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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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RIP, Gentle Giant

A short note for a sad event: The largest old-growth redwood in Nisene Marks State Park (otherwise known as our wonderful backyard) is gone. It fell over in  a recent storm. Following are some pictures. Hoping that if the old-growth redwoods behind our house meet a similar fate, they fall down the hill, not toward our house!

Locals: Unfortunately, given the location of the tree you can’t currently get to it from the main entrance without wading in a very swift current—you’ll have to wait until they put the seasonal bridge up this spring to get to it. You could use the Vienna Woods entrance but then would have about a 20-minute hike (at least) to get there. There is an entrance across from Safeway that should put you on the correct side of the creek, but I’m not sure whether there is a sign.

Advocate - 1

The sign still points toward a major attraction that is no longer.

Advocate - 2

There’s an enormous hole in the vista that used to be filled with a majestic tree.


Advocate - 6

Another visitor left roses.

Advocate - 3

It stretches all the way down to the creek. I couldn’t lift myself up onto it to walk down, but my husband said that the top of the tree had “exploded” when it hit ground.


Advocate - 4

A little perspective: he’s 6 feet tall!


Advocate - 5


Posted in Education.

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Our approach to Internet safety

My older child takes part in open source projects, posts on forums about topics he’s interested in, and uses the Internet daily in his education, his leadership/service projects, and his social life. He’s now almost 18, but he’s been online for many years, starting in the Scratch community at the age of 9.

talkingonyoutubeMy younger child is an active Youtuber. He loves Instagram. He chats with friends he’s never met in person. He loves to share his creative work, and he takes part in conversations about topics that interest him.

I think that overall taking part in creative communities and finding people to share interests online is an extremely positive experience for most kids. They get direct feedback on their work, and get to feel like they are taking part in a larger creative conversation. I definitely feel that parents who keep their kids off the Internet are being too cautious, sort of like not letting them travel to a nearby city by automobile because it’s more dangerous than walking. The benefits are so great it’s worth taking some risks.

However – the big however – I also think it’s really important for parents to be aware and to educate their children. Kids are growing up as digital natives, and this is all within “normal” for them. So we adults run the risk of sounding like reactionary old fogies when we talk to our kids.

Lots of parents are confused about whether they should allow their kids to share online, and how they should do it. Ours is an imperfect system, of course (all family systems are). But I’m offering it up as an example for others to consider.

Reasonable restrictions

Here are the restrictions we put on our kids’ Internet usage:

1) Before the age of 13, they chose a pseudonym to use online and were not allowed to divulge their real name to anyone we already didn’t know IRL. My younger one is still using the pseudonym as a Youtuber, though now 14. My older one, who is building the foundations of a career, uses his real name.

2) Everyone in the family is required to have a master password that they write on a piece of paper (how 20th century!) and keep in a sealed envelope in a special place. This is just in case of emergency, and we’ve never opened these envelopes and hope we’ll never need to.

3) I subscribe to my kids’ channels and connect with them on all of their social media. For one of them, this is easy. The other one loves to generate new accounts, so it’s a challenge! But I feel that they shouldn’t be saying anything online that they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying IRL, and I hope that my presence as their online “friend” normalizes this connection between the online and physical world. I don’t snoop, but I do want to know where they are if I need to help them.

Bad things happen

independence-dayOf course we all read the horror stories about kids on the Internet. But here are some of the bad things that are actually likely to happen:

Unless your child creates a password-protected blog and only unlisted Youtube videos, others will be able to find them. Those others may have different values. The most common thing that raises my hackles is the type of language used in comments on Youtube. This is something you won’t be able to get away from. In our family, we just talk about how this isn’t the way we talk to each other, and we try to brush it off.

You will also get people who are dismissive or critical – maybe once or maybe they will move into bullying behavior. In any case, your kid is likely at some point to get “you suck” type of comments. My Youtuber just totally shrugs them off. But more sensitive kids might need support when this happens, and of course, extended bullying has to be dealt with.

Kids also get really drawn into conversations and can experience obsessive/emotional/depressive behaviors as a result. Again, how kids react to this depends on what they’re like to begin with, and parents can watch for signs and keep an open dialogue if they are concerned.

But what about the really horrific stories?

And then there are those other horror stories: My personal approach is to know that we take appropriate precautions in our family and that these things are unlikely to happen. And also, they’re just unlikely in any case. Just like stranger abduction, they’re scary but much less frequent than the media leads us to believe.


robosukipatrckWhat our family aims for is creating the same balance in online life that we try to have in “real” life: We want our children to be independent, creative, and to feel comfortable exploring. We also want them know that we love them, support them, and have their backs when people mistreat them.

Each family, of course, makes their own decisions based on their own values and experiences. The important thing to consider is whether you are communicating those values and experiences to your children by making reasonable, supportive rules for their online lives.


Other posts on this topic:

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.

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The great hunt

Each year my family awaits the December holidays for a number of reasons. One of the major ones involves tramping around hillsides like this one:


Searching the forest floor, which looks like this:


for a certain sort of gold, otherwise known as chanterelles. Here are a few that we found today:


They don’t look like much, but they taste like heaven. They are also the only mushroom that I am willing to identify and eat, which makes them ultra-special to me.

Protect your “spot”

I will never forget my introduction to chanterelle-hunting in California. Living in a condo complex, my neighbor on one side, a French narcolepsy researcher, told me that my neighbor on the other side, a retired professor, took him chanterelle-hunting. The professor drove the researcher up in to the mountains to his “spot,” where they found masses of enormous chanterelles.

This was before the age of digital photos and the Internet. The Frenchman had his photo taken with the mushrooms, had it developed and printed, and mailed photos to France.

He said that none of his relatives would have believed him otherwise.

Here’s the catch in this story: The Frenchman had to do all of this—aside from the actual hunting for mushrooms—blindfolded. Yep, even though the two were great friends, the prof didn’t trust the scientist not to blab about his “spot” to others.

Enter the thieves!

My mom and I have a “spot.” I’m not going to tell you where it is. However, one day a couple of years ago we emerged from the forest to see a neighbor on his tractor. He noted what a haul we’d got (we’d run out of bags and were porting some of the mushrooms in our jackets!).

Oddly, every time we’ve been to our spot since then, someone else has been there first. Hmph. How dare they poach our spot?

Even though it is, ahem, on their property.

Join the hunt!

Mushroom-hunting isn’t for the lazy, the short-tempered, or those who need immediate satisfaction.

Oddly, children love it.

Our kids always did, at least, and all the kids I ever took on a hunt. You don’t even have to eat what you find—draw it, make spore prints, try to identify it. Most of all, make sure to learn about the world’s biggest organism.

If you live near Santa Cruz, make sure to check out our favorite event: The Fungus Fair. Mushroomers haul in specimens of the hundreds of types of mushrooms you can find in this area. Local chefs serve mushroom lasagne and ice cream. Artists display their pictures. And of course you can buy mushrooms. We always get some fresh, some dried, and a cultivation box to grow in our house.

Amanita Muscaria: Take pictures of it, laugh at it, but don't eat it!

Amanita Muscaria: Take pictures of it, laugh at it, but don’t eat it!

Posted in Culture, Homeschooling.

An Indecent Man

Forget politics.

I want to focus on one thing and one thing only here: What it means to be a decent human being.

Why are we indecent?

Pretty much every human religion ever invented has a mechanism for explaining and dealing with (however imperfectly) the fact that we humans do not always treat each other decently. Most of us, when it comes down to it, basically want to be decent, but we fail on a daily basis to live up to our ideals.

This is fine; this is what it means to be human. I have spent my parenting years helping my kids wrestle with this. It’s a common issue in the classes I teach. It’s good and right that kids wrestle with this issue, and it’s good and right for them to be put into situations where they clash with others who are unlike them so that they get used to wrestling with this issue.

Bullies are often the first ones to point fingers and call themselves victims.

Bullies are often the first ones to point fingers and call themselves victims.

This indecent man

Then there’s our president-elect. I’m not going to discuss his policies.

What I want to discuss is how he is an indecent man, and anyone who supports him becomes, through their support, indecent. Luckily, there’s a way to come back to decency—I’ll get to that.

In what ways is he indecent?

He’s a liar.

All politicians stretch and bend the truth to try to make their case. All politicians change their positions (which I think is a good thing!). All politicians say what their audience wants to hear as much as they can.

However, our president-elect is, quite simply, a liar. He clearly believes that whatever he says becomes true, which is the mark of someone who is a liar to the core. The most effective liars believe themselves deeply and consistently. The most effective liars simply dismiss anything that isn’t consistent with their lie as a lie.

If you support him, you support a liar.

He’s a bigot.

Even when he’s trying to be nice to people, he shows his bigotry. Remember, believing that something is better about a group of people based on an attribute they have no control over is bigotry, too. So when he makes generalizations about women, people of color, immigrants, the disabled—add other categories here—and says something “nice,” remember that’s still bigotry. Though let’s face it, most of the content of what he says is negative.

If you are still on the fence about whether or not he’s a bigot, look at his supporters in the “alt-right”—let’s call them by their real title—white supremacists. They believe he’s a bigot, and they like that about him.

If you support him, you support a bigot.

He uses his wealth for power, not to help others.

This is an important aspect of a decent person that, again, all religions agree on: decent people always help others when they can. Ironically, research shows that the less you have to give, the more likely you are to give your time and money to help others.

In other words, it’s hard being rich. It’s really hard to help others that you don’t see, don’t have contact with, and think of as “the other.” But it’s easy enough, if you’re rich, at least to give some money. Any money.

Yes, our president-elect has a foundation, but there seems to be little evidence that he has used it to help anyone. It’s also worth a fraction of the billions he says he has. And it has spent plenty of money helping…him and his family.

If you support him, you support using wealth only empower the wealthy.

He treats others with open disdain.

It’s true that politicians are often accused of being disdainful, such as Mitt Romney after his 47% comment or Hillary Clinton after her “basket of deplorables” comment.

But our president-elect doesn’t have to say things that can be perceived as disdainful—he is simply openly disdainful. The way he behaves towards others—even, sometimes, rich white men like him—is indecent. He shows no respect for the dignity of other human beings.

If you support him, you support treating others with disdain.

How can we fix this?

The following is what I teach my children and my students.

  1. Reject indecency
    Do not vote for or support people who do not treat others decently
  2. Call out indecency
    Don’t (out of a fear of impropriety) hide the fact that you reject indecent people
  3. Ask others to reject indecency
    Make the “call to action” so that others see someone standing up for common decency
  4. Do all of this decently
    Don’t, in the name of decency, behave indecently

I have decided to be open about the fact that I reject indecency in our personal and political spheres, and thus I reject our president-elect.

I ask you also, no matter who you voted for, to reject indecency in our personal and political spheres, and thus reject our president-elect.

If you voted for him, rejecting indecency is your ticket back to decency.

If you do not reject him openly and publicly, then you, in your silence, join in the support of indecency.

This blog is not about politics, but it is about parenting. And all parents know that sometimes it’s uncomfortable to do what’s right.

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Sexual Politics.

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Movie Review: Everything would be fine if you just got over that homeschooling thing….

A number of friends have recommended the film “Captain Fantastic” to me. None of them were homeschoolers, and when they recommended it they didn’t even mention the homeschooling angle.

Perhaps, given where I live, they were more riveted by the Buddhism and the “stick it to the man” angles.

However, upon reading the reviews, I was looking forward to this film. It sounded like a magnified version of so many homeschoolers I know:

  • trying to raise their kids away from the corrupting influence of popular culture
  • trying to get back to what was good about traditional culture
  • trying desperately not to replicate the mistakes that they think their parents made

“Captain Fantastic” was all that. The film starts with a comic book version of what I know to be the days of many homeschoolers I am acquainted with: The dad is spending real, focused time with his kids. They are in nature. He has borrowed a tradition that he feels had value in the past and updated it [sorta] for his own modern uses.

The movie starts with homeschool bootcamp. (Admit it, homeschoolers, haven't you wished your kids would go along with something like this?)

The movie starts with homeschool bootcamp. (Admit it, homeschoolers, haven’t you wished your kids would go along with something like this?)

Keeping the expectations low

I’m not concerned about the comic book nature of the film. By virtue of the medium, films need to present concentrated versions of reality, the same way that haute cuisine reduces an honest broth to a concentrated perfection only served by professionals.

The homeschoolers in this movie are to homeschooling what superheroes are to police officers with their feet on the pavement.

That said, couldn’t this one movie, which is quirky and wonderful in so many ways, have risen above the obvious cliché that it ends with? Really, can all our problems be solved by sending our kids to school?

Apparently, they can.

What’s great about this movie

Here’s a recap of how this movie progresses:

  • Homeschooling family comes out of the woods to attend Mom’s funeral
  • Homeschooled kids find out how essentially weird they are
  • Homeschooled kids also find out how well-educated they are in comparison to their schooled peers
  • Well-intentioned grandparents attempt to take kids from loving, though misguided, father
  • Kids decide to stick with dad
All dressed up for Mom's funeral!

All dressed up for Mom’s funeral!

This is all pretty good, yes? It hits the major points:

  • Yep, homeschoolers are weird and guess what? We don’t care!
  • Granted, though some homeschoolers are ill-educated louts, homeschooling can be more effective than school for motivated learners.

It doesn’t sugarcoat things, but also doesn’t demonize parents who made admittedly weird decisions.

Then… the dénouement:

  • As a result of seeing The Real World, the oldest homeschooler, who has been accepted into “every top university” and clearly loves learning, decides to forego college entirely. Wha’?
  • As a result of seeing how great his children have turned out in comparison with kids in The Real World, the dad decides to… move back to The Real World and… send his kids to school? Double-wha’?

Really, I don’t think a movie has ever gone so wrong in the last few short minutes than this one did. The ending of this movie seems more intent on sticking it to anyone who has ever tried to live up to their ideals than on faithfully bringing the characters to a sense of closure.

Rewriting Hollywood, courtesy of Suki’s script-rewriting service

So, for my homeschooled readers, I am going to rewrite the ending for you. Please do watch this movie because you will laugh and cheer this quirky family of super-homeschoolers. But turn it off once the kids return to their dad, and imagine my ending instead:

  • As a result of seeing The Real World, the oldest homeschooler chooses the university that will allow him the greatest opportunity to learn and explore, while also growing as a human being amongst other humans. During the summers, he volunteers around the world, and is eventually able to marry his ideals with his life’s work, hopefully a bit more successfully than his dad did.
  • As a result of seeing how great his children have turned out in comparison with kids in The Real World, the dad realizes that yes, he is weird, but really, it’s OK. Maybe he’s lonely (he has lost his beloved wife, after all) and he decides to move closer to other humans. That’s great. But he also re-embraces the educational method he and his wife chose, seeing that his children are becoming the strong-willed, thoughtful, morally guided humans that they had hoped to raise.

But that wouldn’t be Hollywood, would it? We can’t celebrate real humans’ real achievements and real quirkiness. We have to force our world of soft greys into the black-and-whites of popular culture.

With this movie, at least, I had hoped for better.

Some very real (non-super-)homeschoolers learning in nature and celebrating their own, quirky selves.

Some very real (non-super-)homeschoolers learning in nature and celebrating their own, quirky selves.

Posted in Culture, Films, Homeschooling.

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Book review: Raising Human Beings

Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with your Child
Dr. Ross Greene
Scribner, 2016

There are times when I fervently wish that all human beings were raised to understand the value of empathy, cooperation, and collaboration. This is one of those times.

I’ve been meaning to write a review of Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with your Child by Dr. Ross Greene ever since it came out. Uncharacteristically, I bought this book in hardcover. Perhaps that’s because when my younger child was 10, I believe that I joined with a zeitgeist of parents around the country who willed Raising Human Beings into reality. Collectively, we had read Greene’s The Explosive Child because we had a child of that description, then realized that it was also the perfect manual for raising any human being, explosive or otherwise.

Dr. Greene apparently heard our collective cry for a book aimed at all parents outlining his approach, which so improved the lives of families trying to raise difficult children. He heard us, and Raising Human Beings was born.

Greene starts from a place of simple logic: All children want to do well if they can. As much as we want to impute devious motives to our misbehaving children, they are misbehaving not because they want to






but because they simply need something. Sometimes they have no idea what they need. Sometimes they think they need something completely different than what they really need. But they have a need nonetheless.

Greene’s approach is to teach parents to work with their little human beings starting not from an assumption of misbehavior, but from a place of empathy and compassion. Our little human beings are works in progress. They need our guidance to learn how to work within this complicated, confusing world. As parents, it’s our job to raise our children, not to beat them down or lord over them.

All of us want to raise the best human beings we can, but many of us fall back on the flawed reasoning that informed previous generations of parents. Dr. Greene calls this Plan A, and he understands why you use it. It’s quick, dirty, and seems (sometimes) effective. It feels good to say “because I said so.” Getting angry can be cathartic.

But Plan A isn’t what our kids need in this world. We live in a Plan B world. In this world, you’ll do best if you know how to figure out what other people need, understand your own needs, and learn to collaborate so everyone gets their needs met as well as possible.

Plan B is complicated, slow, and frustrating. I would venture to predict that most parents actually give up on it somewhere before actual full realization of the approach (I certainly did). But I feel very confident that all families will benefit from however much of this approach you can implement in your particular family situation.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you have a particularly tough nut to crack, get The Explosive Child instead or in addition. It will improve your lives, and you will send out into the world healthy human beings who understand the value of empathy, cooperation, and collaboration.

And we could all use a few more of those around.

Posted in Books, Parenting.

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On being alone, on being a neatnik, and other mother things

I spent ten days alone in my house.

You may think you have suddenly become dyslexic and I really meant to say that my house was alone for 10 days because my family went on vacation. So I’ll repeat it again.

My son and I actually took a picture of his closet before he cleaned it. The one great feature that our other closets have that this one didn't is that when you open them, something might fall on your head. It makes for suspenseful living!

My son and I actually took a picture of his closet before he cleaned it. The one great feature that our other closets have that this one didn’t is that when you open them, something might fall on your head. It makes for suspenseful living!

I spent ten days alone in my house.

I am the mother of two children, the wife of a devoted husband, and I am alone.

You’re reading this after the fact, because my husband and I both deeply believe that if we post on social media that I am home alone, a robber will come to take all our things (not that we have much worth taking….ooh, I hope they take the couch!) and all the neighborhood teenagers will come here because someone announced a party at our address on Facebook.

I’m not alone now, but I’m writing this in the past. Got it? OK.

So, I’m alone. What would you do if you were alone? Be very honest. Here’s what I planned to do:

Clean closets.

Yep. I was looking forward to being alone, and what did I want to do? Clean closets.

It sort of makes sense: You see, when you are a neat person living in a house with three people who are… um… less-than-compulsively-neat… you dream of having clean closets. But really you’re always one step behind the people making messes all over your darling house. So, in essence, the most horrifying aspect of your life is that you never get to clean the closets.

Or the freezer, but that’s something else that we won’t even talk about.

But here’s the question: What do you actually end up doing when you’re alone?

Well, if you’re me, you do your work, the stuff you get paid for, because somebody is paying attention to that. (Also, because you think if you make enough money you might get a new couch. But let’s not dwell on illusions.)

Then, what about the rest of that time? Time in which you would be:

  • Cleaning up after messy people
  • Arbitrating fights between your children
  • Shopping for more food because those people never stop eating!
  • Driving someone, somewhere
  • Cleaning up after messy people
  • Actually listening to what your husband is saying, and offering thoughtful responses
  • Planning what you’re going to do tomorrow so your kid doesn’t drive you crazy when you’re trying to work
  • Doing the thing that you planned to do tomorrow, because tomorrow always becomes today waaaaaay before you are ready for tomorrow
  • Et cetera

So that’s a lot of time you’ve freed up, right? You’ve got ten days alone in your house, and darn if you aren’t going to get some closets cleaned.

I could go on, but I will just end with some photos and captions.


This is the flower arrangement I made. Isn’t it pretty?


This is me drinking wine out on our back deck, perusing Facebook and learning such fascinating, important things.


The is a cat I took a photo of.


This is the same cat, different pose, different day.


This is a really hilarious satire I read, which I never would have finished if I hadn’t had ten full days in which to read it…


while forgetting…


I have closets to clean out!

Dear house sitters,

I know that I told you the last time we went on vacation that the next time you stayed here, our closets would be organized. I’m sorry to say that once again you will have to search high and low for a towel that hasn’t been used to clean up cat barf, a can opener, and the remote that allows  you to actually make our Roku box do what it’s supposed to do. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. If you would like to have clean, organized closets the next time you house sit, would you please invite my husband and kids to stay at your house for more than ten days?

Apparently, ten days isn’t enough time in which to realize my dreams.

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

Looking past the thorns

All parents with adult children say it: Enjoy your kids, because they’ll be gone before you know it.

All parents in the throes of diapers, tantrums, school choices, and the craziness of early teens think it: This will never end.

And then it does.

roseMy older child is 17, and I can assure you that it’s gone by in the blink of an eye. At the same time, it seemed to pass very, very slowly. But there’s been an unexpected beauty as we move into our last school year with two kids at home: College applications.

Now you’re thinking: She’s really lost it. College applications? Beauty? All that stress of having teenagers has gotten to her.

Actually, I’ve found this beauty in just one aspect of college applications: reading my son’s essays. He’s applying to a healthy number of colleges (nowhere near the 30-40 that some students are doing these days), and each one wants essays on slightly different topics. Most of them are predictable—what makes you different? what makes you like other people? what makes you right for our college? But the best essays, my son knows, are the ones that contain very specific and memorable answers.

The process has made someone who is not usually your most reflective kid sit back and look at his experiences. Reading his essays has been illuminating for his parents. For him, writing them has challenged him to think about his education, his interests, his community, and more.

It’s given him a chance to write about the weirdness of Santa Cruz—how many applicants get to write about Chongo, the stuffed gorilla who is the Revivalution Party’s candidate for president?

It’s given him the chance to consider his own shortcomings—why did I resist learning math all that time? When I finally got around to committing myself to it, I found out I liked it.

And it’s given his parents a chance to see the childhood we guided him through from his perspective. I’ve learned what he remembers best from the schools he went to. I learned what he appreciates most about our agreeing to homeschool him starting in sixth grade. I learned how he sees himself as a person, and how he hopes that others will see him.

I know a lot of parents with younger children who cause themselves undue stress worrying about college. Today, I’m here to give you a little taste of how you can also enjoy it. Yes, we’re worrying about whether he’ll get into his top choice. Yes, we’re wondering whether we encouraged him to do enough to prepare. And certainly, we’re worried about how much we’re going to have to pay.

But it’s important to remember: When you’re looking at a rose, you don’t have to spend all the time focusing on the thorns.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting.

Brain-Based Learning for Homeschoolers

I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am re-publishing mine here on my blog.

In the time that I’ve been homeschooling, major progress has been made by scientists studying how we think and learn. What we thought we knew about learning ten, twenty, or thirty years ago is being turned on its head in study after study showing how our brains actually do tasks.

Homeschoolers can stay ahead of the curve by applying our knowledge of learning well before schools catch up.

Homeschoolers can stay ahead of the curve by applying our knowledge of learning well before schools catch up.

Mainstream American education has hardly reacted to the new data that is coming out daily, still attempting to force children to learn in a way that never really suited anyone, though we all suffered through it. But that’s no reason why we homeschoolers can’t look at the research and take stock of how they work with our own children.

Your physical brain

Modern imaging technology has encouraged an explosion in brain research. We used to have to figure out how the brain worked by observing people, recording their actions, and dissecting the brains of the deceased. Modern imaging allows scientists to watch brains learning, growing, and changing in real time, and much of what they have learned shows that educational theory lingers in the dark ages.

We used to think that the brain had relatively isolated areas for different functions; now we see that although language is centered in one part of the brain and movement in another, those two parts of the brain are interconnected and “help” each other learn.

We used to think that creative people were “right-brained” and technical people were “left-brained.” Imaging shows us that although certain processes make take place more on one side of the brain than the other, complex processes take place throughout the brain. Scans of people in high creative mode—from painting to designing technology—show their brains lighting up in concentrated areas on both sides, not simply glowing on the right side as previously predicted.

Understanding how your child's brain processes information and emotion can help in how you face homeschooling obstacles.

Understanding how your child’s brain processes information and emotion can help in how you face homeschooling obstacles.

Educators base teaching theory on the idea that people have different “learning styles” in which they can be categorized as a single type of learner, such as “kinesthetic.” Modern brain research shows us that we all learn through all available senses, and hasn’t been able to validate the learning styles theory at all. In fact, evidence indicates that providing a rich, multi-sensory environment is the best way to go.

We used to believe that teenagers were largely “grown up” both physically and mentally. Brain imaging shows us that in some important ways teens’ brains aren’t “grown up” at all. The last part of the human brain to become fully functional is the prefrontal cortex, where the “executive function” resides. The executive function is what filters input and makes decisions, and isn’t fully developed in most people until the age of twenty-five.

So what does this tell us as homeschoolers? First of all, our goal should never to be to “teach” our children one subject in one way, the way that public school does. Our children are learning and making connections all the time, whether they are doing a math worksheet, playing Minecraft with their friends, or working in the garden. The skills that a child uses to do math, play Minecraft, and garden are not isolated; they overlap in complex ways.

Secondly, we now know that brains that have learned how to do one thing well are better prepared to learn anything else. This deep learning is more important than the topic being learned. As long as our kids are making connections and growing new pathways in their brains, they are creating the structures that will allow them to build on what they’ve learned.

Lastly, we know that just like with athletic ability, the important thing is that children are using and exercising their brains. This is important in different ways at different ages:

  • operating brainBabies and toddlers need tactile experiences. The more babies interact with the physical world and with other humans, the more they learn.
  • Younger children need to be allowed to explore. Trapping them in the same room every day and restricting them to the same curriculum doesn’t take advantage of their natural inclination to learn through experimentation and exploration.
  • Research shows that during the early teen years, ages 10 to 13, a large amount of “pruning” happens—brain connections that are not being used are discarded. So the early teens, contrary to common belief, are not just a time of social growth. These children need to be inspired to use their brains optimally at this important time.
  • Our teens need meaningful work, and at the same time, they need a lot more support than our culture is inclined to give them. Homeschoolers are lucky in that we can foster strong mentoring relationships with our teens. At this time in their lives, teens need to be allowed to “steer the boat,” while knowing that we are there to back them up if their still-forming executive function is not up to the task.

Physical brain resources:

Your learning brain is not static

The old model of the human brain told us that people were born with a certain amount of ability, and then as older adults we started to lose that ability. The idea of IQ, that there is a number that can sum up what a brain is capable of, was largely embraced and promoted.

I like this quote: "A brain is a river, not a rock!"

I like this quote: “A brain is a river, not a rock!”

Recent research has turned this old belief on its head; there seems to be very little correlation between the basic building blocks that a person is born with and his or her eventual success in career and life. Research shows that as long as you are “smart enough” to tackle the job you love, what counts are some other factors.

One of those factors is called neuroplasticity. We always knew that children’s brains grew, both physically and in ability. But it turns out that even though brain development does slow down in adults, it doesn’t ever stop. If learning is all about making connections and then building on those connections, neuroplasticity is all about keeping those connections alive and active. The more we work on learning, the more flexible and agile our brains remain, and what we work at learning matters.

“Anything we repeat enough reinforces itself by creating brain connections to support that specific behavior,” writes Dr. Mark Bertin. “Routines built early in childhood neurologically sustain themselves around nutrition, exercise, reading, technology and countless other aspects of life.”

Many parents note that although their children learned quickly and easily before puberty, suddenly their teens find learning “a drag” and seem more intent on social relationships than academics. Part of the problem is due to the fact that our traditional educational approach pretty much shuts off creativity and exploration in the early teens. We don’t expect that our young children will want to learn by sitting quietly, listening, and then regurgitating, but suddenly we do expect this of our teens.

Brain research has shown that as teens’ academic explorations drop off, their neural connection-building also drops, with very real effects on their future achievements. The main thing to keep in mind when your teen wants to retreat from learning is that “use it or lose it” really is true of the brain. Research is showing that using the brain and continuing to grow new neural pathways guards against mental decline later in life.

Cultivating an openness to learning is essential.

Cultivating an openness to learning is essential.

Another important factor about your child’s learning is what psychologist Carol Dweck has dubbed “mindset.” In her research, she demonstrates that people with a “growth mindset”—people who believe that they can do something if they work hard enough at it—achieve more than people with a “fixed mindset”—people who believe that they have a set intelligence and ability level.

In your homeschool, keep in mind that constantly praising your children can be detrimental to their learning. “You’re a great artist,” may seem like the nicer thing to say, but “you worked really hard on that painting” will be better for your child’s self-esteem and willingness to tackle more complex projects.

Finally, research into stress and learning has resulted in fascinating new ideas that go against both the achievement-oriented prep school model and the happiness-oriented free school model. It turns out that, as you probably know, stress is bad for your kids. When children’s brains are stressed, their brains go into “flight or flight mode.” Instead of processing the incoming information in their prefrontal cortex, it is sent directly to their reactive “lizard brain,” where it is often lost. That’s why when your child cried while doing fractions yesterday, you find out that today she’s back to where she started, remembering little or nothing she worked on the day before.

On the other hand, the stress-free life turns out also to be detrimental to your child’s eventual academic and career success. It turns out that there is a zone of “optimal stress,” where a student is challenged to stretch beyond his comfort zone into an area where he has the skills to succeed but is not as confident. We see this on the playground all the time: a child resists trying the monkey bars when they are simply unattainable, but one day after seeing a friend do them, she is willing to undergo some “good stress” in order to achieve a new skill.

Learning resources:

How you live affects your brain

The old view of brain development and learning saw it as separate from the development of the physical body, but modern research proves that nothing could be further from the truth. Physical health and lifestyle play a huge role in everyone’s brain health, but especially in the development of children’s brains.

The brain loves being worked in a variety of ways—PE is not an elective!

The brain loves being worked in a variety of ways—PE is not an elective!

Research shows that children who get ample exercise and time in nature are calmer, more creative, better students, and eventually better at pursuing their goals. Every homeschool (and school, for that matter) should prioritize non-academic activities that support academics. Our kids may think that they are happier playing video games inside, but their bodies need aerobic exercise and nature in order to work at their optimal level.

That’s not to say that video games are all bad. In fact, research is showing that the “gamification” of education can help kids learn. We homeschoolers already knew that kids can learn more about adding and subtracting while playing Monopoly than by doing worksheets, and that’s true of a lot of learning. Video games that offer deep learning opportunities (which doesn’t—sorry, kids—include shooting at birds flying across your screen) can enhance children’s education, when not done to an extreme. Similarly, video games that develop strategy skills and reflexes (yay, now we can shoot birds!) have also been shown to improve academic ability….when not done to the exclusion of other healthy activities.

There is one area where computers are causing learning problems, which homeschoolers should notice because it’s become so prevalent: multitasking. Although modern humans take great pride in their multitasking skills, and modern life requires more and more of it, it turns out that multitasking is detrimental to learning. When deep learning is the goal, distractions need to be kept to a minimum. So although your child says that she can play a game on her iPod while listening to the audiobook, research quite conclusively proves that she’s only listening with half of her brain, and much of what she thinks she’s taking in will get discarded.

Brain tasks resources:

Your brain is what you make of it

Finally, modern brain research is clearly leading us away from old-fashioned ideas of predestination and fate. Human brains are highly malleable and highly individualized. Children who are “bad at math” grow up to become mathematicians. Children who are fascinated with science at the age of six end up as professional artists. And adults who have embarked on one career find success and fulfillment by changing to another mid-stream.

You may be distressed that, for example, your adopted child didn’t get the optimal upbringing for the first two years. Of course, we want all children to get as many opportunities as possible, but your adopted child now has the rest of his life to become the person that he wants to be, regardless of what he missed at first.

You may worry that your autistic or dyslexic child will not have the opportunities you hope she will have. But research is uncovering more and more ways in which “different brains” can even be optimal in some situations. Author Jonathan Mooney speaks about growing up “learning disabled” and then realizing that as an adult, he could offer his “neurodiversity” as an asset. (Check out his Youtube videos to hear his poignant and very amusing story.)

Or you may have a neurologically typical child who doesn’t excel in any area and you worry that he won’t find a calling at all. Research shows that there is no sense in assuming that every child will develop at the same rate. Hopefully, with the gift of time, creative exploration, and a rich environment, your child will find his calling.

The most important thing to understand about educating any child is that your child can’t help but learn. You are there as a coach, guide, mentor, and cheerleader (as long as you don’t say “good job” too often), and it’s up to your child to do the rest.

Brain-building resources:

As homeschoolers, we take on a huge burden: we determine the environment in which our children’s brains develop. The nice thing about modern brain research is that it validates many practices that homeschoolers have been preaching for years: Allow children to develop at their own rate, give them ownership in the learning process, don’t worry about natural variations between different children’s skills, and keep them stimulated and inspired with a rich, varied learning environment.

For once we get to say, “I told you so!”

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting, Psychology.