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If a tropical destination isn’t in the cards this spring break, try a family-friendly weekend road trip.

So you don’t have the time (or the money) to take the kiddies to visit Mickey Mouse at his magical Walt Disney World abode this spring break. That doesn’t mean you’re destined to spend the week together cooped up at home. In just a few car-bound hours, you and your family can be at one of these affordable long-weekend, child-and-adult friendly getaways chock full of outdoor adventure, neon gnomes and educational opportunities. Starting with the closest, we’ll work our way through three entertaining pieces of Americana.

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, Fishers, Ind.

Estimated drive time: 2 hours

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park is a living museum with five themed areas — Lenape Indian Camp, William Conner Homestead, 1836 Prairietown, 1863 Civil War Journey and 1859 Balloon Voyage — where guests experience what life was like in Indiana during the 1800s. Where to stay: With 15 hotels in five nearby cities offering Conner Prairie packages and other accommodations (valid April-October), and nearby Indianapolis, there’s no shortage of places to stay. Where to eat: The Hearthside Suppers program invites you to help prepare an authentic 19th-century multi-course meal by candlelight in the 1823 Conner House, central Indiana’s first brick home. If you visit after March 27, try the Café on the Common for salads and sandwiches.

What to do: Try on clothing at the McClure House in Prairietown, play a game of “hoop and stick,” take a 350-foot-high balloon ride (after March 28), meet farm animals, make traditional 1800s arts and crafts or board the train at the year-round Discovery Station. What to see: Venture into an outdoor experience that puts you in the middle of an Indiana battle during the Civil War. The story of General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry comes to life in Raid on Indiana with video, sound, staging and interpreters dressed in 1800s costumes. For adults: Adults can take the Restoration Tour of the Conner House while the kids enjoy interactive playtime. The Conner House was built by William Conner, Indiana statesman and fur trader, and is one of only two 19th-century buildings original to Conner Prairie.

Hocking Hills, Ohio

Estimated drive time: between 2 and 2 ½ hours

With a 2,356-acre state park (the original home of the prehistoric American Indian Adena culture) full of towering cliffs, cascading waterfalls, wooded trails and gorges, Hocking Hills is ideal for outdoor attractions such as horseback riding, fishing, hiking, zip-lining, archery and more. Where to stay: Sleep in a piece of history at the Historic Host bed and breakfast’s one-room schoolhouse, farmhouse or gypsy caravan; enjoy medieval flair at Ravenwood Castle; get spooked at the purportedly-haunted Georgian Manner on Lake Logan; or relax at Old Man’s Cave Chalets. Where to eat: The Grouse Nest Restaurant features fresh, local, seasonal foods and wild game offerings such as Venison Burger and Hocking Hills Jambalaya with rattlesnake and rabbit sausage. What to do: Experience the vast world of nature all in one place at Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, shop 1800-1970s vintage items at Logan Antique Mall, visit one of the longest zip line courses in the Midwest at Valley Zipline Tours, or have a veteran pilot take you on Hocking Hills Scenic Air Tours to see the area from a new perspective.

What to see: For 40 years, the outdoor drama Tecumseh! has depicted the struggles of a Native American leader defending his homeland complete with galloping horses, live military cannons in action and recreated battle scenes. For adults: The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls offers many packages for adults looking to relax including Learn To Massage Your Mate and the seasonal Pawpaw Facial/Massage Duet.

Rock City, Lookout Mountain, Ga.

Estimated drive time: 6 hours

An Americana roadside attraction at its best and kitschiest. Listed as one of National Geographic’s “America’s Iconic Places,” Rock City and its naturally formed rock streets are an outdoor adventure full of plentiful gardens, ancient geographic formations, whimsical gnomes and panoramic views. Where to stay: If you are looking for location, Chanticleer Inn Bed and Breakfast is steps away from Rock City Gardens. Over 20 other hotels are located on their website. Where to eat: Big Rock Grill offers hamburgers, hot dogs and more in the short-order style restaurant and Cliff Terrace provides pizza to guests as they approach Lover’s Leap. What to do: Walk the 4100-foot Enchanted Trail that winds through the 14-acre property atop Lookout Mountain. Started in 1928 by founder Frieda Carter, the trail begins at giant, ancient rock formations, passes a cascading 100-foot waterfall, crosses the 180-foot Swing-a-Long Bridge and ends at an open field, now known as Lover’s Leap, with a panoramic seven-state view.

What to see: Fairyland Caverns are a must. This dark, man-made cave is full of gnome figurines perched on fake rock ledges. Inside there’s also Mother Goose Village, a gathering of wonderfully bizarre fluorescent fairy tale characters, illuminated by black light. For adults: Visit Shamrock City for live Irish music, Irish jig lessons, traditional Irish food and specialty beer in a souvenir glass as well as Green Shamrock Wine. 

Wedding day etiquette for kids (and parents).

When I got married at the ripe old age of 22, I didn’t think twice about inviting kids to my wedding. Two young cousins tripped down the aisle with flower petals and, following the ceremony, they rang tiny silver bells engraved with their names and the date. So you can imagine my surprise a few years later when I found out these same young children had been declined invitations to a family friend’s wedding in Pennsylvania.

What was she thinking? I fumed, as I watched the bride head up the aisle, the church silent with reverence. Weddings are for everybody in the community who loves the couple, not just the adults. Now, six years later and a mother myself, I beg to differ.

As a mom, I know how unpredictable my son can be in socially rigid situations. While at a wedding he could go tearing down the aisle after the bride for a closer look at the flowers. He could scream wildly in frustration. He could burst into song. For these reasons, I only take my child to weddings armed with precautions. You moms know what I mean: aisle seat, adult ready to exit with the child if necessary, a lollipop in my purse. In fact, during a family wedding this fall, I left my husband home to watch our napping child until the reception. “It’s just too risky,” my mom and I repeated to each other.

So what’s a bride wiser than I supposed to do? Should she invite kids to her wedding against her will and anticipate disaster, or is there another option? According to Dora Manuel, wedding planner and owner of Viva Bella Events in Cincinnati, a bride can definitely lay claim to an alternative.

“Not many brides’ dream wedding includes a coloring table and PB&Js at the reception,” she says. “The bride has every right to choose an ‘adults only’ ceremony and reception.”

The wisest course of action is to nip expectations in the bud.

“Address the invitation to the adults of the family only,” Manuel advises. “Most people get the message loud and clear.”

However, if the bride receives an RSVP with kids included on the response, she should be prepared to call and politely let the guest know that children are not expected to attend. As a helpful gesture to out-of town guests traveling with children, Manuel suggests the bride could either provide childcare during the wedding or a list of reliable sitters.  

This may, however, be a moment for diplomacy. A bride might want to be cautious before issuing a “no kid” dictum. After all, she might have an immature guest — like my former self —huffing in the pews. If that’s the case, Manuel counsels to consider getting creative. She remembers one couples’ solution. 

“At one of our weddings, the bride chose to have a kids’ room during the reception, complete with pizza, bean bags, movies, games and hired babysitters. This ensured the kids and the parents had a great time!” But for Manuel, it’s the bride’s big day and what she wants should fly.

I don’t really have much to add to that sage advice, except to share a little story from my latest reception with my son. We were seated at a table next to a dessert bar with giant platters of cookies and cakes. My little boy couldn’t keep his eyes — or his sticky, little hands — off those trays. By the end of the night he’d devoured more desserts than he had in the preceding six months. While some of the guests were wild on the dance floor due to an open bar, he was running on a priceless sugar high.

So brides, be aware: If you do have little ones at the reception, seat them far, far away from the goodies. Because, unlike my bridal self would have acknowledged, kids don’t really come to weddings to celebrate the union of two people they love. Quite the opposite: They are the most selfish guests on earth. They come to party hard, to party now and to party their way. And guests like that, well, they have to be managed by a confident and loving bridal hand.

A mother’s attempt at implementing 1970s wisdom in the bathroom.

When I was pregnant with my first child, friends often asked if I wanted to know the sex of the baby before it was born. “Oh, yes,” I’d reply. “The labor will be surprise enough.” The labor, of course, was only the beginning of the surprises.  

To a new parent, each developmental phase is something of a shock. And now, my son, William, almost two and a half years old, has come to another, rather unpleasant milestone: potty training. 

I had heard potty training horror stories of boys running around naked, spraying pee all over the kitchen floor, so I knew I needed a proven plan. Online I found a book whose overabundant titular promise attracted my attention: Toilet Training in Less than a Day. 

Before you scoff at the idea that a child can be toilet trained in “less than a day,” check out the nearly 500 Amazon reviews. Parents are mostly raving — except for the few who are raging. This is one of those polarizing five-star-or-one-star-review kind of books.  

Essentially this little manual, which has not been edited or updated since its original publication in 1974, offers a step-by-step procedure for toilet training. Using a variety of behavioral training techniques — modeling, simple instruction, positive practice tests and rewards — parents communicate and validate proper potty behavior to their toddlers. The authors, both Harvard-educated psychologists, say the procedure is 99 percent effective. I bought two copies.  

I read up on the program. On the big day I was supposed to “phone” my son’s imaginary heroes — like Elmo and DJ Lance — in front of him to apprise them of his potty progress. This would communicate the social significance of proper toileting. I was supposed to buy a doll that could urinate on command, and the market provided “Potty Scotty,” a doll that pees when you squeeze one of his chubby, plastic legs. My son would work with me to “teach” this doll how to use the potty. By watching me teach Potty Scotty and testing to see if the doll had wet or dry pants, my son would have a miniature modeling experience and feel like an “expert” in the potty realm. Best of all, the rewards-based program encourages the use of sweets as incentives. Lots of sweets. I smiled as I stuck chocolate milk in my grocery cart. Will is going to love this, I thought.  

My husband and I decided to do the training on a quiet Saturday morning and cleared our schedules for a full day. The night before, we stayed up late reading our manual one last time. We quizzed each other using the 98 quick-fire questions in the back of the book. We set up our training room with the doll and the mini-potty and the treats. I drew up a final cheat sheet with all the crucial information, readable at a glance. 

Trying to prepare developmental milestones for your child is surprisingly profound. My vision for the potty-trained William became clearer. I wanted him to become a bigger and more mature little person, to give him independence. And I felt a bizarre mix of emotions — pride, excitement, nostalgia, hopefulness and a shade of worry. The promise of the book sounded too good to be true. Was I really ready for this? Was he? 

In the morning Will greeted us with smiles. He was delighted with his new training pants. He couldn’t believe the tastiness of chocolate milk. 

And then he had four successive accidents.  

We realized he couldn’t tell the difference between wet and dry pants. “Wet!” he’d say, beaming, waiting for his treat. “No William,” we’d reply. “Big boy pants should be dry.” And then things really started to go downhill.  

There are corrective measures following an accident. The child cleans up the spill, changes his pants and completes 10 “positive practice tests,” which involve racing to the toilet from various parts of the house, ripping down one’s pants and squatting. The book encourages firmness in these procedures, implying that they will be met with inevitable resistance. William quickly decided these “punishments” were his favorite part. Four hours into the training, sugar high from his chocolate milk, he started dancing uncontrollably around the room and laughing hysterically.  

When the inevitable crash came, my boy spent a long time on the potty chair waiting for something to happen. We waited, too, staring between his legs with the fervor of an oracle trying to discern a message in tea leaves. We got the doll again. “Look, William!” we cried, “Potty Scotty went in his toilet. Can’t you go in yours?” William watched us manipulate the doll very closely, observing that the “pee” came out when we squeezed the doll’s leg. He smiled. Then, with great solemnity, he began squeezing his own leg. We started to laugh, a bit hysterical ourselves. What had gone wrong? After nearly 15 hours of focused potty time over a two-day period, we decided to drop it. 

I suppose now I should tell you that I raced off to draft my own one-star review. After all, the book’s strategies didn’t work. All I can say about the supposed 99 percent success rate is this: “My name is Kelly Blewett, and I am the one percent.”  

But still, was it really a complete failure? Perhaps the person getting trained by all this was me, not my child. I am learning how to promote my son’s learning, to think forward positively to his success, to break down the meaning of success into attainable goals and to equip him to achieve those goals. Where I was once uncertain, I am now more in tune with things that will be meaningful to him — like ringing up Elmo. The posture of the cheerleader/teacher, as opposed to the hand-wringing mother, is empowering. And that’s a surprise. Despite the procedure’s failure, I might be getting the hang of something here. 

And, unlike my son’s toileting, hopefully my lessons will stick. When we try again, I’ll be here anticipating his success, recognizing it will be on his timetable, not mine, and certainly not on that of a manual. In the meantime, we can spend some quality time discussing the ineffable but oh-so-key difference between wet and dry. Maybe I’ll even break out the chocolate milk.

Illustration by Julie Hill

A list of kid-friendly autumn activities.

As a stay-at-home mom, I’m always looking for creative ways to entertain my children. And although I have my own list of secret destinations and things to do in this wonderful city, as I’m sure we all do, us mamas are in this together. So as an act of sisterly solidarity for the benefit of our children (and our sanity), I’ve compiled a list of my favorite autumn activities, ranging from circus camps to museum tours to holiday floral shows, to entertain everyone in the family. 

Has your child ever threatened to run away with the circus? Or has there ever been a day when you wished, just for a second, that he/she actually had the requisite skills to pack up and become an act with the Ringling Bros., if only to get out of your hair? Here’s a chance for your kid to learn those skills. The Cincinnati Circus is offering flying trapeze lessons for the whole family. Well, nearly the whole family. For some reason they refuse to strap your newborn onto the trapeze bar and swing her around or allow great-grandpa to dangle from his reconstructed knees, but everyone else is welcome to try for only $45 per person ($20 for college students with an ID). Head to
cincinnaticircus.com for dates, times and more information. 

Knowing me, they’d have to call the fire department to rescue me from the trapeze, so I owe it to those men and women in uniform to check out their history. The Fire Museumof Greater Cincinnati is a bit off the beaten path downtown, but is beloved by my son. Here you can wail a siren, slide down a fire pole, see fire trucks and encourage your children to learn a thing or two. Always good. For instance, did you know that in 1853 Cincinnati became the first city to establish an organized fire department? It’s true. Check out their website, cincyfiremuseum.com, for more fun facts. 

After the noise of the fire siren, you might be looking for some quiet fun — try the Cincinnati Art Museum, which holds events nearly every weekend. Family First Saturday happens the first Saturday of each month and features free demonstrations by storytellers, performers, artists and more. The Family First Saturday on Nov. 3 explores fashion, clothing and costumes through the art museum’s textile collection, and includes a performance by The Madcap Puppets — no reservations necessary. The museum also holds events during the week geared toward toddlers and art education, such as the Culture Kids event on Nov. 9, “Food for Thought.” This event looks at culinary creations in artwork through a docent-led tour, stories, an art project and a snack. Visit cincinnatiartmuseum.org for a full list of events.  

Also, be sure to check out the unique events and fun learning opportunities at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal (cincymuseum.org) and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens (cincinnatizoo.org). Among other family friendly programming, the Museum Center hosts a tri-weekly detective class where museum sleuths are invited to find historical and informational items in a scavenger hunt, and the Cincinnati Zoo hosts family zoo yoga and a frequent Signing Safari class for toddlers, which pairs the act of learning sign language with nature.  

Hopefully, this should get you to the holidays, which is when the real fun begins. Well, legitimate fun, beyond that of waiting to get stampeded by a pushy mom in a tracksuit on Black Friday itching to grab Scratch and Sniff Elmo or whatever the “cool” toy is. For example, we’ve run the Thanksgiving Day Race (thanksgivingdayrace.com) as a family the past few years — kids in a stroller, of course. Not only was this good training to beat that pushy lady to Elmo, but it also allowed me to gorge with impunity later in the day. It’s a very well done event and a pretty neat family tradition for us. And this year will be the 103rd annual race.  

The following day, on Nov. 23, go down to Fountain Square for the Macy’s Light Up the Square event for ice skating, tree lighting and a “surprise” appearance by Santa. (You mean to tell me Santa comes to commercial events at Christmas?) 

Of course, you have to head back to the Cincinnati Zoo for the PNC Festival of Lights, Nov. 23-Jan. 1, but also don’t miss the Krohn Conservatory. They hold their Holiday Floral Show Nov. 17-Jan. 6 with Santa’s Green Workshop almost every Saturday and Sunday in December where kids can create one-of-a-kind ornaments from natural materials. There’s also holiday photography, a neat Bonsai/gingerbread house display, a cookie decorating contest and a holiday light show. A full list of their events can be found at cincinnatiparks.com.  

By now, I’m sure you are totally sick of spending time with your kids, so have grandma and grandpa further fill their spirits with the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati performance of Santa’s Toy Factory while you fill yourself with spirits. The performances run Dec. 7-15 and tell the story of Wendell the elf. I imagine he probably saves Christmas and realizes its true meaning through song and dance. Regardless, I am sure your children will love it. Tickets can be purchased at thechildrenstheatre.com.

Children and clothing.

By the time I had my son, I was old enough (ahemmid-thirtiescoughcough) to know my own style. And while I am not someone who spends a lot of money on my wardrobe, I do spend a good deal of time and effort coordinating my outfits. So as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I started imagining how I would dress him or her.   

My mom dressed my sister and I alike (we are 19 months apart in age) until we were old enough to protest — around 7 or 8 years old. A twin herself, she’d buy us matching dresses in different colors, and I think that had a profound effect upon our disparate approach to clothing today. My sister dresses like a high-powered executive (befitting her career) with a penchant for expensive name brands from elite department stores, while I shop at thrift shops, and regularly scour consignment and vintage racks that offer the opportunity to buy affordable, unique pieces. 

As soon as my sister and I started making disposable income via odd jobs in our early teens, my sister started spending her money on brand names. I can still remember my vicarious thrill over the purchase of her first pair of Guess jeans, and how cool we thought she was because of an upside down triangle on her butt.   

When we had our sons two months apart, I realized that our children would reflect that difference in approach — just as we mirrored, and consequently rejected, our mom’s influence.   

To me, the idea that you would want to pay someone to promote their company on their behalf seems contrary to my idea of buying clothes, so I would never put my child in an outfit that advertised the brand name. However, being a parent and dressing your child like you is nearly impossible to avoid. 

I have a friend from college who wore the pants of an Adidas tracksuit to class nearly every day, usually with a matching hoodie. (Hey, it was the nineties, okay??) Years ago he moved out West, got married, had two kids; and when I got his Christmas card in the mail last year, both of his girls were wearing matching Gap sweatshirts. They were adorable children who looked very happy, but all I could think of was how much like their father they were dressed. 

When I found out I was having a boy, I was so excited about the prospect of dressing a little guy. I didn’t want to create a mini-me — that seemed weird and fraught with future emotional trauma for a child of any gender. Yet how else is it possible to dress your kid if you aren’t choosing clothes that YOU find attractive?   

You’re probably thinking, “But girls have so many more clothing options than little boys do!” and you’d be absolutely right. Head into any children’s clothing store and you’ll immediately notice the “boys” section is about a third of the size of the “girls,” which is usually heavily cast in — you guessed it — nearly every shade of pink.  

At three and a half years old, my son is involved in the choosing of his clothes. Because his Dad and I don’t necessarily agree on every clothing option ourselves — and quite honestly our son’s not nearly as interested in the subtle differences of pattern, color or cut as we are — we do our best to choose classic pieces, which likely reflect our own senses of taste rather than his. My husband and I allow him to pick from a group of “approved” selections (we bent the rules last month and let him get a pair of sandals neither of us would’ve ever chosen). And, although he often he picks gender-neutral greens and purples, I would never deny him anything pink.  

My son is pretty much his father’s doppelganger. The Irish-German big head, long legs and delicate features are something he certainly didn’t get from my short, brown, angular Puerto Rican side of the family. Although he acquired my enthusiasm and proclivity for words, the little guy’s resemblance to his dad is uncanny. And while that is especially noticeable when they’re dressed alike, he’ll find his own way of dressing once he is old enough to make those decisions — hopefully we don’t scar him too much in the meantime. Until then, I’ll keep finding really cute plaid button downs and skinny jeans for him to wear. 

Money management tips from children.

It’s remarkable how less exciting the concept of money becomes as you age. For adults, it’s a burden that plagues us daily with its hair-pulling, insomnia-inducing wrath. But for most children, a few dollars is a precious commodity used almost exclusively for purchases involving sugary red dye No. 40 or toys padlocked with zip ties.  

That’s the case for siblings Owen, 7, and Ellie, 8, who look forward to Sundays every week, the day when their six-dollar allowance tickles their hands and imaginations.  

The two shared with me their experience upon receiving allowance, expressing their income, savings, charitable givings and job descriptions without the slightest reservation. I’m not ready to make them my go-tos for advice on 401ks, but they did offer a refreshing take on money management that reminded me maybe it should be just as simple as saving up for the ice cream man every once in awhile.  

Her Cincinnati: What do you do with your allowance every week?  

Ellie: We give 10 percent to the church every week. That’s 60 cents! We put it in the giving envelope. 

H: Where do you guys keep all your money? 

E: We keep it in the bank and in bags. One bag is spend, one says save and one is give.  

H: So if you could go out and spend everything that’s in your spending bag right now, what would you get?  

E: One of those electric scooters. They’re $130.  

Owen: Probably a remote-control helicopter and some Legos. Oh, wait! A big, GREEN remote-control helicopter. It’s only $100. But I don’t think I’ll buy it. I’m wishing for it for Christmas.  

H: That’s pretty expensive. That doesn’t sound like too much to you?  

O: No. It’s easy to save up. 

H: Really? I find that hard to believe. Don’t you see things that you want all the time?  

O:No. Not anymore. I used to, but now I just want to keep saving. Now I want to earn money and keep it, and not spend it and lose all my money. 

H: Has that ever happened before? Where you spend all your money on one thing?  

O:Yea, I got $106 and then I spent it all on a Lego castle and I lost it all. 

H: What kinds of things do you have to use your allowance for? 

E:The ice cream truck. I always use my spending money when the ice cream truck comes around. But last time I didn’t get it because I didn’t want to spend my money.  

H: Are there things that you have to use your allowance for, besides the ice cream truck?  

E:Yea, maybe if I get nail polish in the carpet like I did. I think I might have to pay for the carpet.  

H:OK, what about if you had $1000 dollars on top of everything you’ve already saved?  

O: I would buy nothing. Yea, because I would keep it and so I could keep saving. I would put it in the bank so I could save up for a car.  

E:I think I would maybe buy a lot of jewelry. 

O:But Ellie, then you would lose all of your richness! 

H:What kind of chores would you do to try to get mom to give you more money? 

O: I would clean the entire kitchen, and the bathroom. And every single thing in the downstairs. And then get $10 for it. I can do it. I would organize dad’s desk! 

H: What’s your least favorite chore?  

O: Probably cleaning the toilets. But Lucy* actually really likes cleaning the toilets. Sometimes we have minty toilet spray and Lucy loves to stick her face in the toilet and smell it.  

H: What do you think kids who maybe do a lot of chores, but don’t get allowance because maybe their parents can’t afford to give it to them? Is that fair? 

O:No, that’s not fair. Because then you do hard work then you don’t get any reward. 

E:But it may not be money. Maybe it will be like an extra dessert or something.

*Lucy, 3, is Ellie and Owen’s little sister. Her schedule was booked with coloring and was unavailable for comment.