Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A surprise is coming!

It's no secret that I love family vacations. But not just the actual vacation itself. I love the researching, the planning, the anticipation, the unknown. I love reading other people's trip reports, seeing pictures, and looking at hotel reviews. I love dreaming about the endless possibilities of where future vacations may bring us--I have a long wish list.

I have many fond memories of going on family vacations as a kid. Which is why it's so important to me to continue finding a way for us to afford vacations after I quit my job to become a stay-at-home-mom. (And that topic probably deserves an entirely separate post someday).

My oldest son has caught on to the fact that we go on a vacation every year, and ever since we returned from our summer trip to Colorado he's been asking me where we are going on our next vacation. The truth is, our next vacation has been in the works for about 2 years now, but we've been waiting for the right time to tell our kids. We didn't want to tell them too early, because then we'd hear about it every day for 2 years. But we also don't want to surprise them the day before we leave, because then we'd miss out on some of the anticipation and research together. So we decided to spill the beans just before Christmas and they will have a few months to let it soak in.

This isn't the first time we surprised the kids. About a year ago, we gave the boys this postcard to let them know we were going to California. We gave it to them about 2 months before our trip.

They had heard about California from watching the Cars movie (of course?!). I printed out a map of the United States and we colored in California and looked at where it is in relation to Texas, Colorado and Florida (the only states the kids have been to). And over the next 2 months, the anticipation and excitement grew. We watched YouTube videos of Legoland and the Safari Park. My oldest son saved up his allowance and Christmas money to spend there. It gave us something fun to think about.

And my boys still talk about that vacation! We made a photo book with our pictures and we look at it every once in a while. But I'm serious when I say that my kids asked to go back to California almost every day for about the first six months after our trip.

But getting back to our next trip.....Because I've known about our next trip for so long, I decided to put a little more hoopla into the surprise part of it. Most of which will occur on our big reveal before Christmas. But also, I will be giving the kids a few clues about our trip in their advent calendar. Their first clue is this picture:

If you know what this is, or where it is, whatever you do, don't tell my kids! Joshua thinks it's a ride. Nathan thinks it's a watering hole.

So far, they've guessed:

North Carolina?
New York
Washington DC
New Mexico
New York
South America
Paris (I guess they dream big)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Teaching our kids to give to those in need

There's no better time than the holidays to teach our kids to give to those less fortunate. For me and for my kids, we are still a work in progress in this department.

I find myself very picky about donating money because I've been duped before. When I was in college studying for the summer in Guatemala, a group of students traveled down to a beach near El Salvador for the weekened. There was an elderly woman there begging for money, and we all gave her some money because she looked tired and hungry. Not long after that, we found her stumbling down the beach with alcohol, completely drunk. We were so disappointed! I've also been approached by kids asking for money for food, and when I offer to buy them food or give them food, they mysteriously refuse.

I've also become skeptical after delivering Christmas presents to an angel family, only to find their possessions to be way more extravagent (according to my perception) than what I have or what the average family owns.

So I try to be more careful now about where and to whom I give money, but nothing is full-proof and sometimes you just have to trust that people will be honest and do the right thing.

I think the concept of donating to those in need is a hard concept for kids to grasp. Both of my older kids have this Money Savvy Pig that has a separate compartment for donations:

When my oldest son had accumulated a handful of change in his donation bucket, we went to Wendy's and dropped his change in the jar for the Dave Thomas Foundation (benefitting adoption). I explained to my son about the organization and how it would help kids find forever families. Which I think he understood, but it's hard to make a connection to the cause when you just see your money go in a jar and you don't see who benefitted from it. Shortly after, he suggested that he take some of his money and give it to his friend Michael. And his friend across the street, and his friend down the street. He said they're in need, because they need more toys. So I tried to explain to him about kids that don't even have their basic needs met.

So last week, we went shopping for another Christmas angel family. And my son picked out some Justin Bieber pjs for the girl. And we decided to sponsor some orphans living in Russia (through Two Hearts for Hope), and I hope to be able to show the boys the pictures of the kids online. I hope that they will start to see and feel a connection to the kids in need.

How do you get your kids involved in giving to others? I'd love to hear your comments.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I love a parade!

Another form of fun, free entertainment for the kids is a parade! Last year we went to a great local Veteran's Day parade. This year, we had a schedule conflict with that one, but last night we made it to a small Christmas parade.

Ready to go:

The marching band:

Santa arrived at the end of the parade. Unfortunately, my camera's flash is so slow that I didn't get a good picture of him.

This parade brought back memories of Denver's Parade of Lights. Our high school band used to march in that one, it was the most fun of all the parades because we got to play Christmas music and wear Christmas lights on our instruments. And it was always FREEZING outside. Unlike here in Texas, where it was 70 degrees for this Christmas parade. No complaints here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Free kids' activity--Lowe's Build & Grow

Since we became a one-income family about 2 years ago, I've had to get a lot more creative with how I find ways to entertain the kids. When we both worked, we went out to eat a lot, went to the movies, went to the bounce-house places, etc. The challenge for many one-income famillies is finding cheap or free activities to do with the kids that are fun. And luckily, there is no shortage of those activities where we live!

Lowe's home improvement stores offer a Build & Grow workshop every month (sometimes, more than once a month) on a Saturday and it's completely free. I had to register my 2 kids online to guarantee a spot, but when we arrived each kid was given a Santa Sleigh kit, safety goggles, an apron, and a patch to sew on the apron. This was our first time trying out this activity as Lowe's.

Once we gathered our kits and supplies, we headed over to the makeshift tables where we could hear everyone hammerng away.

Luckily, my husband was able to join us for this activity while I strolled my one-year-old down the aisles. My boys loved hammerng all of the nails in place!

After about 30 minutes...Voila! The Santa Sleighs were done.

Home Depot offers something similar to this, which we may try someday. Lowe's has more of these workshops in December, the kits will be building train cars. This was definitely entertaining for my kids and we plan on coming back for the January project.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Saying thanks to an employer

In this month of Thanks and Giving, we are going to give a special thanks to my husband's employer. Not for just employing him, but for supporting our kids' adoptions.

As most of you know, 2 of our 3 kids are adopted. My husband's company supported us a great deal during our adoption process. During our first adoption in 2007, the company provided $5000 in adoption reimbursement and gave my husband 2 weeks of paid paternity leave (the same leave that new birth-dads get). When we completed our 2nd adoption in 2009, the company had doubled the financial assistance to $10,000! The financial help was a huge blessing for us, and it was so nice to have my husband working for a company that offered the same paid time-off benefits to all new parents.

Now you may be thinking...what company doesn't offer the same paid time-off benefits for adoptive parents as bio parents? Well, there are several out there who still make the distinction of treating adoptive parents differently. Don't even get me started. I worked for one of those companies, and I did not get any paid maternity leave.

But...back to the thanking part. Of course we've already thanked his company for the support, but we'd like to keep thanking them as the years go on. Because we think it's important that future adoptive parents get the same benefits.

So the HR department will get another note of Thanks from us...along with an adoption video that my adoption support group is putting together.

Thank you!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Living on $11k a year

No, it's not us!

I recently read this article on Yahoo Finance about a man who lives on $11,000 a year. He is a musician, he lives out of an RV, and he even has health insurance. It sounds like he's not on food stamps or any type of government assistance. He has totally simplified his life. I'm impressed!

I know that this type of lifestyle is not remotely feasible for our family of 5, but reading articles like this one always makes me think about everything we have and all the things we think are necessities. What do we really need? What could we do without?

And yes, it does tie back to our 30 Days of Thanks and Giving. Which I've neglected to post more in depth about, but I'm still thinking about.

Can you imagine living on $11k a year? Can you imagine living on the U.S. median household income, which is somewhere in the $40k-$50k range? (depending on the resource)? Can you imagine living happily on less than what you live on now?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What is the ideal age to take a kid to Disney?

Let me preface this by saying that even though I've been to Disney World and Disneyland numerous times, I do not profess to be an expert. I've been to Disneyland in California probably over 50 times. I went once as a kid, and the rest as an adult. And it's only because I used to work for a Disney office in California and we got in for free. And I'd go with every single friend or relative who came to visit me. And with local friends. And I sang in the Disney choir for their Christmas shows. And every time I went, I had a different experience.

I've been to Disney World in Florida 5 times during my childhood, and 8 times as an adult (2 of those times were with our kids). So around 13 times total. My husband and I got engaged in front of Cinderella's castle on September 15, 2003.

Here we are meeting Mickey, the morning after we got engaged:

Oh, and I guess I've been to Disneyland Paris once (on our honeymoon) and Tokyo Disney once (during a work trip).

The castle in France:

Ok, so I've been a lot, but not nearly as many times as a lot of super-fans (or Diznoids) have been. One question that I've been asked a few times, and I see this question asked all the time on the internet, is what is the ideal age to take a kid to Disney?

And there will be as many different responses to this question as there are fish in the sea. But if you are bored and are still reading this, I'll tell you my opinion.

My first answer would be--every age is the ideal age. Because the Disney parks have something for all ages. We took our oldest son when he was 4 years old, and he had a blast! We went off-season (during September), the parks were not crowded, he loved the characters and the rides. We were having so much fun watching him have fun that we didn't even try to get on some of the more intense rides by ourselves that he couldn't get on at the time. I figured, heck, I'll be back again and I'll return to those rides.

Our oldest son on his first trip, age 4:

Two years later, we found ourselves back at Disney for a family reunion trip. Our younger son was only 2 years old at the time, and if weren't for the family reunion part, we probably would have chosen to wait a year or two to bring him to Disney World. But even at 2, he had a blast! He was still in diapers, and wasn't tall enough for some of the rides, and he was afraid of the characters...but despite all that he had fun and still talks about the trip now. His favorite things were the slow boat rides (it's a small world, the boat ride in Mexico, the boat ride in The Land). At EPCOT, he loved the special playgrounds set up for the International Flower & Garden Festival and the fountains. My son was still napping, but we just pushed him in his stroller to a quiet place in the parks and let him sleep while we traded off with our other son on rides. (This doesn't work for everyone; some people prefer to return to their hotel in the afternoon for nap/pool time). Disney has baby care centers in each park, making it easy to change diapers, feed, etc.

The afternoon nap:

Our older son was almost 6 years old on his second trip, and he enjoyed an entirely new set of things on this trip. Since his prior trip to Disney World, he had discovered Star Wars and was able to participate in the Jedi Training Academy at Disney's Hollywood Studios this time around. And he was now tall enough to go on more rides, like Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain (his favorite).

The Jedi Training Academy:

I haven't taken older kids yet, but I've been myself as an older child and as a teenager, and there is just as much stuff for that age group. When I got older, I got into the more extreme rides (Rock n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror) and I appreciated the World Showcase part of EPCOT more.

Disney does a great job of changing things up and offering new attractions so that even the adults will want to keep returning. Even since our last trip in 2010, there are a few new things added that we haven't seen yet (the new Star Tours, new interactive queues in Space Mountain and on the Pooh ride). Fantasyland is currently being remodeled and will open with some new rides and features starting in 2012. And we have never been during the Food & Wine festival in the Fall, we've never made it to the Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (MNSSHP) during September or October, or Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party (MVMCP) in November/December. Each of those events have their own unique set of activities that are not present during other times of the year.

OK, so going back to the original question...what is the ideal age to take a kid to Disney?

If you know you can only go one time ever, either due to financial reasons, or you think that once is all you'll ever want to go....I would say the ideal age is 4 1/2 - 5 years old. Why?

Because at that age, they are typically not yet in public school, and you can go during an off-season time. Hotels are cheaper, crowds are smaller, the weather is (usually) cooler. Going during an off-season time and waiting in smaller lines is a great way to see the parks.

Also, at this age, they are still small enough to get a huge thrill from seeing the characters in costume. Yet they are probably tall enough to go on some of the milder thrill rides.

And they're not in diapers, so less to pack!

But again, I think every age is a good age. (And no, I don't work for Disney now, but after writing this I should, right?)

So...if you've been to Disney before, what do you think is the best age to go?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lego Club Magazine

It seems that there aren't many things that are still sent via snail mail, but what kid doesn't like getting something in the mail box? Especially my 7-year-old, who is a Lego fanatic. That's why, once a month, he is super excited when his Lego Club Magazine arrives in the mail.

Ok, I admit it, even I was excited to see this month's magazine. It came with a DVD that had some behind-the-scenes Hero Factory stuff on it, plus some short Cars Lego cartoons. It also had a pull-out Hero Factory comic book, plus a short Star Wars comic and a few others from the Lego line. This months edition included a maze, a word search, and several "look-and-find" pictures that tie back to the website. And of course, there are advertisements for the current products and future products.

So our reading time last night was spent reading the magazine. And my son will continue to devour the magazine for the next few days.

The best thing about the Lego Club Magazine? It's free! I just signed up my younger son for the Jr. version.

Click here to subscribe to the Lego Club Magazine.

(No, I don't work for Lego...but I'm sure my kids would be thrilled if I did!)