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Homegrown lessons

It's amazing how fascinating a few yards of turquoise fabric, seashell buttons and oversize sequins are to a child.

And that's in their raw state, before being transformed into a Halloween costume.

As I traced the pattern of my 2 1/2-year-old daughter's mermaid getup onto the costume satin, I noticed that both of my kids were enthralled by the process.

"Mom, what are you doing?" Lex, 4, asked.

"Working on Elle's costume," I said.

"Why?"

"Because she wants to be a mermaid, and I can make the costume instead of buying it from the store."

"Why?"

"Because the costume she liked was super expensive, and I know how to sew."

"Why?"

"Because my mommy your Nana and my grandma taught me to sew so I could do things like fix our clothes and make costumes."

"But why?"

"Because it's good to be able to make something yourself."

"Oh."

The "why" game also occurs when my children are helping in the kitchen.

When I roasted a whole turkey breast a few weeks ago, Lex and Elle pummeled me with questions while I tucked carrots, thyme, onion and celery between the two halves and trussed it up with cooking twine.

The questions and added distractions cost me an extra few minutes of prep time, but along the way, my children learned what turkey really looks like, what farm it came from and why we add vegetables and spices to meat.

Things like sewing and cooking may not be the most modern of lessons, or even the most obvious, but they remain important. Though seemingly antiquated especially now that so many of us communicate via hasty e-mails and 140-character-or-less blurtings, they are underscored by lessons in independence, pride, humility and patience.

"We really are letting go of time-honored traditions that we should be holding on to for dear life," said Laurie David, author of "The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids, One Meal at a Time" (Grand Central Publishing, $29.99, 256 pages).

David, an environmental activist who produced "An Inconvenient Truth," is on a quest to help American families get back to the dining room table, something our grandparents didn't think twice about and something we need.

"The art of conversation is one of the huge things we're starting to lose because of technology," she said in a phone interview from New York. "The other thing we've kind of lost touch with is how much we teach our kids at the dinner table. It's the place where they learn vocabulary, patience, taking turns, manners."

David advises parents to start simple. Multicourse dinners and a pie in the oven aren't required; sandwiches or soup and salad are just fine. If you're cooking dinner yourself, let the children help out a little.

When kids see an end result "they take an ownership; they're proud of themselves," she said.

For Scott and Misti Crow of Sacramento, Calif., cooking is a tradition that they encourage their four children to pursue.

"My mom was a home economics teacher from many years ago, and we're trying to pass that on, especially with the boys," Scott Crow said. "We try to encourage them and let them know that it's not only something that's useful, it's fun."

The kids routinely check out cookbooks from the library. Paul, 10, even bought a kid's version of the Betty Crocker cookbook.

"We let them be involved in whatever level they're comfortable with, without letting them near open flames," he said.

With previous generations, lessons in independence used to be routine, especially if children were in programs like Boy Scouts, where much emphasis was placed on learning to cook and how to do things around the house, said Jay Mechling, professor emeritus of American Studies at UC Davis.

Members of the newer generation are more attached to their families and, in some cases, subject to so-called helicopter parenting. Although a little pressure for young people to have some independence training remains, the counterforce of protracted dependence is strong, partly resulting from the economy, he said.

"That doesn't help independence training and skills at living," Mechling said.

Emphasis likely will shift back to the importance of learning and honing such skills, he said.

Rae Grant, a New York mom and handmade-book maker who wrote "Homemade Fun: 101 Crafts and Activities to Do With Kids" (St. Martin's Griffin, $19.99, 144 pages), said she has noticed that some parents, both in online communities and who attend classes she teaches, are finding value in teaching their children things like how to sew a running stitch.

"The world is changing and it's complicated. Kids are studying really hard, have a lot of homework and there's a lot of pressure on kids and a lot of materialism and excess," she said. "I think people are nostalgic for the midcentury era when we all could just get out and make go-carts."

Count Alena Jeckswright among them.

The 26-year-old mom recently retaught herself how to sew using YouTube. It was a skill originally learned as a little girl from her grandmother, who'd quilt while Jeckswright made dolls and accompanying wardrobes.

Now, she's making little pretend foods out of felt for 11-month-old Cohen to play with using patterns she bought for $6 off etsy.com. She's made pancakes, bacon and strawberries, all out of felt made from recycled plastic bottles.

"I know where the materials come from, I know what went into it, and I know that it's not a little kid making something for my little kid," she said.

She plans to teach Cohen to cook and sew, too, when he's older.

"Our grandmothers darned socks and what do we do when a sock gets a hole in it? We toss them out and buy new ones," Jeckswright said. "You can save a lot of money just knowing a few stitches."

Those mended socks and handmade costumes mean more than just a penny saved. It can show this generation how much we care about them and teach them how to care for those who follow.

From cooking to crafts

Interested in connecting with your children on a crafting or cooking level? Here are some resources to help you get started:

* "The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids, One Meal at a Time" (Grand Central Life & Style, $29.99, 256 pages). Laurie David's book includes recipes for parents and children, dinnertime conversation and activities and tips and encouragement from culinary experts and celebrities.

* "Homemade Fun: 101 Crafts and Activities to Do With Kids" (St. Martin's Press, $19.99, 144 pages). Rae Grant's how-to book will teach parents and children everything from how to sew to how to make a silhouette portrait, all in fun, easy-to-understand instructions.

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