Stacking Cups for Imagination—A Great Baby Toy Not Found at (many) Stores

September 30, 2006


Last year, several of our friends had their first babies. Thinking back about the best toy when our children were born, a set of 10 stacking cups came to mind. What fun they were! So, stacking cups is what these families got. Now, a year later, the parents report that the stacking cups are the most used and enjoyed toy of all. Not bad for a toy that can be purchased for as little as $7.20.

There are countless activities. The imagination grows to invent new ones as the child’s abilities develop. No instructions needed. Another benefit is that the games hold the interest of the adults as well.

However, this toy has only moderate popularity. There may be several reasons for this. As possibilities: The cups do not look like much in the box; they don’t come with a technical buzz; there are no advertisements for a cheap, old toy; adults who had them as children do not remember that young age

Finally, you have to go out of your way to find them. They are not stocked by most of the major toy chains either in their stores or on-line. Some, but not all, boutique toy stores do carry them, and they are available over the web. (Caution: The sets containing only 4 cups do not have enough play possibilities.) It’s worth the effort to track this toy down.

Also, a great gift.

Not found in most stores.

When the baby moves on to the bath tube, check out Foam Bath Blocks–Good Clean Fun 



A related post for parent/baby activities: 3 Parent Activities to reduce frustration for sleeping problems and toilet training.



Child Sleeping Problems and Toilet Training—3 Parent Activities to Reduce Frustration

September 26, 2006

If you scratch the mind of a parent about concerns for their baby or toddler, odds are either sleeping habits or toilet training will come up. No question about it, there is a challenge here. Even though the vast majority of these adventures work out without major health issues, it is of little solace during the training. The concern takes a big bite of nervous energy. A few straightforward activities that can help to reduce frustration for the adults are highlighted below.

It’s obvious that there are many different methods to approach this training. As an example, on-line bookstores show 15 books devoted exclusively to sleeping problems and over 25 to toilet training. All but one of these books are rated 4-5 stars (****1/2) of a scale of 5) by the users. People are satisfied with the books. It’s interesting that, although each book claims to have the winning method, some are directly contradictory. For the methods, pay your money, take your choice. For serious problems of course, expert medical advice is available for those who need it.

Beyond the methods however, background activities that can make this period more enjoyable for the parents often get little emphasis. Three are outlined below:

Keep a realistic perspective on time and goals

A few hours awake in the middle of the night seem like forever. There is a distortion that sets in—a mentally predetermined time is set when sleep will come, or success on the potty. When that milestone passes, there is an increase in anxiety and then a new goal is set. Break the cycle of predetermined goals. (The goals are often determined by the “normal” development cycle, ignoring the fact that there is a natural wide range.) As long as there is no serious problem, events will unfold in their natural time. A day, a week, a month seems like a long time when waiting. Looking back it is an instant. Try for the middle perspective. In place of a goal, stay in the details of the moment of activity. Sometimes there are no options, so just relax, laugh at the absurdity of the situation and work through it

Make some records

There are several benefits. First, the record generally shows that the situation is not as bad as it seems. Second, if there turns out to be a real problem, this factual information for the health care provider to assess. Third, it’s reassuring to watch the changes. Years later, when the record is rediscovered stuck as a bookmark, it serves to jog the memory.

As an example for sleeping, use a sheet with the hours of the day in the rows and the days of the week in the columns. Have enough columns for at least 2 weeks (or longer) on a sheet. Keep track of the waking and sleeping time by shading in the time periods during which the child was asleep. Update the sheet after each period.

Develop a back-up plan in advance to deal with frustration

There is a time in all of these activities when the fatigue or frustration just appear overwhelming. It is just part of the deal, so prepare for it in advance when times are calm. A little planning here can avoid a crisis later. Several points are key in this planning: Determine the early warning signs that the fatigue or frustration are building to a critical point. Since the signs may not be recognized in the heat of the moment, look to identify them early. Then, identify people and resources that can be used. Discuss this plan with these people in advance. Finally, if the situation reaches a critical point, put it into action. Even if the plan is never needed, just knowing one there is a plan reduces frustration

Using Micromanagers to Sharpen Skills——- Prepare to Implement Solutions @ Lowest cost added position

September 24, 2006

“What you learn in slow times, you apply in busy times”

The unpleasant fact is that the range of your activities is limited during a period under a micromanaging supervisor. However on your own initiative, there is the opportunity to sharpen problem solving skills so that they can be used effectively when “slow times” of the servitude ends. Then, you will be able to make the most of the “busy times” when you are back in control of your own work.

There is plenty of advice out there about methods to deal with a micromanager. Recurrent points are:

(i) Avoid negative actions that can affect your long term position

(ii) Understand and modify behaviors as possible.

(iii) Explore options.


People make a good living prescribing advice, but like similar advice for raising children, you can listen to it, take in what makes sense for your own situation, but must act in your own way. Finding a safe way out from under a micromanager takes time. The process of freeing oneself has a way of dragging morale and performance down. It’s important for both your career and your state of mind to have a daily activity fully within your control that can improve skills. An example of one such activity is outlined below.

Recognizing Solutions @ Lowest cost added position

The thesis of the micromanager is to dictate lower level activities tasks in more detail than necessary. These activities may be resource, schedule or skill related. Micromanagers tend to present directions for a solution, implement them immediately, congratulate themselves, and move on. In the short term, the employees may have little input. The habit of simply doing the tasks as presented can develop, eroding abilities.

The antithesis of the micromanager is to perform tasks or fix problems at their lowest overall cost point. This antithesis is another example of applied common sense. However, this statement is difficult to put into practice because it is too general. The points below provide a more specific guide to consciously analyze the lowest cost solutions. This analysis skill can be honed on real problems observed during the micromanagement period and then used with increased effectiveness after you regain your freedom.

The two framing questions below can help to more focus attention on identifying more efficient solutions to the problem at hand. You may not be able to use them with your boss, but you can have a clearer idea of the efficient direction.

1. Who is the lowest level individual with the experience and skills to be responsible for the task?

When problems move up the management ladder in order to get resources or focus, the problem tends to stay at that level. This inertia can be recognized and overcome to push the activity back down to the appropriate level.

2. What are the essential elements of the solution? What elements have found their way into the solutions as safety net items that can be eliminated?

This question addresses the tendency to overdesign the solution, increasing the cost of the solution in terms of money, time, materials or human resources required. It drives unneeded resources out of the solution.

For a given task or problem, weigh the approach of the micromanager against that by your analysis from that of lowest cost added perspective. Sharpen your own conclusion as to the best approach.

In some cases, a way to integrate the two approaches may become apparent (see a related example the post on the link about: Thesis–> Antitithesis—> Synthesis). For sure however, problem resolution skills can be developed and used that can benefit you in the organization long after the current micromanager has become a distant memory.

Solving Complex Problems–Put Aside the First Idea (4)

September 21, 2006

The most obvious idea is rarely the best approach to solve a persistent problem. It is true that most workday issues are straightforward and can be resolved in a more or less routine way. In these cases, the first ideas are usually good enough.

However, if a problem is of sufficient complexity to require more attention, then it is likely that there are more difficult or more subtle aspects than found in most routine problems. These persistent problems demand additional focus. If there were no unrecognized facets, the problem would not have grown to this proportion.

The different methods required to resolve these more complex problems are often not recognized or acknowledged. In many cases, the first idea, particularly if it originates from the boss, is seized and the creative energy shifts to the implementation. Time and resources are consumed. If the first approach works, fine. Often it does not, and the cycle of idea generation and implementation is repeated at higher cost.

It is extraordinarily difficult to break the habit of implementing the first idea.

That is where the lessons from the Oulipians can help. The Oulipo, a society founded in 1960 by writers, poets, and mathematicians, has an interest in the effect of self-imposed restrictions on the creation of literary texts. The literary work itself is generated with a specified rule in place. There are any number of good examples*: Lipograms–A full length novel that never uses the letter “e”; Snowballs–poems in which each word is one letter longer than the previous one; Tautograms–all words in the text begin and end with the same letter; Univocalism—only one vowel is used. Some experiments are astounding in ingenuity, others are less successful. One of the Oulipians’ objectives was to devise systems to ensure that writers did not run out of innovative possibilities. They also had a lot of fun.

So, how can their lessons be applied to generating solutions to real and difficult problems? The key is to add a restrictive condition to the analysis process and stick to it while searching for a solution. A very practical restriction for the problem-solving group (or individual) is an agreement to put aside the first serious approach without prejudice. In most cases, this decision often means to reject the first approach for the remainder of the discussion. Then, with this restriction, take a fresh mind to the work of analyzing the problem and generating new approaches. Although it will initially be uncomfortable, people will scratch harder, develop more insight into the problem, and allow more comprehensive solutions to emerge. The people can also have a lot of fun.

As an example, the groundskeepers at a golf course saw that one putting green was turning brown. A likely possibility was that additional water was needed. It was suggested that a week of watering would take care of the situation. However, before increasing the watering, the crew put aside the idea and investigated further. This analysis showed that the problem was due to an infestation from a pest. By putting aside the first suggestion, the green was restored to playing condition a week sooner.

This method has been used by many disciplined organizations. When it is introduced, it often takes a strong leader to maintain the restriction. Of course, some people will resist the approach. They may actually hold their first idea back and present others so that they can spring the pet later. Anyone can choose to game the system, but this only retards innovation.

A restricted form can catalyze innovation. Try it.

*Specific Examples:

Prepared but not Ready–Story

September 15, 2006

The original source of this story is referenced to a compilation by Paul Reps (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones #89)

Two temples each had a child protégé. The children would pass each other on their way to the market each morning.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child

“I am going wherever my feet go.” was the reply of the second child.

This reply puzzled the first child and he went to his teacher for help. The teacher instructed him: “Tomorrow morning, ask him the same question. He will give the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.”

And so the next morning, the child again asked: “Where are you going?”

“I am going wherever the wind blows.” was the reply.

Defeated again, the first child returned to this teacher. The new instruction was similar: “Ask him where he is going if there is no wind.”

On their next meeting, the child asked with assurance: “Where are you going?”

“I am going to the market to buy vegetables.” was the final reply.

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (


So, the adult teacher and the child were always using their experience and projection of the future to prepare the best answer. Sounds like a plan. It was not the preparation that was lacking, but not being ready for a present that did not unfold according to their expectations. The child may have been prepared, but he was not ready for the actual moment when the other child changed his response. As the story indicates, people and their work suffer when they are not ready

“Being ready” is being able to act immediately and appropriately as the moment unfolds.

Ready is a condition, not a skill. A possible first step is awareness—ready can be recognized when it is seen in action. For some, this observation provides the motivation to find a way to develop it further.

Preventing Common Household Accidents—Swiss Cheese Model

September 12, 2006

There was a recent account in the news about the story of three fishermen who survived 9 months adrift at sea in a 29 foot boat. (NYTimes 8/26/06 A3). Although the emphasis of the report was on their survival activities, a review of the events leading to this accident can be helpful in preventing accidents at home.

Background–The boat and crew were on a shark-fishing trip, which typically lasts from 3 days to a week. There was concern at the outset that enough provisions (food, water, fuel) had been laid in for the trip. At sea, the crew lost their shark-fishing tackle. During the search for the equipment, they ran out of fuel. Winds pushed them out to sea where a current caught them and carried the boat 5000 miles west from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. There, the survivors were rescued by a fishing boat.

It was a series of breakdowns or coincidences that finally enabled the accident to occur. In this case, there were insufficient resources, a boat without a radio, poor judgment during the search, and an unfavorable wind and current direction.

Many accidents follow this pattern of several breakdowns. These breakdowns represent holes in the defense against an accident. The pattern is often recognized after the fact. However, a straightforward method of analysis exists that helps to identify the potential areas of risk for an accident before the event occurs.

The model developed by Reason (1990) is based on the assumption that there are several different elements that must all be considered in order have a safe event. Although there is always emphasis on the failure event itself, there are preconditions that have allowed this event to occur. The trick is to analyze these preconditions in advance. The categories are the unsafe act or accident itself, the conditions that enabled the accident event, the supervision, and the influence or attitude of those in charge.

The diagram above illustrates the “Swiss Cheese” name. Each of the levels of defense can have holes in them. Since there are several layers of protection, a failure in any one level does not lead to an accident. However, if all of the breakdowns in defense happen to line up, as with the holes in the diagram above, an accident can occur.

In the above example of the boat adrift, the facts can be classified in 4 defense categories:

Defense Category……………………………… Examples of Hole in Defense

1. Unsafe Act…………………………………..Running out of fuel

2. Precondition for Unsafe Act………..Inadequate Resources/Equipment

3. Unsafe Supervision…………………….Failure to call off search for tackle

4. Organization Influence………………Low regard for safety (lack of funds)

Application for Common Household Accident Prevention–Well, most people do not appear to be in such hazardous situations as the fishermen. Actually though, there are close to 30,000 deaths a year due to household accidents. The National Safety Council also estimates there is a disabling injury every 4 seconds. The magnitude of these numbers is astounding! Since the accidents are spread out both in time and over the country, the size does not attract attention. If they occurred in one place, it would be a disaster. This is a lot of suffering caused by everyday activities. It’s clear that some of it is preventable. The responsibility is with the individuals in their own home.The list of the leading categories is what might be expected:

Burns………. Choking……….. Cuts………. Falls…….. Poisoning

There are many web sites to get specific TIPS of preventive actions to take to reduce the risks of accidents in each category. Obviously, they should be used.

Beyond that, everyone’s situation is a little different; some risks are more specific to your own situation. Reason’s “Swiss Cheese Model” can be used to analyze and address these specific hazards before they become accidents.As an example, take the category of falls. The statistics show that consequences from falls are a serious problem for all ages, especially very young children and older adults.
One way to get started is to begin with a category and consider what one or two areas in your own home make you the most uneasy. It may be a steep set of stairs going into the basement. Then, a hazard assessment can be done by first considering the different preconditions that can lead to falling down the basement stairs. This assessment is followed by the taking into consideration the effects of supervision and attitudes. A typical assessment is shown in the table below:

Defense Categories:

1. Accident/Unsafe Act: Fall down stairs

2. Preconditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3.Supervision/4.Owner

a) Material stored on stairs.. . . . . . .Allowed to remain (3. Supervision)

b) Dimly lit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Tolerated (4. Owner attitude)

c) Not full hand rail. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tolerated (4. Owner attitude)

d) Slippery walking surface. . . . . . . Tolerated (4. Owner attitude)

e) Door left open. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Allowed to remain (3. Supervision)

Eliminating the preconditions of the accident is the first level of defense. Some of these preconditions, such as the material stored on the edge of the stairs, can be addressed by better supervision. This increased supervision adds another layer of defense. Others, such as the dim light or the handrail can be corrected by the owners. Some, such as the steepness of the stairs, must be accepted. However, changes in the attitude of the owners to make improvements also adds a layer of defense. Actions at each of these different defense levels, reduce the overall risk of an injury due to a fall.

In every home, look for specific areas that cause the people more concern for safety. People who live there know them. In addition to following good general preventive measures, available on the web, this method allows focus on those topics in a systematic way in order to reduce the risk as much as possible.

However, just doing the exercise, increases the awareness for the risks of accidents in other areas throughout the house. That is another significant benefit.

(diagram credit:

Companion Story to Illustrate:  Cause of  Common Accidents

Giving a child more responsibility–Intuitive Decisions

September 10, 2006

Introduction: There is a chronic pain resulting from making an erroneous decision that goes against one’s better judgment. It is one thing to take your best shot at a course of action and having it fail. That is just life. It is quite another if a failed course of action also goes against your better judgment. The decision continues to exert a price on the individual long after the physical situation has been resolved. There is never any guarantee that a decision can lead to an acceptable result, but using intuitive judgment and checking it when necessary can improve the chances.

Most decisions are relatively straightforward. An analysis of the facts reveals a direction for action. This type of rational analysis is sufficient for many decisions, particularly in business, where the consequences can be mitigated as the results unfold. However, there are some decisions that can never fit into this rational category. Sometimes, the problem is with the facts—they are insufficient, or cannot be known, or are so conflicting that no clear direction can be identified. At other times, the emotional or physical consequences are so great that the rational analysis alone cannot be trusted. An intuitive aspect is needed.

Two obvious situations when rational analysis may not be sufficient are business decisions that can affect the direction of the entire organization or, at home, actions that involve the well being of children.

In an earlier example, “Deciding to let a child travel alone”, the emphasis was on a general method to gauge whether the required skills, experience, and maturity were present to give this responsibility. If the baseline requirements are not met, there is no question that responsibility cannot be delegated. However, even if the skills are present, allowing that responsibility may not be the appropriate direction.

Actually, the real question in this example is when to let a child have responsibility (on mass transportation, at the mall, etc.). Sooner or later, these responsibilities will be given. In this case, the actual decision questions are: Is this the right time to allow this freedom? If not, what conditions have to change?

The decision to give a child such responsibility falls into the previously mentioned category of a case that rational analysis alone cannot be trusted and intuitive judgment can be used. Some people use it consciously and routinely; others hardly at all. Working with gut level intuitive judgment is a skill. It can be developed with practice and feedback. As the first step, immediately after having reviewed all of the available information, hold the information in the mind and take a deep breath or two. Then, note which decision direction is favored. There may very likely be no explanation for the result

The judgment itself may be right on target, or it may be off the mark, clouded with other issues such as emotions and personal experiences. The accuracy of the initial judgment doesn’t matter. It can be tested later. The important point is not to ignore the initial direction and act immeidately against your better judgment because of time or peer pressures.

A conflict between the facts and intuitive judgment does not indicate that the approach favored by the facts should be discarded, but that further examination is needed. Such a conflict does suggest that respected opinions should be sought. If possible, the opinion should come from an outside source not connected with the problem under consideration. Such an opinion provides a fresh perspective without emotional connections. After this outside opinion has been considered, the decision may very well overturn the intuitive direction and be to continue with the factual decision.

In the continuing example of giving responsibility to a child–if the decision is not to allow it now, the decision process also gives some insight into what has to change in order to ultimately allow the child the freedom to travel alone.

Better decisions result from an understanding based on rational analysis, intuitive perception, and an outside review. It may be the best that can be done, regardless of the outcome.