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Don’t Feel Guilty If You Don’t Have Time for Family Dinner

It’s 4:50 p.m. on a Wednesday, and this is the scene at my house: I’m madly rushing to finish up cooking dinner, while tripping on my one-year-old who, in preparation for her witching hour, has thrown herself at my feet. Meanwhile, the five-year-old is bemoaning his starvation, despite the fact that he had a snack an hour ago, and his dinnertime smoothie is already in front of him.


I slam their food on the table, like an ornery waitress at one of those 50s-themed diners, but I won’t be sitting down with my kids to eat tonight. Sure, I may plop down in exhaustion on the chair next to my son, but I’ll be up in three minutes, cleaning up spilled milk from my kindergartner or thrown food from the toddler.

My husband won’t be joining us either, thanks to his Silicon Valley job with a long commute and even longer hours.

Yet again, we won’t be having a family dinner together. Even though I know my husband and I spend plenty of time with our young children, I still feel guilty from seeing report after report extol the virtues of having every member in the family sit down together for an evening meal.

I know we’re not the only family who’s not having dinner together tonight and feeling bad about it. But a study from 2012 can assuage our guilt. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that family dinner itself did not create the benefits that have been previously reported in children whose families share nightly mealtime. Those benefits were lower obesity rates, greater academic success, and fewer instances of substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Instead, family dinner was “a marker for families that have a bundle of traits that contribute to good child outcomes,” MinnPost reported.

Families that regularly have mealtime together tend to have more time and money and are more likely to have a non-employed stay-at-home mother than families who don’t dine together, according to the report.

Unlike in previous studies on family mealtimes, researchers for the University of Minnesota report were able to use data that asked both children and parents questions about their family life, and it asked these questions at several different times during the participants’ childhoods. The data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a long-term study of a sample of 18,000 children.

The study’s conclusion is a classic example of confusing correlation for causation. It’s also reminiscent of recent research that indicates that the previously-reported benefits of breastfeeding have been exaggerated. (Breastfed babies tend to be in families with more resources than formula-fed children, and this socioeconomic status is more likely the cause of these children’s better health and well-being.)

In a similar vein, Bruce Feiler, a New York Times columnist and author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” argued that it’s not the family dinner that yields the benefits, but the quality time spent together – no matter the occasion or time of day.

In his research into tens of thousands of cataloged chats around the dinner table, Feiler found that there is actually only 10 minutes of real conversation.

“The rest is taken up with ‘take your elbows off the table’ and ‘pass the ketchup’ and all that kind of stuff,” he told radio program “The Splendid Table.”

So if regular family dinners don’t work for your family – like mine – there’s no need to feel guilty. Ann Meier, co-author of the University of Minnesota study and University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology, told MinnPost that family meals “may be a nice kind of ritual context for good parenting to happen,” but families can connect with each other at other times and in other ways.

Feiler came to a similar conclusion, saying that as long as families can find 10-15 minutes a day to bond and have that “real conversation,” they will reap the same benefits as having family dinner. Taking the concept of “time-shifting” from the work world, he said, families who can’t eat together nightly can simply time-shift their family time.

How can your busy family carve out 15-30 minutes a day to check in and spend quality time together? Here are five alternatives to the revered family dinner:

Family breakfast

This is one of the alternate rituals Feiler recommended, but is family breakfast a truly viable option for families scrambling to pack lunches, make daycare and school dropoff, and get to work? Apparently so, I found when I crowd sourced family-dinner-alternative ideas from friends and parenting groups on Facebook.

“We only do family dinner one to three times per week, but we have breakfast together every morning,” said Beth Wolf, mom of two children under four in Chicago. “The kids get us up early anyway!”

Family breakfast is an ideal choice for families with little ones who are up at the crack of dawn. If you’re up with your kids and sleep deprived long before you have to start your morning commute, why not share some eggs and toast together?

Video chats

Since my kids changed their nap schedules this summer and started going to bed at 7 p.m. – before my husband even gets home from work – an evening video call through the Houseparty app has become part of my family’s daily routine. It’s a chance for my son to tell Daddy about what happened at transitional kindergarten that day and the toddler to say “Dada, Dada” excitedly when she sees her dad’s face – and a great replacement for the family dinner that doesn’t work with our family’s schedule.

Family video chats are well suited for families where a parent travels a lot or works odd hours, like Laura Birks-Reinert’s family in New Jersey. Her husband works nights, so she and her twin six-year-old boys Skype with Daddy at 7 p.m. every day, sometimes during bath time.

Play

Many families feel like mealtimes aren’t the best time for real conversation anyway. Families with young children often spend most of dinnertime cleaning up spills and managing one crisis after another. Tweens and teens feel like they’re being interrogated about school and friends when everyone is gathered at the dinner table, staring at them.

Family play time might, in fact, be a better way to spend quality time than mealtimes.

“In our home, our family spends plenty of time together,” said Teresa Currivan, parent coach and mother to an 11-year-old in Oakland, Calif. “As long as some of that is quality time, I’m fine skipping the family dinner. Our family does improv games together, Nerf battles, etc. Play lends itself to more connection than sitting and eating together all the time – at least for my gang.”

Blogger and author Kelly Holmes has instituted five to 10 minutes of family cuddle time in bed after everyone returns from work and school to give her family of five a chance to re-connect before their busy evening routine starts.

While family play happens more spontaneously with little ones, there’s still ways to engage with older kids. Families can gather for weekend board game nights or participate in daily conversation games that author Bruce Feiler recommended. Those games include “Bad and Good,” in which every family member takes a turn telling one thing that was good about their day and one that was bad, and “Pain Points,” where everyone talks about a difficult situation they’re facing.

Special weekly routines

Like the weekend board game nights I previously mentioned, creating weekly family traditions is another great way to bond, especially as your kids grow older and want to spend less time with you and more time hiding in their rooms (on Snapchat with friends).

Move family dinner to Sunday night, and invite the kids to help you prep and cook. Bring the family together for Sunday brunch, go for a walk Sunday afternoon before dinner, or sit down for a movie and bowl of popcorn Saturday night.

Driving time

Make use of all those hours you spend in the car, shuttling the kids to and from after-school activities. Instead of conversation during family dinner, this is where your family’s real discussions can happen.

Car chats are what works best for Jacqui Pastoral-Conclara and her husband in San Bruno, California, as they drive their three boys, aged 11, 13 and 15, to after-school sports and weekend travel tournaments.

“I found that the time we drive to the games is the perfect opportunity to connect with my kids,” she said. “They tend to be introspective and profound in these conversations when trapped traveling in the car with their parents.”

And if your child is feeling a bit reticent about opening up on their own during the drive, try one of Feiler’s conversational games: “Bad and Good” or “Pain Points.”

A special note about teenagers

Remember that University of Minnesota study showing that family dinner isn’t what leads to the positive outcomes in children? There’s one exception – teenagers. (Teenagers are always the exception, right?)

According to the researchers, adolescents whose families shared mealtimes tended to report fewer symptoms of depression. Study author Ann Meier theorized that these regular family meals might be an opportunity for parents to check on their teenager’s emotional well-being and intervene if necessary.

Note: There was no similar association between family dinner and adolescent substance abuse or delinquency, like shoplifting or damaging property.

But again, if you’re a parent of teenagers and can’t fit nightly family mealtimes into your schedule, connect with your kids with Sunday dinner or conversation during car rides.

No matter what your children’s ages, try to take at least 10-15 minutes a day to really be there for them. Put down your phone, turn off the TV or car radio, open your ears, and see what happens.

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When you become a parent for the first time, there is an undeniably steep learning curve. Add to that the struggle of sorting through fact and fiction when it comes to advice and—whew—it's enough to make you more tired than you already are with that newborn in the house.

Just like those childhood games of telephone when one statement would get twisted by the time it was told a dozen times, there are many parenting misconceptions that still tend to get traction. This is especially true with myths about bottle-feeding—something that the majority of parents will do during their baby's infancy, either exclusively or occasionally.

Here's what you really need to know about bottle-feeding facts versus fiction.

1. Myth: Babies are fine taking any bottle

Not all bottles are created equally. Many parents experience anxiety when it seems their infant rejects all bottles, which is especially nerve wracking if a breastfeeding mom is preparing to return to work. However, it's often a matter of giving the baby some time to warm up to the new feeding method, says Katie Ferraro, a registered dietician, infant feeding specialist and associate professor of nutrition at the University of California San Francisco graduate School of Nursing.

"For mothers returning to work, if you're breastfeeding but trying to transition to bottle[s], try to give yourself a two- to four-week trial window to experiment with bottle feeding," says Ferraro.

2. Myth: You either use breast milk or formula

So often, the question of whether a parent is using formula or breastfeeding is presented exclusively as one or the other. In reality, many babies are combo-fed—meaning they have formula sometimes, breast milk other times.

The advantage with mixed feeding is the babies still get the benefits of breast milk while parents can ensure the overall nutritional and caloric needs are met through formula, says Ferraro.

3. Myth: Cleaning bottles is a lot of work

For parents looking for simplification in their lives (meaning, all of us), cleaning bottles day after day can sound daunting. But, really, it doesn't require much more effort than you are already used to doing with the dishes each night: With bottles that are safe for the top rack of the dishwasher, cleaning them is as easy as letting the machine work for you.

For added confidence in the sanitization, Dr. Brown's offers an incredibly helpful microwavable steam sterilizer that effectively kills all household bacteria on up to four bottles at a time. (Not to mention it can also be used on pacifiers, sippy cups and more.)

4. Myth: Bottle-feeding causes colic

One of the leading theories on what causes colic is indigestion, which can be caused by baby getting air bubbles while bottle feeding. However, Dr. Brown's bottles are the only bottles in the market that are actually clinically proven to reduce colic thanks to an ingenious internal vent system that eliminates negative pressure and air bubbles.

5. Myth: Bottles are all you can use for the first year

By the time your baby is six months old (way to go!), they may be ready to begin using a sippy cup. Explains Ferraro, "Even though they don't need water or additional liquids at this point, it is a feeding milestone that helps promote independent eating and even speech development."

With a complete line of products to see you from newborn feeding to solo sippy cups, Dr. Brown's does its part to make these new transitions less daunting. And, for new parents, that truly is priceless.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Three was not enough for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Mom and dad to North, Saint and Chicago are expecting again.

The story broke earlier this month, but this week Kim appeared on "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen" and confirmed everything People and E! have been attributing to inside Kardashian sources.

Host Andy Cohen, a father-to-be himself, asked Kim to confirm if the leaked sex of the baby was also accurate.

    "It's a boy," Kim told him, revealing that she's the accidental source of the leak. "It's out there. I got drunk at our Christmas Eve party, and I told some people, but I can't remember who I told."

    Like Chicago, this baby will be born via surrogate, and Kim says he's due quite soon.

    Kim has previously talked about how the decision to grow her family through gestational surrogacy was a hard one, but the only one that made sense for her after two difficult pregnancies.

    "Anyone that says or thinks it is just the easy way out is just completely wrong. I think it is so much harder to go through it this way, because you are not really in control," she told Entertainment Tonight when expecting Chicago.

    "Obviously you pick someone that you completely trust and that you have a good bond and relationship with, but it is still … knowing that I was able to carry my first two babies and not my baby now, it's hard for me," she explained at the time.

    One of six kids herself, it's not surprising that Kim wants a large family (considering how close she is with her siblings) and, according to Kim, Kanye's been campaigning for more children for a while.

    "Kanye wants to have more, though. He's been harassing me," Kardashian said on a 2018 episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. "He wants like seven. He's like stuck on seven."

    Four is still pretty far from seven, but maybe Kanye and Kim will compromise a bit on family size. Kim has previously said four children would be her limit.

    [Update: This post was originally published on January 2, 2019. It was updated when Kardashian confirmed the news.]

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    Toxic masculinity is having a cultural moment. Or rather, the idea that masculinity doesn't have to be toxic is having one.

    For parents who are trying to raise kind boys who will grow into compassionate men, the American Psychological Association's recent assertion that "traditional masculinity ideology" is bad for boys' well-being is concerning because our kids are exposed to that ideology every day when they walk out of then house or turn on the TV or the iPad.

    That's why a new viral ad campaign from Gillette is so inspiring—it proves society already recognizes the problems the APA pointed out, and change is possible.

    We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film) youtu.be

    Gillette's new ad campaign references the "Me Too" movement as a narrator explains that "something finally changed, and there will be no going back."

    If may seem like something as commercial as a marketing campaign for toiletries can't make a difference in changing the way society pressures influence kids, but it's been more than a decade since Dove first launched its Campaign for Real Beauty, and while the campaign isn't without criticism, it was successful in elevating some of the body-image pressure on girls but ushering in an era of body-positive, inclusive marketing.

    Dove's campaign captured a mainstream audience at a time when the APA's "Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women" were warning psychologists about how "unrealistic media images of girls and women" were negatively impacting the self-esteem of the next generation.

    Similarly, the Gillette campaign addresses some of the issues the APA raises in its newly released "Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men."

    According to the APA, "Traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males' psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict and negatively influence mental health and physical health."

    The report's authors define that ideology as "a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence."

    The APA worries that society is rewarding men who adhere to "sexist ideologies designed to maintain male power that also restrict men's ability to function adaptively."

    That basically sounds like the recipe for Me Too, which is of course its own cultural movement.

    Savvy marketers at Gillette may be trying to harness the power of that movement, but that's not entirely a bad thing. On its website, Gillette states that it created the campaign (called "The Best a Man Can Be," a play on the old Gillette tagline "The Best a Man Can Get") because it "acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture."

    Gillette's not wrong. We know that advertising has a huge impact on our kids. The average kid in America sees anywhere from 13,000 to 30,000 commercials on TV each year, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics, and that's not even counting YouTube ads, the posters at the bus stop and everything else.

    That's why Gillette's take makes sense from a marketing perspective and a social one. "As a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man," the company states.

    What does that mean?

    It means taking a stance against homophobia, bullying and sexual harassment and that harmful, catch-all-phrase that gives too many young men a pass to engage in behavior that hurts others and themselves: "Boys will be boys."

    Gillette states that "by holding each other accountable, eliminating excuses for bad behavior, and supporting a new generation working toward their personal 'best,' we can help create positive change that will matter for years to come."

    Of course, it's not enough for razor marketers to do this. Boys need support from parents, teachers, coaches and peers to be resilient to the pressures of toxic masculinity.

    When this happens, when boys are taught that strength doesn't mean overpowering others and that they can be successful while still being compassionate, the APA says we will "reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide."

    This is a conversation worth having and 2019 is the year to do it.

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    Teaching a young child good behavior seems like it should be easy and intuitive when, in reality, it can be a major challenge. When put to the test, it's not as easy as you might think to dole out effective discipline, especially if you have a strong-willed child.

    As young children develop independence and learn more about themselves in relation to others and their environment, they can easily grow frustrated when they don't always know how to communicate their feelings or how to think and act rationally.

    It's crucial that parents recognize these limitations and also set up rules to protect your child and those they encounter. These rules, including a parent's or caregiver's follow-up actions, allow your child to learn and develop a better understanding of what is (and what is not) appropriate behavior.

    Here are a few key ways to correct negative behavior in an efficient way:

    1. Use positive reinforcement.

    Whenever possible, look to deliver specific and positive praise when a child engages in good behavior or if you catch them in an act of kindness. Always focus on the positive things they are doing so that they are more apt to recreate those behaviors. This will help them start to learn the difference between good and poor behavior.

    2. Be simple and direct.

    Though this seems like a no-brainer, focus your child using constructive feedback versus what not to do or where they went wrong. Give reasons and explanations for rules, as best as you can for their age group.

    For example, if you're teaching them to be gentle with your pet, demonstrate the correct motions and tell your child, "We're gentle when we pet the cat like this so that we don't hurt them," versus, "Don't pull on her tail!"

    3. Re-think the "time out."

    Many classrooms are starting to have cozy nooks where children are encouraged to have alone time when they may feel out of control. In lieu of punishment, sending a child to a "feel-good" area removes them from a situation that's causing distress. This provides much-needed comfort and allows for the problem-solving process to start on its own.

    4. Use 'no' sparingly.

    When a word is repeated over and over, it begins to lose meaning. There are better ways to discipline your child than saying "no." Think about replaying the message in a different way to increase the chances of your child taking note. Rather than shouting, "No, stop that!" when your toddler is flinging food at dinnertime, it's more productive to use encouraging words that prompt better behavior, such as, "Food is for eating, what are we supposed to do when we're sitting at the dinner table?" This encourages them to consider their behavior.

    The above methods help create teachable moments by providing opportunities for development while making sure the child feels safe and cared for. It is important to mirror these discipline techniques at home and communicate often with your child care providers so that you're always on the same page.

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    To the mamas awake in the middle of the night,

    If you are one of the many moms with a little darling who doesn't sleep through the night, I feel your pain. I really do.

    Having been blessed with two wonderful sleepers (aka my first and second babies), my third baby has been a shock to my system. He hasn't slept through the night since he was born and he's now 16 months. I do everything "right." I put him down sleepy but awake so he can settle himself to sleep. I keep the room dark and quiet.

    But one simple fact remains: When my son wakes up in the night, he wants me. And he'll scream the house down if he doesn't get me.

    Last night my 1-year-old woke at 3:30 am. He was stirring a bit at first, then started to really let it rip, so I got him up out of his crib and brought him into bed with me. We cuddled for a while. Then suddenly, he wanted to get off the bed and I said no. Then he started to scream and throw himself around on the bed before eventually being sick everywhere.

    It was now 4:30 am. I dutifully changed the sheets, changed my son, changed myself, and then we climbed back into bed, the smell of vomit still lingering.

    I tried to put him back in his crib around 5 am but he woke right up. I brought him back into bed with me, but quickly realized this wasn't what he wanted either. He was thrashing around again, trying to figure out a way off of the bed.

    Finally, close to 6 am he decided he wanted to go to sleep. After about 10 minutes of watching him sleep, I felt brave enough to try to put him back in his room. I gently lifted him up, placed him in his crib and quietly crept back into my bed.

    This left me with just enough time to fall back into a deep sleep, which meant I felt exhausted when my alarm went off just after 7 am.

    Sadly, last night wasn't a one-off. This is a fairly frequent occurrence for me (although dealing with vomit is luckily quite rare!). Which means that when I say I understand what it's like to have a baby who doesn't sleep, I really mean it.

    So here's what I want you to know, mama.

    If you are awake in the night because your baby needs you then you are not alone. Despite what you might read, it's common for babies to wake up through the night. So if you're sitting in bed feeling like you're the only mother in the world awake, trust me, you're far from it.

    There are mamas like us all over the world. Sitting there in the dark. Cuddling babies or soothing them to sleep again. Some, like me, might be changing sheets or abandoning any hope of getting sleep that night at all. Others might be up and down like a yo-yo every few hours. The rest might just be up once and then will be able to go back to sleep.

    There will, however, also be mamas who are sound asleep. Mamas who have older children who no longer wake in the night. And they would want you to know that it will be okay. It won't be forever. One day, you'll realize that your baby no longer needs or wants you in the night.

    And while you'll be so glad for your sleep you'll probably also be a little sad that there are no more night time cuddles.

    It's hard to cope with a baby who doesn't sleep well at night. Really hard sometimes. You may feel like you can't deal with it anymore or you may be wishing that this phase would just stop already so you can get some rest.

    Exhaustion often means that you struggle to get through the day. It can mean that you find it hard to drag yourself out of bed. Or if you're anything like me, you might be irritable and snap at the people you love. Or maybe it means relying on caffeine, sugar and Netflix to get you and your kiddos through the day.

    But here's the amazing thing about mothers—no matter what has gone down during the night, we get up as usual. We go about our day just like everyone else. We care for and love our children, without giving them a hard time for disrupting our sleep. We don't moan, we don't complain. We just get on with it.

    And when night comes, we go to bed knowing that there's every chance we'll be awake in the middle of the night again...

    We get up without fail when our babies need us and we do what we need to do for them. Because we are the nighttime warriors. We are mamas.

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