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Smell the Coffee: Driven to distract

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After writing on Mother's Day about growing up with a mom who knew how to play in the sand, I received an email from Jennifer Hatten, of Huntington.Jennifer and her husband are expecting their first baby any day, and her mother, Joy Bennett, sent her a care package that included my column.Wrote Jennifer, "Your article really resonated with me. To say that we, and our family, are excited about this baby would be the understatement of the decade (possibly century). Your words were not just a nice testimony of your mother's character as an individual and parent, but also excellent advice for us first-time parents-to-be. For that reason, this article will be tucked away to serve as a reminder that I never forget what is truly important when our sweet bundle of joy decides to make his/her entrance into this world."Since I've been a parent for nearly 16 years now, Jennifer's email stirred memories of those sweet early days as a new mom. Along with those memories came thoughts of the trying times -- and the odd ways we parents find to survive. Through trial and error and much desperation, I discovered some tricks that made parenting a little easier, so I decided to share a few favorites.When my daughter was a toddler, she loved to race full speed through the house. Being that Celeste was so short, she could run directly under the dining room table without having to duck. Eventually the day came when she was no longer quite short enough. She discovered this the hard way -- by braining herself.The siren sounds my little girl then produced were of a level that had neighbors seeking shelter, likely believing a chemical plant disaster alert of astronomical proportions had been sounded.I could see she wasn't actually injured, so I guided her to the kitchen and for some strange reason, decided to pour milk into a saucer, which I then put on the floor. Celeste looked confused for a second, then dropped to her hands and knees and began lapping up the milk. By the time I'd refilled the saucer a few times, the injury was forgotten and she was rubbing herself against my ankles, like a cat.I have no idea what possessed me to try what I did, but it worked. The art of distraction became my go-to parenting trick for years, adapted for whatever the situation required. If Celeste was walking too slow, I'd start hopping and she'd start hopping too. If we were both grumpy, I'd challenge her to try and ruin my bad mood.Although I'd like to take credit for discovering the art of distraction, it was my mother who best put it to use. I wrote about this once before, about a decade ago, but it's still going strong. Mom's discovery came about when she was giving my brother's son, Zachary, a haircut when he was just 2 or 3 years old. Zach jerked his head at precisely the wrong moment, and while it wasn't a Van Gogh-level ear removal, he ended up missing a chunk of his ear.His level of wailing was extreme, and for some reason, my resourceful mother picked up her camera and started taking pictures of his ear. Zach's tears stopped in an instant. He seemed impressed that his injury was something that warranted documentation. He forgot his tears. Wanted her to take more. The pictures she took (and the tears she stopped) were such a huge hit that Mom's Boo Boo Book was created.Getting a picture in the Boo Boo Book became a big deal with all the grandchildren, and gradually grew to include all injuries, whether they were to children or adults or animals or beloved toys. Mom would even receive photos by email of injuries that happened when she wasn't around. The thing is, even though the kids would still whimper or occasionally cry when they got hurt, within moments they'd be after someone to take their picture.The Boo Boo Book became my No. 1 favorite parenting trick of all time. If I was going to share a single tip with a new parent, that would be it.
But giving advice is too much fun to stop there. Once I started thinking about it, I came up with a few other parenting tips for new parents that I wish I'd known from the start.
  • Don't buy your kids everything they ask for. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but for Celeste's first few Christmases, she actually got tired of opening gifts. Nothing was special because there was too much. She was overwhelmed.
  • Pick your battles. Hair grows back. And no one is going to believe you're a bad parent if your child wears the same weird boots or tattered jeans or plastic fireman's helmet five days in a row.
  • Buy a timer. Use it to make chores into a Race the Clock game. (Disclaimer: This does not work on teenagers.)
  • Don't just read to your children, write with them too. Pull a chair to your computer and get them to tell you a story and type it word for crazy word. It's like having a written recording of your child's voice at that age.
  • Every so often, drag the cushions off the couch and build a tent with sheets and have a movie night where you sleep on the living-room floor.
  • Allow them to make mistakes, and don't fight all their battles. But let them know you'll fight to the death for them if need be.
  • Have a parenting tip to share? A strange trick you tried that worked with your kids? Email it to
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