Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year olds, their older sisters continue to put them–new acquisitions and old favorites alike–in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

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(Small) People Who Need People

How do we know, beyond a doubt, that humans are social animals?

1.) Archaeological evidence of milkshakes with two straws.

2.) Can’t read anything without sharing it on Facebook.

3.) Babies have “critical windows” for development during which parts of the brain need to be stimulated through interaction with others.

The first two are self-evident, but the third answer I  learned from our Nurturing Parenting class. What does it mean, though?

As I understand it (and keep in mind that I’m not an expert, but I play one on this blog), infant’s brains have an optimal period–anywhere between 6 months, in the case of vision, and four years, for logic and math skills–in which to make crucial connections that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

That’s one of those double-edged sword things. Clearly the stakes are pretty high, as children that don’t get what they need in the first few years–affection, interaction, a sense of stability and safety, opportunities to move and learn–will not have the skills they need to function as adults. That’s a bit scary.

To be clear, just because those connections aren’t formed in the brain during those critical windows doesn’t mean that it’s too late. What it does mean is that it will take a lot of work. And probably long-term (as in lifelong) support. See what I mean about being dependent on others? There’s just no way around it.

But this presents a great opportunity. Parents have a vision of the sort of people their children will be as adults (even if that vision is not always articulated, or even consciously crafted). Most often what we come up with is that we want our adult kids to be confident, capable, creative and well-rounded.

Those attributes don’t have to be shaped in school, or daycare, or summer camp, or anywhere outside the family. If we give them what they need when they need it (we’re talking birth to age four), they’ll be good to go.

The rest is just writing checks.

 

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Field Trip

A funny thing happened on the way to having Mondays off. With my wife in Portland this weekend, I was asked to take over the privilege of accompanying the girls to a homeschooling field trip at the Willamette Heritage Center. Knowing nothing about the event or the place, I of course agreed. I am agreeable.

I arrived with my family half an hour early and after a not inconsiderable interlude in the restroom (there were five of us) we returned to the car to finish our audiobook. When we returned, soaked with rain, to the lobby, it was full of moms and their kids, many of the latter of whom had the foresight to be wearing bonnets and other items of period clothing. This was the real deal, a group reservation and a guided tour with a docent (what a situation-specific word). I didn’t know what to expect, but one thing I didn’t expect was for a childhood of school field trips to come roaring back at me.

Roaring? That would be the tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Natural History Museum in Denver, home of what I attest are some of the best wildlife dioramas in the world. And I will never forget the debut of the Ramses II exhibit, seen on a different trip. Then there was the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum, which was way more fascinating than it had any right to be, and those plays that came at strategic times in my development that lead me to be a Theater Major, and…of course. The farm I visited in Kindergarten with the pig that I’m still convinced tried to eat me.

Field trips are special. I had forgotten their particular associative power. I went to the zoo several times with my family, but those school trips were somehow more exciting, even as they were more “educational.” As my daughters are more than a little enthusiastic about the workings of a water-powered woolen mill–or anything to do with history–I’m sure it will work out well for them too.

Thank goodness I packed a lunch. Sheesh.

 

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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.

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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!

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Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, to impart discipline, to encourage and challenge and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenaged children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room. “In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

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Silence as Teacher

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The more I think about the great parenting moments that can come out of not saying something, the more I think that maybe we shouldn’t say anything at all. Could we just lay all our words aside and come up with a code using, I don’t know, flags or something?

That’s probably taking it to the extreme (though maybe not, really, because you may have seen how easily babies pick up sign language). But as I’ve written before, children learn just fine on their own; in fact, often it’s us–teachers and well-meaning parents–that get in the way of that. When we ask questions, we’re not comfortable with the silence that may follow. It might have to last a minute, or five. Or a day. I am constantly taken aback by what my daughters recall about events that took place long ago that to me seemed insignificant or routine but which for them unlocked something deep in their world.

Don’t we have moments like that ourselves? One of my earliest memories is of a night that my parents took me to some sort of dude ranch (this was in Colorado. Dude ranches happen) where there was dust, and music, and barbecue…I was so tired out at the end of the night. My mother took me out to the car and I looked out the window, through a fog of exhaustion, at the face of a snarling bobcat.

It took an instant or so. But even my child mind told me that this was not a real cat. It was the logo on an RV parked next to us. Something about that frozen snarl set all the memories around it into permanence.

We clearly don’t choose the experiences that stick with us. It follows that others can’t choose them, either. What matters is that we are given–we give–opportunities for them to happen.

Sometimes we need to use words. For safety: I’m sure you beat me to that one already. And because it’s important what we name things (and what we don’t). But as adults we will always speak louder with our actions. And the silence that we don’t fill will always have more to say.

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Decompressing the Home

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There are two kinds of parents (actually, there are at least three, but we are concerned here with those involved in the daily lives of their children). There are parents who work, and there are parents whose work is to parent. And this is, well, work.

As for the kids, they all work. Whether they spend their days at school, learning at home, or involved in some sort of apprenticeship such as ship’s boy or cooper’s assistant, they have been “on” for a long time, and when the family is together at home, everyone is spent.

In her article 7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their “After School Restraint Collapse”, Andrea Nair writes, “It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people.” She goes on,

“One of my children used to love going to public school, but pretty much every day was in tears when he got home. He didn’t have a clue why he was in tears, but I knew that he just needed to decompress after keeping it together all day. I steered away from friend playtime or scheduled activities right after school so that he could have time to regroup.”

Nair presents some very useful tips for helping kids to ease their way back into the home environment. In addition to such universal advice as “Feed Them,” she advocates giving them the space they need to readjust their energy. Sometimes this means leaving them well enough alone for a while. Reducing noise and other stimuli, even conversation (even to the point of avoiding that classic parent question, “How was your day?”) can be helpful. It is important to remember that they are feeling all the accumulated stress and fatigue that we are, but with one crucial difference: they don’t have the resources that we as adults, ideally, possess to deal with it.

My situation is typical for homeschooled families in that when I come home from work, I enter what has been essentially the workplace for the rest of my family; for the mother as well as the kids. I try to be conscientious about this, because while coming home may be a relief for me (especially if I have had the presence of mind to decompress from my workday on the way home), it may well be that no one else has had that chance.

My job, then, is to help transform the space into something less stressful. If there is a way that I can help with dinner, I can do that (more often than not, if dinner is already underway I can be more useful by staying out of the way). In that case I start on preparations for bedtime. This involves finding pajamas, closing curtains, turning on lights. I am usually the audience for whatever artwork or projects the kids have been working on that day. And when dinner is served, their mother is officially clocked out.

I will confess that I sometimes envision the scenario presented in shows like Leave It to Beaver, in which my job would be to read the paper in my recliner while the dog fetches my slippers. However, this is a new century, and anyway I don’t think the world really worked like that in those days either. Also, we don’t have a dog, and the cat does not fetch.

So really, I’ll take this.

 

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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?

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Lifeschooling

This week, I am sharing a guest post I wrote for my wife’s homeschooling blog, Little Snail. I invite you to go there and read her insights about homeschooling and family life. 

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I wanted to write about Kyrie’s homeschooling from my perspective. It’s a pretty good one. My evenings and weekends with my family are the most important part of my life, and I see the evidence of her work in happy, healthy, curious children. I see it in the burnish of sun on their faces, and in the stories they can’t wait to tell me, simultaneously, as soon as I get out of the car. I see it in the projects they have laid out from the day, in the books across their laps (and stacked precariously on every surface), and in the baskets full of pinecones and flowers and eggshells and stones. I hear it in the questions they ask and the insights they unfurl at the dinner table. I know that whatever she is doing, she is doing right. I would not want their education to go any other way.

I work as a “parenting educator,” a title I will speak as well as type in quotes. The truth is that everything I know about parenting I learned from Kyrie: from her reading and her posts (hers is the only feed on my Instagram page); from the many links she shares with me; from the words she uses and the way she moves her body. The routines she has put in place I regard as sacred: I can only hope to help them run smoothly. In fact, I would be satisfied to work as a sort of machinist to her inventions; an acolyte; a bureaucrat of nurturing.

But I am much more fortunate than that. I have been in a unique position to see the evolution and the struggle of her schooling, in long conversations on the porch or in the car. I know that Kyrie has been building her curriculum from any and every material she can reach for (and many that are hidden, or obscured, or even broken). I have seen the strands of Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Orthodoxy, unschooling, subschooling, counterschooling and just plain schooling, as they braid and unspool into new configurations, new structures. I know her struggles to come at content from historical and natural and philosophical perspectives. I know enough, from my foray into high school teaching, to grasp how difficult it is to scaffold material and to differentiate by age, ability, and developmental level. I know that much of the last year she has been occupied with finding the right rhythms and that she has often felt it simply is not working.

Recently we talked about what lies beneath all of this painstaking planning and restructuring, and that has been the subject of her recent posts: it is the day-to-day movement of life in our family, and the opportunities presented to our girls in such seemingly nonpedagogical routines as going outside, playing in the river, trips to the library. It is in cooking, chores, music, Church, and play. I see that regardless of the content that hangs on this bough, the roots of their days go deep, and the branches yearn their way into space. I see that homeschooling is not a structure, nor an ideology, nor a machine. It is simply life.

And my goodness, it is work.

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