The very best thing

"We wish to include every child," she explained, "who might benefit from this class." There was money on hand to help, she said, when families couldn't afford the fee.

I have noticed Minnesota's love for its youngest citizens: the political emphasis on education, benefits hosted by friends and churches for sick children, parks especially for disabled youngsters. There is respect here for a mother pushing two toddlers in a stroller and a man with a baby strapped to his back. This state has parent - and grandparent - resources I am daily discovering. I am aware, as a new Midwesterner, just how crazy Minnesota is about its kids.
- Toni Bennett Easterson, Northfield

Help for harried parents
When I was pregnant, people asked whether I was nervous about the delivery. No way! What kept me up at night was everything that came after. And that's why I'm glad I live in Minnesota, where we have excellent medical care and support programs.

During my pregnancy, I could call my clinic's nurse line with questions like "Can I drink herbal tea?" The calls were free, the nurses were helpful, and I didn't feel like I was stalking my doctor. After delivery, a nurse visited us at home - helping me confirm that I was not breaking my baby. (I wasn't.)

As my baby and I worked on breastfeeding, I called the Breastfeeding Center at Park Nicollet. Another free call! I called when it hurt, when it didn't hurt, and when I had all sorts of other questions ("Can I drink herbal tea now?"). They also offer supplies, bra fittings, and personal consultations.

My husband and I also attended one of Minneapolis's Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) classes. Baby in tow, we learned about child development and swapped war stories and tips with other parents.

Although the baby still keeps me up at night, these great Minnesota resources have made it a lot less nerve-racking to be a new mom.
- Amy Simso, Minneapolis

Position wanted: Minnesota hockey mom
It is 6:30 in the morning, for crying out loud. My coffee cup says, "Careful, the beverage you're about to enjoy is extremely hot." Standing here in my thermal long underwear, "guaranteed to keep you warm" boots, a heavy-duty down coat from "the outdoor specialists," Gortex gloves, and "turtle fur" hat, I know the coffee is no longer a threat.

Just an hour ago, I crawled out from under my cozy down comforter, crept into a hot shower, then woke up my family. "Hurry-up, guys! We have to be there in an hour." Hopping around to keep warm, I remind myself of this special gift and why I am here before sunrise. I am a Minnesota hockey mom. We take ice time when we can get it.

I grew up in Minnesota around hockey. All the boys in my family played the game. After living in six different states with my corporate-ladder-climbing husband, when the opportunity came to move back to the Twin Cities, we jumped on it. In the place we always called home, we knew we would have excellent schools, family nearby, four distinct seasons, and, best of all, an outstanding youth sports program.

Being a hockey parent and fan gave me a wider perspective than the one I grew up with. I got involved as a team manager. I realized many parents brought their personal issues to the ice rink. The organization was political. Some wanted to be sure their kids got on the "A" squads or were hoping their kids would be on top of the pyramid to get future scholarships. Kids saw dollar signs when they thought about eventually making the NHL. Everyone loved the coach and refs in November, only to curse them throughout the entire season.

Despite all the faults, hockey was still the greatest gift I found in Minnesota. It brought us together as a family; older players cheered on the next generation. After saying good-bye to so many people, the hockey parents with whom we shared stories and traveled to all the freezing arenas in Minnesota became my best friends.

Years later, I'm no longer a hockey mom. But sometimes, at 6:30 in the morning, with my extremely hot coffee in hand, I open the paper and see we have a new recruit coming to play hockey in Minnesota. I think back on those times when I hopped up and down to keep warm and wonder, would they let me adopt a Golden Gopher hockey player?
- Julia Fink, Plymouth

Take that, Big Apple!
It's hard to choose what I like best about being a Minnesota parent. So I consulted with my Minnesota kids. They said it's the fact that our city, Minneapolis, offers just enough culture, sophistication, and diversity without the daily stress of a larger metropolis (and, might I add, we get way more square footage for our housing dollar here).

New York has Central Park; we have the Chain of Lakes, with bike paths, swimming beaches, sailing lessons, ice cream vendors, playgrounds, and concerts.

New York culture has nothing on Minneapolis: My kids jump on the number 4 bus to the Walker Art Center, the new Central Library, classes at Ballet Arts, music lessons at MacPhail. As a family, we've enjoyed Sommerfest, Swan Lake, and Shakespeare within minutes of home.

Minneapolis is shedding its white-bread image and learning to appreciate the rich diversity that helps make New York great: My kids have Somali, African American, Latino, gay, and lesbian neighbors. Some sport tattoos, others wear headscarves. Some raise roosters, others rev motorcycles at all hours. They're artists, landscapers, bus drivers, lawyers, community organizers, dancers, dog walkers, aerial artists, stilt walkers, investment bankers, fast food managers, counselors, reporters, and more.

We like visiting New York but are always glad to come home to Minneapolis.
- Kris Berggren, Minneapolis

Fitness, at a family paceThe best thing about being a parent in Minnesota is rediscovering my passion for outdoor fitness with my children. Saturday bike rides were once full-day (often epic) adventures with my husband; we went running only to meet our personal and definitely adult goals.

Now, Saturday bike rides include new goals, like maneuvering around the cracks in the sidewalk and learning to ride without training wheels. I love watching my oldest daughter sit atop her girly purple bike with perfect posture, proud of her butterfly helmet and shimmering streamers.

I love that family runs with the jogging stroller now include both daughters enjoying the wind in their hair and always end with my 4-year-old running the last block to our neighborhood park. I love that the video store, the park, and the grocery store are all just blocks away, and we almost always get there by bike or by foot. I've gone from country girl to city parent, and I love it!
- Laurie Kocanda, Minneapolis

Parenting on the boundaries
When my husband convinced me to move from Colorado to Minnesota two days after our wedding, I put my hand with its outstretched fingers close to his face.

"Five," I said. "Five years is all you get."

Two children and almost 14 years later, we still live in Minnesota, our reasons as plentiful as the lakes. But it is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) that comes to mind first, epitomizes the state, and helps us raise our 8-year-old twins.

My husband and I spent part of our honeymoon in the BWCA, meaning temperatures in the 40s, steady chilled rain, and a dumped canoe spilling the dry firewood and my already-freezing body into the water. And yet this area continues to invite us to its living lakes, rustic portages, diverse wildlife, and evergreen-scented air.

My husband, practically a native, first took our twins camping there when they were only 4 years old; I joined them when they were 5. Now, our photographs document annual Memorial Day trips and early fall excursions: drinking hot chocolate on crisp mornings, fishing from the rocks, hiking the portages that vein from lake bays, catching crayfish, watching their grandfather build the mother of all bonfires, lounging with one of our black Labs, and dining on the day's catch.

But, wait. There are moments not held on film: gliding across blankets of dark blue and dipping our fingers into water that laps at our skin; trudging over rocks and through mud with the weight of Duluth packs on our backs, the promise of fish in our hands; pondering animal tracks and bones; making camp, our temporary home; listening to gut-knotting laughter; settling in as dusk ushers out the sun and nightfall orchestrates the Northern Lights; climbing into the tent, the children tucked in their sleeping bags, and drifting to sleep to the lullaby of the loons.

I miss the mountains. But our family's time in the Boundary Waters has proven to me that Minnesota is a phenomenal place for exploration and adventures, for parenting with the lessons of the land.
- Lisa M. Bolt Simons, Faribault

Freedom of choice
Whenever an endless winter makes me think about moving to a more temperate climate, one thought always stops me in my tracks: Where else would the public education system offer my child so many choices?

Minnesota's schools have an excellent reputation. When I interviewed for a newspaper editing position in Florida years ago, the hiring manager took one look at my r/sum/ and had instant confidence in my baseline skills: "You're from Minnesota, so I know you'll be able to spell."

As a fan of alternative educational concepts, I would be loath to move from a state that has so many high-quality nontraditional public schools. One school does not fit all. It's important to have several options to suit our children's needs and our own educational

philosophies.

My 4-year-old son, Julian, who has attended a wonderful Montessori school since he was 22 months old, will go to a Spanish-immersion school in St. Louis Park when he turns 5. I am so grateful that he has the opportunity not only to learn another language and develop an appreciation for other cultures, but also to challenge his mind in novel ways.

We are lucky in Minnesota to be able, at least in some degree, to tailor our children's public education to their unique strengths without being tied to school districts. We live in Minnetonka, but as long as there was a space for him, Julian could just as easily attend a German-immersion school in St. Paul or a French-immersion school in Edina.

Such a variety of high-quality offerings, which in many states would be found only in expensive private schools, is evidence of the priority that Minnesota places on educating our children. There's no better state for kids.

And no amount of snow or ice during a nine-month Minnesota winter will ever convince me otherwise.
- Mary Van Beusekom, Minnetonka

Stage dadI once heard entertainment on the screen as opposed to live on stage compared to the difference between a picture of a sumptuous meal and the real thing itself. While it has its limitations, theater is rife with such immediacy and in-the-moment intensity that, at its best, it informs and invigorates our understanding of this strange life we find ourselves living. At the Children's Theatre Company (CTC), I can plug into this eternal current with my children, at a level that at times achieves the sublime.

True, these days I visit CTC in the capacity of a critic for City Pages, but it's also a perfect excuse to bring one of my two children along. Skate-rap spectacle from Amsterdam? That one goes to my son. A "Snow White" that strips away the Disneyisms and tries to find the hard, dangerous Brothers Grimm story within? Well, since we were reading Grimm's Tales together at the time, it was a no-brainer to bring my daughter.

I've seen shows at CTC that didn't do it for me, and my children have shared the sentiment. But those shows have inspired some of our most lively postshow conversations, when I tried to tease out of them what they didn't like, and how they thought things might have been done better. Such is the level of craft and coherence at CTC that shows on whose worth we can't agree have provided the spark for transcendent

conversations.

When I moved to the Twin Cities, I had no idea this was the home of the nation's premier children's theater. Now it's crucial to our lives. We still catch the latest movies, and I allow my children to watch all sorts of irredeemable insanity on television. But several times a year, I show them the real thing, the beating heart of human life and culture. It diverts us, it brings us together, and it helps me to explain to my children who I am.
- Quinton Skinner, Minneapolis

Our biggest investmentMinnesota is a great place to raise kids because it has the highest childcare costs in the country. Yep, in this arena, Manhattan has nothing on us. Neither does San Francisco. Boston? Okay, childcare costs a little more there, but the difference is more than offset by much-higher average household incomes. We Minnesota parents positively hemorrhage money compared to those folks.

We shell out some $9,000 a year for every preschooler, on average, and a jaw-popping $12,000 for an infant. That's 16 percent of the average two-parent household's income, and 42 percent of a single parent's take. It's enough to pay for two years at the University of Minnesota.

But our high costs really are a good thing. Not for our checkbooks or IRAs, no. But for the kids, it's awesome. Minnesota's standards for care are high, with far lower child-to-caregiver ratios than most states and decent, healthful thresholds for the amount of space per child, teachers' levels of education, and so on. Caregiver pay is reprehensibly low - $18,000 for daycare workers, $24,000 for preschool teachers - but it's much higher than in other places.

In this country, we're far too accustomed to thinking cheapest is best. But like airplane maintenance, groceries, and healthcare, childcare is one arena where that thinking needs to go right out the window. More dollars mean more trained, well-prepared grown-ups teaching early literacy, self-care, respect, sharing, and other critical social skills.

A few more facts in support of this pound-wise position:

A whopping 79 percent of Minnesota mothers work outside the home, meaning most of our kids are in childcare. Forget the so-called Mommy Wars, good childcare is something virtually everyone who lives here has an investment in.

Childcare is an industry in its own right, providing jobs and - when those jobs are in the service of a reputable organization, company, or, occasionally, savvy family - benefits.

Forget real estate, stock options, or posting your Wayne Gretzky rookie card on Ebay, as an economic gambit, early childhood education provides a fabulous return on investment. The steely-eyed capitalists at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis calculate that return at about 15 percent a year, a figure they arrived at by considering everything from the savings associated with lower crime rates to the incalculable value of one of those other long-touted things about Minnesota: the strong workforce.

Twelve grand. Twenty-one thou if baby has an older sibling. The poverty level for a family of four is lower. It's almost enough to make you want to move to South Dakota where infant care hovers around $5,000 - until, that is, you realize that each provider looks after at least five and, depending on their ages, possibly 12 children.
- Beth Hawkins, Minneapolis

Cabin cultureThe best part about being a Minnesota parent is watching the legacy of outdoor adventure and fun passed down to my children. A child of the '60s and '70s, I have vivid memories of the never-ending, car-sick, three-hour pilgrimages every weekend to our rustic two-room cabin. The pungent smell of the outhouse will forever be burned into my senses.

But, despite the drawbacks, my heart lights up when I remember the hot, humid days up North with my family. Long, lazy Minnesota summer days included making mud pies, swimming in the lake, fishing and boating all day on shiny blue water, and wound up with s'mores and a huge bonfire.

As grandparents have died, and my brother and sisters and I have grown and the cabin has long since been sold, those memories are not buried and distant but alive and well, being relived through my children. There is a new cabin now, with running water and many rooms for grandchildren to explore. Today, it is my children and their numerous cousins who make the trip to Grandpa and Grandma's lake home.

My 6-year-old daughter plays in the sand, making her own version of mud pies, while my preteen son gets a lesson from Grandpa on how to tie a lure. As I watch them from a distance, a warm breeze from the lake brushes over me. My eyes well with awe and gratitude. My kids are making their own Minnesota memories. Memories of swimming, fishing, bonfires, tubing, and paddle boating, but also memories of family, laughter, togetherness, and love. No matter where my kids go in this world, their Minnesota summers will forever be a part of them.
- Mari Ringness, Pine City

We all scream...
The absolute best thing about being a parent in Minnesota in the summer is simple - ice cream. While my family often has a hankering for the frozen delicacy made by two fine fellows named Ben and Jerry, we enjoy many made-in-Minnesota varieties, as well. Each has its own special place for our family.

On car trips, there is nothing like a stop at the Dairy Queen. The smooth, velvety soft-serve keeps the kids happy, which makes Mom and Dad happy for the three-hour drive back from the cabin.

For an everyday treat in the backyard, you can't beat a half-gallon of Kemps. Our favorite is plain old vanilla with a few cans of A&W to make root beer floats. Turn on the sprinkler and you've got an old-fashioned summer evening.

Some days call for a special treat - Bridgeman's or Sebastian Joe's. These local favorites are available at coffee shops within walking distance of our house. With the kids in the wagon, my husband and I can burn off a few calories before indulging.

I like to think that we're doing our part to support the Minnesota dairy industry. But, really, ice cream is just a great part of family life in Minnesota.
- C.C. Strom, Minneapolis

What Grandma knows
The best part about being a Minnesota parent is that it often leads to being a Minnesota grandparent. When it does, you realize your entire perspective has shifted. You're older, wiser, and in less of a hurry because, instead of focusing on what's to come, you know the best moment is the one that's happening right now.

When you're a Minnesota grandparent, whether you're at the Children's Museum, the Minnesota Zoo, or curled up in a backyard chair reading picture books aloud, your mind is on your Sweet Pea and nothing else.

When you're a Minnesota grandparent, you savor the feel of a tiny hand in yours as the two of you look for the elf's house at the base of the tree on the south side of Lake Harriet. "Make a wish," you say, when you finally find it. You bend down to his level and you each place a penny inside the Elf's front door. Then you slowly make your way to the pavilion for strawberry ice cream cones.

When you're a Minnesota grandparent, you let the cleaning and laundry wait - experience has taught you it will still be there tomorrow - and take the wee one to Como Park to ride the carousel. You forget to snap photos, to capture the moment for posterity; you're too busy cherishing the moment. You hang on tight to him and his horsey, and relish the ride, knowing you'll never forget the look of joy on his little face.

And because you were once a Minnesota parent, you can't help but think of the special times ahead. "Wait until you're a little older," you say, as you squeeze him just a little tighter. "We'll go to plays at the Children's Theatre and see 'A Christmas Carol' at the Guthrie. I'll teach you how to eat with chop sticks."

Then you buy more tickets and ride the carousel again and again. It's what he wants to do, and nothing else matters.
- Andrea Langworthy, Rosemount

Wonder, and bug repellent!
I would guess that my family's enjoyment of the outdoors is especially strong because of the long, cold winters. But our excitement about being outside doesn't end when the weather turns cool. One of the greatest benefits of raising a family in Minnesota is teaching kids about the beauty of all four seasons.

My husband and I try to teach our children fun activities to do outside at any time of the year - and share those activities with them. Autumn is the perfect time to take a long hike and see how many different colored leaves we can collect. Winter is the time to sled, build snowmen, and enjoy the peaceful beauty of a cold, snowy day. Spring is for planting seeds and observing the rebirth of nature.

If they could, my kids (ages 2? and 4) would spend every waking moment outside. My daughter loves to pick flowers and wear them in her hair, and she always helps caterpillars find their way back to the grass when they've made a wrong turn. My son is in heaven picking out rocks of various shapes and sizes to pass out to everyone in the family. Yes, I dearly love sharing the great outdoors with my children in a state that truly embraces all that Mother Nature has to offer.

Spending time outside doesn't have to be a big ordeal for families with very young kids. My children are just as happy walking to a bridge a short distance from our house to play Pooh Sticks, as they are driving three hours to the North Shore for a day of hiking at Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Watching my children out and about in nature reminds me of the simple pleasures of childhood. My children can be transfixed by the morning dew on the grass, baby ducks following their mother for an afternoon snack, and the sound of crickets when the sun goes down. Even an icicle can be awe-inspiring.
- Lisa Stammer, Champlin

Loving Little House
It is a place of simple, natural beauty, where bluestem grasses sway in the ever-blowing winds. Coneflowers, milkweeds, black-eyed Susans and other native plants stretch toward the wide expanse of sky. Grasshoppers leap through the grass. Butterflies flit among the flowers. Meadowlarks trill.

This is Plum Creek, childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, where she lived with her family in a creek-side dugout in the 1870s. This 25-acre site, one and a half miles north of Walnut Grove in rural Redwood County, is the perfect spot to dip your toes in the creek, to picnic, to savor the solitude of a sunny, summer day on the Southwestern Minnesota prairie.

My family loves this place. During one visit, we slipped off our shoes and stepped into the creek. We followed its meandering path from the wooden bridge to the big rock, where Laura and Mary once played. Plum thickets and willow trees still shadow the creek as they did 130 years ago. As we waded, a stray dog splashed through the water. It was easy to imagine that this dog was Jack, the Ingalls sisters' pet.

Here, we meet other families, the girls sometimes dressed in replica period clothing, their cotton bonnets shading their faces, their long calico dresses swishing softly against the tall grasses. At the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in nearby Walnut Grove, kids clamber into a covered wagon for keepsake photos. In the evenings, actors present the two-hour Wilder Pageant, a drama adapted from the pages of On the Banks of Plum Creek. There's nothing quite like sitting on a grassy hillside under a star-studded prairie sky, surrounded by family, watching a book come to life.

Top off the evening by tenting overnight in Plum Creek County Park. Gather around the campfire. Watch the fireflies light up the blackness. And, like our family, savor the moment in this kid-friendly place on the prairie.
- Audrey Kletscher Helbling, Faribault