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Parenting in the age of fear porn

Faced with clickbait articles about all the harm we can do to our children, it’s hard to know how to make decisions. Parents are facing very real distress at the onslaught of competing voices. I am not immune, of course, but I have made a choice.

I advocate rational decision-making based on using the information we have, then moving forward with our lives without regret.

Here’s why:

Rational decision-making is a process of watching accumulating data and making the best choices given the data we have.

There’s a great temptation to parents to try to figure out what to do based on our fears of the future. Will we regret making this choice?

But there’s no reason to regret your past choices if they were made based on the best data you had at the time. Rational decision-making allows you to let your future self off the hook.

Fear journalism is not there to inform us or help us in our decision-making.

Fear-based articles are not there to inform us. They are there to titillate us. People get off on reading scary stories about what other people “did to” their kids.

I remember what it was like when states started enacting seatbelt laws: I kept running into stories about how “my kid/mother/friend” was “thrown clear” in an accident and “would have died” if s/he’d been in a seatbelt.

Of course, the data on seatbelts is absolutely, unequivocally clear: they save lives. For every person who might have been “saved” by not being in a seatbelt, millions really are saved.

Make the right choice for now and don’t regret it later if more data proves that choice wrong.

It’s very common for parents now to agonize over choices they have to make for their children. Many of these choices are medical, and involve a new vaccine, therapy, or treatment. The best way forward in all of these cases is to check out the reasons for the treatment, what the current understanding is, and go forward with the treatment if there is no clear reason not to. In the future, accumulated data might suggest that the risk of that particular treatment outweighs the benefits in certain cases. Or maybe a commonly accepted treatment will be replaced by something better. But that won’t change the rightness or wrongness of an individual choice at this time.

The right choice is to do what current understanding says is the best choice, and not regret it later.

Decisions made based on fears of what might happen aren’t rational and don’t have good outcomes in general.

Just because sometimes they turn out to be “right” doesn’t make them rational. Most of the time decisions made out of fear have worse outcomes than rational decisions. But there’s very little money in publishing stories about bad things that didn’t happen: “My Kid Didn’t End Up in a Wheelchair Because of Polio” isn’t very enticing clickbait.

People seek out titillation.

We are living in an age of fear porn.

Parents are the most vulnerable victims of fear-based journalism. We are making choices for other humans that could change their entire lives.

One area where fear-based journalism has had a great effect is vaccines. We read and hear these fear stories daily. “My child got a vaccine and this horrible thing happened.”

But the data on vaccines is abundant and the scientific community continues to agree: The overall effect of vaccines on our population is a clear positive. If you like to get your journalism with a dose of humor and foul language, check out this piece by John Oliver. If you like a point-by-point refutation, this is a good one from Australia. If you want links to the data, start at the CDC.

With vaccines, the only rational decision to make is to go with the data we have on hand and move forward. Fear of what might happen leads us to make irrational decisions. Understanding the data lets us make the right choice for now and move on.

How we live and parent is our choice.

You don’t have to go with the crowd and live a life based on clickbait-generated fear. You get to make the decision about how to live your life.

The rational way to get through this life of too many competing voices is to make the best decision based on the information we have on hand and move on. But this is hard to do when we are facing the onslaught of fear journalism.

Reject fear porn.

Avoid clickbait, let your future self off the hook, and stick with the science.

Also, listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Posted in Culture, Health, Parenting.

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In praise of a job well done

I’ve always had a problem with the idea that there are “important” and “less important” jobs in human society. I, for one, consider the guy who comes and gets my garbage regularly very important.

But whether or not some jobs are seen as more important by our society as others, I think everyone should join me today in appreciation of a job well done.

Any job—I’m not ranking them by importance today.

Here’s where I started on this train of thought. Last week we hired my mother’s housekeeper to come clean our house. We are four people, one of whom would be considered “neat,” one tidy enough but not terribly particular, and two—the ones under eighteen—well, let’s just say that they are as “neat” as Donald Trump is “consistent.”

Over the years, I have tried it all: training, cajoling, bribing, threatening, modeling, yodeling.

OK, I didn’t try yodeling. Perhaps I should.

But our house pretty much never attains what I, the neat person, would call clean. I work and work and cajole, bribe, and sometimes do the job for them, but somehow, the house always feels like it’s got an impenetrable layer of scum on its surface.

Enter the wizard of housekeeping, the woman who can walk through a dirty room like the pied piper and leave it neat and incredibly, awesomely clean.

I just did my weekly deep cleaning of the kitchen and it was clean. Not that I didn’t have spills on the counter, scraps on the floor, and scum in the microwave to get rid of. But that ever-growing layer of scum was simply gone. 

How does she do it? She tells me that she knew from a young age that this was something she was good at, and that doing the job gives her satisfaction.

Back to that garbage. By the way, my older child once had a classmate whose mom was a sanitation worker. She told me she loved her job. She loved getting up early and getting things done, being home for her kids after school, and not bringing her work home with her. She felt appreciated and important.

Our own garbage man seems cut from the same cloth. He’s a man who likes a job well done. After we’d been living in the house for years, they changed the payment system and somehow our bill went amiss for a few months. Our guy came to the door and told me that he figured there was a problem, because he knew we’d always paid before. He was supposed to cut off our service, but he didn’t think that was right.

It was a job well done; I called and figured out the bookkeeping mess, and he took our garbage.

So far I’ve only mentioned jobs that are what most people would put in the “less important” category, but my point is that we can all appreciate a job well done. I love it when my kids have a great community college prof who knows what her job is and does it so well our kids are tricked into thinking the class is “easy.” I love it when I have a problem with a local store and the salesperson figures out how to fix it so that we both end up happy. I love that our retired neighbor runs our private road association like a job that he’s getting regular performance reviews for.

I totally loved it when I got The Guy Who Knows Things at AT&T and in 30 seconds he figured out the problem with our account that had bedeviled three other employees before him (who had all blamed the problem on me and my phone, thankyouverymuch).

I asked him if I could get his direct line, and he apologized that they didn’t have direct lines. Next time I call, I guess I just have to ask for That Nice Guy in Texas Who Knows Things.

As a parent, I hope I’m instilling in my children a love of a Job Well Done. We talk about how a problem got solved by someone who worked hard, or a product was made well by someone who cared, or a politician actually went out and did the thing they promised to do.

I am hoping that one day this will translate into my children actually cleaning their toilets without being cajoled, harassed, and threatened, though I’m not holding my breath.

A Job Well Done seems to be a rare thing in our society. I think we need to celebrate it. It doesn’t matter how prestigious your job is. Housekeeper? Clean that floor better than anyone else. Salesperson? Know your products and stand by them. CEO? Take the share of responsibility your paycheck implies that you have.

No matter what you do, finish up the day knowing that you did your best.

Note: Ah, how time flies. I found this draft that I wrote last year… and though I still love the sentiment, I can happily report that I no longer have two under-18s (one has graduated and is off to college!) and my 14-year-old has suddenly gained pride of place and is cleaning his own room. Crazy how much changes and you don’t even notice…

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

Beauty and the modern human

Recently a Facebook “friend” (a young woman I was in a class with for a few months) posted that she had been deemed “ugly” by an app that purports to be able to divine whether someone is “beautiful” using math.

Apparently, her “interocular distance” was too wide, and some other such nonsense.

Well, yes, it’s nonsense—but I’m sure that mathematically, it’s true. This young woman is striking by anyone’s measure. She doesn’t look like anyone else. Her eyes are noticeably far apart. But does that make her ugly?

I was lucky to have been assigned John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as college reading. No doubt it’s terribly dated now, but at the time, it was mind-bending. Using the nineteenth-century oil painting tradition, he showed how “beauty” in many instances is actually more about power and ownership.

Real beauty isn’t perfectly symmetrical faces. It’s not female bodies molded to fit an ideal invented on a computer screen. It’s not the perfection of a Photoshopped landscape that removes all irregularity and dullness.

The Botticelli head cut out by John Berger in the opening sequence of “Ways of Seeing”

When I think about things I find beautiful, I know that it’s the imperfection that sets them off. Why would I find beauty in a face so generically perfect I wouldn’t be able pick her out on the street? I read somewhere that all the most successful actors have something “wrong” with their faces.

But this is the joke our modern culture is playing on us: On the one hand, we prefer imperfection. We find people attractive who have all sorts of imperfections. Sometimes the imperfection itself is what attracts people.

On the other hand, we are pressured to change our own selves to make ourselves more and more perfect, less and less interesting. Women especially, but men more often now, fuss about their faces, their butts, their ankles, their hair. In a world where we actually can change almost any aspect of our looks, people are starting to think that they should.

The problem is, perfection isn’t attractive in the literal sense of the word: humans are not attracted to perfect specimens. I read recently about an experiment that underscores this: viewer were shown two photos of the same subject. One photo was a selfie, approved by the subject; the other was an informal photo taken by a researcher. The viewers overwhelmingly choose the non-selfies as “more attractive.”

This is from a 17 Magazine article about taking the perfect selfie. What a perfect illustration of how repulsive we can make ourselves look when we are trying to please other people!

In other words, what we do to ourselves in the name of social acceptance may actually have the opposite effect. When thong underwear were all the rage, for example, a male of my acquaintance confessed to me that he found panty lines very erotic.

I was very heartened by the responses that came from my “friend’s” real friends: They were appalled, amused, outraged. One of her friends posted something like, “the male half of this species begs to differ.”

I feel like each one of us needs to consider that everyone we meet is subject to this sort of media onslaught. We need to appreciate each other’s imperfect beauties, and do it out loud. We need to appreciate the individual ways in which people make this world more beautiful, whether it’s by what they wear or what they do.

Our culture is hell-bent on making us all feel like ugly, repulsive creatures who need to submit ourselves to daily torture to pay for our sins.

I beg to differ.


Posted in Culture, Psychology, Sexual Politics.

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Goal-setting parent guide—free download

Note: I have written a Parent Guide to accompany my new book, Homeschool with Confidence, which is a goal-setting guide for homeschooled teens. Although it is meant to introduce the concepts in my book, it might be of interest to parents in general (school and homeschool). Feel free to download it here if you are interested in reading more.

Dear Parents,

Congratulations on your recent acquisition of a teenager! I promise you will not be disappointed. Your teenager should be expected to display common teen features, including surliness, flashes of brilliance, sudden mood swings, unparalleled sweetness, antisocial tendencies, social neediness, advanced sense of humor, and unfailing attraction to all manner of digital devices.

This guide will help you guide your teenager through my goal-setting curriculum, following a few simple steps:

  1. Do not, under any circumstances, let on to your teenager that you are guiding them
  2. Do, always, give your teenager unconditional support and encouragement
  3. Do not let on to your teenager that you feel invested in the outcome
  4. Do let your teenager know that you see a bright future for them.

Confused? Welcome to being the parent of a teenager.

Sociologists have found that the concept of “teenager” is not common to all cultures and across the span of human history. It may be a unique phenomenon of modern industrialized societies.

However, that doesn’t make your job any easier. You are trying to guide someone who doesn’t want to be guided, mentor someone who may actually believe they are smarter than you, and stay sane in the process.

It’s a tall order.

Why goal-setting?

My new book was inspired by working with my kids and my students.

When my older child was 13, I started to see a difficult near future. Though he’s generally a pretty mild-mannered guy, we were getting a lot of pushback and defiance about things that I didn’t consider important at all. It was wearying. I’m sure at some point I must have said this: “If you must fight with me, can you at least choose something meaningful to fight about?”

I started to read about teen development and realized that goal-setting might be a way to get around some of the communication difficulties we had. I couldn’t find a curriculum that wasn’t full of school and organized sports, so I did the homeschooler thing: We muddled through with what we had and adapted what we could find.

I was amazed at the changes in our relationship, and immediately started to integrate what I’d learned into my parenting and teaching. (I teach in-person classes and also online classes at Athena’s Advanced Academy.)

It’s really quite simple. Goal-setting allows you and your teen to:

  • Get to know each other on a new level, as humans with ideas and desires rather than just parent and child
  • Develop a common understanding of your family’s values and concerns
  • Develop a common understanding of your teen’s values and concerns (which may be different)
  • Create a system of planning that is both focused and flexible
  • Learn a new vocabulary to communicate without value judgments and emotionally loaded expectations

Read on by downloading the full guide from my website.


Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting, Psychology.

Half-empty nest syndrome

I remember when my kids were little and I would talk to parents of teens. They always seemed so… calm? resigned? detached? Parenting little ones was a full commitment, physically, intellectually, emotionally. But clearly parenting teens was something different.

If you have little ones and you’re reading this, you might think that I seem, well, calm… resigned… detached. It’s true, part of having kids who are leaving the nest, as my older one is in a week (gak!), is a process of letting go. And as a friend pointed out to me the other day, I am really letting go. My son is jetting off to the Middle East to study Arabic and regional history and politics.

Going off to sleepaway camp!

This is not at all like sending him off to sleepaway camp.

But sending our kids out into the world is also the culmination of the biggest commitment we can make in our lives: to bring a person into this world that we will nurture and do our best to raise into a functional adult of the kind that we want to be around. I know some people who have had to let go of their precocious ones early, and some people whose teens morphed into mid-20s adults before they were really “out of the nest.” But eventually, this ending, which is really a beginning, will come about. Our newly adult children will go off to college to study with teachers we will never meet or get a job working for people we don’t know. They will hang out with friends whose parents don’t see us at PTA meetings. They will make decisions without even bothering to text us about them.

Cuz is also going off to college! How they do grow.

And it will be good.

I know that I’m not losing anything, and I also know that the job of parenting is never quite over. But I do know that when he steps onto that jet, even though he’ll be back for a few weeks before college, and then he’ll probably be home for holidays, this is the end of something.

And it’s been great. I will never forget the way the pre-mom me laughed off the phrase “the hardest job I’ve ever had,” which so many parents echo. Before I had children, I simply had no idea what this was all about.

My favorite lil’ guy photo.

But now that I am sending one off into the world, I can tell those of you who are in the thick of it—sometimes wondering whether your sanity, your physical health, or your marriage will survive it—that parenting is truly the hardest job.

And truly the most rewarding. The imperfect, complex, still-developing humans that we send out into the world are the result of our hard work. What they do with their lives is their responsibility, but no matter what ends up happening, we parents can know that we did our best with what we had.

Related: A good word about teenagers

Posted in Parenting.

Support your teen with goal-setting

[Disclaimer: I didn’t write this because I have somehow perfected the art of raising a teen. I’m writing this because the teen-me watched in horror as the adult-me parented my teens exactly how the teen-me knew I shouldn’t. The teen-me was positively screaming in my ear, but did I listen? Well, I did my best!]

My new book is about goal-setting for teens, and I wrote it directly for teens, not parents. The reason for that is that from what I’ve seen, teens pretty much won’t do anything well unless they feel invested in it.

But teens also need the adults in their lives. Though there are those rare teens who seem to be able to handle everything on their own, most teens need—and actually want—guidance. It’s just that the sort of guidance parents tend to offer is, shall we say, not exactly what they’re looking for.

So how do we support our teens?

Give them agency

In traditional cultures, teens were young adults. They got to take up a spear or build a fire. But our culture is significantly more complex. As much as we might wish that our teens will do well in life with a fine spear and good aim, they need education, a driver’s license, and lots of experience sorting real from fake Nigerian princes.

So they do still need our guidance, and few are ready to be modern “adults” at 14. But they also need to feel growing independence as they go into their teen years. They need to feel trusted with real jobs (even though they might complain about them). Lots of destructive teen behavior comes from their need to make a mark in some way.

Follow their lead

We all knew when our babies were learning to walk that we needed to let them fall. It’s so much harder to let our teens fail when their failure might make a permanent change in their life path.

College professors are reporting that more and more, young students are coming to them and asking how they can make sure they get an A, as if success is more important than learning. This attitude leads to kids who have an instinct always to play it safe and to guard what they have. Perhaps this might make for success in getting into college, but it’s not a good recipe for success in life.

Help them find a direction (for now)

If we’re going to let our kids lead, we have to feel like they are going somewhere. And lots of teens really don’t know where they are going. Goal-setting is a way to help them have a direction, even if it’s just for the next week. And having a direction is important, even if, halfway up the path, we decide to go a different way.

Enter goal-setting

That’s why I fixed on goal-setting as a way to communicate with my kids. I figured if I could get them to articulate goals, even the most minor ones, we’d share a common language for moving forward. I didn’t find a book I liked, so in the spirit of being a lifelong learner, I wrote one myself!

I also use the book (in its previous nascent form and now as a published book) in goal-setting classes I teach online at Athena’s Advanced Academy. It’s fun to work with teens who aren’t my own and find out that just like mine, they thrive when they feel that they have agency, choices, and a direction.

Posted in Books, Education, Homeschooling, Writing.

The Value of Goal-Setting

Last year I made a sort of self-referential decision. I had been working on goal-setting with my kids, first my older one (just about to take off for college) and then with my then-13-year-old. I thought, “Wow, the goal-setting materials for teens that I’ve found are so hard to use with homeschoolers… I should write my own!” So, in order to make sure it got done, I set an explicit goal to finish a book about goal-setting by the end of the summer.

I met my goal-setting goal!

My new book is about to be hot off the presses! Join my email list in order to be notified when you can purchase it.

That book is now on the horizon. Homeschool with Confidence: a goal-setting guide for teens comes out May 15. I wrote a draft of the book, used it in an online goal-setting class that I taught at Athena’s Advanced Academy, reworked the book, and then realized it was that “now or never” point that I hope kids learn to recognize as they use my book.

This first book is explicitly for homeschoolers because homeschoolers face a much different set of choices than school students do. But my thoughts about goal-setting in general apply to all teens.

Goal-setting—I hope I made clear in my book—is not about making a plan and sticking to it no matter what. For all sorts of reasons, our plans change. Flexible people are generally happier and more successful than inflexible people, but at the same time, people who feel that they have purpose and direction in their lives are also happier and more successful.

Successful goal-setting is the balance between knowing what you want and being open to changing if the need arises.

Successful goal-setting is also a balance between understanding what “success” means to you personally versus what it means to your friends, family, and our society at large.

Why goal-setting for teens?

I can’t stress how important this process has been for our family. Goal-setting offers a framework for families to discuss decision-making. This framework serves to defuse the emotion that often arises when making decisions with teens. Once you have a common goal-setting language and your family lays out goals together, it becomes much easier to debate the different possibilities. Of course, you parents are going to have to give up a little bit of your sense of control, but you will be repaid by the reduced stress and the confidence that your teen will gain.

What next?

I will be offering workshops for parents and teens both in-person and online. My first workshop is a free chat session on May 22 in Aptos. Click here for more information. I hope to give other workshops throughout the summer. I will definitely be offering workshops for parents and teens at July’s  HSC Conference. Please see my to do list below so that you can keep in touch if you’re interested in my workshops or the book!

A sense of satisfaction

The very best thing about successful goal-setting is that it makes you feel…successful! Self-published books seldom make much money (heck, these days this applies to books of any stripe). But the great thing about publishing a book is that it crystallizes the work you’ve been doing. Working on goal-setting with my own kids, other kids, and parents, has been extremely rewarding. I can check this goal off my list with a great sense of satisfaction.

Parent to-do list:

Posted in Culture.

4 reasons why schools shouldn’t play “immigration police”

Amongst the various proposals put forth to deal with illegal immigration there is a perennial one: catch ’em at school. People generally want their children to get educated, and also, free public schools are free childcare, right?

School children in New Mexico in 1941. (Wikimedia Commons)

So the thought goes like this: Figure out which “illegal kids” are at schools, and then go after their parents.

Britain is already doing it. And with conservatives in control of the U.S. federal government, we might be following close on their heels.

Here’s why forcing schools to track undocumented kids is a bad idea:

An educated population is always better

This is a rule that never changes, no matter which kids you’re talking about: If you want your country to function better, you want educated people.

Educated people are healthier, they have fewer children, they provide more skilled labor, they pay more taxes.

If you force undocumented adults to keep their kids at home, the only net change is that our country has fewer educated people, which means they’ll have more kids, be unskilled workers, and pay less in taxes.

This is not what we want.

Healthier kids make a healthier society

Children eating school lunch in Virginia. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

Our public schools don’t just educate. They offer free health testing such as vision and hearing. They screen kids for severe dental problems. Teachers are trained to watch for signs of physical abuse.

The reason we put this money into our public schools is that it is paid back many times over. Healthier kids are cheaper to have in our society than sick kids. Sick kids turn into sick adults, who need more care, and more expensive care.

This is not what we want.

The job of educators is to educate

When we attempt to turn teachers into anything but educators, we end up with conflicts that muddy their job descriptions and decrease their effectiveness. This is something that you’ll hear conservatives say often: Teachers should just be teaching the “three R’s.”

In that case, it looks like we agree on this: If we turn teachers into immigration police, they will have less time to teach, and less focus when they are teaching.

This is not what we want.

“Street Urchin” by John George Brown, 1885 (Wikimedia Commons)

Going after children is not only unethical, it’s un-Christian

The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. [Deuteronomy 24:16]

We have a long tradition in Western culture of not blaming children for what their parents do. If we decide to change this tradition, should we imprison children whose parents are convicted of felonies? Should we refuse to feed children whose parents are unwilling to work? Do we leave children with abusive parents simply because the child was born to those parents?

Children of those who have immigrated to the U.S. without legal papers have done nothing wrong. They shouldn’t have to fear going to school. We may as a society decide that undocumented adult workers should fear our government. But allowing immigration officials to catch families through their children imposes immoral burdens upon the children.

This is not what we want.

In other words, quite simply, Britain is doing the wrong thing. Our government has historically done the right thing. Let’s keep it that way.

Posted in Culture, Education.

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Math Stories: Fun, Deep Learning for Elementary Students

Readers: This is an update and consolidation of previous posts on this topic. Hopefully I’ve gotten all the resources in here!

It started one night when my seven-year-old daughter explained to her father how you can determine the number of faces in a geometric solid from the number of points. I’d ordered a Sir Cumference book from the library on the many recommendations I’d seen, and for the fact that my daughter was obsessed with knights.

Sir Cumference was our introduction to math stories.

It didn’t occur to me that this would be an efficient way to teach math. Since then, I’ve been on a quest for math stories.

First, a definition: What I’m calling math “stories” are books in which the story is more, or at least as important as the math it contains. I’m not confusing them with “story problems,” the bane of many a standardized test-taker. A math story is a really great story that happens to contain math.

It’s also a very effective way to spark interest in and understanding of math in elementary-aged kids.

The first books we tried, the wonderful Sir Cumference series, are picture books about medieval times peopled with wonderfully named characters: Lady Di of Ameter, Geo of Metry, and of course Sir Cumference himself.

The books have the lush pictures and captivating storylines you’d expect from picture books, but they also teach math concepts in a deep way.

In learning about pi, that confusing number associated with circles, Radius (Sir C.’s son, of course) actually experiments with a pie. The shape of King Arthur’s table leads to a discussion of circles and their particular attributes.

The success of Sir Cumference led us to seek out more math stories. A friend recommended The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat. Author Theoni Pappas has written a number of math books for a range of ages and abilities. They all seem to center around the idea that if people just understood all of math’s lovable attributes, they’d love the discipline as well.

We instantly fell in love with Penrose. If you have a cat, you will recognize Penrose in an instant. He learns mathematics because his mistress (Pappas) is always looking at her math papers. So like any good cat, what does he do? He inserts himself between his mistress and the papers. Fun and learning follow.

The charm of Penrose is, first, that he is a real cat. Though the illustrations are in pen and ink, there’s a photo in the beginning of the book of the real Penrose, poised in mid-play amongst his mistress’s papers.

The fictional Penrose not only enjoys getting attention, but also gaining knowledge. He starts to wonder about what’s on the papers, and soon the numbers and shapes come alive and talk to him.

This is a consistent metaphor in the books, and is a good metaphor for what happens to a child charmed by Penrose. At the end of each story there is a small box with an intriguing question. My daughter, who screams in frustration at a page of math problems, took the initiative in finding paper and pencil to answer the first chapter’s conundrum.

We’re on to our third Pappas book now, hungrily lapping up Penrose’s forays into tessellation, prime numbers, and equiangular spirals.

We were on a roll. Someone else suggested The Number Devil. There are a couple of caveats about this book: First, this is a playful take on religion, with a Number Heaven/Hell and the Number Devils that live there, so beware if this doesn’t fit with your world view. Also, this book starts with the main character, Robert, having nightmares, and given that our household was being turned upside-down at that point with nighttime wakings, I was leery of adding more ideas for bad things that happen at night.

I decided, however, to give it a try, and it was a hit. Not only did Robert’s nightmares not scare my daughter, but the Number Devil soon invades the dreams and drives away all the bad thoughts. They are replaced by dreams of number theory, explained through colorful language and ever-changing scenery.

We loved the Number Devil not just for the math but for the fiction.

The book has a therapeutic as well as didactic approach: Robert’s fears of the big, scary world and also of his detested math teacher, Mr. Bockel, are replaced by musings about the beauty of numbers. By the end of the book, Robert becomes a number devil himself, having earned a place in Number Heaven (or Hell, depending on how you look at it) and a license to think about the cool stuff that number philosophers have thought about since ancient times.

This may all beg the question: What did my daughter get from this? Is she learning useful skills?

First, I have to say that all this reading will probably not translate directly to any increase in her testable numbers. Standardized tests look for mastery of skills; these books encourage excitement about ideas. Standardized tests focus on grade-level standards; these books throw that all out the window and figure kids should learn about the cool stuff… leave the boring, repetitive stuff for another day.

What math stories do is introduce kids to the big, enticing ideas that make all the work on boring stuff like multiplication facts worth the effort. A child who is excited by triangles is going to learn soon enough that having to pull out a calculator or multiplication chart over and over to remember 3×3 just delays the pay-off.

Math stories also teach math concepts in a deeper way, embedding them in a narrative that fits into the way children learn in the real world, through experience and need.

If you’re looking for math stories for older children, check out the British Murderous Maths series (which I’m happy to see is now available in the US) and Theoni Pappas’s The Joy of Mathematics, both of which teach the history and ideas behind the math that kids will need to tackle in late elementary and middle school.


  • Living Math is a website full of great math resources

Here are various math stories that we read and enjoyed or that other readers have recommended:

Posted in Books, Education, Homeschooling.

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Santa Cruz Families March for Women… and all of us

Interviews by Suki Wessling
Photographs by Abe Jellinek



Thousands of Santa Cruzans marched together in an incredible show of unity in our support of diversity and dignity for everyone.

Click on photos to see them full-size.

If ever all of Santa Cruz gathered for a big family photo, this would have been the day. On January 21, the day after the inauguration of a president that Santa Cruzans overwhelmingly voted against, whose platform contradicts nearly every strongly held value of our citizens, our community came out for a day of celebration. We celebrated our diversity and our strong values, along with our affirmation of the rights of all the people who felt that their voices weren’t heard in this election. In this photo essay, each family we photographed answered the question, “What are you doing here?”


Kate with children, ages 8, 10, and 12, and two friends

Kate: “We’re here to support rights for everybody, for women, for minorities. There’s a lot of fear out there. For the kids, we’ve been aware that the fear is going through to them, so we wanted to say something positive. We’re stronger together!”


Andi and Warren

Andi: “I am marching as the parent of a transgender child whose safety is in jeopardy with the incoming administration, as well as her trans-specific healthcare which will almost certainly be removed from insurance mandates.”


Tessa Henry, 11, with Jeremy and Tiffany Henry

Tessa: “I’m here for women’s rights and just because of everything is going on, I want to feel safe with everything.”

Tiffany: “We wanted to be an example to her to show that in terms of standing up for yourself, you’re never too young to come out and be supported by your family and others in your community to get your point across.”


Julie Crandall with Bella (11) and mom Britney Anderson

Julie: “We’re here in solidarity for women. Everybody is equal, we need equality and reproductive rights. Equal rights are human rights. We can try to support love and not hate. I think that’s really important.”

Bella: “My mom said that she wants me to grow up to do anything that I want to do.”


Jen and Darrin Caddes, with Leslie, Luna, Amelia, Jack, and Parker

Darrin: ”I’m here because I love my kids!”

Kids: “We want to protest!” “I want to avoid World War III!” “Yes!”


Gretchen and Craig Miller with Landon

Gretchen: “We’re here in solidarity with women. We’re disappointed with the direction of our country and we want to do something positive.”

Craig: “I want my son to know that all people are equal and that no one can put anybody else in a box and tell them what they can and can’t do. It’s the world I want him to live in, so I’m here to show that.”


Evyn, 12, Ella, 9, Ethan, 4, Jim & Kimberly (from St. Louis)

Evyn: “We are here to support women’s rights, gender equality, basic civil human rights, religious freedom, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights.”


Leslie Burnham with Laura Spilman, daughter Julia, 2 ½, and baby due May 2

Leslie: “I’m here because I’m really upset at the illegitimacy of this election and I want to promote values across the US, I feel like we’re really inoculated in some ways against what’s happening in other parts of the country. I don’t want there to be normalization of values of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and islamophobia.”


Rose, 15, with her brother The Spirit of Vengeance and Death, otherwise known as Macky, and their parents, Larissa and Mo, and friends

Rose: “I’ve known many situations and I know lots of people who would probably be in trouble if things like that happened and I care about things too much, so I don’t like it.”

Macky: “Because I like protesting!”


Trelou, Asha,13, Jeff, and Suzy, 11, Lawson

Trelou: “We’re against Trump and everything that his administration stands for.”

Asha: “I’m here for protecting women’s rights.”

Jeff: “I’m here for my girls.”


Lisa, Maya, 10, and Lisa

Lisa: “We’re here to support anyone who, now or in the future, might not be treated fairly. We’re trying to stay on the positive, it’s not that we’re fighting against something. We’re fighting for equality and fairness for everyone.”


Kirstin, Leo 8, Evan, 9, and Anthony

Anthony: “To support women!”

Kristin: “I think it’s important that they see they have the right to stand up against tyranny and fascism and to make their voices heard and to peacefully assemble.”


Elizabeth Becera with son Sebastian, his dad, and a friend

Sebastian (about his sign): “I just wrote ‘Be Kind’.”

Elizabeth: “We both come from families that our parents are immigrants. I feel that we have a right to be here, our parents have a right to be here, and I’m just happy to be among people that are for that. I’m really happy to stand strong and not let hate get to us.”


Beth and Ben Oneto with Tyler, 7

Tyler: “For my mom. To stand up for our rights because everyone is the same.”

Ben: “We wanted to get involved in things for a little while, and now that we’re in Santa Cruz we decided that this is the time.”


Liam, Finnegan, and Christina

Christina: “We’re here to fight for everything we believe in that we feel is at risk. The rights of all people, the environment, science, the fight against bigotry, and also against the 99.9% having all the power.”

Children playing with bubbles before the start of the march.


More bubbles!


Santa Cruz families celebrate diversity.

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Sexual Politics.

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