Skip to content

The [supposed] failure of online education

The core of the problem—I’ll just jump right into it here—is that anyone in this country thinks that education can be summed up in numbers.

It can’t.

Education is about people, and people are all different. Each unique. We may make schools to function as assembly lines, but we human beings continue to refuse to perform like widgets.

I'd be the last person to tell you that it's healthy for kids to spend most of their day in front of a screen, but that doesn't condemn online education!

I’d be the last person to tell you that it’s healthy for kids to spend most of their day in front of a screen, but that doesn’t condemn online education! My students are creative, engaged, unusual thinkers.

Case in point, the latest in many articles about the failures of online education:

Cyber Charters Have ‘Overwhelming Negative Impact,’ CREDO Study Finds

What more information do you need? I’m guessing that my longtime readers will know that I have a few bones to pick with this study.

The article cites numerous problems with the study from the point of view of educators who run charters or who are involved in the charter school movement. I agree with everything they say—numbers can’t tell the whole story.

But my response to this article is as a homeschooling parent and online teacher.

Not all students are created equal

It’s true that we want our students to be treated equally in education, but the fact is that students have widely divergent needs. I can tell you one thing about every single student I have ever known or heard of who has tried an online charter: that student is in some form of educational distress.

Here are some of the reasons why families choose online charter schools:

  • Their child is expressing suicidal ideation and swearing that if he has to continue in school, he’ll kill himself
  • Their family is going through a huge emotional upheaval, such as the death of a parent
  • Their child has the sort of difficult-to-integrate special needs that make school a nightmare, such as sensory integration disorder
  • The family is experiencing a sudden change of location due to job or family responsibilities
  • Their local public school system is a disaster and they are trying to find a solution for a child who has not received adequate education

These students—who I venture to say make up probably the majority of students in online charters—are coming to this new “school” with enormous baggage that most students don’t have. And we’re surprised that their test scores don’t measure up?

Not all online schools are created equal

Some online schools require that students sit in their seat and keep their computer active for a certain number of hours per day. If you were a student at that school, what would be your response to such a requirement? Yeah, me too. (Click… click… click…)

Some online schools are created to shovel the largest number of students through classes with the smallest possible amount of oversight (“oversight,” otherwise known as pesky teachers who want money, benefits, and respect from their jobs).

Some online schools require that students complete coursework that they are either underprepared for or overprepared for simply because of their “grade” (in other words, chronological age).

“Online school” includes such a wide variety of schools and approaches, it simply fails to offer a meaningful data set to study.

The failure of some online charter schools doesn’t spell doom for online education

I teach at Athena’s Advanced Academy, so you could say I’m biased. (For the record, Athena’s is private, not a charter, so it doesn’t fall into the parameters of the study referenced above.)

But I’m also knowledgeable about the strengths and failures of the online educational approach. Online classes completely fail to engage students who don’t want to be there, this is true. On top of that, online schools often fail students whose parents are not supportive at home. Online schools fail students who aren’t adept with computers (though participation in online classes tends to remediate that problem quickly). Online schools may fail students whose problems extend well past educational/academic issues.

The benefits of online education

Online schools do some things really well. They can:

  • Provide a safe, nurturing environment for children who have been wounded by social or academic bullying in brick-and-mortar schools
  • Provide a common space for children with diverse, unusual interests
  • Provide a way for children with special needs to connect mind-to-mind with adults and other children
  • Provide a 21st century approach to nurturing unbridled creativity

Online education isn’t for everyone. In many cases, it’s for kids who are already in some type of distress. That’s why applying cold numbers to the question of whether online charters are effective doesn’t really work. I guarantee that if you got onto one of the very active forums on Athena’s and asked the kids how they are doing, most of them would enthusiastically support what our educational approach. They are kids who needed something—a quiet space, a tribe, a breather from brick-and-mortar school—and they’re finding it at Athena’s.

I fear that articles like this will prejudice decision-makers against online education in general, which would be a shame for the students who benefit so much from this new approach to learning.

Further reading:

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

On not living the fearful life

Really bad things happen out there in the big world, bad things that people bring about.

If you read even the oldest texts that humans have passed down, we know that bad things have happened as long as stories have been told. And if you look at the forensic evidence that archaeologists present, you know that bad things have been around as long as humanity.

I’m not referring to any of the natural or even unnatural disasters that no one person is in control of, but rather the bad choices that people make.

Bad news

En garde!

Free play without adult interference is so important for our children’s development.

Recently in the news, there have been lots of bad things, including shootings at colleges. Recently in my local community there have been some very high-profile bad things, especially those involving children. These bad things have parents scared. Parents of younger kids are afraid to allow them the amount of independence that is healthy for them. Parents of teens worry as their teens go to college classrooms or live in dorms.

The media has decided that its job is stoking our fear. Let’s face it: the media’s real job is selling us stuff. And their advertisers have found that scared people buy more crap than happy, secure-feeling people. So they egg the media on to keep scaring us more and more.

The feedback loop

I believe the media frenzy for bad news creates a feedback loop in which people who were already vulnerable get pushed further:

  • People who are vulnerable to acting out from fear get egged on to go do violent things.
  • People who are vulnerable to feeling fearful are more likely to retreat from the world.

The first category is, frankly, a small sliver of humanity. Most of us don’t act violently out of fear. Most of us, when we’re fearful, retreat.

But in this case, retreat is also a form of defeat. Parents who keep their children from playing on their own outside are defeated in their parenting. Letting go and allowing our children to experience the world as individuals is one of our hardest and most necessary parenting jobs. (See Good People, Bad People, and the Rest of Us for my take on that.)

Risk reality

School bus

Riding in a school bus and being in school are two extremely safe things for your child to do, statistically speaking.

What the media doesn’t want us to remember, because this knowledge doesn’t lead people to go out and buy things, is that the biggest risks we take on a daily basis are ones that we don’t worry about: Statistically speaking, if you’re worried about your kids’ safety you should never drive a car, or for that matter, cross a road on foot. Of course, anyone who is worried about these things to the point where they won’t do them is assumed to be mentally ill.

We don’t give up driving our cars and crossing streets because that’s part of living the lives that we want to have.

Though you wouldn’t know it from all the scary stories, playing outside is not a major risk factor in children’s lives. And a college classroom is one of the safest places on earth to be.

As people who know and understand risk, we can’t retreat.

Being an example

What we have to do is stand up for what’s right, live our lives boldly, and know that our example inspires other people. A friend of mine posted an email on our local homeschooling list after a horrible local tragedy about how she let her kids go to the park across the street from her house alone the next day. I was really grateful for her to showing her vulnerability publicly like that, and reminding people that the most dangerous thing she allowed her children to do that day was to ride in the car with her.

We can’t let the relentless pursuit of advertising clicks rule our decision-making.

My teen goes to college classrooms, where one of the subjects being taught now is how to do a lockdown.

My almost-teen plays alone outside, rides busses alone, and is developing an admirable sense of self-confidence.

I feel confident that we are doing the right thing, though I am no less vulnerable to fear implanted by scare stories than anyone else. I hope more and more parents join me, my friend, and others who are fighting back against the hysteria that our relentless focus on people doing bad things has stoked.

Posted in Culture.

Risk-taking and lifelong learning

As adults, it’s sometimes hard to remember that feeling of vulnerability that kids have when they’re learning new things. That’s one reason why I continue to value the experience of trying new things out in the world—I think it helps me be a better teacher.

One thing I’ve been doing recently is solo jazz singing. Although I’ve sung in classical vocal ensembles for years, I got shy about performing as a soloist. Last spring I decided to defeat that shyness, one way or another!

I took a jazz singing workshop at my local community college, which was a blast.  [See “In praise of adult ed”] Another thing I’ve been doing is going to a jazz open mike to perform.

Suki singing

This is a picture of me singing with a jazz ensemble.

It’s great to get up there and be nervous about how well you’re going to perform, but then realize that the important thing is the joy of learning and expanding your boundaries. The people who come to this open mike range from rank amateurs who are just learning to pro’s who want a friendly audience to work through new material.

It’s hard to remember, when I’m there, that this is an unusual experience for most adults. For most of us—and I include myself in this category much of the time—life is about doing what we’re used to and what we feel comfortable with. Once we’re adults and we have a career (or not), we are less likely to take the sorts of risks that kids take for granted.

It’s possible, in normal adult life, to go months without going to a place we’ve never been before, have in-depth conversations with new people, and choose to do something in front of other people that we aren’t sure we can do.

Yet it’s this sort of striving that keeps us alive and learning. Certainly, we can go for months without having a conversation that pulls us out of our comfort zones, but those are the months that get lost in the mists of our memories. We’ll have these long stretches of time from which we can remember next to nothing, but then retain vivid memories of one conversation we had at a school gathering we didn’t really want to go to.

If we adults make an effort to keep striving for new and challenging experiences in our lives, it makes us better teachers and parents. My students, I try to keep in mind, do the equivalent of getting up in front of a jazz band nearly every day of their lives. They are always facing something new, and their bravery is inspiring!

Posted in Arts & Music, Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.

Tagged with .

My Aha! Moment

A while back I was contacted by the Aha Moment crew about taking part once they got to Santa Cruz. I had never heard of them, so of course my first instinct was that this was some new kind of phishing invented to fool Internet-savvy homeschooling moms. It turned out it wasn’t—it’s a real thing and a real job. This really nice group of young people travel the country in a trailer tricked out as a TV studio, interviewing locals at each stop and putting their interviews up on the Web.

I had two reactions to the idea of taking part:

1) I don’t really have “aha moments,” so it wouldn’t be authentic

2) Why would I bother?

After watching videos from the first location that popped up, I decided to watch videos from San Francisco. That’s what sold me. I realize that this is just another way for Mutual of Omaha to try to make us like them, but it’s insidiously wonderful in a weird little way. As soon as I switched to San Francisco—though the trailer, the lighting, and the editing were the same—it was a whole new experience. Those were San Franciscans I saw on the screen. It was so cool to see my former city of residence, the place that I always wanted to live until I lived there, and then always wanted to go back to when I could, represented in this funny little modern sociological experiment.

It felt cool. I decided to do it.

Then I had to find my “aha.” As I said, I don’t really think that way. But once I did, what I wanted to talk about became obvious.

I’m not saying you should go watch me, but I will say that this is a fun and curiously interesting portrait of America that those fuddy duddy insurance guys are bankrolling. I got very little time to chat with the crew, but I could see why they enjoyed their jobs so much.

Choose a city and watch! It’s lovely in a weird, millennial sort of way.

And, OK, you can watch mine here:

Posted in Films, Homeschooling, Parenting, Writing.

Good people, bad people, and the rest of us

The other day when we were talking to our kids about interacting with other people online, we came up against a problem that we face over and over as parents:

Concern #1: We don’t think it’s healthy for our kids to view the world as some horrible scary place they should be afraid of interacting with.

Concern #2: On the other hand, horrible scary things happen out there every day, and we want our children to have basic tools to deal with things that might come their way.

How you balance those concerns pretty much sums up your view of what your role as a parent is.

I tend to spend a lot of time standing in the middle of the seesaw, trying to keep it level. I did let my kids walk around the neighborhood alone when they were little. I didn’t prime them with horrible stories about mean people and what they will do to them. I did tell them that it’s OK to question the motives of adults they come into contact with.

Mean people R us, some of the time

A challenge for parents is to develop a consistent approach to how we deal with danger in the world, especially potentially dangerous people. What I came up with translates pretty well to the online world as well:

Premise #1: There is a small number of really terrible people in this world who want to hurt others.

Premise #2: There is a small number of really saintly people who will never hurt anyone or anything.

Premise #3: The rest of us just do our best with what life throws us.

I’ve never been terribly concerned about Premise #1, to tell you the truth. If you want your children not to be hurt by an adult, you’d do well to choose a partner who won’t hurt them because that’s who’s most likely to do it. If there are other people in your life who might hurt your children, do your best to change your life so that you don’t interact with those people.

Stranger-on-stranger violence is rare enough; stranger-adult-on-child violence is really quite rare. It’s also generally not possible to predict, so you can’t live your life assuming that everyone is out to get you.

Since you can’t reliably identify the saints amongst us, Premise #3 is where things get hairy. The fact is, sometimes we human beings don’t behave as well as we should. One of the situations in which we behave less well than normal is when we feel anonymous. Those who live in tourist towns, like me, can tell you without hesitation that people are less polite and leave more garbage lying around when they are at outside of their own community.

Our online lives have offered all of us a certain measure of anonymity and distance from the people we interact with. Even real humans that we see in the real world gain a certain amount of psychological distance online. People put things in email they’d never say to someone’s face. Facebook generates mini-scandals and lots of hurt feelings every day.

Do your best, keep trying to do better

So when we’re talking to our kids about taking care of themselves—in the “real” world or online—we’re more concerned about that huge number of people who are simply doing their best. We’re concerned whether our children are conscious of their own behavior and how it might affect others. And we’re concerned that another child that they met online may not have the same guidance from the adults in his or her real life.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the child they met online is actually a 34-year-old serial child kidnapper. It’s just that when I worry about which values to impart to my children, I put fear of someone running a red light and hitting them in a crosswalk way ahead of any of the more headline-worthy ways to get hurt in this world. It’s hard to resist the headlines (not to mention the Amber Alerts shining above the highways) and just plow forward with a hope that our kids will do OK for themselves in the world.

I think that open communication is the best way to do that. Each of us has to make a decision about where on the seesaw we want to stand, and then decide to be OK with that decision, no matter what happens.




Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

Tagged with , , .

Talking about Internet safety

Tonight my husband and I initiated a discussion after dinner that neither of our children wanted to take part in. The topic was how people might take advantage of you or hurt you online.

The kids got a little uncomfortable, to say the least.

These days, teaching our kids to watch all directions when they're online is as important as teaching them to cross a street safely.

These days, teaching our kids to watch all directions when they’re online is as important as teaching them to cross a street safely.

Our kids start with a pretty serious disadvantage in the “you stupid old fogies don’t know what you’re talking about” department. As I pointed out to them, I got flamed on the Internet before it was called the Internet. Their father was amongst the first Americans to visit the World Wide Web.

We’re not newbies. We’re not teetotalers warning their kids against the danger of intoxication.

This is such an important conversation. The world that our kids are growing up in bears so little resemblance to the world we grew up in, it’s pretty much unprecedented. The only analogous situation I can think of is parents who grew up in peacetime raising kids in a war zone.

Everything bad that could happen to us when we were kids had to happen in the “real” world. This other world didn’t exist yet. The little pieces of it that did exist, like chat rooms that users dialed into on their modems, relate to the Web like BB guns to today’s automatic weapons.

This conversation wasn’t out of the blue. I think the only thing that responsible parents can do these days is to keep bringing up this topic, to keep it fresh in kids’ minds, and to keep all the avenues of discussion open at all times.

It makes kids uncomfortable, especially teens. Our twelve-year-old was rather annoyed that her little transgression had sparked this conversation again. Our sixteen-year-old straight-out announced that he didn’t need to talk about it and attempted to walk out.

Kids not only spend time online, much of their sense of self is not centered on their online interactions.

Teens live much of their lives in a digital world these days. And teens are built to wear their feelings very close to the surface of their skin. They feel deeply, which is great. Their first instinct is often to push away adults who make them feel deeply, which is not so great.

But we kept talking. We worked past the denials, the jokes, the sarcasm, the put-downs, and the brush-offs that kept coming our way. Because this topic is important, perhaps more important (statistically speaking) than talking about stranger abduction. Perhaps not quite as important as teaching your children to look both ways before they cross a street, but verging on that level of importance.

It’s easy for us to think, “my kid would never be so naive.” But let’s face it, we all make mistakes. As I explained to my children, I personally have made mistakes online that have led to hurt feelings and worse in my real life. It’s a real topic that we all have to face.

In the end, I think our kids heard and understood. But it wasn’t the end. This is an ongoing conversation as they mature and face new situations. I explained to my kids at after a half-century on this earth, I still turn to their dad and others I know for advice and guidance on how to react to situations online.

Lifelong learning isn’t just IRL.



Read my follow-up, Good people, bad people, and the rest of us.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

On manufactured non-controversies

One of the Internet’s less noble qualities is its ability to help people get up-in-arms about things that are non-issues. If you use Facebook or other social media, you’re probably hit with it on a daily basis—forced hyperbole that translates to simple clickbait.

andertoons4419I heard about the so-called sunscreen controversy some years ago when my kids were small. According to people who got their PhDs from Google, the use of sunscreen has not slowed the rise of skin cancer—it has caused a rise in skin cancer. [Read this article to understand the argument and then this article to understand why the argument is based on faulty reasoning, shifty argumentation, and sleight of hand.]

This non-controversy rests on a treasure trove of examples how people misunderstand science, and how people with preformed agendas (e.g. “everything natural is good“) misread scientific data to serve their own purposes.

These non-controversies almost always rest on the same set of fallacies, including:

Playing on your fears

We live in a pretty scary world, I’ll admit. A few hundred years ago, most people lived in villages and only knew what was happening nearby. Now, when a non-custodial dad grabs his child in Sacramento, we read about it in lights over the highway across the state. In our villages, we ate what we grew, wore clothing we made, and lived in houses we built. Now we are all depending on strangers around the world to care for our health and well-being. We trust a factory worker in Vietnam not to put contaminated food into our frozen meals. We trust a medical technician in Israel to formulate our kids’ inhalers correctly. We trust a flooring company that sources materials from China not to allow hazardous chemicals that will poison us while we sleep.

This is all pretty scary, and non-controversies play on those fears.

Vilifying science and scientists

When did it happen that the scientist went from pathetic geek to evil genius baby killer? People in general have never trusted science that much, but it’s only been recently that our culture has been placing evil intent at the heart of science. We’re told that “scientists who speak out” feel threatened. We’re told that the reason you haven’t heard about this life-saving idea is that corporations and the scientists they employ are out to sell things that they know are killing us.

The fact is that scientists argue with each other all the time—it’s at the heart of what they do—so scientists disagreeing on any issue is hardly news. And yes, of course scientists have biases and sometimes the ideas that end up being proven to be correct are ignored for some time. However, the aim of scientists is certainly not to silence dissent and make us all sicker. Arguments that rest on that premise are false from the get-go.

Cherry-picking science

One of the most maddening things about science is that it’s hardly ever conclusive. When it comes to something as complex as the healthy functioning of the human body, science may never be able to be conclusive enough to convince a jury of uneducated citizens. So when an article trying to fan the flames of a non-controversy cites science, it does so with a careful process of ignoring the subtleties of scientific research.

No single study proves a hypothesis—scientists pretty much agree on this. But they also agree that science advances by following the advance of knowledge, not by ignoring what doesn’t fit your agenda. Looking at the history of scientific research, you can find studies that validate pretty much any idea—and then you can find the avalanche of studies that followed showing that the preceding study was flawed or inconclusive. Cherry-picking allows disingenuous Internet fakers to grab your attention without requiring them to face the subtler reality of conflicting scientific data.

Confusing correlation and causation

This is probably the most common confusion that non-controversy articles play on. For a good laugh, look at a few of the charts at Spurious Correlations. My favorite is how “murders by steam, hot vapors, and hot objects” correlates well with the age of the reigning Miss America.

So in the sunscreen non-controversy, a big deal is made of rising skin cancer rates that correlate with rising sunscreen use. It seems so tempting to come to the obvious conclusion that sunscreen use is causing cancer, but scientists who have attempted to prove that relationship simply haven’t been able to do it. This is not to say that no relationship exists, but rather that so far no one has been able to prove it. For some people, that lack of certainty is maddening. It leads them to prefer manufactured non-controversies because they are so simple and direct.

Blinding us with numbers, facts, and statistics

She blinded me with science!” the scientist exclaims in Thomas Dolby’s song. And that’s what these non-controversies attempt to do. They cite fact after fact, number after number, name after name, and they seem so believable. But a preponderance of numbers doesn’t create fact; it simply creates confusion in the minds of people who aren’t trained to understand the numbers. And confusion leads to fear, which leads to… see above.

Why do people assign evil intent to scientists? I think it’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is—and what its limits are.

There are people who are trained to understand all the numbers, facts, and statistics, and they’re called scientists. And yes, scientists are human, all of them have biases, and some of them even have agendas. But who should we trust: someone who has dedicated his/her life to learning, investigation, and improving the human condition, or someone who has dedicated his/her life to fanning the flames of non-controversies in order to get more clicks?

I’ll trust the scientists.

What science “knows” will always be flawed and incomplete, and it will always be subject to bias and preconceived notions, but a skeptical trust in science is an improvement over living in a village that tries to solve its epidemic of bubonic plague by drowning all the cats.

Getting through this complex modern life we’ve been born into involves a lot of trust that we can’t avoid. The big question is how you’re going to make informed decisions about all the details that face us daily. Listening to the manufacturers of non-controversies might be appealing, but it’s not going to make you any healthier or safer.

Posted in Culture, Health.

Tagged with .

A day that I failed

Tonight, I want you to know this.

Tonight, I am a complete failure as a parent.

Nothing has gone right today. Well, OK, I did get my teenager away from his screen by luring him to our local “gourmet gas station” for a lychee-flavored soft drink.

This was my self-portrait of despair from when I was in my 20's. Did I really think I understood despair then? Amazingly, I did.

This is a self-portrait of despair from when I was in my 20’s. Did I really think I understood despair then? Amazingly, I did. By the way, I loved that black shiki cushion in this photo. We had to get rid of it because our children would drag it out, set it up, and go crazy. Really. It was like the cushion was possessed with demons that entered our children and turned them into crazed munchkins. Finally, we gave it away to Goodwill, and they had to find other ways to inspire themselves to pinnacles of bad behavior.

But I’ll admit that’s not really a success, because I paid for less screen time with sugar wrapped in an exotic, overpriced bottle.

Otherwise, I have failed to do pretty much everything I set out to do:

  • One child shrugs and says “OK” as an answer to pretty much any question I ask
  • The other yells at me every single time I ask him to do the most minor of tasks
  • I try collaborative problem-solving and am told that I am a hyper-controlling maniac
  • I try to honor a child’s wishes and find out that she never, ever wished such a thing and how could I think she would?

Before I had kids, my failures were my own. Yes, it’s true that I was failing because it was all my parents’ fault, but since I’d been out of their house since I was seventeen, that excuse had gotten old.

No, it’s true, before I had children I failed, but I only failed myself.

Now I fail two precious, potential-filled human beings every single day.

I fail to remember what I learned about parenting from Youtube, Facebook, Upworthy, and even TED. Or maybe I remember it, but my very real children are somehow much more complex than the children in those uplifting stories.

Remember the first time you read that you should offer your toddler two choices, one of which was clearly inferior? First time you read that, you thought, Wow, that’s brilliant! And maybe you even put it into practice and it worked!

Once or twice.

Then one day you said to your child, “We are supposed to meet Danny in the park. Do you want to put your shoes on now so we can go to the park, or do you want to sit here with me being bored?”

And your child looked at you with those innocent eyes and said, “I’m not bored, Mommy. It’s just I don’t want to wear my shoes. So it’s OK if we just sit here.”

And he did.

Or perhaps your child said, “I don’t want either of those things. I want to throw a big, fat tantrum and ruin your chances of going to the park so you can sit and talk to the three other people on the planet who don’t think you’re going insane (aka other moms you know).”

In any case, the two questions thing, which you had been promised was fool-proof, had lasted all of two days in your house.

How about 1-2-3? Or was it 3-2-1? It’s hard to remember. You saw a video in which a parenting expert promised you that counting would bring your children into compliance. So you tried it!

And it worked!

“Git yer darn shoes on! 1—2—3!”

That kid was pulling on those shoes like you were holding a flaming torch to her bottom.

Next time you try counting? Doesn’t work. Your kid misses park day and forgets about it as soon as she realizes she can pull out the black shiki cushion, set it up as a fort, and launch spitballs at her brother.

You miss park day and miss the only opportunity you had that week to talk to other people who understand that in our world, counting is irrelevant (aka other moms).

On days like today, all parenting advice is irrelevant.

Except for this advice:

We’re doing the hardest job in the world. And until your kids are grown up and have kids of their own, it’s thankless, too. (Unless you are successful at getting your children to be polite with you, another thing I have largely failed at.)

So be aware that some days will be like this. You’ll fail at everything. You’ll end up in your office, typing madly into your blog software, hoping someone will hear your silent scream in the dark.

Why did I do this? Why didn’t I become one of the Childless by Choice? What can I do to rekindle my faith in myself as a parent?

And the only advice I can give is the advice I’m giving myself right now:

This, like all things in parenting, will pass. Your children will thrive (probably), and they will become who they will become, most definitely.

Perhaps with your help, perhaps in spite of your help, they will become functional adults.

One day, your child-in-law will sit at your kitchen table with your grandchild playing at his or her feet, and ask entreatingly, “How did you do it? You were such a great mom!”

And you’ll remember this day, and you’ll remember this advice, you’ll sigh, and you’ll say, “Well, there were days that I felt like I failed.”

But you kept going.

And you did.

Posted in Parenting.

Have Fun… and Be Safe… at the Beach this Summer

The most recent newsletter from Santa Cruz Parent contained some great advice about fun and safety for families at the beach. However, I noticed that it lacked one warning that I think is particularly pertinent to Santa Cruz: Don’t let your kids dig deep holes in the sand! I wrote the following article for Growing Up in Santa Cruz the summer after one child was killed and another was seriously injured after a sand cave collapse. These children’s parents were beach natives and caring people, yet they didn’t realize the risk.


My kids love going boogie boarding at the beach.

My kids love going boogie boarding at the beach.

For Santa Cruz families, the beach is our free amusement park. As soon as school gets out, families head to the beach for long, lazy, fun days.

Few parents will be able to visit Natural Bridges Beach this summer, however, without the accompanying sadness at last year’s tragedy: one child died and one was seriously injured when a sand cave fell on them. As a community, the good that we can make of such a tragedy is to be more aware of how we can keep our kids safe, while still having fun in our natural playground.

Experts recommend the following precautions:

1) Teach your kids about water.
As soon as they are old enough to understand danger, children should learn about the dangers of water and also learn to swim. Recommendations vary for the age when kids should learn, but everyone agrees that a child playing over his ankles in beach water should be able to float for at least a minute.

2) Teach your kids about the beach.
Beach water is a whole different beast than pool water. Kids should know that sometimes the water is not safe for swimming. You can check our local water quality website before you go.
Kids need to be educated about wave behavior. Rip currents are common at our beaches and kids who can swim should know to swim parallel to the beach if they feel themselves being pulled out to sea. Kids should also understand the behavior of sleeper waves. According to, “Without warning, huge “sleeper” waves sometimes hit the shore. These giants crash much farther up the beach than normal waves. They can knock down both children and adults, and drag them into deep water.”
Our local cliffs and bluffs are made of sandstone, a highly unstable surface. Teach your kids to pay attention to the warning signs. Noting the young adults who are often out on the cliffs can serve as a way to talk about risky beach behavior. Wildlife on the beach should be looked at and enjoyed, but never touched or bothered. Report injured wildlife on our beaches to the State Park Service.

3) Be a responsible adult.
Sometimes it’s a pain to enforce safety rules. For example, kids love the warm, stagnant water caught at slow-moving creek entrances. These bodies of water are permanently posted for unsafe bacterial levels, and parents need to be vigilant.
All kids, even those with more melanin in their skin, need to wear sunscreen at the beach. According to, “Research has shown that sun exposure prior to the age of 18 significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer later in life, including the potentially fatal melanoma.”
Beaches with smaller waves and lifeguards are safer for kids. Choose the beach based on their needs. And if they are going in deeper water with a body board, even if they can swim, they should have a tether. Kids (and adults) can drown when they swim out to retrieve a board that slipped out from under them.

4) Sand caves are not safe.
Finally, it’s nearly universal in kid world that digging in sand and going in caves is endlessly fun. But parents need to be aware that on average, three people, mostly kids, are killed on beaches each year by sand cave-ins, often from lying down in shallow holes and aspirating falling sand. No child should be allowed to dig a large hole deeper than a foot, and children should be told never to lie down, even in shallow holes.
It can be uncomfortable, but parents can help other parents keep their kids safe. Many of the visitors to our beaches are newbies – we can help them by pointing out unsafe behavior when we see it. If the problem continues, you can contact a lifeguard or the ranger on duty at each beach’s parking area.

Enjoy a safe, happy summer!


Posted in Parenting.

“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.