Back-to-school buzz

The lazy days of summer are slowly coming to an end and it’s time to get back to the grind.

From lunch box ideas to homework help, the transition back to school can be a smooth one.

Fresh ideas for kids’ lunches every day of the week

Here is a math problem that every elementary school parent knows well: Two kids times 180 school days equals lunchbox burnout. This school year, prevent the lunchtime blues before they start. Put down the white bread–with the crusts cut off, naturally–and think about lunch a little differently.

Thinking outside the sandwich requires forethought when shopping at the grocery store and some Sunday afternoon preparation. But the reward is a week’s worth of healthy, portable meals that will make your kids the envy of the cafeteria.

Once you get used to it, this kind of simple, advance preparation will seem like second nature. And when you see how delicious brown-bag lunches can be, you and your spouse may want to get in on the action.

We’ve created a shopping list, instructions and one key recipe for a week’s worth of satisfying, sandwich-free lunches for two kids.

The daily menu does not include additional items, such as chips or dessert, but you can add those if you like. The shopping list suggests buying items like salad dressing, granola and hummus for the sake of convenience, but keep in mind that these foods are easy and less expensive to make yourself, if you are so inclined.

Adjust the recipes and ideas to your family’s taste. If your kids do not care for hummus, for example, substitute a pimento cheese spread. In addition, all of these recipes are nut- and peanut-free because even if your child does not have a food allergy, many schools now ban these ingredients.

The only special equipment needed are reusable plastic containers and glass Mason jars in pint, 8 oz. and 4 oz. sizes. Mason jars are inexpensive, reusable containers for portable salads, yogurt parfaits and more. However, you can also buy specialized containers such as the Sistema Klip-It Breakfast-to-Go for packing yogurt and granola and Salad-to-Go to keep ingredients and dressing separate, both of which are available at Amazon and The Container Store.

Monday: Mason Jar Chef Salad with Pita

In the bottom of the pint-sized Mason jar, place two tablespoons of your favorite vinaigrette dressing. Chop two of the mini cucumbers and place on the bottom of the jar. (The cucumber won’t absorb the dressing and get soggy.) Chop four baby carrots and add them to the jar. Cut one-half of the roasted turkey into chunks and add to the jar. Top with four halved grape tomatoes. Pack ingredients tightly, but do not crush. Seal jar tightly with lid. Repeat with a second jar.

Include one of the mini pitas in each lunch. Advise kids to shake jar gently before opening to distribute oil and vinegar. (For more ideas like this, pick up the book Mason Jar Salads and More: 50 Layered Lunches to Grab and Go by Julia Mirabella.)

Tuesday: Mini Cheese Frittata with Grapes

Pack three or four mini frittata depending on your child’s age and appetite. Include a side of grapes and one mini pita. (Remaining frittata can be reheated for a quick breakfast later in the week.)

Mini cheese frittata recipe

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and spray a 12-cavity muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, beat together one dozen eggs and 1/4 cup milk. Season with salt and pepper.

Grate 8 oz. of cheddar cheese.

Divide the grated cheese evenly between the cavities in the muffin tin.

Pour the egg mixture over the cheese filling the cavities about 2/3 full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm.

Remove from muffin tin and refrigerate until needed.

Wednesday: Mason Jar Pasta Salad

In the bottom of the pint-sized Mason jar, place two tablespoons of your favorite vinaigrette dressing. Chop one of the mini cucumbers and place on the bottom of


8 products to rule back to school

Kids are so darn smart

Give kids a more comfortable way to do homework in the car as you shuttle them to after-school activities. Students designed a new Portable Desk for Staples, $39.99, that has quickly become our editor’s favorite thing. The lap desk features storage for notebooks, folders and even pens and pencils with slots for headphones and power cords so any assignment can be completed on the go. We also love the other tools designed by students including the Big Pen Pencil Case (it actually writes), $8.99, and the Super Folder, $12.99. Sold at Staples.

Fast food, only better

Fitting a home-cooked meal into that busy back-to-school schedule can be a challenge, but Meez Meals saves you time and money with prepped and ready-to-cook ingredients delivered right to your door. $8 to $12.50 per serving.

Funny name, cool stuff, good cause

There’s no doubt your star students will shine the brightest with Yoobi school supplies. Yoobi sells colorful and vibrant supplies for every student, classroom or office, plus when you buy a Yoobi product, another Yoobi product is donated to a classroom in need. Also available at Target.

Plastic baggies begone

Mix and match the kids’ lunch box, but not the food, with Bentology’s Classic 6-Piece Bento Box. The containers come in different sizes, making it easy to pack your kids’ faves without crushing or mixing them. The insulated lunchbox come in school-friendly style that appeal to all (we’re partial to the smiling cats). $19.99.

Check out Bentology’s free Lunch Ideas app at iTunes App store.

Own your stuff

One thing every parent should know about back-to-school supplies: Label everything if you want it back. We’re super fans of Mabel’s Labels’ Ultimate Back-to-School Combo that includes mini custom name stickers, clothing labels, shoe stickers and personalized mini tags. $42 for 108 labels and tags. We also love the Little Kid School combo to help even the littlest of learners keep track of their stuff.


Kids tell all: 7 things parents need to know about middle school

Middle school is a brave new world, very different from the warm, fuzzy cocoon of elementary school. Just hearing the words “middle school” strikes fear in the hearts of many parents.

Middle schoolers are more independent, and there are many unknowns for parents, especially with all the technology kids have that we adults didn’t have to deal with when we were middle schoolers. To get the scoop on what really goes in middle school, we went straight to the source: local kids who have been in the middle school trenches for a few years.

Here’s what they said about what middle school is really like.

Dealing with the drama is exhausting

Devon Molina, 13, an eighth-grader at the Academy for Global Citizenship in Chicago who recently enrolled at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, says: “There’s a lot of drama—a lot of talking about people and stuff. Dealing with it takes a lot of time.” He says that parents should know that kids are dealing with it and talk with them about it.

“I feel like I’m the only person who’s helping them,” Devon says of a few classmates struggling with significant issues, including self-harm. Parents can help their kids by encouraging them not to try to handle situations solo and reviewing the adults available to help, including school counselors and teachers.

With more minor issues, however, kids often can handle it without intervention by adults. “If it’s not too big a deal, kids are good at working things out on their own,” says Cecilia Thyen, a 13-year-old who will be in eighth grade at Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph in Chicago.

Despite the drama, the kids with whom we spoke went above and beyond to be good friends. “There are some really nice people at my school,” says Sarah Parisien, 13 and an eighth-grader at Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies in Skokie. “Every time someone gets remotely hurt in some way, emotionally or physically, there’s always someone there to help them.”

Good news: There isn’t much bullying

Bullying is not a huge issue, all of the students say.

“I very rarely see full-out bullying,” says Veronica Cody, 13, and an eighth-grader at Madison Junior High in Naperville, adding that classmates will occasionally make mean comments, both online and in the halls at school.

Annamarie Filippis, 13, an eight


The 7 habits of highly effective students

All parents want their children to be successful, and a brand new school year is a fresh opportunity to grow that success. It’s a chance to help your kids be better organized, study more, manage their time better and put in more effort for their classes.

It can seem like a daunting task coming back from a summer of fun and relaxation to get back into a serious studying mindset, but by adapting Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller for business success, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you and your kids will be on track for a productive and learning-filled year.

Habit 1: Set goals

Starting the school year with clear goals in mind will help students stay on track and give parents a way to check in during the year and see that progress. Goals can be big or small, such as learning to play a new instrument or raising a grade in math or consistently doing homework.

“Having a clear purpose and goal in mind enables a person to persevere through the hard work that is required to be successful,” says Dominique Ciccarelli, spokeswoman for Kumon North America.

Set long- and short-term goals to help students feel like they are accomplishing things along the way. Talk to your student and his or her teachers about these goals at the beginning of the year and check in periodically to see if things need to adjust.

Habit 2: Get organized

Starting the school year with all the right materials is a great first step. Assign colors for each class and get matching notebooks and folders to help your student keep track of what they need. Make a calendar and update it with tests, assignments and other deadlines to keep your students organized and provide yourself with a road map of when to check in on those goals you set together.

Habit 3: Make a schedule

Kids respond well to structure, but they often want to have a say in how their time is being managed. Have a discussion about when feels like the best time to study. For some students it’s before or after dinner; others do their best thinking late at night or early in the morning. Either way, write the designated study sessions on a calendar.

You can even break those down into study schedules during final exams and help them plan to spend certain amounts of time studying each subject. Break up study time with physical exercise to keep their brains sharp.

Cross off each successful day of studying on a calendar to keep them on track.

Habit 4: Start with the tough stuff

Whether your child’s hardest subject is math, science or reading, don’t save it for the end. Waiting until the last minute to start a big and difficult subject or project will only add stress and create a sense of dread. Encourage them to start with the hardest work or the subject they enjoy the least. Once they get through it, moving on to the subject they enjoy and excel at will feel like its own reward.

Habit 5: Keep distractions at bay

Help your student set up a designated spot to study, whether it is in his or her room or at the kitchen table. Try to keep the area quiet, away from distractions like the computer or TV, and don’t interrupt them to remind them about chores or other responsibilities. They need to stay focused, and you have to give them space to let them get their work done.

Sixty productive minutes without looking at the TV or their phones is more effective than two hours of distracted time. The quicker their homework gets done, and done well, the sooner they can get back to other fun activities.

Habit 6: Stay healthy

A healthy student is a good student. Make sure your little learners are eating three healthy meals each day to keep their brains strong and ready to work. Studies show that students who take breaks from studying to do physical act


Back-to-school: 6 tips for no-stress mornings

Mornings can be hard. Popular parenting humorist @LurkatHomeMom once tweeted: “90% of parenting is just walking around yelling, `WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES? WE’RE ALREADY LATE! FIND YOUR SHOES!’”

While this social media share was certainly meant to be humorous, real parents in the trenches understand that this sentiment accurately captures a daily struggle: How to get your family out of the house on time, happy and prepared to face the day?

We talked to an organizational expert, parenting coach, mental health professional and experienced parents to find out how they make mornings at their houses stress-free.

The bad news: You can’t expect a one-step, easy fix to this common problem. The good news: With the right attitude, consistent routines, advanced preparation and a little organization, you can ditch challenging mornings in favor of a more serene start to everyone’s day.

Here is how to make it happen at your house.

Focus on you first

Eirene Heidelberger, mom of three and president and CEO of GIT (Get It Together) Mom, says stress-free mornings start with mom.

“Every mom needs to put herself first. In the morning, you have to get yourself up at least 30 minutes before your children. This gives you crucial mom time to get it together. Hearing your alarm go off may be painful, but this is the easiest way to arrive `at the ball’ composed and ready to go, rather than a rushed and sweaty mess,” Heidelberger says.

She suggests taking a couple of minutes to enjoy your coffee, surf social media, respond to any important emails and get dressed for the day. Once you’ve taken time for yourself, she recommends waking your child at least 15 minutes before you need him to function to give him his own “me time.”

“The more awake and relaxed he is, the more cooperative he will be,” Heidelberger says.

Stick to a schedule

Everyone needs a routine, especially young kids.

“The number one tip for creating a stress-free morning is be honest and realistic about your timing because running late is the gateway to yelling at your children,” Heidelberger says.

She advises starting with the time you absolutely must exit your house and then adding five minutes to it. This increases your odds of meeting your “out the door” goal every day.

As back-to-school time nears, Heidelberger also recommends moving bedtimes up by 15 minutes every three days to get to the bedtime that allows kids to have at least 10 hours of sleep and wake up on their own.

Include kids in the process

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14 ways to help your child with special needs adjust to school

A new school year can be exciting, yet overwhelming, especially for families with special needs. How can you set your kids up for a successful start?

Local experts provide tips on how to help:

Get to know the teacher and his rules

Meet your child’s teacher ahead of time to develop a rapport and get familiar with his teaching style. “Give kids a leg up by going over classroom rules, expectations, routines and curriculum in advance,” says Nancy Christian, coach and founder of Strategies to Excel.

Give the teacher insider info

Clue her into challenges and potential solutions that have and can work for your child. “Review IEPs and discuss what accommodations or goals were set, met or not met,” says Dr. Tiffany Sanders, licensed psychologist and owner of Sanders and Associates. “Articulate things that helped, like sitting in the front of the classroom.”

Partner with the teacher to help the year go smoothly for your child. “Be proactive, so they’re not spending the first month trying to figure your kid out,” says Maggi Steib, Children & Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder coordinator.

Ease back into the school routine

Return to earlier bed and wake times, start back on medications, and re-establish rewards systems, all about two weeks before the school year starts. “Slowly re-establish structure so that everything is not dumped onto the kids at once,” says Steib.

Involve your child in the preparation

Foster independence with self-help skills, like opening lunch containers. “Allow your child to focus her energies on the social aspects of eating with peers,” says Rhonda Cohen, child development and inclusion director at Cherry Preschool in Evanston.

Let her select school supplies that she really likes. “Even picking out a new notebook or crayons can stir excitement,” says Rita McGovern, occupational therapist at Solomon School in Chicago.

Initiate academic work

Review work from the end of the previous year with your child. Introduce small assignments that align with the grade they are starting. Re-establish structured reading time. “Kids have a lot of demands on them at the beginning of the school year,” Sanders says. “Help avoid a major shock to their system by getting them back in the mode for academics.”

Take active tours of the school

Visit the classroom, library, gym, lunch room, nurse’s area, social worker’s room and all places your child will go, as much as needed to breed familiarity. “Anticipating the


Homework without tears

The excitement of back to school has just one glitch: All of the homework.

As a former elementary and middle school teacher and now a mom of two, I totally get both sides. Here are some tried-and-true tips to help make this school year homework- meltdown-free.

Take small steps. For super-dreaded assignments, have your child nibble away at it. Here’s an example for a math worksheet: Before snack, have him get out the math worksheet, a pencil and an eraser. That’s it. After a snack break, have him find and complete four of the easiest problems. Time for another break. Then have him dive in.

Pick your battles. Keep in mind the objective of the homework. If your child is doing a spelling assignment where he has to cut out the words and categorize them, does it matter who cuts out the pieces? If not, help cut out and glue. With assignments that require writing, sometimes it’s daunting to come up with the idea and to physically write it, so have your child dictate his answers to you. Then, after a short break, have him copy what you wrote. If your child has to draw a picture and despises drawing, don’t make him color it if it’s not necessary.

Invest in quality supplies and have them accessible. A pencil with a lousy eraser can be frustrating. So can trying to hunt down a glue stick. Consider buying quality pencils—possibly mechanical ones that don’t need to be sharpened—and a large, separate eraser. Have notebook paper handy, as well as scrap paper for computations. It’s hard to get in the homework groove if he’s having to stop to sharpen a pencil or hunt down needed supplies.

Have a go-to topic ready. If your child loves superheroes, use them in examples when helping them understand a math concept. If he needs to write spelling sentences, have him write about superheroes.

Use math manipulatives. Pieces of food or toys can make learning concepts like subtraction or fractions more fun. Search online for ways to teach concepts with objects or for related games. (Pinterest is great for this!) And even if it doesn’t help with a particular homework assignment, it can help learn the material.

Outsource. Sometimes you and your child just aren’t gelling at homework time. See if someone else can work on homework with him that day—a high school/middle school neighbor, a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle. This could even be done over the phone or by video chat.

Don’t mess with a good


A+ back-to-school trends for every kid

Sorry, what was that you said? Because I thought I heard you say it was August.

Mamas, ready or not, school starts in a matter of weeks. Your mental checklist probably reads something like this: supply list shopping, haircuts and, of course, back-to-school gear. Simple enough, right? After all, you have a rough idea of your kids’ sizes (unless they’ve hit another growth spurt!) and a general appreciation for current kids trends. Oversized ‘No Fear’ shirts are still cool, right? Cargo floods? Clogs with spirit buttons?

Shoot. If you’re suddenly feeling as rusty on mini-trends as I am, and you’re the mother of highly impressionable children, as I am, then it’s time to call up a few friends in trendy places.

These three local Oak Park stores will help your children seamlessly transition from casual summer break style to back-to-school ready, all while being insanely on-trend. They each made my kids feel like celebrities, all while I sat back and drank my coffee.

From the feet up

Shoes are, without a doubt, one of the most important back-to-school investments. Your child will be on their feet for hours–walking, running and jumping towards those A’s.

Lively Athletics in Oak Park opened a kids shoe sanctuary in the back of their Oak Park store, complete with activities and jump mats that test your child’s overall comfort in a shoe. Lively Athletics employee Anne Pezella helped my kids get perfectly fitted in some of the best brands on the market. Ann noted that quality over quantity is key. High tops, bold colors (even emoji graphics!) and water resistance are some of the largest trends for back-to-school shoppers. Moms, I didn’t lift a finger and the kids have never had more fun trying on shoes.

Get the right look

Comfort is first and foremost when it comes to back-to-school shopping. No little girl wants to be sitting at her desk in an itchy sequined skirt. And fitted jeans may be trendy for boys, but without stretch, those $100 jeans are one and done.

Sugarcup Trading knows what the cool kids will be wearing this fall, and it’s all about comfort, bold statement pieces and backpacks that represent your kid’s personality. Owner Michelle Vanderlaan broke it down to perfection.

“The backpack is their year-round accessory, so it has to represent their personality. For girls, it’s all


Chicago Parent’s picks on best back-to-school products

The best students are often the most organized students (at least we hope!). We found two great student planners your kids will love using to stay on track for the entire school year. The Wimpy Kid School Planner will keep kids entertained with quips from Greg Heffley and gang, $14.95, while the return of Mead’s iconic Trapper Keeper student planner makes organizing a snap. $7.50. Imagine your kids never losing a permission slip again!

Industrial color school lockers do nothing to reflect the personality of their inhabitants—until you open the inside. Check out LockerLookz magnetic whiteboard, $6.99; lockerlookz.com and at specialty shops including Becky and Me Toys in Evanston. We also really like Mead Five Star’s all-in-one design dry erase board because it also includes a mirror and storage pocket. The giant slam-resistant magnets will stay in place. $5.99.

Nothing says back-to-school like a bunch of new pens. Pilot is a go-to with its Go-2 gel ink pen in 14 colors ($3.38-$7.46), the environment-saving B2P pens ($2.88-$4.99) that recycles six plastic bottles for every dozen pack of pens, and the FriXion Clicker, the first retractable erasable pen ($4.87-$5.99)

Net Nanny’s new Family Protection Pass helps families with Android smart phones and tablets and Mac and Windows computers keep their kids from porn, cyber bullying and online predators on all the devices in the home. The subscription also includes one free year of Net Nanny Social to help parents monitor their kids’ friends, pictures and posts on social media. 10 licenses $79.99, 15 licenses $99.99; netnanny.com

Kids need to stay hydrated to keep their minds fueled. Nalgene offers up some fun new colors for its BPA-free bottles, which carry a lifetime guarantee. These meet many schools’ requirements of no-screw tops. Grip ‘n Gulp, $9.25; On the Fly, $10, nalgene.com. We also like Nalgene’s shatter resistant food storage containers for a waste-free lunch. The containers come in four sizes, from 4-32 oz., $2.99-$5.99

The LaLaLounger created quite a buzz in our offices when it arrived. Everyone who sees the giant pillow wants it. This is a fun addition to the house to give kids a fun, relaxing place to study or read. $85-$95, lalalounger.com

The LaLaLounger created quite a buzz in our offices when it arrived. Everyone who sees the giant pillow wants it. This is a fun addition to the house to give kids a fun, relaxing place to study or read. $85-$95, lalalounger.com

Make sure the kids’ stuff remains their stuff with Mabel’s Labels Ultimate Back-To-School Combo Pack or Stylish Scholars Combo Pack that includes more than 100 labels that won’t come off. $42, August-September; mabelslabels.com.

Elmer’s is out with special products just for preschoolers. We like that the glue pen and glue stick are great for small hands, that they are made to create less


Ready to rock kindergarten

Parents’ memories of their own kindergarten experiences are likely vastly different from the current environment their child will encounter in a kindergarten classroom. Gone are the half days, play-based structure and toys.

They have been replaced with the Common Core State Standards to ensure all students are college and career ready after graduating from high school. By the end of the year, kindergarten students are expected to be proficient in roughly 75 skills in language arts, math, writing, speaking and listening.

“With the change in standards, the expectations in kindergarten have become much more academically driven with a focus on English language arts and math,” says Erin Bracco, kindergarten teacher at District 100’s Berwyn South Elementary School.

As summer is coming to a close, it is the perfect time to start preparing your child for what to expect when school begins.

“One of the best ways to prepare for kindergarten is to establish a consistent bedtime routine,” Bracco says. “Getting children accustomed to picking out clothing the night before and being responsible for their belongings are great ways to encourage more independence.”

Much of kindergarten is about teaching children in a social setting, and even summer playdates help ready them for school.

“A great way to prepare your child is to expose her to as many social settings as possible with peers,” says Chrissie Cheney, kindergarten teacher at District 102’s Barnsdale Road School in La Grange Park.

“During the kindergarten year, we explicitly teach problem solving and conflict resolution.

Experiences with different friends and play situations are helpful to add to our conversations and contributes to a caring classroom community,” she says.

Prepare yourself

As you prepare to send your little one off on that first day of school, it may be harder on you than your child.

“Kindergarten is a tough year for parents as much as for the children,” Jenkins says. “It is a much easier transition when parents try and keep their own anxieties from coming to the surface.”


Real moms share tips to kick off the school year

Get the early morning alarms set!

The new school year means on-time schedules, after-school activities and often chaotic days. Instead of starting this year feeling overwhelmed, make a concerted effort to get it all together this year.

We found some moms to share the real scoop on what works and what doesn’t.

The night before

It is 100 percent worth it to pack lunch the night before just to ease up on the morning rush. I also make sure we know where their shoes and backpacks are before going to bed. Otherwise, searching for shoes a minute before we need to leave never turns out well.

Emily Piszczor, La Grange Park

We lay out all of our clothes, even socks and underwear, the night before. Finding a matching sock at 6:15 a.m. can turn into your biggest nightmare. That also gives me time to wash something if I realized that his uniform or pants aren’t clean.

Michelle Covington, Glen Ellyn

Set a regular wake-up time for yourself in order to shower.

Jennifer Dwivedi, Chicago

I meal-plan about a month in advance so I have crockpot meal ingredients for days with activities or I can prepare in advance if we need to leave right after dinner.

Anne Sedore, Naperville

The daily meals

Frozen grapes are awesome. By lunchtime, they’re still nice and cold and because they’re frozen, they don’t get smashed by a drink or other heavy items.

Also, bagged lunches can get boring. So whenever there is an opportunity for portable leftovers, I always put that in his lunch. For example, if I’m making cheeseburgers the night before, I always make an extra.

Michelle Covington

Two or three Sundays per month, I spend a couple hours prepping food that can be frozen and easily thawed for breakfast or lunch. I also prep ingredients for smoothies the night


9 ideas that will help preschoolers get ready for the big time

The first foray into preschool is a great time for learning to share, experimenting with crafts and singing the ABCs. But if your child is entering his final year of preschool, you can start thinking about getting him ready for the big time: Kindergarten.

Here are a few areas to focus on—academically, socially and emotionally—to best prepare your child for the road ahead.

Independence

Make sure your child is able to separate from you successfully. And if they’ve been at the same daycare for several years, introduce them to different environments where they are away from you. Playdates where you drop your child off are helpful, longtime Chicago Public Schools teacher Stacy Hauser says.

Number sense

Don’t worry about counting to 100. Instead, stress number sense. Does your child know if three is more or less than five? “Being able to play with numbers is more important than being able to rote count to 100,” Hauser says.

Reading and letters

Make sure they know the difference between upper and lowercase letters. “It does set them up for an easier time in the school year,” Hauser says.

And read daily together. “It teaches kids to focus, it teaches kids to listen, it gets their attention,” she says. “It gets their mind to think about a great adventure in their head.”

Self-care skills

Your child should be able to put on and take off their coat and boots independently, and to know where to store their belongings, says Kathy Boxell, principal of Barnsdale Road School in La Grange Park.

“I encourage families to have an identified spot at home where things go,” she says. This will help once they receive homework or paperwork that needs to return to school the next day.

Don’t compare

Focus on your child making progress against himself, not others. “Remember that all children are on a different continuum developmentally, and we recognize that as teachers and administrators,” Boxell says.

When it comes to mastering a specific academic skill, Hauser encourages parents to let the child take the lead. “If your child’s not ready, don’t push it, because it will happen naturally.”


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