How to let your toddler entertain herself (without screens!)

After eighteen straight years with more than one child in the house, I suddenly find myself alone with a toddler. I was worried it would be hard to keep her occupied while I got my work done, but it turns out toddlers are great at entertaining themselves. All you have to do is supply them with the right equipment — and try to turn off the over-anxious housekeeper in your brain.

Here are some tips to help your little one have fun, and to help you relax while she does!

-Let her play in the sink. Turn the chair backward for stability, and put lots of ladles, cups, sieves, and other tools in her reach. Don’t worry about the mess! Water is easy to clean. Put some towels on the floor if it helps you relax.

-Give her a bunch of brightly-colored cloths, preferably silks, that she can sort, fold, and distribute around the house. Yes, laundry will do! Laundry can be cleaned up, Mama, but babies don’t stay babies forever. Relax.

-Give her giant chalk and let her do her thing. Sure, inside. Chalk comes off just about any kind of furniture or paint, so relax. Or it doesn’t. Relax. Just relax. Just. Oh shit those are markers. But maybe they’re washable. Relax.

-Give her a spray bottle and let her “clean” things. Ignore it when she licks up the spray. Yes, ignore those other things she is licking, too. And those other things she is spraying. Maybe put bells on her so she can’t sneak up and spray you in the back of the neck. Or down the back of your pants. Or your compu— oh, well, keyboards can be replaced, Mama! But babies don’t last! Mama!

-Give her a metal can with a slot cut in the lid, and a bunch of coins. Such a satisfying sound as they tumble in! If you’re nervous about her eating coins, give her a milk jug with a hole cut in the side, and a supply of clothespins. Or give her whatever she wants. Give her your wallet. Give her a goldfish. Give her the gold bouillon you’ve been saving for your retirement. Give her live ammo. Just check her diaper later.

-Give her a knife. No, just a butter knife, and some, some, some play doh or celery or whatever to chop. Fine, let her have the real knife. Fine, let her cut you. You have more blood to give, Mama, I know you do.

-Watch Octonauts. Watch it and watch it and watch it.

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.


Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?


Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

8 Toddler Tips for a Very Special Valentine’s Day

The tired old trope says that kids ruin a couple’s romantic life. Well, I’m a tired old trope myself, and I’m here to tell you that nothing could be wronger. Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you a few special ideas that come straight from the little cherubs themselves. Every single one unmistakably spells out L-O-V-E.



How about a playful little game of suspense to build up the anticipation? Rose petals are so passé. Try leaving an enticing trail of rice krispies leading from the front door to the bedroom, as if to say, “Follow my lead, and we’ll see what happens under the covers!” And then when you get to the bed, you pull back the covers to find the rest of the bowl of cereal, with milk. Talk about snap, crackle, pop!


Everyone thinks of wine for romance, but did you know that just about anything will ferment if you leave it in a sippy cup under some stuffed animals for long enough? Vintage is important for special moments. You want to decant it at just the right moment, after it’s already started collecting fruit flies, but before it solidifies into a chunk. That way, it can still leak a little bit. Rrrrowr!



Ready for something to get your heart moving? Nothing beats temporary tattoos, to transform that same old, familiar old skin into something exotic and unexpected. Try this technique: Find your sister’s grape-scented marker and scribble all over your knees and belly. Then up the ante with a permanent marker, and decide you want to make di’saur teef on you face. Then eat the marker and poop grape for the next three days. Bow chicka wow wowww.



Assorted chocolates? Pardon me while I die yawning. Nothing says “spontaneity” like presenting your loved one with a gallon of milk that, despite the “homogenous” label, actually contains a surprising array of assorted buttons, pens, and semi-dissolvable snacks that someone has shoved in there. Imagine the look on her face when she just wants to have a cup of coffee with milk, but instead, a sludgy fig newton slides into her mug and splashes coffee into her face. Ha cha cha!  



Valentine’s Day is, above all, a day of passion. Instead of regular old predictable passion, try throwing yourself down with abandon, writhing around, and doing that howling gargle thing for no reason at all. It’s a special day, so why not ratchet up the excitement by whacking the side of your head against the table leg and then vomiting in rage? Everyone will think it’s a concussion, so you can finish off the rest of the evening in the romantic low lights of an emergency room getaway, where you can laze away the hours far from your responsibilities, hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour, waiting for the certain special someone to call your name, pronounce it wrong, and charge you $475 to shine a penlight in your eyeballs and say you’re fine. ¡Ay, mamita!



Speaking of getaways, how overdone is the “romance on the beach” thing? Basically all it is is something gritty underfoot, and the sound of water sloshing around. You got this.



Don’t forget photography, you know, CANDID photography, snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. Load up your beloved’s phone memory with 532 pictures of your nostrils, your thumb, and part of the couch leg, and also some brief videos of you shrieking, “NO, YOU’RE A POOP HEAD.” Stand back and watch the sparks fly. Homina homina homina. 

And finally


by turning up the heat. Seriously, they still haven’t figured out a way to lock down the thermostat. Twiddle away! How you doin’?




Image of box of chocolates by Stewart Butterfield (Flickr: Valentines Chocolates) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons