Alpha Mom » Mir Kamin parenting and pregnancy opinions and information Thu, 13 Aug 2015 17:13:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Senior Year of High School: The Flip Side Of Struggle Tue, 11 Aug 2015 16:24:25 +0000

I took my daughter to the last appointment of her pre-school-year doctors’ gauntlet; we always try to get all check-ups and dental cleanings and eye checks and whatnot out of the way before school resumes. This particular day, just a few before the start of school, the nurse who came to take her vitals was very chatty.

“Do you have siblings?” She allowed as to how she has a brother. “Are you the oldest or youngest?” She’s the oldest.

Then came the real question: “What year are you in school now?”

“I’m a senior, ma’am,” my daughter replied, keeping her tone pleasant and polite, even though I know the question irks her by now.

“Ohhhhhh Mom!” the nurse responded with a laugh, and an exaggerated swivel towards me. “Better get the Kleenex ready! You’re going to be crying all year!”

We all chuckled. The nurse went on about how hard the last year is, how it feels like you can’t ever let them go, and my daughter and I exchanged a few glances and nodded along until she finished up and left us alone in the exam room. I didn’t say anything, not then. I waited until after we saw the doctor and we were headed home, alone, in the car.

“I’m not going to cry this year, you know,” I said to her. “I mean, I may cry some, because that’s just how I am. But I’m not sad. Not even a little. This isn’t a sad year for us. This is the best year ever! You are the best you ever. You made it! I am going to celebrate through this year while everyone else is busy crying. They’re all busy worrying about losing their babies and for the first time in what feels like forever I’m not worried about losing you. Every milestone feels like pure victory to me. Does it feel that way to you?”

My daughter likes to accuse me of “making with the many words.” (What can I say? Occupational hazard!) She listened, and nodded at the appropriate points, but when I got to the question, she shrugged. “I… guess?” she said. How very teenaged of her. How typical. How normal. It made me laugh.

“Exactly!” I crowed. She rolled her eyes, which only made me happier.

It’s not that I don’t understand how senior year can feel fraught, particularly for those families where everything has been calm and predictable for years. I get it (at least in theory). But four years ago, we took first day of school pictures on the front steps and I thought we were looking at just another year. By the time school ended that spring, though, my daughter—as we’d known her, anyway—had disappeared. She’d become sick, distant, angry, and eventually retreated so far into herself I wondered if we’d ever bring her back out into the daylight. Three years ago, my son stood outside for his annual first day picture without his sister, because she was hospitalized. Two years ago, she was back, and we were cautiously optimistic, only to find that there was still a loooong way to go before we found our new normal. One year ago, they posed on the steps that first day of school, and I remember feeling… tired. So, so tired. I cried a lot, the first half of last year, I’m not going to lie. I cried in the shower in the morning and in bed late at night and usually a few times in-between. Sometimes I would lock myself in the bathroom with my phone and dial my bestie and whisper anguish between tears. “I can’t see anything different. Help me. Help me hang on to the hope that it gets better because if it doesn’t I don’t know how to keep going.” She promised me it would get better. I tried to believe her. Eventually, I did. And then… it really did get better.

This year, the kids fooled around on the steps—poking each other, giggling, my son looming over my daughter, my daughter trying to make herself taller than him (that ship has sailed)—and my husband mused out loud that this would be the last set of “first day” pictures with both of them together. Maybe it should’ve made me sad, but it didn’t. Not even a little. I watched my daughter walk through fire for years. Every day like this, every smile, every eye-roll, they’re all gifts I worried we’d never get. She’s starting her senior year strong and happy, and while so many of my fellow senior-year parents will be weeping “my baby!” or “I can’t believe they’re leaving,” I’ll be over here cheering, “You did it!” and “Fly, baby bird!” (Oh yeah, I get extra eye-rolls when I call her baby bird, which only makes me do it more.) I don’t expect this year to be free of glitches or drama, but I do expect that she’ll meet those challenges and handle them, because that’s what she does, now.

Am I going to miss her terribly when she leaves for college next year? Of course. It’s tempting to be disappointed that we’ll be sending her off just when she’s become so much fun to be around, again. But I can’t go down that road. I won’t. She’s a marvel, my girl, and while I will hang on every update and treasure every visit, all I ever wanted was for her to find her own way in this world. There’s no bitter, only sweet.

This year is going to be one big victory lap. So yeah, I’ll cry. But I’m not sad. I’m proud. I’m grateful. I’m amazed by her. I’m humbled by her resilience and excited to see what comes next. Senior year may feel full of lasts for other parents, but for us, it’s also full of firsts. This is her year, and the time that led up to it made her the incredible young woman she now is… plus it helped me to craft a pretty rad pair of pom-poms to wave for her.

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In Hindsight: Child Development & When Should We Worry? Thu, 06 Aug 2015 16:48:13 +0000

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


“H” writes:

I’ve been reading for some time now, both on, and recently on Alpha Mom. I really enjoy your writing. Hopefully, you won’t mind me asking some questions regarding young girls and the possibility of being “on the spectrum.” (Aspergers?)

My daughter recently turned five, and I know there is “something” about her, I’m just unsure if it’s “normal” (I hesitate to use that word, but…) or if it something that we should get checked out. I’m wondering how soon you suspected there was the elusive “something” to be concerned about. Here’s a few notes about my daughter which perhaps will trigger the “it didn’t make sense at the time, but…”-reflex:

She is bright, and quite determined to hide it. Some of her greatest fear seems to be to try something and then fail, so to be safe she wont try anything new at all. She can read, but quite cleverly told the teachers from preschool that she couldn’t. That way they didn’t try to give her any books when they went to the library.

She does puzzles, several years advanced from her age group. Sometimes she’ll do them with the white background up. She remembers song lyrics easily, and yes, she will remember that one time you stepped on her toe, two years ago, and it hurt very much and you are a mean mommy. She’ll sometimes quote lines from tv in a conversation to you. Mostly appropriate to the setting, but it tends to lead to a “flowery” conversation. I accidentally splashed some water at her at the pool this summer holiday, and she looked quite shocked at me and said that I needed to rethink the meaning of goodness.

As for stimming, I think the thing that reminds me most of it is her use of the iPad, playing the same songs over and over on YouTube. Right now she’s found some nursery rhymes, so she’s repeating “Humpty Dumpty” and “Five Little Monkeys” over and over again. This is typical for when she’s tired and wants to relax after school. She has memorized the lyrics to these rhymes, so she’ll sing them for herself when she’s bored, or waiting. She’s not a fan of big crowds, and so often while in one it looks like she’s “tuning out” (mumbling for herself, talking about her favorite movies to herself, or singing).

She often exhibits food pickiness. Loud noises frighten her more than it seems they should: Babies crying, sudden bangs, balloons exploding is enough to make her run away. She sometimes spends hours in her room, just to have quiet.

She has stated to the teachers at school that she had both invisible friends and real friends, but she would prefer to play with her real friends, but it was difficult to know what to do. She has a tendency to make some elaborate social role-play, and using the other children as “props” or NPCs in her story. Then she gets really frustrated when the other children gets bored and leave (lots of crying and anger, has a hard time soothing when she gets upset). Other times she’ll just declare that she’s “not playing, just watching”, trying to understand the rules of the game the others are playing.

So, a couple of probably-obvious caveats here before I begin: First, this is not a typical teen-related question of the kind I usually tackle here, obviously, but we felt like the whole hindsight perspective might be useful, so here I am. Second, I am not a doctor or a professional in child development, and every child’s trajectory is different, etc. Let’s all please bear that in mind, because I can only speak to my experience and perspective, and if it’s helpful, great, and if not, that’s fine, too.

Let me start with non-specifics and then we’ll narrow down from there. As a general rule—and I wish I’d figured this out sooner than I ultimately did—my philosophy with any so-called “abnormalities” in my children’s development boils down to a very simple assessment when it comes to deciding whether intervention is necessary. I ask two questions:
1) Is my child lagging behind on developmental milestones?
2) Is my child unhappy?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then I think intervention is required. I’d wager that a high percentage of people reading this just had an eye-rolling moment, there, because isn’t that obvious?, and my response to those people is that no, actually, it’s often less obvious than you might think, particularly when it’s your own precious baby. For example: Many children learn to read in kindergarten, but not all. Many children talk a lot at age 2, but not all. Some of those “behind” kids are on a different curve and still normal. Sometimes it’s hard to know when development is truly off or is still within the range of “don’t worry,” and that’s when outside consultation is needed. Furthermore, some “quirky” kids are perfectly content being different, and in some of those cases I think parents fret a lot more about those differences than is maybe necessary. On the other hand, if a child is unhappy due to those differences, at the very least you want to be investigating avenues towards greater self-acceptance, if not actual change.

With my own children, I can unfortunately confirm that it was their unhappiness that sent us looking for help, in the beginning. My son was always Mr. Sunshine right up until he wasn’t, meaning that as a small child he was either delighted or furious, with very little in-between. His intolerance for change or imperfection (and certain textures, sounds, smells, etc.) is what sparked our investigation into his differences, and he was first diagnosed with a Sensory Processing Disorder, and later, as being on the Autism Spectrum. There’s a small part of me that still wishes we’d known about the ASD earlier—I am nothing if not the queen of woulda, coulda, shoulda, after all—but I’m not sure what difference it really wouldn’t made, other than that I spent several ignorant years not realizing that a my kid’s flavor of autism is something that exists. (In retrospect, I think the myth of “autistic kids don’t make eye contact or like to be touched” delayed his eventual diagnosis.)

My daughter, on the other hand, had a cluster of issues which were, shall we say, less pronounced than her brother’s, and we sought help for them in the sense that she was unhappy and we wanted to change that, but it wasn’t until nearly high school (and some real crises) that anyone thought to ask if maybe she had a developmental disorder of some kind. I try to go with the “regret is a useless emotion” philosophy, but I’m not going to lie: I wish we’d known a lot of things sooner, with her. I will always wonder if we might’ve headed off some very difficult times. But hey, now we know, and the more we know, the better things get. Also, I’ve now become a huge proponent of sharing information about how yes, Virginia, autism spectrum disorders in females often manifest very differently and we are doing a huge disservice to a lot of struggling girls and women in not recognizing these needs sooner.

All of that said, let’s get back to your daughter. Something is different with her, and you know this because she is delightful, but also fearful, perfectionistic, rigid, and prone to emotional meltdown. You have answered the “Is my child unhappy?” question with “Yes.” So that means investigation into what’s going on here is a good idea.

Does it sound like an autism spectrum disorder to me? Maybe. I mean, yes, it sounds a lot like what I experienced with my own children, so of course it does. But this is where we turn to the real professionals, because there are many, many issues which share features, and we as laypeople may not be able to tease apart what’s being caused by what and arrive at a cohesive picture. Some of what you’re describing is what I’d call “typical Aspie.” Some of what you’re describing also fits “generalized anxiety” or “ADHD inattentive type” or “sensory processing difficulty.” All of these things are possible. I know you’re not in the U.S., so I’m unsure what sorts of services might be available to you, but here we started with a (free) evaluation through the kids’ school, as well as individual therapy. You want to find a professional in child development who can do an assessment and help you figure out how to help your daughter keep being her awesome self, not with less quirkiness, but with less unhappiness.

That brings me to a final point I want to make, and it may seem a little crazy when you’re dealing with a 5-year-old, but just tuck it away for later, if you will: Don’t forget the two questions as she grows up. I went through a period with both of my teens, at different times, where I was worried about them for not being like their peers in various ways. In both cases, I eventually caught myself, asked if there was a developmental problem (no) or if the “worrisome” behavior was making them unhappy (no), and realized this was my own baggage. My son is probably always going to require a lot of alone time, because that’s how his brain works, and if he’s not unhappy, I don’t need to worry about it. My daughter is probably always going to approach her schoolwork in a way that drives me insane, but if she isn’t unhappy and gets it done, I don’t need to worry about it. I worry when they’re unhappy. More and more, I don’t worry when they’re different. Because they are different, and that’s fine.

Best of luck, H. You sound very tuned in to your daughter’s needs, and I’m sure you’ll find the best way to support her as she grows up.


Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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May I Have This (Senior Year) Dance? Tue, 04 Aug 2015 14:39:19 +0000

It started with a simple question, a few months ago: “Are you going to leave the parental controls on my laptop when I go to college?”

I couldn’t stop laughing. She was serious. And why not? In her world, for her whole life, I have erected barriers in her way while she has schemed to get through, around, and over them. One of the “joys” (the quotes here, you understand, come with meaningful eyebrows) of raising a child with ADHD is the almost total lack of impulse control… necessitating, in our case, rules upon rules upon rules. My youngest can be told “no computer after 9:00 at night” and that’s all that has to be said. But my oldest will say okay—and maybe even really want to abide by that, at some level—and the lure will just be too much unless the computer is left downstairs and the parental controls render it inoperable until the next day. That’s just how it is.

“No, of course not,” I said. “In fact, a lot of things are going to change this school year, while you’re still home with us and have that safety net. The goal would be to lift a lot of the restrictions we have in place and give you the opportunity to self-regulate so that you don’t head off to college and immediately implode from all that freedom.” She laughed, but she has no idea how many kids will be doing exactly that.

This leaves me trying to figure out the right balance of rules and self-determination. Where’s my manual for Preparing For Launch, the one which will guide me in readying her for life as a semi-adult in just one short year?

The reality is that—after a tumultuous few years—my firstborn (who embarks on her senior high school year next week) is a good, responsible kid. Does she always make the best choices? Not always. Does she usually make pretty good choices? Yeah, she does. Does she have issues with time management and impulse control, still, though on a much smaller scale than in years past? Yup. Is she a cautious driver, excellent student, and someone I feel can be trusted? Yes, yes, and yes.

It’s time to pry my fingers off the leash I’ve held on her for so long. At the same time, we’re looking at a whole year before she’s on her own, and I’m not sure just calling our parenting complete and going 100% hands-off is the way to go, either.

We started this summer: no enforced bedtime, and a little more latitude where electronics were concerned (such as removing the time limits on her computer and use restrictions on her phone, though we do still require downstairs docking each night, for now). I didn’t always love the choices she made or how much time she spent glued to a screen, but I (mostly) bit my tongue. Better to have her figure it out now than her first semester at college, right? At the same time, expectations about chores around the house didn’t change, and with her driver’s license came the new expectation that borrowing my car also meant she would run errands for me (without complaint) if asked.

So far, so good.

Class schedules arrived, and they brought a slew of issues—missing classes, wrong classes, etc. In the past I would’ve handled this with the school, but this is her year to step up, and she knows it. “I’ll take care of it,” she said, while I fretted over whether it could all be resolved. “I’ll go in and talk to the scheduler. I’ve got this.” I suppose she does.

We made an agreement that I wouldn’t bother her about college applications, too, though I’m finding that one a lot more difficult in terms of keeping up my end of the bargain. Just when I had myself irrationally convinced that she would miss every important deadline without my nagging, during a lull at dinner last night she mentioned a special scholarship she’d found at her first choice school which she thinks she’ll go ahead and apply for as soon as her main application is done. My husband and I exchanged looks across the table, that special glance partners sometimes share which communicates, “Holy crap! But stay cool! Act like it’s no big deal!

The term will start and there will be ups and downs and triumphs and setbacks. I know this. And then at some point—probably around Winter Break—we’ll lift most of the remaining restrictions. Will she drag herself down to breakfast one school morning, having stayed up most of the night online? Probably. But she’ll live. And so will I.

“Do I have to have a graduation party?” she asked, just a few days ago. “I’m not really a party person.”

“I tell you what,” I said. “Here’s what I’m thinking: why don’t you plan to hop around to your friends’ parties that day, and then have a little pool party for you and your friends the next day. Small, just the kids you want to hang with for a bit. We’ll provide snacks and leave you alone. Does that sound good?” She nodded. “And the night of graduation, we’ll probably do a little cocktail get-together after the ceremony, too.” Her expression changed to horror. “For the old people,” I clarified. “Something for us and our friends, while you’re out with yours. You don’t even have to be there. I know it’s your graduation, but it’s something to celebrate for us, too. It’s a big deal! We’ll want to share it with our friends, but I won’t make you sit around and endure it, okay?” Relieved, she nodded.

She’s going to be fine. She’s going to be amazing. I’ll just keep backing off, inch by inch, and if all goes according to plan… by the time we’re having that graduation cocktail party, she’ll be ready to launch, and I’ll finally be okay with letting go.

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Thoughts From An Almost-Empty Nest Tue, 28 Jul 2015 15:13:28 +0000

I never understood the saying “The days are long but the years are short” until recently. I mean, I understood what it meant, I just never felt that way, myself. The days were long, the years were long; as much as I love my kids, raising them has felt like a marathon to me more often than not.

Everything changed, this summer. My oldest got her driver’s license and turned into Miss Independent overnight, it seems. Never mind “Can you stop at the store and pick up some milk?” for this one—before I even had a chance to take advantage, she was off to doctor’s appointments (on her own, without me, like she’s not even a kid!), work, her own various chosen destinations, and my phone rings not to ask me something, but to inform me that she’ll be just a little later than expected, she’s going to go run one more errand as long as she’s out, and she’ll gas up the car, okay? It’s okay. It’s great, if a bit weird to reconcile with the same kid whose favorite lunch is “anything you’re willing to make for me so that I don’t have to make it myself, but that I like.”

My youngest is happy and self-assured, cracking jokes at dinner that earn admiration from even his hard-to-impress sister, getting himself up and off to band camp every day and talking about what a great year it’s going to be, and making plans with friends in his spare time. He, too, is the most independent he’s ever been.

School starts up again soon, and this is my daughter’s last year of high school. My son is only a year behind her. We’ll spend this year getting one kid ready to launch and then we’ll turn around and do it all over again for the other one. And then… they’re off. And yes, I know that kids don’t go to college in an alternate dimension or on another planet; they come home, often, and these days many even move right back in after graduation, but still. It will be very different. My husband and I will be Just Us (most of the time).

One of the bible passages often read at weddings is about how “Love is patient, love is kind.” When my husband and I married eight years ago, I remember thinking that perhaps this passage from 1st Corinthians was written specifically for people like my husband who—eyes wide open, even if they may not know exactly what they’re getting into—take on not just a spouse, but stepchildren. I can think of no greater testament to love and patience than stepping out of a life of singlehood and into that precarious role of sort-of-a-parent with no prior experience, as he did. And lucky him, my kids turned out to be… ahhh… well, fabulous, of course, but not exactly low-maintenance. Love is patient and kind, indeed. My husband gave up a lifetime of “why not?” and “let’s go!” for a very different sort of life, and he has never complained.

Even when we gave up family camping trips, my husband nursed his disappointment carefully and quietly, never blaming or grousing, just working his way through it and reiterating that we’d made the best decision for the whole family.

But now… all of those years of discussing a mythical “someday when the kids are off” have brought us to where “someday” is “pretty soon.” And I’ll be honest, I am both thrilled and overwhelmed at the notion that soon we could focus all of our spare energy (ha!) on being a couple rather than on being parents. Not that we don’t do “couple things” now, you understand, but it’ll be different.

We’ll lie in bed at night and talk about the things we want to do once the kids are in college:

* My husband has already picked out the (smaller) camping trailer that he thinks will be perfect for just the two of us (and the dogs). He wants to take a whole month to drive across the country, one summer.

* I can talk about our hypothetical dream kitchen for hours, though it always ends with me dissolving into giggles because 1) wow, me, super romantic, and 2) while it may be less of a hassle to lose the use of our kitchen with fewer people in the house, once we’re paying for two kids in college, which bank am I planning to rob for this reno, exactly?

* We talk about where in the world we’ve never been but would like to go, and places we’d like to see again. We muse about how our spare time might look different without school meetings, performances, competitions, and the like.

* He says he wants to get back into some of his former hobbies, and I toy with the idea of getting back into community theater. We’re giddy at the idea of enough free time to both pursue our individual interests and to do things as a couple.

* We giggle in the dark about how we’ll finally get to play “newlyweds,” a decade after our wedding, and a full 28 years after we first met in college.

We try to picture a life with adult children, as weird as it seems, even as it’s nearly upon us. We talk about how much we’ll miss them, but as we joke and dream and plan, I realize that as the kids are about to embark on their own big adventures, we’ll sort of be doing the same thing.

Maybe I blinked and found myself on the verge of an empty nest, and maybe that’s a little disorienting, but it’s also thrilling. I won’t say I can’t wait—I don’t want to wish away this remaining time with the kids—but I will say I think I’m ready.

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DIY Unicorn Hair Tutorial Fri, 24 Jul 2015 19:21:04 +0000

I’ve made my peace with being the Mean Mom. I have. I’m not in this to win any popularity contests. I have high expectations and a low tolerance for shenanigans when it comes to my kids and “but everyone else” bounces right off my furrowed eyebrows, I assure you. This is probably why I wish I had a nickel for every time a fellow parent has turned to me, mouth agape, and said, “You not only let her do that to her hair, you helped her??”

I don’t get worked up about hair. It’s just hair. It grows. I’m happy to aid and abet hair experimentation, because 1) if not now, when? (Answer: possibly in adulthood when it may be a barrier to success.) And 2) Given all of the available choices for teenage rebellion available… yeah, I’ll take the hair thing, thanks.

My teen daughter has been playing with her hair for about five years, and here’s my dirty little secret: I love watching her. She’s figuring out who she is and what she likes and whether she’s okay standing out and how much she cares (or doesn’t) about what other people think. You can learn a lot from a kid this way. This summer, she has her first real job. And while I’ve bought her the occasional bottle of dye in the past, when she announced she wanted to go full rainbow hair I said that if she really wanted to, that was going to be expensive, so she should be prepared to pay for it herself. So she did. She bought the supplies and we got down to business.

Today, I’m going to give you the full step-by-step instructions to turn your own teen into a beautiful unicorn (horn not included).

Formulate Your Plan/Buy Supplies

This is not a run-to-the-drugstore-for-a-single-box endeavor, and you definitely don’t want to get caught in the middle realizing you’re missing something. You will need:

Miscellaneous items: Old towels, a cape (a garbage bag with a head hole will work, if you don’t have one), and a drop cloth (or a few old sheets) to protect your budding unicorn and the area where you’ll be working. You’ll also need multiple pairs of good latex or rubber gloves (the ones that come with kits are junk), a few plastic grocery sacks, tiny rubber bands you don’t mind cutting/throwing away, regular ponytail holders and maybe a few hair clips, mild shampoo, apple cider vinegar, tinfoil cut into rectangles (you can buy “hair foils” precut from the beauty supply store, but cutting up your Reynolds at home is fine), and disposable plastic cups and stirrers if you’ll be doing color mixing. And coconut oil! We love coconut oil.

Bleaching supplies: If this is your first time, and/or if you’re nervous, a box kit is fine, here. You are looking for the lightest blond shade available. Bear in mind that if you’re starting out as a brunette, you’re not going to achieve the white blond shown on the box. (If you’re starting with black hair, it’s even trickier.) With previously dyed or very dark hair, you should either visit a salon for proper bleaching or visit a beauty supply store for the big guns—separate powder bleach and cream developer. (More on that in a bit.) If your intended unicorn is already a blond, skip this step, obviously. (Obviously use common sense and of course read the packaging carefully and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for safety and age.  *We don’t recommended this step for children; Mir’s daughter is an older teen.*) .

Color supplies: In our years of experimentation, we’ve come to believe that Special Effects is the hands-down winner when it comes to vibrant, lasting colors. No other dye comes close. Not Manic Panic, not Splat, nothing. Want pretty color? Buy Special Effects. My daughter wanted the whole rainbow, but also wanted to save some money and there is currently a shortage of SE yellow, so we ended up with Special Effects in Nuclear Red, Iguana Green, Blue Mayhem, Deep Purple, and Atomic Pink. She purchased a yellow in another brand and mixed that with the red to make her orange. (The yellow and orange are already fading. Did I mention that you should stick with Special Effects?)

DIY Unicorn Hair Tutorial by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for


Step 1: Bleach The Hair To Be Colored

Unicorn Hair DIY (Step 1) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Hair bleaching is serious business, so while I believe you can do it yourself, at home, please outsource this step if you’re nervous. Bleach is very damaging under the best of circumstances. This is also part of why we’ve so far stuck to treating just the ends of the hair—if something goes wrong, we can always just cut it off! And even after all this time, I have no interest in putting bleach near my teen baby’s scalp.

As I mentioned above, previously-dyed or very dark hair may be impervious to the boxed stuff, in which case you’ll want to hit the beauty supply store for bleach and a 20 or 30 volume developer creme for greater oomph. [My daughter still had some year-old Atomic Pink in her hair which had resisted all of our attempts to strip it; we used L’Oreal Quick Blue and level 40 developer to get her hair mostly back to blond, and I cannot stress enough that this was very risky and a last resort. I checked her hair constantly; please don’t buy a developer stronger than 30 unless you must and really know what you’re doing.] Get your unicorn-to-be situated under a cape and old towel outside or in a very well-ventilated area, with unwashed hair combed out and ready for application.

Mix your bleach according to directions and begin applying it, one section of hair at a time (I like to grab a “clump” about two fingers wide, and I tend to start by the face on one side, hit the matching area on the other side, and continue working back and forth like that until I reach the back), making sure the hair is saturated, then fold the bleached area into a piece of tinfoil to cover completely. There are two schools of thought, here: You can either determine how far up you want the color to go later and bleach that far (say, six inches) in a single step, or you can determine how far up you want the color to go later and do the bleach as sort of an ombre. I prefer the ombre approach because the dye does eventually fade out and then the you’re left with something just a little more natural looking. If you want to go this route, and you’re going to dye, say, six inches, do your initial bleach application on only the bottom four inches, then go back and move up another inch ten minutes later, and then the final inch ten minutes after that (adjust distance and time to fit your desires and the particular bleach process you are using). Most bleach will list a processing window of something like “at least 20 but no more than 35 minutes,” or some such, and you want to pay attention to that and do not exceed the maximum time listed. If you check the foils and you’ve achieved what you want sooner, great! But bleach is not a “well I’ll just leave it on longer than they suggested because I want more lightening” product. Unless you enjoy hair that feels like straw and breaks off in your hand, that is.

When you’ve achieved desired lightness or time is up, follow the directions for rinsing out (do not shampoo). If you must color right away, you’ll need to dry the hair, first, but I strongly recommend bleaching one day and letting the hair rest before moving on to color. If you’re done for the day, gather hair into a high pony, slather the newly-bleached ends in coconut oil, and slip a plastic grocery bag over the pony and secure with another hair tie. Then sleep on it—give the oil time to really soak in.

Step 1.5: Trim, Baby, Trim

Unicorn Hair DIY (notes) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Did I mention that bleach is damaging, even when done properly? I like to do a haircut after the bleach but before the color. You can do this directly after bleaching or the next day or whenever, really, but there are lots of good reasons to do a trim prior to coloring. For one thing, it will remove the inevitable split ends and worst of the bleach damage. For another, why waste dye on hair you’re going to cut off? And finally, if you do any sort of layering, this ensures that you see exactly how the hair will lay prior to breaking out the color. If you cut your teen’s hair yourself, great, just have at it. If you are not comfortable playing hairdresser, remember that you’ll want to schedule a trim after the bleach.

Pro tip: Take this trim into consideration prior to bleaching. That is, if the hair in question is already either pretty damaged or much longer than desired, adjust your bleaching zone accordingly so that the remaining area after the cut is the size you desire.

Step 2 & 3 : Prepare To Color

Unicorn Hair DIY (Step 2) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Set out your seven colors (our awesome illustration shows six, but we used seven) in order on the counter, not just because it makes a fun Instagram post, but because once you’re into the process you’re not going to want to stop and hunt for which color comes next. Trust me—put them in the desired dyeing order. If you’ll be mixing any colors, prepare them now and put them in the line-up with the others. Many people like bowls and brushes, here, but personally I find it easiest just to squeeze the bottles and rub in with my (gloved!) hands. When it came to the orange we mixed, I just scooped it out of the cup with my fingers.

Unicorn Hair DIY (Step 3) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for


Unicorn Hair DIY (hair color chart) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Hair should be dry (if you’re dyeing the day after the coconut treatment, wash with a mild shampoo the next morning to remove the oil), combed out, free of product, and parted wherever she usually wears it. The rainbow has seven colors, and we decided to do smaller sections so as to repeat the sequence rather than just one big section of each color—fourteen smaller sections in all. (Again, the illustration shows larger sections, and this is absolutely a matter of preference, so do what you like!) So: I divided her hair in half, down the back, and pinned one half out of the way. I took the remaining half and split it into half, then divided each of those halves into three smaller sections, with the two meeting in the middle a little larger than the rest. I then took the two larger middle sections and “borrowed” from them to make a third (I turned those two sections into three). And then I surveyed each of my now seven smaller sections and shuffled hair around a bit until I felt like they were all approximately the same thickness. This sounds much fussier than it is; I used the little rubber bands to hold the sections loosely as I went along, and if adjustment was needed, I just pulled the bands and rearranged. Once we were happy with the seven sections, I rubber banded them tightly, with the bands at the level we wanted to dye up to. Repeat with the other half of the hair (and marvel at how much faster it goes now that you’ve done it once).

Step 4: Dye, Dye, Dye

Unicorn Hair DIY (Step 4) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Once the hair is sectioned, you’re ready to color! This is where you make sure everyone is wearing old clothes, the floor is covered, your countertop has old towels on it, etc. (News flash: Dye stains!) Beginning at one side of the face, work your way around the head to the other side with the dyes, saturating each section up to the rubber band, then wrapping in foil. Because this part is about a lot of different colors, take your time and make sure each foil is as clean as possible on the outside to avoid transfer to other sections. Also: wash and dry your hands (gloves) after each section before moving on to a new color. I’m not going to lie; this part takes a while. Here’s the great news about this part, though: unlike bleach, this vegetable-based hair dye is non-caustic and even somewhat conditioning for the hair, so you can leave it on as long as you like with no fear of damage. The bottles say to leave it on for 20 minutes, but any funky-hair devotee will scoff at that. Plan to leave it on for at least an hour. We usually go 3-4 hours, time permitting.

Does your unicorn want to get up and move around once she’s all foiled? No problem—grab another plastic grocery bag, gather all the foiled ends and drop ‘em into the bag, and secure with a hair tie.

Step 5: Rinse And Set

Unicorn Hair DIY (Step 5) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Unlike a single hair color, you can’t just head to the sink and scrub up, here. The freshly-colored hair is going to give off a lot of excess dye in rinsing, and you don’t want that dye getting on the undyed hair, or (worse) muddying the other colors. So! Older/taller teen unicorns can stand at the kitchen sink, head bent forward, and shorter teen unicorns can lie on the counter with the back of the head over the sink while you get to work.

Remove one foil and either carefully cut the little rubber band or gently pull it out while rinsing. Rinse the now-freed hair with cool water until squeezing it into your gloved hand yields only clear water with no tint. In general, you don’t want to shampoo after using these bright colors (you want to keep as much dye in the hair as possible for as long as possible), but some colors run more than others, so use your best judgment. For example, we found that the red/yellow/orange/pink colors could be rinsed with just water and run clear within a reasonable time frame, but yowza, the darker colors seem to run forever. Special Effects Deep Purple, in particular, turned the blond hair nearly black and then ran and ran and ran, so those sections we went ahead and shampooed during rinsing to expedite the process. For each section, rinse until the water runs clear (or shampoo until the water runs clear), squeeze out the excess water, and then dip the colored section into 50/50 mix of cool water and apple cider vinegar. This will help the color to set.

Once a section is rinsed/vinegared/squeezed out, clip it out of the way and grab another section. Repeat this process until all of the colored hair has been treated. We usually go ahead and do a quick rinse and vinegar rinse on the entire head of hair as a final step, just to make it easier to move on to adding product and styling without having to deal with half wet/half dry hair.

Step 6: Styling And Aftercare

Unicorn Hair DIY (Step 6) by Mir Kamin & Brenda Ponnay for

Your unicorn is now ready to wow the world with whatever hair products and rituals she prefers, but do bear in mind that the treated hair may still be on the dry side from the bleaching (and thus will benefit from some TLC) and shampooing will result in a bit of color run for a while. So a few shifts in routine may be merited, here. Namely:
1) The overnight coconut oil soak is a great idea for hair that wants moisture, and it’s cheap and easy, so do it as often as you like. Just stick to the colored hair and keep it away from the scalp.
2) Plan to use old towels for a couple of weeks at least, and don’t go to bed with wet hair unless you’re okay with stained pillowcases.
3) Use a shampoo specially formulated for color-care, and shampoo as infrequently as you can get away with to make the color last. When your unicorn does shampoo, just scrub the scalp with a smallish amount of shampoo and rinse—don’t bother sudsing all the way down the hair (rinsing will bring the shampoo down, anyway).

That’s it! It’s a lot of work, but I hear that unicorns really do have more fun.


Illustrations by the amazing Brenda Ponnay


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To Bribe Or Not To Bribe, That Is The Question Thu, 23 Jul 2015 18:18:36 +0000

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


Kate writes:

Here’s my Q: How come bribing seems to work so well but feels so icky? Do the short term benefits outweigh the long term moral harm (if any… or is it actually okay)? I’m talking about trading Starbucks for chores, homework, everything.

I love this question so much, because who among us hasn’t had that lightbulb parenting moment where we become convinced we are simply extorting our way to better behavior, and—on the heels of that—fear that we’re the only ones?

The short and incomplete yet mostly true, to my mind, answer, is this: Bribery isn’t harmful. Sure, there’s a matter of degrees involved, but human all living creatures are reward-motivated. It’s part of our biology to ask “What’s in it for me?” at some level. Sure, the older and more altruistic we become, the more likely that process is to do a quick calculation and determine that “pride in a job well-done” or “this has to happen to keep life running smoothly” or “making the people I love happy” is reason enough to complete an otherwise yawn-worthy task like unloading the dishwasher. (Is the dishwasher Custer’s Last Laziness Stand in your house like it is in mine? No? Um. Never mind.) [Note: My intrepid editor, Isabel, pointed out to me that in behavioral parlance, a “bribe” is a reward given before the desired behavior, whereas an “incentive” is a reward promised for after the desired behavior. I am assuming Kate is using the term bribe to actually mean incentive, and it is those incentives (“If you do this, I will give you this…”) I’m discussing. In general I would discourage ponying up rewards ahead of action.]

Children and teenagers, however, are more selfish by design. That whole “What’s in it for me?” refrain (unspoken or not) is part of how they figure out their place in the world. An explanation of all you do for them on a daily basis may fly right over their heads, because you’re Mom, you love that stuff! It can be hard for them to really get the ways in which most functional adults do certain things simply because they need to be done, not because they love chores.

So the long answer is this: Setting expectations and consequences up front goes a long way towards eliminating unexpected power struggles and unplanned-for incentives. And that means… it’s Family Meeting time. Every family will handle this in their own way, of course, but the common approach I would encourage involves a few things:

  1. Parents decide ahead of time which chores/responsibilities they wish for the kids to handle.
  2. Parents present these expectations as a proposal, along with whatever supporting information about “everyone in the family pitches in” or whatever you feel your child needs to hear.
  3. Parents ask for—and really listen to—feedback from the kid. This part is crucial. If you’re constantly bribing your child into the behavior you want, it’s because you’ve failed to get buy-in. Buy-in is how you get your child on board with this plan, and it can be achieved with bribery, but it has the potential to set up a perpetuating cycle of “I’m only doing things which have a high reward value,” and we know that’s a problem because few of us live adult lives filled with only high reward values. (Sorry!)
  4. Now you negotiate. Work out an agreement, somehow. Include rewards and consequences. (More on that in a minute.)
  5. Write it all down (I’m a big fan of writing stuff down, go figure). It gives you a reference point for future disagreements, and it also lends gravitas to the process and increases buy-in, I think.

Let’s go back to the “agreement” part of this. Obviously buy-in is increased when your kid thinks you’re being reasonable or even generous, but at the end of the day, you’re the parent and if you have a reasonable-by-any-measure set of expectations against which your kid chafes, too bad, so sad! Your job is to find a way to make it palatable enough to get that buy-in, sure, but it’s not your job to make their lives a non-stop carnival. I don’t have a problem with occasional bonus incentives (or more frequent smallish incentives; not all bribery is created equal), but the ultimate goal here is twofold: First, you want to get your expectations met; second, you want to set your child up for the intrinsic motivation to do the right thing. That second part is where it gets tricky.

Bribery is positive reinforcement; that’s why it works. Positive reinforcement is a great way to bend any living creature to your will. I think a lot of people get confused about the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment, though. (If you like, this 2-minute Psychology In The Fastlane video is a great explanation.) In short, punishment is designed to decrease a behavior, whereas negative reinforcement is designed to increase a behavior. The trick here is to find good reinforcers—both positive and negative—rather than to simply drop the hammer every time you encounter poor behavior (or, alternatively, to leap to bribery as your solution). So, for example, now that my daughter is driving, meeting her responsibilities means I’m likely to let her borrow the car (positive reinforcement). What’s more, we’re talking about expectations moving into the school year about what needs to happen for the car to continue to be available to her, and even what might need to happen for us to contribute towards a car of her own once she graduates (increase in positive behaviors from her = decrease in my control over her driving = increase in car likelihood for her without costing as much of her own money = negative reinforcement). So, to use your example, if you’re currently offering Starbucks in return for chores, maybe it’s time to substitute negative reinforcement for positive; instead, maybe, the cell phone is not removed from its overnight dock until chores are completed. This is negative reinforcement: you are increasing a behavior to avoid the thing they don’t want (lack of connectivity). Some people hook chores to allowance, or bedtimes, or curfew (positive reinforcements; do more, get more). Some people hook chores to what the parent does for the kid, so maybe lack of chores means your laundry doesn’t get done or your lunch doesn’t get made (negative reinforcements; do more, avoid getting less).

If you’re into a life of unclear expectations and/or bribery pretty deep, even if you follow these steps to the letter, you’re going to get some pushback and noncompliance, to start. And you may need to ease out of old habits—maybe there’s Starbucks on Saturday for a week of (cheerful!) chore compliance. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and all of that.

Now. All of that said? I absolutely offer incentives to my kids for out-of-the-ordinary tasks outside of our regular family agreement now and then, sure. When they help with large projects above and beyond their regular chores, I pay them (positive reinforcement). But we’re at a point now where they often agree to help before I even offer payment (maybe because they know I’ll pay up, but maybe because they’re turning into helpful humans?), so I’m calling it a win. And—this is absolutely a personal sticking point built upon my own baggage and I acknowledge that—I never, ever reward my kids for grades. I get that very few people love, say, scrubbing grout, but learning and succeeding in school should be its own reward, and I am very wary of eroding or interfering in that process in any way. (Why yes, I was rewarded for good grades and punished for poor ones as a kid. No, I had no earthly idea what to do with myself when I got to college other than to assume that anything less than straight As meant I was a failure as a human being. So. Yeah.)

Get a system in place that everyone can buy in to, one which has intrinsic reinforcers built on privileges rather than cash and baubles. And one last thing: Everyone thrives on gratitude. Just because it’s an expectation doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful for it; a simple, “Thanks for getting that done without complaining, I really appreciate it,” helps build their intrinsic motivation and (bonus!) strengthens family bonds. It’s better than Starbucks, I promise.


Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Figuring Out Mental Health Care For Teens In Crisis Thu, 16 Jul 2015 16:36:44 +0000

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


I received a long, detailed, and pretty heartbreaking request from a fellow mom dealing with two teens with varying mental health issues. Because I am not a professional (and I don’t even play one on the Internet), I cut this down to remove specifics and address the overarching question. She asks:

The question in short form is this… how does a parent go about identifying and selecting appropriate professional mental help for a teenager? (Side note: And why, dear God WHY, is it so freaking hard?)

I am astonished and dismayed at the level of difficulty it is to find quality help. It’s been expensive, frustrating and time consuming. We’ve tried our family doctor, family counseling (both church and secular), peer counseling, marriage counseling, inpatient care, family meetings, etc., etc. Part of the issue is that we live in a rural community with a low population density and high percentage of people with significant issues. The system is overwhelmed, resources are depleted and community ignorance/resistance is rampant.

I know mental health is not a one size fits all kind of thing but how do you make your way through this confusing world?

As anyone who’s been reading me through the years knows, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. A huge part of the answer is already part of your question: The system is overwhelmed, resources are depleted and community ignorance/resistance is rampant. There is a nationwide shortage of mental health providers for children and adolescents (the linked article is from California, but similar articles can be found about every state in the nation). The reasons are complicated—the pay tends to be crummy, insurance companies often don’t want to pay for needed services, state-funded facilities are being closed all over the nation (leaving available/affordable inpatient care at an all-time low), parents who lose a young person to mental illness are arguably more likely to sue providers than when an adult loses the battle, and this is just a very demanding field and not for the faint of heart, etc. There are not enough psychiatrists and psychologists willing to treat minors, not enough facilities, not enough community support. There’s just not enough, period.

That’s the bad news. And you already knew it, so I hope it’s not too awful to hear it again. For whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry.

Here’s the good news: I believe that we are (very slowly) experiencing enough pushback on this lack of services that change is happening. Insurance companies are changing their policies (our HMO provides unlimited counseling with no copay; I guess they finally figured out that’s cheaper than paying for a crisis); schools are receiving increasing training in spotting and supporting families with mental health issues; community agencies are working together to provide resources to families in need (here in Georgia we have something called the Local Interagency Planning Team, where a bunch of different agencies come together and brainstorm support/solutions for community families); some providers in big cities are offering phone/Skype services to families who aren’t local (the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta comes to mind). Help exists. It’s just a matter of persevering.

So let’s get to the meat of it. You asked: How do you make your way through this confusing world?

Philosophically: You keep going, telling yourself that you are your child’s best advocate and you’ll keep searching for help until you get it. Pragmatically: You work your way up the food chain in every possible direction.

When your child first has an issue, it makes sense to start with their pediatrician and ask for a referral to an appropriate mental health specialist. Ask around, too, to get some recommendations or feedback. This may end up being your first roadblock; in a small or underserved area, you may discover that, for example, there’s only one psychiatrist who sees minors, and maybe they’re not taking new patients or the wait time is months. If that happens, call your insurance company. Explain that your child needs help now and the only covered option doesn’t have a reasonable wait time (or is actually unavailable). They may be able to get you in sooner by calling the office directly, or they may approve an out-of-network provider if you can prove that’s the only reasonable option. Insurance companies have case managers whose only job is to help people in situations where they don’t have reasonable access to the care they need, so don’t feel like you’re being difficult or asking for the moon. Their job is to help you.

When it comes to therapy, you already know there are a ton of options. Psychologist, LCSW, MCSW, “counselor”—there’s lots of different paths to ending up as a talk therapist. Personally, in the case of a serious issue, I’m biased towards psychologists and psychiatrists (but that doesn’t mean there aren’t social workers and clergy and other people who also happen to be really good at their jobs). There’s lots of considerations here: finding someone who specializes in whatever you need, actually getting in to see them, and whether or not they click with your child. I can’t even tell you for sure how many therapists my child had over the years—many of them perfectly capable, I’m sure—who were just not able to reach her in a way that made for progress. And it’s not like you can always figure this out beforehand, either. You just have to make your best guess, try someone for a while, and see how it goes. Keep going until you find someone you trust whom your child likes and trusts. But if you’ve been down this road (sounds like you have) a bunch already, start with phone calls and ask for a meeting interview for you to explain the history and feel out the provider before bringing your child in for an appointment. (I made over 30 phone calls and did five interviews before my daughter started with her current therapist. I not only laid all her issues on the table, I explained her propensity to chew through therapists and looked to see how potential providers reacted to that. It was a huge amount of work and time but they’ve now been together for years and she’s made huge strides. Worth it!)

So you start with the child’s doctor for a referral and look for appropriate specialists. At the same time, gather community support and find your proverbial oxygen mask for yourself. I recommend:
1) Individual therapy for parent(s) dealing with a troubled child.
2) Consult the child’s school (guidance counselor, psychologist, or social worker) about community options in your area like the LIPT I mentioned earlier.
3) Al-Anon was developed as support for the families of problem drinkers, but the philosophy and model can be useful to any family dealing with a member who is out of control (even in a non-addiction sort of way).
4) NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) provides resources, discussion boards, a HelpLine, and local support groups. You may discover (as we did) that your area either doesn’t have a group or claims to have one but it’s been disbanded, but even the online information/connections can be useful.

I wish I could wave a wand and make it easier, faster, and more affordable. I can’t. You’re right that it’s hard, soul-sucking, and expensive. But… that’s parenting, right? If you keep going, keep advocating for your child, hopefully you will find what makes things better for all of you. I think my teen would agree that for about three years, it felt like we were all in hell. We tried a lot of different avenues for help, and some of them—I’m not going to lie—were mistakes. I’ll tell you the same thing I tell her: I always did the best I could with the information and resources I had at the time. My heart was always in the right place, even if my decisions weren’t always the optimal ones. We learn and do better as we move on. Life isn’t perfect now, but it’s much better. She’s better. We’re better. And (as I’m sure you know) progress has been a zig-zag, never linear, and things will be less better again and we’ll deal with it until it’s more better. Perhaps most frustrating, some of that time was spent with perfectly reasonable and useful supports available and my child fighting it all tooth and nail, because it turns out that you cannot force someone to get better if they’re not ready.

So you do what you can do. And you hang on by your fingernails until you feel like you can’t do it anymore… and then you keep doing it. I promise you can do this, and you are not alone.


Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Confessions Of A Snapchat Convert Tue, 14 Jul 2015 13:55:09 +0000

I don’t know if this has been obvious from my writing over the years, but… I am not exactly the hippest mother on the planet. Or the most permissive. This is fine with me—I always say, if you’re in this parenting thing for the glory and accolades, maybe find a different hobby—but I suspect my teens might characterize me as slow and something of a curmudgeon. (This is also fine with me.)

I didn’t let my daughter get her ears pierced until she was ten. (Practically a senior citizen!) And although my daughter’s possession of a cell phone at a youngish age was due to her being a child of divorce, she was the one who convinced us to get her brother a phone, and the two of them received smartphones (finally) only this past Christmas, after “all their friends” had already had them for years. I’m a slow, late adopter, and also a big meanie.

This is why it comes as such a surprise to me that I absolutely love Snapchat.

Listen; I resisted. It became the last battleground between me and my oldest. “But literally everyone else at school has it!” she would say, trying to sway my decision when I’d not yet allowed her to install it. (That’s a terrible argument strategy when facing off with a writer, by the way. The conversation then becomes a lesson about proper usage of the word “literally,” because I literally do not care that the definition has been expanded to also mean “figuratively” and also I doubt that my child was the sole holdout.) I’d heard the stories of teens using Snapchat to sext, and while I wasn’t necessarily worried about my kid doing that, I was concerned about the false feeling of security/temporariness the app might impart.

“Explain to me why you need this when you have texting and Facebook and Instagram,” I would say. “You can already do and share everything you might want to. You are not missing anything by not having Snapchat.”

“You don’t understand,” she would huff. “I am missing things because everyone else uses it to send each other stuff and I can’t.”

Eventually I relented. On her 17th birthday (oh the humanity!) we had a looooong conversation about how everything is forever on the Internet, and probably everything sent through the app is archived somewhere… and then I put the password into her phone and allowed her to install Snapchat. And I installed it on my phone, too. Here’s what I’ve learned since then:

Snapchat is real life
I use Facebook more than my teens do, but they’re all about Instagram, and I had assumed that what showed up on Instagram was a good snapshot into their lives. Wrong! Instagram is posed and polished, all pursed lips and carefully chosen locations and companions. Snapchat is my opportunity to be a fly on the wall of the Right Now, with all sorts of goofiness and moments I’d never get to see otherwise.

Snapchat makes my kid more responsive
Sending my teen a text reminding her to do the dishes is likely to garner a “Sorry, I’m terribly busy right now” at best and is more likely to be completely ignored. Sending my teen a Snapchat picture of me looking sadly at a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, though, gets her attention (if not her immediate action). It also infuses such drudgery with a bit of humor, and that’s always a good thing.

Fleeting is freeing
While the worry was always that teens would choose to send ill-advised pictures, the reality (for us, anyway) is that my kid is much more likely to share something true when it’s only going to be available for a few seconds. Even a simple “this blows” during a time of disappointment is more likely to come through (with a picture, of course) via Snapchat when a text would end up reading, “I’m fine.”

Screenshots are communication, too
So the original idea with Snapchat was that screenshots would be impossible, but the reality is that it’s not that hard to capture snaps if you’re quick. Bug or feature? My favorite is when one of us sends a particularly grotesque picture (hey Snapchat, here’s a tagline for you: How many chins can I create for myself? Let’s find out!) and the little notification that the recipient took a screenshot pops up. It never fails to make me laugh. What’s funnier than sending ridiculous photos? Knowing that my kid thought they were so hilarious, she wanted to save them.

The circle of communication widens
My friends (you know, the old people like me) and I snap each other, too, but best of all—I snap my BFF’s teens, and my teen snaps her, too. Having a “bonus mom” on board has always been great, but now everyone is interacting even more because this is a super-easy and fun way to do it.

Love in seconds
A text or email or Facebook message of sappiness is maybe not appreciated (from me to her) or likely (from her to me) in the scope of everyday life. But a quick snap of a goofy face and an OHBOWWOW I MISS YOU or whatever is silly, sure, but also heartfelt. Maybe they come with ridiculous pictures of my stick-thin child creating three chins for herself, but I wouldn’t trade those brief snippets of affection for anything.

Do your kids use Snapchat? Do you? I really thought I’d hate it, so no one is more surprised than I am at how much fun I’m having with it. I guess an old mom can learn new tricks.

Photo source: Mashable

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A Driving Contract For Teens Tue, 07 Jul 2015 17:18:44 +0000

We’ve been talking a lot about teaching your teen to drive ’round here, lately, and so we thought it might be a useful thing to come up with a sample template of sorts for a contract between teen and parent(s) for folks who are into that sort of thing. The following is intended as a starting point; personally use what works for you, change or leave out what doesn’t. (That said, the following is copyright of me and Alpha Mom, so please no plagiarizing to your own website or whatever other medium, because that’s uncool and legally risky for you.) Would you ask your teen to sign a driving contract? Do you feel like something important is missing from this one? Hit me up in the comments with your feedback.

* * * * * * * * * *


So as to be crystal clear about rights, privileges, and responsibilities surrounding learning to drive, and then being a license-holding teen living at home, and hopefully to avoid anger, misunderstandings, or danger, the following contract is set forth between __________________________ [henceforth referred to as Teen] and __________________________ [henceforth referred to as Parent(s)].

I. During The Learning Process

Teen agrees to:
A) Follow basic household rules to earn the privilege of time behind the wheel, such as being polite and respectful, keeping up with school responsibilities, completing chores, etc.
B) Listen and respond to supervising driver immediately and without question. If there is a matter for debate, first the instruction is to be followed, and once the car can be removed from the roadway and stopped, then the matter can be discussed. Failure to follow directions immediately will be grounds for suspension of driver training.
C) Treat the learning process as the mastering of a complicated and possibly life-endangering task, because it is. This means no radio, GPS, or other distractions, however minimal, until the supervising driver deems such added inputs acceptable.
_____ (initials)

Parent(s) agrees to:
A) Offer copious instructional time (provided that Teen meets the above criteria). If Parent(s) is unwilling or unable to serve as primary driving instructor, a suitable replacement will be found. Additionally, Parent(s) agrees to pay for Driver’s Ed if formal instruction is desired.
B) Be helpful, encouraging, and mindful of the fact that learning to drive is hard, and no one ever got better at it by being screamed at or otherwise berated. Calm is the name of the game.
C) Honestly assess both the Teen’s level of skill and difficulty of a given driving situation in deciding when practice is safe, slightly challenging, or ill-advised.
_____ (initials)

II. Once Teen Is Licensed

Teen agrees to:
A) Never text and drive.
B) Follow all rules of the road, including adhering to any license restrictions (number of passengers, time-of-day driving, etc.). Should a driving violation occur, Teen will immediately inform Parent(s).
C) Seek alternate transportation or delay driving if not mentally safe to do so. This includes—but is not limited to—being inebriated or otherwise chemically altered, being exhausted, or being overly emotional and unable to calm down. Teen further agrees to call Parent(s) if facing one of these situations while out with the car. In the unlikely event that Teen cannot reach Parent(s), another responsible adult will be consulted.
_____ (initials)

Parent(s) agrees to:
A) Trust Teen to make good choices per this agreement and general good faith until proven otherwise.
B) Provide a pick-up (or arrange for alternate safe transportation) at any time, anywhere, no questions asked, if/when Teen calls due to inability to drive safely. Any discussion pursuant of the circumstances surrounding such a situation will be tabled until the following day, and bearing in mind that the responsible choice not to drive was made.
C) Respond with appropriate wrath and/or revocation of Teen’s license if the above conditions are violated, but also with the understanding that mistakes happen and any consequences enacted as a result of said mistakes should be time-limited.
_____ (initials)

III. Car Rights, Responsibilities, And Finances

Teen agrees to:
A) Treat Parent(s) car as a loan of privilege, because it is. This means sometimes running boring errands for Parent(s) in return for the use of the car.
B) ‘Fess up immediately if any damage occurs to said borrowed car while in the Teen’s possession.
C) Discuss the finances and logistics of acquiring own car while living at home, and respect Parent(s) position. (Read: Do not expect to be gifted a car just because you got your license.)
_____ (initials)

Parent(s) agrees to:
A) Use but not abuse the “can you run and get a gallon of milk for me” clause once Teen is often borrowing car.
B) Not freak out if the car is scratched or otherwise damaged, and to find an appropriate, workable solution should repairs be needed.
C) Be reasonable about the finances involved in having a licensed teen driver (see below).
_____ (initials)

Teen will / will not pay for own gas when using Parent(s) car. (circle one)
Teen will pay in full / will pay a portion / will not pay for own insurance coverage when using Parent(s) car. (circle one)
Teen will / will not be allowed to acquire own vehicle while living at home as a minor. (circle one)
Teen will pay in full / will pay a portion / has a fairy godmother for purchase of own car. (circle one)
_____ (initials) _____ (initials)

Teen recognizes that even if in possession of own car, while living under Parent(s)’s roof, Parent(s)’s rules may result in removal of driving privileges if this contract is violated. Bottom line: Be good.
_____ (initials)

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College Planning: Real Questions For College Tours Tue, 30 Jun 2015 13:41:26 +0000

‘Tis the season—my personal Facebook feed is filling up with pictures of fellow parents cramming in as many college tours as possible with their rising seniors before the school year starts. While there’s a strong argument to be made for touring schools during regular session, summer is when most of us have the time, and you can always make a return trip in the fall once you’ve whittled down your list a bit.

My daughter mapped out the schools she wanted to see, arranged for all the tours, put together a schedule and maps, and only needed my help when it came to hotel reservations. This makes sense, of course—it’s her education/plans, not mine—but it was a pretty symbolic first step towards independence, here. If you are tempted to be your teen’s cruise director when it comes to college visits, try to pull back. Let them work it out. It will make it a better trip for both of you, I promise. [Side note: On one of our tours, we met a young lady who claimed to have visited 30 colleges the previous summer, and was now on a 10-campus tour. She was only a rising junior, too. I have never met anyone else on a college tour who appeared to be so completely over the entire experience. It was kind of sad.]

There’s no shortage of resources for “Questions You Must Ask On A College Visit Or Regret Not Knowing For The Rest Of Your Miserable Life” types of things. And don’t get me wrong, they definitely have their place. (File under “oldie but goodie” if you must, but this 2010 list from U.S. News & World Report is a decent starting point.) Our experiences tromping around a variety of campuses brought up some additional questions I hadn’t seen elsewhere, though, so I share because I care. Here you go….

Financial Aid

They say you should ask: What’s the average financial aid package?
I suggest you also ask: What percentage of students receive assistance directly from the college? (There’s federal money and independent scholarships, but knowing the size of the institution’s endowment and how much of that filters down to students in the form of tuition assistance is a good indicator of how they value their undergraduates.) What resources are offered to prospective students in terms of making the finances work? (All schools have a Financial Aid office; you’re trying to determine if someone is going to encourage your child to take out loans or if they’ll help them find grant money and scholarships.) How does work-study operate here? (Do you have to “qualify” based on need, how many on-campus jobs are there? are most students able to get a work-study job if they want one or is it a limited resource?) What percentage of students work off-campus?


They say you should ask: What are the average test scores/GPA of incoming freshmen? What percentage of applicants are accepted (aka, acceptance rate)?
I suggest you also ask: What percentage of accepted applicants opt to attend? Are certain “numbers” (test scores, GPA) required or merely typical? What tests are required for admission? (I was surprised to hear on several campuses that they’ve gone “test optional.”) What’s the process for applying and being accepted to an honors program or honors college, if offered? Do they offer Early Decision and/or Early Action? What are the dates on those? When do you have to accept admission and what sort of deposit is required?

Students/Campus Life

They say you should ask: What does the student body look like in terms of diversity?
I suggest you also ask: What does the student body look like in terms of diversity in any given program? (The reality is that many majors tend to skew either male or female, and diversity on paper may look a lot like segregation in reality if only certain programs tend to attract a variety of students.) What percentage of students are from out-of-state? What supportive services are available to students? What clubs and organizations are offered on campus? What’s the process for starting a new organization? Is there Greek Life? If so, what percentage of students take part in that? If you want to see your tour guide think fast on her feet, ask her to describe a “typical student” on the campus. Also—particularly if you’re visiting over the summer—ask if they have a program where your kid could come back for an overnight while classes are in session.

Classes and Majors

They say you should ask: What’s the student/teacher ratio? What’s the typical class size? How often will you be taught by a grad student rather than a professor?
I suggest you also ask: What is the typical class size for a freshman? (Bear in mind that those “typical class sizes” folds giant freshman seminar classes into the equation along with tiny upper-level classes, and an “average class size of 30″ may mean your freshman doesn’t see a room with fewer than 100 students in it.) How does class selection work, and how likely are you to get the classes you want? What percentage of students enter with an undeclared major? For any given major of interest, when do students typically start the major? (At my husband’s university, he teaches in a college students cannot even apply to enter until they’re rising juniors. My daughter’s intended major, however, is an intensive program that begins with specialized classes as a freshman; if a student were to decide to enter the program later, there would be no practical way to catch up without simply adding more time to achieve the degree.) What special requirements are there to enter a given major (audition, special exams, interview, etc.)? What percentage of students do study abroad and/or internships? What percentage of students continue on to a graduate program?


They say you should ask: How do students get around? Are freshmen allowed to have a car on campus?
I suggest you also ask: No, really, how easy is it to get where you need to go? (Most campuses have a dedicated bus system; ask how long you’ll typically wait for a bus if you need one. A lot of campuses also have a golf cart late-night service for if you need a ride back to your dorm after the buses stop running.) How close are you to “town” if you need it (this question will vary depending on the campus setting, obviously)? If freshmen are allowed to have cars, what percentage of them do? How much does a parking permit cost?


They say you should ask: What are the dorm choices? Are freshmen required to live on campus? What percentage of upperclassmen live on campus?
I suggest you also ask: Is housing guaranteed beyond freshman year, or scarce and determined by lottery? How are roommates matched? (Back in the Stone Age when I went to college, it was completely random. Nowadays we’ve seen everything from compatibility assessments to schools which offer something akin to a “roommate dating service” in allowing you to pick your roommate.) How much variability is there in the dorms? How does laundry work here? (We saw everything from in-suite machines to basement laundry rooms, and dorms where laundry was free and others where you could only use coins and others where you could only use your cash card. And at one school the laundry machines are on the wifi—you can check machine availability from your room and receive an automatic text when your clothes are done!) What sorts of rules do the dorms have about “quiet hours” and bringing in non-residents? What safety measures are in place? If there’s an honors college, do they have their own dorm? Do the dorms close over holidays?


They say you should ask: How’s the food? Can my dietary restrictions/preferences be accommodated? What sort of meal plan are freshmen required to have?
I suggest you also ask: How many dining halls/other eateries are part of the meal plan? What are their hours? Can you use your meal plan allotment elsewhere? (Every school we went to had the requirement or option of “extra money” loaded on your card that could be used in various snack-type locations, but we saw a couple of schools where you could actually use your meal money at those spots—not a bad perk if, say, your kid is only going to want to grab coffee and a muffin for breakfast most of the time.) What percentage of upperclassmen carry meal plans? Do the professors eat in the dining hall(s)? Is there a way to check card activity/add money online?

Two Final Thoughts

First: To me, there was no better question to ask anywhere we went than, “Why did you decide to come to school here?” Ask it of as many students as you can. Ask staff why they like working there, too. This is your information-gathering time, and you’re the consumer—don’t be afraid to challenge the school to sell itself to you. You may be surprised (and delighted) at some of the answers you receive, too.
Second: As a parent, you’re going to have a lot of questions, but this is a great time to restrain yourself and let your kid take the lead. Don’t be front and center with your hand waving in the air unless you’re hoping your darling offspring will stab you in your sleep that night at the hotel. Bear in mind that this is not your adventure. If you do this right, you will learn as much about your nearly-adult child as the schools, on these tours. Enjoy it.

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