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How can I expand my picky eater’s palate?

Dear Mama Drama:

My two-year-old won’t eat anything, but macaroni and cheese. I’m afraid to give him other things because if he doesn’t eat it he’ll be hungry. I see other children, even younger than him, eating a wide variety of foods. I am amazed that they will eat things like tofu and vegetables.

How can I get my son to eat a wider variety of foods?

~Scared of starving

Dear Scared:

Many children have difficulty expanding their food choices once they have found a favorite food. Macaroni and cheese, PB & J, and mashed potatoes are common favorites. They may like the texture, smell, or associate a positive experience with that food. However, we have to offer them other foods on a regular basis if we want them to make other choices. Our job as parents is to provide healthy options for our children to eat, not to force them to eat it.

Children may need to try a new food several times before they develop a preference for it. Having a family rule that everyone tastes each type of food offered at a meal is a good way to start. Varying the ways that you prepare food can also make a difference. You don’t have to be a short-order cook, but cooking foods in a way that your child is more likely to eat them ensures a better chance of success. If your child doesn’t like slimy foods, don’t offer cooked spinach. Instead, offer him spinach salad with yummy cranberries or mandarin oranges and a sweet vinaigrette dressing. As parents, it is important to model trying foods we previously disliked as well.

Sometimes children are more willing to try new foods if they can dip them in something familiar. Barbeque sauce, salad dressings, and honey are just a few choices that may make a new food more appealing for your child.

Some children (and adults) don’t like their food mixed or touching. To those of us whom this does not bother, it doesn’t always make sense. But rather than forcing the issue, simply use plates that have sections in them to separate the foods. It’s an easy fix that eliminates an unnecessary battle.

If your child misses a meal or two, he will be hungry but will not starve. If you have provided healthy, kid-friendly food to eat and he has refused to eat, then you have done your job. Be sure you refrain from rescuing your child on these occasions by giving him the mac and cheese after he’s refused to eat other foods you’ve provided.

There are times when extenuating circumstances may be impacting your child’s willingness or ability to eat other foods. Some children have sensory processing issues that make eating different food textures almost unbearable. Others have very sensitive senses of smell that may cause them to avoid foods. Subtle reactions to unknown food sensitivities or allergies may also be an underlying reason. If you have concerns in any of these areas, please consult your pediatrician.  

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

How to become a “yes” parent to your kids

Dear Mama Drama:

I have noticed recently that anytime my husband or I say “No” to our three-year-old daughter, a huge meltdown ensues. Even if we are saying, “No, not right now, but later,” she still throws a tantrum. We find ourselves in power struggles or giving in and are at a loss for what to do.

How can we help her handle not getting her way right away with a little more grace?

Ready to Blow your Mind? Check out Nature’s Amazing Machines at DMNS

Friday night we were privileged to get a sneak peak at the new exhibit opening at DMNS, Nature’s Amazing Machines. After the tasty treats provided by DMNS we entered the exhibit and were immediately engaged by a video displaying teasers for the wonders we were about to discover.
Nature’s Amazing Machines answers questions you’ve always wondered about and ones you haven’t even thought of yet. This interactive exhibit provides information in English and Spanish and offers videos, detailed descriptions, life-like models, and hands on activities to tantalize and blow your mind. You’ll discover how a dragonfly moves its wings, watch a Manta shrimp punch as fast as a speeding bullet, and learn the mechanics that creates the Cheetah’s amazing speed.
As we explored the exhibit, the most frequent phrases uttered by my 14 year old were “Wow, I never thought of that before!” and “This is so cool!” I repeatedly turned around to find his jaw hanging open in wonder as he observed the mechanics of various fish jaws, attempted understand the physics of the three foot long giant blue Australian earthworm, and discovered the evolution of the Toucan’s natural radiator, its beak. Over and over again we were amazed by information we didn’t know and had never even contemplated.
The exhibit is broken down into six featured areas explaining how a myriad of creatures across the globe have adapted to their environments to survive. You’ll be engaged and amazed as you travel through Legs and Springs, Wings and Fins, Jaws and Claws, Structures and Materials, Pumps and Pipes,  and Insulators and Radiators. Additionally, the Museum is offering collectible trading cards with six different animals and fun facts and activities to try at home. (Printed in both English and Spanish.) The first June/July card is available now, with new ones available at the beginning of each month until the exhibit’s closing on Monday, January 1, while supplies last.
In Nature’s Amazing Machines you’ll discover the physics of bird wings and why some are long and slender while others are short and wide, how different fish move to meet the needs of their environment, and how much energy it takes to pump blood to the brain of a giraffe with a seven foot long neck. You can compare your grip strength to that of a chimpanzee and learn how leverage and length impact the strength and speed of your jaw. You can try out flying with different types of wings and see how much heat you lose from different parts of your body.

 Humans have imitated nature’s adaptations to develop a variety of inventions. Did you know the chainsaw was inspired by a man watching the larva of the longhorn beetle chewing through wood? Or that Velcro is the result of a man trying to get burrs out his dog’s fur?

 As we left Nature’s Amazing Machines our minds were blown and our brains were bursting with information and questions. In the words of my son, “How does that even physics? What ? How? This is messing with my mind. Everything in this exhibit is messing with my mind.” We will definitely be back to discover more once our brains have absorbed what we learned last night.  

 This exhibition was developed by The Field Museum in partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, with generous support provided by the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust and ITW. For more information, visit

Mile High Mamas is giving away four tickets to the DMNS. Be sure to enter here! 

7 tips to stop nagging your kids

Dear Mama Drama:

I am so tired of nagging my kids to do what they’re already supposed to do. How can I motivate them without constantly nagging? Sticker rewards worked when they were younger but now that they’re getting older, nothing is working.

~Nagged Out

Dear Nagged Out:

When our children are younger we provide lots of structure and supervision for their daily routines. As they get older and develop more independent skills, we tend to relax these and are often surprised to find ourselves nagging constantly.

Nagging tends to undermine all that independence we worked so hard for our children to gain. It tells them we don’t really think they can do it and removes any motivation to remember on their own since they know we’ll remind them anyway. It also creates barriers in our relationships at a time when we really want to be enjoying our kids.

1. We can offer structure for our older children and instill confidence in them by providing clear expectations, consequences, and rewards.

2. Make a checklist of tasks you expect your children to do that you’d like to stop nagging them about. Discuss this with them, clarifying what you mean by each task (clean your room to you may be much different than to your children), and negotiate time frames in which they need to be completed. The key word here is negotiate. Be flexible about when you’d like things done (right now!) and what may be a reasonable compromise.

3. There should also be negotiated consequences for not completing their tasks. For example if the checklist isn’t completed on time, they don’t get their daily computer time. However, they still need to complete their tasks for the day.

An easy way to keep track of what has been done is to post the tasks on a white board and have your children check the task off when it is completed. A little quality control option is to require a second check by you or another adult at home to verify it was done. This also gives you the opportunity to recognize their effort ~ make sure you don’t expect perfection. You can fade to intermittent checking after it’s clear that everyone understands the expectations, but keep up the positive recognition.

4. Set a goal for completing the checklist with a limited amount of reminders.  (Be reasonable, if you are asking them five times for each task now, expecting no reminders wouldn’t be fair. Over time you can reduce the number of reminders allowed. ) Have them earn a point for each task completed within the guidelines. You can have each child earn their own points as well as having them work together to earn points for a larger reward. (Be creative here by making a game board or using a sports metaphor to document the points they’ve earned.) You can also give bonus points for tasks done early, without fussing, and with no reminders.

5. The next step is motivation. Even though your kids may not want stickers anymore, there are many other things they’ll be willing to work for such as computer or video game time, staying up late on the weekend, family movie night where they pick the movie, their favorite dinner, a special dessert, an itunes card, spending money, etc.

6. Have a discussion and set goals for what they want to earn, I’m sure they’ll think of more things than I can. Make sure most of what they work for doesn’t cost anything and work to have some things that involve the whole family. You can split things into daily rewards and rewards they can earn over time. Put all the ideas in a bag or box and when they reach their goal for points earned, they can pull one out and that’s the reward.

7. The key to making any of this work is self-discipline, for you. You have to resist the urge to nag, follow through with consequences and rewards, and recognize their efforts every step of the way.  You also have to work on not getting angry if they don’t meet their goal or finish their tasks.

Be gentle with yourself and your kids, you’ll all make mistakes, as you work together to build trust and create a more harmonious home life.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith 

How do I handle the bad behavior of my kids’ friends?

Dear Mama Drama:

Hope it’s okay I’m a dad.

My wife and I have a 4 year old in preschool and have recently been struggling with whom our little guy is friends. There is one particular boy at school that we feel is a bad influence from whom our son seems to be picking up bad habits. Should we let his teacher know and perhaps ask them to not allow them to spend so much time together throughout the day?

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We even have the kid’s mother now asking for play dates and we’re not sure if we should encourage our son to hang out with this other little boy. Are we being too protective and controlling?  What would your advice be for encouraging our son to hang out with nicer, more well-behaved kids?

Thanks ~ Flustered Father

Parenting question: You Want to Read What?!

Dear Mama Drama:

I have three daughters ages 13, 11, and 8. They are all avid readers and generally read well above their age level. My eight-year-old wants to read whatever her sisters are reading, but as they get into their teens I am not always comfortable with the content.

When there is sexual content or violence, my eight-year-old is often confused, scared, and has had nightmares, especially after reading some of the vampire books.

The girls think it isn’t a big deal, but I do.  I am not sure how to handle this with them.

~ Raising Readers

Dear Raising:

Your concerns about your youngest daughter’s reading material are valid. The themes in books for teens and tweens focus on different experiences and thinking processes than books for younger children.

It can be difficult to find engaging books for advanced readers. I suggest working with your daughter’s teachers, the school or local librarian, or a clerk in the children’s section of a bookstore to find challenging yet age-appropriate books. Searching the internet for age-focused book lists can also be helpful, just be sure to read through the books first before you give them to your daughter.

You need to enlist your older daughters in supporting the limits you are setting on the books your youngest reads. Talk with them about your reasons and the impact you have observed reading these books has had on their sister. They don’t have to agree with you, but they do need to understand the influence they have on their sister. She looks up to them and wants to be as grown up as they are.

Find ways for the older girls to mentor and guide their sister. Have them make a list of the books they enjoyed when they were her age and share that with her. Encourage them to go to the library or bookstore to choose books together. With your girls being older you may not still read aloud at night. Consider reinstituting reading together as a family to bring these books to life.

With her sisters encouraging her to read age-appropriate books, your eight-year-old will be less resistant to waiting for the right time to read their books.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

How can I help my kids become more independent?

Dear Mama Drama:

I am trying to get my five-year-old son to be more independent in bathing and dressing himself. I have been working with him for the past two weeks on this and he still cannot do anything on his own. I am frustrated and he starts crying every time I tell him to do it on his own. I don’t understand why this is so hard or how to help him.

~Confused Mama

Dear Confused:

Building independent self-care skills for bathing, dressing, etc., is very important for five-year-olds. While as adults we view these skills as fairly basic, we have also been doing them for many, many years. Tasks that seem like one step for us, i.e. washing our hair, are really multiple steps. For your son to try to master all of these things in a short amount of time is probably quite overwhelming.

Rather than working on all independent self-help skills at once, I suggested stepping back and deciding what will be the easiest skill for him to master. Start with that skill so he can experience success quickly and build from there.

Break down the skill step by step and teach him in manageable chunks. For example, if you are teaching him to wash his hair the steps are 1) wet your hair, 2) get the shampoo bottle, 3) pour shampoo on your hand, 4) put the bottle down, 5) rub your hands together, 6) rub the shampoo all over your head/hair (this in and of itself requires lots of practice), 7) rinse the shampoo out of your hair.

Talk through the steps as you do them for him for a few days. Then talk through the steps as he does them himself. Use simple, concise language to describe each step. When he gets stuck or distracted, ask him, “What’s next?”

Making up a song or rhyme to describe the routine can make things more fun and easier to remember. Be sure to give your lots of positive recognition for his efforts throughout the process of learning. Focus on what he has done well and gently re-teach when he struggles.

Once he has master washing his hair move on to the next skill while continuing to encourage and reinforce the skill he has mastered. If he uses a hair conditioner that is a perfect second skill because he already knows the steps with the shampoo!

Clear and simple directions will make a big difference for your son as he works master these self-help tasks. Using visual schedules to show the steps can be very helpful and allows you to support him without always telling him what to do. As you fade your verbal cues, you can have him use the visual schedule to see what comes next. Visual schedules can be used to describe a broad daily routine as well as to break down the steps of tasks within that routine.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

How can I navigate summer break boredom vs. overscheduling?

Dear Mama Drama:

My kids are getting out for the summer and I’m dreading the constant running them here and there and that I’m never able to get anything done. If I don’t schlep them to play dates or other activities they complain that they’re bored. I feel exhausted after these crazy days and then end up staying up late to get the things I need done completed.

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I’d like a different summer experience this year. Any help you can offer would be great!

~Dreading Mama

Dear Dreading:

A change of pace sounds like it is definitely in order for your family this summer. Finding a balance between activities and down time is critical to create an enjoyable experience for all – including you!

Are you doing too much? Start by looking at the activities you have the kids signed up for. Is it a reasonable amount or is there something you/they can let go of? Organize a carpool to sports practices or other daily/weekly activities so you and the other moms aren’t all driving around town to the same places.

Create Mom time. Develop play date schedules that builds in time for you. Arrange for all the kids to be with friends at the same time once a week. Even if it is just a couple of hours, you can relax or run a few of those errands that are quick on your own and take forever when you’ve got a carload of kids. Offer to provide the same opportunity for other moms, so everyone gets a little time off.

Institute F.O.B. When I went to camp as a kid F.O.B. time stood for Flat On Back. This meant we were all in our bunks reading, writing letters, or taking a snooze. We always thought the adults were treating us like babies by making us rest. We didn’t understand it was for them to have some quiet time so they could continue to be patient with us the rest of the day!

Another alternative is D.E.A.R. time. Many schools use Drop Everything And Read as a time to help kids settle down and have the opportunity to read. Your kids’ teachers will love this as it helps keep their literacy skills sharp.

You can also be creative and come up with another version of down time that fits your family. If you do, share it with us!

Let them get bored. Boredom is a great opportunity to be creative and silly.  Here are a few ideas for tackling the boredom beast that I’ve gathered over the years.  Pull out the recycling bin, tape, and glue and let them create building, boats, or anything else they can think of. They can float or race them in the kiddie pool, too, if you’d like. (A similar idea is to pull out the art supplies and see what develops). Gather all of the sports and outdoor play equipment and have them create an obstacle course. And a favorite from an OT we worked with is to have a safari. The kids pull out all of their stuffed animals and then go into one room while you hide the animals all over the house. While they hunt, you get to sit and drink a cup of tea or read the paper. It’s lovely and they’ll want to do it over an over. Last but not least, if they don’t like any of your ideas, offer the opportunity to do chores. This has an amazing effect on their creativity and they are suddenly able to think of something extremely interesting to do… and if not, your floors are swept and the dishes are washed.

Finally, if you are all going stir crazy and really do need to get out of the house, JoAnn and Amber compiled a phenomenal list of 100+ things to do around Denver. Whatever the weather and the interests of your kids, you are sure to find something here.

Remember that you don’t have to entertain your kids. Summer is an opportunity for less structure and more creativity. Let them use their imaginations and invent their own fun – within reason of course. 🙂

Please share your ideas for navigating the summer break blues.

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

The Day My Mom Saved My Life and Managed Not to Kill Me Afterward

When I was a little girl, my grandparents owned a guest ranch in the mountains outside of Creede, Colorado. It was called the S Lazy U Guest Ranch and it was one of my favorite places in the world.

I have countless memories of exploring and adventuring with my brother, cousins, and kids from the families who visited there. I also have a vivid memory of the day my mom saved my life and managed not to kill me afterward.

Note to reader: This is an unverified account of events, as I have never dared to bring it up again until now. We’ll see if she agrees with my recollection when she reads it. 🙂

My mom often helped my grandparents at the guest ranch by cleaning cabins between guests. One evening, I was enlisted to help her. I don’t recall my exact age, old enough to help and young enough to be very curious.

There was an old Willy’s jeep we used to get around the ranch – no roof,  no seat belts, just a windshield. We had loaded up the jeep with the necessary supplies and were parked on a slight hill in front of the family cabin across the road from the lodge, which was surrounded by a log fence. Mom had started the jeep when she remembered something she needed to get from the lodge. She got out and left the jeep running with me in the passenger seat.

As I sat there I began to wonder about that long, interesting looking gearshift sticking up from the floorboard. I’d seen it used many times, but didn’t have a clue what it did. So, curious girl that I was, I began to wiggle it. I must have put it in neutral and, as it was sitting on an incline, the jeep began to roll…down the hill…toward the lodge and it’s big log fence.

I panicked and had no idea what to do. I’m sure I must have started screaming or calling for my mom, but I don’t recall exactly. What I do recall is seeing my mom come flying out from the screen door to the kitchen, leap into to moving jeep, and slam on the brakes just before we rammed the log fence.

Wow! I was amazed and terrified all at the same time.

My mom was terrified and livid.

I remember there was crying and hugging (probably a bit of yelling, too). I was, and still am, amazed at the super human speed and strength my mom found to catapult herself into the jeep before it crashed. I was also mortified that something that seemed so innocent had been so dangerous.

Once we stopped shaking, although I was probably still crying, we headed over to the cabin we were supposed to clean. I remember my mom scolding me as we made the beds together and me feeling extremely guilty and embarrassed. I was sure she’d kill me for nearly crashing the jeep and killing myself, but she didn’t. I don’t even recall if there was any punishment. I do know, I never messed around with a gearshift in a car again.

Thanks for saving my life, mom, and for not killing me for making you. Happy Mother’s Day!

(The picture is in front of the S Lazy U Ranch Lodge during the bicentennial 4th of July. That ragamuffin in the middle of the picture is me with my big brother and awesome cousins. Don’t you love our 70s style!)

How Can I Tame My Son’s Rude Jokes?

Dear Mama Drama:

My ten-year-old son is always cracking jokes and thinks he is extremely funny. The trouble is that his jokes are usually at the expense of someone else. When people respond negatively to him, he acts like they are overreacting and too sensitive.

I think he has some sharp wit beneath the rudeness, but I don’t know how to tap into it. Most of the time he comes off acting like a jerk instead of being funny.

~Unamused Mama

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Dear Unamused:

Ten-year-old boys often use humor to engage socially and, as you relate, they don’t always understand the line between funny and rude. Children (and some adults) also use inappropriate humor to humiliate others in order to feel better about themselves or attempt to elevate their social status. This is also bullying behavior. Additionally, some children do not read social cues well and misinterpret (or miss altogether) the facial expressions and body language of others. Other children don’t understand the basic rules of friendship.

I suggest you start by spending some time assessing what may be behind your son’s behavior.

If it is related to his self-esteem and trying to elevate his social status, spend some time talking with him about how he sees himself. What are his strengths? What are his challenges? How does he think others perceive him? What words would he use to describe himself? If his responses are overwhelmingly negative or overly grandiose, help him to develop a more accurate positive self-perception and find different ways to fit in and feel good about himself.

If it is that he does not understand the line between funny and mean/rude, you’ll need to teach him this directly. Try out different jokes with each other and the family, clarifying which ones are funny and which ones aren’t and why. Watch age-appropriate comedy shows together and take note of times when that line into meanness is crossed or is right on the edge. You may even find a local acting or improv class that can help him hone his wit while losing the rudeness.

If your son truly is not reading the social cues others are giving him and understanding the rules of friendship, help him to learn these. Books, games, and role-playing are fun ways to teach feelings, how to read facial expressions and body language, and the ins and outs of friendships.

A fabulous book that can help your child see the perspective of those on the other end of the joke is Just Kidding by Tracy Ludwig. Two great resources for understanding your child’s friendship style and how to help him are The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends by Natalie Madorsky Elman, Ph.D., and Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. and Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them by Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Sometimes social and emotional issues feel beyond a parent’s skill and understanding. If this is the case, seek support from your school counselor, social worker, psychologist or an outside mental health professional.

Lisa Vratny-Smith