Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon II: Movie Review

How To Train a Dragon II Review


Ages:  4-10 (there are a few scary parts and frightening bad guys).  If your kids have been raised on PBS, Disney, and Nick Jr, 4 is the youngest I would go.

 Summary- Hiccup, the dragon trainer and adolescent introvert, stumbles upon a bad guy trying to take over the world with dragons (and hurting them while he does it).  Hiccup also finds his mother.  Lots of action and fighting ensue.  A tragic death, a boy’s rise to become a man and a leader of his people, and a friendship for the ages all are included.  Funny parts too, with all of Hiccup’s friends.

Opinion- When I got see a movie, I like to see engagement from the kids.  I also like to see a fast moving story line that will prepare them for future and important story lines.  I also like character development, funniness, and a few jokes for me.  I do not want to see bad messages passed along quietly like everyone has to fall in love, heroes have to be strong, and violence pays off.  I also like good music and cool looking backgrounds.

All of that being said, I thought 
How To Train a Dragon II delivered.  I hadn’t seen the first one, so that took a few minutes with the medieval names and all the dragons.  The kids and I picked things up pretty quickly.

The story introduced who the characters were in an exciting way.  I liked the themes of respecting nature and animals (in this case, dragons).  Though “finding your birth mom” is as old as the hills, it was okay in this one, as it was a manner to explore how to respect nature.

I also liked the way Hiccup, the main character, tried to “talk things out.”  We could use a little more talking out in our house.

In terms of connections to future stories, I like the Lion king/Hamlet rise of Hiccup and Toothless (Hiccup’s dragon).  I’d love to see a national leader like Hiccup.

A side comment: I’ve seen 3D movies now several times (this one wasn’t).  I like the backdrops and the artistic flair of this movie far more than any 3D movie I have seen this year.  Cool colors, lots of depth.

Hiccup and the rest of the characters changes throughout the story.  The funny characters, of course, stay the same and are funny.  Really was able to track that with my 4 year olds.

Rating- I had low expectations because I hadn’t seen the first movie.  I thought it ended up to be an energetic and neat movie.  The kids were totally into it.

Official Preview from Youtube

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Vehicleshop Paradox: Minivan or SUV

You just had or are expecting your third child.  The sedan or small SUV you’ve been driving is now absolute.  The kids have to be in car seats until they are in their mid-20s, and all of those seats cannot fit into the back of your current ride.  You also have to take all of their things on big trips or

little adventures.  Strollers, bags, books, toys, and Ipads for long trips. It’s a lot of pure material to store.  You want to be able to get in and out easily.  Also..those groceries.  You cannot forget about needing to fit all of those and, in unfortunate times, the kids into your vehicle.
Mini-vans and SUVS really have merged, in some senses over the years.  SUVs don’t look quite as sporty.  Mini-vans (the few that are still made) look a little more like SUVS.  The delineation between the two has blurred.  But, saying these two are the same would make for a pretty uninteresting piece, right?  So, we’re going to start with the similarities.
  • We don’t want the kids being able to punch, pull, or steal from each other.  I know when they are cuddly babies and toddlers, this may seem impossible.  With two 4 year olds and a 7 year old, I am enterally thankful they cannot smack each other.
  • We need room in the back.  We have to be able to put all of the stuff listed above into our vehicle.  We need it be at least big enough to fit all our groceries.
  • We want it to be safe.  We want five stars on crash tests.  Safety seemed like something only people who listened to NPR and drove Volvos  or Subarus cared about, until we all started listening to NPR or quietly began yearning for Volvos or Subarus.
  • We want a nice sound system.  We will be in this van or SUV for extended periods of time.
  • We want the AC and heat to work, no matter what.
  • We don’t want it to be breaking down.  Sitting in a car dealership or other car service provider with kids is the epitome of the Poison hit, “Nothing But a Bad Time.”
  • We want it to be stain resistant.  Stains come.  If they can come out, that is best.
  • We need fold down seats so we can carry stuff home without paying for delivery

Your list might be longer.  Let’s say it is.  There are pros with each vehicle.  Each will be reviewed below.

Mini-van Positives
  • Generally cheaper
  • Bigger
  • Can have extra storage systems like “stow and go”
  • Fit more people and things into them
  • Called “great deal” by people like Consumer Reports
  • 25 mpg
  • Available sliding doors with remotes

I should mention one thing I found confusing about Consumer Reports lists, as I was making this decision for myself a few years back.  If you just look up “minivan ratings,” what you will get is consumer reports or another similar publication talking about how good the car looks, price, safety, and “predicted” reliability.
Though those are informative, what I really wanted to know, especially after suffering through a minivan I had into the shop every month after my first year of ownership.  In fact, there is a list of “do not buy” or “worst used” vehicles.  Frequent visitor :  mini-vans.
When you think about it, minivans are not quite a truck (rugged) and not exactly a car (nimble, compact).  It is something in between.  There is less competition in the market too, since Ford and GM really don’t produce one any more.  Less competition may mean less quality and reliability.
As someone who has owned both, I can tell you that I never wanted to be driving our Town and County in the snow.  It went through tires like a race car.  It also skidded and slid.  But..the kids have to get to school every day.  I had to go to my job.  I had to drive the van in bad weather conditions.  I hated it.

Minivans do give you a lot of vehicle for the money, offer better MPG, and more room.  They also give you the opportunity to show that the style of your car doesn’t define you as a parent.  This shows strong moral character and models for your kids that externals don’t matter.   I felt like this was a good lesson when I owned a mini-van.
SUVs definitely have some downside.  They are typically are more expensive up front.  They get lower MPG.  They do have some positives, though.
  • Positives of SUVs:
  • Especially AWD handle well in the snow
  • Safe in accidents
  • Seem to more typically contain at least mediocre sound systems
  • Generally more reliable (fewer issues with internal and external systems with the car)
  • Generally more available features
  • Maintain value better

If we got five parents into the room, we likely could debate this until we all were blue in the face.  Much like many decisions in parenting, you have to prioritize what you care about, make your decision, and then be happy with what you decide. My preference is with the SUV....fewer headaches, better features, generally a better experience for our family.

Please leave comments if you’d like me to add to the article.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Updates on the Detroit Zoo Tips- June 2014

Visited Detroit Zoo on Father's Day and Royal Oak Brewery for dinner.  Good time.  Here's some tips.

  • Get the full package with all of the attractions, even adults.  We enjoyed the Rio show and Journey to the Center of the Earth (well, a few of us got a little nauseous, but the kids loved it).  We rode the train to the back to start the day and walked toward the front.  Good move.  We also loved the carousel.
  • You can take strollers on train, despite the signs that say otherwise.  I had to run to the back to catch up to the train and the back train station is not clearly identified.
  • Canvas shoes are cool for pics.  Not cool for walking around the zoo.  Big blisters.  Will, one of my twin boys, had to take his shoes off for almost 2 hours.  A little unsanitary, but his blister was bulging.
  • Wild Kratts watching enhanced the zoo experience. 
  • Bring your own waters.  They are plenty of places to fill up the water.   Waters there cost $3.
  • Sunscreen a must.  I suggest shades for adults and hats for kids.
  • Now that the youngest in the group is 4, a lot more fun.
  • Lions, peacocks, and rhinos were big hits.
  • Royal Oak Brewery has good kids' food, nice bathrooms, and Korean tacos.  
  • 3 hours is all you need to make the rounds.

Specific questions?  You always can email me.

Sharon Mills Park in Manchester, MI

Sharon Mills County Park In Manchester, MI

Address:  5701 Sharon Hollow Rd, Manchester, MI 48158

Ages- 2 and up

Cost- Free (funded by Washtenaw County Taxes)

Why go there? When we arrived, my kids said, “where is the stuff to play on?”  Uh-oh.  In the end, no slides, no swings, and no play equipment, the kids began looking at the river, asking questions about the plant-life, and asking what a mill was.  The mill was originally constructed in 1835. It was purchased and then restored by Henry Ford in the 1930's. Sharon Mills is listed on the State of Michigan Register of Historic Places.  Along with the Mill structure, the site includes extensive interpretive signage, as well as fishing, picnicking and canoeing opportunities. Interpretive programs are conducted at the park, discussing both the history and ecology of the site.  It would be a perfect place for a picnic and just running around, feeling footloose and fancy free.

Be careful: The building and bathrooms often are closed on weekends.

Summary- Tired of the playground scene? Try out a more nature-based park for exploring, soaking up nature, and having fun.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Finding Books For Boys (with ease)

When I had my first child, I thought that the library was made for me.  The books featured above the shelves fit her interests.  If it was a reach or a guess, I always seemed to get it right.  Then, I had boys.  There were very few books outside of Thomas and Caillou.  Neither of them were real favorites.

I’ve staggered along; I’ve begun to ask why?  One easy reason:  Most librarian are women.  In fact, in 2011, the number was 81% of librarians were women.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male working behind the children’s desk area in my own library.  To be fair, many of the protagonists of books are male (Curious George, Babar, Peter Rabbit).  In fact, only 31% of books have protagonists that are female.  Maybe the librarians are overcompensating?

A British study found that 59% of children’s books are written by women.  This fact was related to the reading gap between male and female primary school children.

I’ve done web searches.  I’ve asked friends with boys. 

Some of my friends implied that reading was for girls.  Boys are supposed to be outside, rough housing and hitting each other with sticks.  Though there is a fair amount of that in our family, it seems like there should be some balance.  Some literacy some reading.

So, we went through easy readers with all of the superheroes and Star Wars.  Batman, Superman, Super Friends, Flash, and Anakin Skywalker.  However, those were exhausted by spring of the twins’ fourth year of having books read to them.  Now what?

I did what I should have done to start, I asked a librarian.  She bristled at my implication that all the featured books were for girls, but she showed me how to use an advanced search.
In our home library, it looks like this:, I switched the category to “words or phrases.”  The librarian explained that titles, authors, and subjects are strictly enforced by the Library of Congress.  This hurts when you generally are looking for books about trucks or trains or racing cars or super heroes.

I also had to switch the item type to “juvenile books” to ensure I was getting Dale Earnhart Jr’s autobiography.

So, I hit the search button and found 50 entries.

I doubt any of these truck books ever will be featured on the top of the shelf for all to see.  I don’t care, though, I’ve figured out how to find books for my kids.  I’ve also used it to find specialized books for Chloe, now that I know how to use the system.

Seems simple enough.  It is.  I just had to learn how to do it.  Each local library may have a different approach to finding books, but it can personalize reading for all your kids!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What To Do About College Savings

Part of What To Do With Kids is figuring out how much to save for their college funds.  Much of what I say below, about increases in college costs, is based on research from the College Board.  Before getting started, I want to make clear that I am a high school principal, so I work with students on college funding every year.  Right now, in Michigan, the top public university is about $25,000 per year (cost of attendance, which includes room, board, eating, driving home, and so on).  My daughter will be in the class of 2025.  I went on the MEFA site to see how much it would cost to go to college when my daughter gets there (in 2025).  I am pasting the results below.

Okay, I thought.  A cool $41,000 per year, raising up to $45,000 in her senior year.  Maybe I need Michigan data.  So, I found some Michigan data.  It is pasted below.

Wow…I’ve thought that this was crazy as a principal, but now I see I will need approximately $200,000 total for my daughter to attend 4 years at the University of Michigan.  If she needs 5 years, it will be $250,000.  For all three kids, I am looking at approximately $600,000 of costs.  To make that happen, I would need to save about $2100 per month to fully fund college.

Ouch.  We could talk about why college costs are going up.  Time’s done several studies on’s one.  Then there was this locally in Michigan about college administrators giving themselves massive bonuses for just doing their is an inflammatory article about it.  Here’s the sad facts.

Professors are not making more money.  College degrees are worth less.  Question is…where is all the money going?  In conversations with dozens of college professors over the last decade, it comes down to two things.  1.)  Administrative jobs and administrative salaries.  While the rest of the world was hunkering down, trimming their administrative staff, colleges continued to raise tuition and hire more administrative support to make their jobs easier.  If “The Office” was a college, Dwight Shrute would have an assistant to the assistant to his assistant branch manager job.  He would just have to sign papers and play Candy Crush Saga.  The assistants to his assistant would do his work for him.  2.)  Facilities- whether it is a student recreation center, a new basketball arena, or a new lab building, public universities are spending money to keep up with the proverbial joneses at a rate unheard of in this century.  Some are needed.  Some are not.
If you asked someone who has $100,000 of debt coming out of undergrad, he or she likely would say it is not.

Where does that leave us?  Here’s what we can do:

  • Vote for politicians who freeze tuitions
  • Look for college with low admin to student ratios
  • Maximize high school options for college credit
  • Save like crazy
  • Oppose any reforms (from state or federal governments) without matching funds because those reforms almost always are passed on to students in the form of tuition increases
  • Support a moratorium on building unless it is funded by private dollars or a decrease in administrative positions or salaries
  • Support more public funding for colleges

Every time I want to take the kids to Disney again, buy something expensive, or generally anytime I consider spending a lot of money..I think of that number: $600,000.  Probably will be here before you or I know it, and it’s going to be more expensive than a rational person could ever imagine.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wild Kratts- PBS TV Show

Ages:  4-10

Summary- Chris and Martin Kratt are brothers who explore the worldwide wild to learn about animals.  It goes from live action to cartoon and back again.  The brothers joke around, become the animals, and try to live in the wild.

Opinion- I think the name wild kratts is silly, which is why I never tried it with Chloe, my oldest.  Now it is a guaranteed 25 minute break with educational value.  It’s got the PBS learning feel in a pretty high energy format.  My general feeling is that there is high enjoyment (and nice future employment possibilities) in science.  My boys never really got Syd the Science Kid, so we have only addressed science basically.  They seem to pick up a lot from the show.

Rating- Must tape.  Guaranteed entertainment.  We even watch reruns.