As your kids get older, you realize you don’t have to ply them with gifts or offer extra ice cream at dessert just to be The Cool Parent. (And despite what you may have learned from Amy Poehler in Mean Girls, you don’t have to serve them cocktails with umbrellas, either.) Sometimes it’s just the little things you do, or those tricks you pull out of your hat on a rainy day that give you one more parenting win, just when you really need it.
So while yes, parents prioritize those important skills like CPR and knowing how to cut the crusts off of toast, I’ve got some other ideas for those fun things you may have always wanted to learn but never did.
In fact, if you’re not one for resolutions, maybe you’re one for goals? In which case, here are a few cool tricks you can commit to learning this year that will be a big hit with kids of any age.
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– This post has been updated in 2021 –
1. Make Shadow Puppets
This is one of those things every parent should be able to do — and I mean beyond a bunny. Not that I can personally do anything beyond a bunny. Head over to Scary Mommy for a good roundup of YouTube videos on how to make traditional shadow puppets with your hands.
Also be sure to check out this great 2027 YouTube video on shadow puppets from Rose Louise Wood, for some amazing inspiration that you can try and dissect frame by frame.
2. Make Balloon Animals
My friend Karen (hi Karen!) once brought out the balloons and air pump when we had all our kids together and…mind blown. This is one skill will make you the hit of every party or playdate. I like the About Magic Youtube Channel in which magician Wayne Kawamoto offers really clear video instructions on making a basic balloon animal dog (pro trick: spend on high quality balloons or they’ll pop), then moves onto intermediate balloon animal creatures like teddy bears and t-rexes.
When you get more advanced (or just for fun) take a look at the Balloon Animals channel on YouTube which shows you how make everything from a balloon lightsaber to a Minecraft Creeper. Well, in theory.
3. Cut Really Good Paper Snowflakes
It should be the easiest thing in the world, but when my daughter kept accidentally cutting hers in half, I turned to some expert sites to figure out just where she — okay, we — were cutting wrong. We’ve got loads of posts on 20 cool snowflakes patterns you can make including lots of pop culture references, or 8 DIY snowflake patterns, from beginner to whoa.
For basic instructions for a six-pointed snowflake (above) that kids can cut freehand instead of following a pattern, I like the ReadsInTrees tutorial on Instructibles.
4. Learn the American Sign Language Alphabet
My ten-year-old is now super into sign language, and likes to spell out “can I play on the iPad?” across the dinner table, letter by letter. Fortunately I still remember the basics I had learned in grade school, but if you need a refresher, check out Lifeprint’s finger spelling chart of the ASL alphabet including helpful tips for how it should be properly used.
It’s like a secret code you can have with your kids and they’ll love it — plus, it could really come in handy should they ever have a hearing-impaired friend or family member in their lives.
5. Learn a Face Painting Trick or Two
I was once saddled with face painting duty at a school carnival, and became forever after known as The Face Tainter. (TLDR: Preschoolers are a very forgiving bunch and can fairly easily be convinced to get a heart on their cheeks instead of a full-on tiger face.)
However search for face painting tutorials, and…eek. Lots of annoying slideshows with professional results and no actual tips that mere mortals can use when we just want to be a fun parent.
Wiki-How’s face paint tutorial does offer good tips in terms of process and supplies — if a little basic. (Step 10: Hold a mirror up to your customer to see the result!) Howcast has a lot of detailed face painting how-to videos for basics like cats, fairies and Batman — provided you don’t mind waiting forever for them to load. Or, my top pick are the the Snazaroo YouTube Videos from the makers of popular face painting kits. Their videos offer decent, step-by-step instructions for lots of characters — though of course you still need talent. Baby steps?
And hey, if you want to get really inspired, check out our post on 20 of the most amazing, must-see Halloween face paint video tutorials on YouTube. When we say “must-see,” we mean it.
6. Master Expressive Reading
When parents read to their kids in a monotone…well, think about how much you like to hear anything at all delivered in a monotone. I’ve worked hard to get better at expressive reading with my kids, and mostly it’s about throwing away inhibitions and not worrying about sounding silly if you act out the story or give each character a different voice. In fact, silly helps!
Expressive reading is also about changing pitch, volume, rhythm, tone and speed, and Jennie Smith lays out the tips clearly in this reading with expression video primer. (Even if that illustrated dude looks just like my neighbor, Todd.)
To see the tips put to use beautifully, check out this fantastic video on expressive reading, in which British voice actor Neil Scott Barber reads Shel Silverstein’s Sick from Where the Sidewalk Ends like you’ve never heard it. T
his style of reading aloud not only keeps kids’ interest, but it helps them retain the information better. And hey, you could be voted most popular class parent when it’s your turn to come in and read your kid’s favorite book.
7. Make a Cootie Catcher/Origami Fortune Teller
By the time your kids hit about seven or eight, they’ll be making these every chance they can get. If your kids are younger, make one with them and they’ll love you for it. Especially the part about getting to come up with their own fortunes inside.
Skip the pre-printed templates; this is an easy one. If you’ve forgotten how, Instructibles has a good tutorial on how to make a cootie catcher, which only requires some basic folding skills and a little creativity when it comes to the fortunes inside.
If your kids get really into it, there are always craft books available, like this Origami Fortune Teller tear-off pad, which is also one of my favorite summer camp care package ideas for kids of all ages.
8. Play Cat’s Cradle and Other String Games
All it takes is this Klutz Cat’s Cradle Book Kit — my daughter’s own favorite — and their easy instructions, and those fun string games you did as a kid yourself will come right back, from Witch’s Hat to Jacob’s Ladder. Best ever way to kill a few minutes with your child in the pediatrician’s waiting room or in line at the supermarket, without needing a screen.
Of course there are also YouTube videos (that do require a screen, ha) like this how to do cat’s cradle tutorial from Mom’s Minivan.
9. Memorize at Least Five Good Jokes. Probably More.
Any time you want to get a kid’s attention — your own child, a niece or nephew, a playdate — a joke always works. Unfortunately, my repertoire tends to get stuck with Knock Knock…Banana Banana every time. My kids will attest to that.
10. Learn Stories with Holes
This one is for tweens and teens, even when my own girls were younger, they were totally obsessed with this exercise in critical thinking that I used to do as a kid with my own mother. Essentially you’re telling a story with some major missing info (The man was afraid to go home because of the man with the mask.). Your kids then have to ask yes or no questions to figure out what’s really going on.
When they do solve the riddle, they will be so proud of themselves. Then beg for more. So the real trick is learning lots of them.
The most comprehensive collection I’ve found is this list of stories with holes on Angel Fire. There are some on the site Propensity for Curiosity (shown above) but they’re interspersed with other kinds of riddles. Or, check out the 20-volume Stories with Holes book series on Amazon which should keep you in stories until your kids are out of the house.
11. Learn the Whip/Nae-Nae/TikTok dance of your choice
When we first published this post, the Watch Me Whip/Nae Nae video was huge, and we watched it (as instructed) over and over until we learned it.. Or you can check out an actual basic Whip and Nae Nae video tutorial from Jacob Latimer on Disney Video. Hey, even Hillary Clinton learned the dance on Ellen. Now, it’s kind of throwback!
Today though, it’s all about TikTok dances. The Cut has a decent piece on 10 TikTok dances to learn and that’s a good place to start — besides TikTok of course. I would just suggest that you follow the original Black TikTok dance creators who don’t always get the credit they deserve. Jalaiah’s Renegade dance, Keke Jajanajah’s Savage dance, Nicole Bloomgarden’s #OutWestChallenge… learn them from the originals!
(Hey, teaching your kids to respect and appreciate makers and creators makes you a cool parent too.)