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“Inside Out,” a tour of modern parenting

One of the benefits of parenting now rather than in previous times is how much more we know about human brains and how they work. Before the 21st century, advice to parents and teachers was pretty much based on inference—”we see that lots of people who have done xyz have had good results, so you should do it, too.”

These days, parents are benefiting from—and in some cases, freaking out because of—a huge influx of hard data about how brains work. So it’s not surprising that Pixar has come out with a movie that’s not only for kids, but for us adults who are worrying about how our parenting is affecting our children’s brains. [Read an interview with the director in which he talks about how his 11-year-old daughter inspired the film.]

The freak-out at the dinner table. We’ve been there!

A movie for kids and adults

“Inside Out” is a truly brilliant film in several respects. The aspect most important to me as an adult is that it’s a kids’ movie that adults can not only enjoy with the kids, but enjoy separately from the kids. As we sat in the theater, I noticed a striking pattern of laughter: The kids were laughing at the funny lines, the goofiness, and the nutty action sequences.

True, the adults were laughing at those, too. But we were also laughing at the adult level inside jokes (did they really sneak a joke about San Francisco “bears” into a mainstream movie?), the pained and loving relationship between the two parents (oh, ouch, I think we’ve had that actual discussion, dear), and the uncomfortable recognition of feelings from our own childhoods.

True to life

Not all films have to be “real” in the sense of sticking to objective realism. However, any good story is “real” within its own context. Whether the characters are fairies or girls attending a new school, their experiences and especially their reaction to those experiences need to seem “real” in context. We have to believe them.

The temptation with kids’ movies is to make things happen just because kids think they’re funny, or because it was time for some action in the plot, or because the animator always wanted to animate a wild mass of curly, red hair. “Inside Out” never feels like it’s veering off-center; this is a movie that knows what it’s about.

Modeling a healthy parenting style

Did the makers of this film really portray a loving, modern family that lets their 11-year-old daughter [gasp!] walk to school in a new city? Well, yes, they did. I wonder if Pete Docter has read Free-Range Kids

I appreciated that this film featured neither the sappy parent-as-role-model nor the damaging parent-as-natural-adversary tropes that are common in children’s films. These parents are real. They don’t make decisions only for their daughter—they have needs, too. They don’t try to control their daughter or even to completely understand her. They just love her and do their best, which isn’t always quite good enough.

A healthy theory of mind

Let’s face it: this is a cartoon, and the representation of the brains and how they work is cartoonish. But it’s also beautifully constructed both to reflect the state of modern brain research and also a healthy modern view of how to manage our ideas and emotions. In the movie, each person has a “control room” that is run by the emotions happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. But that’s where the brains’ similarities end. Each character in the film has a control room that works differently, depending on the character’s personality and life experiences.

Some of the funniest moments in the film are when we briefly step into the minds of the minor characters and see their control rooms as a metaphor for how they approach the world. Every character, we are reminded, is a person, and has the same emotions as the next. How those emotions behave and interact is what makes each of us unique.

Two thumbs up

I have to admit that I’m generally loathe to go to popular children’s movies. I am deeply grateful when another parent offers to take my child. And now that my youngest is old enough to go on her own, it takes a lot to get me to spend my dollars and my precious two hours on something that will, at best, bore me, and at worst, offend me.

But this is one film I can heartily recommend to parents like me who are done with stupid kid films. I left the theater feeling like I’d actually received more than I paid for, an unusual result of watching a hit summer movie.

Mom’s efficient control room—calm, cool, and collected!

Her daughter’s control room is rather more chaotic.

Dad’s emotions are remembering a great hockey game before they realize that their daughter is having a crisis.

Aside: Interesting how the filmmakers chose to portray Mom’s emotions as all women, Dad’s emotions as all men, but Daughter’s emotions as mixed male and female. Intentional? Hm…

Posted in Culture, Films, Parenting, Psychology.

Positive mindset, not mindlessly positive

I visited a friend from the gifted education community recently. She hosted me and my son at her home, and she and I went for a long walk and got to chat non-stop. What a treat! Not a single interruption.

Here I am accepting prizes for a road race I won when I was a teen. I as very Dweckian—I really believed that I could become a top marathoner if I worked hard enough. Unfortunately, soon after this photo was taken my joints declared another plan for my life—they had reached their tolerance for abuse!

Here I am accepting prizes for a road race I won when I was a teen. I was very Dweckian—I really believed that I could become a top marathoner if I worked hard enough. Unfortunately, soon after this photo was taken my joints declared another plan for my life—they had reached their tolerance for abuse!

One of the things we talked about was Carol Dweck’s Mindset research. Dweck is a psychologist who ran experiments to find out whether people’s mindsets influence how well they learn. Probably not surprisingly, she found that people who believe that they can improve tend to learn better than people who believe that their abilities are fixed. She called this a “growth mindset” vs. a “fixed mindset.” (If you want more details, visit her website here.)

I say this isn’t surprising because it’s something parents have been saying for many years: If you go into a task expecting to fail, you probably won’t do as well as you could. But it’s great that Dweck was able to devise experiments that showed this effect in action.

However… the big “however” was what my friend and I discussed. People in general have a tendency to take limited studies and over-apply them. Reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food recently, I was reminded of the time in the 80’s when oat bran was said to be the cure for everything, to the point that a friend of mine would sprinkle it on her Chinese takeout.

Mindset as oat bran

The psychological equivalent of sprinkling oat bran on Chinese takeout is the idea, being adopted by many an educator and plenty of parents these days, that kids can learn anything if they just try hard enough. As soon as you hear someone say that, make sure to put on your Dweckian brakes and remember the limitations of research.

Dweck’s research did not prove that anyone can learn anything if they try hard enough. Her research did suggest that people learn more easily and quickly when they have a positive mindset.

Other research, however, has shown that, in fact, having a mindlessly positive viewpoint is not only not helpful to learning, but can sometimes be detrimental to learning. The New York Times’ “The Trouble with Self-Esteem” offers some details on this.

Why is this important? First of all, it’s important to realize that all of us are born with a physical body that has its limits. When I was young, I wanted to be a marathon runner. That didn’t happen, not because I didn’t try hard enough, but because it turned out that my body isn’t built for marathon running.

The brain is, let’s face it, a piece of meat. We can improve our brains by using them, just as we improve our muscles by using them. But we are all born with limited potential. If we weren’t, we’d be gods. On top of that, some of us are born with brains built for marathons, and others with brains that are happiest taking an evening stroll.

Don’t expect a stroller to win the 100 meter sprint

When you tell children who are working really, really hard on something that challenges the capacity of their brains to the highest that they will succeed if they try hard enough, the message is pretty clear: If you don’t succeed at learning algebra/salsa dancing/Chinese, it’s your fault.

This, of course, is nonsense. Anyone who has raised or worked with gifted children will have plenty of experience in how nonsensical mindless positivity is. There are people in this world who have potential to do things that the rest of us can’t do. If you don’t have a certain kind of brain that “gets” abstract mathematical reasoning, and someone tells you that you can become a leading theoretical physicist if you just try hard enough, they’re lying. Or deluded.

Pushing mindless positivity inhibits learning

  • Children do not learn to have reasonable expectations of themselves. They learn that there’s something wrong with them for having potential in some areas and not much potential in other areas, when in fact that’s the definition of being human.
  • Educators come to believe that it’s not worth challenging gifted learners, because obviously, they are already challenging themselves enough. The message is that all brains are the same; therefore, all education should be the same. Gifted learners end up bored, frustrated, and confused when people think they worked hard on something that came easily to them.
  • Parents teach their kids that everything they do is great, so they don’t have to work to the point of frustration. But working to frustration is the way that most people succeed at what they do. Ask anyone who’s successful at pretty much any enterprise, and they will tell you about the time they “hit the wall” and what it taught them. You only hit the wall if you keep pushing. And you only keep pushing if you believe that you haven’t yet done your best.

So what’s a parent or teacher to do? Dweck says that we should tell kids that they can improve if they work on something, but some kids will clearly be able to do more than others.

Don’t turn Dweck’s research into positivity religion

The answer is one that good sports coaches have known forever. If you’re coaching a typical student team, you’re going to have great players, mediocre players, and let’s face it, really crappy players. Good coaches accept this reality and know that a team is only as good as it can be if all the players try their best.

When I was on my high school track team, there was no nonsense about “you all can be the best runner in the world if you try hard enough.” My coaches were really specific for each runner’s situation. In my case, no matter what race I was running I tended to start out slowly and speed up the longer I ran. My coaches pointed that out and suggested that I needed to push harder in warm-ups so that I was ready to go from the outset.

No one else on my team had that particular pattern, and no one else on my team got that advice.

In academics, we don’t have to tell all kids they can be—or should be—theoretical physicists. But we should tell them that their outlook will affect their performance. And we should tell them that no matter how well they perform at one specific academic task, they’re an important part of the team.

We don’t all have to be stars

Frankly, I don’t care much whether my mechanic is good at theoretical physics, whether my doctor is good at basketball, or whether my child’s music teacher passed high school chemistry.

I do want them to have a positive mindset, so they can strive to be the best they can be at their jobs. But mindless positivity just leads to mediocrity and complacence.

Posted in Education, Parenting, Psychology.

In praise of adult ed

Every Wednesday evening last spring, I presented myself with a challenge.

A friend encouraged me to take a jazz singing class with her at our local community college. I’d been looking for a new musical outlet, so I agreed.

I nearly walked out the first night.

The teacher was a venerable local swing band leader who immediately started calling on students to get up and perform. Accompanied by a piano, a series of cute young divas got up and sang polished songs. I started to feel uncomfortable, knowing that I hadn’t gotten up in front of an audience and sang without a book or a guitar to shield me in a very long time.

One of the benefits of community college is that the teachers are often actively working in the field they teach in. In this case, my teacher was a well-known local bandleader.

One of the benefits of community college is that the teachers are often actively working in the field they teach in. In this case, my teacher was a well-known local bandleader.

Then a woman much older than I volunteered. She got up and spoke into the microphone. “For my whole life I was afraid of talking in front of people,” she said by way of introduction. “I’m taking this class so I can get over that.”

I thought, “she’s afraid of talking in front of people and now she’s going to sing jazz into a microphone?”

That’s all I needed. When he asked for the next volunteer, I raised my hand. If a woman 20 years my senior with no vocal training was willing to put herself out there, who was I to pretend I couldn’t do it?

I did it, and then every week following I did it again and again.

There’s a lot of wrangling going on right now about the purpose of community college. The combination of limited funds and the push for “college for everyone” has incited discussion on whether community colleges are for the community as a whole or just for the specific purposes of helping young people on to four-year colleges and giving specific technical degrees.

Personally, I have always loved the “community” aspect of community college, and I think it would be sad to see it go. I have both taught at and been a student at a few different community colleges, and I think they only benefit from mixing the “young divas” with the more, ahem, seasoned members of our community.

My jazz class was a great example. Each student was there for a different purpose—there were a few music majors preparing to apply to four-year universities. There were some lost souls who drifted out of high school and were now drifting into college without a plan. There were adults who just love adult ed and have taken a variety of courses over the years. And there were adults who had specific agendas, such as being more comfortable in front of an audience.

Our teacher didn’t spend much time “teaching”—he didn’t have to. Each student inadvertently brought his or her own wisdom and questions into the mix, and just performing and working together engendered deep learning in everyone. Occasionally our teacher would see an opportunity for a bit of a lecture, but he kept it short and to the point.

People who want to separate the community college from the community are probably unaware of how much learning takes place in a classroom that seems so informal. They are also probably unaware of (or unconcerned with) how important intergenerational learning can be to many of the eighteen-year-olds who end up drifting into community college simply because nothing had gelled for them yet.

I wish those people would attend a class like the one I was in. They would see the teacher energized by working with older adults who shared a passion with him. They would see that same teacher trying to offer confused and unhappy teens a reason to put some structure into their newly unregimented lives. They would see a bunch of people modeling healthy learning behavior for each other: set a task, work on it a bit, fail to perform as well as they’d like, work more, succeed.

At the end of the semester, we all performed songs we’d prepared in a local bar that hosts jazz bands. Though our teacher wasn’t much for direct instruction, it was clear how much we’d all learned.

I don’t know if I’ll take another class soon, but I love knowing that community college is there for me, a member of our community, as well as everyone else who wants to continue their education.

Posted in Arts & Music, Education.

Homeschooling High School

I had the very fun opportunity to teach an online, 4-week seminar called Homeschool Start-Up at Athena’s Advanced Academy this spring. It was great fun for me and my students asked all sorts of great questions. One of the perennial questions that comes up is about homeschooling high school. For some reason, even seasoned homeschoolers sometimes quake at the approach of high school, and end up sending their students back to school. In some families, the students might lead the charge back to school for social reasons, but I think in a lot of cases it happens because neither students nor parents feel confident.

One of the great things about homeschooling high school is doing away with busywork so your student can focus on what s/he really wants to learn.

One of the great things about homeschooling high school is doing away with busywork so your student can focus on what s/he really wants to learn.

We, however, are having a fabulous time doing high school, so below are my recommendations for what all homeschooling parents should do before they give up on the idea. It’s really not that hard, and for a student who commits to this path, it is extremely rewarding and empowering.

#1: Connect with parents online

Get yourself onto a high school homeschooling email list. There are many—each with an emphasis on different types of kids and different homeschooling approaches. (The one I take part in, homeschool2college on Yahoo Groups, is very college-focused, lots of kids who are quite academic and advanced, for example—not a great place for a non-college-focused unschooling family.) There are so many different homeschooling high school options, and they change so quickly, that it’s really important to get up-to-date information. These lists are fabulous resources.

Here’s my warning, however: Don’t get on one of these lists until very soon before your child starts high school. If you get on when s/he’s 6, it’s going to Freak You Out, and we don’t want that!

#2: Find local resources

Lots of what you do is probably going to depend on your local area. My most valuable resource locally is our homeschool program teacher, who has guided hundreds of students through high school. She knows all the ins and outs of the local community college. This is really important because on your national email list someone will say very authoritatively “of course concurrent students can take art classes,” but at your local CC suddenly you’ll find out that’s not true. A local network can save you a lot of work.

#3: Authoritative resources

If your student is looking toward college, a good, straightforward book like College Prep Homeschooling (Byers) will give you a good picture of the sort of bookkeeping and other concerns you want to be prepared for. Again, this is a good book for my family, but yours might be more unschooly (e.g. Forging Paths (Beach) or College without High School (Boles)) or Christian/structured (Homeschooled and Headed for College (Boiko)).

#4: Online resources

There are tons of Facebook groups for different flavors of high school homeschoolers. They’re free – check them all out! Search for “homeschool high school” and choose a few that seem like ones you’d be interested in. Look at the quality of their posts and leave if they’re not helping you. I haven’t used many of the websites much, but Let’s Homeschool High School comes with a high recommendation. In general, I don’t recommend joining groups till you actually need them because you’ll just start running in circles like a rat on a wheel, and then who will homeschool your kids??

And that last comment is key: Don’t go crazy looking for resources when what you need to do is focus on your student’s needs and goals. Don’t think you can plan four years of high school when your student is in eighth grade. And don’t think you won’t have unexpected twists and turns in your path.

Do know that you can do this successfully, and whatever your student’s ultimate goals, you can do it well.

If you want to get notified about the next time we offer Homeschool Start-Up, get on my classes email list or on Athena’s email list.


Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

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A good word about teenagers

I’ve got teenagers. One of them is official—16—and the other one is some months off from having “teen” in her age. From what some parents say, you might expect that my next words will be complaints.

Teenagers are great!

Ha, fooled you! Or did I? Because I know that a few silent parents out there are like me. We are having a fabulous time raising our teens, and we read all those horrid articles wondering if a) we have exceptionally wonderful teenagers (unlikely), or b) we’re just incurably optimistic, sunny-faced people who don’t notice that we’re living with ogres.

Despite the fact that a few people lately have described me as “generally cheerful” (huh?), I can assure you that (b) is also incorrect. I’m not happy about having teens in my house because I only look at the bright side of things, because I fail to see my kids’ faults, or because I have a secret pill that I’m taking and that you want in on.

I’m happy with having my teens because teens are—this may shock you—so darn great to be around.

Why focus on the problems?

We all know about teens: They’re self-absorbed, snotty, rude, untrustworthy, messy, disordered, willful, self-righteous, yadda yadda yadda.

It’s all true, of course, with variation from individual to individual.

But what else is true about teens is much more worth discussing. Here are some true things about teens (both mine and the others I teach and know socially) that I value.

1. Teens care about justice

We adults have learned that the world is not black and white, and thus we are much more willing to settle for a muddy grey. Teens are not willing to settle. They are out there yelling themselves hoarse trying to get the rest of us to notice. But what the rest of us spend most of our time trying to do is shut up those darn, loud-mouthed teens who are so naive that they actually think they can solve the world’s problems. Perhaps we should admire them instead.

2. Teens can, and do, solve problems

Go to any high school and identify problems. Go to the administration and ask them to fix those problems, and you’ll most likely get a big yawn. No one cares about that, you’ll be told, or it’s not such a big problem, or that problem is minor considering how hard we’re going to have to work to get our test scores up so we don’t all get fired. If you want to solve a problem at a school, just get the teens interested in it. When they get fired up, they’re like an unstoppable army.

3. Teens are thoughtful

Many people, once they grow up, relax into the busy-ness of their daily lives and hardly give a thought to the way they’re living. But teens are full of thoughts. They’re full of ideas. Some of them are already shutting down and it’s hard to engage them in a conversation, but once you do, you’ll find that their brains are going full-tilt, even if the most common word you hear out of them is “whatever.”

4. Teens haven’t become themselves yet

This can be very frustrating for parents and teachers. We ask them, What do you want to do with your life? and they might not be able to answer. They seem to change daily, one day a model citizen and a juvenile delinquent (or so it seems) the next. Their opinions are strong but flighty. But the cool thing is how fascinating they are to watch as they flit through their ephemeral personas in search of who they will become. It’s instructive as an adult to remember that who we are, how we act, what we believe—all of this is by choice. Teens may change their choices daily, and that may not be optimal, but all of us could use a bit of self-questioning once in a while.

5. Teens bring new ideas and attitudes into our lives

I remember perhaps the first time that we were sitting at the dinner table and our son informed us about a current event he’d been reading about and his opinion on it. Perhaps he slowly grew into this, but it didn’t seem like it. To his parents, it seemed like one day he was a kid, and we were telling him things and listening to his droll, uninformed opinions, and the next we had this fascinating adult-in-the-making sitting across from us, bringing a new topic and viewpoint into our dinner table conversation.

This is not to say that I didn’t love my children’s droll childhood ramblings—I did and I’m sure I related a few of them on this blog in years past. But when your kids cross that invisible line and start taking part in conversations on something approaching an adult level, it’s wonderful and fascinating and thrilling. And like so many developmental changes, it seems to happen all at once, leaving parents gaping on the sidelines as their kids zoom past, developing (for the moment) at lightspeed.

6. Teens are people, too

One of the biggest failings of parenting approaches of the past (and some of the present ones as well) is that adults forgot the basic fact that each child is a unique, important, incredible person. With teens, it’s truly easy to shove them in a group and grumble about them. But taking the harder route is much more rewarding: when we treat teens as fully their own selves—capable, thoughtful, fascinating, lovely people—they work much harder to attain what we expect.

One of the most important realizations I had about parenting (and teaching) was when I learned about how educators who work with kids with special needs go about their jobs. They are trying to help kids with disabilities, but they don’t focus on the disability. (Not the ones I cared to listen to, in any case.) Long before mainstream education even got a whiff of this, special educators found a universal truth about humans: If you teach to their capabilities, their disabilities will come along for the ride. Focus on the positive, and encourage skills. Don’t forget about the disabilities, but don’t make it seem as if the child is the disability.

Teens are complex, growing, changing, fascinating human beings, and I am having a great time helping two of them along their path.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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These are people who have died

Perhaps you remember the Jim Carroll song, “People who died.” It was one of those songs that completely blew me away the first time I heard it. Not so much the 2346th time.

However, it’s on my mind today. It’s on my mind because technology has done this weird thing: It won’t let people die.


Everything I put on the Internet, including my cat Nisene in the fog, achieves a sort of immortality. I just searched and found Nisene on Google Images! Immortality in all nine lives.

First, there’s my address book. In the past, after a few tries I found spiral bound paper agenda that I really liked, and every year I bought a new one. The one I liked had a small address book section in the back. Each year, I would transfer my important current contact information from one calendar to another.

“Important”: as in people I still like (at least sorta), people who still live near me, people who are alive.

When I was still using paper calendars, of course, I was younger, and more people I knew were alive. But then you keep going and life starts getting in the way. People you know succumb to the horrible diseases they’ve been living with (diabetes, multiple sclerosis), people you know and love die of old age, people you know get killed by terrorists, die of cancer, or…whatever.

The great thing about the paper address book at the back of my calendar is that each year, I culled the people who didn’t belong anymore. And perhaps that was one person per year.

But the digital lifestyle has changed all this. As my address book has grown, so has my hard drive. I don’t have to worry how many entries are in my address book—technology is far outpacing my addition of people important to my life.

And the result is…dead people.

Until last year, I just couldn’t face culling the deceased from my book. I do wish there were some feature in my address book to mark them “no longer with us” rather than just “delete.” But that’s not the case. In order to stop seeing my deceased loved ones (not to mention people I corresponded with briefly for an article I wrote), I have to delete them.

Deleting dead people is No Fun.

It seems so final. Yes, I should get over that. But it took me years to remove my lovely elderly friend Susie who was the first person more than 50 years older that I’d called a friend.

Susie was an aberration…until she wasn’t. People younger than I, people older than I, but within enough years to be in “my generation,” started to go. And I hesitated to remove them from my address book.

And then there’s social media.

LinkedIn, a service I find very useful as a business person, continues to recommend that I link with a former teacher of my son’s—a wonderful teacher, a truly incredible man—who succumbed to cancer a few years ago. Facebook lists several dead people as my “friends.”

I feel like we’re coming upon a new paradigm for “life.” Before the digital epoch, life was limited by flesh. And perhaps that limitation was extended a bit by paper in large buildings we called libraries. But life was life: You were born, you developed into the person you were going to be, you did stuff, then you died. If the stuff you did was deemed “important,” it might get “immortalized” on paper or film.

But in the digital life, nothing dies. In the European Union, they had to invent a “right to be forgotten.” In the US, we have no such luxury. Everything I do online is being sucked into the grand cyclone we call the Internet. When I step off this moral coil, my digital life won’t go with me.

I imagine my friends, my family, and my “friends” after I go: They join a new online service and they get the suggestion that they “friend” me, a dead person. They will be able to comment on my work, which will still be out there—alive, as it were. People I don’t know will receive suggestions for like-minded people to link to…including me, a dead person.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, hasn’t it been a goal of humans throughout the ages to achieve immortality? And doesn’t the Internet offer some sort of immortality? (Immortality 1.0. Sometime soon the Internet will be Old Hat and we’ll achieve Immortality 2.0. Stay tuned.)

On the other hand, seeing these dead people makes me sad.

I see dead people.”

Yes, I do, when I search in my address book for “house.” When I go onto LinkedIn to post an article and once again, it suggests dead people who would help me further my career. When Facebook asks me if I want to “share” my latest news…with dead people.

Ponce de Leon would be flabbergasted. Undaunted, we move on into this new stage of human existence. Dead people are dead, but they don’t go away. It’s comforting, in a way, that they never leave us. But it’s depressing, in another way, that we can’t let the dead rest.

Finally, I have started to cull. Every once in a while, I save a backup of my address book, then I delete. The friend, the teacher, the colleague. Delete, delete, delete.

Then I move on with my life. They had a right, I remind myself, to be forgotten.

Posted in Culture.

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Book Review: Creative Home Schooling grows up

It was the weighty Bible of gifted homeschoolers. You saw it on every shelf. My copy was so coveted, one of my homeschooling friends apparently walked off with it and it hasn’t been seen on my shelves since.

What was it? An extensively researched book called Creative Homeschooling by Lisa Rivero, published by Great Potential Press (who published my book, From School to Homeschool, ten years later).

The new version of Creative Homeschooling is slimmer and more focused on modern homeschooling.

Creative Homeschooling was exhaustive and a bit exhausting. At least one homeschooling mom I mentioned it to said that just looking at it gave her a headache! But it was a necessary resource when the Web was in its infancy. With the great changes in homeschooling since the first edition in 2002, homeschooling books have become something other than a resource list. At the time the first edition of Creative Homeschooling was released, however, parents were hungry for information.

“I wrote this book because I needed more information,” Rivero writes in her introduction to the new edition. “At the time, little had been published about homeschooling gifted children, and the Internet was not nearly the quick go-to resource it is today. Fewer people knew anyone who homeschooled or thought of it as a ‘normal’ choice.”

When I started homeschooling in 2007, Rivero’s book was already a classic. Although I couldn’t utter the G-word (“gifted“) in my usual homeschooling circles, as soon as I met another gifted homeschooler, we’d talk about Creative Homeschooling.

But now it’s 2015. People get their homeschooling information from the Web. Why a new version of this venerable homeschooling book?

Rivero says that the first thing she did in the revision process was to realize that her book was no longer valuable as an up-to-date resource list. In fact, even if she updated the list, it would go out of date quickly. The Web is the right place for resource lists. So what is left?

The new version of Creative Homeschooling is slimmer, more focused on the “why” and “how” of homeschooling. Paper listings go out of date immediately, but great advice is timeless.

“Present generation [homeschool] families have quickly learned that homeschooling a gifted child is not about finding the perfect approach or even the perfect resource; they know that the only way to make homeschooling work is to inform themselves as much as possible, and then to always make decisions based on their individual families,” Rivero says. “There is no book that can make those day-to-day decisions for them.”

Rivero’s book focuses on the keyword in its title: creativity. Homeschooling is not about following a formula, and learning is not about attaining a set body of knowledge. Modern education is all about creativity and flexibility; homeschoolers are well-situated in a world where being a lifelong learner is key to success (monetary or otherwise).

“Many of my college students can do a Google search in a heartbeat but are lost or anxious when it comes to organizing their own thoughts during an hour of solitude,” Rivero says. “Time is homeschooling’s greatest gift.”

Rivero gives away her point of view in many ways, not the least of which is starting her “Nuts & Bolts” section with thoughts on creativity. She focuses on creativity throughout, even when discussing such mundane topics as the loss of income in a household.

“Some homeschool parents give up a job to stay home with their children,” Rivero writes. “Often more stressful than the loss of income is the loss of intellectual and creative outlets.”


Author Lisa Rivero

The book’s emphasis is on “gifted” children, but the definition of that word has widened and Rivero’s advice is applicable to any child who is an asynchronous learner. Refreshingly, although Rivero’s book is aimed at families who value academics, she doesn’t push achievement-oriented learning. Rivero doesn’t jump on any bandwagons. Her material is based on research, such as questioning the validity of learning preferences, a bit of a sacred cow amongst homeschoolers at the moment.

The updated edition incorporates much of the cutting edge psychological and neurological research that has happened in the years since its first writing. Rivero includes information gleaned from research, such as Carol Dweck’s Mindset, takes on the right brain/left brain fallacy, argues for considering the problem of applying labels to children, and takes on the damage that overly high expectations can have on developing minds.

The new Creative Homeschooling isn’t the resource Bible it once was. It’s now a lean and focused look at the value and challenge of homeschooling bright children. The fact that it’s only being offered as an e-book is perhaps its most telling feature. This book is not a romantic look at homeschooling past, but rather a guide into homeschooling’s future.

Creative Homeschooling
by Lisa Rivero
Great Potential Press, 2014
Buy at or Barnes & Noble

Posted in Books, Homeschooling, Parenting.

Tagged with .

Impractical shoes

I found myself standing on one side of a sea of a chai latte river, wondering how I’d gotten myself into this pickle.

I knew I shouldn’t have packed the impractical shoes.

The first pair of really impractical shoes I remember owning was when I was in high school. Every girl was buying Candies boots. They were—if I remember correctly—cowboy-styled shoes with an early-80s update. Mine were blond leather with wood-grain heels.

The heels were very, very high.

Manolo Blahnik

If I could, would I wear ridiculously high-heeled shoes? Oh, yeah, I admit that I’d be happy to do it if I thought it wouldn’t cripple me for life!

Of course, the heels were high enough on a typical girl, but at that point my feet had finally reached a size 5, the smallest of women’s sizes. Before that, I’d shopped in the kids’ department. So 4-inch heels on my feet were not comparable to 4-inch heels on average women’s feet.

Average women were standing on the balls of their feet. I was nearly en pointe.

The first day I wore those boots to school, I stubbornly refused to learn the obvious lesson: I was not cut out to wear impractical shoes. I wore them again, even though I could hardly walk and was in major pain by the end of the day.

Finally, my track coach decided it for me. He announced at our first practice of the spring that all team members were forbidden to wear high heels because of the risk of damage to the tendons in the foot.

That decided it. I went to flats. Soon after I discovered punk and adopted black boots as my shoe of choice, and impractical shoes were in my past.

Like many women who have had babies, my feet have gone through some changes. They’re hardly longer—by length I should be wearing a size 5 and a half at this point—but they are wider and more picky than ever. After a lecture from another man who’d never donned impractical shoes—this time a podiatrist—I resorted to ordering EEE-width shoes on the Internet rather than letting my local shoe seller talk me into their cute, much too narrow latest styles.

But before the podiatrist, and well before the river of chai latte, was my final purchase of impractical shoes. It was at my local shoe seller that I got talked into them. They are cute. The heels are modest, probably an inch and a half, and I have to admit, they make my legs look great. Even though my joints forced me to give up running years ago, those heels did their job and made all the right convex and concave formations appear on my legs. And given how “low” the heels were, I could even walk in them. Even better, my shoe seller explained, they were made by a company that also made sneakers, and the sole was made to be more comfortable and better for the feet.

More comfortable and better for the feet, certainly, than shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik, but torture for my poor stunted, spread out dogs. I bought the shoes, wore them a couple of times, then put them high up in the closet.

Along comes my mystery weekend—so mysterious I didn’t yet know that it would involve a river of chai latte flowing down Van Ness Avenue. For my birthday my husband announced he was taking me away—somewhere—and we would do…something. He said, “bring mostly casual clothes, but one nice outfit.”

Now, men, any woman can tell you, are not all alike. However, there are some truths that apply to most straight men, and one of them is that they don’t understand how delicate the task of donning the right clothing for the right occasion is. Men generally have three levels of clothing: scruffy/play, nice/work, and wedding/funeral. Men’s clothing is designed with this trinity in mind. Men who enjoy dressing well might own khakis for casual, trousers and a button up shirts for work, and a nice suit for other occasions, happy and somber.

My own husband falls a little to the left of that scale. He works in an industry where common work attire seldom rises above a somewhat clean t-shirt, so he has few occasions to worry about whether his dress is suitable for the occasion.

For me, however, what I choose to wear is tied into what I’m doing, who I’m seeing, where I might be going, and what mood I’m in. Certainly, when I had little kids I ended up in jeans and t-shirts almost exclusively, but now that they’re older I spend a bit more time figuring out what “feels” right to wear before I get dressed.

Packing for my mystery chai latte adventure, therefore, sent me into a bit of a tizzy. And in the midst of that tizzy, what did I do but pack those darn impractical shoes. I packed them even after I took them down off the high shelf, stepped into them, and said out loud, “Who am I kidding? I’ll never wear these again.”

And into the suitcase they went.

The mystery weekend turned out to be a lovely, child-free couple of days spent in San Francisco. The nice clothing was for an event at Davies Symphony Hall. And as I dressed for it, I realized I needed to give those impractical shoes another spin. I was not yet thoroughly convinced that I couldn’t wear them.

So there we were, walking down Van Ness Avenue, almost to Davies, when the river appeared before us. It flowed down a side street, turned the corner, and spilled onto Van Ness. It was a gorgeous milky brown, the color of my favorite drink. And thank goodness, it didn’t smell of what it was actually composed of.

It did, however, pose a problem. How to get over to Davies across the flowing river of muck? We ended up having to walk, along with other symphony goers, down the middle of Van Ness, the cars creeping by us in the far left lane, we in the middle, the chai river hogging most of the right.

Perhaps these shoes really do have a sole designed like a sneaker, but let’s be serious here, high heels are not made for comfort. They’re made because they form all those nice convex and concave contours in any woman’s leg. Those of us who think we’re too skinny see flesh pop and curve. Those of us who think we have to much flesh enjoy the definition of our muscles.

The river dwindled to a creek then a stream, and my husband—wearing his sneakers even to the symphony because he’s no fool—could certainly have jumped it. But in my impractical shoes, I had to wait until I could step daintily over the sewage and onto the sidewalk. Because of my uncomfortable shoes, I had to walk even longer than I would have.

I swore that when I got home, I’d send them to the Goodwill. But when I got home, there was their nice, comfy box waiting for them. I put the shoes back in the box and left it on the floor of my closet.

I’ll give them away to someone who will appreciate them, I thought.

There they sat, until one day I sighed, picked up the box, and placed back on that high shelf.

Posted in Culture, Sexual Politics.

Hitting the sweet spot at the science fair

I read the article “Science Fairs Aren’t So Fair” (The Atlantic) with some interest, given that my kids are longtime participants in our local and state science fairs. As a parent who hasn’t fallen into the helicopter-parent trap that the writer describes, I thought I’d enjoy her little exposé.

Only two kinds of science fair parents, really?


Families enjoying each other’s board during our local science fair’s public hours.

As a short recap, the article starts with the premise that there are two kinds of parents: the parents who dread the science fair because it asks students to do something they aren’t prepared to do, and other parents who basically do the work for their kids and compete with each other. I don’t disagree that these two groups of parents exist, but at least in my experience, they don’t make up the majority of science fair parents. More importantly, I can’t agree with her conclusion that it’s the kids of the pushy parents who end up winning.

It depends on how you define winning.

Our science fair experiences have included both sets of parents described above. The hovering helicopter parents are certainly annoying—they create gorgeous boards for their kids, write their reports for them, and then train their kids to answer the judges’ questions like performing animals. Sometimes their kids win at their school and county levels—but are they really winning?

The article goes on to quote Google’s first science fair winner, who says that those helicopter parents started turning up in elementary school. She describes standing next to another kid whose project had clearly been completed by an over-involved professor-dad.

But here’s what she doesn’t point out:

She won the Google Science Fair. Not the kids whose parents let them use million-dollar equipment. Not the kids whose parents coached them and created beautiful boards. She won. She doesn’t say why, but I bet I can guess.

But kids can’t do science!

Here’s a quote from the writer of the article, who falls into the “science fair dreaders” camp:

“Much of the parental anger seems to stem from the fact that the bulk of science fairs ask children to produce something, in some cases competitively, that is well beyond their abilities,” she writes.

These parents who act put-upon about being asked to support their kids in inquiry learning outside of school are closer to the helicopter parents than they want to believe. Inquiry-based science isn’t a mystery—it’s something that preschoolers do every day. But we train our kids to think is “hard” and “serious” once they enter elementary school.

It seems to me that the put-upon parents are acting just as competitively as the helicopter parents, except they’re choosing to be the slackers on campus rather than the geeks.

Finding a middle ground


Yucky moldy bananas in my kitchen. It must be science fair time!

So how should parents who want their kids to succeed in the science fair offer support? Well, first of all, if your kid isn’t into it, that’s totally fine. If your 10-year-old needs to do inquiry-based science at home for an assignment, find one of the basic, fun, and yes, hardly original experiments that they can do. Put some fruit out on a tray and take photos of it as it gets moldy. Create three kinds of paper airplanes and hypothesize about which one will fly the furthest. It really doesn’t matter what you do—the main point is to have fun and let your child know that anyone can do this.

Science is not a mystery—babies practice it every day.

If your child is into it, however, you are not required to be a helicopter parent. In fact, you won’t be helping if you do all the work. Let your child struggle; let him make mistakes; let her go in a wrong direction and document it. That’s science. That’s learning. On the other hand, don’t let your child drown in service of your wish not to be a helicopter parent. Offer all the support you can, and if you can’t support your child, find another adult who can help out. The key is that it’s your child’s goal, not yours, that you are supporting.

How to avoid hovering

My son, for the record, does all his science without any help from me. After the first few sentences of his report on the programming language he invented, all I’m doing is scanning for typos. His knowledge is more advanced than mine and I know it. However, he does need support in a few areas. One is scheduling: I know that it helps him to put the various stages of preparation on the calendar with reminders, so once the dates are announced we do that together. Another area he asks for help with is, yes, the board. But the sort of help I give—cutting, pasting things on straight, and comments like “I think that font should be bigger”—are support, not “doing it for him.” (In fact, I would love to design cool boards for him, but he complains if I make even the smallest decision about the visual design. So much for my attempts to live through my children!)

Why do we work this way? First, early on I was attracted to the “I’ve got your back” theory of parenting. This came from a mom who was describing to me why she couldn’t go with behavioralist style parenting techniques that make the parent the enforcer. She said, “If nothing else, I want my kids to know that I’m there for them. When they’re having trouble, I want them to know that I’ve got their back.”

Second, research into child behavior, learning, and brain development is all pointing the same way: Kids who are supported and feel comfortable learn more easily, but kids who struggle in their learning learn more deeply and go further. So in preparing for the science fair—and in parenting in general—I hope to hit the sweet spot between raising kids who know that their parents love and support them, and raising kids who learn the value of struggling through something hard to reach a goal that they set themselves. I suspect that the parents of kids who excel at the top levels of science fairs, such as Google’s, have parents who have hit the sweet spot particularly well.

Why do so many parents go to extremes?


Any kid can do fun experiments in the density of different liquids. You don’t have to do cutting edge research to have fun and learn.

Let’s face it:

It’s easy to be that complaining parent who says that their eight-year-old isn’t capable of inquiry learning.

And it’s very tempting to live through our kids and make sure that they succeed at all costs.

But that sweet spot is like balancing in the middle of a seesaw. It’s not simple, and it never stops being a challenge. However, when parents support their children in a goals they set, they always see success—even when their children don’t win awards. To see our children striving, learning, and growing should be all the success we’re looking for.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

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Five Writing Mistakes I Learned from Harry Potter

I wrote this essay a couple of years ago after attending a rather dispiriting writing workshop, which was led by agents who pretty much insisted that if you aren’t doing what everyone else is doing, you will never get published. Each of the rules below were ones I heard at this conference. I’m republishing it now inspired by this weekend’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference, a lovely, supportive environment wholly at odds with that other one. This piece was originally published on the Write for Kids blog.

Harry Potter

What do you do when J.K.Rowling does everything you’re not supposed to do?

I once heard a writer of adult literature read an essay she’d written about how Checkhov proved all truisms about what makes a well-written story wrong. But writers of children’s literature don’t have to go literary to get examples of their own. Here are five rules of writing I learned in children’s writers workshops, and what a quick rereading of the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone says about such advice.

1) Kids’ books should never start with adults, a.k.a. “kill the mother.”

True, Harry doesn’t have a mother. But the first book immortalizing this character starts with the Dursleys, who aren’t even major characters. Their names are apparently Mr. and Mrs. Their son is “small”—definitely not a middle grade fiction reader. As we move forward with the confusing narrative, we meet elderly wizards sitting on a wall. This goes on for seventeen pages. The wizards talk about a baby. A giant arrives (OK, this sounds exciting, except he), bursts into tears, and needs to use an enormous hanky.

2) Kids’ books need to introduce the central tension immediately, without any confusion about “what this book is about.”

Yes, we do find out that Harry has been orphaned and he is going to live with “Muggles,” whatever they are. But we don’t get a whiff of the central tension of this book, or the series, anywhere near the first pages of this book. The Dursleys, who open the book, are always bit players, the tragi-comic relief of the series. You-Know-Who is mentioned but is apparently dead. And Harry himself, the boy who lived, literally sleeps through the scene. Judging from the opening, what the Harry Potter character “wants” is a good night’s sleep!

3) Kids’ books need to stick with a kid’s point of view.

Students, take note: Kids don’t want to read about what grown-ups are thinking and feeling. Never, ever write about a grown-up’s perspective or a grown-up’s concern. This line from Harry Potter must be a fluke: “It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day…”.

4) Never start with generalized background descriptions of our characters.

I need only quote the second paragraph of Harry Potter: “Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

I could stop there (it’s pretty self-evident), but I must channel now the voices of JK Rowling’s writers’ group, who all learned what children like when they took writing classes as adults. “Now, Jo, you’ve got to cut all that Dursley nonsense. All those details can come up when they’re necessary. No kid is going to get past that first page with an expository paragraph like that!”

5) Children get impatient with long descriptions—keep it to a few words.

I can’t do better than Rowling, who stakes her £560 million on the belief that children do love a delicious description: “Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.”

So what does it tell us that the biggest selling children’s series in history breaks every one of the “unbreakable” rules offered in children’s writing workshops? I think it tells us a few things:

First, it tells us that great writing makes its own rules. I’m sure that if Rowling had followed all of the above advice, one of the twelve big publishing houses that rejected the book would have published it. And I’m equally sure that there would now be no Harry Potter mania of the sort we’ve seen. It would have been a fine book, as dismissible as the other fine but dismissible books that publishers feel safe publishing.

Second, it tells us that writers who want to rise above the din need to stay true to themselves. If the story that speaks to you is about wizards, it just can’t matter that the publishing industry says (as they did before HP) that kids are over wizards and are looking for dystopian romance or some such. A fine writer can crank out fine books that sell well by catering to the market. A writer who wants to do more must follow her muse, which may be whispering a long paragraph full of flowery adjectives in her ear.

Finally, the success of Harry Potter tells us that the publishing industry is too quick to elevate practical advice to received wisdom. Every piece of advice quoted above is good advice in many cases, but that doesn’t mean that it’s law. Of course, good writers work on their craft, and they try out advice to see if it improves their writing. But good writers, unlike mediocre writers, are not beholden to the rules.

As Harry Potter himself might say, when what you know to be true is at stake, there’s no point in following rules just to stay safe.


Posted in Books, Writing.