The Better Way to Read to Your Kids



Published on 12/13/2012.  Photo by Julia T. Malakoff

Sometimes, while all four children are seated at the table, shoveling cheerios down their o-shaped mouths, I have tried to limit breakfast battles by reading a book.

It does not seem to matter what kind of book I read in the early hour; they all listen and concentrate on the tale at hand. With my children ranging from teen, tween and post-tot, it fascinates me that each child is able to enjoy the story, no matter what their reading level is. This has led me to think about the power of picture books and early reading comprehension.

Recently, I read an article about a teenage boy who was never taught how to read a book until he was 13. He knew how to read the words, however, nothing made sense to him. He was never taught how to really READ and interpret the printed words into imagery. The idea of never being able to enjoy a book saddened me, for I have always believed in the adage, “books are our friends,” and this child was missing out on so many literary “friendships,” so to speak. He was never able to enjoy a story, because when he was young and being read to, it was never explained to him how to listen carefully to the words and how to create images in his mind.

His story led me to think about the first time that I learned to read…beyond just the words. We were living in Iowa, near the Iowa River which flowed into the famous Mississippi River featured in so many of Samuel Clements’ stories. So, it was apropos that my father chose to read me a couple of pages from Mark Twain’s

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

. I will never forget my father telling the story using all sorts of funny voices, and then pausing in the middle to ask me if I could envision what was happening in the story: Tom, white washing the picket fence and Tom, engaging the attention of Becky Thatcher with all sorts of silly stunts, and off course Tom and Huck rafting down the river. I was probably too young to have read these classics on my own; however, having the story read to me, I could easily enjoy listening to the tale of Tom and his series of misadventures.

I was fortunate that my father was creative in his approach to teaching the early process of reading. I believe that you are never too young to step into a good story, especially when a story is told using the power of pictures. And, when a story is told with expression, a young reader is given an extra special gift of learning how to see a story, painting pictures in one’s mind. I’ve tried to pass this gift on to my own kids by keeping our library book bag filled with a variety of books, not necessarily based on age, but interest. My kids still respond to stories enhanced with vivid illustrations and of course books with lively characters that help inspire young readers.

At least once a week my 3-year-old son and I march to the public library to choose an array of stories. We usually lean towards large, illustrated picture stories. We have managed to find every pirate book possible. He tends to pull random books off the shelves and stuff them into our book bag and I try to surreptitiously slip them back into their Dewey Decimal home. Being our fourth child, third male, I truly believe that I have read almost every “boyish” preschool book in our library: dinosaurs, superheroes, trains, fire trucks, pirates, etc. As an avid reading mom, I had preschool book burnout.

One afternoon, grandmom accompanied us to the library and she found a wonderful book in the children’s section by an artist author named Red Grooms. I was thrilled that she had found a book that did not have a dinosaur, train, truck, or pirate on the cover. Instead, this book was written by an American born artist, Red Grooms, who is known for his large, environmental sculpture with a satirical view of life. When Grooms applies his artistic talents to his children’s book entitled,
Rembrandt Takes a Walk
, not only does Rembrandt emerge from the past, but the reader finds himself strolling right along, learning all about famous art pieces through the artistic author’s painterly pictures. The bright, bold paintings by Red Grooms captured our adult attention, and my 3-year-old could even follow along and also enjoy the creative tale.

Back at the breakfast table, my second elementary school aged son, who has started to give us a bit of a hard time with independent reading, has noticed that his younger siblings have been looking at the picture books. He picks up one of the books and starts reading to his younger siblings. Not only am I thrilled that he decided, on his own, to read a story to the younger kids, but it’s a book that my eyes are tired of reading, another boyish type book that I have read year after year. Now they can enjoy the story with a fresher, younger, more animated voice, carrying on the treasured tradition of showing and sharing pictures on pages and seeing the images come alive with a little imagination.

My Fridge Lacks Magnitude!


Published on 6/26/14

I have a new refrigerator. It is shiny and wide with French doors and sports a special kid-friendly snack drawer for easy to grab cheese sticks and Gogurts. It has a special setting for fruits and veggies and organized doors with shelves for varying sizes of bottles and jars. It even lets me know when it hasn’t been shut properly with a cool bell tone.

But, as pretty as my aluminum-covered, jazzy new refrigerator is, it is defunct in one major area: It does not attract my magnets. My old refrigerator used to smile at me every time I went to open its doors. It was chock full of the usual refrigerator accessories: memo boards, magnets of all shapes, sizes, and colors holding up photos and phone numbers, grocery lists, and coupons.

But it wasn’t just a convenient storage place. Our family always had the tradition of showcasing creative accomplishments on the fridge. This tradition was passed down to me from my mother and her mother. It had become our family’s ritual to review the gallery while sipping tea and nibbling on crunchy snacks.

My grandmother’s refrigerator posted miniature photos of the grandchildren encased in protective clear magnets. Grandkids as bouncing babies with big bubbled cheeks for squeezing and an assortment of random photos from various holiday gatherings. Torn, yellowed papers from the local Jewish Exponent with “to try” recipes from Fanny Fertik curled around clothespin-shaped magnets and hung from various corners of the functional fridge

My mother’s fridge, on the other hand, has been a revolving gallery curated with love and an artistic hand. Her current fridge hosts a series of photographs of her grandchildren holding up photos of themselves as babies. With family holiday photos becoming more virtual, my mom was determined to have hard copy images of offspring. Other parts of the fridge exhibit personalized pet photos where her senior chocolate lab of 13 years, Philly, shows off the latest doggy fashions.

And then there was my refrigerator. My refrigerator acted as a bulletin board as well as an interactive play area. The top part of the fridge was a hodge podge of photos, recipes, to do lists, a magnetic wipe board, and poetry magnets with silly sentences for creative fun. And the lower part of the fridge attracted my children through various stages of their growth. As toddlers they would move large alphabet letters into a battery-operated toy that would actually say the name of the letter. As they grew they formed small innocent, three letter words and as elementary-aged kids random, inappropriate four letter words may have appeared just to get a rise out of their parents. Our fridge has always been more than just an icebox to preserve our perishables. It has been the heart of our kitchen where memories were made, showcased, and treasured.

What were these new refrigerator designers thinking? What is a kitchen refrigerator without silly doodles and daily to-do lists? Did the designers intend to disrupt kitchen harmony? Did they honestly feel that they could do away with this natural system for organized clutter? And didn’t they realize that the magnetized refrigerator was an added bonus that offered kitchen dwellers a place to gaze while they grazed?
Back at home in my kitchen, my new refrigerator shimmers, reflecting icy shadows and fingerprints. This new refrigerator is vain, thinking it is content with its bells and whistles and bold, shiny body. But, it doesn’t know what it is missing. No longer do the children sit in front of the refrigerator, playing with alphabet magnets, moving around the letters to make silly words. The children forget to pull their art work out of their backpacks since it will no longer be displayed where all can see it. Quizzes, tests, and accolades from the teacher with gold star stickers and “fantastic job” in bright red marker will no longer be honored for days at a time. My own personal notes, which I used to rely on for grocery lists, carpool, and doctor reminders are now electronically recorded into my phone. But, I miss the free spirit moments of slapping my reminders on the fridge with a silly kid magnet.

As happy as I am with the main functionality of my new refrigerator, I am just as unhappy with its lack of “magnet-tude.”

Have A Ball (or two) This Father’s Day!

Daniel up to Bat

Daniel up to Bat

Baseball was never one of my most favorite sports. As a kid, I never understood the concept. I remember watching my first minor league game as a teen and rolling my eyes with boredom as the ball was hit and the players ran their bases only to get out or strike out. The problem was mine. I just did not have an understanding of the game until I became a mom of three boys. They have all taken up the sport and between my husband and I, we must spend literally hundreds of hours on the fields. It’s taken some time, but, I am now a baseball believer. It makes me chuckle to think that my sons, who all have a bit of the “ants in their pants” gene, do not mind the slower pace at times of this sport. They may fiddle in the outfield and chit-chat in the box, but, they are 100% engaged. Here’s to the all American sport of baseball! In honor of our upcoming Father’s Day holiday, I am posting a link to one of my favorite images from my new Father’s Day gallery at: Please check out the our photos and have a happy Father’s Day!

“What are We Having for Dinner?”

Menu scan

Published on 1/31/13.  Illustration by Julia T. Malakoff

As my children trickle home from school and their tummies begin to rumble, I can hear the question before it even begins to leave their mouths. With authority that they think is their birthright, they ask me, “What are we having for dinner?” Oh, how I have grown to strongly dislike this inquiry. When the question begins to form, it is not just on the lips of one child but the lips of four little mouths whining in unison. It’s a rhetorical question for sure and experience has taught me that there is no correct answer that will satisfy all eight ears.

I’ve noticed lately that as soon as I sense “the question” forming on my children’s mouths, I find myself inwardly growling, a trait I must have picked up from Ginger, our spicy little cat. I’ve heard Ginger, make a similar noise when she gets caught with her paws prying open a bag of potato chips in the kitchen pantry. Since Ginger habitually stalks the pantry, this growl is quite commonplace. But, it is not quite commonplace for me to adopt. So with lips sealed, I swallow my growls. However, the ringing cadence of the question makes the hair on my arms begin to ruffle and my spine tightens while my eyes grow wide. Breathe, I remind myself; divert all attention from dinner and smile. With a motherly sigh, I wash, slice and peel an apple and serve it with chunks of cheese to temporarily delay any more inquiries about the future of dinner. The children’s mouths packed with healthy food are momentarily pacified. Only Ginger restlessly prowls under their feet hoping for a chance to steal their snack.

There was a time when the question of “What are we having for dinner?” did not bother me at all. I tossed it up to curious children, looking forward to their family mealtime. However, as the question developed into a daily ritual and the responses turned sour, I changed my tune. For, even when I would have inspirational moments where I would Google up a recipe and whip up something other than fish sticks, mac and cheese, or hot dogs, I hesitated to reveal the dinner menu for I knew that it would be accompanied by a “really mom!” or a “yuck…I am not eating that!” Even the five year old’s cute but taboo exclamation of “what the heck” began to make me grimace. Something was needed to change all of our attitudes.

One afternoon, I decided to experiment. I figured that if it’s a restaurant venue my children were seeking, then a restaurant setting, with menu in tow, was what they would get. I publicly posted on the refrigerator’s white board a menu for all eyes to see. As soon as the first little mouth formed a “Wha…” sound, I turned and pointed to the menu. “Oh,” the child replied and actually walked away. Sadly, this tactic only worked for half of the children, for the youngest was not yet reading. But half the mouths quieted was half a victory.

It’s not just the repetition of this question that frustrates me. It’s the accompanying idea that all of my children strongly feel that it is my job and my job alone to come up with a creative meal each night. Yes, meal planning is in my job description as a stay at home mom, however, it’s in their job description as well. Since my children have been toddlers, I have not only invited them to cook with me but trained them to help out in the kitchen as well. Usually on the weekends, I can entice one of the kids to join me in the culinary corner with a baking recipe. Their time during the school week, however, with usual chain of extra-curriculars and homework, is limited. And quite frankly, so is mine. In the last few months, I’ve decided to ignore the whines and not answer the looming question in quite the same way.

Using a creative coping mechanism and alliteration, I have come up with a unique culinary concoction to answer their demanding question and quiet all complaints. My tactic is to refer to my Weekly Whine Menu as seen below. And, if none of these answers suffice, I personally threaten to serve the juiciest child! This, of course, has the added perk of derailing the conversation to who the juiciest child might be.

 Thank goodness for Friday evenings, where we consistently serve a traditional Shabbat meal. It is a miracle of miracles that it is the one night that nobody chants the proverbial witching hour question. In fact, it is also the one night that I seem to have help in the kitchen kneading and braiding the challah, coming up with a creative Shabbat dessert and even setting the dining room table. The menu has stayed the same since the birth of my first child. Chicken, veggies, homemade challah and a homemade Shabbat treat

I have to admit that my children, as inquisitive as most children, were wondering what this particular writing piece was to be about. To satisfy their curiosity, I began to read the wacky weekly menu while eight eyes began to roll and eight hands cupped eight little ears. “Ok, ok we get it mom!” They chimed and chirped.

I shouldn’t be too hard on all the mouths occupying the kitchen. There is one little mouth in my house that never seems to mind what I cook for dinner. In fact, this little mouth is quite eager to taste all of my delightful dishes. She is there at my feet, keeping me company as I prepare dinner and she is by my side, perched on a cushiony stool, savoring the smells and eyeing the crumbs as they fall from the table. She knows that if she is a good little kitty, she will be rewarded with the honor of clean up duty…a loyal kitchen cat with an exquisite palette. And if clean up duty doesn’t suffice, there’s always the pantry ready to be stalked.

Trick and Treat

by Julia Malakoff

Published in the Reston Patch, 11/13/2012

It is mid- November and my kids are still munching away at their Halloween candy.  Four kids equals three king size pillowcases and one bucket full of candy left on top of my refrigerator and inside of my cabinets. Each child has chosen their own “secret” spot to hide their bounty. Nice idea, however the candy is creeping out of every crevice in my kitchen and I am ready for it to all go way. We have negotiated with our children to donate half of their candy and it will usually go to a shelter or my husband’s office, for I am sure the people in his corporate workplace must come from families where they don’t have enough sweets of their own and can’t wait to dive into our leftover treats. Nevertheless, even after half of the candy is donated, and all trading has been set aside, we still have too much for one household. I personally am not a big candy person, but, I do enjoy a well baked cookie treat. A few years back, when a cookie mood may have struck and I may have been lacking in chocolate chips, I recall turning to my kids and asking them if anyone had any chocolates in their Halloween candy collection.

All four of them quickly snapped open their bags and literally dove into their pillowcases and bucket pulling out bars, pieces and chunks of chocolate. They sorted the candy by brand and a few minutes later, I had more than enough chocolate to fulfill an army sized batch of chocolaty cookies. The kids and I unwrapped and chopped the candy bars into small bits. We used it all, Hershey bars, Snickers, Milkyways, Kisses, Heath Bars and MnMs for color. I decided to follow an old fashioned oatmeal cookie recipe, to keep things a tiny bit healthy and traded the usual raisins and morsels for a double load of chocolaty treats. When I doled out the spoonfuls onto the trays, it was easier to use a tablespoon and keep the cookies big and chunky. I popped the cookies into the oven for ten minutes and “Voila!” delicious treats to be shared by all. Once the candy has been converted into cookie form, it is much easier to set aside and freeze or even give away as gifts. And best of all it means another few pounds of candy gone, and me a little bit closer to reclaiming my kitchen.


XYs learning their ABC’s with OT

by Julia Malakoff

A worksheet was sent home from my son’s school with a note from the teacher. Please have your son practice his letters every day. I remember shaking my head in confusion. My son, who was in first grade at the time, had attended three years of preschool and completed public kindergarten. We had arduously reviewed writing the alphabet, using dot to dots, coloring books and tracing letters. I had spent countless hours of one on one time with him, for he was the fortunate oldest child who had my divine attention.  In fact, in my opinion, at the time, he seemed on course and I truly did not realize that he was struggling with his handwriting at school.

We continued to practice, but, my son’s frustrations grew in the classroom.  It was then that I was introduced to the occupational therapy. My first son was finally diagnosed with dysgraphia, by the school’s occupational therapist. Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects handwriting. The school’s occupational therapist kindly took it upon herself to work with my son at his desk. She fitted his pencils with rubbery wedges, in colorful and zany shapes.  These wedges helped secure my son’s pencil grip and she replaced his worksheets with pre-printed paper that had horizontal lines with a cloud at the top and grass at the bottom. Put your pencil at the top of the cloud, she guided him and draw a straight line down to the grass. This simple and yet effective visual approach started to bring a sense of fun into my son’s difficulties with handwriting. She then told him to use a variety of writing utensils at home, including pens, crayons and markers. Write all of your letters in different colors-use your fingers to paint your letters in pudding, in rice and in sand. Learn to feel the letters with your finger. I took these suggestions to the grocery store where we invested in canned icing, flour and Jello. Food seemed to be an easy way to practice writing letters, in fact, it was a finger licking good way to learn, agreed my son.

Moving away from food play and to more serious worksheets was a struggle. It was suggested that on-going sessions of occupational therapy would be beneficial and so we found ourselves driving out to Fairfax Hospital each week to their Rehabilitative Services Department. My first son’s OT experience was very structured. Most of his session took place in a little room with a desk where he would practice drawing and writing lines and curves and eventually working his way up to sentences. It was a painful experience, for both of us, for he was frustrated at himself for not being able to write neatly and I was exhausted dragging him week after week, tempers a flare. Once my oldest son was discharged from OT, my second son unfortunately seemed to be showing similar frustrations in preschool.

Son number two started his own OT sessions and once assessed, he was found to have low tone issues which challenged his muscle strength and flexibility. As I learn more about the therapeutic process of occupational therapy, I am reminded that everything is connected: muscles, bones and the mental process of coordination. Many children find themselves in a category that includes low tone muscles and low motor planning. Obviously early intervention can’t change our bodies’ genetic make-up, but, it can help tailor the growth and development, moving towards a stronger and more flexible person that allows for a more active lifestyle.

Occupational therapists of today should be proud of how they have helped modern society. A profession which started as a way to rehabilitate injured or very sick patients needing to re-learn their daily living skills has evolved to a profession where it can also act as an early intervention for children with developmental delays in: visual motor skills, fine motor skills, sensory and organizational skills. Occupational Therapy can now be used to help alleviate a frustrated child who is having difficulties in the early learning process. Son number two was assigned a new therapist and she was younger, filled with more energy and a lot of enthusiasm. Son number two lucked out in having Ms. Lara Jackle as his personal therapist, who states that “the most essential aspect of OT, in my mind is using activities that are child-directed and motivating to the child, in order to inspire them to reach their full potential.”

It was evident that Lora Jackle, being young herself, (a mere 22 years old) when we first met her, not only had a passion for her profession, but an appreciation for children. Rehabilitative Services in Fairfax Hospital is located on the first floor where they have a large therapy room for adults and a smaller gym for children. Son number two started in the gym which was filled with colored balls of all sizes, including a ball pit which satisfies a child’s need to bounce. After twenty to thirty minutes of expending anxious energy, swinging, rolling, and jumping, we would move into a more academic room with ABC murals a small child’s desk and shelves filled with activity books and arts and craft materials.  Lora would pick out an age appropriate project, designed to promote eye-hand coordination, motor-planning, and handwriting.

During OT sessions with son number two, his toddler aged female sibling would accompany us. Thankfully, she showed no signs of handwriting or low-tone issues, however, at this point in time, I became pregnant again. Like all of my pregnancies, we never did find out the sex. Upon son number two’s discharge, I happened to mutter under my breath, “If this is a boy, we’ll be seeing you in a few years.” I don’t know why, but there does seem to be a larger pool of boys who seem to struggle with handwriting and low tone issues. In fact, my husband has agreed that he himself would have benefited from O.T. early intervention, for he has troubled handwriting, had been active in crew and found his calves and thigh muscles extremely tight. And now, in his mid- forties, he has experienced back problems which could have been somewhat prevented if he had been introduced to the low tone exercises at an earlier age.

Five years later I dialed the number for Fairfax Hospital’s Department of Rehabilatative Services. I left a voice mail message for Lora Jackle who called me back laughing. “You certainly kept your promise,” she chimed, “I would be glad to treat son number three!”

Son number three decided to fall neatly into the footsteps of his brothers with similar low-tone issues and early signs of dysgraphia. Fairfax Hospital’s Rehabilitative Services was recently awarded a grant that allowed them to purchase more sophisticated therapeutic gym equipment. Son number three had a multitude of swing choices including a hammock swing, which every time I saw my son curled in the fetal position and gently rocked, I too felt the urge to slide right next to him, and take a much deserved calming nap. There was also a tube swing, which we refer to as the soda can, a ladder swing and a swing that reminds one of a circus or jester’s hat with its red and blue swirled cone shape. “Your choice”, Ms. Jackle would tell my youngest son and he would pick a swing, and start to formulate his own obstacle course extending the routine to include balls, mats and a trampoline. This is the genius behind Ms. Jackle’s approach. She has the ability to gain her patients respect by giving them a sense of control over their session. Her patients become young assistant OTs aiding in the creative process of their own personal therapy. Ms. Jackle strategically adjusts each exercise to make it suitable for the patient’s own goals by adding in letter recognition including games such as jigsaw puzzles, chalk writing puzzles, alphabet blocks and a collection of wooden pieces consisting of straight lines and curves. Before starting the physical part of the obstacle course, the patient is asked to pick an alphabet block, say the letter and then climb on a swing. The patient swings over, Cirque de Soleil style, to the next station, where he will draw the letter on the chalk board, roll down a mat and then construct the letter using the collection of wooden pieces.

My older sons have since learned to type. They eventually figured out their own styles of handwriting, although son number one is still quite sensitive about his struggles with the hand written word. To this day he avoids handwriting and prefers to communicate via text, email, Facebook and Skype. But, he is also now thirteen, partaking in the typical teenage technical communication modes. Son number two has turned dysgraphia into an art form. He was never embarrassed by his handwriting and in fact he has practiced writing his name in so many different block and bubble formats that he has developed a knack for graphic design. Son number three has started to recognize and write his letters and seems prepared to tackle kindergarten.  Five years later, Ms. Jackle, still young and enthusiastic, uses her superhero approach to teaching children how to fly through the air and still learn to write their ABCs, keeping it fun, with OT.  

Fairy Tale Frills

I was brought up by a tomboy mom who preferred blue over pink and preached her own personal mantra of gender equality, deflating the princess spirit that may have arisen in my childhood.  My mom was all about physical fitness and boys and girls playing unisex sports equally as well. She was a child in the 50s, one of three girls; she was the oldest and paraded around the house in her cowgirl outfit, including a holster, hat and boots to match. My grandmother wanted to doll her three girls up in their puffy party dresses and pampered doos. So, when my mom had her girl, pink was out of the question. I had a yellow room, plain and simple. No frills. My clothes were colored and printed, yet pink pastels seemed to be missing from the palette.

Dalia, my daughter who is sandwiched between three brothers: two older and one younger is the perfect combination of being tough enough to defend herself among her brothers and tender in that sweet little girl way.  For her sixth birthday, she and I were determined to squeeze in one last princess party before she and her friends completely outgrew the fairy tales.

Singing Cinderella strolled graciously into our party as a welcomed surprise guest. Dressed in her powder blue ball gown, silver slippers and a tiara, she truly enchanted our group of girls. Eyes wide, jaws dropped low, Cinderella’s lulling tunes were quite calming. It was as if she had sprinkled fairy dust over the entire party and they were all wrapped up in her soothing spell.

I too, believe in my mom’s philosophy of strong children and equality of the sexes. But, I have to admit, I never discouraged a love for princesses and I truly enjoyed the magic of Cinderella. I don’t know if it is because of the lack of princesses in my childhood or just my love for imaginative moments, but, our final princess party was truly a treat for mom too!