J Simens.com

Brainstorming and Storytelling with your child


Storytelling can start at any age

Brainstorming is a great way to generate ideas, and to come up with creative solutions to problems. Yes, with your child! But something even more interesting might be anticonventional thinking (ACT). ACT addresses the inherent weaknesses of brainstorming and is modeled on the way artists, musicians, scientists and other creative people develop ideas.

I love to see parents using talk time with their kids – so why not make it fun. Here is an example of a dinner conversation that I had with my five-year-old. His homework was “think of a problem and write six sentences about it.” We decided to do a real life problem

Our Problem:  Daddy is going to be home late tonight. How many ways can we say this?

Instead of just stating this as a fact, I wanted to help build up vocabulary as well as through in some problem solving skills.

  1. Daddy is late.
  2. Daddy is really late.
  3. Daddy is the latest he has ever been.
  4. Daddy will miss dinner.
  5. Daddy will miss my bedtime.
  6. Daddy is so late the sun will come up.

(printed with permissions from Grant age 5)

I asked Grant to continue and do more than what was required and to try and think of something that his Dad might laugh about when he got home. He continued with:

  1. Daddy is so late that we moved to Disneyland.
  2. Daddy is so late I am already in college.

I have to admit that this did make me laugh and we did get to share it when his dad arrive home later that evening as we were still eating dinner.

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One, Two, Three, Go: What games do you play around the world?


I just watched three lovely little girls playing a game on our beach.  I tried to follow along but my Spanish is awful.  I just joined in on their smiles.

It reminds me of my time working in Indonesia. Believe it or not, my Bahasa Indonesia is better than my Spanish!

Indonesia Players: 2

This game is played by two people to see whose turn is first. It is similar to Paper, Scissors, Stone from China and Japan, and is known in the United States as Rock, Paper, Scissors.  There are a few differences from the American version I grew up with.

The players face each other with right hands behind their heads. They count aloud, “One, two, three, go!”  Or

  1. One — satu.
  2. Two — dua.
  3. Three — tiga.

On the word “go” they hold out their right hands in one of three ways: the thumb, index finger, or little finger is pointed toward the opposite player.

  • The pointed thumb is the elephant.
  • The pointed index finger is the man.
  • The pointed little finger is the ant.

To decide who is winner the players say whichever of the following lines is appropriate to their two gestures: “Elephant wins over man because he can trample him.” “Man wins over ant because he can stop on him.” “Ant wins over elephant because he can run up his trunk and tickle him to death.”

If the players make the same sign, they play the game again.

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Tutor more than the basic math, reading and etc.


Parents might want to think about tutoring their child’s strong subject
instead of just their weak area subjects. When children feel confident in
one area this often will make them try harder in other areas. It is called
“strength based” training and a very important aspect of a child’s self
confidence.

When parents only get tutoring for the weak areas, often a child feels
defeated and a loser. I always suggest to the families I work with to do
only ten minutes of tutoring per grade level so you don’t over burden the
child and make them hate school work. Example in Grade One – ten minutes
of work one on one and intensive is better than an hour of non focused
work. Grade Two, you can try 20 minutes. This means the standard hour of
tutoring is not actually helpful until the child is in Sixth Grade. If
parents must take a whole hour of tutoring for the younger grades, make
sure the tutor factors in break times or movement times.

This would be my ideal setup for a Third Grade student who needs math
support and the parents want to pay for an hour of tutoring.

Five minutes of personal time and sharing of what was good about last week and what was hard about last week in school. 25 minutes of work on the math areas that are deemed to be weak or basic foundation work of math skills. A short break (5 minutes) – movement and water, are both needed. 15 minutes of doing a strength based activity.

If the child loves to read, share reading skills at this time. If the child loves music, do music for these minutes. If the child loves basketball, shoot free throws. Finish up with ten minutes of intense math work.

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Important contract to add to any agreement with your child


As an educator and a mother of two, I have found that when parents make contracts with their children they often think of the tangible things.  Clean your room.  Do your dishes.  Get out of bed and make it.  Parents often over look the one thing that causes parents the most stress!  Not knowing if your child is safe.
I have worked with over 8,000+ families on five continents  and this is one thing I tell all of them to do.
“When I text you or call you, you must pick up or acknowledge that you received my message.”
So many parents are worried about their child and check in with them to only find that the child will not respond to them and then they worry even more. For many of the younger kids, we have set it up so they text their parents prior to ‘going off the grid”. They are responsible to send a text message saying for example, “Gong in movie in two minutes, phone off”. This gives the parents the heads up so they don’t worry.
Many families have found this very helpful and prevents the cycle of a parent needing to connect with a child, then no response, reconnect and no response resulting in the parent’s worry to grow and grow.  This is also helpful when parents are dealing with a child going off to college another worry time for parents.
Build in your agreement the ability to text such things, “Busy will get back to you”  or “Not a good time for me”  or even “Thanks – later” just some sort of code that tells the parent that the kid is okay and things are going good.
Often this is all the parent needs.
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When your Christmas tree is NOT a tree!


My family has been lucky enough to spend Christmas in a variety of
locations due to our jobs working abroad. We often make Christmas a
tri-generational event so some traditions are important to keep. The one
tradition we have is the kids two stockings have been placed under our
Christmas tree each Christmas eve hoping Santa arrives.  Then we have a special Christmas morning brunch!

The stockings have a special meaning to our family since they were hand
cross sticked by their Aunt and then another Aunt actually made them into
Christmas stockings. But what is more important is the place where the kids
hang the stockings – it must be under their Christmas tree. This is hard to
do if you are not spending Christmas in your own home.

Now that my kids are adults, Santa has arrived in Australia, Borneo, The
Cook Islands, Canary Islands, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Thailand as
well as multiple locations in the USA. The one Christmas tree that makes us
all still smile is the one my son made in the Cook Island. He had been in
the hotel lobby watching the hotel staff get all of their decorations set
up for the Holiday event. They showed him how to weave flowers into strips of leaves and drape them over the large lobby tree.

He then went out into their gardens and collected enough natural supplies to decorate the Christmas tree in our hotel room.

There was only one small problem. We didn’t have a tree! He took every
pillow and cushion in our hotel suite and fashioned a pyramid in the corner
of the room. He draped all the leaves and flowers over this pile of
cushions and proudly announced that it was our “Christmas tree”! He then
went and got the stockings and put them at the base of the cushion tree.

We all remember how it was the rest of that day and night waiting for
Santa! We had to watch TV as we were sitting on a brick hard couch without cushions. We tried to sit on the balcony to watch the ocean but found the rattan chairs without any cushions unbearable. The hardest thing was trying to get his older sister to go to bed without a pillow. My husband and I were able to pull our pillows off the “tree” for our own bed after the kids went to sleep and before Santa arrived.

Then a later Christmas the same concern happened.  We were in Roatan without a tree.

It is amazing what a child with an imagination can come up with – we  had a red solo cup tree made out of the wine rack.  This was much more confortable than living without pillows.

I hope all global families are making Christmas memories around the world.

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Plan a perfect holiday : The last day before christmas holiday begins


Santa hat on Globe

World Wide Holidays

Out of the vault –

She was angry and sad.

I asked her “why” on the last day of school before the Christmas holiday?  She said, “I am angry that the day will be over so soon and I am sad that I have to leave school.

This was not how I recalled my years in schools.  I was always the first to leave and the one sitting eagerly in my seat for the last bell to ring so I could blast off for fun on being “out of school.”

So I wonder . . . Did my teacher’s not instilling my love of learning and my need to be in school or is her time off so dull that she would rather be at school than at home.

So I decided to ask her “why” again.

“I really like my friends, and I love my teacher, why would I want to miss out on what they are doing?” she questions me back.

“Won’t you do anything fun over the holidays?”

“Yes, we are going to go horseback riding and ice skating.”

“Won’t that be more fun than being in school?”

“No.”

She summed it up in one word. No. School was more fun than riding a horse. School was even more fun than skating. She is five and school is MORE fun than these two activities. My first thoughts were, Your teacher is fortunate to have you in her class.

Then I realized the truth. Her teacher must be a great teacher.

“You are a lucky little girl to love school so much.”, I said.

Again she stated it perfectly. “I love my whole school day.”

Being a part of her universe, I am going home tonight glad to be a counselor and thankful that she is part of my school. I hope all the teachers, parents, children and counselors have a great Christmas holiday. People travel all over the world for the holidays, but we also need to be ‘happy’ to acknowledge where we come from.

Safe Travels if you are heading out of school this season.

Family and Food – Two of my favorite things!


traveling turkey

Being an American who has lived in many different countries, I have always tried to explain the USA holiday of Thanksgiving. It is one of my favorite holidays because it incorporates two things I hold very dear to my heart – Family and Food.

I like that it is not a gift-giving holiday.

I like that it is not a religious holiday, people of all faiths can join in the celebration.

To me, it is a celebration of gratitude.

Gratitude is the best attitude. – Author Unknown.

I like the family traditions we have at Thanksgiving. I love that some things always stay the same. We still have turkey even if we have to pay too much for it.  My brother, Jeff who lives in Missouri is always amazed at how much you have to pay for a turkey in places like Indonesia, Nigeria, or American Samoa. Turkey’s are just not grown in many areas in the world and when you have to throw in frozen containers floating around the world or frozen air shipments – the costs are just sky-high. I have been known to put a whole frozen turkey in a suitcase just to get one in the country we are currently living in at that time! Not much room in the suitcase for other items but well worth it for the family tradition.

I’ve made pumpkin pies from scratch in places where you can’t get our favorite Libby’s pumpkin puree. It is several day processes for me when you have to start with a whole garden pumpkin. I love the convenience, consistent flavor and texture of canned pumpkin even if it is mostly “squash’!

Some canned “pumpkin” puree is made from one or more types of winter squash, like butternut, Hubbard, Boston Marrow, and Golden Delicious. These squash varieties can be less stringy and richer in sweetness and color than pumpkin. The USDA is pretty lenient with its distinction between pumpkin and squash.

Sometimes hard to find in July!

Often in the summer on my annual home leave, I’d buy Libby’s brand of canned pumpkin and throw it into our suitcase, so I’d have my Thanksgiving pie!  Libby’s use a strain of Dickinson Pumpkins, with exceptionally creamy flesh that the company developed themselves. This variety of pumpkin resembles a butternut-squash, not the orange pumpkin we have for Halloween jack-o-lanterns.

Sometimes it is impossible to get Crisco in the countries we have lived in.  I like the crust of my pumpkin pie to be flaky.  I watched my Grandma Wright use Crisco (vegetable shortening), Flour, Salt, Water, Vinegar, and Egg to make perfect pies. This is the only way I know how to make a good pie. Ree, The Pioneer Woman, uses a similar recipe. So believe it or not, Crisco has also found its way into my luggage.  So far I have only had to try and explain why I am bringing these items into a country one time.  By the time I got to pie crust . . . The customs official was waving me through the line. I am not sure what I would have said or done if they had taken my Thanksgiving stash.

My favorite Zen Holiday Story about giving thanks

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food.

The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

Giving thanks far away from family

Then: Bundle up it was always cold and drive across Logan County to Grandma’s house. Over the river and through the woods and all that sort of stuff.

Now: Glad, our child in is Hawaii enjoying life with Kylie.  Glad that Kevin and I will be able to share Thanksgiving with them.

At one Thanksgiving, it would have been our child’s first-ever USA Thanksgiving. While living in college and not near family, I searched and searched for a restaurant that would deliver a feast to her college apartment. Most nice places have a buffet for important events like Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year.  After hearing my ‘sad story’ about it being her first and only USA Thanksgiving in the USA and being alone– my wish was honored.  The Briarwood Inn supplied a feast for my child. It is hard to know how much a person might eat at a buffet and there was no way to determine that. My child reported that not only was it a feast there were tons of leftovers, and that is what makes Thanksgiving unique for a college kid.  Or all of us. Right.

Several years ago while in Honolulu we had the Royal Hawaiian (hotel) Thanksgiving to go! We made Thanksgiving hassle-free that year with their Thanksgiving To-Go package, featuring a Kiawe Smoked Turkey, Sourdough Stuffing, Cheesy Herb Mashed Potatoes, Pumpkin Pecan Pie, and more. The meal feeds up to 15 people.  Of course, we took it up to our son’s apartment so his friends could enjoy the feast! We asked them to bring their chairs and silverware. Thank goodness for paper plates!

Thanksgiving past and present 

I am grateful for all the Thanksgiving feasts I have had.  Starting with the ones at Grandma Wright’s Kansas farmhouse to the ones in Incline Village, NV.  At first, all my memories of Thanksgiving were only about family members. Often we had a whole room full of tables and family sharing the feast. Then it moved to Thanksgiving with college friends and on to Thanksgiving with international teachers. Then a few years of Kevin and I were sharing the dinner with friends. Finally, my own family and an ongoing list of expats sharing the feast.

I wish I had taken pictures of the faces of people who shared my table every Thanksgiving to have as a slideshow of memories. Besides a whole host of beautiful people and their smiling faces, it would show some interesting things. It would explain the massive tuna that the young teachers put on the BBQ in Samoa to go with the roast chicken.

It would show my Mom cooking gravy in a “fry baby” in Hawaii since my college apartment didn’t have a lot of kitchen items. All of our guests had to bring their plates and silverware since we only had a set of three odds and ends.

As always, our family will be missing my mother at the holidays, but we will remember fondly how she so effortlessly made a huge meal year after year for all of us and any friends we wanted to bring along.

Those past photos would have shown the beautiful name tags my kids made one year. It would show the straw turkey Jackie painted with her Grandma Simens. It would show friends from around the world. It would show my family. It would also show our quasi-families!

Expats create quasi-family for Thanksgiving

Enjoy your time with friends –  If you are an expat create a quasi-family and enjoy the holiday.

Zesho Susan O’Connell speaks about Thanksgiving, and she does it well.

“The greatest gift is to give. We can give gratitude; we can give sustenance to body and mind, we can give fearlessness. The wheel of giving and receiving keeps our hearts open and warm. And a warm and open heart is the source of courage – the courage to sit still in the midst of our constantly changing, challenging lives. Wisdom emerges from this stillness — and informs the style and content of our giving. Give with no expectation of return. Give wholeheartedly, and if you realize you are holding back, give yourself kindness and understanding. Give each out-breath to the benefit of the world.

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What is your favorite Thanksgiving memory?


Why are these memories important? Are celebrations like Thanksgiving good for us?

I am often asked, “How can we identify risk factors for our children so that potential problems are minimized?”

My Top Three:

  1. Family is the key!
  2. Knowing your ’emotions’ is essential.
  3. Family memories and family traditions build strong kids.

Do emotions help us make more ethical decisions?

I believe they do. If the child cannot understand their own emotions or tune into the feelings of others in their family or with peers, this is a considerable risk. If the child is unable to make ethical decisions, they are a risk to themselves and a risk to society.

If the child does not have a sense of “family,”  this is a huge risk. The impact of a strong family identity and the connectedness factor is often long-lasting, giving messages to the child that they are loved and accepted and belong to a broader network of people who matter.

It is my perception that no child is immune from pressure in our current, fast-paced, stressed filled environment so families have to be aware that at any time in their life a child might need help and support. They need to cope better with everyday challenges and be able to bounce back from disappointments. The concept of resilience is straightforward if you think about kids needing to thrive emotionally, behaviorally, academically and interpersonally. Families need to use Thanksgiving as a time to connect.

This is one of our favorite Thanksgiving memories

I can handle the first insult (according to my culture) but the second one puts me over my comfort zone.

It is Thanksgiving.

And we invited the guests.

And it was early in the evening.

But remember – First, you move me 1,500 miles away from where I call home.

Second, you invite a whole table full of strangers – your co-workers.

Third, this sets up the magic to make this a Thanksgiving that is memorable.

At first, when my husband suggested that we invite his co-workers from China who have never had a traditional American Thanksgiving to our home, I was eager. I had visions of everyone sitting around smiling and enjoying the feast I had carefully constructed.

Sunflowers, Pie, and Friends – what more does an expat need?

I was up early; the house smelled fantastic with the mixture of butter, onions and sage and a host of other things ready to be stuffed in the turkey. Then I tackled the homemade pies. Growing up in Kansas and spending hour after hour in my grandma’s kitchen, I can make a “mean apple pie” and the ‘absolutely must have’ pumpkin pie. Of course, throw in a berry pie to make everyone happy. I stirred, stuffed and muffed around the kitchen all day.

At 5:00 pm our guests were expected to arrive. At 4:45 pm everyone came right on cue but early! This should have been my first hint that this might not be a typical Thanksgiving dinner.

For you see my new husband was the BOSS

Yes, I had forgotten to factor in that perhaps our guests that I thought were so eager to come to Thanksgiving was, in fact, doing a “work obligation” on their day off.

At the start of the event, everyone just mingled around, and I started to relax. We exchanged names and polite words while my husband was eagerly getting everyone a drink. Then our first cultural mishap occurred.

The Chinese spokesman cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Simens, Thank you so much for having all of us here to celebrate with you and your fat wife.”

My husband looked awkwardly at me but his “deer in the headlight look” told me he was apprehensive of my reaction, wanted to wait, and intervene if he needed to.

As you know, I am well aware of cultural nuances, so I tipped my head and smiled. Pardon the pun, but I knew I was a big enough person to take this comment as praise in China – a compliment and not an American putdown.

As we all settled down to the large dining room table, they asked me to explain each dish and tell them a little about them. This was more like the event I had in my mind, as a teacher sharing the joys and education of Thanksgiving.

Once a teacher always a teacher

I talked about the importance of cornbread, from the American natives “Indians” such as the Cherokee or the Chickasaw and the original recipes they had for these corn dishes. I explained how cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs that produce vines up to 2 meters or (7 ft) long. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant; it is initially white but turns a deep red when fully ripe. Then I explained why we have both sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes. I saved the best for last – the huge turkey. Then the observation that made the first “fat” remark seem tame happened.

“Mr. Simens, Wow, your turkey is as fat as your wife.”

“Let’s eat,” my husband said, trying to avoid any more discomfort.

Then the ‘Second in Command’ felt my husband just didn’t get the compliment, so he said, “Mr. Simens, We mean you are a very lucky man, you have a really big turkey and a really big wife.”

“Bon Appetite!” my husband tried again as he laid his hand carefully on my leg and patted my thigh. He was stroking my leg. Was he trying to comfort me or was he just getting into position to restrain me if I decided to lunge across the table at the company representative? Was he checking to see where the huge carving knife was?

I was only able to relax and start to enjoy the meal when I noticed everyone was eating. I hoped no one would talk with their mouth full of food (another American issue). I also wondered if there would be any burping. I then gave an inaudible Thanksgiving prayer – “Please don’t let anyone mention the word fat again this holiday season.”

Then I silently wondered what this group of people might be doing for Christmas. What might they say about a huge Christmas Ham?

I hope you and your family are creating Thanksgiving memories and better yet . . . Telling stories of Thanksgiving past so you can build up your child’s family emotion stories.

Please share one Thanksgiving Memory!

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A Walk Down History Lane: Your Childhood Games


Picture 17

We all have our favorite games from childhood, which we enjoyed for hours with friends and family. Those games offered unique combinations of strategy, entertainment and originality. And, as a result, many have remained around for decades.

I grew up on Monopoly.

Monopoly is an American board game published by Parker Brothers. Hasbro even conducts a worldwide Monopoly tournament. The first Monopoly World Championships took place in Grossinger’s Resort in New York, in November 1973. It has been aired in the United States by ESPN.

The Wright Family ( my maiden name)  each summer conducted a worldwide Monopoly tournament. We all got together in the upstairs bedroom and started to play a long marathon of Monopoly playing. I was often the youngest member playing the the game. I often lost! My bothers, sisters and cousins were much better with banking and investments than I was.

Being an expat, I am pleased to see Monopoly is a world-wide game. The current world champions have come from the following countries:  United States, Ireland, Singapore, Italy, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Netherland, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain and Norway. This means children must play Monopoly around the world

The memories I have about Monopoly in Russell Springs Kansas on a hot summer night are special. We did not always do as the game rules suggested.

For example:

Setup time – 10 minutes

This would take my older brothers and sisters the average time but for me the youngest. I swear they were always telling me to hurry up!

Playing time – 240 minutes (3 to 4 hours) [average]  But…But…we had games that went late into the night and everyone took their money to bed with them and we resumed playing the following morning. I guess we trusted our hotels and playing pieces to remain where they needed to be, but cash, well cash is cash!

Skill(s) required Negotiation, Resource management –  Huh?  I thought it was the skill of sticking to a task and not giving up. Perseverance!

Yet toy makers just can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to updating the classics. They insist on adding electronic features that take away all the joy (and education) from playing the game.

Does Monopoly really need credit cards and an electronic bank?

Is a Magic 8 Ball more fun if the answers are shouted out by a TV character? What about a dice game that doesn’t have dice? My list of good toys being turned into non-thinking actions can go on and on.  Stop the madness – buy the classic games and toys and let your child learn. The most important thing to remember is that kids need to play board games to learn to take turns, negotiation skills and being honest.  Are your kids experts in these areas?

Notes:  Yes, I was considered Ms. Wright for almost 30 years~

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