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Parenting book reviews

A Sowing seeds of joy when gardening with kids

GREAT GARDENS FOR KIDS, by Clare Matthews; photos by Clive Nichols, Sterling Publications, $24.95.

We gardening parents look forward to introducing our

children to the pleasures of cultivating the soil. But once we've helped them plant a few seeds, most of us pursue our own gardening agenda and leave the kids to their plastic slides and playhouses. In "Great Gardens for Kids," author Clare Matthews, a garden designer and mother of three, shares a barrel full of ideas for engaging youngsters in the pleasures of creating gardens and outdoor play features.

There are a number of ideas (a daffodil maze, for example) that are charming, but nearly every project has some non-plant craft angle to it that should make for great fun with a child. Not only do children have the fun of painting flower pots and designing mosaic stepping stones; adults end up with whimsical art objects for their gardens that will be cherished as much as those finger paintings on the kitchen refrigerator.

Illustrated with vivid color photos by Clive Nichols, the book presents directions for climbing features, such as a colorful horizontal climbing wall and a rope spider web; hideaways, including vine-covered tepees and suspended tents, and water features such as a shower-spewing hose painted to resemble a snake, and a do-it-yourself rill, or small stream, that allows small boats to float from one end of the yard to the other.

What's interesting about Matthews' ideas is that they are playful modern interpretations of classic old garden ideas. Renaissance Italian garden makers routinely created mosaic pebble walkways in their great green constructions. They couldn't resist a good water trick (hidden water jets were rigged to unexpectedly shower strolling guests), and would have approved of the yellow-and-green hose snake in Matthews' book. And as for rills, these symbolic water channels date back to early Persian gardens where they symbolized the four rivers of life.

"Great Gardens for Kids" is a terrific resource, not only for parents, but for grandparents, teachers, scout leaders and anyone else who's inclined to while away a sunny afternoon in a garden with children.

Nancy Drew

Don't wait too long to have the 'big talk'


Recently I had lunch with a group of mothers and the conversation turned to our eighth graders. A friend said she knew at least one eighth grade couple who is sexually active. All of us, if not shocked by the news, were saddened that we would soon have to start talking to our children about the risks of sexual activity. Author Debra Haffner would have said that we've waited way too long already.

"Beyond the Big Talk" begins with the basics. Haffner defines sexually healthy adolescents as those who appreciate their bodies, take responsibility for their behaviors, communicate effectively to their families, communicate effectively with both genders in appropriate and respectful ways, and express love and intimacy in a manner that is appropriate for their age. As vital as these qualities are to young people, the author says most parents avoid dealing with this aspect of their child's development, relying instead on giving them "puberty books" and never discussing it further. Haffner lists questions for parents to consider as they remember their own awakening sexuality and think about how to raise these sensitive topics with their children. Most of all, she warns against having a "big talk" and assuming that will be enough. Sexuality must be taught in "teachable moments," just like other values lessons.

The guide is divided chronologically because most children face varying types of sexual issues at different stages of adolescence. In a brief introduction to adolescence, Haffner lists the developmental tasks of all the periods: intellect, independence, identity, integrity and intimacy. Each of these chapters begins with a "values exercise," a brief quiz asking readers how they would handle a sexual situation with their child, and then offers practical guidance for helping children navigate each stage and learn to make good decisions regarding their budding sexuality.

One feature of this book I found particularly interesting and potentially very useful was the final chapter dealing with college students.

Not your typical parenting guide, "Beyond the Big Talk" constantly nudges readers to examine their own fears, misinformation and values regarding sexuality, and gently insists that parents deal with this facet of their children's development. I've told my daughters in the past, "As much as you might be embarrassed to ask these [sexual] questions, I will be embarrassed to answer them. But we have to talk about these things sometime." After reading Haffner's informative guide, I will no longer wait for them to ask because it probably won't happen. I'll be looking for those "teachable moments," too.

Barbara Abromitis

Kids, parents need help coping with divorce

MY STICK FAMILY: HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH DIVORCE, by Natalie June Reilly and Brandi J. Pavese, New Horizon Press, $12.95.

This simple yet endearing book is a valuable tool for anyone involved with children experiencing divorce. This easy-to-read book is written for 4- to 9-year-olds, but the information and messages are just as powerful for adult children of divorced parents.

The book tells the story of 7-year-old Billy, who is grappling with the emotional pangs common among children whose parents divorce. The story begins with his grandmother telling him he is important and his story should be listened to with care.

Young Billy says he feels different because his parents live apart. And he worries about his little brother, Alec. These emotions are apparent when Billy explains how he enjoys his visits with his father but feels sad because he misses his mother. Billy suspects his brother feels the same way. We also learn that Billy worries about visiting back and forth between his parents, feels responsible for his parents' feelings and continues to wish his parents could be together. Billy believes the divorce might be his fault and says it's hard to keep the hurt inside.

When Billy meets Ryan, whose parents also are divorced, he begins to understand he is not alone. He learns that talking about his feelings and listening to his friend make him feel better. After he meets Ryan, Billy begins to feel understood and less sad. Together the boys decide to tell their parents how they feel.

The authors skillfully walk through the process of what parents can do to ease the confusion and pain for the children. They explain in a clear way that there is no blame or shame. More importantly, the children are always loved by both parents. In a sweet way, the authors explain that a family lives in your heart and you carry them with you wherever you go. The story leaves Billy with a healthy self-esteem.

The book succeeds on two levels. For children, the message is to open up and talk about feelings. For parents, it is to respond in a way that will help them cope.

The cover and illustrations are simple, charming and, standing alone as a child's drawings, they tell the story. This is a book to use often and share with friends.

Susan Schwass

Kids Eat Chicago

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