As Good As It Gets

Angie and Eli

The subject of this story and I in happier (and much warmer) days.

I don’t know if it’s the weather, Daylight Savings Time, or just a phase we need to get through, but it’s been a rough couple of weeks for me and the boy. It started out innocently enough. A reprimand here or there where I usually wouldn’t have to issue more than a warning and a stern look. Then it seemed like every few days there would be a note from the teacher … talking when he should be working, horseplay in the classroom, and (my personal favorite) making poor choices in the bathroom. An incident here or there, and I’m not bothered. But it was starting to feel like everything was an incident, that not an hour could go by without one of us feeling completely and utterly frustrated with the other. Like a smoldering volcano or a pot about to boil over, everything came to a head the other evening.

We found ourselves at a stand-off in the upstairs hallway.

Me, speaking to him in a low, slow, almost-growl. You know that voice. It’s the polar opposite of the yelling voice. It’s the one that signals to offspring in any culture or language that mom is about to lose her shit. I’m sure it’s an evolutionary trait, remnants of the growl animal moms used to warn their young that they were thisclose to eating them.

Eli, standing defiantely in only his underwear and socks. His eyes trying to shoot me with daggers, but his lower chin trembling, betraying his attempt to appear as if he couldn’t give a shit.

I growled, he gave me the stink eye while simultaneously trying not to cry, and we both just stood there. Staring at each other with nothing left in our tanks. Each of us wondering the same thing. How did we get here?

We don’t know this place, Eli and I. He has always been the easy-going, laid-back one. As a first-time parent, I had all the books with the clever titles. How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen. 123 Magic. Positive Discipline. They are well-worn from Elena’s early years. Now, they sit collecting dust on the bookshelf.

A few months ago, Elena, Eli and I were in the car and Eli asked what a “whooping” was. This led to a discussion on spanking, and I realized that I couldn’t ever recall spanking Eli … like, ever! He’s just always been the kind of kid that when you told him not to do something, he stopped doing it. End of story. How many kids get to the age of 7 and don’t even have a clear idea of what a spanking is? Elena, on the other hand, was quick to remind me that she knew exactly when I last spanked her. (For the record, it was a long time ago. She was 6 and I was attempting to “vacation” at the beach with both kids but no Mike. She stole a pack of gum from a store and then mouthed off to me, so I swatted her bottom with my flip-flop. She remembers it like it was yesterday, so clearly not my finest parenting moment.)

After we both had retreated to our rooms and cooled off a bit, I went back to Eli. As I was lying in bed next to him, I said, “I need you to know, I love you very, very much. But I really don’t like you right now. You might be feeling the same way about me, and that’s okay.”

It seems like a weird thing to say to a child, but I needed him to know it. I needed him to know for the same reason I need my kids to see Mike and I argue sometimes. Love might be patient and kind some of the time, but many times it is not. The people you love the most can also hurt you the deepest and fail you in ways you can never imagine. The loving is the easy part. The real work comes when you have to go from feeling angry and broken back to cherishing that person again.

I can be mad at you and still hug you goodnight. You can make mistakes and not be afraid to come home. You can tell me you hate my guts and I will still love you.

I know that this is just one of those phases we go through as parents. Some kids are easier than others, but even the easy ones have their days. Frankly, I’d much rather he start acting out now, when I can just take away the iPad, than wait until he’s a teenager or adult and act out in ways that are illegal in 47 states. I remember 7 as being one of those years that you look back and realize you’re glad it’s over. Seven is tough, right smack in the middle of big kid, but not big-enough.

Everything is awesome! #legokidsfest

Things are looking up for now, though. Whether it’s because of our heart-to-heart or his realization that Christmas is very, very close, I’m not sure. Thank goodness, because if things didn’t get better I was going to have to buy one of those blasted, creepy elves.

When I kissed him goodnight the other evening he told me, “I like you AND love you tonight!” When it comes to really and truly loving someone, that’s about as good as it gets.


Balancing the Good Stuff: Screens, Real Life, and Ibex Arguments

I participated in an Influencer Activation Program on behalf of Influence Central for Sprint. I received a sample device to facilitate my review.

ZTE Warp Sync Review Boost Mobile

Photo taken with ZTE Warp Sync camera. And yes, that is a drawing of Eli watching Gus poop. Perhaps it’s a commentary on how Eli feels about limits on screen time.

This fall, we underwent some serious soul-searching as a family in regards to our screen and technology habits. We’ve always tried to keep a handle on the kids’ screen time, but after a summer where we all depended on them too much (between countless layovers and delays while traveling and general parenting exhaustion after a month of non-stop family time), we needed a reset. A Ctrl-Alt-Delete on our technological lives, if you will.

It’s not easy coming up with a plan, especially when you start to take a good hard look at your own screen habits. We were turning into  “Do as I say, but not as I do” parents when it came to checking Facebook and playing Settlers of Catan online. We’ve also been down this path before, where we set impossible limits for the kids (30 minutes a day! And no more!). That’s just not us, and neither is setting timers and being ultra-specific on how much time is allowed. We’ve tried this before, and many, many times we’ve failed.

This time around, thanks to all those countless plans for family screen time rules that have crashed and burned in a matter of days or weeks, the kids were more than a little jaded when we announced our new plan. But this time, things would be different. There are no set limits on screen-time, but there are things that must be done before you can pick up a device. Weekdays are different from weekends and vacations, but we do require that certain things be done before playing Minecraft or checking Instagram. Like, brush your teeth and put on pants. On weekends, you need to read, play, and do something creative first.

We’re going by the good old gut-o-meter as far as time on devices goes. If it’s a beautiful day, and your friends are outside? Your booty needs to be outside as well. The deal is that when we say it’s time to put the screens up, it’s done without complaining or pestering us for more time. That right there will earn you a timer and nagging mom. And nobody wants that.

We’ve also been vigilant about putting our devices to sleep with plenty of time before our bodies need to go to sleep. It’s different for each kid (so unfair!) and gets pushed back an hour on weekends, but when it’s time, the devices come downstairs to sleep and charge. This has solved many issues, for all of us. No longer am I checking Facebook at 11 pm, then realizing it’s 11:30 and I’m wired. We don’t have to worry about Elena getting texts or notifications that she just can’t resist checking at all hours of the night.

While it’s still not a perfect plan, and we do slide from time to time, it feels so much better, so much more balanced. And in the end, that’s all we want from our techy lives, right? Balance between all the good stuff technology provides, and all the good stuff real life provides.

Speaking of good stuff, we’re not opposed to using screens to bring us closer together as a family. And nothing does that better than laughing together. And these days, nothing makes us laugh more than a good YouTube video. We might have a hard time agreeing on a movie, or a game, but we can all agree that an angry rooster scaring a reporter is hilarious.

Or that today’s kids seeing a Walkman for the first time is funny. And makes your grownups feel really, really old.

Or that arguing with an ibex is pointless … unless the point is busting a gut.

Or that a 1980s aerobics routine perfectly choreographed to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is guaranteed to turn any frown upside down.

Of course, it helps if your chosen device streams videos effortlessly, whether you’re at home or trying to entertain the little hobos while waiting for that pizza you ordered a hundred years ago (or is that just what it feels like eating out with my kids?). It’s even better if your chosen device offers Dolby Digital Plus, so you get the very best sound quality when the poor reporter drops the rooster and runs for his life, screaming like a little girl. For the last month, we’ve been playing around with the ZTE Warp Sync from Boost Mobile. With these features and more (including Sprint’s enhanced LTE network, a 5″ HD touchscreen with Corning Gorilla Glass 2, and a 1.2GHz quad-core processor), you’ll be laughing together while experiencing top-notch pictures, sound and super-fast, uninterrupted streaming.

And when it comes to monitoring screen time and data usage for bigger kids, just getting started with their very own devices, it helps to have choices (and limits!) when it comes to data plans. Boost Mobile gives you just that, with their Monthly Unlimited Select Plans. With much screen time, comes much data usage. The Boost Mobile data plans can help keep that data usage in check, until younger users can prove they’re responsible enough to not rack up big data charges.

This is the second device we’ve testing with Sprint and Influence Central, and it’s definitely opened up my eyes to new devices and plans. It’s certainly helpful as we navigate this new world of technology with kids, and especially as we move towards Elena having a full-fledged smart phone of her own. You can learn more about the ZTE Warp Sync and the flexible and affordable cellular plans from Boost Mobile, and see what we’ve been experiencing as a family for yourself.

In the meantime, we need to keep the laughs coming. The highs next week are in the 20s, and I see little snowflakes in  my 10 Day Forecast. To survive another Polar Vortex, we’ll need all the laughs we can get! So do your part, and share your favorite, family-friendly YouTube videos in the comments.



The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour: Warner Bros. London

The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour

In June of 2014 my family spent a month traveling through Spain and London. Each week I’m highlighting our individual destinations, giving you tips on traveling with kids and sharing some of the best things we discovered. You can find previously published travel posts on my Travel Page. You can find all the photos from our trip on my flickr page. 

If you have two kids that are both smitten with all things Harry Potter, you can’t very well take them to London and not pay a visit to the place where all the movie magic began. And so one of the very first things we did after booking our flights to London was to buy tickets to The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour at the Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden (about 20 miles northwest of London). Needless to say, the kids were more excited about this aspect of the trip than any other, and will tell you that it was the best part of the entire vacation.

All eight of the Harry Potter movies were made at the Studios, which gives you an amazing and unique opportunity to not only walk where the actors walked, but to see the movie sets first hand. Beyond that, you are treated to an astounding collection of film props, costumes, artifacts, art and graphics, as well as intimate looks at special and creature effects. Like the movies and the books, the studio tour is done to perfection.

The Great Hall Harry Potter

You begin the tour by watching a short movie about the making of the films. Once that is done, the movie screen disappears and you find yourself walking into the Great Hall. You get a short speech here, and then you’re set free to explore the rest of the Studios at your leisure. There is so much to see and do, with lots of interactive stations to keep younger fans happy.

Hagrid costume Warner Bros Studio London

Gryffindor Common Room

Golden Snitch

About halfway through the tour you can explore some of the bigger props and sets outdoors, including an exact replica of 4 Privet Drive, the Knight Bus, and the Weasley’s infamous flying car! You can also grab some butterbeer if you’re thirsty.

The Knight Bus Harry Potter

Weasley's flying car

We all audibly gasped when we walked into this room, featuring the 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts that was used for filming many of the exterior shots in the movies.

Hogwarts model

The end of the tour has you walking through the gift shop, of course, but it’s home to some of the coolest Harry Potter merchandise you’ll ever find. Elena found a Ravenclaw shirt that was making its first appearance in the shop that day. She loved the idea of having a Harry Potter shirt no one in the States had yet! Eli took home his very own wand. Elena got hers at Universal and he’d been envious of it ever since. (Funny story – Mike was in charge of bringing it back to the States, and it was the only thing he got pulled aside for at customs! They were very suspicious of it and thought it was a weapon. A weapon of the dark arts, perhaps! Thankfully they let him bring it home.)

Weasley's Wizard Wheezes

Part of me wished I had let Mike and the kids enjoy this together while I stayed in London and visited a site or two they weren’t particularly interested in (Hello, Westminster Abbey! I’m coming back for you!). I’m one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t read the books yet. You see, all these years Harry Potter has been something very special between Mike and the kids. He’s read the entire series aloud to Elena, and is working through them again with Eli. It’s kind of their thing, and I want to let them have it all to themselves for as long as possible. I have seen the movies, though, and so from that aspect the tour was very interesting. As much as I would’ve liked some extra time on my own in London, I can’t help but be grateful for being able to tag along on this Harry Potter adventure. Seeing the joy in their eyes, watching them take it all in together, and having the opportunity to capture those special moments as the fourth wheel was certainly a blessing. It truly is a special place for any Harry Potter fan, and if you can fit it in your itinerary you won’t regret it.

Ollivanders Wand Shop

Tips for Your Visit

Tickets: You must purchase your tickets ahead of time. You cannot buy tickets at the Studios. If you’re staying in London, you are looking at a bit of a commute to get to the Studios (about an hour and 10 minutes from central London), so keep that in mind as you purchase your tickets and choose a time of day to visit.

Getting There: Many, many thanks to Mackenzie for giving us the lowdown on how best to get to the Studios if using public transportation instead of driving there yourself. I’m simply repeating what she told us, which worked perfectly:

Make your way to Euston Station. There are lots of ticket kiosks inside, but pass those by and go to one of the ticketing agents instead. Ask for the fastest train to Watford Junction. You’ll end up purchasing a roundtrip ticket, and it was very reasonable, around £30 for the four of us. The train is comfortable and fast, about 20 minutes to Watford. Once you get to Watford Junction, you’ll leave the station and turn left. You’ll see some covered awnings, which is where the Harry Potter tour bus picks up and drops off. If you’re not sure, just ask. It seemed like 90% of our train was headed to there as well! You’ll buy another round trip ticket directly from the bus driver (£2 per person). The bus arrives about every 20 minutes and the ride takes about 15 minutes. You also have the option to book transportation through Golden Tours, which picks you up in London, but it will cost you at least double.
At the Studios: As soon as you arrive at the Studios, you’ll need to walk up the the ticketing windows outdoors and exchange your online reservation for actual tickets. There’s a nice little cafeteria inside, so I went to get the tickets and Mike and the kids went to have lunch. If you need to have a meal or a snack before or after your tour, this is actually a decent place to eat. There’s also a Starbucks, if you feel like paying the equivalent of $8 for a cup of coffee. You have a set time for your tour. You need to be there at least 20 minutes before, but I’d give yourself at least an hour. Busses and trains can run late, and all. You can also visit the gift shop while you wait, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied if you get there early. Plan on spending about 3 hours at the Studios before returning home the same way you came!
The day after our Harry Potter tour we bid goodbye to London and headed back to sunny (and – thankfully – much warmer) Spain. Next up: Barcelona!
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