Target The Family

Donna Erickson Crafts Strong Families

Some people might say that when Donna Erickson slathers acrylic paint over a day-old mackerel, then slaps paper or fabric on top, she’s merely demonstrating a nifty way to make block prints.  But she sees the activity as a way to strengthen family ties.  “It’s the little things we do with our children that, in the long run, yield big results,” says the star of “Donna’s Day,” a PBS television series on creative parenting.

Each half-hour show in the 13-part series combines crafts, cooking and counseling, a mix that has inevitably resulted in Donna being called “Martha Stewart for kids.”  There are certain truths to the comparison--like Martha, Donna is blonde, bouncy and brimming with ideas.  But whereas Martha’s world is a pristine paradise, Donna’s days are disarmingly down to earth.  Rainy weekends might find her on her back with her three children, Bjorn, 16, Britt, 15, and Anders, 11, painting scenes on the bottoms of chairs--”like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” she laughs.  Or she’ll be mixing up bowls of her trademark “gooey goop,” a slippery substance made of glue, water, borax and food coloring that kids can’t resist.  Or she and her brood will be constructing a birthday flag, decorated with symbols of highlights of the birthday kid’s past year, creating a portable theater and puppets, or assembling individual “mileage countdown bags” for family road trips.  But all her projects build a path to an ultimate goal.  “My activities are a vehicle for changing families.  These crafts can become the glue that holds your family, my family--any family--together,” she explains.

Donna was a teacher before she married her college sweetheart, Dean.  Together with their growing family, they traveled around the world, teaching in Zaire, Zambia and Sweden, before settling in Minneapolis, where Dean is now a middle-school principal.  At home with three small children, Donna was watching daytime television one day in 1986 and was dismayed that the show focused on cooking, gardening and fashion but ignored activities for families.  She called to complain.  “The producers asked me what I did with my own kids, and I told them about our neighborhood art fair and fishing and crafts,” Donna recalls.  “At the end of our conversation, they asked me to come on the show.  I thought, ‘I don’t do TV.  I’m a mom and a teacher.’ But I gave it a shot.” 

Her “shot” quickly turned into a barrage.  Donna became a regular contributor on ABC’s “Good Company,” published 100 of her family’s favorite activities and games in Prime Time Together...with Kids, whipped up a sequel, More Prime Time Activities with Kids (together the books have sold more than half a million copies) and now writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column and appears regularly on “Oprah” and “The Today Show,” where, yes, she had Katie Couric block-printing with dead fish.

Of her own switch from teacher to television star, Donna says, “It’s just like teaching, only the classroom has changed.”  She’s always looking for what she calls “teachable moments” in her activities.  When making goop, for example, she suggests, “Take this opportunity to teach the kids about measuring--the youngest can pour the cup of water and the other can squeeze out the glue. Experiment with colors and see what happens when you mix yellow with blue or red with green.”  All of Donna’s activities are easy to do, easy to explain and based on items that are easy to find around the house.  “You don’t have to spend money on expensive toys.  You just have to be aware of opportunities.”

Donna’s husband, Dean, likes to recall that his favorite memories from when he was a little boy weren’t the expensive trips to Disneyland but just playing catch with his mom on their front lawn.  “It’s okay if you don’t have time for a two-hour trek to a museum,” Donna adds.  “Just grab something that you’re normally doing and include your child.” Even everyday chores, such as sorting socks, can be made fun and educational.  “When you enlist your two-and-a-half year-old in sorting socks, he’s learning how to put blue with blue and red with red.  A sock with a hole in it turns into a hand puppet.”  When getting ready for fall, take half an hour to go for a walk and collect items for a nature table.  “The purpose is to celebrate the beauty of nature, but what’s also important is that they choose and learn about items that interest them.”  Another Donna-ism:  “When kids irritate, get ‘em to participate.”  If they’re underfoot while you’re making dinner, have them shine up a copper pot with salt and vinegar. 

Shared  projects can help you navigate difficult family situations.  “We need to think about how to prevent potential conflict in a family,”  Donna says.  “Sometimes I think we expect too much from kids, and that’s because we haven’t given the situation a lot of forethought.  It’s like not going grocery shopping with the kids when they’re hungry; you’re just asking for a temper tantrum in the aisle.”  You can help a child with the anxiety and jealousy of a new baby by including him or her in the preparations.  “Get some cookie cutters, dip them in paint and make designs on the infant’s onesies.  Or do fish printing on the fabric.  When the older child hears everyone say, ‘Oh, that outfit’s so cute,” she becomes part of the arrival.”  Or use pre-cut matte paper and clothespins to hang homemade artwork in the baby’s room, and ask your older child to choose the display.

“Every person has a talent or hobby,” Donna says.  “Share what you love with your kids.  I can’t tell you how mind-opening that is.  The child will see your enthusiasm pouring over and you won’t always be in that authoritarian parent role.”  Donna likes to describe a dad she knows, “a real Wall Street type,” who confessed that he just didn’t like to get down and dirty with kids.  When she asked him what he did love, he replied that he loved coffee.  “Have your three-year-old push the button on the coffee grinder every morning,” Donna advised.  Five years later, she’s delighted to report, the little ritual still continues and has become a key part of  their relationship.  “That’s when we connect,” the dad says.  “It’s when we talk about what I’m doing and what he’s up to.  It’s our way of being father and son.”

Donna is the first to admit that she’s as human as the next parent.  Between planning her show and writing her column and taking care of all the other aspects of her business, as well as making lunches for the kids and remembering that Britt doesn’t want the crusts cut off her bread and Anders hates tuna fish, and throwing in a load of laundry and figuring out what to prepare for dinner, she sometimes loses her patience.  “Mom, you don’t yell like that on the show,” her son teased her one day.  “I will next season,” she retorted.  She laughs when she recalls that moment, but then adds seriously, “You build the relationship when you do have time for them, so that it will be there when you don’t have time for them.”

That’s why even though she confesses that she really finds fish-printing disgusting, it’s the source of one of her favorite family memories.  Each summer, the Ericksons spend a week camping in the lake-strewn wilderness of northern Minnesota.  Donna always packs her acrylic paints, just in case they catch a fish.  “One time, my son came in with a huge northern pike.  Well, we fish-printed everything--even his boxer shorts.  Then we washed the paint off the fish and ate it for dinner.  Thanks to our memories of that time together, we laughed long after the paint had dried.”