Baby Name Resolutions for 2015

It’s a New Year and time for new baby name trends to emerge, some names to fade into the dust, and others to take center stage. During the past decade, we have seen many baby name trends come and go, and names like Aiden, Emma, Ava, Brooklyn and Jayden take center stage. As we enter 2015, can we make some baby name resolutions for the New Year?

1) Let’s resolve to avoid the obvious and over-played choices. 

Emma Grace, Ava Grace – these are both beautiful names, and I personally have always liked the names Emma and Ava. However, I would steer clear of these combinations in that one in ten parents in the South have used them, and your daughter will most likely have a girl in her classroom with the same first and middle name.

If you can’t live without Emma or Ava for your little girl, but want a simple middle name, why not break ranks with a name like Emma Gray or Emma Bay? For Ava, what about Ava Louise? Ava Renee? These middle names aren’t groundbreaking, but they sound downright fresh compared to the ubiquitous Grace.

Also, for boys, please avoid the following names: Aiden, Jayden, Kayden, ad nauseam. Every time I hear that a new mom has named her son Aiden, I secretly cringe. These names are not unique, they are overused, and using one will date your son to the present time period. Your grandmother may think these names sound fresh and cool, but I promise you they are stale and mainstream. I would much prefer a simple Robert or John to an Aiden and its brethren. Aidan from Sex and the City was modern and artistic; Aiden on a young child today is one in a sea of thousands.

Exceptions: A family name combination you have to use, or a family or surname that just happens to be popular. Or you have been in love with the name for 20 years and can’t bear to use a different moniker. Just ignore me when I roll my eyes upon first hearing the name of choice.

2) Let’s resolve to spell our children’s names correctly.

As parents, we bear many great responsibilities toward our children. One of the greatest tasks is the name we bestow upon our child. In recent years, there is an emerging trend of “kreatiflee”[or “creatively,” for my literate readers] spelled names, that is, names that are intentionally misspelled and would make Hemingway roll over in his grave.

When you give your child a butchered name, you are basically indulging your own selfish desire to be unique in some bizarre way. This is what a kreatiflee spelled name indicates about the parents and family of the poor child – they are uneducated. Nobody named Jesyka is going to be appointed a Supreme Court justice or chosen to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And Matecyn sounds like an unfortunate strain of bacteria. Please use a commonly accepted spelling for your child’s name.

As a parent, you need to put your need to be different aside and spell your child’s name in an acceptable fashion. You do have flexibility, as there are commonly accepted variations of many name choices, e.g., Steven vs. Stephen, or Madeline vs. the French Madeleine. Both variants are easily recognized, pronounced and spelled. Don’t choose a name that requires your child to face years of “Huh?,” “Umm, can you spell that for me?,” and “Wait . . . what?!” If you have to use a kreatiflee spelled name, save it for the family dog. The vet won’t care.

Exception: I never thought the name Agnes was cool until I saw it spelled Agyness on an edgy supermodel who chose the moniker herself.

3) Resolve to think about your name choice on an adult.

A family member was heading out for a massage one day and relayed to me that the masseuse’s name was Cinnamon. (And no, this wasn’t an “exotic” massage.) Expecting someone akin to a porn star, I was surprised when she reported back that Cinnamon was entirely nice and normal. Poor Cinnamon, I thought, given a name that limits her career options to stripper or Vegas show girl. I would have immediately changed my name to Cindy – a pedestrian choice, but mainstream and respectable.

Which brings me to my point – choose a name for your child that can comfortably transition from babyhood to adulthood. Traditional names like Robert and Charles have the extra benefit of providing a cute nickname (Bobby, Charlie/Chuck) in childhood and then transitioning into a very grown up name if preferred.

Names like Kaylie, Braylee and Ashlynn may be sticky sweet but they don’t inspire much confidence in the business world. Look for a name that your child can grow into, or a name that allows for a kid-friendly nickname and the option for a mature adult name. One of my childhood friends went by Mary Anne, using her first and middle name. Now she is just Mary. This is a great example of a “convertible” name that will take your child from the crib to the boardroom.

There is also a group of names that evokes certain ideals, religious beliefs or a state of mind: Serenity, Patience, Temperance, Karma, Heavenleigh (Heavens no!), Princess, and Chastity. While these names may sound lofty, don’t set a child up for failure by giving her a name she can’t live up to or doesn’t embrace. I wouldn’t feel comfortable as a 35-year-old named Princess, unless I worked at Disney World.

4) Resolve to stand out by choosing a perfectly “normal” name.

The baby names that stand out to me are the ones that are perfectly normal, spelled according to normal English usages practices and not used on one in four children. Examples of names that make my ears perk up on the girls’ side are Sloane, Lydia, Daphne, Astrid, Esme, Bridget, Gretchen, Eliza, Delaney and Muriel. All of these names graced the Social Security Administration’s most recent top 1000 baby names, yet none of them have hit the mainstream name jackpot yet.

For boys I like Lyle, Vance, Rory, Tate, Vincent, Beau, Pierce, Lane and Nash. These aren’t outlandish names by any stretch of the imagination, yet they aren’t necessarily considered “classic” names like Henry and William. And none of these names are uber-popular like Noah, Liam, Olivia and Sophia. If you look for a name flying below the radar, and spell it correctly, your child will stand out from 90% of his or her peers.

If you can resolve to accept even one of these resolutions for the New Year, then the future Starbucks baristas and pharmacists will much appreciate the easier spelling.

What names do you think should exit stage left with 2014? What names do you think will be hot in 2015? What baby name resolution would you propose for 2015?

Author’s note: Like all of you baby naming enthusiasts, there are baby names and trends that I love and those that don’t appeal to me as much. I do not hate any child’s name, and I think every given baby name is special in its own right. These resolutions are simply my no-holds-barred opinions with a humorous undertone, and many of you will passionately disagree. I believe our differences of opinion are what keep the topic of baby names interesting and ever evolving.

Come Fly with Me . . . and my rug rats.

Author’s Note: I am posting this blog on the eve of driving with our three children 1100 miles to Texas. Today we did a trial run of a three-hour round trip, and that was just to board the dog. A lesson quickly learned — buy Dramamine for everyone! Unlike last year, this time my husband is home to help me pack and make the trek to the Lone Star State. That being said, it is a little shy of midnight, and we have just finished packing! My conclusion is, whether you fly or drive with kids, packing is a b*tch, probably harder than the actual travel part. At least in a car one is not limited by airline restrictions, but the packing part is still brutal. This blog is specific to airline travel; perhaps I will have some car travel tips later on if we survive this road trip!

As the holiday freight train roars ahead to Christmas Day, many of us prepare to travel through the air to celebrate with our loved ones. Last year I faced the daunting task of flying from Florida to Texas, with three small children, alone. Alone, as in, I am outnumbered three-to-one. From my experience I have some ideas to increase your chances of arriving at your destination with your sanity intact and all members of your family present and accounted for.

Travel tip #1: Do not wait until the last minute to pack. And by last minute, I mean the day before your trip. If you have multiple small children, there are all sorts of considerations, such as clothing needs, personal hygiene items, baby utensils, diapers and wipes, to name a few. Not to mention a travel crib, bedding, a Boppy pillow and anything else you use on a daily basis. I heeded this advice, and my bedroom became a staging area for our trip for a few weeks’ time. I’m not kidding when I say that packing for my holiday trip was the most stressful part. Despite my best efforts to organize ahead of time, the clock struck midnight on the eve of our journey, and I realized I hadn’t even packed a suitcase for myself yet.

Travel tip #2: Pack your diaper bag strategically. You might even need two diaper bags if traveling with a baby or several small children, and most airlines will not count the diaper bag toward your carry-on quota. Of course, you have only two arms, so packing lightly for the plane is preferred. I like to clean out my diaper bag before traveling, getting rid of the used tissues, half-eaten granola bars and random toys that snuck their way in. By now we know to pack a spare outfit (or two) for a baby or young child in case of a diaper blowout or potty mishap, but a prepared mom should also pack an extra outfit for herself.

I learned this lesson the hard way after my then baby girl decided to regurgitate the gallons of milk she had been drinking on me several times as I sat next to a prim businessman. I truly felt like Greg Focker when I rolled into SeaTac. My freshly blow-dried hair, made-up face and crisp black shirt gave way to wild frizz with beads of sweat pooling on my face with the distinct stench of baby throw-up. On the next flight I would know that a fresh shirt, baby wipe to the face and a little water to tame the fly-aways can have me looking fresh as I deplane.

Tip #3: Use flight times and layovers to your advantage. In my experience, the best time to fly with children is in the morning. They are alert and happy. Airport delays increase as the day goes on. The best flight for me leaves mid-morning, allowing me time to get to the airport and feed the kids breakfast before we board. I try to time a layover around lunchtime to refuel the kids with food and do a diaper change. I like about a one and a half hour layover with small children if during a mealtime, as it gives you enough time to eat, use the restroom and let the kids run around a bit before boarding the next plane. Beware of the thirty-minute layover in a huge airport like Atlanta or DFW. You will have trouble making your next flight, especially if you have to get on an airport tram or train.

Coming back from Christmas last year, I thought 35 minutes in Houston’s smaller airport would be doable since I was familiar with its layout, and most of the gates are close together. I did not take into account a delay out of Austin, which almost had us missing our flight in Houston. Which takes me to the next tip…

Tip #4: Rely on the kindness of strangers. As we approached Houston after our delayed departure from Austin, and I contemplated missing my connecting flight, gathering up all the luggage, and sleeping in an airport hotel and doing it all over the next day, I started loudly voicing my concerns. A Good Samaritan couple and their son grabbed our bags and children and escorted us to our next gate. The gentleman explained that his wife used to travel solo with their children overseas to visit him, and they knew how hard it could be. Luckily for me our next flight was delayed, so with a little help and a little luck, we made our flight.

Many travelers remember the days they had small children, or they are simply kind and want to help out. In my experience, most people are helpful and gracious as opposed to rude when you are traveling with little ones. I even had several random adults pick up my kids and let them sit with them for a bit while I caught my breath. Normally we wouldn’t hand our child over to a stranger, but on an airplane, you take the lifeline that is thrown your way.

Tip #5: Bring activities and provisions (and sometimes kids’ leashes)

These days many parents are concerned with their children’s screen time on devices like smart phones and tablets. When stuck on a plane with children, sometimes those rules fly out the window. Last year I brought every device I could think of – a DVD player, an iPhone, a kids’ tablet, plus those old-fashioned real paper books! Dolls and a special stuffed animal to travel with are good options too – just don’t bring any toys with small pieces or anything too large. As a bribe you could promise your kid a new stuffed toy at a layover’s airport shop. This will kill time and provide an incentive for good behavior.

Also pack plenty of snacks and drinks. You never know when you will end up stuck on a tarmac for two hours. This did not happen to me, but I wanted to be prepared just in case. My kids are always hungry, so I just kept throwing goldfish, graham crackers and baby puffs at them. If you keep feeding them, they can’t complain that they are hungry. I also recommend bringing your own sippy cups, so you can fill them up for free at the airport’s water fountain, instead of spending a fortune on bottled waters, which also take up more space.

The godsend for me was two kids’ backpacks with leashes attached. I swore I would never be the parent walking a kid on a leash, but that was before I had to keep track of three wild children during a day of three airports. I made the backpacks seem like a special treat, and my oldest son loved his “big boy” backpack, whereas my one-year-old son enjoyed his soft doggy one. My five-year-old daughter relished “walking” her younger brother as well. The whole scene was quite comical.

The leash also came in handy on the airplane, as my one-year-old could walk up and down the aisles while I sat in my aisle seat and held onto the other end. He also made friends this way and hung out with a few other passengers to give me a break at times. Walking the aisle worked great for my toddler, except for on the flight with the stern flight attendant who reminded me each time the seatbelt light came on. At that point I had to become a human straitjacket around my son as he screamed at the top of his lungs and tried to break free. Which brings me to the last tip…

Tip #6: Know that the flight will eventually end. No matter what happens on that plane, no matter how loudly your kids cry or scream, no matter how dirty and disheveled you are by the end, know that the flight has to eventually end, and at some point your kids will go to bed and you will get a hot shower. And the flight will one day be a distant memory that you can laugh at for years to come. Just don’t think about the return flight home.

How the Newtown Tragedy Affected a Random Person

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article one year ago when I was feeling emotional toward what transpired at Sandy Hook in December of 2012. I submitted the essay to a random website, and when I didn’t hear anything back, I decided to file it away to the dark recesses of my computer.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine in Connecticut, who has many Facebook friends and fans due to her profession, posted a newsworthy story about Newtown and its victims. Everyone expressed sadness and sympathy for the families, except for one commenter who callously wrote something to the effect that it had been over a year since Newtown, and shouldn’t we “be over it by now?” I was appalled by her insensitive response but didn’t want to hijack my friend’s News Feed, so I kept my mouth shut.

I wouldn’t want to be a part of a society that can “get over” a senseless tragedy of this proportion, involving 26 innocent lives lost. The families of the victims of Sandy Hook will never “get over” this tragedy, as they will likely think of it daily for the rest of their lives.

This event wasn’t my tragedy – I didn’t suffer any losses – and I’m not trying to imagine what the victims’ families are experiencing in its aftermath. The original point of this essay was to deal with the emotions I was feeling to try to grasp what had transpired that day.

(Written in December 2013)

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I still feel raw emotion when reading or thinking about that day. I did not personally know anyone directly affected by the tragedy, nor am I a resident of Newtown. Despite my lack of connection to the shooting, I will never forget the events of Sandy Hook or its innocent victims. And I will never forget that Sandy Hook seized my notions of where we are safe from harm and ripped that security blanket to shreds.

I vividly remember the day of December 14, 2012. My parents and sister were driving in from Austin to visit us at our home in Houston to celebrate my Dad’s birthday and an early Christmas. I dropped two of my children off at preschool at 8:30 a.m. CST, which I later thought about when I read that the gunman entered Sandy Hook around the same time. I remember seeing the breaking news scroll across my computer screen and feeling immense shock as the details unfolded. I recall picking my children up from preschool at 2:00 p.m. as the director cheerily greeted me, and I wondered if she knew any of the details of the shooting, and if so, how could she smile?

As I got dressed for dinner that night, CNN streamed in the background, and I couldn’t look away. To celebrate my father’s December 14th birthday, we headed out to a fancy restaurant and enjoyed ourselves, while parents in Newtown screamed and cursed and wailed and tried to fathom what had happened and where their children were and why. It felt unfair to enjoy ourselves at dinner while others were facing the ultimate horror of losing a child under the worst imaginable circumstances.

As the days moved forward, I continued to watch and read the news coverage of the events and learn what I could about the victims. As a mother of three young children, you hear about the personality traits of other children and naturally extrapolate those features to your child. She loved to draw and make pictures for her friends. He was a huge fan of this sports team. She had beautiful reddish hair. I was drawn to these families and their stories and thought of them often.

I wondered how the parents got out of bed every morning, and I knew that if they had other children, they tried to stay strong for them and keep a routine. I thought about their Christmas Day and what they would do with the presents intended for their absent children. I thought about how it would take every ounce of strength to make the holidays bear some semblance of past ones for the benefit of their surviving children.

About two weeks after the shooting, we began our drive from Texas to Connecticut, where we would live about an hour away from Newtown for my husband’s job training. I remember driving on the interstate and seeing an exit sign for Sandy Hook/Newtown and snapping a picture on my phone to somehow document its realness. As we drove through the interstate portion of Newtown, I caught a glimpse of stark white crosses, presumably symbolizing each life lost. The most touching element was the sky. After driving through days of mist and grayness, the sky suddenly gave way to the most glorious spectrum of colors and beaming sun. I am not a very religious person, but I needed to believe that this display was the children’s way of saying, “Don’t worry; we are in Heaven, and we are at peace.” After Newtown, the sky retreated to ash.

The days passed, and the brutal winter finally thawed into a late spring, which reluctantly warmed into summer. When Connecticut was at its most habitable with cerulean skies and balmy weather, we made the drive south for my husband’s next assignment. My daughter was preparing to start kindergarten, and I couldn’t help but think about Newton and how that day changed my perception of things.

I never take it for granted that my daughter will make it home at the end of the school day. I give her a big hug and kiss at the bus stop and tell her I love her. I want her to know my heart is with hers if something happens. At the school, I assess the placement of her classroom and wonder if someone could sneak through a gate to access the back portion of the school. While waiting in the front office with my daughter in the morning, I notice all the late students lined up to get a tardy slip before heading to class. I see how we are all sitting ducks if someone were to walk into the office around that time of day. I mentally assess where we will run and how I will shield my daughter if he storms into the office.

I see the off-duty policeman at school pick-up and wonder if a car without a student hangtag would trigger some kind of an alert. I see the principal outside everyday directing parents at pick-up, and I have already determined that she would take a bullet in order to save a student, based simply on my analysis of her school-wide voicemails. I noticed that my daughter’s after school art teacher keeps her portable building locked, which appeases me.

Newtown has also changed the way some of us have to talk to our children. I wonder when I will need to have “the talk” with my daughter, that is, what to do if suddenly threatened by an enraged gunman. I plan to tell her to lie still and play dead, as the sole survivor of a classroom allegedly did at Sandy Hook. I have held off on telling her about gunmen because I want her to hold onto her innocence a little bit longer. She does not yet know what a gun is or does, and I suspect some of the youngest victims at Sandy Hook did not know either.

The school shooting has also made me question our country and how divided we are on the gun control issue. I cannot understand what is so controversial about universal background checks. Never mind that nobody really needs an assault rifle – Americans are not willing to give up their assault rifles, so that proposal was a nonstarter. Why are we protecting felons and the mentally ill – those who would be precluded from obtaining firearms – and not insisting upon stricter background checks? Why do we place gun rights above the rights of children to attend school peaceably and free from gun violence? Sadly, if 20 slain first graders cannot prompt the passage of universal background checks or a change in the gun laws, nothing will.

The biggest shock about Newtown was the location of the shooting. A gunman in an elementary school was never on my radar of “horrible things that could happen.” I always felt nervous in movie theaters in this era of random violence, which proved a legitimate concern as the Aurora, Colorado shooting demonstrated. One year after 9/11, I experienced anxiety on the London tube when I studied abroad there; a few years later the London bombings occurred on trains originating from the two tube stations near my old flat. Never in my wildest moments of paranoia did I think to worry about a mass shooting at an elementary school.

Many Americans seem resigned to accepting our gun culture and random acts of gun violence every few months. One response to the recent shooting of a TSA agent at LAX was to arm all of the TSA agents. Upon hearing this idea, I had a flashback to seeing police officers in Mexico carrying around semi-automatic rifles at the airport and how dystopian I found that image. Sadly we seem to be heading in the direction of more weapons and not less.

As time passes forward, I hope that we as a society do not forget the victims of Sandy Hook. Their deaths cannot be in vain. I admire their loved ones’ efforts to lobby for more stringent gun control and mental health reform, and I hope one day our federal government decides that human lives are worth more than nearly absolute freedom to purchase any and all firearms. I hope one day it is more difficult to obtain an assault rifle than a driver’s license. I will never forget the faces of Sandy Hook, and for that, I am grateful.

Off-the-Beaten-Path Boys’ Names (Part I)

There is nothing more interesting to a baby-name enthusiast than digging through the massive pile of names given to baby boys in the U.S. that did not reach the popularity of the top 1000 names. I always thought the girls had bragging rights when it came to having the best choices in names; boy, was I wrong. There are so many great boy names below the Social Security Administration’s latest popular baby names list that I cannot compile them into one blog post. Instead, I am going to create different posts grouped thematically to present numerous options for parents looking for a “unique” name for their little boy.

So this post is quite specific: I will present ten options for off-the-grid choices for baby boys that are 1) surname names (i.e., a traditional last name used as a first name), 2) monosyllabic and 3) ending in an –s. So for the five moms looking for this type of name for your blue bundle of joy, this blog post is for you!

1) Lars – I cannot hear this name without thinking of Ryan Gosling as the eccentric yet handsome lead character in the indie film, Lars and the Real Girl. Lars also has a cool Scandinavian vibe. Your Lars will likely be the only one with that name at his preschool, as a mere 94 boys were given this moniker in 2013. Another plus to Lars is that the name is easy to spell and pronounce.

2) Ames – Okay, I might be a tad partial to this name because it was a lovely college nickname of mine. I also rooted for the competitor by the same name on The Bachelorette franchise, as he was attractive and Ivy League educated. Ames just sounds like he should be making the Benjamins on Wall Street. Another plus is the accessibility of the name – Ames projects kindness because of the shared sound with words like “amiable.” All in all, this nice and ambitious name could suit your investment banker son.

3) Townes – I adore the name Townes. Folks from Texas and those into talented singer-songwriters know a great one by the name of Townes Van Zandt. I seriously considered this name for either of my sons but ultimately shied away from it due to Townes’s tragic path in life. If I had birthed a third son, would Townes have still made the top of the list? Pancho and Lefty say yes.

4) Rhodes – Rhodes is one of my favorite one-syllable, surname names ending in –s. Whew! Rhodes calls to mind a Renaissance man, a refined gentleman with impeccable manners and a solid upbringing. Rhodes probably had a liberal arts education at a very expensive private school. Idyllic Rhodes College brings to mind this image. Rhodes would make for a philosophical attorney who thinks outside of the box or a track star who majors in drama. The possibilities are endless with this name!

5) Jones – Unlike Rhodes, Jones is almost too cool for school. He is hip, he is understated and he has turned a boring surname into a chic and original first name. You may hear thousands of last names to the ring of Jones, but only 87 boys were given this first name in 2013. An added bonus – it’s super easy to say and spell. Just don’t do a Jones Jones and the name should work fine.

6) Briggs – Of these ten suggested names, Briggs is the only one that cracked the top 1000 last year, coming in at number 910 and just breaking the top 1000 the previous year. Briggs sounds interesting and a little complex, kind of like the Meyers-Briggs personality test. He’s the witty guy surrounded by well-groomed ladies sporting their LBDs at a hipsters’ cocktail party. Briggs could be the second Most Interesting Man in the World.

7) Niles – Some mothers of my vintage remember Niles from Kelsey Grammer’s sitcom, Frasier. In full disclosure, I probably saw a handful of episodes, but my research reveals Niles to be a well-educated elitist who is poor at sports with a litany of random phobias. I also knew a Nile (sans –s) who was tall, dark and handsome with an Irish accent. So while the T.V. character hasn’t completely ruined this name for me, opinions will probably vary.

8) Wells – Wells Fargo . . . oil wells . . . what do these things have in common? Oh yeah, money. For whatever reason, many of the names on this list sound like moneyed names. For the trivia buffs, Wells is also the third-oldest town in Maine, according to Wikipedia. A lot of millionaires live in Maine. Therefore, it logically follows that any boy named Wells is destined for good fortune. Only 60 American boys were given the name Wells last year, so anyone bearing this name will be in a select group.

9) Banks – Banks is Wells’s obnoxious nouveau riche cousin. It’s not enough that his parents have some money in savings; they had to name their pride and joy after a financial institution. There are some classic Banks’s families in the movies – “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” the classic “Father of the Bride,” and “Mary Poppins,” all different examples of wealthy families. Banks as a first name depends on the context. Banks from the trailer park will not play as well as Banks from the Upper East Side. Banks could grow up to be a Harvard M.B.A., or a prolific bank robber. Time will tell.

10) Parks – Parks is on par with Banks but with less concrete and more green space. He is the son of the wealthy vegans driving the Subaru next door. They dress like hobos, and they don’t have real jobs so you know they probably inherited all of their money. Parks is a modern and peppier version of Parker. Only 36 boys received this name in 2013, but this green name could have a moment in the future.

Okay, so this blog post devolved into a post about names and their association with money or lack thereof, but many names bring with them socioeconomic connotations. Townes, Ames and Rhodes are my favorite picks overall, but obviously baby names are in the ear of the listener.

What are your favorite single syllable, surname boys’ names that end in an –s? Did I leave any good ones off the list? What do you think names indicate, if anything, about social status and upbringing? Should people be judged by their names?

Great Girls’ Names Beyond the Top 1000

Every year baby name enthusiasts and interested parents eagerly await the release of the Social Security Administration’s popular baby names list, which provides data on the top 1000 baby names for boys and girls. In addition to the most used names, the agency also provides statistics on names that did not rank in the top 1000 for the year.

I decided to check out the names that flew below the radar this past year to discover naming possibilities for parents seeking a unique name that is not too far out there. I began my analysis with the girls’ names. A foray into the name data can be comical at times and involves wading through misspelled names (Deisy, Serinity), made-up monikers (Lakelyn, Naveah), and “kreatif-lee” spelled baby names (Avarie, Kynnedi), in addition to luxury goods (Chanel, Lexus, anyone?). Beyond these types of choices, many names in the lower rankings are brimming with possibility.

Place names

Instead of the ubiquitous London or Paris, how about charming Brighton, exotic Capri, peaceful Geneva, cultured Holland or fair Vienna for a name with European flair? For those looking for a stateside choice, Austin or Raleigh provides a fresh pick for a girl in lieu of Brooklyn or Savannah.

Supermodel names

Surname name Brinkley, statuesque Giselle, powerful Iman and resilient Petra would befit a future catwalker.

Star-powered baby names

For baby names with star power, Blythe, Calista, Drew, Liza, Marlo, Nicolette, and Selma are strong contenders. Greer, a personal favorite, lends an aura of old Hollywood glamour. For the more musically inclined, consider Billie, Etta, Florence or Emmylou for some Southern attitude.

Multicultural names

From our friends across the pond, think the lovely Georgina, in the spotlight Pippa or blue-blooded Poppy for British flavor. Magdalena (with nickname Maggie) or Ines make sophisticated Spanish picks. For the Francophiles, consider Cosette or Mirabelle. Other exotic sounding choices include Adina, Dalia, Evangelina, Rana, Tallulah and the Biblical Yael.

Literary names

Accomplished Agatha, feminist Louisa and talented Zora would work well for the literati.

Vintage names

Beyond the top 1000 names live some hidden gems buried for years. Bonnie, Clementine and Susannah each come with their own theme song and would suit an amiable child. Agnes and Millicent lend themselves to endearing nicknames (Aggie and Millie, respectively), or go straight to a “nickname name” like Frankie, Lindy, Nellie or Winnie. Adelle, Coral and Cordelia are striking choices.

Gender-neutral names

If you eschew girly names in favor of ones at home in either camp, some promising options include Afton, Arden and Palmer. Names more popular on the boys’ side lend themselves to unique sounding girls’ names; think Bryce, Ellis or Spencer.

Water- and nautical-inspired names

French for “sailor” and Latin for “of the sea,” Marin is a classic sounding watery name, or cut to the chase and name your baby girl Sailor. Other peaceful choices include Bay, Lake (both good middle name options) and Harbor.

Artsy and creative names

For those hoping to raise the next Broadway star or Georgia O’Keeffe, the names hovering below the top 1000 provide plenty of inspiration to indulge your creative side. Indigo, Monet, Odette and Zinnia are painters in the making, while Britton, December, Hollis, Jules and Lark are full of creative flair.

Mainstream names

If you desire a name that is not wildly popular but want to avoid a crazy name, these names are for you: Darcy, Justine, Laine/Lane and Maura make for perfectly respectable and “normal” sounding baby names who will grow up into responsible adults. For a name with a little more oomph, try Gretchen, Jessa/Jesse, Maribel or Vivianne.

Whatever your taste, there are plenty of baby name gems awaiting discovery beyond the Top 1000 most popular picks.

What to Do, What to Play?

When your children reach a certain age, many parents will start thinking about extracurricular activities and what skills they want to develop in their little ones. For some parents, what activities to put your children in is a simple choice. Perhaps you grew up playing soccer, so you feel at home on the soccer field on a spring day. Or maybe you were an accomplished gymnast and want your little rug rats to experience a similar glory. For most parents, there are practical, financial and even safety factors to consider.

I find choosing my children’s extracurricular activities to be an exercise in second-guessing at times. What if I am harboring a musical prodigy and don’t even know it yet? Because I grew up enjoying the fine arts, especially studio art and dance, I find myself gravitating toward those activities for my children.

It’s important not to make early assumptions about your children’s abilities. Perhaps they do not excel at the traditional sports offered at the middle school level, like basketball, volleyball and track. I was as slow as a snail at sprinting and terrified of hurdling, picturing myself tripping and sprawled all over the track. I wasn’t deemed especially athletic.

However, when I picked up a tennis racket at age 13, or took tennis lessons once again in my mid-20s, I realized that I could have had a decent shot at being a competent recreational tennis player. I also discovered that my slow and steady pace on the middle school track gave way to endurance in running half-marathons. Your kid may not excel at the higher profile sports, but there are a myriad of options like lacrosse, tennis, golf and archery that go beyond most traditional school programs. The tough thing with kids is figuring out where they might excel and where their passion lies.

I was a late joiner to studio dance; a class as a young child didn’t ignite a fire in me, probably due to the strictness of the instructor. I don’t think it was the ballet, tap and jazz I didn’t like; it was the particular stodginess of the program. I later rejoined the world of dance in middle school, and performing on the high school dance team was the best part of my high school years. If you think your child may enjoy an activity but a particular instructor or school isn’t working out, you might want to try a different studio, teacher or league before calling it quits on that venture.

My children, including my two sons, take variations of dance, tumbling and art classes. My sons are young, and even if they do not grow up to be professional dancers, dance is a solid basis for developing discipline, flexibility and agility. One of them is built like a linebacker, so he will probably not leap as a principal dancer in “The Nutcracker” someday, but he might surprise me. My middle son is more of a slight build and loves to move, so he might have a future with dance.

Some reasons for my choice of their activity are practical ones: we don’t have to trek to Saturday games, and this particular studio offers a variety of classes in an unlimited package for three children. The program essentially offers one-stop shopping for busy parents. My two oldest love soccer, but I am not ready to spend every Saturday on the soccer field. We have found a happy medium with our local YMCA, which offers indoor soccer seasonally with no games or practices on Saturday, and more of an emphasis on fun and learning than competition.

Which brings me to football. I grew up watching college football since about the age of three. I attended a certain university because I couldn’t imagine not spending my college years in a football stadium every Saturday in the fall. I saw my team win the National Championship in person, witnessed our Heisman Trophy winner break long-held records from the stands and viewed sports history in the making. I have even dreamed at night of running under the lights, fielding punts, thinking I must have played football (at least on special teams) in a past life.

I live in a state where kids start football young. I am originally from a state where the Friday Night Lights still dominate towns. I always dreamed of having sons who one day played football, and I have friends whose boys play football all the way from the Pee Wee level to the NFL. I am not knocking any parents who put their sons in football, because I understand that passion and that choice.

I was at the pediatrician’s office the other day for a well-child visit for my middle son. The nurse commented on his soccer shirt and mentioned that the same sports group offered football for young children in some nearby schools. I told her that they tried to offer the football program at my child’s preschool but not enough children signed up, preferring the popular soccer program. She told me that she had also missed out on the opportunity for her son to play football in the preschool program, and that he was finally playing football, and had never even played tackle before. “Oh wow,” I uttered, “and how old is he now?,” imagining a 15-year-old boy suiting up for the first time at the tackle position. “Six,” she said.

Her son is likely among a group of elementary school boys who practice for upwards of two hours on the field behind our house in the autumn glow. The little cheerleaders cheer them on as they practice and race around the field. My boys will not be joining their peers in playing Pee Wee football, because I have read and heard too much about traumatic brain injuries and high school football deaths to suit them up. However, if I had a son determined to play in high school and passionate about the game, I’m not sure I could tell him no. Time will tell, but in the meantime we will explore other sports like baseball, soccer and perhaps golf.

We recently watched a touching segment on the national news. The story centered on a ballerina who created an entire ballet performance based on her son’s life and ultimate death as a Marine in Iraq. The young man had studied ballet as a child and teen and endured some ridicule as a result of his passion. He enlisted in the Marines immediately after high school and was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb in 2006. His mother drew parallels between the traits that made him an accomplished ballet dancer and those attributes that made him a good Marine. The story stuck with me as a valuable lesson — our children may take the skills we cultivate in them and apply their talents toward an endeavor we never imagined, a future we may never have pictured for them. And toughness in boys is not only developed on a football field.

How to Survive your Child’s Birthday Party (booze optional)

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of parents like the realization that their child’s birthday is on the horizon. The first order of birthday business is invitations. If you plan on ordering customized invitations from an online vendor, you will need to start hammering out concrete details of your child’s party about two months in advance to avoid excessive shipping fees. The online stationery companies feed off of the procrastination of parents. The standard shipping option allows enough time for the cards to ship from the company to the Far East and back, and then the parent realizes she still has to mail out the cards and allow time for an RSVP response. Thus for the parent enjoying Christmas and not thinking about Junior’s upcoming February birthday, the clock is already ticking.

When choosing your shipping options, here is a translation: Standard shipping – Good job, a-hole. You got your sh*t together this year and get free shipping. We’ll screw you next year though. Expedited shipping – You’re savvy enough to order a customized invitation, but not smart enough to order them on time. We like people like you. The shipping cost will equal the cost of the invites. Rush shipping – You’re an idiot. How could you forget your child’s birthday? As punishment, the shipping surcharge will cost the same as a first year’s tuition at Harvard. You are our favorite kind of customer. Overnight shipping – Go to Walgreen’s stet and buy some cheap invitations. You can’t afford the shipping rate.

Of course, to design an invitation, one must know certain details, such as location, day and time. Text or Facebook message “save the dates” are becoming more common for the frantic parent who realizes the child’s birthday is two weeks out and hasn’t ordered invitations yet, let alone determined any relevant details. A message like this might read, “Save the date for Jake’s birthday party. Saturday, sometime in the afternoon(?), our house (I think…). Invitation to follow (maybe).”

Which brings us to venue. One would think choosing a venue, such as a bounce house place or dude ranch or Versailles, would cost an arm and a leg and be the most expensive option. Often times, holding the party at your own house is more expensive. All of a sudden you have to worry about entertaining the children (whatever will they do?!), feeding the kids and adults, elaborate decorations and a clean house. For the busy parents without time for party prep, a soiree at home might entail extra maid service, a caterer and a bounce house. The best option to avoid an exorbitant food cost is to hold the party at a non-meal time, but surprisingly, people will chow down any time of day, especially in the mid-to-late afternoon.

We have attended some stellar children’s birthday parties over the past six years. Some favorites include a carnival themed party with multiple elaborately constructed boardwalk type games, kitschy candy machines and batteries of balloons. This party was impressive because the family enlisted their friends and family to help with the food and set-up, and I can’t imagine the quantity of man-hours and manual labor this party required. The hosts also displayed amazing food, including a recipe for chile con queso that we tried to later replicate.

Another memorable party utilized the “farm it out” approach, and the family invited every child they had ever encountered. The family spared no expense, with catered barbeque, pony rides in the street, a craft station with an activity matching the theme and a magician. The activities were nicely staggered, and the party flowed as naturally as the hundred dollar bills fleeing their wallet in droves.

One party took place on a riverboat cruise with a master of ceremonies. I felt like I was at a rehearsal dinner. Except everyone was dressed in pirate costumes playing musical chairs.

As a parent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you occasionally attend amazing birthday parties and wonder how yours could ever match up. Perhaps you don’t want to cash out an IRA to fund your lovely three-year-old’s bash. It’s important to remember that a successful birthday party, defined as children and adults enjoying themselves, does not require a ridiculous amount of money to be spent. Simplicity is key.

Children love crafts. Set up a craft table that ties into the theme of your birthday party. The activity could be as easy as coloring a sheet of paper that you have copied with a picture of a princess or Spiderman on it. Check out Pinterest if you are not easily overwhelmed. I have never been on the site because I would mentally shut down from feelings of failure and inadequacy. Children also love being outside. Set up a baby pool or a water table with some cheap plastic boats and scoopers and watch them entertain themselves for an hour. Throw in some sand for the kids to make sludge. Nothing makes a party-going parent happier than a mud-caked kid and that forgotten change of clothes.

Regarding food, it is important to include some heavy hors d’oeuvres because parents are usually hungry, especially the ones with babies. In my experience, if I had to shower and apply make-up to look presentable for a party, and then also outfit my children in a costume or party attire, and possibly feed a baby pre-party, I seriously doubt I spent a lot of time eating leading up to the event.

Party food can also be inexpensive yet appealing. You can’t go wrong with chips and queso, chips and guacamole, and/or chips and salsa (sense a theme, here?). The frozen aisle at the grocery store offers some budget-friendly options that are easy to heat up in the oven and can be purchased in bulk packages. A fruit and cheese tray can be prepared at home and doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Buy the pre-cubed cheese to save time, or cube it yourself to save money.

On the topic of beverages, it’s always nice to have accessible coolers where parents and children can serve themselves. We recently threw a children’s birthday party where we opted not to buy packs of individual juice boxes or bottled waters and instead used pitchers of lemonade, tea and water that guests could serve themselves. Not using bottled water is better for the environment, and you don’t see a bunch of half-emptied (or half-filled, if you are one of those) bottles to clean up and recycle after the birthday party. Just make sure to replenish those pitchers!

On the subject of whether to serve alcoholic beverages at a children’s birthday party, I’m sure reasonable minds could disagree here. If the start time is ten o’clock in the morning, most hosts will probably not serve alcohol, (save the raging alcoholics or filthy rich), unless it’s a high-end shindig with options like bloody marys and mimosas. I am a fan of afternoon parties providing some adult beverage options. I certainly don’t expect beer or wine, but a little booze sure makes a children’s birthday party more tolerable. As a hostess, you can bet your fancy gift that I will have some wine in my red plastic cup. How else am I going to converse with that parent of a classmate whom I have never met in my life? Or calmly smile when the kid high on sugar and Adderall wanders around my formal living room contemplating which breakable item to pick up first?

We usually serve some decent beer and wine at our birthday parties, unless it’s Cinco de Mayo, where margaritas will make an appearance. Just make sure you try out your signature drink recipe first if your guests will be doing their own mixing; one year the recipe we chose was way too strong, and we didn’t realize our error until we conducted a taste test shortly before the party. Pre-mixing your cocktails might be the preferred route, and if you’re a real high roller, I’d go for broke and hire a bartender. Oh wait, this is a children’s party, right? Maybe hire a clown then. Yeah, a sober clown.

If you do choose to indulge, don’t overbuy on the booze, or your afternoon guests may linger into the evening, enjoying the free beer while you are left cleaning up debris.

In Loco Parentis

The other week my daughter came home with information about a new classroom behavioral program that the teacher was implementing. I will call the program “Loco” so I do not get sued for disparaging their amazing product. Loco is supposed to act as a positive reinforcement tool to track your child’s behavior throughout their school day and create a tidy pie chart with a percentage given for positive behavior. The pie chart is broken down into segments detailing positive or negative actions of the student.

For instance, my daughter received points for actions such as “staying on task” or “helping others.” She got dinged for being “off task” at a different time and for “talking out of turn.” Each day, positive and negative behaviors are time-stamped to document when the praised behavior or offense occurred.

When my husband and I logged onto Loco for the first time, we were pretty shocked by this program. I can’t imagine how time-consuming it is for the teacher to continuously update real time information regarding each student and their various transgressions. The program seems big-brotherish to me.

We decided to enjoy the humor of Loco’s behavioral pie chart and not bother bringing any demerits up with our daughter, because presumably she has already been disciplined at school for being off-task or talking out of turn.

I’m not sure how effective a discipline strategy it would be to ask my daughter at bedtime why she was flapping her gums too much at 8:15 a.m. I also can’t imagine if adults had a Loco keeping them accountable all day long. This is what my Loco might report:

– 1 for hitting the snooze button multiple times (6:20 a.m.)

+ 1 for getting my daughter to the bus stop on time (7:10 a.m.)

+ 1 for making my group exercise classes (9:00 a.m.)

– 1 for gesturing at the driver going 20 in a 45 (11:05 a.m.)

– 1 for raising my voice at my mud-caked sons (11:37 a.m.)

+ 1 for making a decent lunch for the kids (11:45 a.m.)

– 1 for not folding that dusty pile of laundry (12:58 p.m.)

– 1 for letting too many dirty dishes stack up (2:13 p.m.)

+ 1 for chauffeuring the kids to their multiple activities (3:20 p.m.)

– 1 for hitting up Taco Bell for dinner (hey, it’s Taco Tuesday!) (5:36 p.m.)

– 1 for forgetting to brush one of the kid’s teeth (6:45 p.m.)

+ 1 for helping my daughter complete her homework (7:27 p.m.)

– 1 for that extra glass of red wine (9:32 p.m.)

+ 1 for getting to bed at a decent hour (10:30 p.m.)

At the end of the day, a huge pie chart would break down my good and bad choices into green and red colored sections with a percentage of my socially acceptable behaviors. I think my days might become a little less colorful if I aimed for a one hundred percent Loco score every day. Sometimes you need to yell a little (even if to no one) to vent your frustration; you might tap into your creativity staying up too late at night; the dishes and laundry will be there the next day, while your ambition to write, create or do anything instead of household chores may not be.

When I first saw on Loco that my daughter was penalized for talking out of turn or being off task, I thought of the hilarious 1980s film, Uncle Buck, played by the late, great John Candy. I remembered the classic scene where Uncle Buck tells off his young niece’s school principal for trying to create robot students:

“I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously.”

Uncle Buck wouldn’t approve of Loco, as this tool doesn’t encourage the dreamers and the sillyhearts to sometimes talk out of turn in their unbridled excitement or daydream to the point of getting off task. Often our best ideas form when we are off task and allowed to simply float in our thoughts. All I know is that I am not downloading the Loco app.

Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Three Kids and an iPhone

I am a busy mother of four – a first grader, a preschooler, a toddler and an iPhone. My little iPhone is the most demanding and needy of all my children. He beeps and buzzes at me through all hours of the day and night, beckoning me to pick him up, cradle him in my hands and caress his buttons. I take my little iPhone everywhere – he sits on the table while I eat my meals, he accompanies me to the bathroom where I catch up on Facebook statuses or the latest news. He is always by my side, in my pocket or within easy reach.

My iPhone is popular with the other children – everyone wants to hold him and play games with him. In fact, they fight over him. Sometimes I pay too much attention to iPhone, and the other children get jealous. I give me iPhone baths on a regular basis – my four-year-old enjoys sneezing on him, so iPhone enjoys a good daily wipe down with an antibacterial cleaning wipe. I haven’t figured out how to brush his teeth yet, but I’m working on that.

iPhone enjoys the newest toys (he calls them his “apps”). He constantly demands the latest and greatest apps. He will frequently throw a tantrum in the app store, demanding the app that tells me where to buy antibiotic-free chicken or where the cheapest gasoline is for purchase. He never has enough apps, and he is always whining for more. I’m not sure how I will afford the app for his college education, but we have opened a 529 account for that.

I can’t hug or kiss my little iPhone, but I can cradle him in my hands. He is too small for a baby carrier so I carry him snugly in my pocket. In the car he rides in a cup holder, as the car seat manufacturers are way behind the curve in creating a restraint to securely hold him. He is never out of arms’ reach. iPhone wishes he could go swimming, but the pediatrician has advised otherwise. Some parents have baby iPhones that ignore this warning and end up swimming in the toilet, which ends badly for everyone involved.

iPhone sees and hears everything. You can’t cuss in front of little iPhone, or he will catch your spewed obscenities on his video recorder. He loves to post photos on social media sites, even the less than flattering shots. He is social and enjoys communicating with other iPhones via text messaging. We relish playdates with other iPhones at restaurants, where the little gadgets sit on the table among the wine and calamari and revel in frequent interaction with the adults, as the humans try to remember how to communicate with each other.

iPhone delights in being the center of my universe. The smallest bing or vibration and Mommy will come running to see what prompted the cry. No meeting is too important; no face-to-face conversation is too vital; the call of the iPhone trumps all.

If I ever leave iPhone at home by accident, all hell breaks loose. Panic rises in my chest, my pulse accelerates and little beads of sweat pool on my brow as I rush home to retrieve the abandoned iPhone. iPhone can never be left unattended or out of sight; the consequences for abandonment are unfathomable. At a minimum CPS (cellphone protective services) will be contacted.

iPhone is very demanding for Mommy’s attention, but occasionally the other children need me to look at them and listen to what they are saying. During one of those rare occasions, I reluctantly (and gently) set little iPhone down and attempt to maintain an authentic interaction with iPhone’s human siblings. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with the flesh and blood children, as they don’t have buttons or provide any useful information in the way of stock quotes or weather updates, but talking to them reminds me how to be a human.

At the end of the day, after tending to four children, this mommy is exhausted. There is no better feeling than putting the kids to bed and silencing iPhone. Until we meet again in the morning, I will dream of your incoming messages and impending dings. And sometimes those human babies have interesting things to say too.

Featured image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Into the Woods

This past Saturday we decided to branch out and “get into nature” as the paleontologist from PBS Kids would instruct. The children had traded various maladies for the past few weeks, and we had been cooped up for the better part of a week. This was their father’s first weekend home since a recent deployment. The pressure was on to do something fun or interesting.

I am a frequent reader of TripAdvisor reviews and love seeing all the available options for a Saturday afternoon. We often stick to our usual routine, but I will mentally catalog the local things to do and tuck the information away for another time.

On several occasions I had read about a local natural preserve called the Tree Hill Nature Center. Most people gave it high marks for being a natural oasis hidden in the middle of the city. Unlike previous weekends, this Saturday was clear, cool and bright, a perfect early fall day. We decided to venture off of our tiny island and head to a new destination.

We noticed the nature center was on Lone Star Road, so its location was a good omen (a shout out to our Texas roots). We followed the GPS’s directions and found ourselves in a part of Jacksonville we had never ventured into. This doesn’t look like nature, I thought. I was concerned that OnStar was now playing a bad joke on us. We stayed the course and soon found the parking lot off of a city street.

Once we entered the parking lot, the scene changed. Trees covered us in the dirt-covered parking lot, and the temperature dropped a few more degrees. We easily parked and saw one other car with some teenagers enjoying a picnic lunch on the tailgate of their SUV. We gathered up the jogging stroller (in case of rockier terrain) and provisions and followed the quaint path into Tree Hill. We passed a compost pile allowing visitors to take some compost home and directions for making your own compost pile. The path turned more picturesque as we approached the main visitors’ center, with flowers overhanging the trail and multi-colored butterflies flittering through the air.

A kind and helpful lady greeted us inside where we immediately noticed a stuffed bear and the entrance to the inside museum, containing artifacts and live creatures. We decided to save the museum portion for later when everyone was tired and ready to stop walking. We paid less than ten dollars with a military discount and free admission for our two youngest. We headed back outside and noticed only one other family in our immediate vicinity.

We decided to check out the butterfly house first. We entered the little wooden cottage and observed an abundance of milkweed and other butterfly friendly flowers. Large and vibrant butterflies danced around us in the space, and my husband laughed as I instantly held out my hands, like showing off a manicure, trying to entice a butterfly to land on me (none did). We had the whole cottage to ourselves, and we followed the front desk lady’s instructions to just “not kill any.” We took some photos and headed out to the nature trail.

We chose an easy, paved loop, ideal for strollers or wheelchairs. We walked around the trail under the impressive canopy of trees and heard the wind lightly rustling the leaves. We saw a few huge spiders guarding their impressive webs, a shed snakeskin and passed a community garden as well as an amphitheater.

Along the way we did encounter a few hiccups. My youngest son began exuberantly running down the trail and promptly fell down, hard. He came up with a bloody knee and scratched up nose, but everything was intact. Halfway through the walk, my almost four-year-old son said his “whole body hurt” and wanted me to carry him at the end (I refused). My daughter worried about hyenas. Perhaps we needed to get into nature more often.

After the walk, we headed back to the main area and checked out a drowsy owl and a few smelly roosters. We returned to the building and saw old fossils, life-like replicas of animals that roamed the area millions of years ago, as well as live specimens such as poisonous dart frogs, native snakes and two baby alligators. The highlight of the indoor tour was the upstairs touch tank, where the kids could put their hands in a wet touch tank and feel all sizes of turtles.

We left the nature center feeling peaceful and content. Unlike a zoo with tons of animals (and people), Tree Hill had few visitors that afternoon and a small collection of animals. The green space alone could be its own draw, as a peaceful refuge from a large city. I look forward to returning to Tree Hill, even if just to walk around under the canopy of ancient swaying trees and sit on a wooden bench to reflect.