Friday, May 25, 2007

Naming Babies: An Early Introduction to Parental Responsibility

[This post has been brought to you by an internet meme (an idea that is traveling, in this case much like a game of tag). My instructions for this post:

Give the meaning of your kids’ names, and write about what or how or why you gave the name to your kids. Tag five people to play along and leave a comment at their blog to let them know they have been tagged.

To follow this meme backwards, see Judy's name post at Goodyblog. To see it progress follow the links at the end of this post.]

Sometime, very early in our marriage, we started playing a hypothetical name game in the car. We'd pair different names with our distinguished surname (Jones). Within moments it became apparent that long O names or names with a initial consonant and o pairing could create problematic circus clown variety nicknames: Jonas Jones becomes Jo-Jo, Noah Jones becomes No-Jo, Howard Jones- Ho-Jo. The only long O dominant name we liked paired with Jones was Orlando (already taken). There was one girl's name that I would break this rule for, but then I heard the dulcet tones of Norah Jones and consigned yet another promising name to the discard pile.

During the car game one of us would propose a name and then we would both viciously attack it in typical schoolyard fashion.

One of the most important taunt tests for a name is RHYMING. Jake, snake, fake... you get the drift. My brother (slightly older than the tidal wave of Christophers) was named after our adventuresome forefather Christopher Peter-Fox [last name omitted]. Old Christopher preferred the nickname "Crit" above all over others, so my parents sentimentally passed this nickname on to my brother. As a result, my brother spent more of recess in the office for fighting than on the playground. Whatever you do, please very carefully reconsider any name ending in -it or -uck if your expect your child to possess the power of hearing. Kids are not known for civil society; please don't put your child in a head-on collision with childhood conflict.

DUAL OR LITERAL MEANINGS: Okay, so kids aren't literary sophisticates, but they will work hard to get a really good insult. Names with English meanings or homophones (or near phrases) can be problematic. I loved the name and associations of Minerva- but the dream of a little Minerva Jones died with "You're stepping on my last Minerva!" It's not that funny, but it still springs to mind when young Ranger is treading on thin ice. It would get old for her fast. Cliff, Seymour, and any other name from a childhood book title jokes is probably a troubled direction. (If you're missing this allusion and don't know who wrote "Under The Bleachers" good examples are available here in titles 1-15)

VIRTUE NAMES: This is probably the most controversial statement ever written to Baby Toolkit, and I am putting on my helmet for the rain of hell-fire this will attract, but we are firm believers that virtue names and natural tendencies toward rebellion are not well matched. It has been my experience that Graces are clumsy, Hopes are pessimistic, and Chastitys are... well... not. I fear that a generation of Nevaehs will be pure Lleh. If you have one of these names and embody the appropriate characteristic- then your parents were wise and granted you a perfect name. If only all parents could be so wise.

We actually considered giving our children a middle name that was a deplorable vice (probably picking from the seven deadly sins) in hopes that they would rebel against the name's intrinsic expectations. But Minerva Selfishness Jones would probably incur way too much explanation in future years.

COMMON NAMES: These are great and actually recommended for pairing with stylish and distinctive last names like Holiday or Czekajewski. While they're fully functional for any child in daily life, the pairing of a common first and common last name can cause identity confusion.

When I was in grade school in a small rural community, there were 2 John Miles in my class (we referred to them as M or J- their middle initials). Jim has had perpetual problems with his very common name causing mistakes: like when he was mistakenly sued for child support of 3 children (one older than himself) at the ripe old age of 13 -or- the time all our mail was swapped for months with that of a felon so we got his parole notifications and he got our paychecks (we were lucky, he was reformed and brought us our mail when he couldn't get the post office to straighten the mess up).

ALWAYS GOOGLE: So your embryo's name sounds great, but are you missing some vital information? It's easy to learn now (as opposed to later when the ink on the birth certificate is dry) what people with your child's name have been up to in the past.

Unfortunately, Google can't see into the future. Jim Jones decided to kill a multitude of his believers years after my husband Jim had been given the same moniker. And seriously, if a Google search can save your child a lifetime of Kool-aid jokes, it's definitely worth the effort.

The same admonition goes for names heavily tied to popular fictional characters- I have heard everyone's bad Stallone impersonation "Adreeee-uhnnnnnn!" for three decades now. It's beyond tired. And my friend, Francie "Francis the Talking Mule," would probably second that opinion.

AND NOW- I'm not telling you Ranger's true name. Maybe it's because I read too much Elfquest in adolescence, but I think he deserves his own privacy in the next decade when mean spirited 6th graders discover that parent blogs are rich with personal information.

We did change his blog name from BabyGeek (which he'd outgrown) to Ranger in honor of my grandfather, a career member of the Forest Service.

There are three baby name books that really stand out as exceptional to us.

The Baby Name Wizard offers meanings and "sibling names" which are names of the same style or tone. It also documents the popularity of a name throughout the last century of US census data. Their online Name Voyager tool is phenomenal (and was recently covered on Goodyblog) and their Name Wizard blog is simply fascinating.

The Baby Name Survey Book and its soon to be released update The New Baby Name Survey Book are great for seeing general perceptions of a name. I don't think this book heavily influenced our name choices, but we had the best time reading it. This book would make a conversation piece at any cocktail party. Go to the library and check it out immediately.

The Perfect Baby Name Book: Finding the Name that Sounds Just Right looks at how sounds work together. It's great at breaking large linguistics concepts down understandable ideas in a just a few introductory pages, and then it sorts the names in a workable manner. Looking for a two syllable long O name with the emphasis on the second syllable? Then this book is perfect for you. Its short title is shared with another, more traditional baby name book, so make sure you get the one written by Walker & Reyes.

- Don't tell anyone the names you're really considering unless you want frequent, thorough, and (often) completely irrational criticism. [This goes double if you have any teachers in your family. Kids ruin lots of names for teachers, but your mom is going to forget immediately about Gavin the Terrible when Gavin the Grandson assumes the name.] Some people can offer good criticism, but it's very hard to hear at times, so choose your confidantes wisely.

-If you can't announce that you're keeping names secret and stick to secrecy, choose RED HERRINGS. Jim and I have already started list for any future pregnancies. We have actually chosen names so painful and odious that everyone will be relieved when we reveal a socially acceptable name. We'll attribute this change entirely to a last-minute change of heart- allowing us to reuse our red herrings in any subsequent pregnancies.

-Choose a name that you're willing to say at least a million times a day, because you will use it all the time. You will probably even have to scream it in public at times.

-Stealing names is a grievous offense. If you're using the name of another child in your social set, think through your relationship with that family. Will you see them often? How inconvenient is a shared name going to be at gatherings? Have they worked to choose a really distinctive name? If they have spent time finding an usual name, then they will probably resent your co-opting it.

-FIRST TIME PARENTS: Seriously, people are going to grind the names you love and have carefully chosen into dust. Don't tell, or be prepared to take the slings and arrows. This is actually a good introduction to parenthood. You're working feverishly choosing a name that you child will, for at least a short period of their life, curse you for giving them while you suffer from immense criticism of your carefully chosen names. The naming criticism is NOTHING compared to the PARENTING ADVICE that is headed your way. Learn to flip a little switch in your brain and work on a Mona Lisa smile- they will serve you well as you're about to be hit by an avalanche of unsolicited (and even unsound) advice. Stand your ground (unless it violates the -it or -uck rhyme rule). It's your child and you have to live with them when they hate you and their name.

Please watch meme as it travels to Jenni & Jeremiah at (check out their recent Sippy Cup Showdown- all BPA-free!), Jodi at The Mom Tech Review (a great blog for the geek parent set), Jill of Jill's Place (offers the story of her kids great names) and more blogs to be announced soon. If you blog and would like to be a part of this meme, email me (babytoolkit[at] or leave a comment and I will put a link right here.

***Baby Toolkit is a sometimes stream-of-consciousness commentary of some opinionated geek parents.  We are Amazon affiliates, so a portion of any purchases made through our Amazon links helps pay our ISP charges (thank you!).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dining Out With the Pre-Plate Crowd: Table Topper, Tiny Diner, and Doodle Diner

We eat out often, so we've had lots of time to evaluate different dining gear.

In an earlier review, we covered portable high chairs and mentioned briefly our use of the Buggy Bagg as a high chair cover. While we still have a lot to say about seating, we'll save that for another post and focus exclusively on portable placemat-type dining solutions.

First, let me brief the uninitiated on why older infants and toddlers might need placemat solutions in a world that provides plates and utensils. Many young tikes go through a "mad bomber" phase which wreaks havoc on plates, bowls, and flooring. Also, during the early introduction of self-feeding, children only get a tiny percentage of food into their mouths. The rest is smeared in wide swaths around their dining area, clothing, and person. If you are lucky, the food doesn't get on you. Don't count on this however; few adults are that lucky. Plus, you eventually will have to pick the tot up. I strongly recommend tomato sauce colored or vinyl garments for adult caregivers through this charming developmental phase.

Your older infant may also go through a chipmunk-like food-stuffing stage where you cannot trust them to take normal sized bites of any food. In order to prevent choking, you will find yourself rationing out ridiculously small portions one at a time. If you become inattentive at any point when the plate is empty, it readily becomes a projectile for any mildly imaginative youngster.

We limited plate availability for Ranger. When you remove the dishes, the most obvious approach is to put the food directly on the table. Setting aside the sanitary considerations regarding this method, this approach is not positively received in restaurants with wait staff. They have seen tots and food before, and they know the odds are great that they will clean up a big a mess after you leave the restaurant.

Our first solution to this dilemma was the reusable TinyDiner Portable Placemat by Kiddopotamus . This flexible placemat is free of PVC, latex, and phthalates. It has 5 suction cups that stick it to the table. This works great with bare or glass top tables, but is completely ineffective when dealing with cloth tablecloths and will bond permanently to paper ones. We really liked the TinyDiner, especially its trough-like pocket at the table's edge. It's amazing how much food this pocket saved from the floor and/or Ranger's lap.

The TinyDiner cleans well with soap and water, but it is prone to staining from tomato based sauces. We'd typically wipe it off after use with a wipe or paper napkin (to remove larger food particles and sauces), roll the mat portion into the pocket and wash it upon arriving home (if we remembered). The rolled cylinder had a pretty big footprint in our diaper bag.

Our difficulties with regular use of the TinyDiner were primarily in the category of user error:
  • Often we'd forget it in its dirty state in the car and not have a clean one available when we needed it,
  • Or we'd clean it and leave it on the drying rack at home,
  • Or we'd celan it, roll it up, and then accidentally leave it at home or in a distant vehicle.
The suction cups could get somewhat deformed if folded in an irregular position for a prolonged period. This wasn't a big deal as they could be molded back by hand. Also the suction cups don't all have to work for the mat to stay on the table. The mat gets more flexible when warm, and can get (temporarily) a tacky feel when heated. I noticed this after leaving it in the car on hot days.

We like this mat, but we weren't able to keep track of it. Ranger eventually started pulling it loose just to hear the little suction cups pop.

So, I bought our first disposable solution, Table Topper made by Neat Solutions: Essentials for Children.
Licensed characters aren't well received in our family. I didn't love the Dora the Explorer (though many families might view that as added value) Table Toppers available at Target despite their attached coupon. Target only carried Dora and the nearby Babies R Us only carried Sesame Street ones in a completely unnecessary hard plastic travel case, so I ended up buying Dora.

Ranger loves the Dora design and was instantly captivated. He pointed at different things and chattered his observations. When Jim counted the flowers outloud, Ranger begged for him to do it again. We counted all the labeled countables (frogs, flowers, ball, etc.) and then we plunged into the unlabeled countables (eyes and arms, etc.). He was hooked. I couldn't believe it. This happened every time we used the Dora Table Toppers. I don't know what subtle educational genius designed this mat, but it is really captivating to the young mind.

There are two adhesive strips with pull-off backing that run parallel to the top and bottom edges of the mat. The backing paper is white (bear with me, this will be relevant) and easy to see and remove. At the end of the meal, the Table Topper's adhesive left NO MARK or RESIDUE on the tables we've used and could be rolled up very small to be thrown away.

The thin plastic placemats are one time use only (because they adhere to the table or tablecloth). I don't like disposable products on the whole, but if you have to use them, these are relatively small. So small in fact, that I often easily carried 3 or 4 of them in a pocket in my tiny diaper bag.

Except for the environmental implications of a disposable placemat and the use of licensed characters (who we called "little girl, "monkey," and "bandicoot"), the Table Topper seemed to meet our needs.

[ASIDE: Chick-Fil-A has started offering Chick-Fil-A branded Table Toppers to customers eating in their restaurants. If you want to try a Table Topper for free, this is a great way to do it.]

I found the DoodleDiner, Kiddopotamus' disposable answer to the TinyDiner and the Table Topper, at Meijer when traveling. When I found it, I thought half of my qualms with the Table Topper had been answered.
The DoodleDiner offers educational patterns without licensed characters. Ooooh, my heart went pitter-pat. I bought a 20-pack at Meijer and couldn't wait to use them. At the next opportunity, I pulled one from my bag- almost gleefully. It took me longer to remove the backing for the adhesive strips because they are clear with a little white arrow sticker attached to the top which is bizarre. Imagine a directional arrow on the adhesive backing for a sticker. It seems to suggest something different than a regular peel and stick action. Strangely enough, it offers NO VALUE which is baffling. I didn't like the clear backing and weird, removable arrow stickers.

When I stuck the DoodleDiner in front of Ranger I expected a big response, but he almost flatlined with disinterest. "Look at the ducky." (He loves duckies.) Nothing. He immediately started pulling at the edges.

I unearthed some crayons from the diaper bag, so he could partake of the DoodleDiner's other claim to fame- doodlability. The dark pattern of one of the DoodleDiners obscured both light and dark crayon drawing to invisibility, while the paler DoodleDiner showed a very minimal amount of doodlage with dark crayons. Ranger and I were both underwhelmed.

When we finished our meal, I pulled off the DoodleDiner. Some of the adhesive remained on the table. Not ideal, but still less messy than an infant eating directly from the bare tabletop. This adhesive loss occurred in varying degrees with the other DoodleDiners placemats in that package. One even left an entire adhesive strip on the glass tabletop. That was a pain to clean up.

  • Table Topper is our family's favorite solution. We're not thrilled about using anything disposable so this is an uneasy compromise (we use cloth shopping bags and old school razors that only take blades). None the less the Table Topper works best for our range of toddler dining out needs, limited diaper bag space, and our forgetful natures. It works on cloth tablecloths as well as hard surfaces. Its patterns (though licensed characters) were carefully designed by an evil genius who knows how to keep kids captivated. This is a premium product.
  • TinyDiner is the best for any budget and the environment because it is reusable. It works best with the youngest new eaters. It's handier when you're already carrying around a giant bag, but not nearly as convenient when you transition into something smaller. It has a large footprint and needs to be washed after most, if not all, uses. It cannot be used on cloth or paper tablecloths with any effectiveness. Its trough-like pocket is a great feature.
  • DoodleDiner, we wanted to love you. The idea of crayon drawings, educational designs, and no licensed characters made me really pleased. The patterns didn't capture our son's attention (they seem to be aimed for an older audience than would use the placemats) and the crayon drawing option just don't work. The adhesive residue on tables proved embarrassing and frustrating. The adhesive backing strips are confusing and hard to see. The Doodle Diners are better than no placemat, but they seem less carefully designed than the Table Topper.
Ranger (at 21 months) is getting to the point where he can effectively operate utensils and dishes, so we are now phasing out the regular use of portable placemats. We used the TinyDiner with success for the first months of self-feeding and since have purchased two 20-packs of Table Toppers and one 20-pack of Doodle Diners. We share these disposables with friends and family when dining out, so a single package can last for a long time with just one family.

One of the best features of all of these placemat solutions, is the happy response you can expect from wait staff. And you can also expect questions from other diners on where you found such a useful item.

This review is the independent opinion of Baby Toolkit has no relationship with and has not received any compensation from Kiddopatomus or Neat Solutions: Essentials for Children.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Phone It In: Making Complaint Calls When Things Don't Work

When Ranger came home from the hospital, my parents had a new car waiting for him. They had bought Ranger a new, bright yellow and red Little Tikes' Cozy Coupe II (Son of Cozy Coupe?) for Easter, but we had left it unassembled in its box.

Dad, an engineer, had assembled it while we were at the hospital. Ranger was playing in it for about 4 minutes before he pulled the steering wheel loose (and then cried). Jim and I worked to get the steering wheel assembly in well, but to no avail. We could get the steering wheel to stay in as long as no one tried to turn it. Everyone, included Ranger, ended up pretty frustrated.

After a few days of finding the steering wheel parts and returning them to the car, Jim and I started discussing hacks to fix the design problem. After we struck upon one that might have actually worked, we thought to call the company first.

I called Little Tikes' consumer number (1-800-321-0183) and selected the "order replacement parts option" to get to speak with a human being. The customer service representative was aware of the problem (apparently some of the steering wheels' holes were drilled too small) and sent us at no cost a new steering wheel assembly in 2 days.

We also had success resolving our Diaper Champ problems by calling about the heinous smell. Earth's Best Baby Food sent us innumerable coupons in addition to replacement coupons when we found some of their baby food we'd purchased had been recalled.

If you have a problem with a product, call the manufacturer before you condemn the item to the rubbish pile. We've been quite satisfied each time we've called for assistance.

Jim offers these tips:
  1. Describe your problem thoroughly.
  2. Details help. If you have your purchase date or the approximate date you first noticed the problem that may help. Have this kind of info in mind when you call.
  3. Be nice. The customer service person isn't the one who manufactured this problem, and they are one of your few outlets for recourse. Stick with "I statements" rather than "you" statements. Say "frustrated" instead of "angry enough to tear out your still-beating heart," etc.
  4. Have a solution in mind. If this problem is new to them, they may not know what course to take. If you most want a refund or a replacement, tell them that.
  5. Even if you caused the damage- call about replacement parts if the item may still be salvageable. Repairs are often much cheaper than total replacement. Plus, repairs can extend the life of goods and keep useful items out of the landfill.
Call now (or between 8 & 5 Eastern Time)- operators are standing by...

photo credit:, 2007

Mother's Day Wrap-Up: Please Comment

Ah- the cards have been opened, and Mother's Day, 2007 is now a thing of the past.

How did your Mother's Day go? What worked well and what didn't? Did you find a gift that really made the momma in your life swoon/celebrate or did she just give you angry looks all day?

For the sake of posterity and future family harmony, please reflect on your Mother's Day experiences here. This will give kids and dads some ideas for when the date rolls around next year.

Our Mother's Day:

Jim and Ranger let me sleep in as late as possible (which was nice as we had to travel for a family event). When I got up and was ready to go, so was Ranger. Jim had made breakfast and cleaned up entirely (so there weren't dishes waiting when we got home). They woke me with two sweet cards (one from Ranger and one from Jim) and had my Leatherman Micra engraved. This was really lovely; they did very well.

We gave our moms framed prints of the pencil portrait of Jim and Ranger by the very talented Maggie Burns. These were very well received by both moms. I gave my mom a Leatherman, but didn't have it engraved as she was unsure she would use it. She's already used it often, so I may get it engraved for her birthday. Jim's mom was also given some nice matte finish photos (desk and wallet sizes) of Ranger and his cousin playing at Grandma's house on our last visit.

Modeling entirely off a very generous and caring friend, I also gave a simple card and prints(desk and wallet) of the same photo to my Sister-In-Law for Mother's Day. It's the first time I've given a Mother's Day card or gift to someone not a blood relative (I've stuck to mothers, grandmothers, and aunts), and it was well received.

Our whole family had an enjoyable, low-key day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Jim writes [but not here]!

If you want to see how well the silent partner in Baby Toolkit writes on parenting, you can see Jim's dad writing at GeekDad.

Sure, Jim regularly blogs about Linux, but these posts are written in English (just kidding, he always speaks geek).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thinking Thermos: A Funtainer and Foogo Comparison

This review is of the first generation of Funtainer.

UPDATE, 2-17-09: We no longer recommend the new version of the FUNtainer straw bottle (not shown or discussed in here). Please read our detailed concerns about the NEW version straw bottle.

You can see our earlier review of the next generation of FUNtainer and Foogo straw bottles.

Back when we first became concerned about the presence of bisphenol-A in sippy cups and bottles, I lucked into finding a great Thermos FUNtainer straw bottle for Ranger. The stainless steel bottle's spring-loaded flip-top entertained him for much of multi-hour long car ride, so I quickly fell in love with the bottle.

When Z Recommends reviewed the new Foogo line of baby and toddler products, I couldn't help but observe the similarity between the "new" Foogo straw bottle and our FUNtainer straw bottle. Jeremiah at Z Recs agreed that they appeared the same and even wrote a post about their apparent similarity.

Well, looks can be deceiving. Thanks to some lovely people at Thermos, we got our hands on a Foogo straw bottle, a Foogo food jar, a FUNtainer straw bottle, and a FUNtainer food jar.

It turns out that though the Foogo and FUNtainer lines look very similar, they have different form and function.

The straw bottles have a very different spout assembly. Both assemblies are easy to clean and sturdy. The Foogo is the blue bottle on the left, the FUNtainer is the pink bottle on the right.

The Foogo (left/blue)- designed for infants and toddlers-- has a much larger top straw assembly than the FUNtainer (right/pink). The Foogo integrates a large straw top that fits over a large plastic disk below the screw on lid (see next photo). It is impossible to remove without fully unscrewing the Thermos lid, and it is quite large to be considered a choking risk.

The FUNtainer's small silicone straw top seems better suited for an older child who won't pull it off (it has a very snug fit, so I can't imagine it being removed accidentally) and create a choking hazard.

Foogo's disk straw assembly also serves as the inner seal between the steel Thermos body and the screw-on lid. The FUNtainer has a blue gasket to perform the same function. The Foogo seems much easier to fully clean after a dairy or juice drink.

The bottom straws for the Foogo and FUNtainer are identical and thus interchangeable. This makes bottle cleaning and management much easier than with line-specific parts. Plus, the straws are cut on the bias on both ends. This allows better flow of the beverage into the straw. With both ends bias cut, you don't have to be very attentive to assemble the straw assembly correctly.

The Foogo seems only to be sold in the tasteful steel and blue color scheme while the FUNtainers have a wide variety of designs ranging from licensed characters to sports and hobbies.

The Foogo straw bottle definitely seems designed for younger user than the FUNtainer or standard Thermos gear (despite its sophisticated good looks). I plan to use the Foogo products long after our children are grown- which isn't unreasonable considering the high quality and durability of Thermos products.

Upon removing the food jars from the shipping package, I was immediately conscious of the weight difference. The FUNtainer jar is considerably heavier than the Foogo jar (~13.4 ounces: 9.7 ounces). The Foogo weighs about 2 ounces less than the standard black Thermos food jar I already owned.

So, being geeks, we wondered why the weights were so different. One feature was obvious- the plastic ring around the neck of the FUNtainer and the standard food jars were not present on the Foogo- making it a few ounces lighter. This is really a nice weight consideration for a jar that will be riding in an already packed diaper bag.It turns out that the FUNtainer lid actually weighed over 2 ounces more than the other lids. Jim took one look at them and immediately figured out why the lids were different. The FUNtainer lid has a slip assembly so it can't be overtightened and damage the lid. The plastic neck rings on the FUNtainer (navy blue) and standard jars (black) seem to be in place to prevent damage to the lid from improper threading of plastic on metal. The steel Foogo neck instead widens immediately below the lid preventing it from being overtightened.

Our already high opinion of Thermos has increased with this product line investigation. The designers seem to consider function and users very thoroughly when working on even the smallest product details.

The FUNtainer line seems designed for durability and youthful carelessness (the straw bottles come with replacement inner and outer straws). The Foogo line seems to take into consideration additional safety precautions for toddlers and infants. It allows for meticulous cleaning and considers the weight and space demands already placed on caregivers.

Although we didn't have Foogo sippy cup to test nor a sippy cup drinker to test it (Ranger has never accepted a sippy cup for more than one attempt), I feel their quality construction and design will meet the high standards found in other Thermos products.

Foogo seems a great investment for anyone with very young children or infants because although they're designed for youngsters, their function and design are not limited to that age group.

FUNtainers will appeal to and withstand your bigger kids. FUNtainers are tweaked for a young, exuberant, and challenging user. By anticipating common damage scenarios, Thermos has created a design that will take a lot of abuse.

The standard Thermos line isn't shabby either. If the last Thermos you owned came in a Muppet Movie lunchbox, I strongly recommend that you check out their current products. Their smart, considered designs remind me that tiny details can make a huge difference. Thermos recognizes the value of small details in their design which makes for clever, quality products.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Break Out: When An Infant or Child is Accidentally Locked in A Car With The Keys

If you drive or ride in cars regularly with infants or small children- or know people who do- you should be thinking about automobile lockouts as summer is arriving in our hemisphere.

While we were loading our cars after baby group, one mom (a wonderful, caring, responsible person) loaded her baby and toddler in the car and their stroller and ended up accidentally locking her kids, her keys, and her phone in the car. A few of the playgroup moms were still there, so she didn't have to summon strangers to assist.

With the help of the hospital's security staff (our baby group meets at a local hospital), we were able to get her car open in about 20 minutes. The kids and their mom were frightened and relieved, and no one was hurt.

This lockout happened to an excellent, attentive mother through an atypical series of events. This could happen to anyone- even a stranger you see in a parking lot- so be prepared to help if it does happen.

#1- DO NOT PANIC. This seems to be the first item on many an emergency/disaster checklist, but it's for a good reason. When you panic, you have a much harder time sorting through the actions you need to take. Occupy your mind with "What CAN I do?" rather than "What's going to happen?" or "Why did I let this happen?" This is not the time for reflection or blame. Those kids need you to be clear headed and proactive.

Also, your children are taking their cues from you and you need to help them stay calm. You know how your child gets hotter when they scream? That is the last thing you need now. Make faces, sing songs, hop up and down like a rabbit, try and engage your child in some distraction (the more you look like an idiot the better your odds of making the baby laugh). Your kids need to know that everything is okay- so put on your goofy face and keep them as mellow as possible.

#2- NOTE THE TIME. During an emergency time takes on a completely abnormal feel. For me this incident just flew by, but for the mom it felt much longer than the time it took to get the car open. Knowing how long the car has been closed lets you know when it is time to break the window.

#3- CALL 911. You're phone is in the car? You're alone? Enlist the help of strangers. Repeat after me: "Hey, you- please call 911 my baby's locked in this car with my keys. We need help." Who cares what they think- as long as they get help there fast. If there is more than one person there, pick one to assign the task to. Sometimes in groups people become immobile- if you single someone out, they feel more involved in the situation and are more likely to help.

I didn't call 911 today because I didn't think they helped with lock-outs and I didn't want to waste any time. Nor did I call my auto club locksmith service because that always takes at least 45 minutes. It turns out that 911 will dispatch police and/or fire emergency responders if a young child or infant is locked in a car. They have a special universal tool to open a locked car door. Their tool may break your car's lock or do damage, but who can compare that to your child's safety. Don't worry that you may get the child out of the vehicle before they arrive, if so, they'll understand why you called. It's very good to call 911- because if the child needs assistance when removed from the car, they can provide first line medical assistance.

#4- COVER THE WINDOWS WITH BLANKETS OR TARPS AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE- then the roof if you can get enough blankets. Do this fast. The heat and light entering through the windows and absorbed through the roof are causing the temperature in the car to increase. Covering the windows can help slow the rate of temperature increase inside the car.

#5- REMEMBER YOU CAN BREAK A WINDOW- BUT DO IT ONLY WITH PLANNING AND EXTREME CAUTION. This is an important option to remember, but it should only be used as a last resort. Breaking a window poses some danger for the children inside the car as the glass can spray everywhere. That kind of auto glass is almost impossible to clean out of the car fully, and you'll probably be finding bits of it in the car for years after the breakage. This is obviously bad with toddlers or infants, so pick your window judiciously and AS FAR FROM THE CHILDREN AS POSSIBLE. Also, don't injure yourself breaking the window. You don't need another emergency situation to deal with.

#6- ONCE YOUR CHILDREN ARE OUT OF THE CAR- REHYDRATE AND GRADUALLY COOL THEM. Human bodies are not designed to go from one temperature extreme to another without transition, so make sure you don't chill your kids while cooling them down. Give them plenty to drink- room temperature to cool drinks, but don't load up on ice. Truly cold things can make them quite sick when overheated. A cool washcloth is fine- but a cold one can cause more problems. You can take their shoes and clothes off to cool them down. A drastic change in environmental temperature can be problematic as well, so don't rush them into a room the temperature of a meat locker. Call your pediatrician if their behavior is at all abnormal.

#7- MAKE SURE YOU'RE OKAY BEFORE YOU DRIVE. This can be pretty emotional and traumatic, so don't feel like you have to rush off immediately. Take some deep breaths, get centered, and if you're still too shaken up to drive- try and think of someone who can help you and your kids get where you need to go. It's okay to ask for help.

#8- LEARN WHAT YOU CAN, ADAPT FOR THE FUTURE, AND FORGIVE YOURSELF. Yes, this whole situation sucks. And, yes, in hindsight any series of events could have been prevented, but you didn't want this to happen and you didn't intend for your kids to be at risk. Learn what you can from the incident and adapt so that it won't ever happen again and move on emotionally. Guilt alone gets you nowhere- and it can obscure actual insight into the situation.

And no matter how other people react or what they say to you, remember that accidents happen even with very good parents.

It hasn't happened to you yet? BE PROACTIVE:

-Stash a spare key on your car. My parents' cars always had magnetic key boxes on them while we were growing up. There's even a new powerful rare earth magnet one from GE with a combination lock and a connection point for a zip tie or wire cable. If you use a magnetic key box, make sure to put it somewhere inconspicuous (people will know exactly what's in it if they see it) and somewhere that it won't be bounced loose during travel on bumpy roads. You can use zip ties or a strong wire to secure a magnetic box (or even a naked key) to your car's superstructure. With the naked key method make sure the key isn't somewhere it will get a lot of exposure to corrosive elements (water, road salt, etc) or where it could get too hot and melt the key or the tie (close to the exhaust system, etc.).

-Stash a spare key in your wallet. If you always carry your wallet on your person, then this might be the best solution for you. At many locksmiths you can get a plastic key cut that fits into a credit card sized holder that fits discreetly in your wallet. This key won't work to get the ignition started if your car has a microchipped key, but they will probably get your door open. Consult the locksmith on this before ordering a plastic key. These wouldn't work for me as my bag is very likely to be wherever my keys are.

-Hook the keys to your person. I carry a billion keys, so many that my pants visibly sag when I shove them in a pocket. I always use a carabiner to attach my keys to myself, bag exteriors, and Ranger's stroller. This can be great when I clip them to my clothes when buckling Ranger in- or it can be disastrous like the time when I left them clipped to the diaper bag in the front seat while taking Ranger out and then closing the locked door. Ever since that storytime lock out that left Ranger and I stranded at the library (good place to be stuck during business hours) until another key could be delivered, I've been very conscious of hooking the keys to my pants when I put him in the car and not closing his door until I have my hand on the keys.

My mom, an elementary school teacher, can't afford to lose track of her keys at work, so she keeps them with her at all times with a stretchy coil wrist key chain.

-Load a couple useful items into your car in case this happens to someone near you. It was very frustrating to know that the lack of a simple wire coat hanger stood between us and those kids. We tore apart two umbrellas to try and get enough wire to open the doors, but it turned out neither wire was strong enough. Definitely stick a wire hanger in your car- preferably one with the paper tube at the bottom so you don't absolutely need pliers to cut/shape it. Pliers can come in handy too, and you should always have a general toolkit in your car (see Dad, I did periodically listen!).

Carry a large blanket or blankets (again, your should keep one of these in your car anyway) to cover windows and windshields.

I would also go so far as to recommend a safety hammer designed for breaking tempered auto glass (a third item that's always good to keep in reach of the drvier's seat). There are a number of brands and even some keychain models. If we'd had to break a window today, the safety hammer in my car would have been used. You don't want to be swinging a heavy object against the vehicle containing your children- that just creates additional risks and might cause the glass to spread further.

Does anyone have more tips to offer on automobile lockouts?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Building Blocks: A Recycler's Do It Yourself Project

As a kid Jim loved playing with those cardboard blocks with the somewhat inexplicable brick pattern printed on them (bricks made of mini bricks?). He had dreams of owning so many of them he could build a big, somewhat perilous ediface. That dream lives on today.

So, I started looking for cheap blocks to build "Ranger" (in this case- Jim) a huge collection of architectural materials. Amazon has quite a few options, but they were all too pricey for a cheapskate like me.

Google led me to the always helpful Berkeley Parents Network and their commentary on brick acquisition. Their advice on purchasing bricks through Lillian Vernon's catalog look great, but the June 1999 tip for making cardboard bricks with old milk cardboard cartons captured my imagination.

We had to buy half-gallon milk cartons because our local stores only carried organic milk in that packaging. My vegan parents had ample soy milk cartons and we love acid free orange juice (again, a beverage only sold in half gallons here).

So we rinse, cut, and wash our empty cartons, and then assemble them into individual blocks. The process is pretty easy, but cutting the cartons evenly can take a bit of technique.

Start by piercing the container on the side opposite the pour spout at approximately the location of the pour spout. This lets you have a jagged entry mark without marring the clean cut of the carton.

Cut downward at angle to sneak up on the fold line. When you reach the fold line, cut along it for a nice, even edge. It you happen to screw up an edge monumentally, make that the inside carton when you pair them.

Slide two cartons together, and presto- one water resistant building block! Soon you'll have enough for a whole playgroup. Don't like the patterns? You could cover them with contact paper or standard paper that your kids can decorate. Me- I'm lazy, so my son will get to appreciate the joy and value of reuse.

Jim recommends creasing the long sides of the carton to flatten the sides of the block- making it more stable for stacking.