Sunday, December 18, 2011

TV that is good for the whole family - Part 1

TV that is good for the whole family - Part 1

It's no secret that I enjoy watching TV. Over these past few months hopping from one cold to another I have managed to log an incredible number of hours on my couch spending quality television time with the kids. TV makes getting through the night possible for me. Before we had kids my wife was intent on us spending quality time together as a family with the intentional caveat that our TV would not be considered one of the members. What she failed to account for were the high number of excellent shows for parents and children to watch together. In 1989 The Simpsons showed us that animated prime-time shows could be made for adults. Sure, kids could watch, but the topics covered were either above their heads or potentially inappropriate. Just six years later, the movie Toy Story bridged this gap. Containing a story line and characters that are enjoyable for all ages but also peppering with jokes for those targeted at an older audience, Toy Story began a revolution on animated TV and movies aimed at the entire family. No longer are parents limited to shows like the Teletubbies or Barney that maybe teach a nice lesson but leave the adults ready to watch something more stimulating.

Phinneas and Ferb is the best of the best. Two step brothers, Phinneas and Ferb, spend their Summer vacation thinking up fantastic plans to make each day as amazing as possible before they are made to go back to school. They have an older sister who tries to get them in trouble, a platypus who doubles as a secret agent and a whole host of other characters too numerous to mention. On the surface, one seeing only a few minutes of an episode might think it ridiculous that a couple of kids could design, build and ride a rollercoaster only to have it disappear just before their mom and sister caught them. The ridiculousness is often acknowledged, though also explained time and time again. Kids will love this show because of the lovable characters and fun things that they do. Parents will love it because of the pop-culture references, great music and multiple story lines that tie together in the end like a Seinfeld episode. What's more, this show is available on both the Disney Channel and Netflix Streaming.

Shawn the Sheep is a hidden gem. If you enjoy Wallace and Gromit in the least, then the spin-off Shawn the Sheep will be a big hit. Shawn, a thin sheep who will be the smartest character in each episode, leads a pack of sheep through adventures in their pen that are anything but mundane. Whether Shawn is setting up a rave in the barn or stealing apples from the evil pigs, the show is understandable by toddlers as well as adults. The only words spoken are occasional mumbles by the farmer, so this show can be enjoyed at low or even no volume - perfect for early mornings while the rest of the family sleeps. Shawn is available on DVD and streaming in Netflix and has even spun off a Kid Disney show, Timmy Time about a baby sheep who goes off to animal preschool.

Thundercats is back! I can remember back to the 80s when the original show that replaced He-Man came on the air. A group of cat-people who love in the Sci-Fi world of Third Earth battle a mummy and all that is evil with a magic sword. While the setting may be a bit too fantastic for some viewers, the retelling of the story is unbelievably rich with character development. Each episode tackles a different internal struggle that an individual or the team must overcome in order to grow up similar to childhood. Your kids will love the show because of the fun cat-like characters. You will love it due to nostalgia and great storytelling. I hesitate to include this particular show as featured family entertainment due to the inevitable mild violence that ensues each time the main character pulls out the Sword of Omens. Still, weaponry is regularly met with the lesson that reasoning and thought is a better alternative.

While TV time with contemporary shows has its merits, episodes of our TV past are now available on DVD and streaming. In the next part of TV that is good for the whole family I will review the classics.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Holiday Parenting Tips: Get the most out of Thanksgiving Weekend!

Coming up is a moment of opportunity that so many of us throw away each year. Each Thanksgiving many of us are extra-thankful for a four-day weekend. You may need Friday through Sunday to understandably recover from the effects of a 5000 calorie meal. Growing up, my family would often take a post-Thanksgiving meal walk to burn off the extra calories. It may not have burned off much, but it was nice to get out in the autumn air and see the neighborhood. Since you may have the family in town and some extra time on your hands, consider this post-Thanksgiving checklist. You can do them as a family, burn off those calories and at the same time get a jump on cleanup and setup for Christmas.

1) Put away your pumpkins: If Pearl Chase were around today, instead of pushing for sandstone and Spanish tile roofing she would be yelling at us for not bringing in our pumpkins. I would say that the day after Thanksgiving is about when they should be heading for disposal. Walking my children around the neighborhood I have found it disturbing to count the number of Halloween pumpkins still left on the porch come February.

2) Pull down your boxes: If you’re like me, you have boxed away Christmas trinkets and decorations. While you still have your family over to eat, encourage them to assist in getting the boxes down. You don’t need to decorate and get rid of Thanksgiving too soon, just get them to a place that will be accessible when you are ready for them.

3) Get your lights up: Now that you have your boxes down, it’s a good time to string the lights up on your house. If you leave the lights on your house year-round, see item #1 above. Putting up lights can be done in record time with assistance in untangling. This year, before putting up your lights, consider replacing them with LEDs. Home Depot appears to be the only operation in Santa Barbara this year to offer a trade coupon program for up to 5 sets of lights.

4) Get out Christmas movies: I have long been a fan on Christmas specials and movies taking place around Christmas. It feels silly pulling out copies of these movies in mid-July when you stumble across them, though. Still, if you wait too long, it’s Christmas Eve night and you’re stuck choosing between It’s A Wonderful Life and Love Actually. Getting these movies out early lets you enjoy them in a more timely manner.

5) Stock up on seasonal items: Trader Joes has Peppermint Joe Joes only once a year. Peanut Brittle is everywhere when you’ve been eating it all month, but never when you need it. Most of these things can be frozen for a later treat.

6) Add batteries to your shopping list: Now is the time to add batteries to your shopping list. Get them early to power up the Christmas decorations and also for the toys that you didn’t anticipate needing batteries for. Being proactive is much better than making the decision to poach your fire alarm batteries on Christmas morning to avoid a disappointed look from the kids.

7) Change your fire alarm batteries: If you followed item #6, then you’re well prepared for item #7. During the holidays we’re plugging things in that have never been used before or things that have bent plugs. American families are attaching electric lights to a plant and then encouraging the least-coordinated in our family (our children) to add water. Or it may be worse! We may not be watering at all and welcoming the dry kindling needles to catch fire on hot wires surrounding the tree. The holidays are ripe for disaster and $5 worth of batteries can help save lives.

You may not be able to follow all seven tips, but doing any of them will help you get a jump on Christmas and give you more time to enjoy some positive time with the family.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tech Tip: Set up out of office message in outlook

Tech Tip:

Now that it’s Winter time, many people will be heading out for vacation. When doing so, don’t forget to set your out-of-office reply on your computer!

To enable the Out of Office Assistant:

In Outlook Web Access: Click on Options in the upper-right corner and then “Automatic Replies.” Be sure to adjust the message for both internal and external email recipients.

In Outlook 2003 or 2007: Click tools – Out Of Office Assistant.

In Outlook 2010: File – Automatic Replies

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CIO Solutions App of the Month - Angry Birds Seasons vs. Angry Birds Rio

The debate on whether or not Angry Birds constitutes as an 'App' has raged on long enough. Many people in our organization believe that it is a 'game' and therefore does not meet the criteria of an 'App' but the few who believe this extremely addictive game should be considered for our App spotlight have finally won.

Below is a point/counterpoint debate on the merits and shortcomings of the two prevailing versions, Angry Birds 'Seasons' (presented by Mike Shinn) and Angry Birds 'Rio' (presented by Chase Christian).

Angry Birds 'Seasons'

Mike Shinn: Angry Birds Seasons is WAY better than Angry Birds Rio

Angry Birds has been an app that caused many people to buy their iPhone or Android to begin with. It is fun for young and old and teaches fundamental physics in a cute and addictive way. Angry Birds Seasons dresses the birds and green pigs in costumes for each season. Dozens of levels are available but only one per day leading up to the holiday similar to a Christmas Advent calendar. It's all of the fun of Angry Birds with additional costumes, challenges and anticipation for the next day's challenge.

Angry Birds Rio is a shoddy attempt at a movie marketing tie-in. It has the same fun as Angry Birds, but the levels are often too easy and instead of taking revenge on angry green pigs for egg theft, you attempt to free tropical birds from their monkey captors. It is not explained (even in short mobile video) how the Angry Birds are related to their Brazilian counterparts. What's more, the bird heroes and bird captives are drawn differently - it would be very strange to see Garfield show up in an episode of the Flintstones. The game is still entertaining but feels forced like a cheap marketing ploy for the movie, Rio.

Angry Birds 'Rio'

Chase Christian: Angry Birds Rio is not a spin-off of the Angry Birds franchise, it is an evolution.

Angry Birds Rio already has nearly double the levels of Angry Birds Seasons, with even more updates scheduled. The background story is rich in content, with a full-length feature film dedicated to the plot's intricacies. We're playing the role of freedom fighters, countering the evils of poachers and roustabouts. In addition to having a new storyline (instead of the stale "pigs stole the eggs" bit), there's also completely new birds available. While the rest of the Angry Birds series relies on the original birds or custom "premium" birds, Angry Birds Rio wasn't afraid to innovate. With a truly diverse selection of locales, the player can find themselves freeing innocent animals in both warehouses and tropical beaches.

Angry Birds was a masterpiece, and Angry Birds Rio is simply the next step towards perfection. Angry Birds Seasons, on the other hand, is wanton cash-grab. The developers didn't even both with a new storyline or birds. They simply took the same elements that made Angry Birds famous and futility remixed them into a mish-mash of themes that leave players with a bad taste in their mouth. Rather than come up with their own compelling themes like Angry Birds Rio has, Angry Birds Seasons simply steals its concepts from every American holiday. It's lack of originality and blatant reuse of existing material cement its place in the bargain bin at your local Wal*Mart app store.

This debate is posted on our website. Click here to add a comment or join in the conversation.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Coping with Teething - 9 Ways to Keep You Sane

Coping with Teething - 9 Ways to Keep You Sane

Lately, getting through the night has been pretty rough. My son, Michael, is going to bed as well as could be expected on a 1-year-old, but he has been waking up hours before dawn. Sleep deprivation can bring a lack of observation. I failed to notice the telltale signs – runny nose, irritability, appetite loss, chewing on everything including his own fingers. Finally it occurred to me that he’s been trying to send a message the whole time: new teeth! Unfortunately, there is no easy baby sign language for them to explain this phenomena.

Teething Tip #1: Know the signs! Runny nose, irritability, chewing, appetite loss, bad sleep schedule

My daughter’s teeth all seemed to come in at once and early. I remember losing teeth as a child and then a new tooth showing up in its place over the next couple of weeks. The worst part was the losing of the loose tooth. For a baby, it is the opposite -a baby does not yet have the gum path forged. In many cases, parents can discover the little white peak and call the grandparents over to see. By the next day, about the time that the out-of-town grandparents arrive, the tooth has disappeared! The gum actually envelops the tooth once again forcing your child’s teething to begin anew. This can happen several times before the gums give up and the tooth is allowed to protrude from their swollen plain.

Teething Tip #2: Take a picture before the grandparents arrive or they will doubt you. Gums work faster than they drive.

Often, parents of a baby will see the first tooth around 3-9 months of age. When you see those first teeth, do not delay in getting a picture. Once the first one pops out, the rest seem to sprout up very quickly. If your camera is sitting in your kitchen uncharged or your SD card is full, when you review your pictures later in life, you will go from “Gummy George” to “Toothy Tim” without any transition imaged.

Teething Tip #3: Get a good picture of “uppers” by flipping the kid upside-down while someone takes a quick picture with a camera that has a quick focus and flash

Not all children have teeth emerge after a few months. One of my coworkers was worried all the way up until his daughter’s second birthday because she had no teeth. She found ways to gum through softer foods like bananas and mashed potatoes just fine. Her dentist assured my coworker that by age 5, all kids end up with about the same number of teeth – as long as she wasn’t malnourished, he was fine.

Teething Tip #4: Don’t worry about it. The teeth will eventually come one way or another

The American Dental Association recommends using a clean finger to soothe your child’s gums as they are teething. Any experienced parent or person thinking clearly will tell you that sticking your finger in your child’s mouth when they are gumming is not a good idea. While their bodies are quite small and fragile, their jaw reflex is incredibly powerful and they will chew right into your finger – tooth or not. I need my hands to work and came up with an alternative teething device. While I sometimes have a non-traditional approach to parenting, teething has not been an exception. Sanding down an inch-thick wooden dowel may not have gotten me many points from the mothers walking with bags from baby boutiques, but it got me results. Gnawing on these dowels kept my daughter happy through her teething and cost very little. Also, like I mentioned in a previous article, hardware stores are open earlier to accommodate contractors and tired fathers!

Teething Tip #5: If you use your finger, be ready to lose your finger!

Teething Tip #6: Consider a wooden dowel as a teether

Unconvinced by unconventional teethers? Fortunately a whole industry of baby accessories has you covered. There are teething rings, rings of teethers, refrigeratable teethers, vibrating teethers, teethers that glow in the dark and teething rings of every shape and color imaginable. Do not buy them all – you will probably need a maximum of three teethers. As you rotate through, clean and refrigerate the others.

Teething Tip #7: Once your child grows out of teethers and becomes a toddler, save and freeze the rings to be used to comfort their various bruises and cuts as they run and trip and bump into the house you once believed was childproof.

If traditional and non-traditional teethers are still not doing the trick, it may be time for the big guns. I am often asked why I don’t “write an article about rubbing rum, whiskey or brandy on the baby’s gums to numb them – that’s what my parents did and I turned out fine.” Of course, this is usually mentioned to me in a semi-drunken slur by non-parents. While I do propose that using rum as a teether will lead to future alcoholism, I have also never seen any reports to the contrary. Our family doctor recommended basic teething gel and baby Tylenol used only occasionally as directed on the package – it has done us well thus far.

Teething Tip #8: Teething gel and baby Tylenol

Finally, with the loss in appetite, frustration can ensue. A tired parent can be less creative and less understanding when their child stops eating the same foods that have made them happy since nursing. If you think that your child may be teething, try out frozen peas, corn, blueberries or soybeans. Depending on the child’s age and the size of the food, blueberries or soybeans may be too large. At feeding or snack time, present them with a small bowl of frozen peas and watch them gobble them up. My kids both know where to point in the freezer (even when it is closed) to get to the peas. Aside from good nutrition during teething, I may have discovered the sign language sign for teething after all!

Teething Tip #9: Small frozen fruits and vegetables are cool and nutritious during teething

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Newborn Gift Guide – Part III

Newborn Gift Guide – Part III

by Mike Shinn

In the first two parts of the Newborn Gift Guide [ and ], I covered what I consider to be my list of essential practical items to add to your baby registry. These items aren’t always essential for the baby, but key to helping the new parent get by from day to day. Obviously, parents and newborns survived for years without the assistance of injection-molded plastic. Still, we can all benefit from some modern assistance when dealing with our kids. The third and final part of the Newborn Gift Guide focuses on items that are as much fun for the purchaser as they are the user.

It has always bothered me when a friend will use a baby registry for socks and bottles – those things are boring and anyone can purchase them. Not to mention the discomfort that many dads might have buying breast pads for their friend’s wife. Similarly, I have a hard time purchasing dinnerware from a wedding registry. Useful as these items are, they aren’t all that much fun to buy. While not everyone will put Sour Patch Kids on their wedding registry (I did and they were delicious), you do have the opportunity to have a little fun on the baby registry.

Foam Letter and Number Squares: Typically these items are 1-2 feet wide and up to a half inch thick. You can find varying quality in these foam mats if you search around. I recommend at least a centimeter-thick mat, otherwise a strong child could potentially tear off a piece and swallow or choke on it when you’re not looking. These mats can be used for years and are perfect for hard floors where kids will be playing. They have a lot of educational value – spell out the child’s name or review number sequences. You can even build 3D blocks out of them to be stacked up. Washing them is simple (and necessary if you’re using as a second floor). Cost: $20-80

Excersaucer: This three-foot circle will give you hours of free time while your child entertains themselves and develops great skills. At first, you’ll need to show them the ropes of spinning around and turning the various dials or buttons that come with it. Soon, your child will have mastered spinning and will press buttons on their own. Unfortunately you won’t be able to use it right away, but it will be great after they can sit up and support their neck on their own. If you get the saucers with wheels on the bottom, consider lining the outer part of the saucer with felt or the paint on your walls will be destroyed. Cost: $20-150

High Chair: We have all had them and used them. The technological advances made in this product are astounding – they make chairs that can be used from infancy well past toddler years. Unfortunately, if you’re still using a high chair when your child goes to kindergarten, they may not be as prepared for real life as you think they are. I recommend keeping it simple. A basic high chair will have a lap belt for safety and will require your regular supervision regardless of how much you spend. If you’re resourceful, there’s no real need to pay extra for a fancy chair that will electronically adjust to the height of your table. What’s more, this is the type of product that you won’t be able to use for months after the child is born, so do not assemble then you receive one off of the registry. Leave this in the box until later when you can use it! Cost: $30-300

Baby Bouncer: This is one of my favorite toys of all time. Do not miss out on the small window of opportunity to use one of these items. They work great for babies who can support themselves sitting up but those who cannot stand on their own. They work for babies above a certain weight but below a certain weight (check your instructions as this varies). Typically this device can be used for the 3 to 6 month range. It’s not until your child becomes a teenager and wants to use the bungee bounce trampoline at the Earl Warren Fairgrounds, when the fair comes to town, that you get to do this again. Very little assembly is needed, just attach to the top of a door frame and watch your kid bounce. There is an added benefit to this toy of your child gaining leg muscle strength and learning good timing. Cost $30-100

Collapsible Play Tents: These are also a winning toy for children who are crawling or able to walk. They fold up like a car’s sun shade and expand to fill up a huge area – good inside or out. They are a great toy, though not needed immediately. They are a fun gift item, especially when multiple children (and pets) are present. Cost: $20+, depending on quantity and quality

Soft Chair: Small foam chairs are perfect for children learning to sit up. Once their necks are strong enough, these chairs are great for the bath, outside or around the house. Children with older siblings like to be like them and sit like them. They are also crushable and return to their natural form. Cost: $15-30

Play Mat: Before my daughter was born, I had never heard of “Tummy Time.” As your baby learns to turn on their side, they need to spend time getting comfortable rolling around and lying on their belly. Any blanket will do for this, but since you’re registering for fun things, a play mat is even better. They come in many forms, but they typically have a variety of sounds and textures built in to a baby-safe mat with a half-circle hoop that dangles various items. As your child develops, they can learn to bat these items and eventually grab (and pull them down). At first, your child might be afraid of the new experiences that a mat like this offers, but soon they will treasure the time and even lay there on their own while you take a moment to breathe. Cost: $20-50

I mention a lot about registering for these fun items, but typically you don’t get everything that you want after the gift-giving has ended. The items in this article are pure extras, but they are also very valuable when you have them. Unfortunately for the purchaser, baby care items are really only valuable for a relatively short period of time – then they are just taking up space in the house. One can’t just scan in these things to save real estate as you might do for your child’s art. [] As a result, many families in Santa Barbara are often giving up their baby toys and care items at low prices or even for free. If you are in need, just look to craigslist or edhat’s classified ads to get these things! Since you may be busy feeding your child, delegate to an in-law scour these sites regularly for the items you seek. You will be surprised at the high quality items that go for next-to-nothing in this town.

Making Holiday Cookies

Originally posted on Edhat 1/19/09

By Mike Shinn

Making holiday cookies was a family tradition long before my wife and I had our daughter. Still, with a few adjustments we are still able to enjoy making cookies together. This year posed new challenges and opportunities, as my daughter becomes more aware and gains new skills.

We chose cookies that we could work on as a family. They may not be as fancy as some fromLeah's holiday cookies this year, but we have not yet heard any complaints.


We started by being as prepared as possible - it's exciting for kids to see you pick up the 50 lb bag of flour from Costco, but not to see you go back to the grocery store for a fourth time because you forgot that you needed more margarine. We used familiar recipes for the most part - ones that we have made regularly in the past enough to know that they weren't too challenging for a toddler. We also used two new items this year that helped tremendously. First, we bought our daughter a child's apron. This let her know when we were baking, versus when we were playing. While the apron was on, she knew to be more careful and patient and to watch for what was going to happen next. Rolling Pin Rings were also key to the success of child involvement this year. Had I seen these before, I would have used them for myself in the past! These colorful rings can be purchased at any specialty kitchen store like Bed Bath and Beyond, or Sur La Table. They come in a variety of thicknesses, and wrap around the ends of your rolling pin like a thick rubber band. These rings control the thickness of dough for rolling to give you a consistent cookie - perfect for toddlers (or myself) who might not be able to determine the thickness of dough as well as some adults.

Kids can help in a lot of ways when it comes to making holiday cookies: pouring, mixing, testing dough, decorating, rolling, balling and using cookie cutters. Most of all, this is a great way to help them learn patience and kitchen safety. For example, when getting cookie trays in and out of the oven, our daughter knew that the oven was very hot and that she had to step back and wait for an adult to take care of it. Having the apron on definitely helped her to know that this was a special time, and a time to be careful.


We made sure to have a lot of paper towels on hand, in the event of a spill or mess. Making cookies are messy by their nature, but having a toddler make cookies brings this to a new level. The apron helped for this as well, but the apron doesn't cover all of your body. For this, we made most of our holiday cookies together at night, followed by a trip to the bath just before bed. Doing so, we avoided a lot of mess on our daughter, furniture pets and toys - things she touches often. In between batches we also encouraged hand washing, to help with this as well.

Granted, though my wife and I did the measuring and detail work, we were able to involve our daughter nearly every step of the way. For the final part, she was able to help all on her own. We typically make enough cookies to deliver to neighbors and other friends around town. We loaded her up in her play car and she was able to knock on doors to hand over the treats. The entire experience this year was a great one, and we hope that the experience will have taught her some valuable lessons for years to come.

# # # #

# # # #

# # # #

Rainy Day Fun

Article originally posted on EdHat 1/23/10

By Mike Shinn

Rain has come to Santa Barbara! The short time that Santa Barbara experiences a downpour per year offers us the opportunity for rainy day fun. I have fond memories of playing War, using partial card decks with my brother. It was anything my mom could do to keep us busy. Now that I have a child of my own, I'm doing my best to take advantage of the weather. Below are a handful of activities that my daughter has enjoyed:

Hide and Seek: this is a big game in our house. Sometimes my daughter hides alone, but typically she will enlist me, my wife, or even one of the pets!

Combine Toys: There's no better time to bring new life to your toys than when you are stuck inside. My daughter wanted to build a castle for her monkey finger puppets.

Forts: A blanket and cushion fort is fun any time, but especially fun on dark and cloudy days

Bake: Not just for Christmas, baking is fun any time! Recently I discovered a new recipe for edible clay: 1 cup peanut butter, 1 cup powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons of honey. This clay is fun to make and fun to play with - eat along the way or after you're done! This recipe beats the salty homemade play dough that we were given as kids.

Rain Play: Take advantage of the rain and enjoy it while it's still coming down! My daughter had a blast running around, stomping in puddles and getting full use of her rain clothes. We followed it up with a nice bath and warm food - the perfect activity on a rainy day.

Being a parent isn't often easy, but being prepared with potential entertainment ideas can make it a little easier. Santa Barbara provides its residents with such a wide assortment of outdoor activities, it becomes easy to lose sight of the fun that we can have at home!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Newborn Gift Guide – Part 2

3/26/11 Newborn Gift Guide – Part 2
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

Newborn Gift Guide - Part II

If you had a chance to read Part I of the Newborn Gift Guide, you might notice that I have my favorite baby items but am critical of others. In Part II of the gift guide, I have continued my list of practical items to add to your baby registry. The items listed in Part II are intended to be higher on the priority list as you will want all of these things sooner than later. Baby Sling: You will need one of these and use it more than you know. This is the type of gift that you can put a lot of research into online and still be as uninformed as when you started. The best way to find out which is best for you is to ask around and try them out. Test out your friends' slings and try others in a store - bring in 10 or 20 lbs of weight or stack up heavy toys inside if you have to. Be sure to have one of the professional sales staff adjust your sling for you. In my case, we received a Bjorn as a gift from a coworker. I was skeptical until our schnauzer willingly tried it out with me. I think that she still yearns to be carried around in it. Cost: $30-150

Changing Table: There are a lot of products out on the market for this, and many of them are expensive. I was surprised to see cheap plastic tables going for well over $100. Even more frustrating - many of these in the showroom were single-purpose items. In other words, after using the changing table for a couple of years, you're stuck with dismantling and adding to the landfill. There are alternatives, though. My wife and I purchased a standard wooden dresser from the Unity Shoppe downtown and saved a lot of money. It looks nice and we can use it when we're finally finished diapering. Alternatively, consider a pack-n-play. This is a collapsible and somewhat portable baby bed/playpen with optional changing-table top attachment. Be sure to get a table with a dock or drawer to store spare diapers and wipes. Placing them on the table itself may work at first, but only until your newborn learns to kick. Cost: $60-500

Changing Pad: Now that you have your changing table, consider getting a changing pad. This will turn your flat, hard surface into a concave foam fortress. You will also want a few washable covers - even the easiest of kids will have messy mishaps. Cost: $10-25

Baby Bath: Done right, this can be an inexpensive and fun item. Read up on the reviews for the bath that's right to you. Not all children will grow to remember baths given to them in the kitchen sink as I do. I don't recommend going all out on this item. Your baby just needs to be clean and safe, not given a spa treatment. Cost: $20-80

Cute Towels: Now that they're out of the tub, it's time to dry them off. There's nothing cuter than a kid in a towel costume. These are gaining in popularity - now it is easier to find towels with the corner folded over and eyes or horns sewn in the top. Convincing your child that bath time is finished is a little easier when they have a fun towel to wrap up in. Cost: $12-40

Bottle Drying Rack: This was an item that I saw in advance of my daughter's birth but was skeptical of. I thought that it was somewhat wasteful. The paper towels that I laid out to dry my bottles on seemed to get me by just fine. It was only after receiving one of these (thanks to points on my think geek account) that I learned the true use of this item. While my paper towels got me by, a drying rack elevates bottles, caps and rubber nipples in order to allow for a better and faster overall dry. Cost: $20

Boppy: I thought that this item was ridiculous before the baby was born - it looked like an oversized portable travel headrest. Its intended use is for breastfeeding mothers - they will wrap this around their waist and rest the child atop so that feeding can proceed without holding the child. This use is nice, but for fathers it is all the better. If you are trapped beneath a sleeping baby, jostling them into a flat position to free yourself when you become uncomfortable is an option that sounds good only to the inexperienced. Strategically using the boppy as a body pillow surrounds your child with the hugging comfort of a parent that doesn't have a bladder that needs to be emptied on occasion. Consider getting a couple of covers for this item. Cost: $15-50

Baby Swing: Some kids can't sleep without them. Still, all children are different. My son wasn't interested in the swing that my daughter loved. You won't know which swing matches to which kid until later - this is a gamble no matter which swing you choose to get, if you choose to get one at all. These also come in a variety of sizes, shapes and features. Your child will not likely pay any attention to the features, so focus on the safety and cost. Cost: $50-200

Reclining Chair: This item may not be at all necessary for you if you plan to feed your child in a chair or couch that you can easily get up from while lifting a sleeping baby. For most of us, this couch does not exist. Consider getting a comfortable chair or at least ottoman for the couch or chair that you most often use. You will be surprised to discover later how often you accidentally fall asleep in it yourself! Cost: Free-$1000 depending on where you purchase. (See my next article for tips on where to purchase in Santa Barbara).

As mentioned in the last article, no one is ever provided with a proper gift guide for newborns. It can also be said that parents of newborns are seldom properly trained or prepared. This can play itself out in many ways. One of the most noticeable is in the review of a baby toy or tool. Too often I was discouraged from purchasing or registering for something because a parent would rate the item as poor quality or unsafe. Later, I would discover that these parents had rated the wrong product, a previous version of the product or were improperly using the product to begin with. Take online reviews with a grain of salt, but take note of general trends in ratings when comparing products before making a decision.

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

# # # #

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Newborn Gift Guide – Part 1

2/26/11 Newborn Gift Guide – Part 1
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

Once you have gotten over the excitement of learning that you are about to have your first child, fear quickly sets in. One of the largest sources of fear is the lack of experience and equipment. Those of us lucky enough to have family and friends who are interested in purchasing nice gifts for us have the added pressure of needing to set up a registry. The alternative is accepting well intentioned, but horrible baby gifts. One friend of mine even received baby clothes made of felt, a material typically reserved for immobile dolls. Unfortunately the practical gift guide for newborns in Santa Barbara does not come complimentary with a positive home pregnancy test. To fill the void, I have prepared such a list for parents who may not know what's worth registering.

Diaper Disposal: Whether you have chosen disposable diapers or cloth, you will one day want to store this soiled material in a location where the stench and germs can be contained and out of your way. There are many models to choose from and they're difficult to tell apart. There is one large differentiating factor - the bag. A wise choice is the model that allows you to use a standard trash bag. Avoid the models that require proprietary bags or you will be paying again and again until your child is potty-trained.

Note: when you receive your diaper unit, consider placing it in your bathroom or near where your pets relieve themselves instead of a bedroom or kitchen. There's no reason to have multiple rooms in your house smelling of biological waste - even the best diaper disposal units smell a little after a few months. This is a gift that anyone can buy and everyone with babies will get a lot of mileage out of. Cost: $25-30.

Stroller: Many families will inevitably end up purchasing the big, expensive stroller. This is typically not done in haste, is expensive and can potentially even attach to your removable car seat. This is not the stroller that just anyone can purchase. Eventually, the time will come when your back will ache from having lifted your child and their stroller too many times. You will yearn for the convenience of a stroller but without the weight or car trunk space. The answer is a lightweight, inexpensive backup stroller. The price is right on these, and they serve as a perfect backup and transition stroller from the more expensive one. Cost: $10-20. Note: At this price, you're paying too much to bring it on the plane with you when you travel. Simply pick one up at your final destination and avoid the hassle.

Bath Water Spout Cover: I wish I had known about these fun items as a child and later as an adult. Some of us are a little clumsier than others and can bang their head or feet on the spout in the bathtub. This protects your body parts and those of your little ones as they learn to bathe, something that becomes increasingly important as the child becomes increasingly mobile. Cost: $5-15

Snap Straps: This little device is simple - a foot-long ribbon with buttons sewn in to it allowing you to strap anything to anything. Perfect for the baby who is learning to toss their bottle or pacifier in your car when they really intend to keep it. Strap toys, pacifiers, bottles hats, etc. to the child's wrist, car seat, stroller, etc. Later your child will learn to use it to snap toys to other toys. Sure, you could make them yourself with material from the craft store, but for the price it's worth getting them pre-made by a company that is focused on quality materials and an interest in keeping the buttons perfectly attached. Cost: $5-10.

Nesting cups: There are many kinds to choose from and they never get old. Stack them, hide them, nest them, sort them, or fill them with sand. There is no limit to their uses. They also make an excellent travel toy. I keep a set in the bathtub; both for bath play as well as to rinse the hair of my son. He doesn't like the rinse, but since it's also used as a toy, he doesn't see it coming. Cost: $5-10

Snack Trap: While your child until won't use this device until after they have learned to use their limbs, it will eventually become a lifesaver. Put small crackers, fruit or any type of snack into the cup and then push on the cover. Your children can then reach in and grab a small snack, one at a time, and feed themselves. This eliminates spills and lost snacks as well as teaching patience and the use of hands for eating. You will save money from not having to purchase as much food (especially when out of the house), so buy a few of them. Cost: $5-10

While there are some great items out there to register for, there are also things to avoid. I did a lot of reading in advance of my daughter being born, and kept a list of all of the potential items. Two items that I still haven't found a use for are tongue depressors and a hot water bottle. A couple of weeks before she was born, my neighbor found me these final items - apparently Santa Barbara's drug stores no longer carry them. I was very thankful but they still sit in the bathroom unused more than three years later.

I recommend avoiding a bottle warmer and baby wipe warmers. I am not implying that babies prefer ice-cold milk or a cold surprise during a diaper change. It's just that these devices are wasteful and inconvenient.

Bottle Warmer: If you use a bottle warmer correctly, you fill the electrical device with water to a poorly-etched fill line before plugging in, waiting for it to heat up, putting the prepared milk bottle in, heating the milk, then testing the milk to make sure that it's not too hot. Don't forget to unplug the warmer when you're done. Under ideal circumstances, this is inconvenient and needlessly complicated. At 2am with blurry eyes and a screaming infant in one arm while you try to operate the device in the other arm, it is useless. Instead, go the easier route - fill a mug about a quarter of the way with water and microwave for 25 seconds. Place the bottle in the warm water for another 30 seconds once it is out. You're not micro waving the bottle itself, so no need to worry about the milk getting nuked. Also, muscle memory on the microwave is surprisingly good under non-ideal conditions. Money saved: $15-40.

Baby Wipe Warmer: This simply isn't as much of a problem in Santa Barbara as it must be elsewhere. A cold wipe can be upsetting to a baby who is already upset from having to wallow in its own waste. Later, they will come to associate the coolness with cleanliness. For now, your newborn will expect a warm and gentle clean. Much like the bottle warmer, this device will take unnecessary time and delay your diaper change, potentially waking up anyone else in the house from the baby screams. Fortunately, we're all born with our own wipe warmers - simply rub the wipe between your hands rapidly for about 5 seconds. The wipe that was cold is now warm and without the need to add a power strip next to your changing table. Money saved: $15-25.

Baby Bottle Cleaner: We received several complimentary steam bags as well as advertisements for whole baby bottle cleansing systems when buying breast pump attachments. These items ranged from single-use to ridiculously complicated and expensive. Instead of going through all of this buy a thin brush, the kind you would use to clean out a thin vase. When you do your dishes at night, use warm water and light soap and clean out the bottles and nipples (and spoons and pacifiers and toys) thoroughly. If you bought the complicated cleaning system, it will tell you to do this step anyway, so you have saved no additional work in this purchase. Now that the items are visibly clean, boil up some water and give them a bath. A good soak in a rolling boil will leave your baby materials cleaner than the day that you purchased them - fully sterilized. I recommend using a drying rack when finished, but a paper towel will do. Money saved: $50-200.

If you are newly expecting, this guide should help get you started on your new registry. Congratulations on your child, the greatest gift of all!

# # # #

# # # #

Boxing Holiday

11/27/10 Boxing Holiday
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

I have heard it time and time again - despite buying the most expensive gift for your child; they will only play with the box that it came in. As purchases have started to climb due to the holidays, I am reminded of this wisdom. This time around, I have chosen to embrace the concept of boxes and get every last mile out of them. Here are some tips for getting the most from your boxes before they become recycling materials.

For kids, the bigger the box, the better. I have fond memories of the box from a new refrigerator in my early childhood. My whole family joined in transforming the discarded cardboard into a playhouse that lasted for weeks. I have since heard from friends that had built an entire box city after a kitchen remodel. There's no need to wait until after a major household purchase to enjoy the benefits that boxes have to offer. Any appliance store in town, including Costco, is happy to provide you with their discards. If the box is large enough to fit an adult, it is prime A+ material. For it to be acceptable to a child, though, it need only to fit them and allow for regular passage in and out.

Once the box has been procured, it must be personalized. Determine the eventual design of your creation before cutting. Safety must be maintained, so in our case, we had the kids vacate the plain box before I made a few slits with a steak knife for windows and a steering wheel on our space ship. Once cut, our kids got to draw on any part of the box that they wanted - inside and out. My wife and I got to help with the initial outlines before they took over entirely. Be sure to take many pictures of your child's artwork as it progresses

Once the space ship was complete, we determined that it was time for a space launch, complete with countdown. This, of course, meant me pulling both kids up and down the hall with the box atop a blanket. A slow ride is just as enjoyable for them as a fast one and significantly safer. Too fast and your child might bail out into a wall or corner - then you will have a trip to the emergency room.

Any child will immediately show you that boxes are also excellent for drumming. The hollow acoustics make them the perfect instrument. What's more, the box will wear out at about the same pace as your tolerance for the loud noise.

Have a wonderful holiday season and may all of your child's gifts be as enjoyable as the boxes that they come in.

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

# # # #

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Teaching with Toys

9/5/10 Teaching with Toys
Originally at:

As we approached the birth of our second child, there was concern that our first would not react well. We had heard horror stories from friends about their kids acting out, hitting their new siblings, feeling forgotten and jealous - all things that we wanted to avoid if possible. We spent significant time including our daughter in the preparations for our son. Still, explaining something biologically and socially complex to a one or two-year-old is difficult. With tips from our friends, doctor and nurses, we believe that the transition from a three-person family to four was relatively smooth.

First, we explained to our daughter that she would soon be a "Big Sister". The concept reached much further than I had originally anticipated. We started by bringing out her old baby bed, baby toys and clothes explaining along the way that she was a Big Sister now, so she doesn't need baby things. This also gave us the opportunity to help get rid of some toys that needed disappearing, and habits that needed to be stopped. Done in a teasing manor, our daughter stepped it up and began to embody the role presented to her. She would talk to her little brother, touch mom's belly and generally start including him even before birth.

We didn't really know how to explain the biological part of childbirth or if it was even good to go down that road. That is to say that we didn't know a good way until I accidentally used a PotatoHead to explain in a moment of sleep deprivation. A few weeks before our son was born, our daughter woke me up at 5am. My daughter had a Mr. PotatoHead and baby PotatoHead that she wanted to play with - fully awake. She managed to shove the baby into the storage area on the backside of the larger one. Still loopy from lack of sleep, I dressed the larger one as a woman and told her that it was a mommy and she was about to have a baby. We pretended that the misses went to the doctor's (another PotatoHead) and pushed a few times before popping out the baby PotatoHead. To top it off, I then had the baby nurse from Mrs. Potatohead. I don't know what it was about the visual but all of a sudden she understood what was going to happen with her mom. She made me repeat it over and over again that morning and the mornings leading up to our son's birth.

We tried to be prepared for the day-of with special regard for the amount and type of attention displayed. We had prepared our families with instructions - somewhat thrown out the window by our unexpected home-birth. Still, our in-hospital experience afterwards was key toward introducing our son to his big sister.

When our daughter first came to the hospital room, the baby was in the bassinet - not in our arms or nursing. This way she was able to hug and interact with us without a "barrier" in the way. Our experience may have been traumatic, but she was right on the sidelines and incapable of assisting or fully comprehending. This also allowed her to discover baby at her own pace. This is especially important when your first child has been in an unfamiliar place for an extended period of time. While the Cottage Hospital waiting room is quite nice, it is still not home. In order to acclimate your first-born to the hospital, that they will undoubtedly spend significant time, take them on the baby tour. Cottage Hospital offers regular tours of the third floor to expectant families on Tuesdays at 6pm.

For the first post-birth visit, it is helpful to have a small gift wrapped in the bassinet "from the new baby." The idea behind this is to associate the new child with a positive gift-receiving experience. I wasn't entirely comfortable when I heard about this - for me it leads to other questions about the origins of the gift and why mom can't pop out other gifts on demand. Fortunately, toddlers are less neurotic and simply just happy to receive a toy.

It is a good idea to keep any visit (but especially the first visit) to 30 to 60 minutes and then to go somewhere fun. Oak Park is a convenient walk from Cottage Hospital, and it gives grandparents something to do as well. Grandparents and visitors should be instructed in advance to limiting the cooing over the new baby as much as possible while the other child is present. If they are present with the firstborn grandchild, they should come in, put down the baby, and shower attention on the first child. Questions such as "how do you like this hospital room?" and "how do you feel being such a big sister?" are key.

During the first few weeks of feeding times, try distractions. For example: "the baby is hungry, I bet you are too, why don't you count out 10 Cheerios and put them in a bowl." Hopefully that will give enough time to get baby latched on without having to help the other count.

When our daughter got home and we brought the baby in, we had a large toy waiting for her - a tricycle. She was riding it around when our son was brought in for the first time. Now, he wasn't invading her territory - he's the source of many toys so he's a welcome guest! While I am not entirely comfortable with the buying of attention or affection, the tricycle was a gift that we had been holding on to for such an occasion.

I hope that these tips can be of value to you if you are preparing to have your second child in Santa Barbara as we did earlier this year.

Fun With Worms

7/31/10 Fun With Worms
Originally at:

By Mike Shinn

About five years ago, I saw a segment on Santa Barbara public access about worm composting. Before then I thought that it wasn't for me.

After watching the show, everything started coming into place. Ever since, I have developed a solid composting system and shared my worms with more families than I can count.

Vermicomposting is a big word that means you have a bin filled with dirt and worms. The hardest part is finding the worms themselves. Good news, though, if you know where to look in Santa Barbara, you can find them. My worms were purchased at Island Seed and Feed, but since buying them I've seen them at La Sumida and ACE. Legend has it that there is also a Worm Girl who will distribute free composting worms to those who know how to find her.

The worms that you're typically looking for are Red Worms. They need a moist environment, air to breathe, and food to eat. In some ways, our worms have been like a pet that I have to feed infrequently and not clean up after. If you're starting out, I recommend picking up a 15- gallon storage bin (under $5 anywhere will do). Drill some ¼" holes in the bottom, and elevate on top of a couple of bricks or rocks in order to allow for seepage (unless you plan to clean out your bin frequently).

Next, I like to give my worms a combination of about 1/3 potting soil, 1/3 "bad dirt" from the side of my yard and 1/3 compost. The compost amount is a cumulative amount over time. Some weeks my worms get more food than other weeks - it all depends on what I'm cooking.

Whenever I go to feed the worms, I invite my daughter. At first she was a bit shy, but now she is usually excited to feed the worms. She usually wants to hold one in each hand and examine the baby worms. Red worms are nice for those of us who aren't generally bug-friendly. Their babies look like smaller, white worms. Kids have no natural fear of bugs and worms - vermicomposting is a good way to get them comfortable with bugs, even if you aren't. I've taught my daughter how to dig a small hole with a hand shovel, empty our expired vegetable leftovers, and then cover it back over. You can feed them food pieces from discarded fruit, vegetables, bread and even leaves. Don't feed them dairy, oil, eggs, meat, fat, or pet waste. The worms may eventually eat these things, but they may not - plus you will generate a horrible smell and attract other pests. Best of all are the coffee grounds that we feed the worms every couple of weeks.

I keep a plastic bin at work for our used coffee grounds. This bin is filled once per day and usually comes home with me about twice a month. My daughter and I spread the grounds over the bin and mix them in with a hand rake. We've been surprised at the speed of our worms rising to the top of the bin to get a caffeine fix. If you don't work somewhere fortunate enough to have complimentary coffee, any barista in town would be happy to fill a bag for you with grounds for free.

Another benefit of vermicomposting with kids is that it leads to discussion about worm life and the food chain. You can explain how worms can re-grow parts of their bodies, how they eat the same things that we do, and how the dirt that they live in can help in your garden. link to more info Depending on what you throw into your bin, you may also find occasional surprise growth. Just this week, we found a volunteer tomato plant in our bin. If you don't have a garden to spread your mixed soil every few months, consider bagging your extra soil up and bringing it to your local garden share - everyone will be happy to give you free, fresh produce in exchange. Otherwise, spread it out amongst your existing plants or use with new sprouts and seeds to get amazing Billy Goodnick-style results.

Vermicomposting done right is an all-around win. It's a fun weekend project to start with the kids, it's educational, year-round in Santa Barbara, it's easy to maintain, and the benefits can seen through the rest of your garden.

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Send this picture as a postcard

# # # #

Dinnertime with Kids

6/26/10 Dinnertime With Kids
Originally at

By Mike Shinn

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to keep it together at all times. Consistently maintaining a level head is nearly impossible to do, more so if both parent and child are hungry. With both my wife and me working during the day, and with a relatively early bedtime for our daughter, we found that we were spending all of our time purchasing or preparing food and no time enjoying each other's company. It wasn't until after a rant about Rachel Ray's unrealistic 30-minute meal program that a friend argued that while Rachel may not be a particularly special cook, the trick was entirely in the food preparation. It was at this time that my wife and I developed our food preparation system that has led us to more quality time with our kids without as much hassle or hurry.

Like the shows on the food network, we discovered that in order to beat the clock, we had to do as much in advance as possible. Even the Iron Chefs get pots of boiling water before the clock starts!

Typically this means chopping up bulk fresh items such as meats or vegetables, separating into groups, bagging, labeling and freezing. This might take up an entire evening after the kids' bedtimes one night per month, but the reward pays off again and again. This also means a larger variety of foods for the week and better inventory of food at hand. Before setting out to make any dish, I know how much of any given item I have - good, cut, and ready to be defrosted. This is also key for my herbs, which do well seasonally in the garden, but do well year-round chopped up into labeled bags in the freezer.

Shopping to collect our food can be an ordeal - especially now that we have two kids. To make this somewhat easier, we do our best to get most of the shopping done in one evening. This may sound difficult, but it's made easier by choosing the right day to go shopping. Ask your grocer which days are the busiest. If you shop the same places that I do, they will tell you that the weekends and Mondays are the worst for shopping. If you prefer less traffic to the store, fewer carts in the lot, quicker lines and less frustration - consider shopping on Wednesdays and Thursdays. When possible, use grocery shopping as an educational opportunity for both child and parent. Can't remember how to properly thump a cantaloupe? It's easier to ask the produce manager to show your kids - everyone wins! What's more, kids can enjoy trying new things like the samples at the booth at Trader Joes - or even using one of the new kid carts that they now provide.

Shopping is also easier with a complete list of all items needed to prepare for the food in a given week. To do so, my wife and I have developed a food chart [Excel attachment]. Each week before we go shopping, we review the items at hand and name off five meals that we will potentially eat for the coming week. Since it's easy to forget what meals are even options, we consult the left-hand column of the food chart. This lists all of the meals that we might be interested in making, narrowed down to our top 30 based on likelihood of actually making them. This list changes for us every few months as we add new favorites or remove foods that we no longer are interested in. Each week we select five meals, using ideas from the left column and put them on the right column. Now I know what meals to get ingredients for to add to my shopping list. During the week we never spend time asking "what do you want for dinner tonight?" but instead, "do you want lemon chicken or spaghetti tonight?" We have found that preparing for five meals also allows us the flexibility to occasionally eat out or eat leftovers.

My food preparation system may seem like a lot of work, but like any routine, it gets easier once it becomes a habit. Spending a few minutes of prep per week saves cumulative hours of ambiguity and missing ingredients. Having any system at all allows you to spend more time with your family. Now that you have figured out what to get, you can next figure out how to get your kids to eat it!


Send this picture as a postcard