Favorite Audiobooks for Kids

There have been a few standout audiobooks that my kids have really enjoyed so far over their elementary and early middle school years.  For the most part, the books themselves are well known and already wonderful, but the particular readers have made these audiobook stories even better! The way these narrators know how to perform the dialogue, pausing, enunciating, emphasizing, applying different tones and voices, can really transform the story experience. 

You can find these audiobooks free at the library and at many of the audiobook apps such as Hoopla, Overdrive, and the like. I hope you enjoy these as much as we did!

Here is the list of what we have loved so far:

Roald Dahl Books

In the Roald Dahl audiobook collections, look for these versions:

The Whipping Boy

 by Sid Fleischman, read by Spike McClure – funny adventurous tale of two boys, one a prince and the other a poor commoner, and the relationship that grows between them

Henry Huggins 

by Beverly Clearly, read by actor and Broadway star Neil Patrick Harris – tales of trivial everyday childhood experiences that Clearly writes with such hilarious insight and Harris reads with such perfection.

A Cricket in Times Square

by actor Tony Shalhoub, famous, I believe, from the TV show, Monk, and The Marvelous Miss Maisel – a heartwarming story of a special little cricket and his animal friends.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Books 1-13)

by Lemony Snicket and narrated by Lemony Snicket (the author himself) or Britsh actor, Tim Curry – this series about unfortunate orphans trying to escape a terrible villain had us both laughing and sitting at the edge of our seats in suspense. The readers really made the characters come alive.

The Westing Game 

by Ellen Raskin, performed by Jeff Woodman – this classic mystery is really one of the all-time best mysteries for children in the way it unravels from character to character.

96 Miles

by J.L. Esplin, narrated by Robbie Daymond – Two brothers must travel 96 miles through the hot Nevada roads without barely any food or water. This book may be more interesting for ages 9 and up. The narrator really makes this story worth listening. He reads the entire book with such emotion, possibly surpassing the imagination that would have come with silent reading.

Have you heard some superbly narrated audiobooks for kids? I would love to hear about them! Please share below or email me at wishiknewbefore20@gmail.com

What You Need to Know About a Health Savings Account (HSA)

Everywhere on the Internet, you will easily find the basics on health savings accounts (HSAs) about who is eligible, what the rules are, etc. However, as they say, “the devil is in the details,” both good and bad.

Is an HSA right for you?

Using an HSA is, in fact, a big pain in the ass. It’s not easy to manage and use it efficiently and a certain amount of administration is required. While financially beneficial, I have to view it as getting paid a decent amount of money to do some low-level administrative work. 

Opening an HSA

Below are the things I “wish I knew before” I got started with the HSA:

#1 Start Saving in an HSA as Early as You Can

If you’re going to set up an HSA, the younger you are, the more money you can “make” with it! If you are eligible, see how your HSA with high-deductible plan compares with your other health insurance options in my other post, “Health Insurance Plan Comparison Spreadsheets.”

It’s one of the best retirement account options out there, without actually being limited to retirement. It’s pre-tax money going into an investment account and tax-free withdrawals (for qualified medical expenses). There’s no other investment account like that. It’s essentially tax-free income that you can use before retirement. As much as I hate the administrative side of the HSA, I think it’s the financially savvy thing to do, and I’m going to teach my kids to set up an HSA (and a Roth IRA) account as soon as they can. 

#2 Watch Out for Employer Contributions and Contribution Limits to the HSA

If your employer contributes to your HSA, make sure that you account for that in your overall contribution limit and set up your contributions accordingly. We didn’t pay attention to that and over-contributed last year. You may pay a penalty for excess contributions. Fortunately, you can typically rectify it online and with the IRS before the tax filing deadline, but it’s more admin work for you!

#3 Set Up a Stable HSA Provider Outside of Your Employer’s Provider

HSA providers can change even if you don’t change jobs. Set up an HSA provider account that is separate from your employer. Even if you don’t change employers, your employer may often change the HSA provider from year to year or even mid-year. It gets complicated to manage funds in multiple accounts. Ideally, we would have kept it to two.  Additionally, some of the employer’s HSA providers charge fees for the investment portion of the account. 

I followed the Finance Buff’s recommendations and opened an account at Fidelity which is fee-free. (Seriously, the Finance Buff author is like the financially savvy uncle I always wish I had!) It seemed like a no brainer when compared to HSA providers that do charge a fee to invest your HSA funds.  

#4 Avoid Investing With the HSA Provider That Your Company Uses 

Why? Because when your company decides to change providers, you have usually have to liquidate all investments or roll over to another provider. When you are forced to rollover your investments, you have to liquidate your investments and find equivalents in the new account, regardless of market timing. To keep it simple, keep cash funds in the employer account and only make investments with your own provider. Many employer HSA providers also charge fees for investment accounts – all the more reason to choose your own provider that doesn’t charge fees.

#5 Create a Physical and/or Virtual Home for Medical Expense Receipts

Create a physical home (a file folder, envelope, box, sock, whatever!) for the expense receipts as well as a file folder on your computer. Separate that into two piles –  reimbursed and not yet reimbursed. Creating the structure before you begin accruing medical expenses increases the likelihood of your staying organized and getting the most or anything out of your HSA! This sounds so basic, yet you would be surprised how critical it is to not hating your HSA. Just ask my husband for which paperwork is the all-time enemy of mankind. Even if you only reimburse yourself once a year or every 5 years (theoretically, there is no time limit), having the organization structure is what makes this manageable.

#6 Avoid Using the HSA Debit Card

I’ve found that reimbursing myself later gives me much more flexibility and time to think about which HSA I want to draw from and when I want to withdraw it. It also potentially allows your money to grow in the meantime. The flexibility offsets the inconvenience of having to manually reimburse.

Another reason to avoid using your debit card is that some people have the debit cards that draw from both your HSA and your LPFSA (the FSA account that you are allowed to have in conjunction with an HSA).  Watch the debits carefully because a technical error may draw from the HSA instead of the LPFSA (it happened to me!) Why is this a problem? Your LPFSA is “use it or lose it” for vision and dental expenses in the calendar year, while your HSA is not. You should always use up your LPFSA first, so you have to monitor the debits carefully to make sure there are no technical errors (which sadly, are quite likely) and time-consuming to fix.

#7 Plan How You Want to Use Your HSA Funds

It’s no use for you if you never use the money in the account, so have a plan for what medical expense you would like to use the money on. The longer you wait, the “less” the medical purchase will cost, assuming growth in your savings. A prudent way to manage the funds is to leave a portion uninvested so you can access it immediately if needed, and invest the remainder. Ideally, you should not draw from the invested funds when the market is particularly down. 

#8 Review the Complete HSA Eligibility List

Make sure you know what is considered an HSA-eligible expense to get the most out of your HSA. Medical bills and services with conventional medical providers are usually obvious HSA-eligible expenses. However, depending on what the balance of your medical and financial needs are, you should know that there are a lot of day to day items that are HSA-eligible items now, particularly after the CARES Act of 2020. (This post calls the items out about half-way down the page.) 

The website, HSA store, seems to have the most current and comprehensive eligibility list. Familiarize yourself with the list, so you can save those receipts to reimburse yourself as needed. Some of the less obvious, but commonly purchased items that I found useful here are many items of common use: OTC pain relief, allergy meds, face masks, Covid tests, sunscreen, orthotic insoles (OTC or custom), sports wraps and bandages, and first aid products. 

#9 Watch Out for State Taxes on HSA Investment Income If You Live in CA or NJ!

HSA investment income is currently federal and state tax-free everywhere except California and New Jersey. It doesn’t mean that HSA is not beneficial in those states. It just means that if you live in either CA or NJ, your HSA investment earnings are subject to state tax (they are still federal tax-free). Again, my “uncle” at the Finance Buff has a very helpful post on this called, “California and New Jersey HSA Tax Return Special Considerations.” 

Using an HSA can be a lot of work – think about whether you can do the job. It can save and earn you a lot of money, but you have to use it correctly to maximize the financial benefits.

Do you have extra tips? I’m still learning, so would love to hear more ideas! Email me at wishiknewbefore20@gmail.com

Resources

Best HSA provider:

Over contributing:

CA and NY state tax considerations

Comprehensive list of HSA eligible expenses

Raising Your Child to Be a Champion

  • Cultivate Interest – Less is More
  • Hold Your Ground as a Parent
  • Nurture a Second Passion 

The title of my recent read is a bit misleading for its true value – bold letters state “Raising Your Child to be a Champion” and in smaller letters, “in Athletics, Arts, and Academics.” This seemingly trite, short, and simple parenting book is authored by Wayne Bryan, the father of the Bryan twins, who grew up to be world doubles champions in men’s tennis. There’s not much scientific evidence backed strategies, but instead, refreshingly straightforward, actionable ideas from a dad who found success with his approach and philosophy. I liked a lot of his practical advice, and I find myself considering three of his ideas (below) in particular.

 Cultivate Interest - Less is More 
 Hold Your Ground as a Parent 
 Nurture a Second Passion 
Raising Your Child to Be a Champion by Wayne Bryan

1) Cultivate Interest – Less is More

Bryan reminds us about keeping it fun and using games or related fun activities to cultivate interest or passion in a child. This is pretty common knowledge. It was his idea that less is more that was intriguing to me. Bryan suggests spending just enough time on an activity that leaves them wanting more. For example, he would stop tennis practice early for his kids, leaving them hungry for more opportunities to play another time. 

It’s not intuitive, yet I think it works to some degree, even when they don’t have that intrinsic interest. Sometimes, there’s a subject matter or skill that you might feel is valuable for your child to learn, but they’re not interested. I only “let” my kids practice piano for 15 minutes a day (they don’t love the piano), but it seems to keep them from being over saturated with it. For the kids who do have a passion, a tempered approach would help to keep them from mentally or physically burning out early.

2) Hold Your Ground as a Parent

Bryan has a story about how his twins wanted to play video games like their friends so badly that they proposed a one year plan of doing daily chores in return for getting to play video games for 1 hour every Friday night. He was against the idea of any easily accessible video games or TV, but incredibly, the kids accomplished their one year goal and Bryan got them a game. Behind their father’s back, they broke their 1 hour/week promise within the month and started to prioritize game playing over sports, academics, and music. When Bryan realized, he got rid of the games forever. Sounds a bit extreme on both ends, but when I feel badgered and too tired to hold out on my kids’ constant requests, I actually think of his story to help me dig my heels in and say no to the kids. (I feel comforted that I’m not the only parent to hold off screen time and video games, ha.) For us right now, it’s NO to new toys, extra snacks, video games, more screen time, etc. I’m sure there’s a plethora of other things on which I’ll need to stand my ground as the kids get older.

3) Nurture a Second Passion 

Being intentional with fostering a second passion wasn’t something that I had really thought about, but Bryan writes that it can be very valuable to a child’s development. Kids can be interested in a lot of different things and so while we may support them in all of these interests, it may actually be even better if we consciously help them to build a second passion as well (more than just an interest). 

Bryan views this second passion as something a person can fall back to when things aren’t working out well in their first passion – a second passion is something that counterbalances the first passion, and maybe strengthens the other side of their brain. When his twins had a tough time with tennis, they could go to their music. He writes that the famous actress, Kaley Cuoco (known for The Big Bang Theory)  would fall back to competitive tennis during difficult periods in her early acting career. 

While I’m not raising any elite athletes, I definitely see the benefits of how being skilled or knowledgeable in more than one thing supports my children’s self-confidence and takes the edge off of disappointments or injuries in other sports and activities. 

All in all, I’ve got these takeaways in mind as we emerge from the pandemic and are faced again with modern day’s multitude of activities to choose for the kids. It’s an opportunity to rethink as well as become more intentional with my choices and my parenting.

How to Raise Good Eaters

Updated 9/2/2021

Feeding our children in this day and age is challenging – unhealthy food is too readily available and social norms of accommodating children can cultivate picky eaters. As parents, we’re met with a plethora of feedback from grandparents, pediatricians, parenting books, media, peers, societal norms, and social pressures and expectations.  

My kids, ages and 7 and 9, are good eaters, in the sense that they eat a wide variety of foods (meats, vegetables, grains), and will try new foods. Some of this may be luck, but it’s also due to habits. There are constant “turning points” in their eating career, and we can’t take their eating habits for granted at all. Their tastes and behavior continue to evolve and I’ve sometimes had to double down on some habits that wane easily. Below are our top 10 habits (10+ actually) to raising healthy eaters.

Today’s array of food options are endless

#1 Limit Snacks

Start with limiting snacks in quantity and frequency. This is very subjective – we’ve had friends who say they are limiting snacks but I see that their “limits” are quite different than ours. The basic idea though is that snacks, whether in the morning or afternoon, reduced my kids’ appetites for regular meals. 

Not over-snacking is fundamentally important to being a good eater at mealtime.  It’s totally fine and good for kids to be a little hungry or thirsty. The effectiveness of any other tactics that we use at mealtimes is very dependent on this habit of limiting snacks. I have seen a friend give his child a cupcake 30 minutes before dinner, and then fight with his son to have him finish a pasta dish. My friend didn’t realize that he himself had sabotaged his son’s appetite for that dinner. 

#2 Eat Only in Designated Areas 

We only allow eating in the kitchen and dining room, never in any other area of the house. First, it reduces ant and sticky toy problems. Secondly, it takes away the temptation to extend snacking and meal times and distract from the eating process itself – eating is not to be multi-tasked. Originally, we started this habit from when they were mobile because we didn’t want to be chasing them, or cleaning up after them all over the house. Then, I saw other kids running around their homes after taking a few bites, and coming back to the table for now cold food, and fighting with their parents about finishing their food. I realized we had conveniently sidestepped this battle. 

#3 Try Everything At Least 10 Times (not during the same meal)

I once read from one of those child nutritionist guides that people need to try something at least ten times to determine if they like that particular food or taste. Whether this is true or not, I have actually used that rule of thumb to great success. My children have expressed dislike for a lot of foods at one point or another. I tell them the rule and continue to put the foods that they dislike on their plates. My only requirement is that they have at least one bite of the food that they dislike and they can discard the rest. Over time, they surprisingly just started eating more of that food.

One of my kids hated mushrooms with a passion. Over the course of a year of seeing them on his plate regularly, he suddenly started eating them. So don’t give up. Keep making the food a part of their meals whether they eat it or not. Foods come in and out of “favor,” especially the vegetables, so if I remove them from the lineup altogether, I’ll never know when they’re coming back into favor!

# 4 Don’t Offer Alternative Foods During a Struggle

There have been times when my kids didn’t like the meal we had prepared for them, and basically looked like they were going to be missing a meal. Their grandparents have then suggested that I heat up some leftover pasta or other food that they knew the children liked. First, missing a meal here and there is okay. Second, try not to give in during those moments. All it takes is your doing this a few times, for your child to see your potential as a short order cook. 

#5 Prepare a “Reliable” Food

I might sound like a mean mom, but I don’t like my kids to go hungry either. To be proactive about avoiding a struggle, try to always have one aspect of the meal that is “reliable.” Reliable as in reliably eaten. That could be something as basic as rice, pasta or bread. If you’re introducing a new grain, then try to make sure either the meat or vegetable portion is “reliable.” That way, even if they’re not fully satisfied, they won’t “starve.” Or I might even heat up the “backup leftover food” and offer it as a side dish in advance, so long as they don’t think I got up specifically to go make a special dish that only they like to eat.

# 6 Offer Yucky Foods in a Variety of Ways

We prepare the “yucky” foods in different ways: different shapes, different spices, and different sizes. Our kids hated red bell peppers. Then I chopped them up and put them in chili (which has a pretty overwhelming flavor on it’s own). They noticed them, but couldn’t taste them. Gradually, I put the chopped bell peppers in less overwhelming dishes and before I knew it, they were eating large pieces without complaint (although still without love). 

#7 Have One Bite and Don’t Force Finish

We have a one bite rule. It doesn’t matter if they spit it out. The important thing is that they put it in their mouth. And the important thing is that they try it every time it’s offered. 

On the flip side, we never encourage the kids to finish their meal either. We encourage them to stop eating when they feel full even if it means leaving a lot of food on the plate. We don’t say just “a few more bites.” However, we also have limited snacks and don’t prepare special meals outside of meal times (unless someone is sick), so there’s no gaming the system for extra snack food.

#8 Offer a Variety of Foods Early On and Repeatedly

It’s now commonly encouraged for parents to introduce babies to a diverse diet as a way of limiting the likelihood of developing allergies. However, this advice has multiple benefits. It helps develop a diverse palate early on. The ability to eat a variety of foods early on makes it easier for kids to get the different vitamins and minerals that their growing bodies need. To avoid FOMO, even junk food, snacks, and desserts are all sampled – just in limited quantities! The important thing is to keep offering the variety even as it is rejected. . . possibly over and over again. 

#9 Control Meal Portions

Controlling how much food your children eat is contrary to most of the advice I found in baby-led weaning books, parenting books, and from our own pediatrician. All these sources advised that babies and young children know how to self-regulate and will stop eating when full. This ranks among some of the most incorrect advice I ever heard from “official” sources. Maybe this was true for breast-feeding, but absolutely wrong for milk and solids. Or perhaps this may have been true for humans prior to a world of processed foods, fiber-free food where eating bite after bite was not so easy. 

Yet given the ubiquitous advice, I tried this many times, and watched as my babies, and later, children absolutely did not know their limits over and over again when eating a food they liked (usually something fried, sweet, or a processed snack). In fact, adults often don’t know their limits either when it comes to snacking or foods they like in particular, and we somehow expect children to? Allowing kids to stretch their stomachs too much on a regular basis sets them up for a cycle of overeating and getting more than their bodies need. Try to limit meals to reasonable quantities until you’ve taught your kids to reliably know how to stop eating. 

#10 Educate About the Foods They’re Eating

Don’t underestimate the ability of your children to want to do right by their bodies. In past societies, food education may not have been so important, but with all the choices of foods these days, teaching kids how to navigate the food world is just as important as teaching them how to navigate cyberspace. 

I wasn’t very aware about food growing up, but the trends towards understanding what we put in our bodies and our babies has really heightened my awareness around food and its impact on our health. Talk to them often about what your family is eating and why it’s good for you. Or when you’re having junk food, talk about why it’s not good for you and why you shouldn’t eat too much of it. Talk about cultural differences in foods and diets and the relative healthiness of each. Talk about the evolution of food. Talk about it all repeatedly. Eventually, it will resonate. 

For example, you can explain in a way kids can understand more easily. An 8/18/21 study published in Nature Food, framed eating a hot dog to be akin to losing 36 minutes of healthy life! Eating nuts, on the other hand, added 25 healthy life minutes. That news gave my children pause!

#11  Educate About Junk Food, Peers, and Society

When we joined the food world through organized sports and school, our kids became inundated with birthday party pizza and cake, sport practices that included brown bags filled with a variety of processed/healthy/sugary snacks, and classmates who got to eat candies and chocolate milk regularly at school lunchtime. We had to teach our kids about how food and snacks are thought about differently by each family and why they might not get to eat as much of the snacks and sweets as their friends. Holding off the peer pressure to eat like their friends can be one of the toughest things to do, but it gets easier the longer you do it.

#12  Model Food Behavior

Finally, what if you’re a junk food junkie and / or a picky eater yourself? It’s extra, extra tough to raise your kids to eat differently than you do, so I had to model the food behavior I wanted them to have. 

I found myself learning to be a better eater by following the habits that I was trying to model for my kids. Interestingly, my appetite for junk (formerly quite strong), waned when I removed a lot of the items from my shopping list. After I learned to pay attention to labels and ingredients, the rational side of me was put off by many of the ingredients in a lot of packaged foods that I used to eat. 

Similarly, I hated lamb meat, eggplant, and brussel sprouts growing up, but in an effort to diversify and follow the behavior I was trying to encourage in my kids, we introduced it in meals periodically. Roasted brussel sprouts and spicy garlic eggplant are now in my list of favorite vegetable dishes. I’m still working on the lamb meat, one bite per meal. . .

My Favorite Free Printables

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been supplementing home learning for the kids here and there. I’ve found a few free printables that we really like – because they print well, and have an interface that is easy to use.

(There are a lot of interactive sites that can supplement learning as well, but with all the Zoom and other digital resources that the schools are requiring the children to use, I’m trying to dial it back and reduce screen time for the kids.

Here’s a running list in the various categories of what I’ve found and used:

Favorite Free Math Printables

Both of the math sites listed here provide a lot of different printable worksheets that go up to at least 5th grade. I see calculus topics on Math Aids, and if I remember correctly – that would be high school!

  • https://www.math-aids.com/  – I use Math Aids quite a lot to give my kids the practice with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that they don’t get with common core at school. I think it helps them to understand the common core approaches better. There are a wide range of math topics on the site though that we haven’t reached at my kids’ age.
  • https://www.math-salamanders.com/ – I’ve used Math Salamanders less than Math Aids but I liked the mental math problems and it has a similar interface to Math Aids. A large variety of worksheets in a large range of math topics are available.
  • I used the blank multiplication chart on https://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/  to teach my kids their times tables. There are a variety of well laid out charts to choose from. The site also seems to have other cool brain games and memory improving techniques that I hope to explore more someday.
mathaids
math-aids.com Division section

Favorite Free Geography and Map Printables

https://online.seterra.com/ – We just started some geography and I found this awesome site called Seterra, for free, professional-looking blank maps for the seven continents to teach the kids all the countries of the world. The printables were just a minor part of the site. The site is an extensive free resource of games and resources on world geography.

Seterra

Favorite Free Comic Book Template Printables

http://allfreeprintable.com/blank-comic-book-template – My kids’ latest passions are in graphic novels and comic books, so of course they wanted to write their own books, too.

ComicBook
Just one of a variety of comic book templates from http://allfreeprintable.com/blank-comic-book-template

Favorite Free Chinese Learning Printables

Since extracurriculars have been cut down so much with the pandemic, we’ve been doing more Chinese lessons at home and these two printables are wonderful.

  • http://chineseprintables.com/  – This straightforward site called Chinese Printables allows you to print grid paper or practice paper in a variety of styles
  • http://chineseworksheetgenerator.org/ – I love, love, love this Chinese Worksheet Generator. You input any characters that you want and it will generate great looking practice worksheets, along with options for stroke order, etc.. This is especially useful for us because it’s curriculum agnostic and allows us to customize the worksheets for our kids to suit whatever we are learning or need to practice more.
ChineseWorksheetGeneratorBorder
Sample worksheet generated by chineseworksheetgenerator.org

 

Favorite Free Eye Chart Printables

If you’ve read my posts on myopia, you know that eye health is a biggie for me. To help with some of the myopia reversal techniques and also regularly check everyone’s vision, I use free eye chart printables. Since my kids’ tend to memorize the chart, I’ve even made my own customizable 10 feet and 20 feet eye charts.

eyechart
Read the message that I wrote for my kids with https://www.homemade-gifts-made-easy.com/eye-chart-maker.html

Other Favorite Free Teaching Printables

I found this site to have a lot of free teaching printables to help supplement home learning. It’s regularly updated by different sources, so it provides a bit of inspiration even if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for. It’s UK-based, but many materials are still applicable for us. I’m sure there’s a US equivalent, but I just haven’t come across it yet.

Thoughts? More info? Better info? I’m all ears. Email me at:  wishiknewbefore20@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Revisiting “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do”

During this time of “shelter in place,” I’m tempted to give myself a bigger break than usual when it comes to parenting. Then I remember two things: one, we don’t know how long we’re going to be dealing with this, if this is, in fact, the “new normal,” and two, if I relax my parenting now, I might be giving myself more work for later to fix habits I’ve undone in a couple of weeks (screen time, anyone?).

So to help me stay “strong,” I’m falling back on some great guidance I once found in “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do” by Amy Morin, a foster parent, therapist, and social worker. I’ve read a few parenting books and Amy Morin’s book definitely falls into the authoritative parenting category (as opposed to permissive or disciplinarian). I’m not always a mentally strong parent, but I certainly aspire to be!

The best thing about her book is that it’s practical and usefully laid out. For each “thing” that mentally strong parents shouldn’t do, she lists examples of ways we actually do what we shouldn’t do – without even realizing it. You will almost always find yourself in some of her examples. She shares a detailed story highlighting that “thing” parents shouldn’t do and then provides a variety of tips and guidance for what you should do instead. First, if you just want to read her list, see below. But the list doesn’t mean much without the context she provides in each of the chapters. She really brings each of these “Don’t Do’s” to life with lots of example situations and personal experience. 

13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, according to Amy Morin:

  1. They don’t condone a victim mentality
  2. They don’t parent out of guilt
  3. They don’t make their child the center of the universe
  4. They don’t allow fear to dictate their choices
  5. They don’t give their child power over them
  6. They don’t expect perfection
  7. They don’t let their child avoid responsibility
  8. They don’t shield their child from pain
  9. They don’t feel responsible for their child’s emotions
  10. They don’t prevent their child from making mistakes
  11. They don’t confuse discipline with punishment
  12. They don’t take shortcuts to avoid discomfort
  13. They don’t lose sight of their values

I’m dissecting my own behavior around this list as a form of parenting self-analysis. Starting with the #1 Thing that I should try not to do too often. . .

#1 They Don’t Condone a Victim Mentality

My kids will moan and complain that it’s their worst day ever. That it’s everyone else’s fault but their own that they weren’t focused during a basketball game. That their math book is stupid and that’s why they’re frustrated. Or they’ll let their sibling push their buttons until they explode while their sibling sits smugly and happily in the other room. 

Morin calls a victim mentality a learned behavior that can be learned from parents unfortunately. Some things that I’ve been guilty of as a parent:

  • Making excuses for my kids’ failures or shortcomings (yes, I’ve blamed their terrible tempers on their father and their negativity on genes from my pessimistic mom)
  • Thinking that my children are helpless sometimes

Instead of giving time to these thoughts, I should be helping my child focus on what he can control in his life. For example, being trapped more or less in our home now, I’m trying to empower them with how not to be fearful of coronavirus. I’m telling them that we have to train ourselves to wash hands automatically, not touch our faces, and to be mindful of space and contact with others at all times. If the kids get into fights with each other, I can ask them to think of what they can do to make themselves feel better and not expect me to solve it or punish the other child. 

I’ve had lots of opportunity to work on my parenting these last few days, and without getting too ahead of myself, I want to say that I’ve noticed more independent behavior. I’ll be sure to have another post on “#2 They don’t parent out of guilt” which I already know will give me some cringe-worthy self-reflection. . .

Lessons Learned in the Time of Coronavirus

I’m home with my family this morning, following guidelines for self-isolation and social distancing. It is so surreal, but here are the actionable items that I’ve learned so far from living in the time of coronavirus. Most of us will survive the coronavirus, and this is why these learnings are important to me.

Photo credit: forbes.com

#1 Respond at the first hint of trouble, not at panic time

Determining what constitutes as “the first hint of trouble” is open to debate, but I will say that I responded somewhere in the middle between “the first hint of trouble” and “panic time.” 

I went to Costco two weeks ago and decided to purchase some stocking supplies. It was more crowded than usual and I could see a number of carts filled with an irregular amount of certain supplies. However, it was still a manageable crowd. I should have thought of precautionary preparation when the first case of coronavirus was diagnosed, rather than when I actually did. After all, there’s no downside to acting earlier.

A few days ago, I went back to Costco for some allergy medicine and it was panic time. The parking lot was almost full before the store even opened. The allergy medicine I wanted was out of stock, as were all of the panic items (paper towels, toilet paper, rice, pasta, disinfecting wipes, rubbing alcohol). Shoppers were elbow to elbow (great for our minimum 6ft social distancing requirement) and I am now hearing online reports from our neighbors of the continual crowds at all the local grocery stores.

#2 Always have 3 months worth on hand

Why 3 months worth? Well, I’m not sure that’s the correct number, but basically you want to be self-sufficient for some period in the event that you become isolated (due to say coronavirus, store closures, insufficient stock, or a major disaster renders everything unavailable to you except for your home (don’t forget to pack your emergency bag for when your home isn’t an option either). 

Here’s what I should have had 3 months worth of:

  • Food (that we would actually eat – not random cheap stuff for emergencies)
  • Household supplies (paper products, cleaning, and disinfecting supplies)
  • Toiletries (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.)
  • Medications (common OTC items like cold and allergy medicines and prescriptions) 
  • Protection supplies (disposable gloves, garbage bags, plastic bags, N95 masks, face masks )

I wasn’t able to get some of these items during the current panic time. What I should have done is just gradually amassed 3 months worth of the above items like a regular consumer in the months/years prior and thereafter, just replenish stress-free any items that dipped below the 3-month threshold. 

If you don’t have enough room where you live, stockpile whatever amount is realistically maintainable in your available space. If organized purchasing is not your strong suit, use an inventory list – there are many online options to help.

#3 Don’t rely on doctors or the government

 . . . ever.  Assess your own risk. 

My elderly mom lives with us. One of my kids has asthma, as does their father. Initial government and public health/medical guidance was not enough for us. After a few days of discussion and wondering what we were waiting for, we pulled our kids out of public school. The next day, the public schools announced a 4 week closure. Given our high risk family members, I have already decided we will not go back in just 4 weeks even if that date holds true. 

If we don’t get the coronavirus soon (assuming my kids didn’t just contract it at school last Thursday), I will consider ourselves lucky this time. I already know a couple of families with members who have COVID-19-like symptoms. We were late to make the right decision for ourselves. Next time, I will trust my gut and not be afraid to seem overly cautious.

As far as how to treat COVID-19 if you do contract it, Western doctors are not likely to have the best approach. Western medicine is limited by evidence-based treatment, and there has not been time for this to emerge. A more holistic approach, merging Western and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) may currently be the best option we have. For those who may be open to TCM or are familiar with it, there are clear TCM treatment plans for COVID-19 in China. These have already been used in conjunction with modern medicine for many patients in China – which certainly has experience by now. If you’re in a Western country, you’ll likely have to pull this treatment together on your own, because most Western doctors will dismiss TCM approaches completely.

#4 Change mindsets, lifestyles, and habits now

This is not likely going to be the last time that we or our children will experience pandemics or global crises in our lifetimes. I won’t miss this opportunity to make lasting changes to my own lifestyle and habits and to truly instill the same into my children so they won’t even have to think about these habits when they’re older. It will serve them well throughout their lives in any context.

Learn now 

  • Not to touch your face. I’ve toyed with the idea of wearing gloves or taping a Kleenex to my face to make me realize when I’m touching my face. Send me your suggestions!
  • To wash hands properly and automatically – we think we do, but oh, we do not. . .  

Protect and boost your immune system 

Recognize how decisions and actions you think that you are making for just yourself actually affects other people. This applies to so many things in our lives. The earlier our children learn this, and to act on this, the better our world will be.

There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but at my age, I’ve developed some unhelpful habits and sustaining change isn’t easy. But perhaps the threat of coronavirus to those I love can give me the motivation to sustain change. Plus, I’m not elderly now, but I most certainly will be someday. Hopefully, we’ll be better prepared then to handle anything life gives us.

5 Tips for Dealing with Health Insurance

I’m still on my health insurance rant. How many ways can the health insurance system screw you? If you’re a health insurance user, chances are you’ve been scammed, duped, or basically not given the coverage that you paid for because the health insurance system in this country has been intentionally/unintentionally designed to make sure that you won’t know how to use it and getting enough reliable information to avoid costly errors is practically impossible. (Help fight this by choosing the most cost-effective health insurance for you with some of these comparison spreadsheets.)

Here are five things I’ve learned about when dealing with health insurance:

#1 Health insurance representatives and provider office personnel often give wrong, different, or incomplete information

How are you supposed to know what information is correct if you get different information depending on who you talk to? What’s worse is that, you then usually make financial or health decisions based on this incorrect information.

Health insurance explanation of benefits (EOB) – did it really cost $1259.75?

If you ask about coverage benefits, the health insurance representative may forget to tell you that your deductible applies. I have been told over the phone that services from an out-of-network provider are covered 100% (no deductible mentioned). Only to find out after the claim has been denied and 15 phone calls later, that our deductible needed to apply first. Perhaps someone could have told me when I asked the first time? Get a summary of the plan benefits sent to you. Better yet, make them send you the long detailed version and look up the answer to your question. Don’t rely on over the phone answers. 

The provider’s office has also on occasion told me that they are out of network, even when I was able to find them in the online in-network provider directory and then confirmed it with a health insurance representative. In those cases, you can now get a confirmation number of the phone call along with a record of the call content. However, you have to ask for it. 

# 2 Services performed by in-network providers may need coverage by different types of insurances or may not be covered

Well, I didn’t know this was possible, but after being billed for the refraction portion of a visit to the ophthalmologist office, I discovered that you may need to break down claims to submit different portions of it to medical insurance and vision insurance. However, you have to figure this out in ADVANCE so that YOU can tell the eye care provider’s office which doctor will be allowed to perform which service on you.

These days, many eye care offices house ophthalmologist, optometrists and eye care shops in the same location. We needed to check on the sudden onset of myopia (therefore the need for an ophthalmologist), but checking the eye problem also involved the need to check vision, a refraction service which could be performed by either the ophthalmologist or the optometrist, both of which performed services on my son at the same visit. 

However, it turned out that we were only covered if we had the optometrist perform the refraction. So although the optometrist was seeing my son at the visit, the ophthalmologist happened to perform the refraction. Therefore, we had to pay for the refraction out of pocket. Make any sense? Somehow, you really need to do your research before you go to any doctor. I’m sure this happens in many doctors’ offices.  However, I bet you the doctor’s office won’t be able or willing to help you much when you ask questions BEFORE a visit. Who’s screwed? You’re screwed.

# 3 Surprise billing

They’re finally doing something about this “surprise billing.” I have an Explanation of Benefits (EOB) that now actually states what to do if you receive a “surprise” bill – they’ll try to help you fight it. In fact, there was even a recent article in the Atlantic about this, stating, “A fifth of U.S. patients get surprise bills from surgery—even if their surgeon and hospital are in-network.” 

Surprise billing occurs when you are receiving a medical service from an in-network provider  and, unbeknownst to you, part of your service is performed by an out-of-network provider. You will receive a “surprise” bill for that portion of the service. This could be $150 or lots of $$$ depending on the service. 

Two examples of situations where this might happen: 1) you’re getting lab work done at your in-network provider, but without notifying you, they send the lab to an out-of-network lab to perform some of the tests. This happened to me. 2) You’re getting surgery and the work has been pre-authorized by your insurance as in-network covered services. However, maybe the anesthesiologist or another doctor who does a little work on you (while you’re out cold) happens to be out-of-network. You get the bill for the out-of-network services. 

#4 FSA or HSA – not both

Maybe a lot of you knew this already, but not me. You can only have an FSA or HSA – not both. (However, you can have a limited purpose FSA that’s for vision and dental expenses only and HSA together.) We signed up for an FSA at the beginning of the year. Mid-way through the year, we had a job change and had to change insurance plans. We looked at the HSA and discovered that was a good option for us. BUT guess what, since we already had an FSA for the calendar year, we were not allowed to enroll in the FSA plan. And we were not allowed to cancel the FSA, in order to enroll in the HSA. No double-dipping, but you gotta read to figure this out because no one will point this out to you.

#5 Administrative labyrinth

I’m not sure if NOT getting to enroll in the HSA was actually a blessing in disguise. HSAs (and to some degree FSAs) are for those who are extremely good at keeping receipts, completing paperwork, reading the fine print, following up when claims get denied, resubmitting receipts, making phone calls that last 30 minutes each (at least), and a plethora of time to do these things. The administrative labyrinth also applies any of the problems mentioned above. You know yourself. Are you going to have the time to follow up on all of this (because you will inevitably have to)? Otherwise, it’s $$ to Uncle Sam or cash you can never use. 

Or if you don’t care about getting screwed – you can just save yourself time, and know you’re probably getting a bad deal with your insurance. But I say, keep calling them, keep irritating them, send your horror stories to the media, or we’re all going to have to deal with this miserable system forever. 

Do you have more to add to my list? Send them over!

Health Insurance Plan Comparison Spreadsheets

Updated September 27, 2021

Changing jobs? Open enrollment? Recently, we were choosing between a variety of health insurance plans, including ones with HSA options. Before I thought to look online, I had already made my own comparison spreadsheet, but I guess that’s all well and good because it was a nice, eye-opening experience to think through the ridiculous rules of each of the health insurance plans myself. Even the plan representatives barely understand the rules. 

Later on, I found a few different health plans spreadsheets online that I thought were helpful and collected the links below. There are also various calculators and comparison widgets on health websites, but they hide the logic and calculations they’re using to compare, so it’s not as useful. In the end, it’s a bit like picking stocks because of the assumptions and guesses you have to make about your future needs, but I still found it more useful than not thinking about it at all. Hope some of these are helpful to you too.

#1 Mr. Money Moustache and Reddit Health Comparison Spreadsheets

These two spreadsheets that I found on the forums of Mr. Money Moustache and Reddit are quite similar and straightforward to use. They compare a PPO plan to an HDHP w/HSA. They graph out the costs of the plans based on medical costs which is helpful to see around what cost point that the plans are most cost-effective. It comes down to what you think your costs are likely to be:

#2 Business Insider Picking Healthcare Plan Spreadsheet

This one posted by Anisha Sekar on businessinsider.com had a thoughtful, step by step post accompanying the spreadsheet:

#3 Healthcare Plan Worksheet on spreadsheetsolving.com

I also liked this spreadsheet on spreadsheetsolving.com (interesting site and worth further review for those of us who like spreadsheets!). The poster did a nice job of talking through the logic behind the calculations:

#4 Simple Worksheet at The Finance Buff

Recently (9/27/21), I came across this post at thefinancebuff.com called “Do The Math: HMO/PPO vs High Deductible Plan With HSA.” The post helps you to think about how to choose a healthcare plan and includes an abbreviated worksheet to work through a simple comparison, especially if you’re not in the mood to slog it through with a detailed spreadsheet. The Finance Buff website itself is a great resource for personal finance, btw!

#5 My Detailed Health Plan Comparison Spreadsheet(s)

To use any of the spreadsheet versions below, log in to your Google account while you are accessing the spreadsheet, then you will be able to select “make a copy” and modify it however you want in your Google Drive.

In each of the versions below, there’s a tab to estimate usage costs, and then another tab to see how the different deductible amounts for the plans actually played out based on the estimated costs. Don’t forget to adapt the spreadsheet logic to your own plans’ rules. Also, If you catch some obvious errors, I would love to be notified!

Health Insurance Plan Comparison V1 – February 2020

Health Insurance Plan Comparison V2 – May 2020

Health Insurance Plan Comparison – Reader-modified 2021

Best Resources for Teaching Chinese to Kids

Updated as of 10/11/22

After a lot of searching the Internet and asking around for best practices, we settled on a few key resources for teaching Chinese to our children. The amount of resources and choices online can be really overwhelming and paralyzing if you don’t know where to start. There are a lot of good options and none will be perfect. I was definitely in the “paralyzed” category for awhile. Now that I’ve done the research, I realize that the key is to just pick a strategy and structure and get started.

Below are the main resources we use: 

Resource #1: A curriculum/series of books

Pick a curriculum/series of books  to provide you with the structure you need to teach. This should be your starting point and you can build out from here. We chose this book series by Dr. Ma Li Ping, based on a recommendation of a friend: https://www.heritagechinese.com/. We liked this series because it begins the first few levels without pinyin. It comes in both simplified and traditional versions. We felt that our children were distracted by the pinyin and wanted to introduce it later, so this series seemed like a good fit.

Resource #2: A reliable, online reference

We use Pleco as our online dictionary/app. It is a very comprehensive app. We often need to look up words for pronunciation and confirmation of stroke order, etc. It offers pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese and shows traditional and simplified characteristics. This app has a lot of nice features which we haven’t even gotten to use yet (like flashcards, self-tests, clipboard readers/translators). 

Resource #3: A writing practice generator

I found this website called Chinese Worksheet Generator and it is such an awesome find! It’s free, no frills, straightforward to use, and works really well. The format that it prints in happens to suit our writing needs very well. You just type in the characters that you would like your kids to practice and it spits out a perfect looking sheet, complete with stroke order, pinyin, definitions, and meaning clues (if you want). You can delete the pinyin and definitions if you don’t want them to be printed.

Resource #4: Easy, fun exposure to Chinese language

Good videos in Chinese for kids learning Chinese are still a little hard to come by. By “good,” I mean that the story or content is interesting or entertaining for the kids *and* that the audio is slow and clear enough for learners to follow. Here are a few that we have used:

Netflix for Chinese Learning

Netflix has become so international, many of their children’s shows and movies are now available in various languages, both in audio and captions (though not always both). You’ll be surprised at how many of these shows are available in Chinese audio and traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles. Just three years ago, I would have to hunt YouTube and tiny library collections for these kinds of videos.  The website, Mama Baby Mandarin, has a clear guide on to how to search Netflix for TV shows and movies in Chinese.

YouTube and Little Fox Stories for Chinese Learning

Little Fox Stories is an interactive children’s website for Chinese learners that also has strong video presence on YouTube. Their site has animated Chinese stories, songs, and games structured for different levels of learning. The stories come with vocabulary and interactive quizzes that are useful for learning. Their animated stories themselves are best viewed on YouTube. Not all the stories are equally good, but as intermediate-level learners, we have watched two stories so far that I highly recommend for their clear, slow narrative pronunciation, word choice, clear Chinese subtitles, and relative entertainment value:

  • Journey to the West series, a classic Chinese story that is retold in a kid friendly, very well produced language-learning video series. There are alot of versions of this video on Youtube, but not all have Chinese subtitles or are even in Chinese. This link is the one that has the subtitles.
  • The Jungle Book series, another kid-friendly retelling of the famous story

Muzzy and BBC programming for Chinese Learning

Muzzy – Chinese version is a BBC-produced language learning program. As part of the program, they produce a story centered around a fluffy character named Muzzy. The language learning video about Muzzy is what my kids particularly enjoyed and which I found particularly useful as another entertaining story that was carefully narrated at a pace and language level suitable for beginning to intermediate child learners. We obtained the DVDs from the library, but they are now also available digitally on many of the library apps like hoopladigital.com.

How to Raise Bilingual Children

Do you want to share your language with your child? Have you wondered if you’ll be able to teach your kids your own language despite living in a foreign country? You absolutely can and there are benefits. Many studies have shown a cognitive benefit to bilingualism and it’s a great way to strengthen the bond with your child throughout their lives. The question is how will you be able to do it?

Despite living in the US and having English be our shared family language, we have been partially successful in teaching our children three different languages. They are now in elementary school and speak Chinese with me (yes, there is a little English mixed into the Chinese, as I am not a native speaker either), fully comprehend their Dad who speaks only a European language to them, and speak English everywhere else.

I consider this result to be “pretty good,” given that our need for and exposure to these non-English languages is minimal. We parents, speak English to each other as we don’t speak each other’s respective languages (at least not well enough). It’s not convenient for our children to attend a language immersion school, but we do try to have weekly home lessons in Chinese

Many people ask us how we have managed to be able to teach our children so much fluency, especially when English is the dominant household language. Based on our experience, I feel that there are misconceptions about what it takes to create fluency and the amount of resources that you need to support it. Here are the 3 most important things that we did:

Lesson #1

Be persistent and consistent – you cannot give up. This can be hard to do, but it is so important. Firstly, we had to be consistent in having each parent speak a single, different language to our children (also popularly known as one parent, one language, OPOL). We began this at birth. This may feel awkward at first, but in a week, it becomes a habit and you no longer have to think about it.  

Delaying English was easy at first when they had not encountered the rest of the English-speaking world, but when they learned English at preschool, it became challenging. For many of our friends, this was the turning point. When your kids begin to speak English back to you, you cannot give up and speak English back. 

At this point, I read many online sources that cautioned insisting too hard about the language and creating resentment in the child towards the language. I was fearful of that and I did receive pushback from my children, complaining about why they had to speak another language. I would back off, and then I would insist again the next hour, or the next day, etc. The way I viewed it, they would be linguistically the same whether they became resentful and didn’t want to speak the language as they got older, or if I just gave up and they never had the chance. I figured being pushy and insistent was worth it. And it worked. In both my children, we got over that “turning point.”

Since then, there is an ebb and flow in the mix of Chinese-English that I hear, if it seems like too much English is being used for words they also know in Chinese, I remind them of the Chinese vocabulary that they can also use. I consistently point out the advantages of their ability to speak another language fluently. As they are older now, they can appreciate the coolness of that.

Lesson #2

Relax your expectations – this really helps with adhering to lesson number one and not giving up. I guess this also really depends on your goals and how flexible your goals are for your child’s language learning. If you are flexible, then you won’t be as likely to give up when you see that they are not speaking back to you in your chosen language. It’s not an “all or nothing” proposition. There can be a huge range of fluency and any amount can be beneficial:

  • Don’t be discouraged if their accent is not perfect or if they use the language incorrectly. 
  • Don’t think that it’s useless if they can only speak the language but cannot read or write it. 
  • Don’t believe that a school with language immersion is the only way to learn the language 
  • Don’t expect that they’ll learn the language better if they go on language playdates (most likely they’ll only speak English!)
  • Don’t think that your mastery of the language is necessary for them to learn it, too. You can’t be a beginner, but you don’t need to have 100% fluency either.
  • Don’t feel like everything you say to them has to be in that language. If something is easier (say math concepts) in English, just do that instead of getting frustrated. It’s not all or nothing!
  • Don’t require that every word has to be in your language (let them mix in English if they need to)

For example, my kids rarely speak back to their dad in his native language. He didn’t want to push it during that “turning point,” that I mentioned above. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to speak in his language to them their entire lives to this point. Their vocabulary continues to grow even while they don’t vocalize it. On occasion, when asked to greet their European grandmother, we are surprised at the amount of language they are able to verbalize! If they want to learn to read/write another European language in school someday, they’ll be off to a great start. Think of the free gift that you are giving your kids without them even realizing it!

Lesson #3

Talk a lot and repeat yourself. This is crucial, particularly if there aren’t others around in your home or community who speak the language you are trying to teach. This shouldn’t be a whole lot of extra effort either because you have to talk to them all the time anyway, right? Recognize yourself as the key, and possibly only resource. Your kids have to hear the language a lot.

Have conversations about anything and everything and use words that adults use, not kiddie language. Kids may not catch on at first, but they are in the window of language development where their potential is sky high, and they can pick up a lot more than you realize with your use of repetition. You have to give them the vocabulary to talk to you in the language you want them to use. In the earlier days, you may find yourself frequently repeating back in your language what they say to you in English, so that they can learn the words they need to express their thoughts to you.

Do you have lessons to share about bilingualism? I would love to hear them. My chief concern now is how to continue to keep the children’s language skills (even if they never learned more at this point) as they go through a monolingual education. Someday I hope to share tips about that as well!

Resources

A good resource about raising multilingual children:

Articles and talks about the benefits of bilingualism (there’s tons of these, here are just a few):