Some Thoughts for MLK Day

My habit of listening to podcasts, while driving or while doing the dishes, is usually fruitful (in case you were wondering, I’m a longtime user of Stitcher). But sometimes I come across something that is truly striking. Appropriately for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I wanted to share two podcasts featuring journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on school desegregation.

In 2015, Hannah-Jones narrated a story for the long-running NPR program This American Life, entitled The Problem We All Live With. This episode, which has since aired again, focuses on an issue I had been unaware of, which is that efforts to desegregate public schools, which began with the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, have been largely abandoned in recent decades. According to the story, school desegregation peaked in the 1980s and has since fallen off dramatically. The result has been a return to conditions seen in schools prior to the decision, in which schools in low-income communities, and populated mostly by non-white students, have fewer resources, less able teachers and administrators, and as a consequence lower test scores and graduation rates. Hannah-Jones points out that the only factor that has been found to alleviate these problems–and did so with amazing effectiveness in the decades following desegregation–was integrated schools. When students from mixed ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are in school together, everyone benefits. So do the schools themselves, and the communities they serve (and arguably, society as a whole). I urge you to listen to the podcast.

I was reminded of this story by the latest episode of Fresh Air, featuring an interview with Hannah-Jones about her schooling choices for her own child. She wrote about this in an article for the New York Times Magazine, which is also well worth reading. She relates her experience as a parent witnessing the adamant resistance to integration of the mostly Black and Latino school her daughter attends. The interview is worth a listen for a variety of reasons, but what really brought me up short was her explanation for why she decided to keep her daughter in the school rather than exercise her available privilege to place her elsewhere:

“The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say ‘This school is not good enough for my child’ and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

As a parent, I do find myself making choices for my children based on what I think will give them the “best” advantage. What Hannah-Jones is advocating for is simply to think about the needs of our kids in a broader, more big-picture way. What if giving our own children the best education means fighting for all children to do so? More importantly, how crucial is it to our children that their parents really live according to their values?

That’s the hard thing. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. Happy MLK Day.

Home for the Holidays (Postscript)

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about taking an extended vacation at home with my family. I wasn’t sure how it would work to have crash-landed into what, in my house, is a pretty stable set of routines and rhythms. I also saw a parallel between my experience of being at home in a homeschooling family and having kids home from school for the long haul (I understand, from social media, my own childhood, etc, that sometimes the haul seems looong for parents).

So, how did it go? I’m sitting here in the middle of the last day before work (weather permitting) and I have to say, quite peachy, thank you. Luckily my interventions in cooking, dishes and errands were well received. I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for a homeschooling mom to be “on” at all times. I would now like to arrange for a full-time teaching assistant as we start the new year. Any takers? I’m not paying.

I also learned that two weeks is a long time. As in, it is quite possible to settle into new routines in that time. Do I have a job? Do I know anyone else? I’m still going to be able to read two books a week, right?

What I’m worried about now (because there has to be something) is how we will all get back on track now that I’ve fixed my ship and I’m leaving the planet. Transitions are always difficult.

Plus, I’ve been sleeping in every morning until at least 7:00. Sinful!

Home for the Holidays

Through reasons that are mysterious to me, I had grouped all my vacation time into the last three months of the year. This year I was able to take two full weeks off for Christmas. It seems excessive in some ways, though my workplace, source of the generous time off policies, insists that this is the best way to take it. So, this will be an experiment.

As I have written recently, taking a vacation can be more work than leisure, at least on the sheer planning end. This holiday break will be much more…domestic. Where normally it’s the kids who are strangely home for several days, this time it’s me! (my kids are always home). Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to the change of pace, and I’m as much a homebody as anyone I know. And anyway, my taking more time off was a specific Christmas request from my daughters.

So why am I complaining? I think it comes down to the uncomfortable realization that my being home can be an unwitting disruption of my wife’s well-oiled routines. I can only imagine how I would go about my job with my spouse just sort of hanging around all day. I would be glad to see here, sure, but– my job is my job. This must be what it is like for a homeschooling homemaker (or, as Roseanne Barr once put it, “domestic goddess”) with the breadwinning husband at home. Sure, I’m around to “help.” Whether she likes it or not.

I’m going to try and make up for my presence by getting the kids out of the house for a couple of days. This way my wife can finish all the Christmas sewing, knitting, felting, Instagramming, online shopping with coupon codes, etc.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy Holidays to you!

The Food Post

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If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

Halloween and the Social Contract

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I have fond memories of Halloween. There was always something magical about the social contract of trick or treating: it was widely agreed upon that a child could build up a surplus of candy through a ritualized exchange of words. It was almost unearned: free candy (or other, let’s face, it, inferior offerings, things that are not candy), just for showing up at someone’s door!

We made the parental decision starting last year that we would not be celebrating the holiday. And this year, partly due to this decision and partly because we’ve just been busy, we didn’t even make our trip to the pumpkin patch. It sort of snuck up on us, and we were of a mind that it would just pass by unnoticed.

And then it happened anyway. The children–oddly proportioned superheroes, little ninjas, junior Sith Lords, the stray Elsa–began to mass in our neighborhood. We had put a friendly sign up on the door: “No trick or treating here. Sorry!” and an enterprising, probably pre-literate child was banging on the door in anticipation of having his end of the social contract fulfilled. “I can see you in there!” By the time I had come home from work my daughters had lobbied successfully to join him. After all, they are already masters of dress-up, and within five minutes they were costumed and geared up from the dress-up basket. I grabbed my coat and hat (they decided I was a sailor) and joined Hermione Granger, Princess Buttercup, Cinderella and unnamed Medieval Lady as we made the rounds of the neighborhood.

We circled a couple of blocks, avoiding houses that a.) had no porch light on and b.) had decorated too enthusiastically (the girls have a strict “no hanging skeletons” rule) and I have to say they made out pretty well. In addition, my take of the non-gluten-free candy (in which the girls are also mysteriously well schooled) rivaled their own. It was…fun.

So, the kids got to experience the peculiar joy of a holiday in which we do not invest. I was reminded of the show of community that takes place on this day and, really, no other in this fragmented and isolated culture. I would love for there to be more of this: for strangers to receive each other on their doorsteps in mutual giving. For the time being, I guess I’ll take trick or treating.

And the next time an enterprising kid in fake muscles shows up, I’ve got some non-gluten-free candy to share.

Family Tripping, Part Two

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Frank Smith, in his classic book on education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, writes:

“We are learning all the time–about the world and about ourselves. We learn without knowing that we are learning and we learn without effort every moment of the day.”

I was reminded of this premise while we were on our family vacation last week. We had rented a cabin at Silver Falls (in October, because it is our unanimously favorite month and because it was not likely to be crowded; and fortunately, we don’t mind rain). My four daughters took advantage of this time away from school and the routines of ordinary life to learn, vigorously. Here are some of the things they learned.

The five year-old learned to climb up, and eventually down, the ladder to a top bunk. From this vantage point she proceeded to conduct experiments with gravity and velocity using her stuffed animals.

The nine year-old discovered a new species of slug that is exactly the length of a pine needle (she checked) and dubbed it a “pine needle slug.” I think it is more commonly known as a “baby slug.”

She also demonstrated to her sisters that course silt and fine silt could be found in different depths of the stream and they speculated on why this was so.

They all learned the properties of various foods and other substances as they burned in the campfire. They kept “accidentally” depositing them in the fire and took advantage of this opportunity to observe them.

The seven year-old sampled rosehips and found, via droppings, that several different animals had done the same.

Later she found the jawbones of a mouse and declared this to be the coolest thing ever.

Various field sketches were made of the leaves, ferns and rocks along the trail.

Also on the trail they discovered that the mud was actually a fabulous sort of clay, and they brought samples back to the campsite. They fired their sculptures on the grill.

The nice thing about homeschooling is that, depending on how you look at it, you are never really in school and are always in school, whatever you are doing and wherever you go.

And yes, as I had written earlier, vacations are rarely relaxing.

 

Family Tripping

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For a family (and a parent) that relies so much on routines, going on vacation can be…complicated. A vacation means that, almost by definition, the rhythms and the certainties of day-to-day life are going to be altered, for the benefit of a new setting and a new set of experiences. One could argue that this is kind of the point. Nevertheless, this perfectly appealing and reasonable argument is going to fill me with anxiety.

Cardinal among the routines that drive our family’s engine has been bedtime. Our kids like their own beds, their own ways of arranging their covers and stuffed animals (and in the case of the oldest daughter, stacking her books next to her head so that they will not topple onto her face in the night but so that, I guess, she can smell them?). They do not as a rule share beds well. This came through during our big trip to my parents’ house in Colorado a couple of years ago, during which we all shared an upstairs room. Much sleep was lost. I still haven’t found it anywhere.

This year, we have planned a week in a cabin in a local State Park. Our goal has been to allow for as much relaxation as possible. There are no timetables; no obligatory trips to see things; no appointments with other relatives. We plan to hike, and play, and read, and that’s about it.

The planning itself has been underway since February. We spent an afternoon checking out all the rental cabins and picking just the one we wanted. We placed our reservation right away and deliberately set it out past Labor Day to our mutually favorite month in the Northwest, October. Once this was done, we slipped back into life and the year sort of whooshed by. Now here we are, on the cusp of our reasonably-sized adventure (State Park camping is just about my speed: a heated cabin, with paved paths and showers nearby. In a previous life I was a British officer who shaved and took tea every day in my tent).

All this leisure and sloth takes a surprising amount of preparation. There are meals to plan, supplies to gather, batteries to replace, books to decide on. And there is the question of keeping our cat fed and to be reasonably sure that she will be alive and still like us when we return.

One thing that was important to us was to get buy-in from the kids. As they know exactly what we are getting into, from the location and layout of the cabin to their fond familiarity with the park, they are excited to help shape our trip and to contribute to its fruition. They spent the weekend polishing boots, washing out coolers, cleaning out the car, and gathering books on birds, animals, flowers and mushrooms we are likely to encounter. They have been practicing being in the same room and making sounds and looking and breathing in each other’s direction without freaking out (more drills will be needed).

Regardless of the outcome, we will only be an hour away from home. We have picked the day with the highest probability of rain to come back into town, check on the cat, and replenish our groceries.

This trip is for them, after all, and their vision made it happen. As for me, I have books to read. And I won’t be checking my email.

The Boat Shaped Bookshelf

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The nine year-old has been asking for a bookshelf for Christmas. When I came across one at work–a wooden shelf in the shape of an upturned boat, which knowing her was literally the most perfect bookshelf that had ever existed–and got permission to take it home, there was no way I was going to be able to save it until then. So I set it up against the dining table so that she would find it in the morning.

She has the best reaction to gifts she really likes. I remember her fifth birthday, on which her older sister, aged seven, had bought her a miniature plastic Schleich unicorn that was very fancy, with rainbows blazing in its mane. The birthday girl silently took it out of its wrapping and, after a pause, ran into her room to introduce it to its new friends. After five or so minutes, she ran back to her sister, hugged her silently but firmly, and ran back into her room, where she stayed for some time.

I tried not to have an expectation for the bookshelf, but her reaction did not disappoint. She stopped in front of it and gazed at it silently. Within 15 minutes, she and her sister had set it up between their beds, under the window, having miraculously rearranged their entire room to accommodate its placement.

I had hoped that she would share it, and had been prepared to dictate to her that she would do so. My big parenting moment was that, taking her cue, I had remained silent. She decided on her own to offer one of its three shelves to the older girl, and to preserve the third for decorations, to be mutually selected (they chose a seasonal theme, as you can see).

Having faith in the grace of which my children are capable (at least when they are not engaged in an endless war of attrition over who was looking at whom the wrong way), is an act I can stand to do more of. These are the children, after all, who routinely use their birthday money to buy each other gifts or take us all out for frozen yogurt. It made me wonder how often my expectation that they would not be up to this affects their behavior. For once, I left the door open and kept my expectations to myself.

Now I have no idea what to get her for Christmas. But she says she just wants to spend time with her family. And, you know, to read.

 

Voting for Kids

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s an election coming up. No, really!

Even if our kids aren’t exposed to the back-and-forth of politics at home, whether from discussions between adults (they listen) or from TV news (they watch), they are taking in the political climate. It’s almost ubiquitous this year. My daughters are pointing out signs along the road for the various candidates, both local and national. If your kids are going to school, they may well be privy to instruction about the election in their classes, but they are certainly getting it from other kids, who are absorbing what they can from (again) discussions at home and from TV, radio and social media.

What is the best way for parents to approach this? According to a Time article, it depends on their age:

“[I]n elementary school classes, ‘kids parrot back everything’ parents say. So setting the right tone from a young age is important… Kids may also have deep emotional responses to political conversations, like hearing that a candidate will be bad for women, or get the country into a war. Parents can help by asking kids what they’ve heard about the election, and talking through their reactions.”

If they’re in middle school, we can help “by asking kids what they think, which lets kids know two key things: it’s important to think through political decisions, and it’s O.K. to come to your own conclusions.” Again, it’s important to let them lead with their own interests. In another article, politics professor Steve Snow says, “The thing about kids is, if you start talking about something they haven’t asked about—if they don’t open up the conversation themselves—it turns into a sort of lecture and they’ll tune you out.”

By high school kids are at the ideal age to become invested in the process. After all, they will ideally be informed enough to vote when they come of age: “‘knowing the candidates, how they’re different.’ Kids may form different opinions than parents around this age… or hold similar positions, but for different reasons. But for parents, the goal is to keep kids engaged, both with the political process, and in conversation.”

In Oregon, we have mail-in ballots, and I like to present mine as an exciting piece of mail (who doesn’t like mail?) and an opportunity to affect the world with my choices (without getting into the whole Electoral College thing. Not there yet). Talking about why I would choose one candidate over another should ideally reflect values that are already practiced in our family. Not that there isn’t room for polite but spirited debate. From the Time article:

“While a nonpartisan approach may seem ideal, recent studies show that growing up in a bipartisan household may have its benefits, as well. According to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Politics, ‘Those whose parents are divided politically tend to become more, not less, engaged in politics…’ the fact that two sides of an issue are represented equally in the home, sparking discussion and greater awareness and understanding of the issues.”

The key thing for me takes us back to the point about “polite conversations.” We are living through the most contentious, volatile and sometimes downright nasty political campaign of our lifetime. And regardless of who or what we may be voting for, it shows our kids that America is a free and pluralistic society, with room for a full spectrum of views. I like to remind them–and myself–that these views go straight to what is important in peoples’ lives. Whatever the outcome, our democracy is something to be celebrated. And who doesn’t like to celebrate?

Bored Games

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.