hours, as still as our sugar-infused bodies would allow, straining our ears for the sound of bells.

Christmas morning held all the allure of a mountain summit in the distance just catching the first light of day. We gazed at it for weeks as if in a trance, dreaming of all the secret delights it held in store.

Such anticipation gives everything else a certain luster, a heightened tremor of possibility. All that possibility had us searching avidly for elf footprints in the snow, and feeling certain that any rabbit or fox tracks we found were actually elf prints in disguise.

Anticipation is what made our search for the perfect Christmas tree a day-long affair that involved trekking through knee-deep snow on Jack George’s farm with a saw and a scrap of cardboard, shouting into the wind at one another: “Here’s a nice one!” “Ooh! Look at this one over here!” “I found a beauty! Tall and full!” Once home, our 13-foot trees (the tops of which poked up over the balcony where I slept) took that evening and much of the next day to trim.

On Christmas Eve, we pushed anticipation to the hilt as, one by one, we presented our gifts to each other. We weren’t allowed to open them, but we could take all the time we liked wondering at what might lay inside. It became a sort of competition to see who could come up with the most misleading gift enclosures.

On Christmas morning as we clambered onto our parents’ bed, they’d pretend to snore and, upon “waking,” grumble about taking long, slow showers or cleaning the toilets before the unwrapping could begin. A few more stalling antics later and we’d finally feel our way down the stairs, eyes closed the whole time, and wait at the mouth of the living room, its warm glow seeping through our eyelids, until Dad finally exclaimed, “Open!”

The gifts? Some of them fun, many of them to read, most of them useful – things we needed or other people thought we should have. But the buildup, the excitement, gave the holiday its sparkle.

In light of that Rockwellian account, here are 12 ideas for how to enhance the magic of your holiday and cut back on the influx of material crap:

Count down the days

You can do this in any number of ways. The Advent Calendar is a classic. Creative twists on that idea are also fun: Empty 25 walnut shells, number them, and hide a little something under each one. Have your kids take turns as they discover the miniature riches beneath each.

The “riches” can be symbolic or just plain silly. The simple act of discovery is what we’re after here.

Get creative with your holiday greeting

Friends of ours realized they had enough offspring for a starting basketball lineup: five boys. So they wrote and performed a rap song with a verse for each member of the family, and then recorded themselves performing it on a basketball court.

It’s hilarious, totally memorable, and no doubt made for a lot of fun in the process.

Make a movie

I’m not sure how it started, but the grown-ups in my family got it into our heads that it’d be fun to make a movie over the Christmas holiday starring all our kids. So, in between meals and gifts and walks and naps, we made armor out of cardboard scraps and wrote a script called “The Vengeance of Prince LeBleu.”

The kids got so into it that the storyline evolved, and we continued shooting for a few consecutive holidays, coming up with characters for every member of the family. Was it crazy and totally unwieldy? Yes. Did it make us laugh hysterically? Most definitely. Are we now armed with the most adorable footage with which to embarrass our children on their wedding days? Absolutely.

Make food together

Christmas cookies, especially that irresistible recipe from your grandmother. Or bread, because the smell of it baking is that good. Or a gingerbread house if you crafty folks just can’t help yourselves.

Whatever you make, get your kids involved from start to finish, and make enough so you can give some away. Nothing says “I like you” like a fresh-baked delight delivered by hand.

Take in performance art

Plays, ballets, Messiah sing-alongs, and candlelight masses abound this time of year. Pick something you’ve never experienced before – or pick the same something you’ve done a hundred times – and bring your kids along.

Even if they complain initially, that music and those costumes and the tock of toe shoes cueing the fake snow to fall from the rafters will find its way into their subconscious.

Play outside

Ski. Snowboard. Sled. Skate. Take winter hikes into Narnian woodlands. Do whatever outdoor winter thing you enjoy as a family.

Do it until noses turn red and mittens are encrusted with chunks of ice and someone gets a snowball shoved down her neck. Nothing a little cocoa by the woodstove can’t cure.

Build something together

Snowmen and snow forts and sledding jumps are obvious (and very awesome) options. But when winter doesn’t deliver, makeshift lean-tos work, too. And they serve as great bases for epic snowball fights when the weather finally decides to cooperate.

If you have poor circulation and would rather keep all your extremities, see options 1 through 5.

Tell stories

Every family’s got them. This is a great time of year to recollect that time Aunt Susan – ever the festive house guest – decided to wrap herself in Christmas tree lights, plug herself in, and declare herself Spirit of Christmas Present.

You may or may not decide to include the part about how, at age 11, it became your job to deliver her Martinis so she wouldn’t have to abandon her post by the wall socket in the living room. Either way, stories like these enrich your children’s sense of a shared family history.

Write stories

Don’t love reliving the past? Write your own holiday adventure/mishap/whodunnit. Challenge your kids to do the same.

Or write a family letter to Santa saying thanks in advance, with suggestions – perhaps one per family member – about some other ways he might apply his wondrous feats of giving.

To simplify, ask your kids to fill in the blank: “If Santa could solve any problem in the world, I think he should ________.”

Create a scavenger hunt

It can be a one-dimensional indoor affair to stave off the stir-crazies, or a staged, multi-day wild goose chase stretching across whole neighborhoods and involving clues and limericks and store clerks and wanted ads in the local paper.

Primarily though, it’s yet another way of exhibiting for your kids a different kind of “giving” – and for your spouse, a creative kind of love.

Leave offerings

For St. Nick, the reindeer, the Food Shelf, the Mitten Tree, your neighbors, your public radio station, the birds, the lost dog you heard howling the other night.

Leave little things around for each other, too, like chocolates in lunch boxes or notes in door jambs. Leave elf-like footprints in the snow just below your four-year-old’s window.

Do something, anything, you’ve never done before as a family

Draw a wild card this year. Who knows? It may become a tradition.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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I can vividly remember the last time I remember feeling truly rested. I was on vacation with my family, and my dad and I had started a tradition of going to sleep at 10 p.m., then waking up at 10 a.m. to go for a run. After five days of twelve hours of sleep a night, I remember actually pausing and thinking, "I am truly not at all tired right now!"

That was probably 15 years ago.

Of course, being tired pre-kids and being tired post-kids are two entirely different beasts. Pre-kids, tiredness was almost a badge of pride. It meant you had stayed up late dancing with friends or at a concert with your boyfriend. It meant you had woken up early to hit a spin class before gliding into work, hair still damp from your shower, for a morning meeting. Being tired meant you were generally killing it at life—and I was still young enough that, with a little concealer, I could look like it.

Tired post-kids is a whole other animal.

Tired post-kids means you probably still went to bed at a reasonable hour, but you're still exhausted. Maybe you even slept in past sunrise... but you're still exhausted. You may not have worked out in weeks... but you're still exhausted. And staying out late dancing with your girlfriends? (I mean... is that real life? Was it ever?) Nope, didn't do that. But—you guessed it!—you're still exhausted.

Sometimes I look at my husband and say, "I think if I could sleep for about five days, then I would feel rested again."

But considering the average new mom loses almost two months of sleep in her child's first year of life, even that is probably a low estimate of what I really need.

Because being a mom is exhausting.

It's exhausting always putting someone else's needs above your own. I often find myself actually giving my daughter the food off my plate (because, when you're two, mom's meal must be better even if you're eating the exact same thing).

Or I'll sacrifice sneaking my own nap to lie uncomfortably with her on the couch because it means she sleeps an extra 30 minutes.

Or I'll carry her up and down flights of stairs she is perfectly capable of scaling on her own because, well, she's tired or it's just quicker than nagging her to hurry up all the time.

I often end the day bone-tired, shocked at the physical exertion of just keeping this little person alive.

It's exhausting remembering all the things. The mental load of motherhood is so real, and sometimes I'm not sure it won't crush me.

I schedule and remember the doctor appointments, keep the fridge stocked and plan the meals, notice when my husband is low on white shirts and wash and fold the laundry, add the playdates and the date nights to the calendar, and add any assortment of to-dos to my day because, well, I'm the parent at home, so I must have time, right?

And when I drop one of the thousand balls I'm juggling, I writhe under the guilt of failing at my responsibility.

It's exhausting not getting enough sleep. The sleep gap doesn't end after baby's first year.

Studies have shown that parents lose as much as six months of sleep in their child's first two years of life. That sounds unbelievable at first...but I completely believe it.

Because sometimes I stay up later than I should just to get a few minutes of "me" time. Because sometimes my sleep-trained daughter still wakes up in the middle of the night with a nightmare or because she's sick or for no real reason at all and needs me to soothe her back to sleep.

Because sometimes I'm so busy trying to keep it all together mentally that I don't know how to turn my own brain off to get to sleep. And because sometimes (almost always) my daughter wakes up earlier than I would like her to and the day starts over before I'm ready.

It's exhausting maintaining any other relationship while being a mom. I try not to neglect my marriage. I try not to neglect my friendships. I try to make time for friendly interaction with my coworkers. I try to be there for my congregation. I try to keep all these connections alive and nurtured, but the fact is that some days my nurture is completely used up.

It's exhausting doing all of the above while being pregnant. Okay, this one might not resonate for every mom, but we all know being pregnant is hard. Being pregnant with a toddler? I'm shocked it's not yet an Olympic event. (I'm not sure if we'd all get gold medals or just all fall asleep at the starting gun.)

Most days, I'm so tired and busy I honestly forget that I am pregnant, only to be reminded at the end of the day when I finally collapse on the couch and the little one in my uterus wakes up to remind me. My body is doing amazing things, sure—and I have the exhaustion to show for it.

Of course, I know that this is just an exhausting season of life. One day, one not-so-far-off day, my children will be a bit more grown and be able to get their own breakfast in the morning. One day, they'll actually want to sleep in, and I'll be the one opening their curtains in the morning to start the day (maybe before they're really ready).

One day, they'll always walk up and down the stairs themselves and will stop stealing my food and I'll be able to nap without making sure they are asleep or with a sitter. One day, they won't need me to remember all the things.

And the really wild part? Just thinking about that day makes me miss these days, just a bit.

So, yes, I'm tired. I'm always tired. But I'm grateful too. Grateful I get to have these days. Grateful I get to have this life.

But also really grateful for those days I get to nap, too.

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For the first couple years of a child's life, their feet grow so rapidly that they typically need a new shoe size every two to three months (so, no, you're not imagining how many shoes you've been buying lately!).

Fortunately, things tend to slow down as they start walking and hit school age. Even so, it's important to make sure they're wearing the right size for maximum comfort and healthy development.

That's why we teamed up with the experts at Rack Room Shoes for tips on helping the whole family get back to school on the right foot.

1. Get professionally fitted at least once a year.

We love online shopping as much as anyone, but for the health of your child's feet, it's worth it to make at least an annual trip to a store to get them properly sized on a Brannock Device (yep, those old-school sizers you remember as a kid are still the most reliable indicators of foot length and width!). Back to school is a great time to plan a visit to a store with trained associates who can help ensure your little one is getting the right fit.

2. Remember not all feet (or shoes) are created equally.

Most babies have naturally pudgier feet that thin out as they get older, and many kids need a wider or narrower shoe than their peers. Visiting a store and speaking with a trained associate can help you gauge which shoe brand will best suit your child. Once you have that benchmark, shopping online will be easier.

3. Get good closure.

Shoe closure, that is. Nowadays, there's a variety of ways to fasten kids shoes, from slip-ons to velcro to elastic laces. Provide your child with a few options to find the closure that works best for you both.

4. Watch for tell-tale signs your child has outgrown their shoes.

Children will often be the last ones to tell you their favorite shoes are uncomfortable. If your child is tripping or walking funny, it may be time to size up.

5. Try the push-down toe method.

Think your kid has outgrown their kicks? Push down on the toe of their shoe with your thumb to see how much wiggle room they have. The ideal size is to have about half a thumb's width between the tip of the toe and the end of the shoe. (That space equates to about half a size.)

6. Pick a style they'll want to put on. (Here are some of our favorites!)

Most moms know the struggle of getting kids out the door in the morning—the right pair of shoes can help cut down on the (literal) foot-dragging. Opt for a fun style (consider shopping for their favorite color or a light-up design) that they'll be begging to wear every day. (But feel free to buy a second pair that's more your style too!)

You'll love that they're classic converse. They'll love the peek of pink.

Converse Girls Maddie, $44


7. Don't forget the sneakers.

Whether they're running through the recess or racing in P.E., school-age children need a pair of well-fitting, durable sneakers. Be sure to get them professionally fitted to ensure nothing slows them down on the playground.

8. Understand the size breakdowns.

Expert retailers like Rack Room Shoes break up sizing by Baby, Toddler, Little Kid, and Big Kid to make it easier to find the right section for your child. For boys, there's no size break between kids shoes and men's shoes. Girls, though, can cross over into women's shoes from size 4 (in girls) on—a girl's size 4 is a women's size 5.5 or 6.

Looking for more advice? Step into a Rack Room Shoes store near you or shop online. With a "Buy One, Get One 50% off" policy, you can make sure the whole family will put their best foot forward this back-to-school season. (We had to!)

Who knew Amazon had so many dreamy nursery must-haves? Maybe you have a friend or family member about to have a baby or you're preparing for your new bundle of joy—either way, you can save tons on grabbing some essentials on Prime Day.

We've rounded up our favorite nursery items from basics, like cribs and changing tables, to the essentials you never knew you needed (hint: lots of storage!).

1. 6-drawer dresser

This gorgeous dresser has plenty of space for baby's clothing and accessories—and will transition seamlessly to a big kid room one day. Even better? The top is large enough to be used as a changing table. The shade of white is great for any gender, too!

Dresser, Amazon, $239.99 ($329.99)


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