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Just this week I've spoken with several parents who are concerned about their kids' writing abilities and want to use the summer to help them improve.


“Sounds like a blast!" says little Johnny. (I'm sure his mom begged her parents for a writing program when she was little.)

All too often we are teaching kids purely for the sake of school and testing. While we have their future in mind, kids don't always see it that way and tests are not great motivators for all students – they are boring for some and stressful for others. A meaningful reason is often the spoonful of sugar that's needed. (Disclosure: I have a kid who wants to do well for the sake of doing well and another who wants a good, solid, enjoyable reason to do well.)

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Homer Hickam, who wrote his story in “October Sky," was destined to be a coal miner but really wanted to work for NASA. He started launching rockets as a kid and, at a certain point, he needed to figure out how high they were going. He needed calculus for that. He was successful at petitioning to have calculus taught at his school but only the top five kids were then able to take the class. He was not one of them.

So he taught himself calculus, not for the sake of school or doing well on tests. For rockets. While rocket launching is what moved his trajectory from the mines and into NASA, it was his love of it that propelled him to learn calculus. He learned it so he could use it. No small feat.

Learning can be enjoyable, and almost transparent. Most of us enjoyed more independence as children than ours do today – our activities were fun and we learned. Many of us had pen pals or wrote letters to friends or relatives. Again, it was fun and we learned. Get it?

At the very least, give your kids a good, solid, enjoyable reason to learn.

Eva Baker started Teens Got Cents when she was 15 as the “meaningful project" her mom had tasked her with during her junior and senior year of homeschool. She'd been listening to Dave Ramsey with her mom and chose to create a website and blog about what teens can do to become financially savvy. This is how she earns her living today.

Here are ideas for kids of all ages to improve their writing this summer:

Blog

Have them start a blog and request that they write an entry a week or X entries over the summer. They can even have guest bloggers from time to time and act as editor. It doesn't matter how old they are (to a certain extent). If they can't type yet (see note below), they can write it out and dictate into your iPhone. That could make them want to do it themselves. Use Weebly or Wix to set up a free site and choose a topic they love – Harry Potter, Legos, cooking, dogs, grandparents.

View other blogs with your kids that they might be interested in for content and mechanics. Simply writing is the best first step. Then you can work with them to outline their next blog – three important points plus an intro and conclusion. Show them where they can grab free images for their blog or have them take their own. They can send an email out to their relatives and friends each time a new blog is up. If their list expands, have them use MailChimp's free service. This could be the beginning of a business.

Pen pal

This could be via paper with a grandparent or a person who would enjoy it. It could be email, but it should be lengthy. Our kids correspond via email, message on phones, and through games but this is not anything of substance (it doesn't count as “writing").

At first writing anything is good but, eventually, remind them to include niceties (“How are you?" “What have you done this week?" “I was thinking of you because…"). Then go into a topic for the letter and segue into a conclusion, much like a conversation.

Journal

My daughter and I started a journal before she could even write! We'd draw pictures in a notebook and leave it on each other's beds so it would go back and forth. Writing followed quickly and we would exchange ideas, thoughts about the day, how bad the dog was, what we'd like for our birthday, and so much more. We still use the journal on occasion and, because we've kept all the notebooks we filled, we often enjoy them as bedtime reading material.

How-tos

Ask your kids to write out how to perform one of their chores should another unfortunate child inherit it. When I noticed that the trash bag wasn't actually making it into the outside trash can, I had my son write up “How to Empty Trash Cans" so that I could see if perhaps he didn't think that was part of the chore. He did. We laughed. It was interesting. I had my daughter write “How to Unload the Dishwasher." Very entertaining. Of course, I reviewed them and had them make edits, in case I decide to adopt.

Speech

Public speaking and writing are very similar – an organized, cohesive message regardless of the topic. For speaking, it's “Tell them what you're going to tell them; Tell them; Tell them what you told them." In writing, it's “Intro, Content, Conclusion." Using this same format to speak will reinforce organization in writing.

Make this fun by having them choose a topic or giving them one to use for a one minute speech at dinner. You can do it, too. “Why dogs are great." “Why dogs should eat at the table." It can be impromptu: if she delivers a “Why I Don't Need to Make My Bed" speech, you can immediately respond with a “What Happens to Children Who Don't Make Their Bed" piece.

Holiday letter

Have them write some or all of the family's holiday letter. Start this during the summer and remind them of the fun (and funny things) your family did that can be shared. Have them include pictures.

Magazines or contests

Many children's magazines have sections where kids send in responses to a question or send in a question. I had this on my daughter's “Summer Spruce Up" in the fourth grade. She responded to a question in “Discovery Girl." A year later, they emailed asking for permission to use it and for a photo! Even more exciting was that before we were able to obtain a copy, my cousin called to say that her daughter had her read this “great idea" she found in the magazine and that upon reading it, she discovered it was from Marie. Her daughter hadn't noticed that part of it since they weren't given advanced warning. It was thrilling!

Scholarship essays

For older kids, have them write essays for scholarships. FastWeb has a list of these for a variety of ages and due dates all throughout the year. You can get a trial subscription or pay a small fee to receive it. There are other ways to find these, too, of course.

Writing contests

Have your child submit something to a writing contest. There are many. Even if the deadline has passed, they can get ready for the next year.

eBook

Have your child, any age, write a book. While you could put it on Amazon, you don't have to. It can be free and as simple as converting a Word or PowerPoint document into a pdf. (Check out the eBook Eva Baker gives away on Teens Got Cents as an example.) They could even create an eBook library on a website for friends and relatives. Take a look at some child authors who self-publish, like Owen Whaley who got the word out via Next Door.

NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a free writing challenge for all ages that involves a word count goal. They also have a Young Writer's Program where you can set your own word count goal. My daughter's friend has done the adult version since the fourth grade and her dad said the first year her story was not good. But remember, we start simply by doing. Now, he says, her stories are great. He's amazed at her talent.

Reviewer

Your child can become a reviewer of books, movies, restaurants, games, or really anything they like. They could officially review books on Amazon or other sites where they achieve special status if they review enough. Or they could, again, create their own website to write reviews and then email or message friends and family the link when new ones are up. By reading others' reviews, they can perfect their writing skills.

Tip on Typing: Two of the parents I spoke with also want their kids to learn to type (notice they didn't say they want to teach their kids to type). Some of these ideas are best if one can type. My kids learned in second grade and are thankful (and I'm thankful I didn't have to teach them). Their teacher simply used Dance Mat Typing, which they enjoyed, and then they perfected it by using Nitro Type where they race other kids. I even had Nitro Type on a “Summer Spruce Up" one year where they had a word per minute goal.

Learning can be fun. You're the teacher!

This piece was also published at Family Bedtime and Medium.com.

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As the saying goes, "failing to prepare is preparing to fail," and that seriously applies to parenting. With no fewer than one dozen items to wrangle before walking out the door on an ordinary errand, mamas have plenty on their mind. That is why one of the very best gifts you can give the mamas in your life this year is to reduce her mental load with some gear she can depend on when she's out and about.

Although it may be impossible to guarantee completely smooth outings with kids in tow, here are the items we rely on for making getting out of the house less of a chore.

1. Bugaboo Bee 5 stroller

This stroller is a dream come true for any mama on the go. (Meaning: All of us!) Lightweight, compact and easy to maneuver with just one hand, this is made for navigating busy sidewalks with ease—or just fitting in the trunk without a major wrestling match. It's designed for little passengers to love just as much, too, with a bassinet option for newborn riders that can be easily swapped with a comfy, reclining seat that can face forward or backward for bigger kids.

$699

2. Bugaboo wheel board

This wheel board will let big brother or sister easily hitch a ride on the stroller if their little legs aren't quite up for a full walk. We love the smart details that went into the design, including a slightly offset position so Mom or Dad can walk without bumping their legs. And because toddlers have strong opinions of their own, it's brilliant that the wheel board allows them to sit or stand.

$125

3. Nuby Keepeez cup strap

If you know a little one gearing up for the major leagues with a killer throwing arm, this is a must-have so parents aren't buying new sippy cups on a weekly basis. Perfect for tethering to high chairs, strollers, car seats and shopping carts, it allows Mama to feel confident she'll return home with everything she left with in the first place.

$6.99

4. Bugaboo footmuff

For those mamas who live anywhere where the temps regularly dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, this ultra-soft, comfortable footmuff is a lifesaver. Made with water-repellant microfleece, it keeps little ones dry and cozy—whether there is melting snow, a good drizzle or simply a spilled sippy cup.

$129.95

5. Bugaboo stroller organizer

Because we know #mombrain is no joke, we are all for products that will help us stay organized—especially when out and about. With multiple zipper pockets, a sleek design and velcro straps that help it easily convert to a handbag when stepping away from the stroller, it helps keep essentials from spare diapers to the car keys within reach.

$39.95

6. Bugaboo Turtle car seat

It may be called a car seat, but we love that this one is specifically designed to securely click into a stroller frame, too. (Meaning there is no need to wake up a sleeping baby for a car-to-stroller transfer!) More reasons to love it are the lightweight design, UPF 50+ sun protection shade and Merino wool inlay, meaning it's baby and mama friendly.

$349

7. Chicco QuickSeat hook-on chair

This hook-on baby chair will almost certainly earn a spot on your most-used list. Perfect for dining out or simply giving your baby a space to sit, it's portable and beyond easy to install. (Plus, it's a great alternative to those questionably clean high chairs at many restaurants!)

$57.99

8. Bugaboo stroller cup holder

Chasing after kids when out and about can work up a thirst, just like neighborhood strolls in the chillier months can get, well, chilly. So we love that this cup holder will help mama keep something for herself to drink close at hand. Designed to accommodate bottles of all sizes and easy to click onto any compatible stroller, it's a perfect stocking stuffer.

$29.95

9. Bugaboo soft wool blanket

Fair warning with this luxe stroller blanket: It's so cozy that you might want to buy another one for yourself! Made with Merino wool that helps it stand up to any elements parents might encounter during an outing, it will help baby stay warm during the winter and cool enough as the temps start to pick up.

$109.95

10. Munchkin silicone placemats

Made to roll and stow in a diaper bag, these silicone placemats will make dining out a (relatively) less messy experience. With raised edges that will help contain spills and a grippy bottom, they will stay in place on tables so that parents might be able to enjoy their own meals, too.

$8.99

11. Bugaboo Breezy seat liner

Designed to keep baby warm when it's cool and cool when it's warm, this seat liner will minimize fusses during all seasons—which is one of the very best gifts you can give a mama. Because accidents of all types can happen on the go, we also love that this seat liner is reversible! With a number of colors, it's also a fun way to help a stroller to stand out at the playground.

$79.95

12. OXO Tot Handy stroller hook

If you ever catch yourself thinking it would be nice to have another hand, these stroller clips are the next-best solution for when you are out and about. Perfect for lugging a bag or anchoring a cup, you'll want a set for every stroller you own.

$14.99

This article was sponsored by Bugaboo. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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Vogue cover star Ashley Graham has received a lot of advice about pregnancy from some pretty famous friends. Since the moment she announced her pregnancy in August, Ashley Graham has been sharing gorgeous pictures of her body's evolution. But as we all know pregnancy is just the teeniest sliver of the iceberg that is motherhood, and there have been a whole lot of mothers eager to tell her so.

In the new issue of Vogue, the supermodel and some of her famous friends share the advice they've been giving the mom-to-be.

"Now all anyone wants to talk to me about is being pregnant," said Graham, who is due to have her baby boy with husband Justin Ervin in January. "There's just this camaraderie. It's a secret society that I didn't know about."


While most of us don't take too kindly to unsolicited parenting advice, we might feel a little differently if Serena Williams was texting it to us.

Here are some of the choice bits of motherhood wisdom Graham has received:

Kim Kardashian: Pregnancy is harder than giving birth (but every mama has her own journey)

"Ashley, the pregnancy may be the hardest part, but the birth is the easiest," Kim Kardashian told Graham at Williams' fashion show this September.

Kim has had famously hard, complicated pregnancies, so that was her experience, but not every mother feels this way. For some pregnancy would rank as easier, while some would say that birth wasn't even as hard as the postpartum recovery.

Every mama's journey is different.

Jordan Foster: Friends make pregnancy and motherhood easier

Graham said she had a hard time during the first four months when she was keeping her pregnancy a secret and her body was going through all its crazy hormonal changes. "I felt like I didn't have anyone to talk to. I was gaining weight rapidly. And I felt alone. And the one piece of advice that my stylist, Jordan Foster, gave me was: Make pregnant friends. None of my friends were in relationships, let alone pregnant. And now I have nine pregnant friends."

We're so happy that Ashley found nine fellow mamas to connect with. Jordan gives good advice!

Serena Williams: It's okay to be scared

Serena Williams told Graham that it's okay to be afraid, there's a lot happening when your body transforms during pregnancy. It's okay to have moments when you admit that there is a lot going on.

"I was one of those people who wanted to know every ugly detail of what happens . . . down there . . . what happens everywhere," Serena Williams told Vogue of her conversations with Graham. "Like, why are my nipples so big a week into being pregnant? This makes no sense; the baby doesn't need to eat yet. I wanted to know every single thing, and I still love talking about it. Because I feel like it's important to kind of change the narrative and be like, it's normal to feel scared, and not be one of those women who are like, 'Oh, it's so great!' Just be scared out of your mind. That's normal."

Serena Williams: Don't compare yourself to other postpartum mamas 

Not that Graham, of all people, is prone to thinking her body should look like everyone else's, but Williams wanted to reiterate this. "I had a little problem with the lies of girls on Instagram—like, coming out of the hospital holding the baby and . . . you know . . . looking thinner than before," Williams said. "That's not happening to me! That's one thing I've learned, and the thing I tell Ashley: Everybody—literally every body—is different. You might jump back in an hour. I didn't."

Amy Schumer: You'll get why parents are so excited to give advice.

Amy Schumer understands a thing or two about the unsolicited advice people offer to pregnant mamas and new parents, but now that she's got a few months of parenthood under her belt she also understands why parents offer it. It often comes from a good place, even if the timing isn't great.

"People are so in your face when you're pregnant because they're so f---ing excited for you. And you don't get it. You can't possibly get it. And then after you've had a baby you're like, 'Oh, I get it!'," Amy Schumer said she told Graham.

But Schumer also told Graham she's gonna hold herself back from offering unsolicited advice, but reminded Graham that she's only a phone call away if the new mama does ever want to hear Schumer's suggestions.

Graham is taking all this advice in, while "not putting too much pressure on myself" she said.

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There's nothing Beyoncé can't do, at least as far as we can see. From dropping record-breaking albums to starring in movies to dominating stadium tours, the woman seems almost superhuman. But even Beyoncé can admit that working motherhood is really, really hard. She recently opened up about her struggles—and we never thought we'd say this—but we kind of feel like we can relate to Beyoncé.

The superstar recently opened up about everything from body image to hitting up Target in a brand new interview. But here's what we're taking away form the conversation: Beyoncé's raw, confessional comments about juggling motherhood and career.

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"I think the most stressful thing for me is balancing work and life," Beyoncé tells Elle when asked what stresses her out. "Making sure I am present for my kids—dropping Blue off at school, taking Rumi and Sir to their activities, making time for date nights with my husband, and being home in time to have dinner with my family—all while running a company can be challenging."

Say it louder, Beyoncé! It's crazy to hear that even the most iconic celebrity of all worries about things like school drop off. Admittedly, we don't know exactly what Bey's juggle looks like. We have no idea what it feels like to be trailed by the paparazzi or sell out stadiums or have access to absolutely everything money can buy. But here's what we do understand: The incredible pressure that comes with trying to fit too many things into too few hours, and the feeling that we wish we could be multiple places at once.

Something else we can relate to? Beyoncé's feelings about her body and its evolution over the years. "If someone told me 15 years ago that my body would go through so many changes and fluctuations, and that I would feel more womanly and secure with my curves, I would not have believed them," she says. "But children and maturity have taught me to value myself beyond my physical appearance and really understand that I am more than enough no matter what stage I'm at in life."

Amen to that, Mama!

And most relatable of all is this answer she provided. When a fan asked, "With all the hats you wear (chairwoman, global entertainer) and all the titles we give you (Queen, Yoncé), which brings you the greatest joy?" via email, here's what Queen B had to say: "Being Blue, Rumi, and Sir's mom."

We feel this so hard. And it's so gratifying to see that even Beyoncé—with all the massive, unprecedented things she's accomplished—knows that when it comes right down to it, nothing compares to being a mama.

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Every winter, without fail, my skin gets very dry. It's like clockwork. As soon as November hits its as if the dry skin Gods band together to give me dry, patchy skin. Some winters are better than others, but this winter it's especially bad. Maybe it's age-related skin changes, or perhaps it's because I moved into a new home with radiator heating and every morning I wake up in what seems to be the Saraha desert. Either way, I'm over it and needed answers.

I caught up with celebrity esthetician Elina Fedotova and her findings are making a big difference on my skin.

"Sometimes in the cold months, we feel achy so many people love to take long hot showers in the morning or take a bath and that is very understandable," she says. "However, remember that long hot showers can lead to over-drying your skin, especially in the winter. Instead of soap, use an oil-based sugar or sea salt scrub. Also, you can use butter-based polishing masks preferably with probiotics because it will help your skin's microbiome, which is essentially important for protective functions on your skin."

Here is my favorite body scrub, plus a few others for you to consider for this winter, mama:

Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish

Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish

A sweet-smelling body scrub that's uber gentle and in millennial pink? Yes, please! I also love that the sugar, virgin coconut and Moroccan rose oils not only provide major hydration, but they increase hydration and reduce redness. It also looks pretty cute alone on my vanity when I'm going through my decluttering phase and need to purge.

$36

Babe and Body’s Shower Yoga

Babe and Body\u2019s Shower Yoga

Sometimes you have to skip the downward dog and bring the namaste straight to your warm shower. This zen-inspired muscle and joint relief scrub combine the powers of dead sea salt and magnesium while infusing scents of lemon and lavender. The lemon oil is also great for tightening the skin, preventing wrinkles and removing excess oil. And, using it makes me feel like I'm kind of working out—even when I haven't seen the inside of a gym in days (okay, fine, months).

$29

OUAI Scalp & Body Scrub

OUAI Scalp & Body Scrub

This scrub really allows me to put Fedotova's suggestion to practice. This exfoliating sugar crystals cleanses and softens my skin and even adds a dose of probiotics that she mentioned to help my skin's defense. It also smells so good I use it during my at-home spa moments (read: mandatory self-care time) when my toddler is having a tantrum.

$38

Fresh Brown Sugar Body Polish Exfoliator

Fresh Brown Sugar Body Polish Exfoliator

This no-frills cult-favorite body scrub has stood the test of time. The brown sugar crystals in it serve as natural humectants that prevent moisture loss, while the oils add instant hydration. And, yes, the rumors are true: you can expect a complete skin refresh that lasts for days.

$39
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Gift-giving is always well-intentioned: It's rooted in the joy of seeing the kids open something new and showing their excitement. It's rooted in a language of love that lavishes gifts decadently like extra butter on a roll. It's rooted in an attempt to connect.

It's an immense privilege to have a family who loves my kids and showers us with gifts—I don't take that lightly. But what my kids need is a present mom, and the overflow of presents makes that harder than ever.

When birthdays and holidays are approaching, I find myself looking around every corner of my house. I see the Lego pieces that once created an incredible train track now scattered in every crevice. I see the pieces just waiting for me to step on them in the middle of the night.

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I see the discarded toys that I try to bring back to life because, after all, they were purchased not that long ago.

I see the tubs of "rotate in and out" toys that we use to try to keep things fresh because, after all, kids can only play with so many things at one time.

I see the pile of things we have yet to open. Things we reserved for later because the pile of "new" grew too large.

These piles of plastic make me feel out of control. They make me feel like I'm the manager of "things" instead of a safe place for my little humans. The toys call out to me to be picked up and organized during times that I need to rest, connect with my family or do anything else.

As a stay-at-home-mom, one thing I never anticipated was how many days can pass that I feel disconnected from my kids because the anxiety of "stuff" takes the front seat. Days when I feel like all I do is pick up "stuff" and try to keep my kids engaged in something for more than a few minutes. Days when it feels like the toys are literally mocking me out loud—reminding me of the control I've lost and the ongoing task list of keeping "stuff" from taking over the entire house.

This feeling of no control is a huge trigger for my anxiety. Anxiety has been a part of my life for years but as a mom, it has had bigger implications.

When anxiety takes over, I can't see the small moments and opportunities.

When anxiety takes over, I can't sit and laugh and tell stories like I want to.

When anxiety takes over, I can't get lost in hours of imaginative play.

When anxiety takes over, I can't sit and snuggle my little one without a constant flood of frustrated thoughts.

I want my kids to have an anxiety-free mom. I want them to have a mom who is connected and purposeful. A mom who gets lost in play and laughter. I want them to have a mom who encourages them to use their imagination and gets on their level. I want a mom who feels less pressure to "busy the kids" with something so that the "stuff" can be picked up.

You see, having all the stuff actually results in my kids spending less time enjoying what they have. It results in less time for play and more time for clean up. It results in more screen time because I need more "mommy needs to get this cleaned up so she doesn't lose her mind" time.

In a world that is so fast-paced and always screaming for "more!" I am constantly trying to help my kids slow down and savor what they have. I don't want my kids to not be able to focus on one activity because their brain is darting to the next thing. I want them to have intentional values—values of creativity and connection. The abundance of stuff feels like a roadblock to instilling these values.

So as the holidays and birthdays continue to come and go, I'll do my part to take care of my anxiety and ask my family and friends to do their part in helping us focus more on the values of our family and less on filling our home with toys that are sure to be deserted in just a few weeks. After all, is there anything better than love and connection?

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