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Lessons in Giving Back

7 Apr

By Beth Chambers

The importance of helping those who are less fortunate has always been a value I worked to instill in my family.  To me, it meant that our children started volunteering at the local food pantry at a young age.  While shopping at the grocery store, I would ask them to pick out an item they wanted to bring to the pantry, helping them make the connection between what they have and how they can assist others who are less fortunate.

Working for a social services agency that cares for the region’s most needy, I had plenty of real stories to share on the impact one person could have on another’s life, but I quickly realized I had to encourage my children to experience giving back for themselves and form their own opinions on volunteerism.

Engaging children in volunteering is truly a two-way street—it’s helps to enrich the life of the child while also providing much needed support to someone on the other side who is in need.  The economy may be on the mend, but the demand for basic needs services such as food assistance is higher than ever.

Here are some tips for getting the family involved:

  • Start with the Grocery Store – Food insecurity is still a serious issue for too many Massachusetts families.  Next time you are with the children at the grocery store, consider picking up some non-perishables to drop off at your local food pantry.  Come across a buy-one-get-one-free-sale?  Put one of the items in your cart and set the other aside to donate.
  • Make Volunteering a Family Affair – Volunteering as a family is a great way to spend time together away from the TV, video games and iPad.  Whether pushing the shopping cart at a local food pantry or handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving, direct contact with those being served helps children understand the impact of their participation.
  • Find Outlets That Match Interests – Are your kids active and enjoy being outside?  Spring brings numerous charity walks, runs and other fundraisers in search of volunteers.  Even standing at a street corner and cheering on runners is volunteering – everyone needs someone routing for them!  Are your kids dog lovers?  Look into opportunities at local animal shelters.
  • Donate Outgrown or Unused Items – Work with your children to sort through outgrown toys, books and clothing and bring to a local relief organization.  Going on a family vacation?  Bring back the mini hotel shampoos and soaps and donate to a local shelter for the homeless.

The values we ingrain into our children when they are young impact the kind of person they become.  I truly believe there’s good in everyone and learning to give back can bring out the best in us.

Beth Chambers, MSW, is Director of Catholic Charities South

The Importance of Saying “Hi”

31 Mar

By Jim Castrataro

As I sit in my office on this beautiful winter day with a clear blue sky and a dusting of snow on all the trees I am reminded of just how great of a place New England is to raise a family.  With so much to do and see, the adventures of each day are only a short drive or walk away.  However, something is bothering me today.  You see, I just finished my walk to the coffee shop on campus and something that I have noticed over the years seemed to be exacerbated.  Not a single student on campus said “Hi” as we passed each other.  Even worse, most did not lift their head up as they walked, focused on the device in their hands.

I am fortunate to work in an arena where cell phones, iPads and other handheld technologies are not part of our day or, more importantly, our culture.   Although most kids do have a cell phone on them, they stay in their bags during the day.

So how do cell phones and saying “Hi” impact family health?  Well, I would argue this is a different type of family health, not the family health that involves doctors, dentists and nutritionists, but family health in terms of communication, love and companionship.

Young adolescents are constantly surrounded with the phrase “fundamentals.” I encourage you to work on your family health fundamentals and embrace the situations that bring these to the surface.  Although change is inevitable and the devices are a necessary part of our society, walking with our heads up and saying “Hi” cannot become a lost fundamental.  It is at the very core of our mental health and there is no better place to embrace this fundamental than with your family.


Jim Castrataro is the director of summer programs at Babson College.  His experience spans 16 years directing and consulting a variety of camp programs for thousands of children and young adults ranging from 5 to 18 years of age. 

Bonding with my Son through Minecraft

24 Mar

By Mark Cheverton


When we first bought my son the game Minecraft, I helped him load it on the computer, create his user name, Gameknight999, select his character appearance and off he went. At first, he played it on his own, but soon he was calling us into our office so that he could show us what he created—and it was pretty amazing.  He had built a gigantic castle, an obstacle course with moving parts, and even an entire underground village. His creations blew us away! As an engineer, anything that offers me a chance to build something sounds instantly intriguing. So I sat there with my son and let him teach me how to play Minecraft.  In no time at all, I bought a license for me to use and off we went into the digital realm together, building towers, fighting with zombies and dodging creepers.  And you know what I noticed right away? My son loved teaching me how to play the game: how to make zombie traps, how to use redstone, how to craft items, and so many other things. And the more he taught me, the more his self-esteem seemed to grow. I heard him telling his friend one day how he taught his father how to do things in the game, and he was proud, actually proud that he played Minecraft with his dad—wow!

He loved playing Minecraft so much that we bought a server for him the next Christmas. He spent months building things on his server: castles, bridges, underwater cities, factories, everything and anything his imagination could conceive. Next he brought in his friends from school and did some collaborative things and building gigantic structures that he designed. Again, great “teachable moments” arose as he struggled to work collaboratively with a couple of his 8 year-old friends. I was overwhelmed with how proud he was about his creations.

Well, one day, my son’s world came crashing down. Some other kids were able to get onto the server and destroyed everything that he’d built; “griefing” it, as the term is used in the gaming world.  They leveled everything to the ground, obliterating months of work.  The next time my son logged on, he saw his destroyed creations and was crushed. To make matters worse, these kids posted the video of their griefing his server on YouTube.

This was the ultimate “teachable moment,” to talk about cyber-bullying. That was when I came up with the idea of teaching my son through his favorite thing—Minecraft. I wrote a book called Invasion of the Overworld: A Minecraft Novel, to teach my son about cyber-bullying using his favorite game—a game that I came to understand as well as he did—as a backdrop. Through teaching my son about why kids bully, in the context of a game he understood, I think the lessons got driven home much harder than they would have otherwise.

Since the griefing episode, I have used video games to not only teach my son about bullies, but to teach him about other things as well. Branching out, I started looking for games that I could use to teach my son about problem solving. They helped me to teach him how to break down a problem into manageable parts and tackle them one at a time. This quickly led to a discussion on how he can do this with personal problems instead of mechanical ones. We had some great discussions about challenges I’d faced in my own life, and problems he’d faced, some of which I was hearing about for the first time, and this discussion came about because we were playing video games together.

It turns out that I am not the only one who has been using video games to teach lessons to my child. There has been a lot of research out there by respected universities on the benefits of parents playing computer games with their kids. Researchers from Arizona State University suggest that “Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids.” They also echo my statement above that “Gaming with [your] children also offers parents countless ways to insert their own ‘teaching moment.’”  In addition, researchers at Brigham Young University studied 287 families, looking at how they play video games together and they found that girls between 11 to 16 years of age who played video games with a parent reported better behavior, more feelings of family closeness and less aggression than girls who played alone or with friends.

My son and I are still play Minecraft together, but we’ve also moved on to some game-making software and other games as well. Each of these platforms presents numerous opportunities for those “teachable moments” that we, as parents, crave. Playing these games with my son gives me the chance to talk with him about serious things without the ever-present eye roll and sighs. Try it, you might find what I found—that our kids are more incredible than we could ever imagine.

Mark Cheverton started playing Minecraft with his son as a way for them to bond together. His son’s experience with cyber-bullying led him to write Invasion of the Overworld: A Minecraft Novel. He is currently working on the sequel to it, Battle for the Nether. Cheverton has also written a children’s series, The Algae Voices of Azule. He lives in Albany, NY with his wife and son.To learn more about the author and his book, go to

Boston Kids Are Completing Chores and Learning Responsibility

3 Mar

Thousands of Boston area children not yet able to punch a time clock have been hard at work around the house completing chores, earning a reward and learning how to save, share and spend money wisely. “There is plenty of debate going on whether children should be doing chores around the house or not,” says Gregg Murset, CEO and founder of My Job Chart. “My belief is that children will do better as young adults and adults if they develop a good work ethic, as well as learn the fundamentals of dealing with money at any earlier age.”

Murset says that in Massachusetts, the top jobs are brushing teeth, packing school bags, putting away clothes, cleaning the table after meals, reading a book, getting dressed, doing homework, taking a bath/shower, making beds and picking up toys.

“According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics there are 74 million kids under 18 years old currently in the U.S.,” adds Murset. “This is an unbelievable workforce, but more so, it is also our future. It is extremely important that as parents we make sure our children understand the meaning of work ethic, responsibility, accountability and managing money so they can be prepared to be successful adults.”

As the winter chill eventually leaves New England and children start dreaming about what to do after school is out for summer, parents can help them find ways to fill their days away from TVs, video games or texting by developing a daily list of tasks to be completed with or without supervision.

And, if enforcing chores in your home at times seems like more work and stress for you than it is worth, try some of the following tips to motivate children to complete tasks without having to resort to threats or repercussions.

  • Let Kids Work to Support a Special Charity They Select: Help your child find a charity or cause he wants to support, and tell him by finishing his chores, part of the money he earns will be donated to it.
  • Parents Match Any Savings or Donation: Make an agreement with your kids that whatever they earn, you (or even grandma/grandpa) will match the dollar amount to go toward a charity or into savings.
  • Connect Chores with a Special Day or Additional Activity Time: Special time with mom and dad, maybe a trip to the zoo, to see a movie or to go out to eat at a favorite restaurant.
  • Allow Overtime: Give your kids the chance to work overtime to earn more money.



Choosing a Camp

10 Feb

By Jim Castrataro

This time of year, it is hard to imagine that you should be thinking of summer camps for your children, but it is a good idea to get a jump start on things while you have some extra time during the dark days of winter.

When looking for a camp for your children there are a few key items to contemplate to be sure they will be safe.  The highest standard for a camp is held by the American Camping Association (ACA).  Many overnight camps aspire to hold this standard and the approval process takes months to complete.  If you do not see the ACA symbol next to the camp name the camp is then most likely governed by the state.  These regulations can vary from state to state and you will need to do a little homework.

One option is to check the state regulations for a camp.  This can usually be found by a simple google search of “Camp regulations, Massachusetts” for example.  This document can look overwhelming but look for the key sections on background check requirements, supervision requirements, and policy and procedure documents.  A second option would be to call the camp directly.  Be sure you are speaking with the camp director or owner.  Discuss topics including camper to counselor ratios, pickup and drop off procedures, medical supervision and policy manuals to name a few.

Once you have reviewed this document or spoken with the director or owner, you are only half way there. It is important to follow up with the state and local town, usually the Health Department, to ensure the camp is being inspected annually.  If during your contact with the local authority, there is not a sense of familiarity, this should be a red flag.  Many states have regulations in place, but if the local issuing authority is not inspecting health records, background checks and conducting at least one on-sight inspection while the camp is in session, it is possible the camp is not operating at the minimum state standards.  If this is the case the safety of the camp is squarely on the shoulders of the camp owner.  Certainly, many of them even without the state inspection do perform above and beyond the call of duty and are working very diligently to ensure the safety and well- being of your children.

In summary, be cautious and do not be afraid to ask questions.  Look for a well-organized business that is working on its camp operations year round.  The camp experience should be a fun and enjoyable for your children, but it is up to you to make certain the camp is set up to provide just that.


Jim Castrataro is the Director of Summer Programs at Babson College.  His experience spans 16 years directing and consulting a variety of camp programs for thousands of children and young adults ranging from 5-18 years of age. 


A Children’s Book … for Grown Ups?

30 Jan

By Jean Ciborowski Fahey PhD

Delicious memories of snuggling up with my toddler for reading time remind me of two of my favorite children’s picture books.

Mama Do You Love Me?  written by Barbara M. Joosse and illustrated by Barbara Lavallee was a story about an Inuit daughter who tested her mother’s unconditional love. And then there was Song of the Water Boatman written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beckie Prange. The book blended science, poetry and magnificent illustrations to show us the mysteries of our neighborhood ponds and wetlands.

Both stories, written for toddlers and preschoolers offered me (much to my surprise) new ideas about parenting. At the same time the stories treated both me and my little girl to rare and titillating words.

Children’s books were also showing up in my work place (a teaching hospital) at the most unexpected time. Staff meetings ended with a read aloud of a children’s picture book by the Chief of Pediatrics.  No discussion. No conversation. Just the experience of being read to … being soothed …  well-timed as we filed out to return to our work with children.

As an early literacy researcher and parent educator, I began to consider a children’s picture book as a unique way to engage parents and other adults who live and work with young children.  What if I could write a picture book to communicate something of great importance? Perhaps, how to get our children ready to read and succeed?

After all, children’s picture books use illustrations to make the words and messages come alive. They have a predictable beginning, middle and end and just the right amount of calamity to keep the reader interested.

So I set out to write a children’s picture book … for grown ups.

Make Time for Reading

After ten years in development, countless focus groups and 19 rejections from traditional publishers, I self-published Make Time for Reading: a story guide for parents of babies and young children. The book uses beautiful illustrations by Peter J. Thornton and a once-upon-a-time story to translate the science of what children need to get ready to learn to read.

It takes only minutes to read, yet it is packed with useful information – designed to attract parents of all educational and economic levels, including parents learning to read and speak English.

The book is also designed for people who work with parents and parents-to-be.  Home visitors, parent educators, early educators, family literacy teachers, pediatricians, child librarians and literacy volunteers will find the book an innovative and effective teaching and learning tool.

As the self publisher, I solicit businesses, non-profits and other organizations to print an edition of the book to donate to a group of their choosing.

The book’s first sponsor, South Shore Hospital in Weymouth Massachusetts  printed 7,500 copies of Make Time for Reading. The books are donated to mothers and newborns, as well as low-income families with young children via local Reach Out and Read pediatric practices.

Organizations serving low-income families with young children located in adjacent towns to South Shore Hospital may qualify to receive free books. Contact Jean Fahey at for more information.

Organizations interested in purchasing and branding the book with their logo or name inside the front cover on the dedication page can also contact me:     

Reading is Going to the Dogs

23 Jan

By Mary Alice Cookson

A Labradoodle named Tessie, certified by Therapy Dog Inc., has been working at the Hamilton-Wenham Pubic Library for more than a year, whenever her owner’s schedule permits. Her owner is Pat Fleming, a Wenham resident and Manchester-by-the-Sea teacher. As part of the library’s Paws to Read program, young readers in grades K-3 are given a chance to read to Tessie. Libraries nationwide have discovered that by reading to dogs (who may be less intimidating than adults), children can improve reading skills.


Mary Alice Cookson is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.

Will It Cost $80K or $460K for College? (It Depends on When You Pay for It!)

29 Nov

By D. Abraham Ringer, CFP

Wondering how much it will cost to send your kids to college some day? The answer depends on a number of factors, including:

  • the school your child chooses;
  • the financial aid package awarded;
  • scholarships; and
  • inflation rates on tuition between now and then.

These factors are typically beyond your control.

But one factor you can control – and that may have the greatest impact on the cost of your child’s college tuition – is when you pay for college.

Most of us understand that college will cost us more if we borrow the money for college rather than save for it. However, few truly understand the full implication of this difference. When you save for college, you leverage your savings with investment returns (assuming positive returns over the investment period). When you borrow to pay back college, leverage is still being used; however, it is the bank that is benefiting from it.

Let’s look at a very simple example to illustrate this point. Say that your newly born child decides to go to University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst someday. For the 2013-14 school year, UMass Amherst costs $23,198 annually for in-state tuition, including room and board ( Assuming an annual 6 percent growth rate in tuition, UMass Amherst should cost approximately $66,215 per year by the time your child gets there. The total cost for all four years will end up being $289,664, provided the annual 6 percent tuition increases continue while your child is attending school.

So how much will it cost you to pay for this $289,664? If you are fortunate enough to be able to fund a college savings account at your child’s birth, it would cost you $77,270 to be able to fully fund this account. This figure assumes that you achieved an average annual 7 percent growth rate over the entire investment period. The $77,270 number is so low compared to the actual cost of tuition because you are leveraging your savings with compound interest to lower your overall cost of college.

Now let’s look at this from the other side of the equation. What if instead of saving, you borrowed to fund the cost of college? How much would that cost you?

To keep it simple, let’s assume that the interest was subsidized while your child was attending college, and it did not accrue during this period. In this case, assuming a 20-year loan with a 5 percent interest rate, four years of college will end up costing you (or your child) $458,797. Put another way, saving for the college in our example rather than borrowing for it resulted in it being one-sixth the cost.

Clearly, this is an extreme example because few of us would have the resources to save 100 percent in advance. However, the point is that no matter how much you can save now, the long-term effect of these savings could be multiplied in reducing the total cost of college.

Once you’ve resolved to save more for college, there are a variety of financial vehicles that can help to make your savings as efficient and impactful as possible. One of the most popular of these vehicles today is the 529 College Savings plan. This state-sponsored plan allows you to grow your college savings on a tax-deferred basis. As long as the distributions are used to fund higher educational expenses, then distributions from the account should be tax-free. However, if you needed to use the money for purposes other than higher educational expenses, then the gains on those distributions would generally be subject to income taxes and a 10 percent penalty on top.

In conclusion, by using compound interest to your advantage, rather than your disadvantage, every dollar you save in a 529 plan or other savings vehicle will make a disproportionate dent in what you’ll owe for college.


D. Abraham Ringer, CFP® is a Financial Adviser with Morgan Stanley Global Wealth Management in Boston. He is registered in MA, NH, NY and several other states to which this article is directed. For more information please consult

The information contained in this article is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. The strategies and/or investments referenced may not be suitable for all investors as the appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives. Investing involves risks and there is always the potential of losing money when you invest. Morgan Stanley Financial Advisors do not provide tax or legal advice. The views expressed herein are those of the author, D. Abraham Ringer, and may not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, Member, or its affiliates.



Choosing a Preschool

26 Nov

If you are the parent of a young child, ‘tis the season to be preschool “shopping.” With so many options to choose from, it’s important to identify your family’s preferences and priorities at the outset. As a first step, ask yourself, do I need:

  • A full- or half-day program?
  • The option of extended days?
  • A five day program or only one or two days of care?
  • A play-based program, one that is more structured and curriculum-based, or something in between?

While each preschool’s approach and schedule may vary, it’s essential that any center you consider is licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. Equally important, be sure to determine each teacher’s qualifications, their education, background and how long they have been associated with the program.

But remember, nothing you can ask will tell you more than seeing, first hand, the interactions between teachers and children. Look around; are the children busy, happy, engaged and relating to one other? Is the teacher getting down to the child’s eye level to speak with him/her? Are the facilities clean, well-lit and organized? Are outdoor activities built into the schedule? Is it a warm and caring environment?

Stories, arts and crafts, words and numbers should be part of the preschool day. But children should also have ample time to play. This is their “work.” Play helps preschoolers learn how to share, cooperate, and take turns. Through play children can be creative, observe how things work and develop language skills. It can also be a time of self-discovery and for building self-confidence.

There are many types of preschools that serve a variety of children and family needs. A quality preschool should focus on the development of the whole child: cognitive, social, emotional, and physical. There should be activities, toys and games that help the child strengthen each of these skills every day.

Remember, YOU have to feel comfortable with the school, its philosophy, rules, philosophy, size and location. Trust your instincts. When it comes to choosing a preschool, parents know best.


By Kathleen Rudnicki, M.Ed., director of the Rockwell Child Study Center; Education Faculty at Lasell College

Surprising Lessons from Your Child at Play

12 Nov

Did you know your toddler is a scientist?

As a science educator and a mother of an eight-year-old, I am continually surprised by how children — particularly my own daughter Sophie — explore and think about the world.

I see learning everyday where I work at the Museum of Science, Boston. In our Discovery Center, children and their grownups engage in hands-on activities that encourage learning through play. From pretending to be a honeybee to assembling a skeleton, children explore science in a lively, interactive environment. I also get a glimpse of the inner workings of children’s minds through our Living Laboratory® program, where scientists from local research institutions investigate how children think as they play a game, try out a new toy or listen to stories. These researchers are excited to talk with parents about how our children learn and I’ve learned a lot from them too.

For example, at not quite two years old, Sophie could “count” out loud up to 10. Genius, right? As it turns out, not so much. A researcher from Harvard taught me a simple game that provides a better sense of a child’s grasp of numbers. I played this game with Sophie and still introduce it to the toddlers I meet in the exhibit.

When I asked Sophie, “Can you show me one crayon?” from a pile of crayons, she handed me one. But when I asked her to show me two, she gave me a fistful. A few months later, she could show me “one” and “two,” but I’d still get a fistful for “three” and higher numbers. This little game made her learning visible to me. If you play it at home from the time your child is about 18 months until almost four years old, you can see how your child’s understanding of numbers evolves.

Next, a toddler’s first scientific experiments involve trying to find out if the same thing always happens in the same situation. As a toddler, Sophie loved to put a ball on a ramp maze and watch it go back and forth. Once it reached the bottom, she would pick up the ball and roll it down the ramp again and again. She would play at this exhibit for long periods of time because she was trying to confirm if the results would be the same every time she placed the ball at the top of the ramp. This kind of repetition can be a little tedious for parents asked to sing the teapot song a hundred times, but for toddlers it’s essential to learning how the world works.

Another way I’ve come to better understand Sophie’s learning is through storytelling. Parents may wonder if their children can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary in books or on TV. When Sophie was a preschooler, she participated in a study during which a researcher from Boston University showed her photos of a real person dressed as Prince Charming and the real Prince William, and then told her stories about them. Sophie knew who was real and who was pretend because she recognized that “real princes don’t rescue people from monsters and dragons.” The study illustrated that the way you talk about a character helps your child separate reality from fantasy. More recently, the MIT Media Lab has been doing research to determine what’s different when kids read with a parent, compared to “reading” with a robot. Early results? Parents are more effective than a machine.

Society so often focuses on making kids smarter or on “raising the perfect child.” Parents don’t always realize that their four-year-old doesn’t yet have the cognitive abilities of a seven-year-old. By observing and talking with Sophie as she played, I learned a great deal about how she thinks, even before she could talk. The takeaway: Don’t worry if your child can’t do what older kids do. He or she is doing wonderfully normal and amazing things every day – and you do a lot to help!

For activities that can make your child’s learning visible visit: For science activities for toddlers and preschoolers visit:


Becki Kipling is Sophie’s mom and program manager of the Museum of Science’s Discovery Center. Its Living Laboratory has become a national initiative with similar programs at 14 science centers and children’s museums in North America.